Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Atlantic City

Gobsmacked.  That’s the term my British friends would use to describe what I felt during a recent, short trip to Atlantic City (also known as AC).  If I translated the term directly, it would mean smacked in the mouth.  However the real meaning of the word is the state of being rendered utterly, and completely speechless.
That much emotion for Atlantic City?  Yes, I’m surprised that I even cared.  Growing up in Philadelphia in the early 70’s, AC was one of those places that the family would pack up the car and take a drive to down the Atlantic City Expressway.  It was one of those places you took for granted, unlike Ocean City (NJ or MD), or Martha’s Vineyard (for the more affluent of black folks).  Personally, I have many a fond memory of the Atlantic City-going ritual.  My mother got up at the crack of dawn to fry chicken and make potato salad and other edibles for the picnic basket.  Homemade iced-tea and lemonade were also staples for the trip.  We’d load the car and take the 1 1/2 hour journey all the way to “Chicken Bone Beach.”
Chicken Bone Beach was actually the nickname given to the stretch of the AC beach at Missouri Avenue.  The beach had been segregated since the 1900’s and this was where African Americans could go to romp and relax by the surf.  We went with our picnic baskets and transistor radios (everybody listened to the same stations – usually WDAS-FM, sometimes WHAT-AM), creating a lively, festive environment.  We could go to the amusement park and ride the roller coasters and Ferris wheel.  Bumping cars were a favorite, and I never really figured out just exactly how they got the man to turn into a gorilla right before your eyes! He, of course, would break out of the bars that “enclosed” him, chasing us while we squealed in terror. It was great carnival entertainment that had a special place in my heart.
When the casinos came in the mid to late 70’s, the sentiment by regular folk was that the troubles AC faced would magnify.  On the one hand, they did.  Crime went up, drug use increased, poverty worsened.  On the other hand, there were more jobs and people were hopeful that things would get better.  But this never fully manifested.  Today, the majority of casino workers live outside of AC and the town is still plagued by traditional big city troubles.
Now to my trip.  If ever I were to were become an anthropologist (highly unlikely) I would first go to Atlantic City.  It doesn’t matter where you go: on the boardwalk, in the casinos, in the amusement park, it’s all the same.  There’s something about the nature of human interaction in AC that let’s you know it’s always at the tipping point.  Whether the poles are between affluence - being broke, sobriety - addiction, family man – John, it’s always a thin thread of life that holds things dangerously together.  In addition, there isn’t a lot of distance between these extremes so that people easily transition from one end of the spectrum to the other.
I noticed one woman who walked down the street with her boyfriend.  She had the look of a person who had been chewed up and spit out.  A woman who then put on her best red tube top with matching tight pants, and gold jewelry.  Her jewelry was a throwback to the style popular in the eighties- probably the time when she became addicted to crack cocaine.
I know this look well from friends and family who have succumbed to this.  The boyfriend wasn’t much better off, but he didn’t have the outfit or the jewelry that screamed, “Look at me!”  Watch, look away, watch look away.  She captivated me because I had the feeling that not much separated us.  But it just takes one time, one experience to tip you over to the dark side.  I feel more lucky than smart, resourceful, or talented to look down my nose at her.  My heart wanted to reach out and say, “sis, you can have a better life.”  Rarely do I say anything at these moments.  Like most people, I rationalize that there’s nothing I can do-- but what if I tried?
The casinos are monolithic structures, paying homage to all things desirable and despicable.  They are monuments expanding over city blocks, designed to keep you in for the pleasure of trying your luck and beating the odds as you gamble.  The artificiality of manmade deserts and Sphinx’s left me thinking about why people enjoy coming here?  For what?  Looking around I saw more people who have a subtle quality of desperation around the edges.  It’s as if there’s something going on within them, and they came here to figure it out.

