They're making it official

Lamarr and Tahija (their pseudonyms in the book) are getting married in March!

To commemorate, here's a passage from Walk with Us where Tahija describes meeting him:

That year in sixth grade I had a real chip on my shoulder. I had questions for everyone and everything. I remember asking a guy with a Kufi on in the hallway at school a bunch of questions [about Islam] and he answered them, I don’t know why. I guess it was God’s way of stepping in and just letting me know he was seeing everything and I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t realize it was a sign until the next year. I was walking up the back hallway and I see my cousin fighting some boys and I thought they were serious and I got into it with one of the guys named Lamarr. A few days later the guy Lamarr asked me if I would be his girlfriend. At first me and my cousin made a pact that I would go with him and she would go with his friend but we never told them that was why we said yes. We got together on October 28th and I remember that because it was exactly two weeks before my birthday which is November 8th. After awhile my cousin and her boyfriend broke up so without thinking I broke up with Lamarr. I thought it wouldn’t matter because I thought we could still be friends but I actually had feelings for him. I thought they would go away but they didn’t. A few months later I asked him whatever happened to that guy with the Kufi, and he said, “Are you serious?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “That was me.” Now you see we were meant to be.

One day Lamarr seen me drinking. He grabbed my drink and threw it away. That same day he seen me smoking and he threw my whole pack of cigarettes in the middle of Broad Street. I was so mad. I bought another pack and I hid them thinking that he wouldn’t find them, but he caught me taking it out and threw that pack away and after that I could have easily got another pack, but I didn’t, I quit.

An amazing couple and an amazing story. Hear Lamarr at the end of this radio interview I did with radio personality Bill Jakes.

like mother like son: news, grades & baseball update

Had a good long phone conversation with Tahija yesterday. She read off the boys' report cards. Pretty good. Mahdyy's doing the best - 9 A's or B's with the B in math up from a C. They're getting grades no for art and music. Tahija says it's just worksheets they do in their same classroom, from the same teacher, but it's something. Damear's acting up bigtime. Won't listen. "You're not my mom," his favorite someback.

A problem with authority, mom says. I wonder where he got that, I say back. she laughs. But he's got it worse than I did, she says -- sassier and sooner. True. A teacher, in passing, asked her had she thought of this school for troubled kids. Tahija said the name like everyone knew about it and it was a bad place.

I remember the Caribbean woman who talked to me after a reading at Manhattan's 15th Street meeting. Get him out of that school, she said.

But his parents don't want to split them up, and . . .

Get him out now. Or you'll lose him. Is he mine to lose, to "save"? Can I live there again, walk with him as I walked with his mother, whose age he is fast approaching? Can the book ever do much more than pay for more books so the tour can keep on awhile longer? It's hard to imagine it earning enough to pay for even one private school tuition, but after next year I doubt any better school would take him. He'll have such a bad behavior record.

Good news though about Tahija's own education. The BA classes at U of Phoenix were rumoured to be harder, more intense, than the AA, but she's doing ok so far - into the 2nd class, ethics. For the AA, classes ran ten weeks but now they run five. I'm very impressed with that U of Phoenix.

When baseball is over they can come up. That's mid-July. Oh, and there's problems with baseball, with the head coach and the ump. But at least they're playing, except Damear might have gotten kicked off the team the one night Tahija wasn't there to keep him in line. More on that soon.

talking with Bill Jaker

I've done five or six radio interviews so far but this one, for WSKG's "Off the Page," was the first one I did in the flesh. Got to see a membeership drive happening and even read the station phone number a few times. I donated 2 copies of the book "for the next caller" from Penna, and 3 people called right away. So went out to the car for a 3rd book.

It was an hour interview, with Bill Jaker (from Queens like me). He had read the book closely. He requested the short passage I read - the "Well I hope she's done" hypothetical letter to a racist stranger who ruined our day. I hope his listeners can take it! I notice some sales at Amazon right away.

They have posted the whole interview with a very cogent intro by, I assume, Mr. Jaker. He had asked for J or T to call in and talk some too. Jamarr said yes. Very nice. Except he mumbled the name of his music group, Philly Starz. He's got to get that promo thing going on! overcome that fear of success. Seriously - he and his brothers are good, tight. Once they get a website I'll link there. And if you need an R & B group for an event in the Philly, NY, NJ area, think about them. I can give you their manager's number. They've done a lot of gigs and are very professional.

The interview is available here. Thank you dear friends who listened. Nice to come home to your calls and emails.

in the triangle of poverty, a bratty voice

Sue Clark and I are sitting in a coffee shop in Indiana, PA, on the edge of IUP. It's raining. Crosby-Stills-Nash & Young are playing and Sue's reading about James Naylor...

Cleveland, Toldeo, Detroit. We've been to the first two of those. It's a triangle of poverty, Joyce Litten, chair of the Social work dept. at Lourdes College told us. More children living in poverty than anyplace in the U.S.

Cleveland's population has gone in the last ten years from 1 million to 500,000. We could feel it in the roads: bumpier than the narrow gravel road I live on. Smaller tax base, the clerk of Cleveland Meeting explained, but same roads to maintain. Or not maintain.

I brought a book of sci-fi short stories with me. Cleveland felt a little like a post-something place. But with the world class orchestra and museums, and the memory of having been great, central, industrial, rich, a first American home for millions of immigrants who love her still.

And I read from the book, Chapter 6, about Lamarr's violent childhood. Not an easy chapter to hear but that's what prayer led me to. Driving west from Syracuse, where I picked up Sue, I had been feeling I wouldn't read from the book at all, would just tell the story, discuss the issues.... Talking to Sue helped me question that notion. Then when I went into worship that night in our room on the 3rd floor of the old former-mansion meeting house I heard a voice. Not God's. My own voice, as if overheard - a bratty child's voice saying "I don't want to read from the book anymore, I don't want to..."

So I laughed at myself and read from the book. One white man, the adoptive father of two black sons aged 5 and 10, listened with great intensity and immediately shared a story of his own. If he ok's with it I may paraphrase that here. Maybe we came just for him, his sons. Maybe just to see and feel Cleveland. Maybe just to rehearse faithfulness for some larger production.

I'm feeling grateful and open and, thanks to wonderfully gracious hosts, not too tired. More later. Sorry I'm not traveling with a camera, but may get some pics from others.

crossing the river one hop at a time

I'm leaving for a western PA and Ohio mini-tour at the end of the week, accompanied by F/friend Sue Clark. She's coming down from Troy, NY. Without her the book would never have been published . . . that story maybe in a future post.

First stop is Cleveland Friends Meeting, then on to Lourdes College at the western end of the state, just south of Detroit and Ann Arbor (which I hope to get up to to visit my old college friend Walburga). Sounds like Lourdes has done a lot of preparation for my Monday evening lecture there. They're is a Franciscan school, justice a core value. Will they be open to the idea of reparations? I'll see how I'm led. Already thinking I may read the family court chapter. Suggestions?

After Lourdes it's back east to visit Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), this set up by a Anne, a Quaker woman I haven't met yet. She writes that she wants to bring the book's perspective to her neck of the woods. A neck with some, you know, red on it, she says.

Well alright. She's worked hard to make it happen and I can't wait to meet her.

