Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Journeys Under Sea and Beyond

As we prepare to return home to our island after a six-week writing sabbatical, I’m fondly remembering our big summer production, “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” and reflecting on the power of “being away.”

Going away and coming home is a huge privilege for most of us, a by-product of the wealth and mobility of our North American culture. How then might we use this privilege to deepen our own consciousness of who we are and what our roles in this big world might be?

For centuries, in different cultures and traditions, journeying has had more of a mythic than an ordinary quality. Journeys are often quests to reach a mystical “holy grail.” Think King Arthur and his knights (about whom we will hear a solstice tale, “The Loathly Bride,” read by Judith at the Opera House’s holiday event December 18); Odysseus; Jonah and the Whale and thus yes . . . Burt Dow, Deep Water Man. In the ongoing tradition of Jungian analysis, these stories and dreams exemplify no less than our own journeys to develop self and perhaps most importantly, with the individual self, community and culture.

But our modern, western culture becomes less and less about self-development (in its most superficial sense, education and the aspiration to continuously improve) almost by the minute. In the U.S., we don’t want to be challenged by the fantastical, alluring mysteries of what we don’t know; we prefer to surround ourselves comfortably only with what our rational brains and senses are already familiar. This is perhaps most evident in our love of national chain stores and restaurants, which make one American place look, taste, and feel just like the next. And as Thomas Friedman recently reported in his satirical column “From WikiChina” (from an imagined Chinese perspective), Americans “travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind.”

“Jonah was unable to speak with sufficient wisdom until he had made a journey under the sea, that is, until he had explored his unconscious,” wrote famed Jungian analyst Joseph Wheelwright more than 30 years ago. What was it, I wonder, that Burt Dow and his Giggling Gull brought back to Deer Isle after evicting themselves from the belly of their own whale? Was it the artistry and creativity Burt discovered there, as he splashed paint like Pollack? McCloskey’s legend of the real man has gone on to give our community gifts for generations.

What gifts do we bring back to our communities when we return home? What will I bring home this week?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why We All Need a Shake Up Now and Then

Sometimes having the earth move under your feet is what it takes to make healthy change.

Grassroots and urban and community development activist Jane Jacobs knew this well, and here in San Francisco there is a particularly wonderful Jacobs-style parable of such change.

We just spent the morning at the huge and bustling Saturday Farmers' Market here in San Francisco, at the beautiful Ferry Terminal building at the foot of Market Street. The market is one of the nation's largest and most acclaimed, serving a wide variety of farmers and food producers, plus approximately 25,000 customers a week.

The Ferry Terminal building, which famed columnist Herb Caen called "a famous city's most famous landmark," was opened in 1898. It was the transportation focal point for everyone coming to the city from the Gold Rush through the 1930s, when both the city's bridges, the Bay and Golden Gate, were opened to car traffic. The steel frame construction became the largest such foundation for a building over water anywhere in the world--and importantly has survived two major earthquakes, the 1906 and 1989.

What didn't survive the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is as important to today's vibrancy of the Ferry Terminal building and its markets as what did: the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway. Built across the face of the Ferry Building in 1957 at the height of the nation's car craze, with Eisenhower's highway act and urban and transportation planners such as Robert Moses in full steam, it cast the historic building into obscurity, cutting it off from the city.

Jacobs successfully stopped Moses from building a similarly raised highway through Lower Manhattan (the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX), along Broome Street, in the mid-1960s--but she never had such dramatic help from Mother Nature. Many of Moses' auto-centric designed and driven projects--the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway--divided and separated New York's poor neighborhoods, casting them into the gloom and filth of the expressways' shadows.

The 1989 earthquake so damaged the Embarcadero Freeway that it was completely torn down in 1991 and never rebuilt. The immediate impact on the historic Ferry Building was striking. Increased auto congestion caused the re-institution of many of the cross-bay ferries, and the building, suddenly re-connected and visible to the city, began to come back to life. The renovated building now holds 65,000 square feet of marketplace, with an additional 175,000 sf of premium 2nd and 3rd floor office space. With its unmistakeable clocktower gracing the intersection of Market Street with the Bay and the communities across it, it is once again a bustling central location for the city's residents; and one of the city's most grand and cherished landmarks.

Jane Jacobs is cheering from her grave.

Friday, December 3, 2010

In Praise of the Fierce and Newly Dead: Eve Nardone, 1929-2010

Fierce. Loyal. Passionate. Engaged.

These are the qualities that come to mind when I think of Eve Nardone, who passed away last week, the night before Thanksgiving, at the age of 81 in San Rafael, CA.

It is factually accurate to say Eve was my high school English teacher at Stonington (CT) High School in the late 1970s, but that doesn’t tell the story. Eve was the first person to believe in me as an artist, a writer, and a lesbian. She saw in that 15-year-old the person I was to become, seized that kernel of potential in her teeth and didn’t let go, shaking and hauling it through those difficult high school years when it would have been just as possible to let it go.

