Sunday, February 26, 2012

Connections at Harlem's Library

From last week's posting. . .
Connection #6:
The last connection must wait for its own telling, next week.  My visit to the Harlem Branch Library was much too grand to begin its story here, at the end of an already lengthy line of connections.


The minute I stood on the library's steps, I felt its energy, its presence drawing me inside.  Libraries do that to me, fill me with such anticipation of what I will find -- books I'm searching for, and ones searching for me.  As I walked under the arched entrance,

into a large downstairs reading room, I felt embraced by history -- history dating back to 1826.

Harlem was still a remote village then. Eleven more years would go by before rail service connected it to New York City.  The community committed its own resources to supporting a library until 1909 when the New York Public Library incorporated it as one of its first branches.  Andrew Carnegie donated the money for the library's present building, which has been welcoming readers, like me, for 103 years.  It received a major renovation in 2004 but, thankfully, still feels old with. . .


arched windows inviting in the light

                                            wooden pews waiting for children's stories

marbled staircases leading readers onward

The librarian pointed me towards the poetry section where I found Langston Hughes, surrounded by a community of other African American voices -- 

Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Shirley Chisholm, Freedom Riders, segregated high school students in Arkansas, and more -- reminding us of their struggle and of our continued responsibilities to racial justice.

Before leaving the library, I sat alone at a small table in the children's section; the room quiet. I opened  The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes and skimmed poems from random chapters.  All too soon, it was time to go. I flipped hurriedly to the final chapter and found a poem, surprisingly, addressed -- to me.

To You

To sit and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world
Outside our world of here and now---
     our problem world---
To dream of vast horizons of the soul
Through dreams made whole,
Unfettered free --- help me!
All you who are dreamers, too, 
Help me make our world anew;
I reach out my hand to you.  

In this world of connections, it is, also, addressed To You.

Monday, February 20, 2012


". . . stories lead to other stories. . ."  
 - Brian Selznick

Five words among the 26,159 in his book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, on which the movie, "Hugo" is based.    
 Five words spoke to me, more than all the others, as I read Hugo's story this weekend.
Because I know them to be be true.  I just experienced them.

My story began two weeks ago at the Studio Museum in Harlem. 

 I was helping chaperone a group of Léman Manhattan High School students on a tour of The Romare Bearden Project.  (Please refer to my earlier blog posting).  I knew nothing of Mr. Bearden or his art, but learned that one of his signature works was called "The Block," an 18-foot collaged mural depicting a Harlem neighborhood, much as Bearden experienced it.  I saw a picture of it in the Studio's gift shop and wondered where it might be located, but left without asking.

Connection #1:
Soon after, I was meeting with a group of Léman's Lower School teachers at the Broad street campus.  Needing tape, I walked into the nearby art room, passing two colorful pictures, which looked vaguely familiar.  As I left the room, I stopped to examine them more closely.  Unbelievably, I found myself once again looking at Bearden's "The Block."

Andrea Yost, the Lower School art teacher said, "Yes, our first graders have been studying "The Block," and creating their own.

Days before, I would likely have ignored these amazing collages, missing the intricate details captured so imaginatively by 6- and 7-year-olds.  There would have been no connection to whisper in my ear, "Stop, look."
(The pieces are currently on display in a glass case in the school's entrance at 41 Broad Street.)

Connection #2:
Andrea added as I was leaving, "I think the original is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Connection #3:
A quick Google search verified Andrea's hunch, and I planned a trip for the next day.  But there was more. I discovered that a book entitled, The Block, had been published in 1995, pairing scenes from the mural with poems by  Langston Hughes, a contemporary of Bearden and fellow Harlem resident.

As soon as I read about the book, I hurriedly spilled the contents of my purse on the bed.  Retrieving my wrinkled To Do List, created a month earlier, I skimmed down to the fourth line and read, incredulously, "Get a book of poetry by Langston Hughes."  It was the only line that had not been crossed off.

Connection #4:
I immediately ordered a copy of The Block from Amazon and searched the New York Public Library's catalog for a collection of Hughes' poetry. I found one available copy of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, appropriately, at the Harlem Branch, one subway stop past the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Connection #5:
"The Block" was waiting for me in the Met's Gallery 399.  The more closely I searched its scenes, the more the street came to life. . children playing outside the Mirror Barber Shop, a solitary man sitting at the top of a flight of stairs, a funeral processing to a waiting hearse, faces looking out windows, faces looking into windows. . .
The images swirled through my head, as the subway whooshed towards Harlem.

Connection #6:
The last step of this story must wait for its own telling, next week.  My visit to the Harlem Branch Library was much too grand to begin here, at the end of an already lengthy line of connections.

I ponder, again, Selznick's quote:

"Stories lead to other stories," to which I add:    

connected as    
 invisible threads in a web
for us to follow

 I sit today, cup of tea on the counter, Collected Poems of Langston Hughes open to its side.
The poet in me contemplates, "What connections can Langston Hughes have for me?"



Monday, February 13, 2012

Pier 15 - A Sanctuary on South Street

We have enjoyed day after sunny day of glorious weather lately in NYC.  I try to stay focused on my writing, but the sunshine, blue skies and moderate temperatures (for this time of year) keep calling me to come outside and play.  The water glistening on the East River says, "Come down to the pier, sit and watch the boats go by, feel the wind in your hair."  The Brooklyn Bridge says, "Come take a walk; stop mid-span and gaze in the distance at the Statue of Liberty, her torch golden in the sun."  I can resist no longer, so I zip up my coat, grab hat and gloves and rush out the door, before my laptop has a chance to open her mouth with words of, "You'll get behind,"  "What about your deadline?"