I don’t mean to judge the folks who come to partake.  I recognize them.  It’s the lull of the world found in an Elmore Leonard novel.  It’s the attraction of mob life in a “safe” way, like watching an episode of the Sopranos.  It’s the glorification of “guilty pleasures” like going to a strip club and gambling.  Reading blog entries written by men who gather the boys for a wild AC weekend, it is clear to me that they are searching for an identity, just for a moment, that is different from their normal.  Poker, hookers, and booze are enough for them to imagine themselves as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or even one of the members of the Rat Pack.  What, in reality, they look like are sad, middle-aged men, or former frat boys who are searching for illusion.
The Atlantic City of my youth is long gone and I’m cool with that.  Now, it is more seedy than sexy and calls to the darker side of human behavior.  I need transparency, hope, sunshine, clear eyes, soft speech, strong backs, and “please” and “thank you.”  This is in sharp contradiction to the current Atlantic City that lacks the ability to redeem while offering it by way of red and black chips. 

Friday, November 27, 2009

What I Know For Sure

Recently, Oprah asked her readers what they know for sure.  It made me think a lot.  Here is one of many answers...

What I know for sure is that somewhere, buried deep inside myself, is an unrelenting center of peace.  This peace makes itself apparent from time to time when chaos swirls in and around my life, and I am not moved.  These are rare occasions, occasions I always promise myself that I will expand upon so that my constant state, my constant way of being will be in peace.  Yet part of the process of being human involves pressing down upon ones theories to see if they really hold out.  I challenge my knowledge of this peace to see if it can bend, stretch, or twirl.  I wonder if it can make me feel better within the environment of a new set of variables designed to make me fail, or make me miserable.

What I know for sure is that this peace, buried at my core, is something I can choose.  It's always there, even when I am challenging its existence.  In addition, I must choose it for it to actually work.  I think of other states of being I admire, like loving and trusting, and find it interesting that these can also be verbs.  I think that peace should be a verb so that we can remember to use it.  Something like, I woke up and decided to peace the illness I have -or- She peaced that co-worker who was undermining her work.

What I know for sure is that peace is like a muscle that needs strength training.  In order for it to increase in power, one must use it repeatedly.  As I get older, life's problems seem to be getting larger.  However, my ability to meet these forces head on also seems to have grown.  How and when this development occurs, I have no clue.  What's more important is that I don't have to know in order for it to work.  It's one less thing for me to have to process in my day.  What a wonderful gift!  If I can tap into this resource not only do I make it through the current storm, but also I am better buttressed for the next.  This fact alone is enough to give me a peaceful pause.

"A peace that passeth understanding."  Hmm.  I like that.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Short story: The Monsignor and the Tambourine

As he lay in bed, he had a tambourine next to him. It was a tambourine that came from his mother’s church. He had stolen it as a boy and never wanted anyone to know that he had it. But one dark, starry night, he thought he’d break into the church and take it back. He was half-drunk when he came upon the notion, but completely sober by the time he found himself at the church door.

“What the hell am I thinking?” But in his mind he absolutely could not have waited until the light of day. His boys would’ve questioned where he was going, and what was he doing with a tambourine to begin with. “Naw, I ain’t no punk,” he uttered quietly. It’s bad enough that he found himself hanging with people he quietly despised. Knuckleheads- that’s what Xavier, who owned the corner bodega, called them. However it was better to be with them, than to get your ass kicked by them, he reasoned.

Before the devil could do what the young man quietly resisted, the door opened. There stood Monsignor Jackson, a man with a gentle, bespectacled face with a short salt-and-pepper ‘fro. “Can I help you,” he asked. “Aw damn,” the young man thought. He hadn’t had time to get his Plan B explanation together in the event that he was caught.

“I found this,” came from the young man’s mouth as he reached the tambourine across the years, back to its original home. “How do you know it belongs to us?” asked the Monsignor.

Plan C. Nothing.

The young man figured that there was no way out of this. The only way to save face was to tell the truth.

“I took it when I was a boy. Right after my moms passed.” The Monsignor stared for a couple of moments and then invited him in.

The young man hadn’t been in a church for many, many years. But at the instant of recognition memories flooded in from his past. His heart felt weighted by happy thoughts of his mother bringing him there, trying to help him find a relationship with his Maker. It was all so embarrassing to him. All the other kids, if they went to church at all, went to a regular church, not a Catholic one. They got a chance to see an old lady lose her wig when she got the Holy Spirit. They could dance and clap when the choir really got going and the organ raced alongside the piano. And they also got to talk back to the reverend, even while he was preaching. “Preach Rev!” “Tell the truth and shame the devil!” There was none of this at his Catholic church. But it was his mother’s church.

