The Writer’s Garden | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Writer's Craft

I wake up in the morning with writing on the brain. Prone in bed, stretching various limbs, I pepper myself with silent questions. What do you want to post today? Are you going to write that bit about civics? You’re going to the beach later, so how about starting your “Lessons from the Ocean” series? Oh! What about that interesting article? The one you favorited last night?

Grasping for ideas, one invariably jumps up and shouts, “Me! Pick me!”

“Ah-ha!” I think. “I’ve found you!” And so the game begins.

I start my day, usually with some sort of exercise. If I’m lucky, it’s a running day, and I mentally compose my post during the four-mile trek around my neighborhood.

More often than not, I am unable to write immediately after this exercise-induced mind-composing, but I keep those words in a death grip. Sometimes I jot down key ideas. Other times I whip out my phone and record a memo. Every now and then I leave it up to chance, because how could I ever forget this brilliant idea? {Insert knowing groan here}. Hours pass. Locations change. Energy levels rise and fall. But I maintain hopeful excitement. Today’s post will be easy! I’ve already composed it. I’ve just got to get it down.

Finally, writing time arrives. There I sit, fingers gently resting on the home row. I cue up the feeling I had when the idea demanded to be chosen. I pull up the post on my mental screen. And out comes…

Nothing.

I remind myself that this is no big deal, and where are the words you’ve already put together? Just type them! After staring at the screen, perusing whatever documents are handy, playing on social media, looking at my phone, etc., words pour out.

And they are wholly unrelated to the morning’s ah-ha! Not even distant cousins. Strangers.

But here’s the revelation: The words are not strangers to me. They are acquaintances. They are the ah-ha idea from a few days prior.

It’s almost as if the initial thinking is akin to my planting a seed. Just like any other seed, it isn’t ready to sprout right away. It requires nourishment and time. And when the proper conditions exist, the plant grows and blossoms.

This has made me realize a couple of things:

  1. I really do need to keep a steady stream of ideas flowing. If they each take their own sweet time to bloom, I’ve got to sow a full crop! Planting a new seed each day means I’ll have more to tend to and grow in the future.
  2. I must embrace my process. Rather than feeling frustrated that the words I intended are not yet ready to sprout, I should just feed them. That can mean more reading on the topic. Freewrites. Dreams. Talking about it with friends, and so on. Either way, the ideas of today are the essays of tomorrow. But only to the degree I nurture them.

I know what you’re thinking. Writers don’t always have the luxury of coming back to an idea when it’s ready. If you’re on a deadline, you must write anyway! Having written on deadlines, I know this is true. But I also know I usually have an assignment long before the deadline. I start thinking about it right away. I may start the mind-composing immediately, even jot down a few things. But a serious attempt at a draft? Nope.

Key parts of the story go underground. They need time to mature. Fortunately, most of the time, they are ready to bloom just when I’m ready write.

To my fellow writers – it’s just as Tayari and others say. We may not be able to writelikecrazy everyday, but we can trylikecrazy, and honor our process. Let’s keep planting seeds and tending our gardens. I’m confident our efforts will bear fruit.

Decarceration and Excarceration. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

Well, I would like to see, as Fay Honey Knopp, who was an abolitionist during the ’70s and the ’80s and one of the co-authors of a wonderful book called Instead of Prisons: An Abolitionist Handbook, you know, I would like to see an emphasis on decarceration, an emphasis on excarceration.
             Angela Davis on Democracy Now, October, 2010

I’m back in school. Quite honestly, as a lifelong learner, I’ve never left. As soon as I graduated, I created a syllabus of resources on black feminist thought, narrative inquiry and transformative learning and began reading. Studying these topics was nurturing and in many ways, freeing.

Love and curiosity have led me to study mass incarceration and abolition. My new syllabus is growing. A recurring name on it? Angela Davis. I’ve been listening to her speeches, taking notes on terms, people, events I should add to my resource list.

Decarceration and excarceration are each one point of a five-point model of attrition, elaborated in Instead of Prisons (1976). The attrition model is part of a long-range strategy for abolition. The overarching goal: to dismantle the prison system. Attrition, employed as a purposeful, intentional strategy, would “diminish the function and power of prisons in our society.”