These good people are like boulders in a river, each a part of the makeshift bridge I cross on. But where, what, is the other side? I don't know. I hop to the foothold, and then look ahead. (I wrote hope instead of hop there.)

a Diamond

Kaki came back from two weeks away, most of them in Philly, with a veritable Easter basket full of treats: photos of the boys at baseball practice, and with the photos her descriptions and stories.

If you read the book you know how desperately we wanted them to have more time outdoors, playing and learning and extending their boundaries. I guess we just needed to be patient.

I wrote this already but I'll write it again - God Bless their coach Kevin, and all the people who coach children's sports. Twenty kids went out for the team. Only about half that could make it. His criteria? No missed practices.

The boys didn't miss a practice, and neither did their mom. Because you know Tahija's not about to let stay down at the field, after dark, for hours. And last night, Kaki said, some guy was there with his pit bull terrier running loose and Tahija and her friend called the cops on him because not only was the dog running loose, and with all those kids around, he looked starved.

Nothing gets to Tahija like a mistreated dog.

Kaki sat on the bleachers with the cold parents. I was glad to hear that about 2/3 of the kids are white. Glad because it's been looking like white flight has re-segregated the neighborhood pretty quick - in about ten years. But I guess it's not the whole neighborhood, yet. I know Tahija and Lamarr are doing their part - making friends, being good neighbors, building bridges, like they know how to do. And now the boys, playing on an integrated team.

But those other kids, of whatever race, are BIG, sompared to the triplets. Least it's not football.

Damear was playing second, Kaki said, really doing the squat and sway and chatter and smack your mitt thing. Mahddy, Mr. former failure-to-thrive, appears to be going out for catcher. If I was the coach I'd pick him for that too. He's tough and smart, and he's got a good arm. Those millions of push-ups paying off.

Little Lamarr is not exactly athletically inclined. But we knew that. His self-esteem remains pretty high though; he's doing the best in school and he's been favored since birth by many of them women in the family (see Chapter 14 if you have the book). He's throwing lefty and having fun. He's got a really big mitt.

Kaki had wanted to give them baseball mitts last Kawanzaa. I remember the two of us standing in the toy store debating it. I said they'd never get to use them. I might have said never-ever. I might have felt hopeless.

Thank you Kevin. Thank you Tahija and Lamarr. Thank you, you remnant of the working-class Italian and Irish community that built the field and the tall bright lights. Thank you working-class African-American and Latina/a people moving in, sharing your sports and ways, sitting with the white folks on the park bleachers so that your kids can feel it, be supported and protected by it: Community.

Thank you Kaki for being there that night and rushing home with your bright basket of descriptions. You are a bridge builder too.

We'll get some baseball pics of them up soon.

something pushing up through the loam

It's not easy thinking up original titles. . . . Anyway, off tomorrow to another academic gig at Temple U. A callback, I guess, from a professor who attended a Frbruary program and invited us to a larger thing. But not that large, and no stipend. I guess stipends are a thing of the past. But I always sell some books, sometimes sell out, and I'll get to see the boys the next day. Kaki's already down there and heading for her mom's in Virginia after, me right back up here to the new book, a novel, "Real Moon." But another, about race, seems to be pushing up too. It was around while I wrote Walk with Us - how I experienced race growing up, a souls of white folk type book, or maybe more like Ralph Ellison's milestone novel, his only novel, Invisible Man.

Experimental in form, about race but not didactic, intense and reflective at the same time. It shook me when I read it in my early twenties - the pure power of the prose, and the weightiness of the symbolism. The book forged its own form, because realism wasn't real enough and naturalism not big enough to contain its insights.

No wonder I feel a little blocked when I think about undertaking a work that even dares to try to approach what he accomplished . . . but I feel a form incubating in me that could hold what I have to say...

Notice Tahija's pseudonym in the book is Ellison. And another fact - Time Magazine ranked Invisible Man in its top 100 best English language novels since 1923. So, if you haven't read it yet you have something to anticipate! I'd loan you my copy but it's very marked up. Here's the terse prologue - clear, intense, private and historical at the same time, somehow.

And here is the first chapter, the longer, much-anthologized, gripping "Battle Royal." Works as a short story.

fun with de-centering whiteness

For example - talking to Amy's sons Gabe and Sam over dinner the other night, and Gabe, who's studying Norse culture, is telling about how when Viking sailors built a settlement in North America they turned the native Americans there against them by giving gifts of milk, yogurt and cheese.

Seems the indigenous people got sick, supposed they'd been poisoned. Not a good intro to neighbors. Of course, neither group knew about lactose intolerance. But what I didn't realize until Gabe explained it is that the ability to digest cow's milk is a genetic mutation. Handy if you have cows around but otherwise, as in the Americas for example, not a survival aid.

I'd always thought of it in reverse. I mean, I thought most everyone had this ability to digest cow's milk. The human norm. And then there were a few subgroups who for some reason did not have that ability. They had a condition, a flaw . . .

But it's lactose tolerance that's the aberration, the mutation. I am in the subgroup. In the U.S. though, European descendants are the dominant majority (I almost wrote "happen to be in..." but no "happen" about it). So their way can seem like THE way. The center.

Thanks Gabe! Not just for the interesting history piece but for telling it in a way that de-centered whiteness. And Sam, younger, is studying a period he calls "The Conquering of the Americas."

Can you guess they're home schooled? And they can cook like the dickens, too. With or without dairy products.

Here's a map, not a great one, but gives some idea of the cultural distribution.

graduation and baseball and a good neighbor named Kevin

Tahija leaves a message while I'm down in the basement loading the woodstove. "I want to tell ya'll about my graduation date so ya'll cam come because..." and there's another ya'll or two in there.

To say, ya'll are family.

I'd asked awhile back about graduation. Was she going to go? That's for the Associates degree she's been working toward the last two years or so. In the past, she hasn't liked public events like that. I remember they had a dinner when she finished the CNA program I talked about in the book (last chapter), but it was a pretty dismal affair.

But she's going this time. June 13th. I could tell she was walking when she called, walking fast, the way she does, to the market or someplace. To the future.

And Kaki, who's down there doing AVP workshops, stopped by and got to watch 2/3 of the triplets riding their new bikes (Mahddy was on punishment). Well! I can't tell you how happy that makes us. Yes I can - it makes us happy enough to erase, in retrospect, days and weeks of toddlers with no room to toddle, little boys with no place to run.

And--gift upon gift--their report cards were good enough, dad said, that they could join league baseball this summer. God bless the man who's organizing the league. Kevin. He's a white guy who used to live around the corner from T and J but is still close enough, I guess, to stay involved. He came by the house when Kaki was there with info about the league. They can walk to the ball field. I hope they have practice every night and many games. I hope they love baseball and that loving it opens them to more new activities. I hope there's more people like Kevin to organize safe fun. Because believe me, there's people enough organizing the unsafe sort.

Well, that's the news from Philly. If you want to send a graduation card email me and I'll give you the address.

friends don't let friends pretend privilege is a good day

These names are changed.

My white friend Ellen’s in grad school, Penn State. I helped her on a paper a few months back, a rough with a loose firehose of a thesis. She took my critique a bit hard, seemed undermined in her confidence, her sense that she could do the work to get this degree she wants.

