My Harlem Neighborhood

I live in Central Harlem and moved here about 10 years ago. This is the nicest neighborhood I’ve ever lived in—lots of elegant, single-family brownstones, and I’m half-a-block from the quite-large Marcus Garvey Park. We have an active neighborhood association (the Mount Morris Park Neighborhood Association, which is an association for all of the Mount Morris Park Historic Preservation District). On Saturday, I went to a lavish party celebrating the coming $4-million-dollar renovation atop the acropolis in the park of the oldest remaining fire watchtower in the city. 

But never mind all that. The one time I saw Marcus Garvey Park on television, it was during a police drama that depicted a bad person being hunted down in the park. In fact, any time I hear Harlem mentioned on a TV drama, it’s in conjunction with some drug dealer living here. Even a feature story on the Harlem Children’s Zone for a TV news magazine a couple of years ago made Harlem sound rundown and dangerous, a place where only those from the impoverished underclass live. 

The stereotype lives.

 Of course people who are a little more sophisticated don’t shake in their Cole Haan’s when they hear the word “Harlem”; they know that Harlem is a residential destination of choice. But to the general U.S. public, Harlem remains a place of lurking peril because of… color—and the easy, off-hand ability of the media to perpetuate a popular myth: Color means crime.

 I haven’t found that to be true. People in this neighborhood are church going and have genteel, Southern manners. Despite centuries of racism aimed in the direction of their ancestors and them, they aren’t anti-white (well, a few may be). Furthermore, in the Harlem of today, fatherhood is prized and children are cherished and well-cared for. While I might have seen a drug dealer or two—I can’t be sure—even they will open the door for or offer a seat on the bus to a woman. 

 The truth is we live in pretty homogenous society with some few differences in culture, but we’re still under the divide-and-conquer, blame-it-on-them yoke.

 Our responsibility is not to believe everything we hear and not to take to heart the messages sent via TV. And let’s get over this color thing already. Enough. It’s simply not relevant.

We’re All Connected

For the International Day of Peace (http://internationaldayofpeace.org/), my spiritual group had a Poems for Peace dinner. People read poems, played piano and saxophone, and shared some thoughts.

One thought (from saxophonist Benjamin Drazen—http://www.benjamindrazen.com/) was that we’re all connected, and the shape the world is in, the violence and wars, is a reflection of us humans as a whole.

 That means if we take some shared responsibility for everything we see, we will surely want to try to make things better. I believe, as does Benjamin, that the thoughts and prayers we send out to the world can help the state of things. We’re not solely at fault for the lack of peace here on the planet, but maybe each time we perform a kind act, forgive someone his misdeeds, or simply seek to refrain from doing harm, we’re creating a world with less self-centered aggression.

 As the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

 We’re living in an age when the realization that we’re all brothers and sisters is coming to the fore. Even though not everyone acts on that innate knowledge and certainly not all the time, the intuition lurks within (it makes beeping noises, if you listen hard). We can try to remember that everyone else is just a part of who we each are. Bad acts toward others are bad acts toward ourselves.

 We can light that little candle and help to banish the darkness.

Criticism Is Information

From time to time a student will withdraw from a class of mine (at Writer’s Digest University, http://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/) after I’ve given that person feedback to the first one or two assignments. I can’t prove why these individuals quit the class, but I suspect it’s because I wasn’t bowled over by their writing. Perhaps they felt I didn’t understand them; thus they miss something that will help them become better writers. While I do try to give positive comments along with my corrections, I’m forthright about what doesn’t work. Still, I understand: Criticism can be hard to take.

When I think back on how I learned to be a better writer, while some of that came from my own inner guidance, a great deal came from an editor marking up what I had handed in. I remember one `aha!’ in particular when an article I wrote came back with the extraneous words and phases deleted. That was helpful. I learned to be a more efficient writer.

I also learned, in time, to not react so badly to criticism in general, and to take it as a form of education, which it is. While we don’t have to accept every critical comment as actual fact, looking at negative responses and trying to evaluate their validity can be a means of improving our behavior and even changing an outlook on life for the better.

A little slap that seems justified can be a good thing and doesn’t have to be taken as a condemnation of our overall worth or personhood. In fact, the more we learn from these reactions to us, the more self-confidant we can become and the better able to withstand instruction that doesn’t fit a perhaps exaggerated notion of how we’re doing.

Help in seeing ourselves more clearly is a gift. Don’t walk out when someone tries to hand you a valuable insight. What isn’t true won’t sting and won’t stick to you. What has even a shred of truth can be a stepping stone to where you want to go.

This is a big world and others can teach us a few things.

Sign on the Dotted Line

I might as well tell you. The contract for The Heroine’s Journey arrived yesterday via email. Not that you care when you want to read about Life. But this does so have to do with Life. Let me go back a little way so you understand.

