Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sex And Drugs and Rock N' Roll

What was it about the black tee shirt displayed high on the wall behind the cash register at my favorite record store that had me so smitten? There were other tee shirts to choose from, but I just had to fall in-love with the one that had the words Sex And Drugs and Rock n’ roll emblazoned in white across the front. I thought that whoever wore that tee shirt must have been the epitome of cool.

It hinted at things I knew nothing about. 

It was 1981 and the summer I turned thirteen, right before 8th grade: I was brimming with unbridled excitement and energy because I was finally allowed to begin to walk around on my own, exploring the mile distance between where I lived in Chelsea, down to the West Village where I went to elementary school.  

This was the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Royal Wedding (Charles and Diana) and when MTV made it’s debut, changing the face of popular culture for good. And I wanted to be the epitome of cool.

It was also the summer my father and I argued  about words. Yes, words.

Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

We had to have strong words between ourselves before he learned how to deliver a message and I learned how to accept it.

My father was an Episcopalian priest, and I was growing up in a seminary, a school for priests. (No wonder I was desperate and misguided in my search for “coolth”!)

From the age of ten, I spent all of my allowance and babysitting money on records and music magazines, which would provide lyrics for some popular songs. My money went to Blondie, David Bowie, Elvis Costello and the Clash. But I listened to the radio too, so I wasn’t all that discerning. I was hungry for the power of the beats and the music. And of course, the lyrics would float right over my head.

The first  argument with my Dad that summer was over the lyrics he found in a magazine to the song Urgent, by Foreigner. His irrational rant just made him sound like a punitive old fart.

I think these were the offending words:

Got fire, in your veins, burnin' hot, but you don't feel the pain
Your desire, is insane, you can't stop, until you do it again
But sometimes I wonder as I look in your eyes
That maybe you're thinking of some other guy
But I know, yes I know, how to treat you right
That's why you call me in the middle of the night
You say it's urgent, so urgent, so-oh-oh urgent...
Just you wait and see, how urgent, my love can be, it's urgent...

“What junk are you poisoning your mind with!” He railed at me and at the magazine. “Do you know what this song is about?”

I didn’t like the song that much, but I said: “They’re only words, Dad.”

“They’re only words?” My dad’s voice echoed around the room in his rage. I had finally done it. I had driven him crazy.

“It’s about mindless sex and objectifying both men and women!” 

Huh? Why was I trying to defend this song?  He grounded me from record and magazine buying so that I could think about his perspective. “Words. Matter,” he said to me very slowly, once he had calmed himself down.

I felt completely distressed and disrespected. What a jerk, I remember thinking.

Legend has it that I cried in my room for a week, trying to think up better words to Urgent, or at least trying to think about another interpretation for the lyrics. Every time I read the lyrics, they made less and less sense. My family valued imagination, and there was definitely nothing of value in these lyrics. He was right in that regard, but I didn’t want to admit it.

A few weeks later, there was a new wave/rock concert at the seminary. One of the priest’s older children had a band called The Clonetones. It was a bright day and an oddity - a rock concert had never happened on seminary property. The female singer was the coolest person I had ever seen. She was wearing a white wedding dress and had long bleached blonde hair å la Brigitte Bardot. Cat eye make-up. I wanted to be her. One of the guys in the band was wearing a Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ roll tee-shirt.

I wished that I could walk around in a white wedding dress, combat boots, bleached hair and heavy eye make-up.

But if I couldn’t go all out, I could settle for trying to dye my hair and buying that Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ roll tee shirt I coveted, couldn’t I?

I remember taking the long walk down to the Village with my sister and some friends on a beautiful, sunny day to the record store. The black tee shirt with white writing was still there and taunting me.

“Why don’t you just put yourself out of your misery and buy it?” A friend said to me. Yeah - why didn’t I?  I wanted it. I knew that my dad would freak out, but it was babysitting money - it was MY money! Fueled with excitement and self-righteousness, I made my purchase, and I wore it on top of my other clothes.

That was the one and only time I ever wore that tee shirt. 

I arrived home to a very calm father who had obviously had time to think about his own message. 

“Hey, look at my new tee shirt!” I announced to my parents who were sitting in the living room, listening to Bach.  “Isn’t it cool?” (My tack was to be up front about it.)

“No, it’s not cool,” was the response, said in a calm, almost soothing way. “Sex, drugs, and rock n’roll. What do you think you are advertising?”

