The first-time TMI Project true storytelling workshop experience that got me hooked

“Remember, I’m not only the Hair Club President, but I’m also a client.”

– Sy Sperling, President, Hair Club for Men

 

My colleague Micah Blumenthal recently reminded me that TMI Project Workshop Leaders are like that beloved 1980’s cable ad about the Hair Club for Men: we are not just facilitators, we are also clients. We all have first-time true storytelling workshop experiences that got us hooked.

In October 2016 I was embracing my new home in Kingston, but the sadnesses of my life had piled up inside me, and it was getting harder to carry them around. With only a vague idea of “making more time for writing,” I signed up for the free 10-week TMI Project true storytelling workshop at The Mental Health Association in Ulster County (MHA).

It was a motley crew including TMI Project storytellers Morris Bassik, Beth Broun and Barbara Stemki. For weeks our workshop leaders Eva Tenuto and Sari Botton led us in timed writing exercises designed to help us bypass our “inner editors.”  We read them out loud to each other, first tentatively and then boldly. There were stories about schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, familial rejection, and other heartbreaks. I remember laughing a lot. Collectively we were a group who had earned the right to find humor in our scars. And so we did.

When I began to unearth my own stories — of struggling with drugs, my relationship with my mother and my husband’s battle with cancer — they seemed to transmogrify from traumatic experiences that made me feel shame and sadness to open source content, the property of the universe and no longer mine to bear alone. Once tragic tales were like former toxic roommates, no longer hostile occupiers of my personal space. And lo and behold tragedy + time = comedy! I felt lighter. It was the beginning of a subtle and steady shift in my life.

In the workshops I have since facilitated I have realized I’m not alone in this transformation. Here are four things to expect when you take a TMI Project true storytelling workshop at MHA:

  1. YOU BREAK THE JACOB MARLEY CHAINS THAT BIND YOU

My co-workshop leader Dara Lurie and I are now midway through teaching our fourth workshop at MHA. It’s an important turning point for participants. Themes emerge like photographs in darkroom fluid. Participants begin to see the story they want to tell. By the end, it’s like we’ve been to sleepaway camp together.  

At the start of the workshops, many people come in carrying their stories like the “ponderous chain” that Charles Dickens character Jacob Marley. Granted, Jacob Marley was fictional and a ghost and we are real and alive, but we are often weighed down by invisible chains wrought from the traumas of our lives: abuse, illness, addiction, and death. But to submit to the process is to court the possibility of the psychic unburdening of at least one story that you’ve locked away because it felt like “too much information.”

  1. YOU DESTIGMATIZE MENTAL ILLNESS LIKE A F*&%@# BOSS

In 2016 I wasn’t focused on the issue TMI Project and MHA are addressing – destigmatizing mental illness through storytelling. I just wanted and needed to unload the million jumbled stories festering inside me; I definitely had my own ponderous chain. But when I settled in and looked around I realized that I was surrounded by a dazzling mix of people who are just like me.

At the time of my first workshop, I didn’t “identify” as a person with mental illness, which is kind of funny because my entire adolescent and adult life have been defined by therapy, medication, suicidal ideation, and one hospitalization.I have since come to appreciate my propensities and even embrace them as a kind of low wattage superpower.

  1. YOU AREN’T BORED, EVEN FOR A SECOND

I remember reading an interview with Mia Farrow in which she said she doesn’t believe anybody should ever be bored. I thought, “Oh my god, what the hell are you talking about, Mia Farrow?”

I am bored a lot – at the gym, at work, grocery shopping, walking MishiMish, my special needs chihuahua — and I don’t need Mia Farrow judging me for that.

But the two hours a week I spend around the big conference table under those unforgiving fluorescent lights at MHA are always a respite. Not for a moment am I even thinking about checking my phone. I am ALL IN. It’s that way for everybody. As others read our bodies are still, like monuments to active listening. We are rooting for each other as we tug and pull our stories from down deep. And together we turn all that raw material into something profound. We’re not bored because the stories are so damn good.

  1. YOU ARE A PART OF A CRAZY, BANANA CRACKERS AMAZING LIVE PERFORMANCE AND YOU CAN INVITE YOUR FRIENDS

There’s a reason that TMI Project true storytelling performances always culminate in an enthusiastic standing ovation. In the cafeteria of MHA with the tables pushed aside at two in the afternoon on a Thursday, the audience – and you – will laugh, cry, and experience more gratifying, cathartic, soul cleansing, rush of human connectedness and this-is-what-we’re-here-for-edness than at any hit Broadway show in the front orchestra seats.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s better than Hamilton. Did I mention that it’s free?

You can join me and TMI Project at the next True Storytelling Performance @ MHA on Thursday, May 9th.

thu09may2:00 pmthu4:00 pmTrue Storytelling @ MHAClick Here for Details2:00 pm - 4:00 pm MHA Clifford Beers Center, 300 Aaron Ct. Kingston, NYEvent Type :Performances

 

– Hayley Downs, TMI Project Workshop Leader

 

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Annoying Expressions

When I was a teenager/young adult, a common expression when one was astounded or upset with news was “You’re kidding me!” Meaning, that’s crazy or horrible or wow, I can’t believe that happened. I used it all the time. It … Continue reading
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Black Stories Matter workshop leader Dara Lurie takes us inside an intergenerational storytelling workshop

TMI Project’s Intergenerational Black Stories Matter Workshop took place on February 17th, a brisk, beautiful Sunday afternoon, at the A.J. Meyers-Williams African Roots Library in the historic Ponckhokie Kingston neighborhood.

