Category Archives: New York City

When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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Coming to Manhattan

teaching-in-the-dark-learning-to-love-what-we-fear-23-638Tomorrow I’m going on a two-day trip to New York City, as I have done every February since 2012. I like to call it Mama’s Annual Pilgrimage (previously documented here, and here). My plan for this year is to attend a tour at the Tenement Museum, called Exploring 97 Orchard Street. This is like a dream for me. Besides that, I’m going to find a nice café (or a few different ones), and work on my whittling.
Whittling tools. If only they could help me in this situation!

Turns out the novel I’ve spent the past three years writing is too long. “Debut novels” in my genre are supposed to be no longer than 100,000 words. My first draft was–wait for it–147,000. Stephen King says the second draft is the first draft, minus ten percent. That, I can do. On draft five now, I’ve so far hacked off 10,000 words; ten percent looks well within reach. Will I get all the way down to below 100,000? Not sure. And if I can’t, odds are pretty good no agent will even look at the manuscript. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving these pseudo-dogmatic standards this treatment. But I’ve had them explained to me recently in a way I understand (almost) better; and so, I hack away. Hacking doesn’t sound very artistic though, hence the term whittling.

In a recent Google search on book word counts, I found that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is approximately 150,000 words, similar to my original word count. I like to look at it and think it’s what my novel will look like once it’s published.

Momentum has admittedly slowed down. It’s partly due to feeling disheartened. Also, though, recent family needs compel me to re-evaluate things. No, I’m not pregnant. But there could be change on the horizon, which will be felt on many levels within my family. The meme posted by my hero Elizabeth Gilbert on her Facebook page today couldn’t be more timely.

For the past three years, I’ve been going strong–creativity-wise–fueled to a significant degree by this sort of feel-good inspiration. I tend to dislike gratuitous cynicism. I find it so one-dimensional, and we can do so much better. Lately, though … ? How do I distinguish between good old reality check and caving to cynicism? Here’s another recent meme.

A few months ago, I would have shared this, lived by it, maybe even written a blog post about it. The thing is, though, I also think that people who think they’re above paying their dues are idiots. Was that unkind? I’m sorry. The message about being born for something greater and more profound still resonates with me deeply. I’m not trying to be unkind. I swear I have a point.
My point–aside from having fun with social media memes–is that I strive to not be an idiot. And I know that, at age 39 and a half, I’m nowhere near done paying my dues. My own practical form of dues-paying will likely–hopefully, and for very happy reasons–mean finding gainful employment again, and soon. We just can’t continue the sponsoring at this time. I’m excited about it. I’m also panicked: That if I can’t get my book down to the desired word count by the time I start a new job, I’ll have to give up on writing. Dramatic? Please. This is nothing.
Because I work well with to-do lists, here’s the plan for now.
1. Keep whittling.
2. Pack vitamins and cold meds for NYC. (I caught my son’s recent cold, because sharing is caring.)
3. Attend some super-fun writers conferences this year–yeah!
4. Find new job and start it. Resume getting up at 5AM to write/research for an hour before the rest of the day starts, and again after boy goes to bed. It’s been done before, it can be done again.
5. Love my family. Love hard, in general.
6. Write down ideas (coming fast and furious lately) for second book. Give myself permission to be excited about it.
7. Remember that life is good, very.
8. Reread the article about 12 historical women, as needed.
9. Enjoy New York.
10. Write blog post about the trip.
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Why am I doing this again? Aspiring author journeys back to New York, NY.

“Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs. Don’t … Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs!” The woman stood a few feet away from the hot dog cart. With the unmistakable rasp of a heavy smoker, she warned frazzled-looking tourists as they walked up to it to buy lunch outside a subway entrance near Manhattan’s Herald Square. “Big fuckin’ cockroaches all over the fuckin’ hot dogs.” And yet folks kept buying their hot dogs from the vendor, who looked disgruntled but otherwise unfazed. The woman recoiled and turned her head in dismay, as though there was someone beside her in support of her crusade. “Ugh!” Her face conveyed the distress of someone whose sincere concern for the greater good of another goes unheeded. “Can you believe this? They’re buyin’ the fuckin’ hot dogs!” she lamented to no one in particular, before taking a long drag from her cigarette.