So, 2nd paper I was gentler. I didn’t need to be really. She’d worked on it more and the thesis shone laser-like, the style more authentic sounding, more her. “But I don’t think you want ‘celebrant’ here," I said – "for someone who celebrates another’s success? I think 'celebrant' is a priest celebrating, or conducting, mass.”

Her face went from calmly confident to fearfully uncertain. Someone, I thought, several someones early in this person’s life made "correct" language the measure not just of success but of self worth.

Enter Jackie (I’ll call her), another student, black, a study friend of my friend. First paper, the professor, in conference with Jackie, says of some grammatical problem (I paraphrase) – that’s a mistake African Americans tend to make. The professor is a white woman.

Ellen reported this to me. I was shocked and wondered what it meant to Jackie to be stereotyped that way right at the start of her graduate career. Jackie, by the way, does common English just fine, Ellen reports. Sounds like she's from the midwest. But her first paper, Ellen thought, was pretty all-over-the-place.

But it’s not the professor I want to talk about here, it’s Ellen. Her insecurities, and how they drive her racism. Just like mine drive my racism.

She goes to class with the laser-thesis rough of the 2nd paper, 'celebrant' perhaps changed to 'celebrator,' perhaps not. During peer review, she reads Jackie’s rough, and comments, playing the role with Jackie that I played with her. Except I’ve worked years as a part-time English prof who’s critiqued maybe 4,000 college papers. She, Ellen, is Jackie’s peer, struggling like her with the writing demands of this tough course. (Peer review is meant to give student writers a real audience, not an editor, grader or arbiter of "correct" English. But it's hard to get some students to just react, not evaluate. Particularly hard, I've found, for white students working with students of color. The male to female match-up can also be a problem.)

Here’s the report I get on how class went (paraphrased): I read Jackie’s draft and showed her a lot of what she needed to do. We had a really good interaction.

I translate that this way: Instructing Jackie, I feel better about that really embarrassing mistake with 'celebrant,' and my writing in general, and more confident in my ability to excel in this competitive program.

And does Jackie feel more confident? I don’t know. I do know that after class Ellen approached the professor and asked if the two of them — Ellen and the professor — might collaborate on the revision and co-publish the final in an academic journal. The professor said yes. Ellen was thrilled.

But puzzled. The professor hadn’t read the draft yet.

The privilege of being assumed competent. What level of confidence do we have to reach before we are willing to let that privilege go? Can we reach that level and ground ourselves in healthy self-esteem with that privilege still intact and unexamined? And here’s the biggest question, one this writing has helped me arrive at – Is that privilege the very cause of our low self-esteem?

We suspect we didn’t earn it. We’re not challenged and toughened as we grow up. If Jackie survives this class and program intact, she’ll know she sure earned it, and some. Despite professor and classmates, not to mention what all is in the reading.

I celebrate those who step off the smooth road of privilege and take an honest look around. It’s not simple – what to do next. But we’re not celebrants at a Mass, following a set ritual. We’re free beings. We “go by going where we have to go,” as Roethe writes. Justice compels us to go off the road of easy yes's.

making a point (or tryin)

They come, but I don't always know from where. My answers, I mean. That very shiny green shirt though I know for sure came from The Metropolitan Opera thrift shop in Manhattan. My East Side host, and an early supporter of the book, Ilene Wagner, snatched it off the rack just as it arrived. Thank you, Ilene.

CC Inc's director Paul Marcus' gift is this photo. I like "What Changes" above my head there, like text in a cartoon bubble. I change, we change, we all change our communities. Let's get going. If you're near Boston, at least you've got Community Change, Inc.. Horace Seldon founded it after Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated. A sprout that's grown into a great tree. I felt privileged, in the good sense of the word, to be sitting in its shade sharing my story.

at Community Change, Inc. in Boston

The reading at Community Change, Inc. was unique in that much of the small audience was drawn from the tiny sliver of the U.S. population - white ant-racists. We discussed more than I read, with Community Change, Inc. director Paul Marcus sharing insights about how this personal story fit into the larger anti-racist context. Amazing to find such a good match for the book, especially since I knew little of the theory and history when I was writing it.

So where is the director? Well, he took this photo, but the ones I took I deleted by mistake before I could make it to a computer. Borrowed camera (my only excuse). Visit their site. A LOT going on (the site's being revamped though so come again later).

My niece took off from classes at Simmons College to attend the reading. It was a thrill. She's on the left, rear (really small, sorry Jen). And we did the tour of the Black Heritage Trail led that day by none other than Community Change Inc. founder Horace Seldon. More about that soon.

looking out on a lake of faces

...was going to write "sea" but there weren't that many faces. The room was full though and some of those faces bore the light of recognition. Yes yes yes, they nodded, that's just what it's like, I can see it, yes. A writer wants nothing more, at least this writer does.

Some stayed after to look at photos of the family today.

the tazmanian devil & me

Lamarr and I started blog of movie reviews: freestyle, playful, but serious too. Because he loves movies and knows them well.

Our angle is a sort of Siskel-Ebert thing - two very different people volleying opinions: old(ish-young, white-black, Quaker-Muslim, pacifist-fighter. TAZ is Lamarr's nickname, for the Tazmanian devil cartoon character, and EKG is my initials, so we call it Flipside: TAZ & EKG movie reviews. We've only done two movies so far, but I'm glad for the peep into his world. I'm an old sci-fi fan and that's been something we share. So this is good.

Stop by and say hello at Flipside. His use of language is more skillful than you might think at first if you're used to common English. It's quite hip, or, as they say now, dope.

A big sweet 80

Tahija just got the results of her final - 80%. With that, she earns her Associate degree and moves on to the Bachelor's program. She's majorly psyched (you can translate that as joyful). I asked her what her overall grade was but she says she didn't look. Soon as she got her test score she just called. Then she went out the front door, still talking to me, to see what was happening on the sidewalk.

What was happening was her friend's baby was chewing on a wet soggy biscuit he had been chewing on the last time she looked out. She laughed lightly, and I heard others laughing . . . the joy of her success already rippling outward.

She mentioned the friend's name, Lamarr, and for a disoriented moment I thought she meant her little Lamarr, as if we were ten or so years down the road and some percentage of the triplets were fathers, and one of them was visiting her, his baby, her grandbaby (my great godbaby or is that greatgod baby?), sitting on the stoop gumming a soggy biscuit, her, near forty (!), telling me about it on the phone, me past sixty straining as always to hear her and the sounds around her and the implications of her tone and her every choice of word.

Or maybe we'll be living close again (but not too close). Maybe by then she'll have a Ph why the heck not D!

Pi's pretty cool

Tahija takes her math final today. This is the third time she's taken math. It's the one course that remains between her and her first ever academic degree - the Associates. I've been on the phone with her all week, dredging up my very limited math skills. But what she needed more than my skill was my encouragement. To walk through the harder problems with her, complain with her, as we used to do about social workers, nurses, teachers -- any officials she felt were in her way. The complaining is a kind of venting, and me complaining with her is a way of being an ally. Then comes celebration, when she gets a tough problem. And in between all this is the boys coming and going, Jamarr, Jamarr's friends. I'm amazed she can get any studying done. She worked yesterday from 6 am till evening. She wants to pass this class. She says she'll give up if she fails, and I believe she will.

