Where it’s Not Happening: Thoughts on Looking for the Place of Inspiration
It was Friday night. I was 20. I was going to bed, reluctantly, because I was exhausted. “I am going to my room,” I lamented to my roommate, “but I think I should be out somewhere conquering the world instead!” My roommate didn’t miss a beat. “You can conquer the world from your room, Laura!” she opined in her know-it-all fashion. I couldn’t fathom what she meant. But later, as I grew older, I began to understand that making an impact or making a life had little to do with making the scene. That was something I could not understand at 20. You see, I had dropped out of school with two hundred dollars, two suitcases and two phone numbers and took off to Berkeley, California because I was sure that was where it was “happening.”
In graduate school the poet Carolyn Forché would also tell me that where you are does not have to define who you are. In graduate school, we were all drooping and wilting like tropical flowers plucked from our ecosystems and pinned to a bulletin board. Kaki missed playing the flute on the streets of New Orleans, Graham missed his girlfriend in Wisconsin, Joe Ray missed the Southwest, Kenneth missed his long talks with Yusef Kumunyakka in Hoosier Indiana, and I missed the organic markets and self-conscious hipsters of Berkeley California…all of us were leaking out vital drops of culture and memory, connection and belonging as we slowly wasted away in this new and antiseptically homogenous suburban Northern Virginia. This was Jerry Falwell’s neighborhood, not ours, and we were stuck on the Beltway becoming less and less sanguine by the hour. But Carolyn fixed her eyes on us and commanded: “If you do not see the world you need around you, you must create it within yourselves.”
So in those years that felt like exile in the cultural wasteland of Northern Virginia, I set out to create an interior world to compensate for my anomie and culture shock in this strange new place. I dated a man from Afghanistan, and, through his and his brothers stories, I imagined Afghanistan. Eventually, my poetry thesis became about Afghanistan, a place I had never been. It was ridiculous escapism, of course. But it prevented me from being too deeply in Fairfax Virginia, and I was grateful for the escape.
It was this escapism (the naughty drug of those who imagine too much) that helped me coast through the next few years. When I turned 30, I wondered what I could do as a single woman with no kids. “I could travel anywhere I have ever wanted to go!” I thought. So I did. I traveled to Morocco. I thought I had braved for myself the best escape to an exotic place in which I could “find” myself. But in Morocco I was swarmed by Moroccans, all asking the exotic American why she would be alone when no-one should be alone. So, caving to the pressure, and failing to gaze at another culture when the other culture was determined to gaze at me – I came back from Morocco with a husband –plucked from his homeland to follow me back to New York City –and undoubtedly his dreams of a green card as his ticket to the American dream.
Perhaps I traveled to Morocco to find myself, as they say. Of course I did not find myself, I found other people. It was the beginning of my understanding of the Gnostic statement, “Wherever we go, there we are.”
In escaping my tiny cockroach infested apartment in Brooklyn, and the exhaustion of teaching as an adjunct in three boroughs of the city, (sleeping on the D train in between) I thought I had found heaven when I sat on rooftops in the Atlas Mountains where one could literally count the stars and feel drugged by the scents of olives and mint in the night air. Despite this Biblical era landscape, this little slice of heaven, every last Moroccan: Berber or Arab, longed to escape to the exotic other place called New York City. They would not believe me when I assured them New York City was hard, and the distant Middle Atlas village of Sefrou, Morocco was sweet. One man’s insufferable small town is another’s exotic distant destination. Truly: wherever we go, there we are.
In Brighton Beach Brooklyn, I watched my new and near-stranger husband droop out of his natural environment like I had so many times before. I watched a young boy from the mountains become mean as the hardest streets in South Brooklyn. We lived in Brooklyn, miserably, until I had my daughter. Then, it was time to come home, alone with my child to the hometown that had not been my home for twenty years.
So here I am, in an old forgotten textile factory and government town, now the Capitol of New York State. It is a big town or a small city. It has just the thinnest pond-scum of culture necessary to pass for a city. It is not as big as Philadelphia or Baltimore. It is not as shiny as Toronto or Boston. It is dumpy and tattered around the edges.
I know this, but I don’t feel that I am missing much. I have lived in big glamorous cities. I have been on the scene, “where it is happening.” Those places offered a lot, asked a lot, and somehow left me empty.