This was last Saturday at lunch time. I was in the City on another one of my research trips for my first historical novel, set in New York City in 1911. My train from DC had pulled into Penn Station less than an hour earlier. New items on the agenda this time were seeing some of the buildings where workers at the Triangle Waist Company once lived, visiting the Brooklyn gravesite of the six victims of the fire who remained unidentified for nearly a hundred years, and hoping to meet with Triangle historian Michael Hirsch.

I had made an inquiry about the victims of the Triangle fire on Facebook, when I heard from someone named Michael Hirsch. Where had I heard that name before? Oh, right, I’d seen his name here:

And here, as one of the producers of this HBO film:

And oh yeah, he was the researcher who single-handedly uncovered and confirmed the names of the six once-unidentified victims. You could say I was pretty excited at the prospect of meeting him.

Nevertheless, this time I was significantly less exuberant than I’d been on previous trips. Gone was my I’m-writing-a-novel! cockiness enthusiasm, ironic given that this was my first trip after actually completing the first draft. The enthusiasm had given way to a raging why-am-I-doing-this-again? funk. The past weeks had been spent waist-deep in novel revisions, and at least elbow-deep in the funk.

More and more people asking me if I have a publisher (no), an agent (no), or if I have “workshopped” my novel (no) or am “working with someone” on it (um … no). Then I talk about self-publication with enough people to realize that the stigma around it is still very prevalent. Don’t think I haven’t thought that these beloved, passionate projects of mine may never really see the light of day, let alone earn enough money that I can be a writer full-time while also affording to take my kid on a few trips during his growing-up years, then send him to college one day. Besides (whines the funk), does the world really need another novel about the Triangle fire? What makes me think I have anything to add to the stories that have already been told? Finally, I was bogged down, as I often am, by the knowledge that while I am not earning a paycheck, each one of these trips costs my family money, and I–still!–feel a degree of guilt about leaving my 4-year-old son for a couple of nights away.

I slept less and less in the nights leading up to the trip, until I barely slept the night before. This was the state in which I was confronted with the woman and her anti-hot dogs tirade. It bothered me. I hurried past her and down the stairs into the subway. Two minutes later, I got stuck in one of these damn things.

(Photo from http.nybydzine.tumblr.com)

This time I didn’t even have luggage!* After swiping my MetroPass twice (and feeling a little ripped off), I was finally in. It was after 1PM, breakfast had been in DC around 7AM, and I was lightheaded from lack of sleep and the train. The wait felt endless, and the ride was cramped and sweaty. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable my beloved City can be during summer. And I was starting to fear that it was my beloved City no more, that I was turning into one of those people who find it to be too much.

Lemme tell you about a glistening, sweaty subway ride.
I was on my way to historic Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side. It was a place where immigrant women (men, too) living in New York one hundred years ago had access to books, and I’ve set a scene in my novel there. But first, I needed lunch. And finally it came, at a place called Cafe Petisco, across the street from the library.
Falafel pita with fries: Extraordinary in both flavors and textures. The pink dipping sauce was especially inspired. And when the check came for a whopping $8, I knew I’d found a new favorite place in the City.

And it came with a side of interesting conversation. Cafe Petisco is the sort of place where you sit thisclose to the person at the next table. The woman next to me was an Australian living a couple of blocks west from where we were, apparently, in the heart of Chinatown. “I am the only English-speaking round eyes on the entire block.” Her words. For the past two years, she has rented a room in a 5-room apartment full of Chinese people, including entire families. I wasn’t certain of the number of people in her apartment. But she did tell me that when her flat mates stock the fridge up with fresh groceries, she has opened the door to find seafood so fresh it’s still moving, and has been startled by chicken feet falling out of one of the refrigerator shelves. I wanted to hear more, while also wanting to reserve the right to hit the Undo button if it got too weird. I asked whether she can have friends over–mostly, my curiosity had to do with a specific kind of guest … the type that might be inclined to spend the night, tú sabes. She said she probably could, but hasn’t felt the need to these two years. All she knows is she pays less than $700/month (utilities included) to live in Manhattan and she is saving loads of money.