I think she'll pass the final. I helped yesterday with basic geometry, looking things up on line (to review and in some cases learn). The good old Pythagorean theorem still works, and I still don't know how to find the square root of a number, besides guestimating and then multipying till I come to it (as I remembered doing on tests, knowing there was an easier way). And Pi is quite elegant. Good to know there really are a few constants in the world. In the universe.

Tahija complains that she'll never need any of this stuff "so why do I got to learn it?" Of course she will need it, has already, and the process is also a product. She can't deny the satisfaction she felt in working out a difficult problem, the confidence it engendered. And I don't know about her, but it reassures me, seems a shadow of the Divine, that the ratio of every and any circle's circumference to its radius is 3.14... No matter what, no matter where.

We need constants in this life, especially ones we can measure.

the gated college

Remembering powerpoint problems last year at Albany University, I planned to arrive early at Temple U. To get everything set up. Kaki had decided to come and so we were both early, an hour early, and the dean of the social work school wasn’t ready for us, nor was the room where I was to present.

The program was to start at four. The room empted out at four. I hurried in, whipped out the flashdrive John Sharpless gave me after hearing about the almost-stolen laptop with the unbacked up new book on it. And poof: the first slide of the powerpoint writ large on the screen.

Educators are using WALK WITH US to

 Present a fascinating Case Study
 Examine Survival skill, Strengths, & Resiliency
 Encourage Cultural Sensitivity, and Advocacy
 Develop Bias awareness and Mutuality
 Inspire long-term strategies and Creative problem solving
 Enjoy riveting, evocative, hopeful, funny, edifying, poetic prose

That was devised by Kaki, who also set up the Temple event. She started working on it about six months ago. But it was worth it: although the group was small, we’re invited back for a larger event in April.

The professor who invited us feels Temple is too clinical. Students don’t come from or know much about the people and communities they hope to serve. I could tell that from their questions. And how amazed they were that we had done something very common (as the professor pointed out) around the world and in the innercity – everywhere in fact but in middeclass white America: shared our home with neighbors in need.

Temple sits in the innercity but walls itself off from it. Social work students are attracted not by the location, this professor told us, but by the clinical program. Clinical as in hang up a shingle and wait for people to come to you. Don't go down to the streets.

Kaki was busy, before and after, telling undergrads about those streets. Those who had already walked them were most interested in talking: a single father who fought the system in order to keep his children; a young woman from Israel who spent two years tutoring in North Philly schools before starting college. Experience before education.

They had to hurry off to classes — our story and a few of its images (like this one) now part of their education. And, maybe, a critique of it.

reFlections prompted by an aquarium membership fee

Some people say they’re playing us – Tahija and Lamarr. They see white guilt and black need as a common, potent compound that, when mixed with cute little boys synergizes into resources: A place to live when Tahija was fourteen, pregnant and homeless. Legal guardianship when that’s what she needed to keep the boys. Miscellaneous stuff. A three-bedroom freestanding house. A zoo membership (family deluxe) and now an Aquarium membership.

My biggest fear when I consider that this might be true is not that we have been played (manipulated, conned), but that we may have reinforced a co-dependent pattern in the parents and greatly abetted its being passed on to the children.

A young social worker named Danny who came to two readings characterized Philly as a racially co-dependent city. I think he’s right. The problem with an interchange of this sort – I’m poor because I’m black, you should give me x (a dollar, a break, a free pass) because your people have hurt mine – is that it neither empowers the poor nor releases the guilty. In fact, in so far as getting resources is contingent upon need/lack/disability it actively disempowers.

It’s like the way poor parents get a small check for learning disabled children, but nothing for the gifted and talented. What does that encourage?

I’ve sometimes felt Lamarr is deeply committed to this strategy. When he was a kid with a mother caught up in the crack epidemic of the eighties, he used his younger, cuter twin brothers to get help from whitefolks. And now he uses the triplets. Twice now white neighbors have given him vans, and last time I was there little Lamarr said a neighbor had promised them bikes.

I think he’d prefer to be independent. Maybe at some level he scorns the helpers. I think his cynicism toward those he plays makes real relationship difficult. It is not a relationship of equals; in fact the relationship is predicated upon inequality. It would not have come about had the two parties been equal.

Tahija has sometimes gone along with Lamarr, as she has with him about nearly everything, because she loves and needs him. (Violent horror movies, for example, are now something she says she enjoys.) But her connection with us is rooted in love, I feel. She has more integrity and a stronger drive for independence. It was her idea, I think, for them to take us out for dinner for Kwanzaa. “You always pay, now we can pay,” she said. When we lived together I lived on the childcare money, needed it. We have that foundation of a kind of equality.

When I haven’t seen or talked to her for awhile, the stereotypes and suspicions start to push up like weeds. But time with them weeds the garden of our relationship. Part of the harvest can be this day at the Aquarium.

It may be that this time Tahija and Lamarr will offer to pay for the membership. If we want to pay, as a birthday gift to the triplets, are we being played?

Or are we being grandmotherly?

Sweet Honey in the Whitehouse

My friend Esther of Esther and Freddy fame sent me this story - Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Whitehouse performing for a group of middle schoolers Michelle Obama had invited over for a Black History Month program. You know what she said has got to motivate them. And hearing Sweet Honey...! That changed my life and I didn't hear them until I was like twenty. If you haven't heard them yet here's a few pickings from U-Tube:

The classic "We Who Believe in Freedom" (quoted in the book)

A performance in Sydney, Australia here

And the more musically intricate "Peace"

And here's their official site, with tour dates and so on.


The triplets turn eleven today. Thank you, all who have bought books and helped me get the book to more people, new audiences...I hope to see the boys when I'm down there next week for a reading at Temple U., aquarium or no aquarium. I remember their first birthday. Maybe that's tomorrow's topic...pray for peace in North Philly, that they might have many more birthdays, and see all their friends and cousins have the same.

celebrations, hesitations and dreams of Orcas

It's the boys' birthday tomorrow, the 19th. They'll be 11. We invited everyone to Baltimore to the Seaquarium big Lamarr told us about. Much better than the NJ Seaquarium, he says. Has orcas, dolphins, all that.

No response to that invitation, as yet. To tell you the truth sometimes I just want to let the relationships fade. Everything in the book that was hard is still hard, or harder. But when I get quiet and pray and ask what to do I hear simply "walk." So. Keep on.

It's snowing now. When we got back there was a message from Lourdes College in Ohio, an invitation for April. That's good. That's progress. Spring will come. The walk will take me up and down hills, through snow and mud. But along the way there will be flowers, waterfalls, airborne orcas spinning like ballerienas.

my night with The Soloist

I read the 2nd half of The Soloist straight through the night before last - for the story, for the prose, and for the sense of walking with a kindred spirit.

The author, Steve Lopez, is an LA Times columnist who befriended a homeless, mentally ill former Julliard student. It began as a column and ended as a life-changing friendship--life-changing in both directions. The homeless man, Nathanial Ayers, got a place to live, new instruments, and a healing reconnection with a community of musicians. (You can't say he got his music back because he'd never lost it.) The columnist got a passion for classical music, a recommitment to journalism, a newly-opened heart, and a movie deal.