Turnout was exceptional – there were 17 participants ranging in ages from the youngest at 14 to the eldest being as library director, Odell Winfield, put it, ‘of the ‘50’s generation.’

My co-facilitator, Micah Blumenthal, and I sat in the middle of the long table constructed of 3 or more tables placed end to end. Just as we were about to get started, Shawaine Davis, one of the Black Stories Matter Storytellers from Kingston High School arrived with several friends.

In 2018, the original cast of Black Stories Matter, myself included, performed for all 2,000 Kingston High School students. Hearing our stories inspired Shawaine, along with eight other students to participate in the first-ever teen version of a Black Stories Matter workshop culminating in a performance at the Kingston High School.  

Shawaine was not particularly outspoken when she showed up to her first workshop session last year but she was determined to tell her story. And tell her story she did, with a vengeance.  

The first line of Shawaine’s story reads:

‘Lord give me patience because if you give me strength, there’s no telling what I might do,’

and it only gets better from there.

On this afternoon nearly a year later, Shawaine strode into the library with an air of purpose.  Having been through the process of finding and telling her story, she seemed to be encouraging her friends to do the same. They all took seats at the far end of the table and quickly settled in.

Micah outlined the idea of the workshop – that black stories come in all shapes and sizes – they are as varied and diverse as the people who embody them. “If you’re a black person writing about learning to tie your shoelaces, that’s a black story,” Micah joked. The truth underlying his joke is that we are all ready to expand beyond the ‘stock’ or expected stories of blackness that always define us in terms of struggle and oppression. It’s time to uncover the beautiful, complex and surprising counter-stories of black American creativity and resilience.  

And that’s what everyone at this table had come to do, explore the real stories from their lives, listen to the stories of others around the table and learn something new about their own perspective.

The 14 –17 and 20-something crowd was seated to my left, with the age gradually rising into the 30’s, 40’s and beyond at the other end of the table. True inter-generational representation.

As we do in all TMI project workshops, we offered prompts to help participants focus their thoughts. Some of the prompts offered for this workshop included:   

How racism has affected your self-esteem, social status, physical or mental health.

Another prompt:

What you love about being black and/ or black culture.

Some used the prompts and others wrote freestyle about an experience that had profoundly shaped their life.  

Patterns emerged from diverse stories. One young man wrote that despite his experiences of being bullied in school, he continues to value himself, knowing that he is someone who has a lot of love to give. He also affirmed his determination to sharpen his basketball game.

Another participant, also a student at the Kingston High School, addressed a person who has bullied her, writing: ‘Go ruin someone else’s day, boo boo…’

At the other end of the table, a woman wrote about bullying that she’s experienced working in the corporate world. This kind of bullying came in more subtle forms of disrespect from colleagues that worsened as she gained greater power within the organization.

Yet another participant wrote about the challenges of parenting biracial children.

We had time for two rounds of writing and sharing. Three or four participants raised a hand to read something out loud during each of these segments. We reminded everyone of a TMI workshop rule: No negative preamble. This sets a tone and an understanding that we are all there, taking turns as writers and audience, to affirm, support and encourage each other in this amazing process of discovering our true stories.

At one point during the workshop, looking in either direction, I felt that I was seeing a beautiful landscape of the faces and stories assembled at the table. These two hours felt like a sacred moment.  It occurred to me that each person at the table had come to add their piece to a collective history that is just now beginning to be written.

I thought about the experiences the Kingston High School students wrote and shared in workshop – stories of being told ‘you don’t speak black’ or ‘you don’t act black,’ stories about being judged for their hair or complexion, constantly being reminded that as a black person you are always under a critical white gaze. I remembered my amazement, realizing that in the four decades since my own teen years, racism really hasn’t changed at all.

As Audre Lorde wrote:

‘At a quarter to eight Mean Time, we were telling the same stories, over and over and over…’

Or, maybe something is changing. When I was their age, no one asked me what it felt like growing up as a biracial person. I had no one to speak with about my experiences.  These students were not only able to articulate their stories, but they also got up on stage and told their stories. And they weren’t alone. They were part of a group of storytellers each one risking vulnerability to bring their truth to light.  

Something I know from my own life is that black people are a diverse & resilient people. With a little bit of space and encouragement to tell our stories, we’ll make them better, clearer and more powerful as we bring them into resonance with a collective understanding that’s emerging.

At one point in the workshop, one of the participants took a deep breath and began ‘What happened was….

In the same instant, Micah and I looked at each other with big smiles.

We knew we had just found another prompt!

 

– Dara Lurie, TMI Project Workshop Facilitator

 

Bring a Black Stories Matter storytelling performance to your organization, community group or home by hosting a viewing party. Fill-out our form to access our Stories from Across Generations Viewing and Discussion Guide.

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A Version of “A Star is Born” that Could Have Won Best Picture

(This has all the spoilers if you want to watch the movie that Bradley Cooper made.)

Basically all of my feelings about “A Star is Born” (2018) can be summed up by this now much-repeated piece of lore about the two stars’ first meeting, here rehearsed in the LA Times:

She walked downstairs and there he was, staring at her. He stepped toward her, examined her face: concealer, mascara, rouge.

“Take it off,” Bradley Cooper told Lady Gaga.

She noticed something in his hand. It was a makeup wipe. With it, he erased the colors from her forehead down to her chin.

This is the woman Cooper wanted in his film, “A Star Is Born.” Not the pop star masked with face paint and headdresses and hairpieces. Just Stefani Germanotta. “Completely open,” he said. “No artifice.”