The Attrition Model

  • Moratorium on new prison construction
  • Decarcerate
  • Excarcerate
  • Restraint of the few, via the “least restrictive and most humane option for the shortest period of time.”
  • Build a caring community in which support services are privileged over punitive options

Incarcerate means to confine or imprison. In contrast, decarcerate means to release. How can we begin to free some of the 2.3 million people behind bars? The authors suggest a realistic approach to the decarceration of inmates, including reduction in sentences, expanded opportunities for parole, creative restitution to victims, and decriminalization of some behaviors (applied retroactively).

Excarceration simply means avoid incarceration. In other words, what if prison ceased to be the first/ only/ mandatory response to certain behaviors? After all, what gets labeled crime is fluid. And the placement of various criminal behaviors along a continuum is somewhat arbitrary (more on that to come). What, other than jail, might be a response to undesirable behavior?

Thought Experiment
Are you open to decarceration? Would you be okay with nonviolent criminals being released before the end of their sentences? Why or why not?  If you say maybe, under what circumstances might you agree?

Forever Changed | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Personal Narrative, Sexual Violence

What is one thing that left you forever changed?

I stumbled across this question while sitting, browsing and mulling – the trio known collectively as my process. Even when I have an idea in mind (I did) I often have to go through this period of germination. I embraced it in grad school, but I kinda want things to move a little faster.

But this is me stalling.

As soon as I read that question, an answer came to mind. I was inspired to respond, completely disregarding my initial plans to write about student ingenuity and punishment. Though as I began to type, I wondered how much I should or would share.

I’m still deciding. I’ll ease into it and see what comes out.

I experienced the first love of my life in high school. I went in with an open heart and came away damaged. Not just bruised. Way beyond heartbroken. Soul shattered perhaps, and I’m not sure that even captures it. For years, literally two decades, I was unwilling to consider the trauma I underwent. I hid it from everyone. Even me.

It left me secretly distrustful. Occasionally dizzy in torrents of “what if.” Subject to mini-meltdowns in intimate spaces.

Last year around this time, I began peeling back the layers, exposing the truth. To myself, at least. During that process I truly began to understand the transformative nature of narrative – the dramatic shifts in understanding that can occur in studying episodes of your own life history.

I was forever changed by the relationship. I was forever changed yet again, in the telling.

I hope my path of facilitating transformation through narrative can help others; but that’s a story for another day.

On Behalf of Justice. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

Reading in preparation for a lecture on Buddhist writings, I came across this quote:

What is the noblest way of life? My unhesitating answer to that question is: a life dedicated to truth and justice.

Only in a world where truth and justice flourish can people freely bring forth their innate goodness. If, in contrast, philosophies or belief systems that deny the possibility of infinite human improvement prevail, misery and suffering will abound.

~Daisaku Ikeda, Lecture on Nichiren’s Letter from Teradomari

This resonated today. As some of you know, I’m becoming an activist and advocate for modern abolition – the end of mass incarceration. These days I’m mulling a series of essays. I want to help us imagine a world in which imprisonment is no longer the strategy of first resort. My premise begins with the innate potential, dare I say, the innate goodness, present in all people, and the options we can design when this potential, or goodness, is foregrounded rather than summarily discounted.

I’m thinking about our continued reliance on the mantra of personal responsibility in the face of structural inequities; the fallibility of lawmakers; the dynamic way we criminalize behaviors; the hierarchy of crime.

And if we study the fallout from mass incarceration on the incarcerated, on their families, and on society at large, I believe we’ll find we’re not “better off” with a swelling population of bodies in cages. There are too many minds in cages already, and we certainly aren’t any better off for that.

I digress.

This quote encourages me because speaking up against mass incarceration is a matter of justice. In 2010, 1 out of every 137 people was behind bars. (How many friends have you on social media?) Now, over 2.3 million people are jailed and imprisoned, and the number continues to grow. Mandatory sentencing guidelines cage people for decades with no consideration of their individual circumstances. While inside, prisoners are routinely denied reading materials that could be a pathway to growth and transformation. Where is the justice in that?

Corporations profit from an increasing prison population. Who might be criminalized next to feed the bottom line? And once you’re freed, good luck. In many places, ex felons are summarily barred from reentry into society. No money. No housing. No opportunity for work. No voice.

No justice.