I'm glad he got a movie deal. I've been following Lopez since his Philadelphia Inquirer days, when he wrote a novel about the North Philly drug trade Third and Indiana. Often, passing through that badlands intersection, I thought of the book and regretted that it had gone out of print. But it's back in, and I'm glad.

Both books do things I tried to do. They describe people society has turned its back on in such a way as to make society (me and you) take a second look. To put it in Quaker terms, Lopez sees the Light in each person; and he seeks out people in whom the Light may not be all that easy to see, but he sees it, keeps trying to see it.

In short, he's faithful (a word he probably wouldn't use). Yet he's honest about wanting to run away from the suffering, and usefuly self-reflective about why he wants to run away.

In the end he's much more self-accepting than I was, more at peace. But then he didn't live with Mr. Ayers, as I did with Tahija and Lamarr; didn't bond with three beautiful baby boys.

But he crossed a chasm of difference and described both sides, in a way that helps close it. Here's one example of the spare, forceful prose, from near the end of the book. He has helped reunite Mr. Ayers with the sister he hasn't seen in years.

"Jennifer is with her big brother at long last in this crazy city their father moved to, breaking their young hearts. Strange, the way it has all worked out, with Jennifer taking over the financial responsibilities of a big brother who was always so wise and able. He plays now against a backdrop of sea and sky, a symphony under trees, right here where impossible wealth meets hopeless suffering. Botoxed weight-watchers in designer sweats come jogging past drunken vets passed out on fields of green. Down the hill and across the cinnamon sands, the tide is up and the waves keep coming, a thunderous ancient rhythm."

Makes you want to read his (three) novels, right? But read The Soloist first. If you liked Walk with Us you'll like it. And if you haven't read Walk with Us yet, what's up with that?! Waiting for the movie?

Bryan Today

When she read the previous blog (kneeling, her laptop on a chair) Kaki told me Bryan still lives on Hope Street, she sees him around. He's 6-2 now, knockout handsome. She doesn't know much more than that. About his older brother, the Peacemaker, she knows he left the McDonald's job he had through high school and joined the army.

So I guess the army looks to Brian like a good option now. If I had stayed on Howard Street, stayed in Bryan's life, could I have given him other options? Did I leave him with any memory that makes him more open to other options? I don't know. He was so good-hearted. Is.

If you know a Bryan or a high school attended by kids of color, you should bring them a copy of the AFSC book It's My Life: a Guide to Alternatives After High School. Sure, the armed forces has been a way up and out for some, but all young people should be aware of their options, including conscientious objection.

Don't know a Bryan or a high school attended by kids of color? Hmm...Is that an irreversible condition? And, now that I'm on the subject, why are our schools still segregated? comments?

hope's bootstraps

What can words do? All this bloggy rhetoric. . . .

Bryan lived behind us on Hope Street--the real name of a real street. He was ten when I met him, big for his age, friendly, and not as streetsmart as most of the other kids. His mom worked double shifts. He had two sisters, one older, one younger, and two older brothers. One of the brothers belonged to an organization of neighborhood teens knows as The Peacemakers. Kaki helped with their activities sometimes. I guess that's how we met Bryan.

He was awkward and shy with other kids. I tried to help (I thought) by inviting him to play Scrabble with the King sisters--three outgoing girls around his age. (They were in the house a lot and ended up in the book.) When Brian's turn came he seemed anxious. After a long delay, he selected three letters and laid them out.

"That's not even a word!" blurted Porsha. "Don't even have a vowel in it!" added Kanisha.

Bryan bolted, knocking over the board and disappearing for days. Could it be he didn't read well enough to make a three-letter word? I found out later what it was.

I was walking around our park, Norris Square, when I noticed a crowd entering the big stone church on the corner. Balloons and flowers, Sunday clothes. On a Wednesday? I went in. The fifth graders of John Walsh elementary school were graduating, using the church for the auditorium they didn't have, just as they used the square for a playground.

After the speeches of the administrators, the teacher of the learning disabled class spoke. Miss Chissom. She loved her five boys, she said. And she had prepared a song for them--"I Believe I Can Fly," but with new lyrics, just for the occasion.

The five boys came to the front, Bryan among them.

Now, at that time, 1999, the R. Kelley hit was everywhere. The chorus goes,

I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day, Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar, I see me running through that open door . . .

The King sisters sang a parodoy that was going around, rhyming sky with FBI, and getting die in there somewhere. They'd liked the song at first but soon turned on it, giving it that most damning of labels - corny. Corny and patronizing, as if an over-orchestrated peptalk from a popstar (one charged with child pornography) could change their lives. And it wasn't even danceable.

I still liked the song and was eager to hear Miss Chissom's version. I wondered how she would make lines like "If I can see it, then I can do it. If I just believe it, there's nothing to it" more uplifting than they already were.

But uplifting wasn't what she had in mind. Real was: I don't recall all the lyrics, but I know "Don't tell me I can fly" was in there, and "Don't tell me I can touch the sky."

Don't give me hope boobytrapped with self-hate, she meant. Don't program me to see my failure to fly, to get rich, to win American Idol and play for the NBA as my fault. Don't slip brand new Nike Air Max's on that old head Horatio Alger.

Five fifth grade boys growing up in the badlands, singing their hearts out, led beautifully by their talented teacher. Who might have been a professional singer, and sure must thrill whatever church she went to. Who had chosen instead to be a teacher.

Teaching us that while rhetoric might fly, might even help us raise our eyes and goals sometimes, it can hurt us too. I think of her and of Bryan when people say "Now any child knows they can be anything, even president."

If they can't read by ten? If by twelve they haven't gotten the specialized help they need to function well with dyslexia?

Bryan supposed I was there for him. I let him think it. No one else had come. "Good singing," I said, "good teacher." He beamed. Clearly he loved Miss Chissom as much as she loved her boys. Would the middle school learning-disabled teacher love him?

A friend of ours taught ESL at the school Bryan would be going to. Many days, she told me, they sent her on her free periods to teach the LD class. The school just couldn't seem to hold on to its teachers.

So how was it? I wanted to know.

"You know that phrase climbing the walls?"


"Picture it."

I believe Bryan can fly. If we don't clip his wings, if we don't seal him in a stainless steel box, if we leave a little doorway of blue sky showing.

First day of fourth grade

Every time Tahija sends me a first-day of school photo it becomes my favorite - for a while. So right now this first day of fourth grade shot is it, fake (I hope) gang signs and all.

Or maybe this one below is my favorite, from the first day of first grade. For those who know the book I'll ID them. In both pics, it's Damear on your left (first from the womb & from the hospital, the only one breastfed), called Mear-mear sometimes; in the middle is Mahad, or Mahddy, the second from the womb and the one who was failure to thrive, briefly; and on the right is Little Lamarr, with his dad's name and his grandmother's green (sometimes) eyes - nicknamed Wah-wah because he cried so much as a baby.

excuse or cause?

Black on black crime has suddenly dropped. Stopped in some cities, as if death really has, as in that old 30's movie, taken a holiday.

Self hate leads to brother/sister hate which leads to places where it's not safe for kids to play ball in front of their house. It leads to the triplets indoors all day most days, which leads to me taking it personal: black on black crime.