In the 30 minutes we sat together, my new friend drank two Bloody Mary’s and a coffee. I paid my check and headed across the street to the library in a bit of a haste, realizing only too late that, at least in the context of my mildly weary state, I had indeed crossed into too-weird territory in my conversation with the friendly woman, who was now probably tipsy (if caffeinated).

Left, Seward Park Library at the turn of the 20th century (photos courtesy of New York Public Library). Right, the library as it looks today.

From the library, I made my way up to the East Village on foot to meet Michael Hirsch. No tequila was involved, and I had plenty of cold water to keep me hydrated. (*See previous blog post for a bit of context on the topics of subway with luggage, and tequila.)

My meeting with Michael Hirsch at Veniero’s Pasticceria, and our stroll around the East Village, did not disappoint. Talking to him is like getting the inside scoop on the garment workers’ strike, Triangle, and the fire, with plenty of nuance and countless poignant details about the lives of the workers.

Piragüero outside the site of the Clinton Street building where a 35-year-old widow from Russia named Julia Rosen lived with her children in 1911. She and her son, Israel, worked at the Triangle Company. Both perished in the fire.

An after-dinner stroll around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library brought the day to a close on a decent note.

But when it came time to leave the hotel Sunday morning, I suddenly didn’t want to. There was a Harry Potter movie marathon on TV, and I thought, how often (not counting illness) do I get to just lie in bed and watch TV? I could take a mini-vacation! I just didn’t feel like dealing with the City. Could New York’s energy, which I’ve always so proudly reveled in, be getting the best of me? And what if I got lost on my trip to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn ?

Still, I couldn’t not go to Evergreens. If I did nothing else, I would go to the cemetery and pay my respects, then I’d spend the rest of the day in the hotel if I still felt like it. So I got over my boo-hooing self, and hopped on the L train to Bushwick Avenue and Aberdeen Street. The cemetery was deserted. It was beautiful, sprawling, old … I got lost about 5 minutes in. It was also very overcast and windy. I tried my best to keep various points of reference in sight so that I wouldn’t become deeply scary-lost.

I also tried flagging down the lone security guard making rounds in a large white sedan; no joy. A small voice inside my head taunted that I should never have left my hotel. Yet I knew even then that I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt at peace, and I knew I’d find the gravesite. After several more minutes (with my husband on the phone reading from Google Maps), I did.

It had started to rain; this brought to mind accounts I’ve read of the burial of the victims in 1911. Countless stones sat atop the base of the monument, placed by previous visitors, and I instantly felt less alone, even though there was no one else there. The only sound, aside from the rain drops, was the subway rumbling in the distance every few minutes. It was a powerful, unforgettable moment. I said a prayer, and felt duly ashamed of my self-pity earlier in the morning. As more people began to arrive to visit other graves, I made my way back to the subway for the ride back to Manhattan with a very full heart. The rain cleared, and the Manhattan skyline came into view.

The rest of the day was spent in the West Village. I stood at Greene Street and Washington Place a good long while, making notes of different details I hadn’t noticed before about the building that once housed Triangle.
I like to think that talking to myself while pacing back and forth and taking notes on this street corner confirmed my place among New York’s eccentrics.
Afterwards, I visited Our Lady of Pompeii Church, where I’ve also written a scene–and where I took the chance to say a quick thank you. The final stop was the Merchant’s House Museum, taking more notes for my novel, in addition to snapping photos of mirrors throughout the home. Why? Read my book!  🙂

Crossing Broadway that afternoon, I overheard a man say to his friend, “My mom always says you can have comfort or courage, not both.” I knew I’d heard that phrase before; two minutes later, Google told me where. Of course it was Brené Brown! The quick search revealed another really good one.