It’s impossible for me to stop obsessively imagining this scene and trying to understand how anyone could have kept a straight face during such an encounter. But if you do imagine them both stony, it becomes unbearably creepy. Really imagine it. She comes down this giant white stair case and he takes her exquisitely made-up face into his hand and then pulls a makeup wipe out of nowhere like an illusionist and wipes her down with deep, purposeful strokes. He is still holding her face when he says, aloud, staring directly into her eyes, “no artifice.” If I even witnessed that, live, I think I’d probably have enough of a nervous system response to be able to use my bare hands to tunnel through the floor to safety.

Now that you know how I feel, I can tell you about a far better version of “A Star is Born,” which I was richly imagining as the actual version of “A Star is Born” was reminding me at every turn of the Pygmalion of convenience beauty products at its helm. As many critics noted, Bradley Cooper’s version is great for Bradley Cooper, but that version turns the fabulously talented Lady Gaga into a canvas for his vision, when what the people of America and maybe even The Academy but most certainly I needed far more this year was a female-authored anti-capitalist rock fable about two artists in a healthy relationship who inspire one another’s work in a sustainable way — with more Sam Elliott and more dogs.

More Sam Elliott

I think everything was pretty much fine right up until Jackson peed himself onstage, outside of the fact that in my version he never, ever calls her ugly and is approximately 25% less of a drunk. Like, a deeply problematic drunk but not a pass-out drunk or a bad-in-bed drunk or a mean drunk and certainly not a pee-yourself drunk.

So, instead of his drunkenness landing him in rehab, the central conflict is a rift that grows between them after her Saturday Night Live performance because he’s no longer on board with the aesthetic quality of her music. (It does seem for a fleeting moment that this is where the film, itself, actually wants to go.) Jackson sees Ally as a beautiful singer-songwriter who’s been swallowed by the pop machine. His career starts tanking because of his drinking and lack of inspiration from the genius of his partner/colleague, who stops writing her own music, focusing on new perfume and clothing lines. They drift further and further apart but never cheat on one another, merely dwell in this place of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction that can still gratify Director Cooper’s taste for moody close-ups.

Then there’s some time spent with the Jackson-and-his-big-brother/ manager plot instead of quick allusions to their fragile masculinity; let’s dwell there. This has the considerable advantage of more Sam Elliott. In my “A Star is Born,” Sam Elliott’s character is the one whose substance abuse problem is really out of control. He confesses to Jackson that he’s mismanaged his career by making terrible, jealous decisions and now feels responsible for its death. The brothers spend a week at a remote ranch to try to reconnect, and Jackson thinks it’s going well. (Maybe there’s some romantic landscape stuff where they see a herd of buffalo stampeding from a ridge where they’ve stopped with the dogs to admire the sunset.) The next morning, Sam Elliott shoots himself. HE dies.

More Buffalo

Ally goes to Jackson’s side to be there for him after closing a few big deals like a boss despite her deep distaste for such work. They spend some time with his remaining family: his older half-sister, played by Maya Rudolph or Laura Dern, her wise-child punky teenage daughter with whom Allie deeply bonds, and her nine-year-old son, who is like a miniature Sam Elliott with no mustache. Or maybe he does have a mustache. Also more adorable dogs. One night, they sit around the campfire trading memories and Ally and Jackson get out their guitars and jam until sunrise, then rekindle their romance in another companion landscape shot after the family has been long in bed. After that, they go out to a local bar and play a surprise show there, just the two of them, all new songs, all acoustic.

[Montage of them going from bar to bar, playing like this and staying in motels. There’s a pillow fight and skinny-dipping and jamming with local session musicians and buskers in different locations across rural America. Simultaneously, and this is a very important part of this version, Ally gains a lot of weight throughout the course of the montage. She still looks great, maybe even better, and the weight gain is never commented on in any direct way nor does it have any bearing on the plot. That’s just how the passage of time is marked instead of the new-hair-do trick they usually use.]

At the end of the montage, they’re in their house in LA and she’s answering all the calls from her team, who are freaking out about her prolonged absence. She’s increasingly frustrated and picks a fight with Jackson that ends with him saying “I fell in love with a woman who left everything she had on the stage. Who sang every note that came out of her mouth straight from her heart. That’s just not you anymore.” Then he drives away, an early track of hers blaring from his truck radio. He takes the dogs.

Now she’s on tour singing all the horrible songs her Adam-Levine-looking crew are forcing down her throat, half-naked dancers constantly swarming around her, uncomfortable in bejeweled spandex cat suits, business meetings all day with chain stores, etc., etc. One desperate night, she calls him and asks him to come to her show the next night. He looks down at the sculpture of an eagle he’s carving from some beautifully burled wood (new hobby, his music career is all dried up again without her) and then gazes out to the backyard where he imagines her frolicking with the dogs, who are mopey in her absence. He decides to go. Then, she does the thing to him that he did to her in the beginning of the actual movie, where she has her people take him to just right off stage then she pulls two acoustic guitars out of nowhere and coaxes him to sing their road-trip songs together on stage.

More Weight Gain

Ally’s team starts freaking out. Lots of angry late millennials on headsets. What is this? This stadium crowd paid for Ally TM. They’ll never go for Ally & Jackson Unplugged! BUT THEY DO. The crowd goes wild and everyone starts crying and holding one another and Bernie is there and so is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. The song they’re playing is so good you can’t believe it’s really Bradley Cooper singing then you realize it’s only her: Stefani Germonotta, completely open, no artifice – on her own terms. He’s on backup guitar mostly with some light vocal accompaniment.

The last twenty minutes of this version is just them blowing it up on the road with their dogs as an acoustic duo who write their own songs and she falls in love with music again and they get more dogs. She’s still fat and sexy through it all and he’s fine now, too: more sober, less orange in skin tone. Baby Sam Elliott comes to see them play and he’s all grown up and played by Sam Elliott. Lastly, in this version, the song “Shallow” doesn’t have that part where it goes “sha la la la laaa low;” that is all.