Each of these things is but a strand in the knotty mess that is mass incarceration. This mess strangles the very possibility of individual human improvement, and by extension, societal improvement as well. Our disposal and disregard of people we view as “other” or “less than” does not move us forward. Fighting on behalf of justice? Maybe that does.

Workout Freewrite | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Temple Building

In January 2012, I hung up my running shoes and started exercising indoors.

One month into a 12-week fitness program, I placed a full-length mirror in the living room. I spent six mornings a week engaging in high intensity cardio, and seeing the results from day to day – chiseling, bloating, and stops between – proved motivating.

April 1, I went for my first run of the year. I ran a personal best. It burned, though.

Shortly thereafter, I began another 12-week program. This one was weight lifting (Pump). Normally I dislike lifting. Go to a gym and lift free weights or get on those machines? It ain’t happening, son. In grad school I discovered BodyPump, a full body barbell class choreographed to the latest hits. I loved it. When I recently discovered a home-based version of the same class, it was a done deal.

The first day was glorious. I’m probably the only person who smiled during deadlifts and clean-and-presses. It felt good to know a strong body was in the works.

It takes significantly more mental energy for me to go lift weights than for me to do cardio. This, despite the fact I know a strong body is in the works.

Pump has 10 tracks: warm up, squats, chest, bis, tris, back, lunges, shoulders, abs, and cool down. The lunge track remains the most difficult. The last couple of times I finally managed to finish the whole set. Barely.

I resumed running during the designated cardio days. My July goal was 25 miles. I was up to 50 miles a month when I quit for TurboFire. I can’t believe I waited so long. I missed being outside. And who knew how much thinking and processing I do while running!

July 21 was the last day of Pump. I took a couple of weeks off to give my body a rest from the weights, but I focused on getting in some miles. I surpassed my goal of 25, hitting 36 by the last day of the month.

My August goal is 50 miles. I’m in it to win it.

I’ve been sleepy the past two days. I’m realizing it’s likely I’m just not eating enough now that I’ve returned to a serious workout schedule! I’ll fix that beginning tomorrow. Earlier this year I figured out that even if I don’t feel hungry, midday sleepiness usually means I’ve run out of calories. Totally forgot that. Here I was thinking I needed to search WebMD for unexplained fatigue.

I’ve had a couple of people tell me my body was “ridiculous.” (Shout out to the well-meaning Brit on Twitter who didn’t realize this was a compliment). If I would seriously commit to clean eating, I’d agree more wholeheartedly. I love my body though, especially my donk. Even my here today, gone tomorrow abs.

Monday, I lifted weights for the first time in nearly 3 weeks. It felt great! It was hard, and I broke a sweat. But the awesome thing about lifting is increasing your weight over time, witnessing yourself get stronger. So powerful!

I feel like a warrior goddess when I work out. I’m getting my body ready to do beautiful and important things in the world.

On Worthy Writing | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Writer's Craft

The 30in30/WriteLikeCrazy challenge has proven a good workout for my writing muscles. It’s early yet – this is my sixth post in as many days – but in addition to getting words on the page, I’ve also engaged in a decent bit of self-reflection.

Prior to this, my daily decision-making was thus: “to write or not to write?” Usually the answer was “not to write.” Never short on reasons, I chose from:

  • No time
  • No topic
  • No audience
  • No confidence
  • No expertise
  • Just no

With this challenge, the game has changed. New decision points are, “what time will I write” and “what shall I say?”

As to what time, I had dreams of creating a daily writing block. 8-9 a.m., for example. But dreams fade upon waking, and reality kicks in. Although I enjoy morning writing, my schedule varies each day. Other must-dos (prayer and exercise) hold the earliest and most stable time slots, and I’m simply not willing to wake before 5 a.m.

Even though I can’t commit to a recurring time block, I can commit to the writing. I review the next day’s schedule and find 25-45 minutes. Sometimes a bit more. This is a big deal. I like to marinate, so I prefer long blocks of time to write (2-4 hours minimum). But since my focus is on volume and regularity, I try not to stress over the seedlings that require more time and attention.

As to the daily topics, well here’s where it gets interesting.

I’ve been a muted writer for years, feeling as though I had nothing to say. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately, and I’d like to enter some of these thoughts into the public discourse.