So I'm rejoicing that it's down, and I know it has to do with Obama. But I'm also worried.

"Every child has lost every excuse," pipes Congressman James Clyburn at the (first ever) BET honors awards in D.C. Oh? I know Obama brings more hope - to all of us but especially to the black boys inhaling black-is-bad messages daily, and learning so early that they have to be bad just to be safe.

But hope isn't therapy for violent trauma. Hope isn't food and it isn't healthy food or a place to exercise when you find yourself fifteen and obese. Hope isn't a yard to play in or a teacher who likes you. Hope isn't the spiritual fortitude to forgive the parent who beats you and to passively resist the twelve-year-old who wants to kill you and bought a straw-bought handgun to do it with.

Hope isn't a man. Hope isn't an excuse to blame children. Hope is many men and women--adults--courageously and persistantly facing and removing causes. Hope is or should be the end of denial and apathy.

Blaming the victim widens the chasm of misunderstanding between the races. Let's not give kids excuses to give up by ignoring true causes. Let's listen to their stories, and to the stats.
I need to write about Bryan.

Freddy and Esther

Last week's storms brought a blessing. We had to stay a second night in the Philly area and Esther's friend of many years, Agnes, aka Freddy, stepped up as host. It was a sweet, peaceful interlude that I'll remember longer than I remember the reading itself: her stories and manner a window into an entire life, not hers only but her family's, her husband's especially. His paintings and fine woodwork graced the sunny apartment, and his spirit came through in his daughter, who joined us (with Esther's) for dinner. Wine and cheese and liesurely, learned conversation . . . who needs the Internet?

ice & truth

Well we made it to Pendle Hill, Foulkeways and back - with a pleasant stop at Olive Garden and many small careful steps on several varieties of ice. And the dean of Pendle Hill cleaned an inch of snow off my car in between my carrying out stuff. The Wednesday after the lecture was their work day there and everyone worked. Except me. I was tempted, but I had work pending -- the 2:00 Foulkeways reading -- and wanted to be centered for that.

Forty two people came! I'm not sure who counted but somebody did. I read perhaps the least fun, most challening part - Tahija losing her job right after finishing the training program that was supposed to boost her pay. The nursing home job. I know Foulkeways is a continuing care community, a veritable resort (think Boca, with snow), but it has its hospital care wing, its last stop. And all the residents, as far as I could see, are white, very many of the kitchen and health care workers black.

But no one seemed offended. And a woman I knew from New York Yearly meeting (Quakers), who had hosted Kaki, Sue Clark and me when we traveled to one of the first readings (Purchase, NY), came up after and said she thought I should be on Oprah. That people need to hear this truth.

Oprah are you listening?

What truth? That the poor work too hard and are often cheated. That the poor work for us, our aging parents, our children.

Well, I thought I had nothing to say. I thought I'd just say - hi I have nothing to say I'll write later. But.

This was my first retirement community reading. It was great. The head of the library commitee, Jessica Ferrell (I think), had that place blanketed with fliers! And at ten to two she was on the phone reminding people to come! Maybe I should hire her as publicist. And I got to worship with Shirley Hathaway beforehand - the same deep concentration and gentle spirit I remember from New Paltz Meeting. She's the woman I referred to in the book as having taken her young family down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. One of the rocks that keeps you from getting washed out to sea when first you dive into meeting for worship.

The book has taken me to good places, good people. What next?

neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness ...

What about sleet and hail? Nah, we'll get there.

"We" is me and Esther Friedmann, who I met at a reading last year. She helped make happen the reading at Foulkeways Retirement Community down in Philly that we have to get to in between snowstorms this week. Esther offers her four-wheel drive Subaru, and her audacity. I guess she doesn't want to miss it, or her good friend Freddy.

Neither do I. We'll watch the weather. It's been below zero most mornings but clear and dry. Right now, late AM, sunlight laminates the tines of the Yew bush by the window, and I find the Rumi poem I've been looking for. I may use it in the Pendle Hill Lecture tomorrow.

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

The topic of the lecture series is faithfulness. My lecture may get into the lack thereof - and what brings us back.

doubts and barbs

Getting ready for a lecture at Pendle Hill's Tuesday Night Lecture Series, Finding the Way: Practical Choices that Support Faithful Living. I'm feeling discouraged about the reading tour, though two new readings have been arranged in the last week - in Cleveland and Worcester, Mass. I've been wanting to branch out into new regions, so that's good....but, what is the but? Tired of traveling. I only sold three books at the P-Flag reading, and lost the little slip of paper with the name on it of someone who works at Temple U and thinks the book would make a good one for their freshman class. Are you out there!

She talked about purposely driving her son past the public elementary school every day so he could see (on his way to the private school) how very poor it was - another planet really. The first time she saw that school, she said, she thought it a derelict building. The rusting sagging fences. The glass and trash in what must have been the playground.

Then a little girl stepped out of a huge steel door. A little black girl, of course (so much history, so many "refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness" (to quote Whitman) going into that "of course" of course). So she decided to re-route her son's way to school (but not to adulthood), and often she would say to him, of some little girl or boy his age, "Don't you forget, that little girl is just as good as you."

But that little girl or boy is not, really, not academically, not physically, because of the school he's in, the food she eats, the access he has to computers and quiet, health care, summer stimulation. I wish the mother had said that. And I wish she had said not "she's just as good as you are," but "you're just as good as she is."

See the difference? But the well-off son is not, not really--not in terms of resilience, cultural competenence, maybe even spiritual depth. Because of the school he's in, his surround-sound privilege; because his mother drives him past the poor school and doesn't stop, doesn't explain about Brown vs. Board of Education, and white flight, and how our ideals tend to take flight when our children are concerned. Oh, we would have stayed, I've often heard, except for our children, you know. No I don't know. Stay because of your children.

And this was one of the more awake people, a good woman clearly and very enthusiastic about the book. They were all good people, solid middle and upper class educated people with bi, gay and transgendered sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. People who want to make a difference, and are. Yet loving oppressed people doesn't seem to have compelled them to work on their racism. It's not automatic; it's a process.

I need more patience and love. Usually when I'm ranting like this it's because the mote in my own eye is irrtating me so much!

But I worry my book only adds to the problem, let's white people see themselves/us as helpers, charity-givers, judgers, benificent in our pronouncement: You are just as good as me (or, as they would probably say it, grammatically, smugly, "as I"). And not, I hope to become as strong and hopeful as you, as skilled at community, despite my upbringing.

Well I better quit, better get ready for the two readings next week. Part of that getting ready will be to look that question in the face - does the book make things worse? Can I change the way I present it, the excerpts I choose?

Inaugural symbol #3 - the sky

The CNN camera person must have seen it too. When speeches and benedictions, song and poem were done and the dignitaries had filed back indoors, the camera shot lingered . . . on sky.

It was a cold day, we knew that, a gray day. But through the clouds could be seen banners of blue sky.

A few minutes before I would had to have called the weather partly cloudy. But at the stroke of twelve it suddenly seemed partly sunny.

Inaugural Symbol #1 - the safe landing

A plane that should have crashed – killing hundreds and re-traumatizing New York City – instead floating like a big blowup beach toy in the Hudson River. No fatalities, just some cold, stunned travelers arriving a lot sooner than expected at a place they never dreamed of: a deepened appreciation of their lives.