Arielle Zibrak: Will probably never see Green Book.

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Black Stories Matter goes National with its First-ever Intergenerational Performance

“Black Stories Matter reinforced that we can see one another’s humanity through stories and conversation. It was incredible connecting, loving, humanizing. Inspiring!”  – Abe Young

Last Saturday’s first-ever intergenerational performance of Black Stories Matter was powerful and transformative. With nearly 400 audience members at The Pointe Church in Kingston, NY and over 1,000 live stream views, we are thrilled to report that we’re reaching more communities than ever with these important and timely stories.


In addition, 10 groups from the Hudson Valley and around the country (National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio, Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, Art Peacemakers in MA, Showing Up for Racial Justice in Eugene, OR and more) joined us by hosting live stream viewing parties!

Special thanks to our workshop leaders Micah Blumenthal and Dara Lurie, our brave and bold storytellers for sharing their truths, and to Radio Kingston for making Black Stories Matter accessible to all via live stream.

“We read stories, articles, the news, books about racism, but nothing makes these issues real like people sharing their stories.” – Amanda Sisenstein


Bring the stories and conversation to your org, school, or party by signing up as a host. The live streamed Black Stories Matter: Stories from Across Generations performance and Q & A as well as our Viewing & Discussion Guide are available on demand.

 

 

 

Click here to watch the recorded live stream on Facebook anytime

 

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Black Stories Matter is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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The Hard to Love Playlist

It’s hard to love, and hard to be loved. Romantic love in particular is famously hard. This Valentine’s Day, two of my friends are going through divorces; other friends are wondering whether they should give up on their romantic relationships, or whether they have in fact already given up; one friend is worrying whether their asexuality means they’ll never find a romantic relationship in the first place; many of us are exhausted by the mere idea of online dating, let alone the practice of it; and one person (me) is still trying to live down the awkwardness of buying a drink for a stranger at my local bar right before his girlfriend showed up.

What I’m saying is: You may need a Hard to Love playlist this Valentine’s Day. I got you.

1: For When You’ve Been in a Bad Relationship for a Long Time, and You’re Finally at the Point Where You’re Ready to Say All the Things You’ve Been too Scared to Say in Couple’s Therapy, So You Decide to Yell Them at the Top of Your Lungs and then Drop the Mic

* Etta James, “I Don’t Want It

2: For When You Really Like the Person You’re Dating, and You’ve Been Together for a While, but You’re Just not Ready to Cohabitate for Reasons You Don’t Fully Understand and Can’t Adequately Articulate

* Dusty Springfield, “Live Here With You”

For When No One Can Understand What You See in this Person, Not Even You, but the Sex is Good

* Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, “You’ve Got What It Takes”
(see also: Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong, “Sweet Hunk o’ Trash”)

For When You Have Serious Insomnia Which You Kind of Bring Upon Yourself because of Your Unhealthy Caffeination Habits, but It’s Also the Fault of Your Terrible Romantic Situation

* Peggy Lee, “Black Coffee”

(Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rosemary Clooney also have good versions. Melody by the great Mary Lou Williams!)

For When You’re Realizing that It’s Time to Break Up With Your Boyfriend Because You’re Actually Into Women

* Bananarama, “Na Na Hey Hey”

 

For When You’re Trying to Mask Your Aching, Full-Body Loneliness as Insouciance

* Barbara Cook, “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me”

For When You’re Trying Your Damndest to Sublimate
* Leroy Anderson, “The Typewriter”

For When You Feel So Funny, and You Feel So Sad, So You Decide to Head to Your Local Bar and Buy a Drink for a Stranger and Hope He Doesn’t Have a Girlfriend Who’s Just About to Show Up

 * Nina Simone, “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”

For When You Realize the Depth of Your Resistance to Certain Kinds of Vulnerability, and Wonder if You’re Too Old to Change

* Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone”

For When You’re So Overwhelmed You Can Barely Summon the Strength to Open the Spotify App, but You Desperately Need to Listen to Some Kind of Soaring Soul Anthem that Will Repeatedly Remind You to Call a Friend

* Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”

For more about breakups, online dating, “Lean on Me,” and “Black Coffee,” read my new book, Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, out this month.

 

Briallen Hopper: Raised by well-intentioned wolves.

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A Conversation with TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter Workshop Leaders Micah Blumenthal and Dara Lurie

TMI Project staff recently read Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. Why do you think race is such a tricky topic?

M: The concept of race is one of the greatest tricks that we’ve ever fallen for. It was designed to make sure the minority who had power kept that power. If all poor people realize how much they have in common, the power structure will change. Racism was created to say to the poor, white person, “Hey, you’re better than those black people.” It’s based on economics and power. And so the whole thing unravels if you talk about it. Not just race as a system of oppression, but all power structures unravel if you tease out this question of, “Who has power and why?”

D: If you’re black or a person of color, it’s not hard to talk about it. That is all we ever think and talk about to ourselves. “What the f**k is going on?” is what we’ve been saying as long as I’ve been around. It’s that secret conversation you have among other people of color or with a few trusted white friends. But it’s not something you ever bring out into the wider discourse.  Because the conversation always devolves into, “Who pays for things? I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I be responsible?”

Above: TMI Project Workshop Leaders Micah Blumenthal and Dara Lurie teaching a Black Stories Matter workshop to students at Kingston High School.

In your opinion, how can we use initiatives like Black Stories Matter to tackle systemic racism within our systems of power? Aka: How can we take something that’s so emotionally-charged and turn it into policy change?

