Back in the Saddle

I think you can feel what I feel. There is something fresh in the air, something cool and invigorating in the night breeze that pleads with us to open our eyes. The world and even part of ourselves awakens. Winter is over.

I have taken a celibacy from writing this blog for several months, but it does not mean that my fingers have been without toil. In fact, they perhaps have never worked so diligently at the writing project of a lifetime that consumed me since September.

This winter, I applied for a doctorate program. I was attempting to make a better life for myself, but Life has a way of controlling the tide as I nimbly grasp my little rudder.

I am ready to write again, perhaps from a whole new angle and with greater authenticity. The life I had meticulously planned for myself  and my vision has transformed. I came face to face with an idol and was beckoned to reassess my identity, and the worth of the work I do. I would like to tell you the story of this winter season in my life and the clarity that has come out of it…

but for now I must sleep…my story will be quickly forthcoming.

Giving Back with Words

As the air chills and the shoppers scurry around with their many stuffed packages, I hope you are reminded of the blessings we have been afforded this year and acknowledge those that are still in great need. Even if you are broke, jobless, and depressed, you can read. Please thank your first grade teacher–she was a gem, right? This is an indisputable gift. I am desperately grateful for words and their power to express and evoke a bounty of emotion.

While in the midst of counting the blessings of literacy, I hope you enjoy this list of opportunities to give through the beauty of words, language and writing. Let me know if you plan to get involved with any of these organizations, or feel free to let me know where and how you are giving back as a tough but memorable 2009 winds to a close.

Many Blessings this holiday season!

Afghan Women’s Writing Project helps give a voice to the women of Afghanistan who are often barred from schools, computers, and Internet access. Novelist and Gotham instructor Masha Hamilton started the Afghan Women’s Writing Project after a visit to Afghanistan in 2008. She saw that Afghan women were quickly losing their independence so she set up a Web site where teachers and writers in the U.S. could mentor female Afghan writers online and post portions of their firsthand experiences of life under the Taliban.

Book Aid International puts books into the hands of the world’s most disadvantaged readers. The organization works in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Palestine, providing over half a million books and journals each year to libraries, hospitals, refugee camps, and schools. Book Aid International is also a sponsor of the Camel Mobile Library Service which lends more than 7,000 books to nomads in Kenya’s impoverished North Eastern Province.

First Book is an international organization with a single mission: to give children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books. They provide an ongoing supply of new books to children participating in community-based mentoring, tutoring, and family literacy programs. Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 40 million books to children in over 1,300 communities around the country.

Literacy Partners is the NYC-based adult and family literacy organization serving adults ages 16 and older. The group’s mission is to teach adults to read, write, and do mathematics in teacher-led, tutorial, and family literacy programs staffed by volunteers and professionals. For thirty years, they have been teaching thousands of New York City adults, in free classes, the basic literacy skills that are essential to a full life as individuals, parents, and citizens.

PEN American Center
is the largest of the 141 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The PEN American Center works to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship.

Poets House is a NYC literary center and poetry archive―a collection and meeting place that invites poets and the public to step into the living tradition of poetry. The poetry resources and literary events document the wealth and diversity of modern poetry, and stimulate public dialogue on issues of poetry in culture.

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic is the nation’s educational library serving people who cannot effectively read standard print because of visual impairment, dyslexia, or other physical disability. Their mission is to create opportunities for individual success by providing, and promoting the effective use of accessible educational materials.

Young Playwrights Inc. is devoted entirely to introducing young people to writing for the theater and for themselves. Founded by Stephen Sondheim in 1981, YPI offers many celebrated programs for young people and teachers, and is a model for playwright development programs across the US and Canada.

This list is courtesy of the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Thankful

It must be said that this year we are thankful for employment. We are thankful we are no longer living on unemployment checks or wondering if we’re the next to be let go at work. We are thankful for the rays of peace in our lives.

This season, we are grateful for our homes, our families, and food in our bellies. We are thankful to live in the broken and beautiful city of New York. We are thankful for our health. We are blessed by the freedom to choose a life worth living.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

See the World with Aunt Martha

When all else fails, and the world looks bleak, there will always by the euphoric joy of music. I’d like to introduce you to a band I’m proud to introduce, with the eye-brow raising call name: Aunt Martha.

Aunt Martha’s fresh album “Candymaker” conjures images of the simple, blissful life you wish you were living thirty years ago in the rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky or on your way west traveling the long winding road of Route 66. The influences of country legend Johnny Cash, Wilco and The Band have permeated Aunt Martha’s indie-folk stylings to create an album that’s as soulful as it is clever.

The album is a lesson in US geography, with stories from Carolina, Detroit and references to Los Angeles. Us well-traveled folks are grateful for the shout outs to a life we knew before moving to New York. And the rest of us are romantically thinking of the great landscape past our driveways.

The driving rhythms of the guitars in “Detroit City” and “Flood” call you to find a partner for two-steppin’ on the dance floor. “Ojos Ojos Ojos” will have you shaking your skinny shoulders to the folk-ified hip hop beat.

