My new short story, “Listening,” appeared in the November issue of On the Verge: http://onthevergewithshareenmansfield.com/2015/11/09/listening/
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In this prompt, we were asked to write about our ancestors:
As I lay brick after brick, I remember how I got here.
The languages going in and out of my ears, the smells of animal dung and freshly baked bread, the feeling of the ocean inside me, its waves crashing and falling in my stomach – never will I forget my journey to these shores. Herded like the animals of Noah’s ark, we boarded our ship, feeling each other’s breath on our shoulders as we slept, letting the wind whip against our cheeks to prevent the nausea from rising.
Mostly, my memories are not the sights and smells but the people – Seymour, with his black fedora and that voice, which commanded attention, running the gambling ring that got him shot; Ivan, a farmer escaping the pogroms, who stripped the weapon from the man who shot Seymour and tossed it in the sea; and of course, Rosemary, who at eight months pregnant, lost her child, her wails that fateful night etched in my memory.
But now this has passed. I am new to this country, and there are realities I will face. I must turn these bricks to gold.
This piece is from a kids’ writer’s workshop. It’s intended for children of all ages. The prompt is:
“Standing on a Corner”. Write what this means to you.
Standing on a corner of the chessboard was a castle. In order for him to move, the pawns had to move first, or the horse, or the knight. And though it was of no doing of his own, it was the castle who was often captured, through some trickery of the enemy.
It got lonely in his corner, and there was nothing the castle could do about it. He had no control over his own life. He couldn’t eat, drink, or see his family and friends. But he learned patience. He knew that one day things would get better. When he grew old enough, he would get to leave that lonely place and never come back.
And one day, it happened. The pawn in front of him moved forward two spaces, and with that, the castle zoomed ahead with as much force as the wind, and with as much excitement as a newborn puppy. He darted right, and then left – he couldn’t move diagonally, he learned – avoiding a collision with his own queen. He took one long deep breath as he slid to the center of the board, with seemingly no one around him. He felt free.
But the castle wanted more than freedom. He wasn’t sure what he wanted exactly, but he knew it was something more. As his teammates disappeared around him, and his enemy became less and less, the castle felt bewildered, uncertain. But then he understood. He zipped forward all the way to where the enemy was, and only then was the game over.
Finally, the castle felt like a king.
I returned from an amazing weekend at the New York Writers’ Coalition, where I led and participated in writing workshops. I’ll be featuring blog posts over the next few weeks that are based on writing prompts from these sessions, which inspired me to go places I may not have gone otherwise. If you’re a writer, feel free to use these prompts in your own writing. This piece is from the prompt:
Take a line from a song and make that the first line of your piece.
Back when Mark Wahlberg was Marky Mark,
when the Knicks had Patrick Ewing and Johnny Starks,
we lived in a different place
with life led at a different pace.
This was before the war on terror,
when the economy was so much better,
until increased security made us feel like hell;
this was before the towers fell.
We now have so much stimuli we don’t know what to do next;
we can’t speak on the phone – we can only text.
It’s harder than ever for the poor to get dough;
our kids grow up, and this is all they know.
All we can do is hope and believe
that humans can think beyond what they perceive,
that we put down our phones and instead, read,
and we try to make a difference in the lives we lead.
Rolling hills, olive trees, vineyards as far as the eye can see – this is the awe-inspiring view from Les Beaux, the castle overlooking Provence. It was here that Van Gogh once stood, brush in hand, painting masterpieces to share his sense of wonder with so many others. Now here I sit, a pen in hand, a breeze against my cheek, with a mind as troubled as Vincent, both of us craving release and creative expression, and inspired by the same hilltop view.
May I have a shred of your power to inspire joy and awe in others, to make people feel the way I feel. You were a genius among geniuses, at the top of your field, and I am but a man. A man still, with the capability to do anything if I can summon the courage, overcome my fears, gather strength, and possess an undying will. It is in moments like these that I see the magic in imagination, feel the magnificence of nature, and long to linger. While asking for these moments to last forever is a doomed request, I hope that when they do appear like a mirage, in their momentary brilliance, I can, for at least a brief lapse in time and space, take out my brush and paint.
Click to see larger images. Photographs by Duncan Palmer Photography.
The Pizza Margherita is taken so seriously in Naples that it has been given governmental protection. The dough must be rolled manually and baked in a wood-burning oven at a temperature of 905 degrees, making it tender and chewy. Its texture must be soft, elastic, and easily foldable. There are specific dimensions required for a true Neapolitan pizza and there should be a restrained amount of cheese and sauce of the highest quality. These ingredients are found in the surrounding region around Naples, where pizza began as a street food in the 19th century, and which still reigns as the pizza capital of the world.
I knew I had to go to Naples and see what the fuss was all about.
I had heard a lot of rumors about Naples – that it’s controlled by a mafia crime syndicate called the Camorra, that it isn’t safe, and that there are no rules on the road. “Traffic lights are a suggestion,” the local Neapolitan who worked at my hostel explained. “If the light is green and there are no cars, you go. If the light is red and there are no cars, you go.”