I follow the East River's advice and walk the four blocks from our apartment building to the water's edge, past the commercialization of Pier 17, to my newly discovered secret. . . a sanctuary.  I watched its progress for 6 months, as I fast-walked past on my morning exercise route.  I had no idea what was under construction; I simply noticed and kept walking.  Then one morning, as if by the wave of a wand, all signs of construction had vanished.  The workmen were gone, the coverings lifted, the yellow barrier tapes missing, without a single nail to signal their existence.  In their place stood a pristine new building.

                                                  I read the sign, then entered.

                               The further into the structure I walked, the greater my delight.



benches inviting me to sit            

            tables inviting me to picnic

                                                       a patch of Nature's calm. . .

                                         a sanctuary amidst the day's distractions

Today, I sit on the grass, close my eyes to the warming sun, and secretly hope that others take their time  discovering this spot.

But then . . . sanctuaries are meant to be shared.

Discover it for yourself at South Street & Fletcher; walk towards the water.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Giant(s) Party!

Drew and I had both ends of the Super Bowl Parade route covered.  He and the entire Léman Manhattan Prep middle/high school students and staff staked out spots in front of "their" building.  The school occupies the 19-22 floors of the original Cunard (Line) Building, directly across from the Bull -- a perfect spot to watch  the Giants begin their ticker tape trek up Broadway.  As proof of just how perfect, Gary Schwartz, the school's art teacher and photographer extraordinare, snapped this photo.

                                                       Eli and Léman -- all the way!

I was about three-quarters of a mile away, where the parade would end with a "key-to-the-city" ceremony on the steps of City Hall.  I wasn't exactly at the park, but 27 floors above it in our apartment, warm as toast, sitting in a comfortable chair.  I would occasionally sip my tea, look out the window and wait for the floats and festivities to reach me.

Truth be told, I felt luckier than the Giants did when Tom Brady's final pass fell flat in the end zone.  The only downside to my perch was that the speakers' words tended to float away on the noonday breeze, so I remedied that problem by turning up the TV's audio.  At one point, I did venture downstairs to get a true sense of the elbow-to-elbow excitement, but got elbowed out before I could move half a block. I turned around and headed back upstairs to my tea.

In his speech, Mayor Bloomberg mentioned that it would be easy to replicate the parade again next year since the plans are already in place.  Drew and I will be faithfully at our posts, although next year, he may want the cushy spot.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Harlem and Bearden, For the First Time

When Gary Schwartz, Visual Arts Chair at Leman Manhattan Preparatory School, asked me to help chaperone a field trip to the Studio Museum in Harlem, I eagerly said, "Yes," having never been to Harlem and excited to learn about a new museum.
Then he added, "I'm taking a group of students to see The Bearden Project, an exhibit containing works by Romare Bearden and artists influenced by his style."
Wanting to appear cultured, I could have faked more than I knew with a simple, "Ahhh . . . interesting," but opted for honesty (with a hint of embarrassment) and said, "Never heard of him." Then, I quickly reminded myself, "It's all about learning."

I had even more ignorance to admit. My knowledge of Harlem was in serious need of updating. . . images of poverty, high crime, high unemployment, dilapidated buildings, racial tension.  As we climbed the steps of the 7th Avenue subway station into the noonday sun of 125th St., I was surprised at the sights that greeted me. . . clean streets, bustling businesses, brownstones in good repair, busy sidewalk vendors, restaurants with intriguing names and equally enticing smells, sidewalks overflowing with people, walking in safety and with purpose.  A couple of blocks doesn't begin to tell Harlem's story in 2012, nor capture the complexities of her history.  But as I walked toward the Studio Museum, I was already making plans to return and learn.

In an earlier posting, I wrote that modern art and I know one another only casually.  As a contemporary collagist, Romare Bearden's art falls into that genre, and I did not immediately "take" to it. However, as I listened to our enthusiastic guide, watched the engaged faces of the students, and heard their teacher speak of the inspiration he felt from Bearden's art, I tried to look more closely, with openness.

And I gradually began to find beauty in color, in position, in stories from Bearden's life as told through his creations.  I noticed the recurring birds, foliage, windows, the "rituals" from the South, with which I could identify.  I lingered and learned.

 (Romare Bearden - American, 1914-1988,
"In the Garden" from the portfolio,
"The Prevalence of Ritual" - 1974
Silk screen in colors, 15/110)
Then we walked downstairs and were transported into "The Block," an entire room depicting life on a street in Harlem.  The original 18-foot-collage was created by Bearden, but Kira Lynn Harris re-created it in her own style, in white on black.

It was a space that invited me in, that said, "Come look in my windows and sit on my stoops." I began to feel what it must be like for visual artists to be so significantly influenced by another, similar to how I've found inspiration and instruction in the poetry of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.

I stood looking at the scene, realizing once again the exhilaration of learning something new!  As I spend time in parts of NYC unfamiliar to me, with art that is not instantly intuitive, with people whose perspectives are diverse, I grow beyond what I could imagine.

Thanks to Gary and his "Dream Team" of students, as he proudly called them, for a day of fun, learning and delicious food.  Jacob's Restaurant, Soul Food and Salad Bar --- worth another trip back to Harlem just for the collard greens and mac and cheese!




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