These Brooklyn boys contend with the disappointment of the girl who’s taken, leaving a broken city, and the heartbreak of unrequited and indecisive love. We couldn’t ask for anything more telling of our generation. Yet the simple indie-country melodies give us enough distance to pretend like we’re listening to someone else’s story.

The unpretentious harmonies and poppy chorus’ in “Neighbor Song” and “No Excuses” will have you humming along by the second chorus. If you happen to live in the NYC area, you must see them live for the most ravishing remake of “California Love” you’ve ever imagined.

At your nearest chance, invest in this album and emerging band, fill up your gas tank and hit the road. Two hundred miles later you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this sooner.

Check out Aunt Martha on iTunes or myspace.

*Grace

The Secret to Story

Over the past seven months, we have been writing to raise questions and reflect on the opportunities created by the economic downturn. We agree that the answer to “what do you do?” plays a major role in defining your identify in New York City and other career-minded communities. With this knowledge, we are spreading a perspective that following your passion is essential. It is a non-negotiable for fulfillment. You can’t afford to settle for anything less. And if you’re unemployed and searching right now, please enjoy the freedom. It is a rare gift.

Every time I read another author’s take on this same subject, I am agog with hope that there is perhaps a little counter-cultural revolution out there, formed of people who are changing the course of their lives. One such author who’s inspired me continually for the past two years is Donald Miller. His new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, may just change the course of my life. Here’s the premise of the book: Donald wrote a NYTimes best-seller called Blue Like Jazz a few years back. A couple of filmmakers contacted Donald and proposed making a full-length feature film based on his memoir. Donald agreed after some coaxing. As they began to sketch out the story arc, Donald realized they were changing all sorts of details about his life, such as adding in the fact that he worked in a factory. When he asked why his “story” aka his life wasn’t good enough for the screen, they replied simply: “Your life is boring.”

This statement sent Donald on a significant quest to find out what makes a story worth telling and how could he live a life worth making a movie about. Through the study of narrative, Donald found out that good stories involve characters who want something and overcome conflict to get it.

So this overweight writer decided to change his life. He hiked the Inca Trail, not only to prove it to himself but to impress a girl. He found his estranged father whom he hadn’t seen in thirty years and told him he forgave him. He rode his bike from Los Angeles to DC to raise money and awareness for a non-profit group providing wells in Africa. He also tells stunning stories of families who radically changed their daily lives to get rid of the dysfunction.

Every time I read a chapter, I am compelled to close the book and my eyes and ask myself, “Am I living a story worth telling? Is my family living a story worth telling?” I called my Mom one evening and told her we couldn’t do presents this year. “There’s a better story for us, Mom,” I whispered on the bus. I don’t know yet what this story is, but I do know that my family is highly generous in love and immensely broke. I’ll keep you posted with what we come up with, but for now I’ll say that I’m asking everyone in my family to write about what they are passionate about. We are related by blood–there will undoubtedly be something in common that we can pour our efforts into. I want to find something that’s better than sweaters, toys and blenders under the tree. I want to see real joy in their eyes.

*Grace

Read the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It might just change your life.

the day I quit my job

You have been there. You are working the job and something is not right. You are talented. Just not at the work you are doing. You apply yourself. Just not in the cubicle.

I was a highly competent, highly educated, extremely ambitious and energetic young woman doing all the wrong work. I was miserable at most of my job duties. It took an immense amount of personal introspection and honesty to realize that for the first time in my life, I failed something I thought I would master. I needed to leave, not just for my sanity’s sake but also for the company’s sake.

The day I quit my job, I was a royal mess. I sat at my cubicle, sweating out every moment as each click clack of heels down the corridor set me on edge. I planned to turn in my letter at the end of the day, but this lead to an excrutiatingly long day of worries and frequent trips to the bathroom. As I handed in my letter, I did my best not to cry. I was about to leave my first job out of college and an organization I had esteemed for years. It was bittersweet, but I knew I was not in the right place.

After I quit my job, I worked at Starbucks and substitute taught for four months. I was pathetically poor and slept on an air mattress, but I spent a great amount of time figuring out what my purpose was making time to explore my creativity. I never felt so alive.

I was blessed enough to have been able to indulge myself in a Creative Escape before the economy took a nosedive. However, I would do it again if I knew it was going to bring me the rejuvenation and direction I need. You and I will work for the rest of our lives. If you have the chance, take some time off inbetween jobs to make sure you are doing what you feel purposed to do. The work will always be there. What’s the rush? Feeling confident in your next career adventure will lead to greater satisfaction and perhaps, a longer stay with the next company. Or perhaps you’ll discover you are not meant to work for someone else. Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder of Facebook, did not decide that working for Microsoft was his life goal. If you took the time to reflect on what you really love to do, and somehow finagle that into a job, you would be happy. There would be no job to regret. There would be no good reason to hit the snooze button four times. We need to find the work where we bound out of bed every morning. If you find it, let me know. Maybe in a year or two, we’ll be working for you.