D: I’m reading the book My Grandmother’s Hands right now. The author Resmaa Menakem is a somatic therapist, and he talks about the trauma that was “blown into the African bodies by the white colonizers and slave owners.” But also the trauma that white refugees from Europe brought with them. They brought punitive systems from England where people were taken to the gallows, lynched and flogged. This unmetabolized trauma was held within the European settlers who then blew it into enslaved Africans. Menakem says the solution to systemic racism is within the body. That resonates with me. It needs to be felt in the body – and storytelling is one way we reach that understanding.

M: I understand the desire to answer questions like, “What more can we do? What are the next steps?” But the simple power of saying “Black Stories Matter” should not be underestimated. I was talking about it with my son [Gopal Harrington] today because he’s going to read at the Stories from Across Generations show on February 16th, and he said, “My story’s not a black story.” And I said, “You’re black. And you have a story. Therefore, it matters.” That’s what we mean when we say “Black Stories Matter.” We’re saying, “Here’s my black story, here’s how I was impacted by race, here’s what a racist said to me.” It doesn’t matter if your story is about tying your shoes. Your story matters because you’re alive and all black stories matter.

D: The statement “Black Stories Matter” is a statement that nobody’s saying because history has told us that black stories don’t matter. And we’ve all believed it.

M: We all think, “Nobody wants to hear my story.” White. Black. Whatever. But there’s that extra layer for those of us who are black. We recently had to change venues for Stories Across Generations to accommodate more audience members due to demand. So a bunch of white people are effectively saying, “We do want to hear black stories because Black Stories Matter.” We’re changing the narrative, and it’s hard to believe that all these people actually want to come out and hear us tell our black stories. That shit blows my mind.

I read this article the other day, “All black stories matter, not just ones in struggle,” and this resounds so much with what you’re talking about.

D: We’re not looking to tell stock stories of blackness. That’s been done enough.

M: What it boils down to is this: I don’t know the full answer to your question. We should be holding it loosely anyway. TMI Project is naturally evolving. We’re working with high school students, we’re going digital, we’re expanding. If the issue at hand is how we share power, relinquish power, take power, then we’re doing it right because we are collectively figuring out how to share this power and where the Black Stories Matter initiative organically goes next.

 

This just makes me wonder: what can participants expect of the upcoming Black Stories Matter storytelling workshop on February 17th (the day after Stories from Across Generations)?

D: TMI Project has a really strong methodology and approach to helping people find where their stories are hiding. Some people come in with ideas, and that might be part of the puzzle, but with the writing prompts and exploration, they figure out the rest. Don’t expect to know your story when you first arrive. The workshop opens pathways for people to find their stories, whether they’re coming from a sense of knowing, a sense of curiosity or a sense of yearning.

M: There are a wide range and breadth of stories, not just ones of struggle. At its heart is the fact that all people who aren’t white men have, in some way or shape or form, at some point, been made to feel less than human. It’s important that we connect to the parts of people’s stories that are human and universal. For black people taking this workshop, they can expect to experience a methodology that will help them tell their story. Whatever it is. Because most of our stories are wrapped up in shame, fear–

D: –anger, and guilt–

M: — and guilt. It helps to have somebody else hold a space for you so you can get your story out there. And black people, especially those in the Hudson Valley, don’t have that many spaces. So this workshop will be that space.

 

Black Stories Matter Storytelling Workshop

Sunday, February 17th, 1pm – 3pm

The Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center

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Queer Aunt Beast

“So, what are they going to call you?” a friend asks, when I announce I’m pregnant with twin boys. I’m gay, long-partnered, and facing the common dilemma of same-sex couples about to become parents–two moms can’t both be “mommy.” But neither “Mommy” nor “Mama” feels quite right. What pops into my mind instead is a name I’d long forgotten, from a book I loved as a child: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. What they’ll call me, I decide, with an odd little rush of conviction, is “Aunt Beast.”

Don’t you remember “Aunt Beast”? She’s the strange, maternal creature who nurses Meg Murry back to health after she nearly dies escaping from the dark planet Camazotz. Meg’s brilliant but absent-minded scientist father has tried unsuccessfully to “tesser” back to Earth—to travel across space-time by “wrinkling” it. An injured Meg lands with her father and Calvin on the wrong planet, where, luckily, Aunt Beast is there to help. With four arms and more than five tentacle-like fingers on each hand, a body covered with fine hair, and soft indentations in place of eyes, nose, and ears, she is gentleness and love incarnate, Under her loving care, Meg is able to accept her mission to rescue her little brother Charles Wallace, and to return safely to earth at the novel’s end.

Despite her pivotal role in the book, you won’t find Aunt Beast in Ava Du Vernay’s filmic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. According to the screenwriter, the character gives away the “answer” too early for the exigencies of filmic storytelling, so she was cut from the final version. Storm Reid’s steely and vulnerable Meg has to realize her mission, and her inner strength, largely on her own.

Yet there’s something else, I think, that led to Aunt Beast’s omission from the film. Aunt Beast isn’t really a “she,” or, at least, we can’t be sure. Calvin mumbles uncertainly “How do you do, sir—ma’am—“? at their first meeting, and the narrator refers to Aunt Beast later as “it” and “the beast.” And when Meg begins to recover and asks “What should I call you, please?,” Aunt Beast telepathically searches Meg’s mind for an appropriate phrase, one adequate to the child’s feelings for her. She rejects both “mother” and “father” (as well as “funny” “hard” words like acquaintance, and “horrid” ones such as monster). Finally, she settles on “Aunt Beast” as the closest approximation.