I had no answer except: “I used my own money.”

“Oh dear. Then, since you used your own money, I will buy it off you.”

“But, but, but . . .” I couldn’t get any words out.

My Dad stood up. “How much was it?” He reached into his pocket.

“Ten dollars.” I was sullen, having lost the battle before it even began.

He took out a ten dollar bill. I pulled off the tee shirt.

“Words matter, Léna. What we say about ourselves matter. The words we use to represent ourselves matter.”

I handed him the tee shirt and stomped upstairs. In my embarrassment and anger, I didn’t understand what he was saying. They’re just words. What about the thing kids say to each other: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?

I knew better. I knew that words had the power to hurt, to cut deeply. I also knew that words had the power to heal. I was falling in-love with language and with storytelling myself. Did I want to tell the world that at thirteen, I was available for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll? Was that my story?

A few years later he gave the shirt back to me when I didn’t think it was cool anymore, and obviously, I never wore it then either. Instead, as a talisman of my philisophical growth and homage to my father's lesson, I cut up the tee shirt and Sex and Drugs and Rock n' roll became part of the collage I had pinned to my wall.
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The Power of Story

 I woke up yesterday morning to a friend, Lois, posting a question on my author page. She asked me to write a line or two about the power of stories, particularly family stories. A line or two? This is worthy of a book! I will humbly attempt to answer her question, although many authors far above my scope of philisophic imagination have written about this, including my favorites: Joseph Campbell, Rollo May, James Hillman, and my grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle.
Lois writes: 
Lena, I'm teaching a course called the Power of Story to my college frosh; the first unit is about family stories. Could you share a sentence or a few about the power/influence/necessity/effect of story (either crafting it or receiving it) in the life of an individual or of a culture, and/or what happens in its absence? Thanks!
Everyone loves a story, but not everyone believes that they have a story to tell. 
You do. Believe it. 
"Tell me a story about when I was a baby."
"Tell me the story about the time you and Da met."
"Tell me a story about princesses and dragons."
My children bombard me with these requests and I happily oblige, for I know that it is through story that they will understand their lives.
Story is the lens through which we see the world: is it a good one - where love and hope reign supreme, or a bad one - where evil lurking behind every corner, no-one and nothing is to be trusted. For most of us, it's somewhere in the middle.
Story helps us craft our own world view, which is passed through our culture and our families. When we tell stories, we are asking people to bear witness to our experience. Nobody can deny the healing power of being heard. Stories also make us feel like we are part of a tribe and that we matter. Without our stories, we have no road map.
I am a writer. I process the world through story and essay. I am drawn to dark material, yet I work hard to find the silver linings of hope.
And yet - we don't have to be "writers" to do this. We devour books, movies, television shows, newspapers, family lore. We rely on "story" to tell us who we are.
But what if the stories we tell ourselves lead us on a destructive path? The power of story is not only positive.
When I was a therapist, I worked with my clients on "reframing" their experiences, because the stories that they were telling themselves weren't serving them anymore. They needed, as I myself have at times needed, to rewrite the script. They needed to take control of their own narrative.
Healer, heal thyself: I used to think that my stories were boring - worst of all that my own personal story didn't deserve to be counted. The stories I was telling about myself were dangerous. I was telling myself the story that I was unlovable. That I had nothing to offer, that I had no personal power. That I couldn't cope. I was reactive, rather than proactive. The glass was half empty, even though I pretended that it was half full.
Rewriting my story has changed me. The facts remain the same, but the way I view them aren't, because I today I take responsibility for myself and for my actions.
In the end, stories are all we have.
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Author Page: Do You "Like" Me? and Other Marketing Insanities

It's been a couple of weeks of in and out illness. A real doozy. Have you been there? Five of us smashed in a house, infecting and reinfecting each other, no matter how many times we wash our hands. In fact, right now I'm home with two sick boys watching reruns of MONK and PSYCH.

What does this have to do with the insanity of marketing? Well, I'll tell ya.

Saturday night I went to bed early with my feverish daughter, and was toolin' around Facebook when I decided to throw caution to the wind and create a more official "author" Facebook page. I already have a page for Edges, created over a year ago in the lead up to publication, watching way too closely for my mental health at the rate it's "likes" were ticking upward. I naively hoped that my book would take the world by storm - instead it's been a slow build.