She was the first person I came out to.

She was fierce that way, and loyal, and I am thankful every day she was.

She came to Connecticut, and teaching English, from Europe along a route that remains mysterious to me in the way of so many of our most interesting life paths. But there was no mystery around Eve’s intelligence: her mind and speech were incisive, engaged with and passionate about culture and the world, and there were few if any subjects she deigned not to weigh in on (I just found online what may be her most recent, and last? bridge scores, from May of this year).

In addition to teaching a full load of courses, Eve had the passion and energy to mentor the yearbook for many years; to launch a Theater Club and take a full bus load of students to a Broadway show in New York City every year; to take groups of students to England, where she had spent her youth as a Czech refuge from World War II; to moonlight, as many teachers do, selling scrimshaw in a local gift shop. I rarely heard her complain of being tired (although I did hear quite a bit of grumbling about the lack of grammar in students’ writing, grumbling which I carry on, on her behalf, to this day): life fueled her. She loved to travel, to read, to go to the theater, to listen to music: and even had she not done such an excellent job teaching me how to write and understand English literature, the model she set for me in these regards was important enough.

When I first met Eve there was actually quite a bit of doubt as to whom I was to become. I’d known at 14 I was a lesbian (thanks to Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle) and was trying to learn to use my body through girls’ sports, a place I hoped I could fit in. But I was a trumpet-playing bookworm with sketchbooks and notepads always on my person. Sports were a language I worked hard to learn, and one that in many ways made being gay only more visible—and all of us more vulnerable. I wandered into my sophomore year of high school, during the Bicentennial year of 1976, learning to drive; disillusioned by Watergate and Vietnam; hoping for a girlfriend; a little scrappy and hotheaded; and wanting, like all adolescents, to fit in someplace. This combination lead, as it so often does, to disaster. My parents had to haul me out of jail one night when I left several large members of the Westerly, R.I. police force in disarray.

I don’t think there is much question I represented a challenging and interesting project to Eve, and that’s OK: I’d proudly be her project again any day, and every kid should have an adult other than their parents who takes them on as their personal (and not necessarily school) project. I’m not at all sure what alerted her to my potential, but shortly after the police incident (while it seemed as though I was still wandering around the football field with a hangover) and before I knew what was happening I was an artist for our yearbook, the Pawmystonian, creating pen-and-ink sketches and drawings of our school mascot: anthropomorphized bears. I was hanging around at Eve’s house on weekends, eating frozen fried chicken with her and stumbling into my first girlfriend. I fully believed I had wrecked my life forever by my stoned brawling, but Eve pulled me through that year and into the next; now yearbook Art Editor . . . now Eve’s grammar class . . . now Theater Club . . . now house and cat-sitting for Eve . . . now Honors English . . . now yearbook Editor . . . now Eve’s nomination of me for the Mary Nania Award for Altruistic and Inspiring Leadership . . . now Bowdoin College . . . now taking the graphic arts skills I learned at the yearbook into my first newspaper job . . . now editing and writing for a national journal and small press . . . now working for the Village Voice newspaper . . . now helping to found and operate for more than 12 years a nonprofit theater serving the small New England community of—Stonington, ME.

Can you feel Eve’s hand in all of this? I do and always will. So much of what she taught me—from the difference between “which” and “that,” to how to lay out a page, to how to appreciate scotch responsibly and with pleasure, to how to think clearly, to how to easily and swiftly write clear, simple sentences, to how to take great pleasure in the act of writing—lives on in me today.

I lost touch with Eve after she retired and moved to California; she had always wanted the warmth, and to be near her children. My own writing and world-making consumed me at the time, and I let her go. I always regretted having done so, and was delighted last year when a mutual friend gave me her contact info. All too briefly, I was able to be in touch with her again, to tell her how much she meant to me. But it was too late for us to share any further experiences; she was losing her battle with cancer, and I was too far away.

Despite my sins (in what I have done, in what I have failed to do), I’ve had grace on my side: I have continued to have people in my life—mentors, friends, lovers, and colleagues—who remind me of Eve. That twinkle in her eye, slightly mischievous and always sparkling, deliberately exposing to you the fire that glowed inside of her; a twinkle you can see even in very recent photos of her. The fierceness of her loyalty once you were hers; the sharp, persistent scrawl of her red pen; the fullness with which she approached life in what she clearly understood to be a magical world.

Thank you, Eve Nardone. Thank you.

(Special thanks to Kelly Cordner for keeping me in touch with Eve; to Larry Bates for this photo; and to Eve’s daughter, Laurie, for being so kind to me during the days immediately preceding Eve’s death)