What made the difference? A great pilot and a brave crew.

The week before the inauguration could have been filled with images of fire and death, of torn families stumbling through interviews horrible in their homoginization of grief. Instead we have this serenely surreal image of people waiting on the wings of a floating airliner as calmly as office workers in front of a lunchtruck. Instead we have awe, relief and exaltation.

Our economy’s just ripped through a flock of ill-fated geese. The engines are ruined. Can our pilot land us? Can his crew get us safely off? If symbols could speak, this symbol would say yes,(sorry, can’t help myself) Yes he can.

Inaugural symbol #2 - the Wii game

I watched the inauguration from the livingroom of the North Philly house where Walk with Us takes place. Kaki rents it now to six New Jerusalem graduates in advanced recovery (meaning they are solid in their sobriety). There are four men and two women, all African-American.

When we’re in Philly we sleep on the sofas, wait on line for the bathroom (bring your own tp). We slept there Sunday night after the P-Flag reading and decided to stay to watch the inauguration. (We live North of Scranton now, in Biden country, but come down to Philly often.)

As Kaki and I watched the pre-inaugural coverage, one of the men in the house, call him Larry, turned on a small portable TV behind the big one and started playing Wii baseball. He plays under doctor’s orders: rehab for recent hip surgery.

So as Obama is placing his hand on the Bible of the president who proclaimed emancipation, Larry is twitching his arm in a simulated swing, the Wii crowd in the Wii stadium roaring. Larry peeks around between pitches to see Obama finish taking the oath, then goes back to the game.

Larry’s in his fifties, on SSI, with a deformed hand and two club feet - from a very premature birth. He hasn't the money or the coverage to buy the prosthetic shoes that would let him walk somewhat normally. Most of his family won’t have anything to do with him, from his years of using. When he talks I have a hard time understanding because of what seems a speech impediment. Kaki says it’s just dentures he hasn’t gotten used to yet. She also says she couldn't run the house without him. Honest as the day is long, and steady.

It strikes me - a crippled black man with so little going for him focusing on his healing instead of on the brilliant black man with so much going for him becoming the most powerful man in the world. I guess Larry knows what's best for himself, but I wonder - is he afraid to hope? Is he acclimated to the thin air of hopelessness? Am I?

Tahija bragged to me later that she didn't even turn her TV on (I sure hope the boys' school had one to turn on.) "He’s got to show me something first," she said. Not just afraid of hope but dead set against it. What made her that way? All those times her dad didn't show up when he'd promised to? Does Obama look to her like just another crushing disappointment? Or -- more troubling -- like a chance to prove fully and finally that the world really is hopeless?

I guess that's her choice. Larry's choice is to focus on his healing--with a little break for history. Mine is to hold hope in safe keeping. In this box of words, these plain or jewelled cases.

PFLAG Philly

Well I'm off to West Philly for a Sunday reading at a P-FLAG meeting. (That's Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.) Starts at 2:30. The Eagles game starts at 3:00. Oh the sacrifices we make! I guess the P-FLAGE people will not be there. (That's Parents and Friends of Lesbians, Gays and the Eagles.)

I've started posting passages that I use at readings, over in "Excerpts from the book."

make a safety zone

If you read my book and were moved to make the world better for the triplets, here's an organization that can help you do that: The Harlem Children's Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada, who grew up on a tough block in the South Bronx and authored Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun and Reaching up for Manhood. I wish I'd read him before I'd moved to North Philly. I would have better understood the way the kids acted, would have known that Tahija's seeming paranoia was really just plain knowledge of the streets, her and Lamarr's scorn for authority based on a lifetime, a terrible childhood, of authority looking the other way as children were killed. 5000 a week in the late 80's, Canada writes. Imagine, he says, an enemy from outside our borders killing 5000 children a week. What would we do?

A lot. A lot more than we have done. What will you do? Be guided not by guilt but by your inner lights: what are you moved to do, moved by what is best in you?

Some adults help by creating corridors of safety to and from schools. The children walk between. The children see every day that we care. We put ourselves on the line.

Not in a neighborhood where violence is a problem? Consider moving there. Buy a house, pay your taxes, keep your yard or front steps clean, stand beside the children. It's what Kaki and I did and we don't regret it.

Or maybe sometimes we do regret it. Sometimes I do, a little, lying awake, praying for 16 year old Kanisha to recover form her gunshot to the stomach. Let her not follow the road of this pain, I prayed. Sometimes I want to go back to not knowing, even to not knowing what I don't know. But I'm following the road of compassion, of an opening heart, and it goes inevitably through pain. Or runs parallel to it.

Canada says kids surrounded by drugs and violence desperately need heroes if they are to resist getting sucked under. A hero can be a tall man who kneels down to help you fix your zipper. And he's a hero even if he can't fix the zipper, because he knelt down. Because he's there.

Fist Stick Knife Gun

I’m almost through Geoffrey Canada’s Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. He describes growing up in the South Bronx and learning the intricate codes of violence starting at about age 7, with the (slightly) older kids on the block as morality teachers and fighting coaches. It all made a kind of terrible sense, and insured a kind of safety or at least stability within danger in a place and time when adults and all manner of authority – police especially – had abandoned the children to a violence so systematic and unremitting it can only be called war. Made sense that is until handguns and crack. Then, Canada says, the code of fair fighting went out the window. And the only thing that made sense then was to carry a gun yourself, if you could get one. And you usually could. In fact, he documents how gun manufacturers, having by the mid-80's saturated the white male market, turned to black and Latino/a youth in the cities. They even gave their new cheaper guns cool new names that would appeal to kids.

Canada was amazed to find that even young children knew not only the names of many handguns but their caliber, type of ammo and so on. As I was amazed (and at first doubtful) of 16 year old Lamarr's knowledge.

Lamarr grew up at the height of the crack epidemic. By the age of eight he was making decisions that would send a middle-class adult into therapy for months. “They wore their lack of fear,” Canada writes, “as a badge of honor” (61).

We left a generation of children alone in a war zone. We gave them boot camps instead of police protection. We gave them the Rockefeller Laws instead of afterschool programs. We gave them metal detectors at the entrance to every school instead of adults willing to brave the streets they walked everyday to and from school. He quotes this stat from a 1994 Children's Defense Fund Report: every two hours a child dies from gunshot wounds, while a police officer dies every five days. We ought at least to have given them flak jackets.

That swagger we see on TV, the tough guy bop; that coldness in the face of violence; that disdain for authority – they come from kids who found their own way to survive terrible odds and never had any reason to trust adults.

I’ll never fully understand Lamarr. I’m amazed he’s let me and Kaki in as much as he has, given us the gift of trying to explain what he lived through. He must often have thought we were stupid. We are stupid, in his world. To not even know what eye contact means, or a slouching posture in certain situations. To believe phoning the police ends violence, or walking alone to the corner store is easy.

Canada writes: “Adults standing side by side with children in the war zones of America is the only way to turn this thing around” (109). Because we see then the complexity of the problems. This can be overwhelming. But standing side by side with the children and teens we also can’t help but see their strength and courage, and their intelligence: they have ideas, they can envision peace, they are willing to work for it.