I only headed back to my hotel to get showered and dressed for dinner. Along the way, I noticed a disheveled woman on the subway fighting with an MTA attendant about her MetroPass. It seemed she had swiped it, but hadn’t been able to enter. “It’s unlimited!” she insisted. Then, to no one in particular, she loudly decried, “They’re trying to stop me because I’m bringing people to Christ!” I smiled to myself. Not in the spirit of mocking the poor woman. One thing I love about the Big Apple is the keen reminder it offers that we are all the same. I may not be bringing people to Christ, but I have plenty of experience getting stuck entering a subway station. I did not hurry uncomfortably past this woman. That’s when I knew I got it again, that we’re all the same. I was back on track. At dinner, I treated myself to an outstanding mofongo at a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazón.
Tried so hard to finish it …
Upon returning to my hotel room at the very end of the day, I got really comfortable, and watched the final installment in the Harry Potter movies. Afterwards, I had my first real night’s sleep in several days. It had been a good day. A very full, fast-paced New York day. I no longer felt ashamed of the discomfort I’d had previously. After all, one of my fears was realized; I did get lost by myself in the big old cemetery on a gloomy day. And yet, I was okay. So instead, I blessed my vulnerability and the realization that it hadn’t been the end of the story. I had walked through that vulnerability and come out stronger on the other side. Noted. I still have no publisher, no agent, etc., but I’m going to keep walking through it…!
An ad on the subway … Really?! Ah, I love this City.
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Tips for New York City

I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.

While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.

(Photo from Subwaynut.com)

But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.

Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.

The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.

My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.

Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.

Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!

I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.

Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.
Now go.
You’re welcome.
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My weekend in New York

What an awesome weekend. I have written before about my ongoing love affair with New York City (see here, and here). Friends and family ask me all the time what I do on these trips. It’s a very valid question. Here I finally answer them in some detail. But first, a summary of some logistical faux pas; still scratching my head over these …
Snow and ice outside the train window; sweltering heat and sun on board the train. And a heart that swelled with gratitude!
On this trip to NYC, my first one since becoming the proud owner of an iPhone, I was especially psyched to use the compass app that comes with it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve exited the NYC Subway and wanted to cry out, “Won’t someone just tell me which way is East, please?!” (Hey, it’s not that easy!) This time that wouldn’t happen. As I emerged excited–exuberant, even–from Penn Station and onto the snowy streets of Manhattan, I whipped out my awesome phone … and went the wrong freaking way. Ugh! The walk to my hotel took easily twice as long as it should have, and included an extra long, puddle-filled stretch of city block behind Madison Square Garden, pulling my little suitcase behind me with one hand, holding my umbrella in the other; no hand left for my phone. Not that it was of any use, and I am still not sure how the awesome compass app led me astray.
The coaster at one of the restaurants. I can always count on Mr. Louis Armstrong: now I will think of this quote every time someone asks me, “What is it with you and New York?”

There was also the issue of my umbrella, which kept trying to flap itself inside out in the wind. Slapstick was so the opposite of the cool, seasoned NYC-visitor look I was going for. By the time I was leaving my hotel after checking in and dropping off luggage, I was not above asking the receptionist, “This way is North, right?” I knew it was, just wanted the confirmation. Her response, a little indignant: “I don’t know which way is North! All I know is this way’s Uptown, that way’s Downtown.” Ah, another inadvertent faux pas. What was I thinking!

 

An alternate title for this blog post was Expanding my collection of selfies.
There is some variety in where I stay (wherever I find the cheapest hotel around Midtown Manhattan), and based on that, the places where I choose to eat. Otherwise, though, the truth is I tend to do a lot of the same things. I visit the three focal points of the research for my book. They are places that have captivated me so profoundly, and sent my imagination soaring so high, that I have ultimately felt compelled to create a story around them.
And so, my first stop on Saturday was the Merchant’s House Museum, on East Fourth Street. As their website indicates, it is “New York City’s only family home preserved intact — inside and out — from the 19th century.” The family that occupied this home for 100 years also had an intriguing history. The final survivor was an unmarried daughter, who spent many years alone in the house until her death–alone, in the house–in the 1930s. She was regarded by some as an eccentric, but little is known about that. The house is also, by the way, thought to be haunted.