Yet Aunt Beast is every inch a mother, as most people would describe one. “You must be as an infant again,” she tells Meg, as she sings indescribably beautiful songs to her, feeds her delicious food, and bathes, dresses and wraps her in the softest clothes. Later, as Meg’s physical strength returns, Aunt Beast helps her to gain emotional strength, as movingly demonstrated in the scene where Meg accepts her mission, after “beating at Aunt Beast like a small child having a tantrum.”

Like a mother who responds calmly to a toddler’s public meltdown, Aunt Beast can withstand Meg’s aggression, helping her to acquire what Mrs. Whatsit calls “grace.” L’Engle means us to hear the Christian resonance—God’s love and mercy—but she clearly also means us to understand “grace” in a secular way. “Grace” might be described, here, as the child’s ability to separate, and the mother’s to let go, with warmth rather than rejection and hurt feelings. “Grace” is to stand in a loving relationship to oneself and others.

Meg’s need for this substitute mother who can withstand her assaults and help her to separate and grow might raise some questions about her own mother.  Was Mrs. Murray not “good enough,” in the Winnicottian phrase, or, given the early sixties’ associations of mothering and working women, was she cold and withholding?  Nope. Not the least of L’Engle’s achievements in the novel is to make Mrs. Murray a scientist who is every bit as loving and warm as Meg needs her to be, although a bit distracted by the disappearance of her husband. L’Engle wants to show that being a woman, a mother, and a scientist are fully compatible.

Aunt Beast is something else. Not a substitute mother, exactly, but a supplement, something for which there is no name, and for which all existing names are approximations. She seems to live underground, moving about in shadowy halls, in groups rather than couples; her gender is incoherent, so much so that she doesn’t seem to see gender in others. Think of your pre-Stonewall aunt and her “roommate” at Thanksgiving dinner, or the Stonewall itself, and other dimly-lit, yet warm and welcoming queer spaces circa 1962  Think also of the near non-human status ascribed to those aunts and queer revelers by the outside, surface world, and sometimes by their own families, to whom they seemed to inhabit another planet. Think, finally, of the way that Aunt Beast seems to be all fingers and waving tentacles, and how, when she first reaches out to touch Meg’s face, the latter feels initially only “utter loathing and revulsion,” but, then, a “soft, tingling warmth” that goes all through her.

Aunt Beast is queer.

This is not to say that she is gay, or Meg is. But it is also not to say that Meg or anyone else in the book isn’t gay. In emphasizing the Meg-Calvin romance so extensively, perhaps L’Engle protests too much. Meg tells her father that “mother was always pushing me out in the world,” urging her, perhaps, to gravitate towards him, and we all know where that can get you. The precocious Charles Wallace has grown up without a father and seems to have the opposite problem–he’s now too close to his mother. And as to Mrs. Whatsit, what is she exactly?

The queerness of Aunt Beast lies less in the name that we give her, than in the way she provides a brief, passing moment out of linear time and out of Meg’s epic journey into adulthood. She suggests another, more meandering path. Think of the way that the queer aunt or uncle provides a “wrinkle” in the time of heterosexual generation, a model of how one might, with grace, skip over the externally imposed, and often wholly inadequate, milestones supposed to mark a child’s growing identity and sense of self–like boyhood and girlhood, marriage and children.

But let’s remember, too, that Aunt Beast’s gift is to help Meg decide what to call her, rather than imposing a definition of what a father or a mother are onto her. In this, she redresses a deeper problem than heterosexism or homophobia–or, more specifically, she redresses both at their root, at the moment we are “pushed” out into the world in a more literal sense. Birth creates psychic dangers, including what the child does later on with their deep knowledge of this early, infantile helplessness and vulnerability, which is the state that Meg explicitly returns to when she lands in the arms of Aunt Beast. Feelings of danger are often met with assertions of hardened defense: for example in the pernicious weapon of binary gender difference. By allowing her the creative impulse to name her own world, Aunt Beast teaches Meg that gender is a creative act that we perform together, not out of fear, but out of love.

When she was around Meg’s age, my partner met L’Engle, who signed her copy of A Wrinkle in Time with the dedication “Tesser well.” Wrinkle time, skip the milestones, let your children go slower or faster as needed, let them be a boy or a girl, or neither, or both. Let them name the world. This is what she seems, now, to be saying to both of us. Just do it well, which means, do it with love–and grace. It’s good advice for all parents, whatever they are called.

In the end, I went with “Mommy.”

–Katherine Biers is Visiting Associate Professor of English at NYU

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How To Be Single

Excerpted from Briallen Hopper’s new book of essays, Hard to Love, out February 5, 2019. Order here or, less evilly, here!

1: First, get rid of your lover, partner, fiancé, or spouse. A define-the-relationship talk is the classic way to do this, but glacially cold and slow emotional withdrawal is also effective, as are Post-Its. Emojis are efficient and expressive (peace-out, broken heart, Edvard Munch scream!). Process servers are legally binding. Ghosting is for lazy people. Poison should be attempted only if you are in an Agatha Christie story and are dying to meet Miss Marple.

2: Alternatively, you can make your significant other get rid of you. Try mysterious dick pics, unrealistic ultimatums, and a series of phantom pregnancies.

avidly marple
Miss Marple

3: Now you are single. Congratulations! The trick is to stay that way. You can start by throwing out your razor and canceling all your salon appointments.

4: Be aware that the instant you become single, everyone in the world will join in a relentless conspiracy to get you paired off. The most obvious way to thwart them is to build an indoor fort out of old newspapers and fill it with feral raccoons and refuse to leave your apartment. Do not rule this out just because it’s a cliché. It works.