These were but minor considerations for me. Growing up in the tri-state area, I was raised on good pizza, and I had to go to Naples, not to judge which city has better za, but to see how they differed, and of course, as writers tend to do, try to glean some greater meaning from all this.
One thing that sets Neapolitan pizza apart is the mozzarella cheese. The famous bufalo di mozzarella is from Mondragone, a small town outside of Naples. It’s unlike any cheese I’ve ever tasted. My travel partners and fellow pizza connoisseurs, Duncan and Roy from England, accompanied me to to a local supermarket and tried it fresh. It was so wet that water dripped off it onto our hands, and it had a full, creamy complexity that was undeniable to the palate. We were served a sandwich of just the bufalo di mozzarella on a small Italian baguette, the cheese so flavorful that it needed nothing else; other ingredients would have masked the flavor of the cheese. It was one of the simplest meals you could have, and as Roy aptly put it, it was so good, because it was “pure.”
This philosophy lends itself to the pizza. According to Italian law, there are only three types of pizza: Marinara, with garlic and oregano; Margherita, with basil and mozzarella cheese from the southern Apennine mountains; and extra-Margherita or “doppio mozzarella”, with fresh tomatoes, basil, and bufalo di mozzarella. The sauce in all of these pies are made from San Marzano tomatoes, which is what the renowned Dom Demarco of Di Fara Pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn, imports from Italy, which he selectively uses on the pizzas he cooks with his bare hands. I never thought I’d have pizza as good as the square pie from Di Fara until I went to Da Michele.
Since 1820, Da Michele has been cooking these pies, and these three pies only. Business was better than ever when we arrived, joining a crowd of people who nearly took up the entire street. We were assigned number 88 as they called numero uno and it took nearly an hour and a half to get inside, and then thirty more minutes to be served the three pies. And then there it was, the true Neapolitan pizza in front of my eyes. As Duncan took my picture, I struggled not to begin eating the Margherita as its scent reached my nose. I peered down at the crust, puffy and burnt in all the right spots, which almost reminded me of naan bread, and at the cheese and sauce in perfect proportions. It came as a round pie unaltered. By cutting a pizza into slices, you diminish its quality, so you are given a knife and fork and can cut your own slices the way you want it and then eat it at its freshest.
Of the three pies, I told myself that the Margherita was the best. But I found myself craving the Marinara the most. It was certainly the most impressive. There was nothing lacking without the cheese; in fact, it was the opposite. The small chunks of garlic and oregano over the tomato sauce and olive oil was beautiful in its simplicity. It was remarkably flavorful and even soothing.
There may be a lot of crime in Naples, and the Neapolitans may not obey traffic lights, but when it comes to pizza, they adhere to the law. If there’s one thing the Neapolitans understand, as people who live in a city where violence and crime permeate their daily lives, it’s that they know how appreciate the simple things in life. Too often do we complicate things that we can easily forget to relish that piece of mozzarella cheese.
Imagine yourself covered in dirt and sweat, going on three or four hours sleep, with hardly any food, and standing all day in ninety-degree heat. Now picture yourself in this state for four days straight, with one or two showers, if at all, and living in a city of tents with 90,000 strangers.
I knew I had to go to Bonnaroo. I had never been to a music festival before, and I knew Bonnaroo was the one: it is the largest in the Eastern United States and is known for its differing music styles, from indie rock to hip hop to electronic. So without any definitive plans from any friends, and after one look at this year’s lineup (Elton John, Arctic Monkeys, Flaming Lips, Jack White, Kanye West, and many more), I bought my $300 ticket, stuck my tent into a camping backpack that towered over my head, and got on a plane to Nashville, Tennessee.
Positivity radiated every corner of the 700-acre farm outside the town of Manchester. At any time during the festival, a stranger could give you a high-five. All the worries that I had from the outside world, every ache and pain – they all vanished when the music began to play.
By the fourth day, I was ready to leave. A real shower and a warm bed to sleep in after three nights of camping seemed dreamlike to my exhausted self. Bonnaroo made me appreciate the little things in life…but I still booked a hotel and planned to get out early to beat the crowds.
My plan was to go to the Arctic Monkeys show with my neighbors from the campsite and then pack up my stuff and head out. But during the show, with my arms around the shoulders of strangers, I became lost in the music, and it was in that moment that I could feel myself getting sucked in, and I knew I was staying at Bonnaroo for the night.
After the superb performance of Elton John, the final act, my neighbors and I ate some terrible food and then went back to the tents and chatted. It was there, for the first time, that Will, a college student from Tampa, asked, “What do you do?” It took four days for someone to ask me what is almost always the first question I hear when I meet someone in New York. When I pointed that out to Will, he remarked, “You’re just Jonah.”