I embrace the idea of writing-as-thinking. Writing is often presented as a neat assemblage of final thoughts. Your job, in many cases, is to bring the reader along with you to a shared conclusion. But a lot of the thinking happens in the composing. And finished pieces do not necessarily equal finished thoughts. Herein lies my dilemma.

I wish to write my way through the thinking of things. And I need to post something. But I can’t post just anything. So I censor myself. I don’t write about this or that topic because my thinking is too tentative for presentation.

I don’t write the urgent thoughts I chew on all day long. It’ll take too long to make sense of certain topics, and my daily writing time is limited. But again, I have to post something, right? It’s almost as if building the habit of writing is getting in the way of the reason to write in the first place.

I’m grappling with a solution.

I’ve considered, for instance, serializing more complex thinking. I’ve done a bit of that so far, although I have yet to come back and write follow-ups to my opening statements. I’ve considered super short entries for daily posts. This can free most of my allotted time for stealth mode wherein I’d write-think ideas too messy for public consumption.

I dunno.

Is this a challenge for you? If so, how are you handling it? What writing is worthy to post?

Taking Up Space | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Personal Narrative

I loved Flo Jo.

Growing up, I loved her because she was a sprinter, and so was I. She was fast and beautiful. Commentators exchanged countless words over her attire, hair and ornate nails. They left me wondering why jewelry and make up were so controversial.

Raging debates on appearances aside, the proof was in the pudding.

Years later, seeing Flo Jo again sparked a deeper sense of appreciation. (Thanks, Tara). I loved her then and perhaps more now, because she was unabashedly herself. Or at least, she represented herself the way she chose and did so unapologetically.

There’s so much power in that.

I spent my youth as a shrinking violet. Even as an adult, I entered rooms with my head down, eyes lowered. Hiding. Striving for invisibility. I didn’t want to take up too much space, or be noticed at all really.

Except that’s not completely true. I waged an ongoing internal battle. In middle school, I was the stereotypical nerd; adorned with requisite thick glasses, good grades, questionable fashion choices, and uncertain body image. Yet, still I tried out (and made) the cheerleading team. High school wasn’t much different. Shy, and often soft-spoken, I still had great fun snapping my hair along with 20 other members of our somewhat exclusive dance team, dressed in fishnets, boots, and short sequin dresses.

Grad school found me maintaining the balancing act. How does one prove she belongs in rooms with men who dominate conversations, while nursing the sinking feeling the imposter (me) may be found out any minute?  It’s tiring really, being a shrinking violet.

In recent years I’ve claimed victory over that internal battle. I speak up and invite others to join me. I enter rooms with poise; sometimes even with a hint of drama. I wear colors or accessories that pop, just because they’re cheerful.

Flo Jo got criticized, in essence, for being too loud. And off she ran with her gold anyway. To that I think three things:

  • She is an Olympic gold medalist. You can talk about her fashion choices all day and night, but you can’t erase her spot in sport history. (For another example see Williams, Serena).
  • She was not afraid to take up space, to cause a stir, to be noticed. She centered herself – detractors, marginalizers, and silencers be damned.
  • It’s really not about you. It’s about her, and how she chose to represent herself. And that’s absolutely awesome.

We Wear the Mask | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Education, Politics, News & Notable

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
~Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I sit down with two other women present for the two-day workshop. We are instructional coaches – former classroom teachers – in Orlando for professional development in literacy. Our conversation drifts to “the kid.” Who was the kid? The one who was the pivotal in your career? Lillian tells of two, beginning with ‘Eric.’

That kid was always grumpy. On edge. He was likely to pick a fight or get in trouble for some reason or another. It wasn’t long before I discovered he simply couldn’t read very well.

She explains to us how she won him over through small, daily successes. She was blown away by how sweet this boy was, hidden underneath an angry, defensive exterior.

Then she tells us of ‘John.’

John was a bit more outspoken in his dislike of the school environment. Not only vocal, but also physically violent at times. He required restraints if triggered. Educators who provide special education services would recognize his EBD label.

One day was particularly bad. He began shouting. Raging. I had to grab him and bodily place him in the time out space. He demanded to get out but he couldn’t.

A plank stood between him and freedom, with the teacher’s body pressed against it. Just in case. When yelling didn’t work, he threw himself again and again against the door, determined to force it open through sheer will.