I have experience living in unglamorous places, like Fairfax Virginia or Albany NY, with little to offer a poet or artist. Only this time, it is not escapism that will see me through, it is watching where my feet land, and honoring the efforts and dreams of generations of souls who have been exactly where I am.
Feeling abandoned and broken by my fate as a single mother and the sudden return to my hometown, I felt a deep empathy with the boarded up old buildings I saw everywhere around me in Albany. They had beautiful 19th century architecture: they were made with love, clearly, and housed countless years of life and good intentions, now shut down. I empathized with those buildings far too much. To me, they looked like the single mothers I saw in line at the welfare office, in rooms at the YWCA: broken and abandoned, unloved instead of loved, but housing history, stories and worth beyond measure. So I began to look in front of me at where I was, perhaps for the first time in my life. I decided that if the dreams and hopes of those who first built these buildings mattered, then I would matter too.
So I live in a forgotten old town standing vigil to the town itself as someone who has not forgotten her hometown (at long last). I refuse to live in the “good” neighborhoods, the places where the streets are empty at night and there are no boarded up buildings. To me, refilling my heart goes hand-in-hand with refilling the heart of this little forgotten city.
I have spoken to people boasting about building their green eco-houses out in the country. But that is just more building. There are structures right here a block away begging to be repopulated and remembered. I have spoken to people wearing “One Less Car” T-shirts. Well, I am “One Less Suburbanite.” I am “One Less White flight.” And because I am not here to resell and don’t have the money to renovate, I am “One Less Gentrifier,” too.
I don’t gain much convenience by living downtown in a forgotten little city like Albany. It has half the conveniences of a ghost town in the Wild, Wild West. I have to drive to the nearest grocery store. The nightlife consists of the corner liquor store and the corner bodega. And just like in the Wild, Wild Western ghost towns of old movies, sometimes there are gunshots on the streets at night.
I suppose I can live here as a writer because I rely little on external culture to define or encourage me. I bring it from within. My engagement with language needs little accompaniment since I can hear the music of language in birds, in traffic, in thunder and in overheard conversations and patterns of speech. I do not need to hear the newest music, just music. I do not need to read the newest novels or hear the coolest poets. I just need to listen to sounds around me. I scarcely need someone to appear on the street wearing an orange feather in her hair before I dare try it myself.
What I gain here in dumpy frumpy Albany is a sort of quietness, and undisturbed authenticity. There are no crowds rushing to buy or define or swipe out from under me any place, peace, piece or perspective. People give me space, kindness, and consideration. The air is clean here, and it is easy to breathe.
And so, in being here, and exploring here, and re-imagining here, and reaffirming here, I have finally come home to somewhere. I pay attention to people. I pay attention to history. I know when the drunk on my street is back to drinking again. I know when the couple with the kids has split up again just by watching their kids for five minutes. I know where the free bakery for poor folks was in the previous century. I know who built it, who ran it, and who lives there now. I bought garlic from their garden yesterday, and will email them asking advice about herbal medicine just as soon as I finish writing this. I know in my bones how hard the community organizer had to work to save the public pools for the kids in the seventies. I know how hard the community organizers on my block work now. I know that I am part of a life whirring around me that has been whirring, unglamorously, for centuries here.
It is not the great big lights or large numbers of people that make life matter. Life matters because one person makes it matter.
Here outside my house in the “bad” neighborhood of a forgotten little unglamorous city sits a pot of purple flowers from a little boy named Yabisi. He brought them for my daughter. When Yabisi’s mom asked him why he brought them, he just looked down at the pavement and mumbled, “Because I love her.” And that, right there, is history in the making. This is the house where Yabisi said he loves Sofia. And so this little bad side of town in this little forgotten town matters. And is refilled, right here, in the heart of Albany.
Laura Hartmark received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University. She has taught writing at Lehman college, Hunter College, Russell Sage college, The State University of New York and in Morocco. Her poems have appeared in The Boston Review, International Quarterly, Staple Magazine, and several other publications. She currently lives in Albany New York where she is able to engage in the radical idea that justice is possible and that the world can be changed by human beings with the spitfire and vision to do so. Laura frequently engages in making rainbow colored pancakes with butter, eggs, flour, milk, food coloring, and honey.