And this goes to the heart of Bonnaroo. The people who go there may be from different parts of the country and even the world, but they’ve all come together for the love of music, and to simply have a good time. We can get so caught up in our ambitions that we forget to appreciate what we already have. My grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, couldn’t remember my name, but never forgot one piece of advise, “Remember to always enjoy.” When my yoga teacher was asked if he has goals, he replied, “My goal is to be well.” Sometimes we’re so busy doing, that we forget to be.
At eight in the morning, I woke up sweaty and filthier than I had ever been in my entire life. I ate breakfast at a table covered in leftover food. I took down my tent and said goodbye to my new friends, telling them to look me up when they came to New York. Then I slung my backpack over my shoulders, and walked to the shuttle to the airport through the stifling Tennessee heat.
On a windy morning in Melbourne, Australia, I put on an Ao Dai and joined my best friend’s Vietnamese wedding ceremony, accompanying the groom in a tradition that is centuries old.
I’ve known Reuben since Kindergarten at Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, New Jersey. The bride is a friend of mine as well; in fact, I knew her before the groom did. Thy (pronounced “Tee”, last name Vy, pronounced “Vee”) and I taught together in Japan and when Reuben came to visit me there, he met Thy.
And now they were getting married and I was the best man in a ceremony both ancient and compelling. First, the groom must go to the house of the family of the bride and bargain for her, offering gifts, envelopes full of cash, and, as I was soon to discover, push ups.
“No money, no bride!” shouted Thy’s sister-in-law as we opened the door. Reuben bargained the price down but had to offer up fifty pushups from everyone in the groom’s party, including his parents. So while Thy’s family cheered, we all got down on the floor in our ao dais, suits, and dresses, and fulfilled our side of the bargain.
Next came the tea ceremony, where each member of the bride and groom’s families offered gifts and gave advice to the newlyweds, wishing them good fortune and happiness. Minutes before it began, Thy’s brother thrust a responsibility upon me – to serve the tea. He instructed, “Make sure there is enough until the end; wipe off every glass gently with a cloth after serving; you have to stand with the tray the whole time.”
Ever so gently, I used my right hand to pour and wipe the glasses with the cloth, while gripping the tray with my left. The mothers bowed to a shrine, lighting incense and offering fruit to Thy’s ancestors, which reminded me of the Jewish emphasis on family – the groom and my background – and how they also bow when praying in synagogue.
Two separate worlds came together that day. The love between Reuben and Thy surpassed their family’s cultural differences. He moved across the globe for her; she converted her religion for him. So often we hear in the news of war, greed, and human suffering, but then there are moments like these that renew our faith in the power of love. I witnessed a testament to love that conquered oceans, surpassed ethnic boundaries, and was out of a romance by Shakespeare or Marquez – except it was real.
In the Symposium, Plato describes love as the attempt to reunite two halves of a single being. Like the words of Plato, Uri, Reuben’s thirteen-year-old brother, who often walks into lampposts, and is oddly similar to Buster in the TV sitcom “Arrested Development”, surprised many of us, when he delivered a profound message for the sake of the bride and groom. As I handed him the last cup of tea, he remarked, “I think of you as two pieces of the same puzzle. You’re completely different but fit together perfectly.”
The job of teachers is to shape the lives of children. There is a great deal of power in that and it’s a tremendous obligation. Teachers must release this power to their students, both within each lesson (from direct teaching to independent work), and gradually over the course of a child’s schooling, from elementary to high school and college, so that ultimately, students can develop power within themselves and be ready for “the real world”. Teachers mold the hearts and minds of the next generation.
David Brooks, New York Times columnist and modern day philosopher, writes in his book The Social Animal that emotions drive decision-making. Emotions assign values to things and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. Most of our decisions are made from the unconscious mind, without even realizing it. Only now do I see that in my attempts to write about teaching, I’ve been subconsciously trying to convey an indefinable feeling I sense while in the classroom. I know I’m not alone – I see it on other teacher’s faces and in the words they express while talking about their students. I will argue that the hidden reason – unseen even to teachers – as to why we teach is a particular emotion.
Emotions are hard to put in words, so I’d rather describe it in a series of moments (for now). A rare natural smile from my colleague, the strictest teacher in the school, as his student explains what he learned that day. The misunderstood boy whose anger I’m able to diffuse by getting him to talk about Harry Potter. The sensation that swells up inside me as students hug me on the way to the busses on the last day of classes, and the girl who hands me her ‘Mr. Kool folder’, saying, “so you remember me.”
The emotion you feel in these moments goes straight to your heart. It’s a mix of pride and the kind of joy that is so intense you nearly cry. Maybe it’s love in some form, or perhaps it derives from a parent-child like connection. Whatever it is, this is what keeps us teaching. For me, seeing the spark in a child’s eye as he taps into his imagination to come up with an idea for a short story is nothing short of magical. It conjures up an emotion that is unique to teaching, and is the real reason teachers teach, even though they may never realize it.