My second favorite place to visit is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It offers tours of the neighborhood and of the recreated apartments of different families–Irish, Italian, Jewish–in a historic 19th century tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. No one famous ever lived at 97 Orchard Street; George Washington did not sleep here. The Tenement Museum is important–invaluable–because it tells the stories of thousands of immigrants who lived hard, worked hard, sacrificed much, and ultimately forged a new American identity in a part of the city that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the world’s most densely and diversely populated neighborhood. Think about that. The highest concentration of people, from the largest variety of countries of origin, in the entire world, coexisted on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Orchard Street in 1898. (Museum of the City of New York)

These places have become such a part of me, that I know it is borderline obsessive. Just call me the Merchant’s House and Tenement Museum stalker, that’s okay. Each time I visit either one, I am routinely asked by a museum employee, “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” Plus, I’ve read so much about them, that during tours, I have a hard time resisting my Hermione Granger urge to raise my hand and chime in.

97 Orchard Street then and now. (Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photo Collection)
This was my first time in the city after having completed roughly 95% percent of my novel. I kept walking through the rooms, pacing back and forth, seeing the action of my story in a new way. Wow! Currently the story only exists on my laptop–thank goodness it’s no longer just inside my head–but it came to life before me this weekend. That, my friends, was pretty damn cool.
NYU’s historic Brown Building (Greene Street and Washington Place) off Washington Square Park

The third routine stop on my tour of Manhattan is NYU’s Brown Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. This 10-story building once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest and busiest one of its kind at the time. Triangle occupied the top three floors of the building. On a mild Saturday afternoon in March of 1911, 146 factory workers, most of them women under age 40, perished in a fire that started on the 8th floor and traveled–exploded–upwards within minutes, likely caused by a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin. It was a senseless loss of life, the tragic convergence of unsafe working conditions, panic fueled by ignorance fueled by more panic, unfair employers, and the same sort of hubris that caused many to declare the Titanic unsinkable just one year later. The story left me breathless from the first time I heard it.

There is a coffee shop in the NYU building across the street from the Brown Building. Eye witnesses from 1911 recall being, basically, at these very windows when they saw the bodies of fire victims fall to the street. Reading Leon Stein’s book* while sitting here was so powerful, it was hard to hold back the tears. It was also an incredible gift. How had I not known to come and sit here before? *Leon Stein was a journalist whose research on the fire provided the most detailed, in-depth account of it that exists today.

Every time I stand on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, I want to stop passersby, point out the site of the tragedy to them, ask them to take a moment. I have shed tears standing by myself on that corner. Don’t think I don’t know how this adds to the strangeness of my behavior around these locales. What can I say? It’s a passion, passion about the places, passion about the stories they tell. And a passion that finally led me to ask, what if these stories converged in a novel … ?

What if a young immigrant woman living in the Lower East Side and working at Triangle forms an unlikely friendship with the eccentric elderly spinster living alone in the fancy old house that sits on East Fourth Street, directly en route between her neighborhood and her factory job … ? And what if a Hispanic woman in the 21st century is haunted by something she sees on a trip to New York, and eventually uncovers her own family’s mysterious connection to these women and to a century-old tragedy … ? To be released in 2015 🙂

This, folks, is what I do on my trips to New York. Also? I take advantage of the chance to travel solo, pursuing a deep personal passion, very grateful for the opportunity. When one’s day job is wife and mother, no matter how loved and cherished that job is, such opportunities are imperative, and priceless.

Finally, when in New York, I eat, a lot. Ohhhhh yes. Until next time, I leave you with a few highlights of the food. What a gift this trip was!

Lunch at Taqueria Lower East Side. It is superb and outstanding and comforting and abundant–and cheap!–Mexican food. Please note the very reasonable total for the amount of food and drink. The margarita was also delicious but a little too strong if I wanted to remain conscious and act relatively normal during my Tenement Museum tour.

Dinner at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. Beet, goat cheese, and endive salad with arugula and walnuts, French fries, Comté and Machego cheeses. A truly special meal. The culinary equivalent of an hour at a spa, and I did take a good hour to eat it all. Holy sheep’s milk; and cow’s and goat’s. I covered them all, and I was in heaven!