I, on the other side, barely 100 pounds, I mean look at me even now, body against the door, praying it remained shut until he calmed down. Items sailed over the top of the door. Shoes, socks, pants. He was stripping, maybe this could buy his freedom. When that didn’t work, suddenly it was splat, splat against the wall. You can imagine what he was throwing (feces). But that kid is the reason I went back to school for a master’s degree. In the end, it was all a mask.

He, just like Eric, was wearing a mask. Neither one of them could read. Here they were – middle and high schoolers – angry they couldn’t read and scared to be found out.

Many classroom teachers can pinpoint students who were angry, or otherwise picked fights with the other students for the express purpose of getting thrown out of class. Trouble was their mask, hiding their inability to read.

These masks, along with zero tolerance policies, and cultural disconnects between students and school, contribute to the school to prison pipeline. How can we discover these masks earlier? When will we develop policies and curricula that make it safe for students to discard their masks? Can we create a system that alleviates the need for masks at all?

I remain hopeful, but hope, in and of itself, is not a strategy.

Humane Treatment for All | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Abolition & Justice

I begin with a declaration. I never believed it radical in nature, but I’m coming to the realization that it might be.

People are not disposable.
People deserve to be treated humanely.

And by people, I mean all people, not just a select few. Not just those who have (thus far) avoided the label criminal; but everyone.

We sometimes view the world in dichotomies. We place things at one end of a continuum or the other. We see something as black or white, not that troublesome gray. We prefer simplicity instead of nuance and complexity. We favor “or” rather than embrace “and.”

But here’s the thing: people who engage in criminal behavior, are still people. The mere fact that they are human, means they still deserve humane treatment.

But what about {insert the most violent, heinous crime ever committed and ask if the victim was treated humanely}? Statements like that become the marker by which all people who have engaged in criminal behavior are measured. Leaving aside the stats that more than half of all prisoners are non-violent offenders, my response is still yes, violent offenders deserve humane treatment, too. That means, no, it’s not okay that prisoners in Texas boil to death due to lack of air conditioning, for instance.  No, it’s not “their fault” that inmates in Philadelphia are denied medical treatment, and are sometimes forced to endure pain and suffering for months at a time.  And no, women who give birth in custody should not be shackled while doing so.

In the coming weeks and months, I plan to unpack my thinking about this and related issues. I’m sure some disagree with my declaration, but therein lies my challenge. I’m up to it.

People are not disposable. People deserve to be treated humanely. And by people, I mean all people, not just a select few.

Tell Your Story. | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

30 Day Blog Challenge, Personal Narrative, Writer's Craft

I tweeted this out of frustration surrounding the coverage (and lack thereof) of Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. It isn’t the first moment to inspire this response, yet I’ve only recently begun to affirm this for myself.

For years, I had connected storytelling to a sort of pathology. The stories that truly needed telling were riddled with pain and misery. The only important stories showed tremendous triumph over tragedy, rags to riches, or some variation that X was hard and I overcame it.

I never experienced my life in those terms; therefore, I didn’t have a “story.” There was nothing particularly grueling about my life – a smattering of speed bumps – so there was nothing to tell.  But your life, however you experience it, is your story, and it’s worth telling. And not just for your own sake.

Each person’s story adds a new layer to our collective understanding. It offers nuance and possibility. The differences from one life to another remind us there is no single story of women. There is no single story of Black people. There is no single story of southerners. Nor is there a single story of Buddhists. My story, with its myriad chapters, stands at the intersection of these and fathomless other circles of life.

Just to be clear, the benefits of sharing your story are not simply reserved for everyone else. Powerful allies known as affirmation and self-reflection, come to you in the telling. Even (and I know this from experience), when the only person you’re telling is yourself. Your story is your victory. Claim it.

Today’s post is my first entry in the #30in30 challenge. I aim to write 30 posts over the next 30 days. In July, I deemed August a month for writing, and it seems the universe agrees. Tayari’s #WRITELIKECRAZY encouraged me to develop concrete goals. Initially they were comfortable, easily manageable goals. #30in30 pushes me outside my boundaries (posting everyday!?). But lately, I’ve found it invigorating to be a little uncomfortable.

Join us. I’m positive you have a story to tell, too.