On Writing, Reflecting, and Hacking My Own Education (And What All that Has to Do With Voyaj)

23 Dec


Right now, I am sitting in my bedroom with an open copy of “The Artist’s Way” beside me, looking down now and again for reassurance as I make my way back to an abandoned manuscript. I think about all the ways that I have run away from writing and it has pursued me tirelessly in return. Every time I criticize pop culture (or celebrate it), every time I look at my son and wonder what I will leave him, and every time I read with my students, I think about my writing, how it’s not good enough and how I still have to do it.

A friend of mine wrote a post a few days back in response to all the Beyonce’ brouhaha bubbling up on the blogosphere, basically reminding us all that creativity, expression, sex, and sensuality are all bound up together and that they are our birthright. We don’t need it to be packaged and sold to us for us to experience the life force that we all have pulsating inside of us. And I do think that it’s easier to be a critic (and it’s a damned important job, don’t think I’m saying it’s not- we need people to poke holes in the pop culture confections we are sold in sheep’s clothing as rebellion when it really is conformity, but I digress…) but it is easier, at least for me, to be a critic than to really hit the ground running and to create for the sake of my own psychological survival and also to give the world the medicine that only I can. 

For a long time, I thought it could come through travel writing, and some of it did. Or through teaching- and everyone knows how all-encompassing that profession can be for a cultural creative. After a unit on Thoreau, Majora Carter, and environmental justice and another on Gothic Literature and The Haunted Mind, I have had to come to grips with what haunts me and what have I always done in the face of changing social conditions (change is the big idea or big concept tying it all together for the first few units of my class on American Literature(s) this year btw.)

It has always been writing.

When I was younger, it was poetry. I started writing in a red journal with pink flowers when I was in the fifth grade filled with the terror and promise of a new suburban environment. I wrote about the grass and trees everywhere… and I wrote about the dragons- I wrote about feeling isolated and alone, the covert racist comments, and the boredom. I wrote about the city I had left behind and now mythologized. The subway was no longer filthy and filled with leaking water and scrawled over with graffiti. It was a magical place where a token could “show me your dreams.” I continued to write, with the encouragement of my teachers, and began to expand into story and memoir-  mostly morbid explorations of my own social awkwardness, really. I wrote and read Sassy magazine and learned about zine culture but also wore a lot of makeup and spent tons of time trying to perfect a high bun, dark lipstick, and brown suede granny boots look with the hopes of resembling a young Veronica Webb.

But I was also studying African and African-American history in school and putting together an assembly on MLK’s more radical writings for the school with my friends and discussing academic tracking in our school district with my aunt who was a community activist, and at this point on the school board. I was beginning to get a sense of academic and community agency and thought that this would all continue in college, and that I would magically continue writing and become an academic scholar.

I think a lot of that changed when I actually got to college because, while I enjoyed my courses, really my most fascinating, juicy, and creative discussions happened outside the classroom to the point where I barely wanted to go to class anymore. My mother’s illness happened. A boy who played, “Love you, love you not” happened. Depression happened. And then the political fault lines in my mind happened as well, I think. It wasn’t conscious but a part of me began to think that if you wanted to make change, you needed to roll your sleeves up, join the rest of the world, and get dirty. So I joined an alternative teaching certification program and did just that.

But always, it comes back to writing. I just found a quote by Stephen King, or I should say it just found me on my Facebook newsfeed, where he says, “Writing is not life but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” Whenever I have most needed my sanity, when teaching, especially in the South Bronx and later in Brooklyn, threatened to grind me down writing has been there. My only mistake was that I thought that I needed to be accepted into an M.F.A. program in order to pursue it. Not that an M.F.A can’t be valuable and perhaps one day I will want that level of singleminded devotion in a community of fellow writers but that attitude stalled me, in a BIG way. Not having enough money stalled me. Not getting into a program nearly broke me. I walked away semi-determined to get this writing thing out of my blood. But that’s the funny thing about teaching- kids will always let you know when you’re letting yourself down and (just maybe) being a hypocrite by telling them to work hard and follow their dreams and you don’t do the same.

Which brings me to the whole hacking your own education thing. I recently heard about Dale Stephens and his Unschooling movement where the thinking is you can educate yourself to know and do most of what you need to change the world and I knew it was something that I needed. Yes,  I do think that some of the philosophy comes from a privileged place (most of these folks who espouse the whole no college lifestyle come from at least a middle-class background) but I think there are lessons there for someone like me who was always most successful in school. I thrived on its atmosphere of class discussion and teacher-dictated deadlines and realize that I often flail without those restrictions. I needed the grades, the gold stars, and the verbal praise in order to motivate myself to pursue my passions. With teaching, that kind of happened with evaluations and student attention span and outcomes. But tying my self-worth to other people’s growth and learning has its disadvantages- and when coupled with high stakes test scores, it’s been a relative drain on my creativity.

