(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Come write.)
I am in the midst of reading the autobiography of Elvis Costello. The book is called Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (a title I like very much) and it packs a literary punch and becomes a musical journey through Elvis Costello’s songwriting and life, with plenty of meandering along the way. Yesterday, during part of a Snow Day from school, I read with interest the section about Costello’s collaborations with Paul McCartney.
There was a time when I was deeply into Costello, and the album, Spike, was a favorite cassette in my car. The album had the radio hit — Veronica — on it, and in the book, Costello connects the song that he and McCartney wrote to his grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s in old age.
I had one of those strange moments, realizing that it was that song by Costello — Veronica — that led me to write a song myself long ago with my old band, The Roadbowlers, called Inside Mary’s Pocket, which is about my own great-grandmother in old age. Or rather, the song is sort of built off memories of her. It’s interesting that I only realize that now how influenced I was, as I am reading Costello talking about songwriting, and that I did not realize then what I was doing. (or conveniently forgot.) It’s also interesting how Costello talks openly of reworking Motown chords and lines and grooves for his early albums. I guess we all gather what we can find.
Of course, my song is nothing like his (I could only wish). I recorded this track more than 20 years ago now (dang!) on an old four-track. But I still have the Mp3 of our recording, and so I spent part of yesterday tracking it down in my computer files. Here goes …
I am dipping in a bit to this year’s Walk My World project. As always, Greg and Ian and company are encouraging people to think of identity of Self, and the connections to the Larger World. One of the early prompts has to do with thinking of Culture, and how we reflect the Culture we have inhabited.
I’ve been thinking a lot over time about my own privileged role as a White Man from the Middle Class teaching mostly White Boys and Girls from an insular White Suburban Community. (All those capital letters make what I wrote look strange and sort of gibberish.) Listening to Macklemore, and thinking of the controversy the year he and Ryan Lewis won the Grammy as white rappers, is giving some focus.
But I don’t have answers. Only questions.
Recently, I was in the audience of an event for Martin Luther King Day, at a local church in our small progressive city (Smith College sits at the center), and the guest speakers included college representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. I glanced around the audience and saw mostly White Faces. The moderator of the panel was a white college representative, who dominated the discussion in an attempt to put the movement into some cultural context. I just wanted to hear the young organizers talk.
The raising of a Black Lives Matter banner sign on City Hall after that same MLK event continues to cause support and dissent and ripples and indignation in our community, as much for defending and criticizing the movement as for using City Hall as a backdrop for political statements. We’ve had our share of newspaper articles about the flying of the Confederate Flag in local communities, too. Not even our liberal Western Massachusetts is immune to the ways of the world.
I know I grew up privileged, even though we were by no means wealthy and even though I suspect my parents struggled at times (and kept it hidden from us kids) to keep us in the town they chose to raise a family (coming from New York City to do so). In fact, when I signed up as an infantry soldier in the National Guard, it was the first time I spent any extended time with people of other races, mostly Black soldiers, and most of them were from a deep urban setting that I had little understanding of. Until then, I was blind to the ways of the world. Now I was the lone white man in a platoon of black men. Mostly, I kept quiet and tried to learn from them about the world I did not know. It was a culture shock, but one I am very grateful for. It taught me lessons about life.
And it is in life that we make change, right?
As part of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, we make it part of our Mission Statement to focus on Social Justice themes and to find ways to work with school districts in urban and rural centers that often are left out of things due to socio-economic issues. Race and access and equity issues remain on the forefront of many of our decisions of programming.
The mission of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project, is to create a professional community where teachers and other educators feel welcomed to come together to deepen individual and collective experiences as writers and our understanding of teaching and learning in order to challenge and transform our practice. Our aim is to improve learning in our schools — urban, rural and suburban.
Professional development provided by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project values reflection and inquiry and is built on teacher knowledge, expertise, and leadership.
Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.
I won’t deny that where I come from — the World Where I Have Walked — has opened up doors because of the color of my skin (white), my gender (male), and the place where I grew up (suburban Connecticut), and other factors that I was born into. But I can try to make a difference for the young people whose lives I can impact in my own classroom as teacher or in other classrooms as profession development leader. I can lay the foundation for tolerance in the hearts of my boys.
We can all make a difference. We just need to try.
This is another in my series of small poems honoring some of the forgotten women of the Wild West. You can see poems about Stagecoach Annie, Etta Place and Cathay Williams, too. The poems are my attempt to capture the voice and story of these women. This one is about Belle Starr, known as the Bandit Queen. She was associated with Jesse James and his gang.
This has not been a typical New England winter, and I am not complaining. But my boys have been. Where’s the snow? they want to know. Some arrived yesterday, so a day off school meant sledding and hot chocolate. I love this view from my back window, with the two side-by-side chairs, as if awaiting a conversation.
This is my third poetic “discovery” from the historical archives of a famous woman of the “Wild West.” I have been writing a digital poem for each, trying to capture their voice and their story, with the writing superimposed on an image of the woman (I can’t 100 percent vouch for the historical accuracy of each photo).
Today, I look at Cathay Williams, a former slave who pretended to be man so that she could fight in the Civil War, and then was discovered to be a man, so she went West to continue to make a life for herself in the White Man’s World (my emphasis).
I brought the idea of a Folded Story to my Western106 folks, hoping to create a 25-fold story (one piece at a time, as exquisite corpse) with a Western theme. I had a good handful of folks participate, so I was happy to be collaborating.
Here is what we ended up with. Strange, yes? But centered on a sort of Western theme? Yes. Success! (The word cloud is the text of the story. I guess we like our coffee, and the sheriff made a late but regular appearance.)
I’m just exploring some famous women of the West who may have been lost to the history books (written by us white men). I’m using some biographical material to write poems, layering the poems on an image (as best as I can verify), and hoping to expand the narrative of the Wild West. The other day I wrote about Stagecoach Mary.
Here is a poem for Etta Place. She apparently was part of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and all them others, but when they were either captured or killed, Etta disappeared.
(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers.)
Sunday was unseasonably warm, and so we took our kids and dog on a forced march through the woods and river near our house.
Someone had been up to their artistic tricks again, making sculptures out of found wood and rocks and objects washed downstream in the river.
I once used some of these community sculptures for a backdrop to a welcoming video to Making Learning Connected. But the city highway crews redid the bike path, and took away all of the sculptures. They have been “returned.”
A wander through our woods is like a walk through a fresh air art gallery. You never know what you will find.
My editor at Middleweb, John, saw some of my tweets about #Western106, so he sent me a collection of Western magazines (how cool is that?) and an interesting book by Stephanie Bearce entitled Top Secret Files: The Wild West. It’s a non-fiction book for middle school readers that has some cool information in it and some fine myth debunking, too. Bearce also gives over quite a few pages to the forgotten Women of the West. As I read these profiles, I got inspired to write some poems about these woman. I used Canva to create these as digital static poems.
I intend to share one every day or two this week. The first poem is about Stagecoach Mary (Fields), a black woman who worked hard to gain respect and used her physical strength to silence those who would question her.
I gathered the images online, and given the time period we are talking about and muddy history of these women (a mix of those who followed the law and those who broke the law), I can’t vouch for the accuracy. I did my best to use the pictures of these woman from Top Secret Files with the images I found online.