 

 

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Valentine’s Days Past and Present

This Valentine’s Day marked the 10th anniversary
of me not being proposed to. I’d been
dating this man for just over a year and all signs pointed to marriage. A
dinner reservation was made at The Melting Pot, the place we had gone to months
earlier the night before we first exchanged I love yous. I was already a
little nervous as we were taken to our table. Then the woman who seated us said,
“You should know this is a lucky table. The couple who sat here right before
you got engaged! Isn’t that exciting?! Other diners were taking pictures; it
was oh so romantic.” Cue stomach ache. I’m afraid I don’t even remember much about
the meal that night. But no, our “lucky” table did not bear witness to a second
marriage proposal that particular evening. And the disappointment did feel
pretty crushing at the time.

 

This year’s Valentine’s Day flowers

Timing really is everything. My date that night was already
researching engagement rings and planning a phone call to my father—I
come from an old school family. A proposal did come that same year. Less than
two months after Valentine’s Day. In Paris. And yes, it was very romantic, so much more so than it
would have been amidst bubbling pots of melted cheese. There was no view of
a lit up Notre-Dame de Paris as backdrop at The Melting Pot in DC, thank you
very much. Not that it’s a competition between the woman who was proposed to
at The Melting Pot and me. But I win! (Kidding, sort of.) I made sure this year to say
to my husband, “Hey, happy 10th anniversary of the night we did not
get engaged!” To which he responded, rolling his eyes, “You say that like it
didn’t work out in the end!” We laughed. And we both still–sort of–want to
smack the seating hostess who put a damper on that Valentine’s Day for us. She couldn’t have known, of course. That’s okay.

It just took a little more time, and patience
Fast forward six years. Valentine’s Day 2010, I was pregnant
out to *there*, and watching the
Vancouver Winter Olympics from my couch in DC was the closest I got to physical fitness of any kind.
That’s unless you count bicep curls, chugging the chocolate milk by the
gallons. Hey, I was pregnant and needed the calcium. And I needed something to
wash down the Nutella-smothered croissants (yes, plural) that were my nighttime
snack about 30 minutes before bed every night.
Two other things stand out about that one. That Valentine’s Day came a few days after the
record-breaking East Coast blizzard that became known as Snowmaggedon. If you looked out
onto our street after snow had been falling for two days, every single car was
still buried in snow for hours and hours … except for our little SUV. It was
all pristine whiteness as far as the eye could see, with this shock of bright,
shiny red (the color of our car) outside our house. The wonderful man who didn’t
propose 10 Valentine’s Days ago had diligently dug out our car and cleared several
yards’ worth of street in the event that his wife went into labor. This was
also the weekend that the women in my Puerto Rican family—my mother, sister,
sister-in-law, and nieces, the women I love best and most fiercely in this life—flew
up to DC to throw a baby shower for us. My nieces played in snow for the first
time in their life. We had amazing food and great laughs. Anytime we went out,
we’d walk hand-in-hand or linking elbows to keep from slipping on the snow and
ice. It was one of the happiest, most unforgettable Valentine’s Days of my
entire life. I felt so loved!

 

Snowmageddon 2010. My husband was getting geared up to start digging …
In February of 2013, our son started preschool two mornings
a week. It was his and my first real separation since he was born. And it was
tough. He cried for his mama quite a lot. And Mama did her share of crying when
he wasn’t looking. Valentine’s Day fell on his second week of school. Somehow, I
(literally) missed the memo that each child was asked to bring Valentine’s
cards and treats for the entire class. I was the only parent there with a child
who wouldn’t stop crying, and who hadn’t brought anything for the other kids.
Basically I spent it apologizing to all the other parents. “Hi, yes, I’m the
mother of the new—screaming—boy over there. We didn’t bring anything for
Valentine’s Day, sorry. But nice to meet you! How about a play date…?” It wasn’t
the happiest.

One year later, the boy adores school and would go every day
if he could. “Bye, Mama! … Go, Mama!” He says at drop-off. “Okay, I’m going, I’m
going …” I respond.