5: If you can’t afford to quit your job and go full newspapers-and-raccoons just yet, you could try reconnecting with your ex. Don’t actually date them, but text them, theorize them, narrate them, hook up with them, sleep with their picture under your pillow, and write them ten-page tear-stained love letters which you send through the US Mail, walking slowly and deliberately all the way to the post office while the hand that is clutching the letter throbs as if it were full of embers. Do this for as many months or years as it takes for you to get to bored of it.

6: Your friends are going to want you to date online. It is hard to avoid online dating entirely, but there are many strategies you can use to maximize dating websites’ pre-existing propensity to perpetuate singleness in order to maintain their customer base.

The simplest way is to start with the path of least resistance and cheerily play along. Tell your friends, with a little wobble of emotion in your voice, that you’re finally ready to put yourself out there! Ask them to help you make a cool OKCupid profile. Solicit their advice about which pictures to include (smiling face from a clear-skin phase, full body pic from a restricted-eating phase, National Park selfie with a photogenic mountain!). Put a lot of thought into your answers. Be the right amount of light and the right amount of open, with an unthreatening garnish of wit and an appealing soupcon of snark. Choose favorite novels that are approachable without being clichéd. Choose favorite TV shows that are critically acclaimed and full of sex scenes. Inform the people of the internet that you’re interested in short or long-term dating, you’re cool with both cats and dogs, and you want kids someday! Act like you mean it! Then forget to log into the site for the next six months so all your data will expire before you have a chance to check your messages.

7: At some point one of your married friends will say, “Hey, whatever happened to the online dating thing? Don’t you think you should give that another try?” She may even insist that you reactivate your account, and then sit down next to you on the couch with your laptop on her lap and sift through your entire inbox looking for plausible messages, because surely they can’t ALL be bad.

There are many ways you can play this. One way is to make sure your friend reads the absolute worst messages right away and hope that she’ll be so amused by the astonishing grammatical manglings and surreal spellings that she’ll fall into helpless giggle fits and forget why she is looking at your messages in the first place.

Better yet, she’ll be so appalled by the messages’ corrosive subtext of misogyny and self-loathing that she’ll suddenly slam your laptop shut as if it is a radioactive Pandora’s box and she is trying to protect you from the horrors of the world.

8: Another way to deflect the threat of online dating is to go ahead and reply to a message from a plausible person and agree to meet them for a date. This is a bit more labor intensive, as you will in fact have to put on some nice clothes and go out into the world (only the most incorrigible single people actually stand dates up). You should be pleasant and warm during the date—you don’t want to give your friends ammunition to blame you for your own singleness. You can even go ahead and have fun! Why not? The stakes are infinitely low. Kiss the person or hook up with them. Or don’t. It’s immaterial.

After the date one of the following things will happen:

  • The person might send you a text saying it was nice meeting you but they didn’t really feel like you had chemistry.
  • Or they might go home and instantly block you.
  • Or they might subtly, gradually disappear.

In any of these cases, you’re golden!

Alternatively, the person might text you and make some kind of clever bantery allusion to some aspect of your conversation, or a flirty reference to your physical intimacies, in which case you should send them a Havisham GIF, either Helena Bonham Carter from Mike Newell’s 2012 version of Great Expectations or Martita Hunt from the 1946 David Lean version. (Anne Bancroft from the 90s version is too hot.) If your date tries to keep bantering or flirting, just keep sending Havishams until they stop.

Or your date might text you and say “Hey! I had a really nice time the other night. I’d really like to see you again.” To which you should reply, with a kind of flat, obtuse, withholding finality: “Huh. I guess that is nice of you to say.” Then delete their number from your phone, and tell your friends that they didn’t seem that interested.avidly havisham

9: Tinder is great because it doesn’t matter which way you swipe as long as you never meet anyone in person. Bumble is too much work.

10: Once you’ve mastered the internet, staying single in real life is relatively straightforward. The main thing to remember is to always gaze raptly into the middle distance, whether you’re walking down a crowded street or schmoozing at a party full of attractive people. Do not allow your vision to focus on exciting new faces or bodies! Pay attention only to people you could never imagine dating (people of an incompatible gender or sexuality or political persuasion; people who are wearing wedding rings and actually holding their partner’s hands). Let the people you might be attracted to fade into the landscape until eventually you don’t see them anymore.

11: The middle-distance gaze works beautifully for sidewalks, cocktail parties, and public transportation, but it’s a lot harder to deploy during dinner parties or at work or in other small-scale social gatherings. Sometimes an eligible person comes into focus despite your best attempts to the contrary. Sometimes you gaze at them and they remind you of nerve endings you’d forgotten you had. Sometimes you feel their attention as if it’s painting you with brushstrokes of fire. Sometimes you lie in bed and think of them and melt slowly into your mattress as if the memory foam holds the memory of all the pleasure you’ve ever known. Sometimes when you’re alone you remember something they said and laugh aloud with involuntary joy.

When this happens, it’s best to friend-zone them aggressively right away. Talk to them about your exes, your crushing student debt, your toenail fungus. Tell them that you’re planning to become a single parent any minute now through surrogacy or donor sperm. Dye your hair a steely gray and pretend that you’re old enough to be their parent (or, if you actually are that old, lean into it!), and supply them with a steady stream of patronizing unsolicited advice prefaced by “When I was your age” until they begin to squirm. You could even try to force them to listen as you tell them all about how to be single.

Briallen Hopper: Raised By Well-Intentioned Wolves.

Originally published February 11, 2016.