Are we?

no trip to hope

Well we won't be going to the inaugural. Mom won't say why but she changed her mind. I'm trying not to assume things, like I did when we were all living together, to the general detriment of the situation.

It is a long way to let them go without her, and she doesn't want to go . . . plus, if they become rife with hope how will they fit in anymore where they are? I guess that's an assumption, about motives - hidden motives. An ungenerous assumption.

I'll try to see her this weekend and talk about it. I said I would take her driving. She has her learner's permit but Lamarr's not a very patient teacher and she wants to practice for the test.

So many tests in life. My cousin Maureen up in British Columbia is going to be mad. She made me promise even before Obama won the nomination to take them to the inauguration. I know she'd find a way if she were closer--to D.C. and to Tahija. I can't find a way.

Triplicate Gifts

The boys gave me a set of glass coasters for Kawnzaa - four coasters, in each a photo of them picked out by them. They chose three I love plus one I hadn't seen--from a zoo trip with mom and dad when the boys were about four. I don't have that one in e-form, but here are three others - babies, first day first grade (white shirts), and first day 2nd grade. (They're in fourth now.)

"We don’t give nobody up."

Which way to walk down these tree streets
and find home cooking, boundless love?
Double-dutching on front porches,

men in sleeveless undershirts.
I’m listening for the Philly sound—
Brother brother brotherly love.

--from "Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia" by inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander

non-alcoholic champagne

Tahija called at midnight to wish me Happy New Year’s (computer trouble kept me from posting). I could hear revellers in the background and thought of the non-alcoholic champagne I gave Lamarr at Kawnzaa. He joked it wasn’t going to stay non-alcoholic long. I said he could keep it to offer friends who don’t drink.

He looked at me like that was a novel idea. They’re on the 30 side of 25. They do what they want. I only hope it is what they want and not a deep groove worn by generations before them.

I hope one friend strolled in last night and said, oh, cool, non-alcoholic champagne! Because I have to drive later. Because I have alcoholism in my family and I mean to triumph and transcend. Because I’m revelling in the clear focus of a sober mind. Because I mean to write a song/poem/theorem/letter/acceptance speech before the end of ‘08. Because my body is a sacred vessel of the divine. Because I’m a good Muslim. Because I want to be different. Because I am.

Happy New Year Tahija. Enjoy your youth. I’m serious.

The two images are details from Meg Saligman's Common Threads, the largest mural on the east coast. It's in Philly, at 15th and Spring Garden. When I first saw it I pulled over and just gazed. For a long time. These two teens, details from the mural, seem to me to capture the spirit of Tahija and Lamarr when I first met them.

what are you writing now?

Someone who just finished Walk with Us asked me – what are you writing now? I gave the laugh and the answer I’ve given before: With a toddler in the house, who has time for a new baby?

But that’s just when people do have a new baby, isn’t it?

Time for a new answer – a real answer. Which is to say, time to go within. Am I using Walk with Us promotion to avoid new writing?

If you read the book you know about my habit of opening a book at random and putting my finger down, again at random, eyes closed: a sort of drivethru Oracle, but with faith that a) we already know the answer and b) what we don’t know/don’t know we know the universe wants us to know, and will find a way to tell us.

Better to journey to the center of the silence. But that “What are you writing now?” and the illogic of my answer happened as I was walking into an auditorium spottily filled with people – Quakers convened for a business meeting.

We were half way through Budget when I reached into my bag and opened the only book in it – the very same alleged toddler in question, Walk with Us. Am I, I asked, done with – released from – this book? Then I put my finger down, asking-hoping-praying for a word. A word of guidance.

The word was “baby.”

Oh. Walk with Us isn’t a toddler, not yet. It’s an infant. That’s why I wake mornings with its needs pressing on me like a full bladder. That’s why I don’t have time for a new baby. And what it needs, its milk, is readers.

So, the walk takes me here. I guess this is what I’m writing now. I guess you are who I’m writing to. For.

angels with skills

Stacey Sherill was assigned Walk with Us in the freshman comp class she's taking nights at Albert Einstein Hospital, where she works full time as a Videographer. When we visited the class with the triplets she offered her skills. An offer we couldn't refuse. We now have a professional-quality 18 minute DVD for the academic market.

Stacey grew up in West Philly and went to the same magnet high school Lamarr and Tahija did. She's done camera work for feature films and will be moving up and out in that field, I know. She says she wants to get her degree first, to have a solid foundation. She's faced sexism and racism and knows she needs to know more than the rest just to be let in the door.

Let her in let her in! I want to see what she makes!

We're at the Aramingo diner here celebrating completion of the DVD. Lamarr and his brothers did the music for it, by the way--some very original R&B-rap blend stuff composed by Lamarr and performed with incredible heart by his twin brothers Donshay and Dominique (in the book, Donovan and Dante).

about that curse....

Kaki and I stopped on the way home from Quaker meeting to watch the 4th quarter of the Eagles game. After Westbrook took a screen from a resurgent Donovan McNabb and ran it 80-something yards for a touchdown I called big Lamarr. Some game, huh?

Yeah, some game, he said, and reminded me that there'd been talk of trading away McNabb. No such talk now.

If they make it to the superbowl, if they win, I guess Mahd and I will owe William Penn a thank you. I’m not eager to ride up to the top of city hall on that rickety elevator again, but it sure does seem as if the curse we asked Penn to lift has been lifted. I mean everything’s going the Eagles’s way. Sorry for your leg wound, Plaxido Burress. (what Mahd and me did about the curse)

Have I taken this magical thinking thing too far? Maybe. Ask me again if the Eagles do win the superbowl, in the same season that the Phillies won that crazy rainy piecemeal world series.

Hey, it’s something to celebrate. If you lived there you’d know what that’s worth. As I wrote in the book, Philly can do cold and overcast like no city I’ve seen. But it can do happy pretty well too. When it gets the chance.


Lamarr and Tahija took us out for Kwanzaa. Tahija said we're always taking them out and they wanted to take us out this time. That seemed fitting on the fourth night of this "celebration of family, culture and community." The fourth day is Ujamaa (Swahili for cooperative economics).

Of course the culture and community celebrated in Kwanzaa is African-American, but few economies are insular, and we had moved into the village when Tahija moved in with us. We weren't African-American, but we were family.

That night we heard the whole story of their first dog Spike, who died during a frantic day of seizures. Tahija's mom drove them from vet to vet but no vet would treat him because they said Tahija wouldn't be able to afford the anti-seizure medications anyway.

Finally one vet did help but by then it was too late. (She keeps that vet's number in her phone. She gave it to us in case we wanted to switch.)

"I still miss Spike," said little Lamarr, pausing over his steak. They have Tank now and Kayla, a cat and assorted reptiles, but Spike was the first. Big-headed Spike, beloved. I had heard about him and his death, but not in such detail. Good thing Applebees wasn't too crowded that night.

Dad has a new (used) station wagon, the old sort with wood-like panels running down the sides. When the boys were rowed up in the back seat about to drive away I remembered the National Geographic with the story about elephant populations increasing that I wanted to give Mahad. He'd been so bothered by a zoo display that graphically showed their steep drop over the last century. I want him to have hope, and to see that people with hope, and hard work, can make a difference.