*Grace

Clothing Optional

As summer begrudgingly winds down, New York families are a buzz in back-to-school season. As annoying as those JCPenny’s and Walmart commercials are, a fresh pack of pre-sharpened colored pencils and spiffy new sneakers give me that springy kick in my step to start something afresh.  Those stale resolutions from January could use some dusting off, and another look might produce something a bit more practical. We at Reassession are offering you another way to save some serious cash flow. Some of the beautiful women I know in the City are already rocking their new action plans.

Three of my jet-setting girlfriends are taking vows to spend less on clothes and/or not buy new clothes at all for a year. While Ben Bernacke might be cringing in his Johnston & Murphy’s, I am overjoyed. My quest to be thrifty has often been challenged by the inner demons that groan with envy when yet another pretty bag is brought home from that fantastic boutique. Now these trendy ladies are joining me in the land of chic frugality.

Mysteriously, they all came to this decision on their own and it just happened to time out together. To be quite honest, I am shocked. These friends are trendy, put-together and designer-savvy. But honestly, they are all broke or about to be broke, due to various life circumstances including going back to grad school, a job change and spending too much on cabs. They haven’t told me this frankly, but it is a general sense I gather. The recession has hit us all hard. We have to rethink where our disposable income will have the most impact. We need to decide where that money is actually going to increase our quality of life and make us feel…well, better.

All of these girls have more clothes than our tiny New York City closets can contain. Yet, they really don’t need them. Or at least, that many articles. It is fascinating that in life we require three basic necessities: food, shelter, and clothing. Clothing actually made it on the list of needs. However, when the mavens of fashion saw an opportunity to shift our perception from need to want, a massive market for exploitation was created. Us “independent” ladies pine for new clothes. With all the extra clothes we swim through in our dollhouse-sized flats, the Container Store has monopolized the market to reign in all the extra things we can’t store in the closets that are too small. We’ll pack up all these charming garments and try to hide them under a bed or up high in a closet where we forget about them entirely. Another season goes by and the vague itching of a vision of a gray quarter-length cardigan goes tumbling through your memory. It is packed tightly away, but forgotten. So we go buy a new cardigan, and…(deep breath)…you get the picture. When I say I am proud of these ladies, it is because I believe with great conviction that they are undoing brainwashing that most of the twenty-something women I know have been steeped in for years.

Carol, one of our ReWriters is one of the newly celibate shoppers. She went through much this year, including being unemployed for five months. During the winter. (big sigh) She recently experienced a great victory in the job front. She called me with an unusual giddiness in her voice. “I really want to go…buy something!” Visions of Diane Von Furstenberg danced through her head. But Carol held back. Instead of new jeans or a wrap dress, she bought herself a latte instead. In a moment of joy, she chose to celebrate with a $3 purchase, as opposed to $129.Whatever that instinct was to treat herself with something pretty, she evaluated and chose wisely.

Jenn’s motivation comes from a different space. She’s taking an eco challenge, which entails only buying organic or used clothing (ie thift shop or sample sales) for the next year. As she describes it, cotton uses an unbelievable amount of water to produce that graphic T. By “recycling” clothing she’s saving money and resources. What’s more, Jenn knows she doesn’t need new clothes. She wants to save money for things that will last. She knows she’d be much happier saving up for a camera that develops her artistic passions and gives her a sense of accomplishment when she gets out to shoot the city or her friends. She’s gone 3 months, practically an eternity in a former life, and only bought 1 item from a sample sale. She has also sold/donated about 35 pounds worth of clothing. She’s feeling light in all sorts of ways.

While my friends’ vows to discontinue shopping may not be helping out our macro economy, they will be helping their own pocketbooks by eliminating a (practically) nonessential expense considering their existing wardrobes are well supplied. I too have been sucked into the sometimes slippery slope of keeping up with New York fashion. To keep myself accountable, I do my shopping on a strict budget.*

I limit myself to spend $50 per month. If I “must” have something that puts me over the limit, my allowance for the next month shrinks. If I want something sassy that is just for going out to dance, I’ll buy it in Harlem or Washington Heights. Lights are always low anyways, so your shirt doesn’t have to cost more than ten or fifteen dollars. An insider told me that Banana Republic, Gap, and Old Navy are now using the same quality of fabric so go with Old Navy. Jenn and I are also in love with Housing Works, a thrift store where the money goes to supporting AIDS and homelessness efforts.

We could all be wearing potato bags and conceal everything worth covering if necessary. Remember these brilliant words from Fight Club if you can’t fathom cutting new clothes out of your budget:

Tyler Durden: You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f***ing khakis.

Here’s to being more than our khakis.

*Grace

PS – For more inspiration to buy less, please see this lovely little article in the NYTimes.

PPS – If you don’t have a job, try selling the clothes you never wear at a consignment shop.

*I lived in California for four years and my blood will never be the same. If you need to buy something to keep yourself warm during the blistery New York winter, be frugal but allow yourself a little wiggle room. Fleece jackets, puffy coats and gloves do not count in my budget. They are their own line item and frankly, they are the only thing I don’t have a set limit on. If you are as wimpy in the cold as me, you’ll be interested to know that Land’s End is having a major sale. Check out the “Overstock” tab for great deals.