Just the way our careers should be. Yet publication, and the need to be "liked" has been a challenge to my maturity. It makes me uncomfortable because I feel both needy and tacky. Dirty.

Although Facebook and other social media has been a good time and an incredible tool for creating community, I have often felt like a fifteen-year-old all over again - who doesn't experience a flush of excitement when a comment or a post garners fun or thoughtful interaction? And then the opposite - it's even easier on Facebook to compare our insides to other people's outsides and judge ourselves based on who "likes" us. Sometimes I just want to delete my accounts just so I can focus on my writing.

Yet I am an author, and need to use the tools at my disposal. I have to treat myself like a business, and the fact is that I wrote EDGES years ago. I have written two (as yet to be published) novels since then. I run an after-school creative writing program, I live and breathe writing. I need to have another page where I can post things that are not necessarily related to Edges. And Facebook makes it so darn easy!

My author page. I had 40 "likes" in the first half hour, 80 "likes" in the next half hour. All friends full of love and support. Phew!

The goal? To increase business, to reach more potential readers of my blog and my book(s).

So. The next few sentences are not going to be pretty - they're going to highlight an insecurity that I need to keep in check: I have to admit that I've been obsessively checking my page for new "likes". 145, 146, 147 . . . I have to seriously get over it. After all, I've been blogging regularly for two years now (oh! I missed my anniversary?!) and I "only" have 158 followers, yet I still write.

How many "likes" do I need? Will it ever be "enough"?

It's foolish to focus on that.

Writing is the way I process the world, and if I stop because I'm uncomfortable, because I'm not popular "enough" then I will be denying myself the key to my personal freedom.

Marketing is a tool to use and not be used by, but I like that my imperfections remind me of my vulnerability and my need for humility. It keeps me authentic. Don't you agree?

And yes, go "like" my page! And follow my blog! ;-)
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Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK and My Sobriety: For Realz?

Yes Virginia, for realz.

Last Friday my status on Facebook just said: eighteen years. Those who know me personally and read this blog knew what that means: I celebrated eighteen years of continuous sobriety. I celebrated by going out to dinner with some of the women who have been on this journey with me. I don't white-knuckle it and go it alone - I need that kind of community, just as I need other kinds of community too.

We all need community, we need each other. We all have our demons and our issues; we all want to both understand and be understood. We all have our humanity in common, no matter our race, gender, sexuality or religion.

Who better to thank for this reminder than Dr. Martin Luther King?

As I take a moment to celebrate him,  I am put in mind of a particular Martin Luther King Day, fourteen years ago. I was working on a dual diagnosis unit in San Francisco. In many of the psychotherapy groups I was leading that day, we discussed Dr. King's famous I Have a Dream speech. 

I will never forget one gentleman in particular, who spoke about the impact Dr, King had had on his life and his future sobriety. This man was in his mid-30's, African-American, astoundingly intelligent, but his brain had been hit with severe depression and alcoholism. He wanted to stay sober because of Dr. King's words. He yearned for faith because of Dr. King's legacy.

He quoted Dr. King: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." 
His eyes glistening with tears, he went on to say: "Alcoholism and mental illness is another form of oppression." His voice was a slow, deep baritone. He had been taking his medication, wasn't drinking and was starting to feel better. Heads nodded, and all faces turned toward him. (Which in itself was a miracle - one of my therapeutic goals with several "clients" was eye contact in a group setting.)

He stopped, looking to me for assurance. I smiled, encouraging him. He was able to connect Dr. King's messages of non-violence, faith and dreams of equality to his own hopes for sobriety. He was able to strike a chord with his fellow group members talking about MLK's message in a way that I, as a young white girl wasn't able to.

He struck a chord with me too, and now MLK is indelibly a part of my sobriety.

Abstinence isn't for everybody, but it is for me, because I recognize that I have the dis-ease of alcoholism. It is a dis-ease of body, mind and spirit. It almost killed me.

It doesn't mean that I'm a lower form of human, that I can't handle my liquor, that one drink is too much for me because I don't know when to stop - and nor does it mean I'm a higher form of human, that I have transcended the need for spirits. (I haven't - I need an ever-evolving  relationship with a Higher Power - I just don't pretend that I can heal myself or my stress with alcohol anymore.)

It means I get to be human, I get to live. And I get to share myself with you.