I spent this Valentine’s Day enjoying snow day #2 this week,
as well as all the fruits of my cooking and baking from the previous day. It
was also spent packing for my trip to New York City. I am writing this blog on
the Amtrak train with snow blowing outside the window! I have developed a tradition
of traveling to Manhattan by myself every year in February. It is by far the
most affordable month (wonder why that is) and it allows me to continue research for my first
novel (now 114,000 words-, 390 pages- strong) in this “concrete jungle where dreams
are made of…”
13 Feb 2014 cooking and baking. And I couldn’t resist a food shot.
I hope you had a very happy Valentine’s Day. Who cares if it’s
cheesy and commercialized! It’s a day for celebrating love and chocolate. And I
hope you had plenty of both wherever you were.
And if something you deem important didn’t happen to come true for you this time, maybe be
patient, give it time …
View from the window of my DC-NYC train

 

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My love letter to an iconic all-American female

Today I want to share with you the poem The New Colossus, written in 1883 in New York City by Emma Lazarus. Why?

Inauguration celebrations, October 1886.

Because it is a beautiful poem. I invariably get a tear—or two—when I read it, hear it, or recite it. I even memorized it, in 2012, before my family went on a Disney Cruise out of New York City. I had just heard the story of the woman who wrote it, and I wanted to recite it right as the cruise ship passed the Statue of Liberty. This was an ironic joke on me, because the two times we went by it, I was own in my cabin! But I am glad to have learned it; now it will be with me always.

Travelers aboard a steamship can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Because every time this beacon came into view when steamships full of new immigrants entered New York Harbor, the steamships would literally tilt dangerously to one side: Everyone was standing on the same side of the boat to see her. The legend that many of these people wept upon seeing her is a true one. Even in a scene from the best sitcom ever, The Golden Girls, Sophia  Petrillo recalls this moment. “But beyond her was the Statue of Liberty. I remember the first words I shouted out, ‘there she is, Lady Liberty.’ I also remember the second words I shouted out, ‘slow down, you yutz, you’re going past her!'”

Emma Lazarus 1849-1887 (notablebiographies.com)

Because I am so deeply moved by the story of the poet, Emma
Lazarus, who never saw the completed Statue herself, that I am compelled to share it. She wrote and donated the poem to help raise money when there was not enough to finance construction of the pedestal. The only part of the Statue that the public had seen was the arm and torch. In 1887, on her return to New York after a two-year trip to Europe, construction on the towering Statue had been completed. It could easily have been seen from her steamship. But she was too ill with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma to venture out on deck. Emma Lazarus passed the colossal “Mother of Exiles” in all her finished glory, and never saw her. She died two months later, at 38 years old. I will never see the Statue of Liberty in the same way after hearing this story. I hereby honor Emma Lazarus by sharing her words. I love their assertive feminism blended so seamlessly with soft femininity.

The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty, on display in Madison Square Park from 1876 to 1882 as part of the fundraising efforts for construction of the pedestal.

Because I had eagerly explored ways to incorporate the poem in my novel, set in 1911 New York City. After trying several angles, I’d given up on it. And that was okay, because it made no sense to force it. Earlier this week, I found a way (it’s so obvious to me now!) for the poem to fit into the story.

The (“Old”) Colossus of Rhodes. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it also sat in the harbor of a prominent world city. It symbolized superior military prowess.

Because the role of immigrants is still an intensely relevant topic in America. And the words in this poem continue to speak to the plight of immigrants with incomparable poignancy more than 100 years later.

Because I think that not enough people know this poem, even though most are at least familiar with the ubiquitous two or three lines toward the end. My proof? I told my brilliant husband, who knows a lot about history and also knows better than anyone of my fixation with this story, that I was preparing a blog post about The New Colossus, and he said, “Oh, great! … What’s that?”

Because I love New York, love the story of this poem, love the poem itself. Enjoy.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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Extreme novelist: Living the dream!

The eight-week class called Extreme Novelist has ended! Before I can say anything about it, I need to share with you a little bit about the journey before that.

I wanted to write books since I first started reading books by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, etc. in the early eighties. Another favorite book back then was called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! by Stephen Manes. Spoiler alert. After the initial scenes where the main character does a bunch of funny things in pursuit of perfection, the instruction for the third and final day is this: do nothing. Because if you do nothing, you don’t risk getting it wrong. This sums up how I dealt with my dream of writing for 30 years.

