May 5 2013

Baltimore Triumphs Book Launch at the Evergreen Museum & Library

“Cures for love; not wanted.
Cures for broken-hearts; needed.
Young souls create a major demand
For hearts they want treated
That can’t see the thin line between love and hate.”

This last stanza of “Thin Line” was recited by writer Chyna Brown at a reading Thursday night at the Evergreen Museum & Library. Like other readings in Baltimore, this one showcased a diverse group of writers and writing styles. Some of the pieces were funny; some touched on important social issues. Some did both. But unlike other readings in Baltimore, this event was made up of elementary, middle school, and high school students. Brown is a ninth grader at Baltimore City College High School, and she wrote her poem as a participant in the Writers in Baltimore Schools writing workshops.

The Writers in Baltimore Schools students and mentors.

Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) is a non-profit organization that provides students with literary development through in-school, after-school and summer creative writing workshops. The program publishes an anthology of student writing twice a year through its publication division, Baltimore by Hand.

The reading at Evergreen celebrated the launch of the program’s newest anthology, Baltimore Triumphs. The book includes writing from students at Thomas Johnson Elementary School, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore City College High School, Barclay Elementary/Middle School and Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School. Local author Elisabeth Dahl, whose new book, Genie Wishes, is geared toward children the same age as many of the WBS readers, opened the evening by identifying with the students’ efforts. “All of us in this room who like to write are on the same long, winding path to publication,” she said.

Author Elisabeth Dahl

This was the second WBS reading held at Evergreen, and the first to include students younger than middle school age. The atmosphere was charged with energy, and despite the inevitable whispers and fidgeting, the students were respectful and supportive of each other. The audience responded with applause, and sometimes laughter, to the creativity and humor displayed as each student read from his or her work. “Fourth graders are more open with their imaginations, whereas middle-schoolers are starting to get more self-conscious,” said WBS Director Patrice Hutton.

One of the writing prompts the students were given to spark ideas for Baltimore Triumphs was to invent a Baltimore superhero. Ravens were a common theme, along with heroes to clean up pollution, stop smokers, and fight crime. Miles Donovan’s Cracker Jack “makes Orioles games fun,” while the title character in Damien Borck’s Graffiti Man! “becomes a millionaire and buys his way off America’s 10 Most Wanted. Then Graffiti Man donates money to build a better Baltimore City, MD.”

Damon Davies

Some of the super heroes seemed to stem from the more serious side of real life. “Baltimore Heroes” by fourth grader Brooke Madison Taylor begins, “Super Mom is a hero because she helps people who are homeless by giving them clothes, food, water, shoes, and money.” And Nyla Pompey, also a fourth grader, wrote in “My Hero”: “The most heroic person is my grandfather. He saves my uncle’s life.” The story describes an attempted robbery at gunpoint.

Fourth grader Damon Davies drew cheers from the audience with his story, “Superpoe.” It describes the blackout during this year’s Super Bowl, and the imaginary bird who saved the day by turning the lights back on: “He flicked the switch and it didn’t work. He flicked the switch again and it didn’t work. He did it one more time and it worked! Everyone chanted, ‘Superpoe! Superpoe! Superpoe!’ Then he got back into his jersey and cheered the Ravens on to their victory.”

Joshua Diggins

And ninth grader Joshua Diggins received a resounding round of applause when he closed the reading with a moving tribute to his father, “The Captain,” and ended it by asking his father to stand up in the crowd.

Some were confident, others were shy, but all the students triumphed as they bravely spoke their words into the microphone at the front of  packed theater. And as they read from their work it became clear that they are already doing what Dahl recommended in her opening address when she said, “Live with your eyes and ears open. You’re observing life—that’s what writers do.”

 

 


Nov 20 2012

Late Night at the BMA

On Saturday, the Baltimore Museum of Art hosted a Late Night party to celebrate the re-opening of the museum’s Contemporary Wing. If I had to choose one word to describe the event, I would say…crowded. But it was also fantastically fun. Fantastic to see so many art lovers in one place. Fun to have drinks while sitting in a glowing chair, listening to White Life in a room bathed in pink light. And pretty awesome that the BMA put on this kind of shindig and invited the public for free.

My friend Samantha in the glowing chair.

The collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, James Rosenquist, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and many others. Sarah Sze used cut paper and everyday objects such as a recycle bin and a duster to create the complex, three dimensional Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart). Baltimore street artist Gaia created 12 Portraits of Remington Residents specifically for the site. And an installation by Sarah Oppenheimer literally cuts through the museum’s traditional walls to provide visitors with a new perspective.

I like to take my time in a museum, relax as I wander through the exhibits, sit on a bench and soak in the larger works looming over me. Fun as it was, too many people were packed into the renovated Contemporary Wing on Saturday to get that type of experience. I didn’t make it into the new black box gallery, I didn’t try out the BMA mobile app, and I somehow missed the bicycle shower. I definitely plan to go back.

 


Sep 21 2012

Arts/Community

“It is the craving for beauty that is such a vital function of the human soul…”
– Dr. Claribel Cone

It’s amazing how a little beauty injected into your day can lift your mood, calm your mind, and change your perspective. I saw the quote at the beginning of this post on a plaque a few weeks ago at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the space that showcases the Cone Collection. It’s clear from the collecting habits of the Cone sisters–they filled their Baltimore apartments with more than 3,000 pieces of art, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and van Gogh–that they gave into their craving for beauty on a regular basis, and I’m grateful they chose to share it with the world. An afternoon spent wandering the exhibits at any city museum is, of course, a great way to infuse your week with beauty, but art can also be found in unexpected places, as I learned today when I visited the Towson Arts Collective.

Within walking distance from my house and just a couple of blocks away from my favorite bagel shop, this little art space offers a gallery for art exhibits, drawing and painting classes, and studio space that can be rented by independent artists. I decided to stop in, and I was in luck, because it was the last day of the exhibit Drawing Today, which showcases drawings from twenty local artists.

Each artist had a different style, a different expression of feeling, and I found myself smiling as I wandered through the space, forgetting the stress of my work week. Whenever I go to a small gallery like this, or to a reading or open mic event, I marvel that there are so many talented people in my community, people who probably all have day jobs doing something entirely ordinary and practical. Yet they still take the time to use their creativity to put some beauty into the world.

Those who do the creating may see it as filling their own needs, and, as a writer, I know how therapeutic the creative process can be. At times, it feels completely self-indulgent. But when the result is put out into the world–even in a small way–it becomes a gift for others to enjoy.

So, while I know large museums are essential to the cultural landscape of any community, I’m also thankful for the smaller arts organizations, like the Towson Arts Collective, that bring beauty a bit closer to home.

The next exhibit at Towson Arts Collective, Things that Glow in the Dark, opens with a reception on October 5 and runs through October 27.


Sep 1 2012

Pursuing Poe in Baltimore

High on the list of things I love about Baltimore: the city’s connection to Edgar Allan Poe.

I developed an affection for Poe’s writing as a teenager, when I competed in the poetry category on my high school’s speech and debate team with a collection of his poems: “Annabel Lee,” “A Dream Within a Dream,” and “The Raven.” I was drawn to the dark themes in his work, and I found the rhythm of his words spellbinding, particularly when read aloud.

Poe lived in Baltimore for a time and is believed to have written several works here. Although he moved to Richmond in 1835, he later returned and died at the Washington University Hospital of Baltimore, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, in 1849. While the Poe-Baltimore connection is most readily seen in the name and mascots of The Ravens, there are other tributes to the writer throughout the city.

 

The Poe House & Museum

You can have a fun, Poe-themed afternoon by starting with a visit to The Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum, Poe’s home in the early 1830s. This modest brick row home on Amity Street holds artifacts from Poe’s life, newspaper clippings and photographs related to Poe, and a set of framed illustrations of “The Raven” by Gustave Dore. The house has only five rooms, and peering into the tiny attic bedroom, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for a man with such a great imagination to inhabit such a cramped space. Visitors can take a self-guided tour, and the staff asks for a small donation upon entering.

After visiting the house where Poe lived, take a short drive to Westminster Burying Grounds to see Poe’s grave. The large, marble grave marker is just inside the iron gates, and, on the ordinary Saturday was there, I was touched to see it decorated with red roses and coins left by other visitors. The cemetery also has a marker at Poe’s original burial site, so be sure to wander through the tombstones until you find it.

Poe's grave at Westminster Burying Grounds

The perfect ending to this Poe-themed pilgrimage is a trip to Annabel Lee Tavern in the Canton neighborhood. This cozy restaurant and bar is a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe, from the quotes and raven silhouettes on the white brick exterior to the portrait above the fireplace inside.