So, recently, I’ve been regrouping; gathering all my resources, be it books or wine, and working on creating order in my family’s small home, organizing a creative space, and scheduling short blocks of time. Today, I was able to write two pages of my manuscript-  My goal is to write five chapters by the end of this semester. So begins my journey…

Which brings me to what this all has to do with Voyaj. Well, it is not just about travel writing, it is now my “Unschooling” university- because I kind of need deadlines, and assignments, and gold stars. I’ll settle for myself as teacher for now.


Sunset in Memory of Ma tante Danielle

28 Dec

Sunset in Memory of Ma tante Danielle

My aunt Danielle was, and continues to be, my inspiration both personally and professionally. Her commitment to children’s education, her contributions to chemistry, and her amazing chicken stew with cashews will always be remembered.

And, of course, she is responsible for my Aznavour addiction.
This photo was taken by the West Side highway the day before she passed away…    I will always love you.


Battery Park City, 2006

28 Dec

Battery Park City, 2006

A quote I want to frame for the wall…

Dreaming of Cape Cod…

7 Aug

The second half of summer usually finds me dreaming about places where I can unwind and relax under a cerulean sky with either the ocean or a mountain view for company. And this summer is no different. Right now, I’m reminiscing about my last trip to Cape Cod. It was a hastily planned affair, and my husband and I accompanied two of our friends to stay at a parents’ small cottage. We loved the narrow streets, the lobster rolls, and the view of seals in the distance when we went to a small, slightly pebbly beach nearby. We loved the feeling that there was nothing that we needed to do and no place where we really needed to be. I could easily see myself spending three (or more) lazy weeks hanging out by the ocean, biking, writing, and just catching my breath and really enjoying my family.

Now, if I only had a few days or just one week to spare I’d love to spend it at a place like Brewster by the Sea: Cape Cod Inn and Spa….

With a few weeks on our hands, I would love to do a rental or maybe take the ferry out to Martha’s Vineyard to see what all the fuss is about.

What about you, readers? What would be your ideal vacation spot for strict relaxation and escape? Do you have a place like this where you return to, year after year?

Bon Voyaj!

The Traditional Honeymoon: Planning the European Adventure

7 Aug

Readers, it’s been a while…


But lately, I’ve been thinking about wedding traditions past and present. One that I would love to revisit is the concept of the honeymoon. Apparently, when the tradition began generations ago it was a way to visit all of the far-flung relatives of the bride and groom who couldn’t make it to the wedding.

It would be great to re-imagine this tradition for couples who’ve already gotten married and maybe have a child they would love to present to family. This kind of trip could be a great mix of staying with family and/or any combination of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and/or rental apartments.

My husband and I have been talking about this idea constantly and we’ve settled on a European tour- it could easily be an extremely expensive trip for us; however, having family in France, Belgium, and England along with some friends in Germany make this a perfect choice!

Even though it’s not the most romantic, secluded journey it would certainly be an interesting one- experiencing Europe from a decidedly Congolese and Francophone point of view and learning more about cousins, aunts, and uncles – some who I haven’t seen in over twenty years. It is also a time to reflect- on a hazy time I barely remember, when my mother packed up my sister and I, taking us first to the Congo where we spent lazy days going to market on my aunt’s back and watching the red disk of the sun dip into the horizon. Then our next destination was Belgium with its tiny compact streets and french fries that you dip in mayonnaise. Then to Paris, which we visited a few years ago but can’t get enough of with possible side trips to the Loire Valley, or Provence, or the quiet Germanic romance of Strasbourg where my father saw his first westerns and my aunts attended school. I imagine myself with a notebook in hand while my husband pushes the stroller, working on the novel based on my family’s history.

Destination: England, France, and possibly Germany or Switzerland

My favorite new travel blog…Tewfic El-Sawiy: The Travel Photographer

6 Oct

It’s getting colder and darker and I’m out of breath.

So I turn the computer on at home after a long day teaching the breathtaking film “Water” by Deepa Mehta. (You have to see it, highly recommended) I click on one of my old bookmarks that I’ve long forgotten about and find this gorgeous website from a man who photographs endangered cultures primarily in India, Bali, East Africa, and Bhutan. Part of his work is taking aspiring photographers on photo expeditions- some on the streets of Kolkata, others to Kerala to witness and document Katha’kali dance-dramas. There are also photo galleries- one that caught my eye featured a photograph of African Sufi Siddis. Click here and feel transported…

BBC Travel Slideshow: The Way of St. James

30 Sep

This is a really beautiful piece done over at BBC, one of my favorite websites for travel, chronicling the pilgrim’s journey of “The Way of St. James” in non-touristy northern Spain. The breathtaking photographs were taken by Matt Munro.

BBC Slideshow: The Way of St. James