Thinking about these days made him sad that he had disappointed her stalwart efforts to ensure his salvation. He was sad that he hadn’t given her this one thing. Would it have been so much to pay attention just a little bit more? He could’ve even kept going on his own. There were plenty of kids who left church to ride in between the subway train cars, spit some lyrics in a cipher, or smoke a little weed when nobody was looking.

The young man turned to look at the Monsignor. “I want to become a priest,” he said. “Many do,” said the Monsignor adding, “but few are chosen. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The young man said, “then you could use a person like me who already knows the way.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Beginnings. I’m good at them. Starting things. Getting motivated for the next big thing, whatever that might be. Life transitions, landmark birthdays, major epiphanies. Cool. Or perhaps the next little thing. Quiet time for reflection, renewal, rejuvenation. Peace. That’s where I was when I left for the west coast of Denmark.

My mind was like the Dew Drop Inn, open and ready for business. Readying myself to have some warm apple pie and a cup of joe (literally and figuratively as you’ll see), taking the edge off of the day-to-day. Joe and I hadn’t properly prepared, but off we went with our tents, clothes, and sundry food items loaded into the car for the journey ahead.

The radio sucked. The wrong songs played at the wrong time in the wrong order. If we had only prepared enough to bring the iPod-cigarette lighter jack, it would have been handled. So in between the conversations and the occasional snooze, I peppered the 5 hour ride with a mental soundtrack that included songs like Lenny Kravitz’ “Fly Away” or Fabolous’ “Breathe.” Tracks that would get me to any place but city. We stopped along the way for gas, fast food, and candy. A 180° turn away from my normal.

Upon arrival at the lighthouse, it had that same eery feeling it had 2 years earlier. But the fact that this was summer and not fall made a huge difference. More cars were parked in the parking lot for the National Park than previously (it wasn’t even called the National Park back then. I wonder if the social conservatives decided to make this distinction in a moment of national pride, as they had years earlier in establishing the first Danish cultural canon) and more people roamed about the interiors of my little lighthouse. I had to share it. We went inside what was to be our home for the week, the living quarters right next to the lighthouse.

After pitching the tent, we decided to get something to eat. I was angry at myself for not assembling a more suitable snack. I could’ve rocked a nice pasta with olives, feta cheese, and roasted pine nuts, or a crusty bread with brie and a tapenade, but fruit, bread, and cheese would have to do. We ate, and quickly descended to the place that was on our hearts and minds. The water’s edge.

This was no easy task. We had to first walk through the forest, and then find our way through the pre-desert. I call it that because it is what lies before the sand dunes and the beach. Is this what they mean by the word ‘bramble’? If not, it should be. It had the look of a Brontë novel as I could see Heathcliff and Catherine following the same path that Joe and I were now taking. And afterwards, as always, the glorious dunes were not want to disappoint.

In full majestic glory, these dunes rise high along the length of the western coastline. We climbed and climbed, and on top of one dune we turned back to look from whence we came. The lighthouse was there like a watchful mother, making sure all the children could see where she was to provide assurance that all is well.

We descended an embankment that led to sea, something we couldn’t do the last time. The wind was just too strong.

I had forgotten the power of the sea. The energy seems to transfer from one wave to your feet, washing and sloughing off all that ails. (When Joe and I still lived in New York, we bought a machine from our chiropractor that was supposed to mimic the healing powers of walking along the beach. Soooo American. The Danes would say, “just walk along the damn beach!”)

Each stone I stepped on had it’s own grace and beauty. I denied myself the temptation to take lots of them home because I knew they wouldn’t be as beautiful once away from their ancestral home. They would lose some of their power in the shadow of the dry city. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to soak up as much of the sea’s power as possible, but leave we did.