Thank you Dr. King: your reach is wider than you ever knew.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

In BeTWEEN Book Clubs and Open Mic Events

Oh yes, I am playing with words on this rainy morning, before I get ready to train into the city with Judy Blundell for a meta lunch with writers Rebecca Stead, Deborah Heiligman, Carolyn Mackler, Rachel Vail, Elizabeth Winthrop and Jeanne Betancourt. At Henry's - my grandmother's favorite restaurant.

(What happens at lunch, stays at lunch!)

And I am inbetween book clubs and Open Mics - last Sunday we hosted an Open Mic for my Writopia kids in Larchmont and packed The Voracious Reader to the gills, and last night we had our InBeTWEEN Book Club at the Bedford Hills Free Library, where we discussed this month's pic, A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

Later in the month there will be another Open Mic (at the Mt. Kisco Library), and there will be the first meeting of our new book club that my friend Erika insisted we start. (Since we both, you know, like to read and stuff.) We will be reading and discussing Swamplandia (Karen Russell) with four other people. (If you want to read it too, we can start a discussion on here!)

And in February, I have been invited to one of Wetchester's longest running book clubs, comprised of TEACHERS to discuss Edges.

Our InbeTWEEN Book Club members, ranging in age from 11 to 13, (okay, I'm almost 44, but I can pretend, can't I?) all thoroughly enjoyed the book.

From Booklist: For 13-year-old Mia Winchell, the world has always been filled with a wonderful, if sometimes dizzying, sensory onslaught--numbers, letters, words, and sounds all cause her to see a distinct array of colors. She keeps her unusual condition a secret until eighth grade, but then her color visions make math and Spanish impossibly confusing, and she must go to her parents and a doctor for help. However, this is more than a docu-novel. Mass beautifully integrates information about synesthesia with Mia's coming-of-age story, which includes her break with her best friend and her grief over her grandfather's death. The episode where Mia fabricates an illness to try out acupuncture for the color visions it produces is marvelously done, showing Mia's eagerness for new experiences even as it describes a synesthete's vision.

We were all fascinated by synesthesia, and most of us wouldn't mind having that special condition ourselves! I couldn't help but see a correlation to addiction, especially in the acupuncture scene where she goes because she heard that it can enhance her experience of colors. For an adult reading this, we see Mia go on a hallucinogenic trip. The boy she meets on-line, another synesthete, hints that alcohol and kissing can enhance the colors as well.

If I were Mia, I would probably be doing anything to enhance my colors, but that's me. It would have been a very slippery slope indeed.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Striving for Excellence

As a writing teacher and mentor, part of my job is helping kids get ready to submit their work for - you got it - public scrutiny, either in the form of a reading, publishing in a literary journal or for an award.

I have to practice what I preach as well - having goals inspires us to write at our highest level, and more importantly, to complete projects.

It is both rewarding and inspiring to help them strive toward excellence.

Tomorrow is the deadline for my Westchester Writopia kids in grades 7 through 12 to submit to the prestigious Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I have nine students submitting work, and all are worthy, in my humble opinion, of some kind of recognition. (In the last three years, Writopians have won the most awards out of any group of kids.)

Yet it doesn't always happen, does it? We don't always get rewarded or recognized for our efforts. Last year I had two students submitting, both in the same age group and category. Both are excellent writers: yet only one of them was awarded a gold key.

(I think there might be a chance that I was more disappointed than she was.)

I want my students to feel empowered by their writing and their voice in the world. And they do! They are.

So I'm anxious, excited, proud: if some of them don't win, so be it. All of us suffer some slings and arrows for our art, and we keep on trucking, keep refining, keep practicing. And we learn that any art form is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - yet we have to be in it to win it, and to feel strongly about our right to be in the game. (Or at least fake it!) You all know very well that this is something I myself struggle with. (Why wasn't Writopia around when I was a kid?)

This month, Writopia Lab in Westchester will be hosting two Open Mic events, to celebrate the students who have finished pieces this past fall. The first one will be at our beloved bookstore in Larchmont, The Voracious Reader this Sunday, January 8th from 2PM - 3:30PM. The second one will be on January 20th at the Mt. Kisco Library, from 5PM - 6:30PM.

If you live in the Westchester area, please come and support these wonderful emerging writers and let them know that they are all winners. (And if you know of a child who loves to write, this is an Open Mic, so they are welcome to come and participate in these events.)