Yearly Archives: 2013

The Lioness:
Doris Lessing & The Legacy
She Left

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Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at the age of 89, died Sunday. She was 94. The Nobel Prize was hardly the crowing achievement of Lessing’s life and she didn’t pretend that it was. She understood what few of us are able to grasp — that the accolades are not the life. There is a beautiful tribute to Lessing by Alexandra Schwartz over at The New Yorker. I cannot top it here. And so, I direct you there.

PHOTOGRAPHY via The New Yorker

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Why 12 Years A Slave Is
The Greatest Work On
Slavery The World Has Known

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12 Years A Slave is the greatest work of art about slavery that the world has ever known or ever will know. That was my assessment when I first saw the film nearly a month ago, and that’s my assessment now.

It’s taken some time for me to wade through the sea of emotions I felt in the wake of seeing 12 Years A Slave and engaging the critical conversation around it. I saw the movie at an industry screening and Q&A with the film’s director, Steve McQueen, the British fine artist turned filmmaker of African descent who’s previous films are the Michael Fassbinder starrers Hunger and Shame, and three of the film’s stars, the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the lead role of Solomon Northrop, the American actress Alfre Woodard who plays a former slaved turned planter’s mistress, and the great discovery of the year, the Kenyan born-Yale educated actress Lupita Ngong’o, who’s riveting turn as the slave Patsey has earned her a place in the acting pantheon. Ms. Woodard rightly tipped her hat as well to her white co-stars, whose courageous work was as essential to McQueen’s accomplishment as was that of the African diaspora stars — representing three continents! — who shared the stage that night. I want to make special note of the work of three of those actors, starting with Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s riding high this moviegoing season with lauded performances in three important films, 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, and the much anticipated August Osage County, which received a long and rousing standing ovation when I saw it on the Broadway stage. The miracle of Cumberbatch’s work as the slave owning Ford is his ability to imbue his compassionate master with genuine humanity and fellow-feeling towards Northrop, whom he clearly understood as his equal or, as he seemed to understand, his better, but who nonetheless did nothing to restore Northrop to the freedom from which he knew he’d been stolen, opting instead to use Northrop — his property no matter how that came to be — to satisfy his debts. 

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Lorde Have Mercy

The New Zealand singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who goes by the name of Lorde, is a 16 year old with the wisdom of an octogenarian, who, as The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones put it in magazine’s October 21st, 2013 issue, is “a teen-ager from Auckland, with an unnatural gift” who “has entered the suit-infested ruins of the music business with the confidence of a veteran and the skills of a prodigy. She is less a flashy new mansion in the suburbs, Frere Jones writes, “than an architectural gem in a tony neighborhood.”

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Derek Walcott’s
“Love After Love”

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I discovered Derek Walcott’s poem “Love After Love” today, and it was a benediction. It opened my heart and strengthened my courage and grew my confidence — that the life I have been living all these years, humble and meandering and broken as it has sometimes been, has been the true life that I came here for. “The time will come/” he writes, “when, with elation/you will greet yourself arriving/at your own door, in your own mirror.” Where else should we be arriving to? And yet, there are the impostors, those shouting voices of fear urging us onward in the direction where we are not, that we might have the accolades and riches of this world, even as we secretly know that the richest place we will ever know is the place inside our own soul.

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Finding Your Tribe

Maasai-Adumu

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I am a nomad.

no·mad [noh-mad]  noun

1. a member of a people or tribe that has no permanent abode but moves about from place to place, usually seasonally and often following a traditional route or circuit according to the state of the pasturage or food supply.

2. any wanderer; itinerant.

All of my life I have been looking for home.  And always, I’ve known I wasn’t there yet, though lately I feel myself drawing close to home. Tribe — I somehow always knew — had less to do with ethnicity or nationality or class or any of the usual barometers we look to to tell us who we are. These, of course, are constructs. Who we deeply are does not arise from the color of our skin, or the landmass where we hatched ourselves into this life, or even the place where we grew up (much as our experiences there — and the bodies we inhabit — shape who we become). We are a priori all of that.

I have never been able to say that I believe in past lives — belief seemed too strong a word. Still, I have known, since my earliest childhood, that these bodies, and these personalities, are not our lives. They are the raiments we’ve wrapped ourselves in while we live out this brief chapter.

I was five the first time I remembered a past life. In that life I was on a Scottish Moor in the 13th Century, watching the monks who had loved and sheltered me walk into the waters to their deaths. I stayed behind and lost my life in the Wars of Scottish Independence, which, if they were about anything, were about human dignity. Years later, I would find myself revisiting another past life, as a Cheyenne Indian in 18th Century Colorado. I was in love with a Union soldier and it didn’t go over well. One Google search later, I confirmed that the Cheyenne Indians were not from Colorado, and they aren’t there now, but they were there for a brief while, in the 18th Century. I don’t know what to make of this. I’m not sure I believe in past lives. But these stories help me make sense of the life I am living now, which has always, even when I looked away, been grounded in my deep desire to make a better world by helping to erase the lines that divide us.

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