 

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In graduate school—late nineties—I started to buy books about creative writing. I kept them hidden at the bottom of a drawer in my apartment, where I lived alone. Ten more years went by and nothing. Okay, not nothing. I did write several academic papers and one doctoral dissertation. Once that was done, I still wanted more. Stephen King, in his book called On Writing, says this, “to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I certainly was doing a lot of both, only it was all academic stuff. My heart and soul weren’t fully in it, and I was so burned out that I couldn’t see beyond it.

Aside from academic fatigue, if I even thought of saying that I wanted to write fiction, I felt that I might as well be saying, “I want to be a Hollywood movie star.” I had the paralyzing fear that others would think: delusions of grandeur. Honestly? I myself thought I had to be some kind of superior being to feel worthy of saying it, let alone pursuing it.

I had been married over four years before I told my husband, the person I share my bed with, that I wanted to write fiction. It was summer of 2009 when I “came out.” Finally! I’d also had an idea for a book that very summer, after a trip to the Tenement Museum and the Merchant’s House Museum, both in New York City.

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Emboldened by the fact that I had shared my dream with my husband and my mother, and neither had laughed or balked, I signed up for a creative writing class that summer. And another sickening fear I’d held about “writing types” seemed to come true. I got the impression that the folks were spending an absurd amount of time and energy engaging in a deep-high-brow-interestingness competition. Nooooo! Ugh. I never even finished the class. It was so disheartening. Plus, by then I had learned I was pregnant. Soon
after, I resumed my teaching job and was thoroughly absorbed by the work of my day job and planning for baby.

 

Funny how things work out. Because it was motherhood that had the effect
nothing else had. Simply going back to my old self was no longer an option to feel fully like me. And in order to encourage my son to always be himself and follow his bliss, I  knew I had to teach him by example. That’s when I knew I had no choice but to face my dream head on. This was it, man. And the assault of fear, doubt, and embarrassment made its appearance, right on cue. The difference now was, I didn’t have a choice. What I had was an urgency to get over myself and just do it.

I began the research for my book and started to write. Trips to New York followed. I met the fabulous Merchant’s House Museum historian, Mary
Knapp, whose book on the history of the home has been an invaluable resource.

Slowly, soooo slowly, I began to tell people, “I’m writing a book.” It’s one of the most vulnerable things I have ever, ever declared in my life. It makes me feel naked. I am not a very naked person. In fact, I sometimes still follow
up the statement with body language that conveys a timid dismissiveness, “I’m
writing a book but it will probably suck anyway and please, please don’t think I am an arrogant a-hole!”

Week 8 milestone: 70,000 words

I also signed up for the eight-week class this fall, taught by the novelist Kathryn Johnson. It involved a commitment to write 90 minutes a day, six days a week. Amid the countless gifts I’ve received since I began this journey in earnest, forming a rigorous writing habit is a huge one. I no longer get hung up on perfecting (please … trying to perfect) a scene, the language, the structure, or waiting to be enraptured by an otherworldly fit of inspiration. I make the time, sit my butt down wherever I can, and I work, work, work. By the end of week 8, I had written 70,000 words. The finish line for the first draft of my first novel is within sight. And the dream to have it finished by my 40th birthday looks well within reach! Very importantly, I have also maintained a steadfast writing schedule, even writing every day of our family trip for Thanksgiving. Now, I don’t mean to speak in clichés, but maybe I’m about to. Wanting to do this has been like a like allowing a major part of me to breathe. Either I stayed in the safety of my comfort zone, or I finally let that part of me breathe. Freeing myself of my comfort zone, I discovered one of the weirdest and truest clichés: That regardless of the outcome, the process is in itself its own reward. Just another one of the countless gifts … living the life I always dreamed, and breathing easier!

My husband took this photo and captioned it “Extreme attitude.” This is me: 1) Wearing the t-shirt my writing teacher made for her super-popular class, 2) Feeling a little naked (in the figurative sense) but with some sass to show that I’m proud of it, 3) Doing an awesome duck face
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