We then walked into another path that took us deeper into the interior of the forest. The forest, not to be outdone by sea, revealed its true nature and I realized that I had forgotten how much trees like to talk. (This was something I learned as a child when we would go “down South.” Going down south for African Americans used to be a yearly pilgrimage for Northern blacks, as we wanted to keep the ties to those of us who had remained in the South. This is a tradition that is disappearing as populations move and the family structure - particularly extended family – disintegrates.) They all whisper at the same time, wanting your time and attention in matters both large and small. A sea of chatty Kathy’s who have been waiting, it seems, to tell you what’s own their… minds? In any case, I love what they have to say. Most trees seem to have a need to testify to what it is they’ve learned in life. And I love who I have to be in order to hear them. Still, grounded, and… like a tree.

Joe seems to confuse my reluctance to go camping with a disdain for nature. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I love the mountains, the lakes, the animals, and all of God’s creation. But camping, I reminded him, is man’s creation. Just like the living quarters we have paid to be in is man’s creation. This divide has raged on for years, and when I’ve had enough, out of frustration, I sing lines from the theme song to the American tv sitcom Green Acres, “New York is where I’d rather stay! I get allergic smelling hay! I just adore a penthouse view. Darling I love you but give me Park Avenue!” Alas, we slept in the tents, and furthermore, I liked it.

My major issue with camping really is about running water (or lack thereof), a shower (or lack thereof), and a toilet (or lack thereof). Since these things had been satisfied with our quarters in close proximity, I acquiesced. I must say that the first night was a sleeping disaster as that thin little air mattress Joe thought would provide comfort was not enough. We promptly placed the mattress from the BEDS(!) inside the tent, and the next night’s sleep was like butter (pronounced but-tah). I could hear the frog song (a mating call, perhaps), the little bunny that hopped curiously around this strange structure (I knew it was a bunny because I saw it the next day, right?), and nothing. Nothing! When was the last time that you heard nothing? The point of deep stillness where neither man nor animal punctures sound. The point where nothing stirs. Zzzzzz….

And when it was time to go, we first said our goodbyes to the sea. We then said our goodbyes to the lighthouse as it would be the last time we would stay there. It recently had been sold and we would no longer have the option to rent the living quarters (sigh). We came back to Copenhagen and went back to our everyday lives. It was painful in the beginning as everything seemed dull and artificial. Nature is precious, giving us solace from the physical, tangible world of machines and men. How does one straddle those two existences? I don’t know, but I must try.

Beginnings. I went to the lakes and sat down on the bench. I started hearing in my mind the part of the lyrics in Fabolous’ “Breathe” THAT I LIKE (why are so many rap songs brilliant and life-denigrating at the same time!),

One and then the two

Two and then the three

Three and then the four

Then you gotta BREATHE

Yeah, baby, just breathe…

Monday, June 08, 2009

Copenhagen Carnival 2009

Car-ni-val.  Any merrymaking, revelry, or festival.

Kongens Nytorv.  May 2009. 11:00am.

Dancers, drummers, bands, and feathers.  Lines blurring between the African and the Latin. Homages to Yemaya.  Samba. Brown, black, white, and yellow. Salsa.  A celebration of cultures, music, and dance in the middle of the city on a beautiful spring day.

The 27th annual Copenhagen Carnival in Denmark was the biggest I personally had seen to date.  I hung out with a friend, Sarah-May Alawi, who is also studying samba like me.  We met at Kongens Nytorv where we saw performers who came from Columbia, Bolivia, Denmark, and Brazil.  All races and ethnicities donned the traditional carnival costumes as we followed them through the streets of Strøget, all the way to Rådhusplads (City Hall).  It was a great excuse to celebrate life, the sun, and to come together after a long winter and early spring.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Room of One's Own

By far, my favorite room in my apartment is the one that stands outside. The terrace off of my kitchen is small, 5 feet by 8 feet wide, yet big in utility. It is there that I am able to write, observe nature, watch kids at play, eat Sunday brunch with Kaj, and think about something or nothing at all. It is a place where I am able to beat back the long journey into night that haunts people who suffer with the affliction of being a writer who needs to write. It is a room of my own.

The title of this piece was appropriated from Virginia Woolf’’s famous essay from 1928, which speaks to women and fiction. She chose to address the topic not directly, but using a fictitious story where Woolf concludes that a woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction. In 2008, a full 80 years later, I will take it a step further. Everybody needs a room of one’s own, which, for me, suggests the need to support the deep urging for individual expression.