 I already had a contract for the novel, a young adult fantasy. The book was published. You might even be able to still see the listing on Amazon.

 The publishing house croaked, keeled over, shut its doors (if it even had doors). Kaput. Yes, contract signed, the formatting done (by me), the editing done by a capable Bonnie Walker (give the girl a plug since she praised the novel), and the print-on-demand hard copy listed on Amazon. All that had to be completed was for THJ to be put up there as an ebook in several formats.

 It never happened. Those virtual doors creaked closed while the authors were summarily booted out. And quick as a wink, lovely submissions editor Erika Galpin (yes, she is lovely) was snatched up by Curiosity Quills Press and offered to submit my novel there.

 A little while later, as I already told you (see above), the contract arrived.

 Oh boy, contracts.

 You don’t just have to sign on the dotted line these days. You have to read every page carefully and initial it. In blood. No—I’m a writer, and I exaggerate. Not by much.

 But that’s what I mean about Life. Just when you think everything is settled—and you find out it’s not a done deal, but a do-over, instead.

 That definitely is Life.

 So what’s the moral of the story? The story is that this sojourn on earth is a challenging outing and we haven’t yet arrived. I won’t wake you when we’re there because we should be awake and alert all along the way.

 We have to be ready to be dumped—by people, by a publisher, by an employer, by a whatever, and lose a lot of things we’ve cherished (been there myself) and go on in the best way that we can.

 They say acceptance, aka submission, is the optimal route on this trip. That’s when the miracles occur.

 Hey, guys, I have a book coming out. Wahoo. (It’s a young adult novel, but will be fun for the grown-ups, too.)

Different Is Beautiful

This world is a machine set up to mold us into what already is. But the universe is in an evolutionary process. Thus the tension between the old and the new. The old isn’t necessarily bad, though a great deal of what has happened on this planet in the past has been harmful to individuals who didn’t fit the predominant pattern. Ouch when the forces in place try to push you inside their rigid formats, lopping off a leg here and an arm there.

 Society across the globe is still that way, but with some allowances these days for who you are (depending on where you are), and more individuals ready and willing to protest the status quo. 

 But the kicker is that this tendency to insist that all people fall into line isn’t simply limited to social or governmental systems; it applies as well to what you and I expect of others. We want everyone to be just like us—to use the same toothpaste, have the same set of manners, and like the same TV shows. We think that different is weird or ignorant or simply unacceptable.

 I hope you’ll look into this type of thinking in yourself. I know I, personally, have it deeply ingrained.

 I’m trying to give other people a break and not just for their external selves—weight, height, country of origin—but for how they interact with me—the most crucial of their expressions in my view (though calling at 6 a.m. is still a no-no).

 Different is beautiful. Let’s try to relax and understand that everyone falls into that category. Everyone is different and everyone is beautiful. Well, I hope to make the effort to see it that way. Because judgment in the negative is a form of inner stress that will only do my own body/mind/spirit ongoing harm and I love me too much to go on that way.

Journey and Gender

 Hero/Heroine? What’s the difference? True that men and women are typically one way or the other—watch Modern Dads on A&E, or, like me, just watch the commercials. These stay-at-home fathers are still real men—good fathers, but kind of cut-corners flakes (according to the female point of view, anyway).

 I wrote a young adult novel entitled The Heroine’s Journey about two (connected) young women, one in Medieval England, and one in present-day America. Both are struggling with some serious issues in their lives. 

 One reader said to me, “But, really, what’s the difference then between the hero’s and the heroine’s journey?”

 Well, maybe the women rely more on wit than on muscle then the men, but all are human, marching forth into life with courage, determination, and intelligence.

 What’s different for women in today’s world may be a contemporary sense of empowerment. Women in our current culture (hopefully) have the understanding that a female is equal to a male and just as entitled to find an authentic path in her life, a way that emerges from the discovery of her real, underlying persona. 

 Still, even men have to uncover the actuality of who they are beneath the socialization that’s been handed them by family and societal tradition.

 The journey is the human progression through our lives: mistakes and stumbles, brilliant intuitions, fear, and courage enough to jump into what must be done.

  We are each the hero or heroine of this unwritten novel of who we are. The trip ahead belongs to each of us alone, but every one of us typifies all humans on the expedition into what life is. No one is unscathed by tribulation, but how we deal with what comes up makes us champions—even when our strategies are flawed or when we fail.

 We are all marching to some kind of glorious resolution, yes, even the worst examples of our species. They are heroes and heroines in the making. Even if it takes more than one lifetime to liftoff.

 In this blog, I’m going to discuss many aspects of the incredible voyage we’re all engaged in. Stay tuned.