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Fantasies of Functional Accumulation

We’re looking at a basement. It contains all the normal basement things—tools and holiday decorations, half-empty paint cans, a kettle-style Weber grill, laundry accouterments. But it has a few abnormal touches, too. For instance, there is a talking furnace that waits with a human-like grimace at the ready, and there are three—yes, three—mannequins. The camera’s slow pan reveals one of them tucked in next to a sewing machine; the others, meanwhile, are piled up in a corner, legs and torsos severed from their pallid, plasticized busts.

This basement could be yours, or mine, except it isn’t, it’s better. It’s the McCallisters’—the beloved dysfunctional family at the center of the 1990 holiday film classic Home Alone. And, unlike most of the basements of the world, it actually adds up to something. Every item in it—from the garden hoses looped around the rafters to the steam iron sitting innocently on top of the dryer—is fated for a glorious kind of use. This is the basement that our basements dream of and look up to.

In Home Alone, director Chris Columbus famously gives us the ideal American home. Less famously, though, he also delivers on a fantasy about the ideal American basement. The fictional McCallister family’s stately house in the Chicago suburbs, which sold six years ago for a very real 1.5 million dollars, conceals a fantasyland of function and utility, where nothing ever gets wasted or goes to die and where buyer’s remorse is as unheard of as a Christmas without snow. We catch a glimpse of it early on in the film, when eight year-old Kevin, famously played by Macaulay Culkin, discovers that his family has flown to Paris without him and left him home alone. Kevin stumbles sleepily about the house in plaid pajamas, calling out the names of his many relations. His search eventually leads him to the basement, where he confronts an array of junk that appears nonetheless charged with meaning and with purpose. This is a movie, after all. Those mannequins (a fourth can yet be found upstairs in the master bedroom), they’re not allowed to be accidental. If we’re seeing them, then they must be destined for something bigger.

Indeed, as anyone who’s ever seen Home Alone knows, they are. The mannequins resurface a few scenes later, during Kevin’s staged holiday house party. In an effort to deflect the crooks who would break in and steal from his family’s vast trove of possessions, Kevin puts the mannequins to work—along with other household items—to make the house appear occupied. Two dummies are brought to life in the form card players; another is perched atop a record player and gently revolves to the tune of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan, meanwhile, traverses the room with the help of a miniature train set. But it is Kevin who is pulling the strings, Kevin who, in god-like fashion, has granted temporary life to the contents of his family’s basement. Compelled by the ropes that bind them to him, these inanimate objects wriggle and spin. They try for life, for a version of what Kevin has lost in being forgotten by his family. They try to be that family.

I return to Home Alone every year at about this time, and I am always jealous of the McCallisters’ basement, of all the ways that it means. Perhaps this is because I stand at only a slight distance away from the practice known as hoarding. There are hoarders in my family, as there are in most American families today, so I am no stranger to its logic. I have seen how, through hoarding, individual lives become despotically governed and then held hostage by someone else’s fantasies about what stuff means—what they insist it’s worth, what they think it represents, and what should be done with it.

In Home Alone, Kevin lives the modern hoarder’s Chekhovian fantasy when he puts his family’s stockpile to splendid use. Their conventionally bourgeois hoard becomes an arsenal as, in the final scenes of the film, he subjects the Wet Bandits to one homemade obstacle after another. The steam iron descends through a dumbwaiter and hits the character Marv in the face; the half-empty paint cans form a gauntlet leading up to the second floor; the Christmas tree decorations are placed beneath an open window, in anticipation of Marv’s bare feet; and, perhaps most sinister of all, the Weber grill’s electric charcoal starter is affixed to the handle of the McCallisters’ front door. When the character Harry attempts to enter that way, the heated metal leaves an Mseared into the flesh of his hand. Previously, Kevin demonstrated his prowess for converting objects into subjects, but here he succeeds in doing the opposite: he effectively brands Harry with the McCallisters’ logo, turning him into a possession and making him forever part of their hoard.

The McCallisters aren’t hoarders, though, and this is partly why we love them. Through their stuff, they lend credence to the aspirational logic of hoarding, to the thoughts of what if that nag at so many of us and cause us to stockpile and accrue, especially around the holidays. And their home isn’t a hoarder’s home: it’s bright and clean, ruthlessly laid out in a green-and-red color scheme, and well organized. There is no obsessive compulsiveness on display here, no towering stacks of old newspapers, no rotting food, no carcasses of dead cats. There’s only the story and only those things that are 100% indispensable to it.

In fact, in Home Alone, the material hoard takes precedent over its homonymic cousin, the human horde. The McCallisters’ home is amply peopled, and by a family that is so large that its individual components appear somewhat redundant. This is why Kevin gets left behind: amidst the festive fray of the holidays, the act of taking stock itself becomes impossible. In his wanderings about the empty rooms of his family’s home, human abundance gets swapped for darkness and vacuity. These two words sound the same but they do not mean the same, the movie reminds us, and we lose much when confuse them, when we become blinded by accumulation.

For those of us—and I suspect there are many—who lie awake at night contemplating the number of dumpsters that will be someday called upon in order to rid us of the hoards that we didn’t ask for but are obligated to inherit, the McCallisters’ basement is a refuge. It is a vision of well-ordered, functional accumulation, where every castoff object has a calling and a future. It is not our world, but rather a revised version of the one we have been forced to occupy. It is what I want for my own basement and for the basements of my friends and family members: utility, worth, and immortality. I can’t give them these things, so instead I give them Christmas presents and help to fill up the painful spaces and corners of their lives where the absence of these qualities is most apparent.

—Sheila Liming is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota. Her book about the writer Edith Wharton’s library is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, while another book on the cultural history of office spaces is forthcoming from Bloomsbury through its Object Lessons series. Find her on Twitter: @seeshespeak.

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