Sometimes I hate this need to express. Sometimes I don’t want to say the things that I am thinking for fear of not being understood. But this is not a choice for me. The frequency by which I express is inherently tied to my mental state of being. Yes, I am saying that I will become insanely depressed if I do not write. There. I’ve admitted it. Something I’ve always have not wanted to say - I, Lana Garland, suffer from depression. And sometimes what I have to say is dark, confused, and downright ugly—but my truth.

I don’t know when it is my true self or when it is the depression talking. But I have made a decision. No banners. No book. No hoopla. My depression is important and not important at the same time. What is critical here is that I live a life, calling on all of my super-powers to be the Cleopatra Jones-inspired, seeker of all things spiritual, Foxy Brown-ish lover of writing, performing literary feats of sublime rock-steady across the written and visual universe.

I wish you the world. I wish you your voice. I wish you a room of your own.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This Far by Faith

“We’ve come this far by faith. Leaning on the Lord. Trusting in His Holy Word. He’s never failed me yet. Oh, oh, oh can’t turn around. We’ve come this far by faith.”

Most of you, my friends and family, have asked why I haven’t been writing in my blog. It’s a hard question to answer. But in the middle of the night, I can sometimes feel in my body that I haven’t written. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re trying to go to sleep when something you were working on isn’t finished. Writing for me is a personal excursion that I don’t always want to journey to. It leaves me sometimes in places I don’t want to be. That is why this is my first posting on this blog since 2006.

But in trying to get back to writing in the past several months, I often thought about Homecoming Sunday at my church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. At the end of a season filled with absentee members, a makeshift summer choir, and abbreviated programs, church members return en masse on the 2nd Sunday of September. Homecoming Sunday marks our acknowledgment of the fact that it is time to get back to the seriousness of devotion. A time to return to the safety of a pattern of worship that defines who we are or would like to be.

So in full regalia with long flowing maroon robes with tan collars, the choir marches in singing We’ve Come This Far By Faith. This is one of the “great hymns” of the church and was written by Albert A. Goodson in 1963. It’s an easy song to learn, a catchy tune. It speaks to our need to acknowledge the divine within, a declaration of our desire to unite the earthly and heavenly in an effort to make sense or overcome the pain and/or suffering inherent in the human experience.

It is as powerful to me as an African tribal dance where all participants move in syncopation to the beat of a powerful drum. It is as powerful as a sports stadium filled with people shouting Queen’s We Will Rock You. It is as powerful as dancing the Electric Slide, surrounded by your mother, niece, and best friend - three generations choosing to dance the dance because we all can. This is community, a deep sharing and adhering to the individual as it functions within the context of group.

However, the service ends. There may come the after-church brunch filled with “Rev puh-reached today!” “Did you see how so-and-so was singing a little flat on … what was that song?” “Where’s my fish and grits?”, but eventually we all leave. We go out into the world that drove us to the sanctity of the church in the first place. We go home to wrestle the same demons, and then some, albeit with a full belly and a revived spirit. So at home, I sit and wait for the moment to come upon me. A moment filled with great expectations for the brilliance to come. Waiting for the writing that will pacify this unrest I feel. And it never comes.

But what I’ve come to today is the notion that, yes Dorothy, it was and is always there. The ruby slippers have been on for some time and my inability to click the heels together comes from some dark place within me that enjoys self-torture. “Just do the damn thing”, I am told by that inner voice. So here I write, ending hours, weeks, and months of self-crucifixion.

Alice Walker’s book, or more specifically the title of Alice Walker’s latest book, has done an invaluable service for me. It is entitled, You Are the One That You’ve Been Waiting For. How many years have I wasted in waiting for the fairy godmother, the Prince Charming, mommy, or daddy to realize that my contribution to the world is legitimate? I shudder to think. I know that something moves me to write, and this something is enough. I got up this morning, turned on the computer and started writing again. This re-entry into the world of my blog is now complete. I will get up and begin writing again tomorrow because I am the person that I’ve been waiting for.

On a wing and a prayer, I’ve come this far by faith.