Inside Annabel Lee Tavern

Rumor has it The Poe House will be undergoing some changes in the near future, so plan your visit soon. And next month, on the anniversary of Poe’s death, October 7, The Poe House and the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore will hold a series of events to commemorate the writer, including a tribute ceremony and eulogies at his grave in Westminster Burying Grounds, the 90th Commemorative Edgar Allan Poe Lecture at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and a performance at Annabel Lee Tavern.


Jul 29 2012

A Writing Conference in Maine

I spent the first two weeks of July in Bar Harbor, Maine, attending the Johns Hopkins 2012 Conference on Craft.

A view from the Bar Harbor sandbar.

My time in Maine was a mix of school (since I’m a student in the M.A. in Writing Program, I received credit for an entire semester), vacation, and personal writing time.

We had class for a few hours each morning and craft workshops each afternoon. I registered for a reading class focused on the works of New England writers, including Edith Wharton, Sebastian Junger, Monica Wood, and Henry Beston. It was interesting to discuss how the landscape of a region can influence the sense of place in a work. One of the the best lessons I took away is the ability to see multiple meanings in everyday things–a dead tree in the yard, a leaf glowing with crimson and gold in a forest of green, the fruitless quest for a starfish on a rocky beach.

The conference featured guest instructors for the writing workshops: Robert Wilson for nonfiction, Amy Hempel for fiction, and Rachel Hadas for poetry. It was inspiring to hear them all read from their work at the faculty reading night. My favorite bit of advice on “the writing life” came from Rachel Hadas, who said it’s valuable to have a day job in addition to being a writer. (Her other job happens to be teaching.) Since I find time to write outside of my full-time job, this was good to hear.

Bob Wilson reads from his new book.

Most conference attendees stayed in the Seafox residence at the College of the Atlantic and, except for an inconvenient toilet paper shortage, I thought it was fun to experience dorm life again. The communal living space, the group activities, and the forest setting made the conference feel like a summer camp for writers.

As for the vacation aspect of the trip, Bar Harbor was charming, relaxing, and fun, and I would go back again in the future. The 4th of July fireworks went off despite the fog that day. They were pretty spectacular, even though, as one of my friends pointed out, it felt a bit like we were in the movie The Truman Show, with a white dome effect in the sky. But other than one day of fog and two or three rain showers, we lucked out on the weather – apparently it was unseasonably warm and dry for Maine.

Fog on the 4th of July

One of the highlights for me was a whale watching trip. I’d been whale watching off the coast of San Diego, and the experience in Bar Harbor was far superior. Two humpbacks, named Lace and Partition, spent about an hour near the boat, entertaining us as they repeatedly dove and flashed their flukes in the air. We also saw a seal curiously swimming alone and a pod of dolphins jumping in and out of the boat’s wake on our trip back to shore.

I also recommend the comedy show at ImprovAcadia, a sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd, and hiking in Acadia National Park.

Sunset cruise on the Margaret Todd.

On the last night of the trip, the sky was so dark and clear I could see the lights of millions of stars and the sweeping flourish of the Milky Way galaxy. I thought of something one of the other writers had said earlier that day: “This will never happen again.”

I’m grateful to have been a part of the experience. I learned why it’s so important to be a part of a community of writers. I learned to see deeper meanings in the small things I observe as I go about my day. And I learned what it’s like to experience the kind of wonder that only nature can instill…the kind of wonder that can carry you through the dull ache of everyday life and inspire you to create something beautiful.

***

“With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars?” – Henry Beston, The Outermost House


Jun 29 2012

Seltzer Speaksy, Take 1

I’ve written about Baltimore literary events before, and I think this city has an amazing arts community. The 510 Readings focus on fiction, and the H.L. Mencken-inspired New Mercury Readings bring non-fiction to the forefront (this Saturday’s line-up features my travel writing professor from last semester, Sue Eisenfeld, among others – check it!). And now, Baltimore has a new reading series on the scene: Seltzer Speaksy.

Peter Cardamone and Mike Shattuck

Seltzer Speaksy was started by the editors of Seltzer, a new online zine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art. (One of my essays was published in the first issue – yep, that’s both some shameless self-promotion and my full disclosure statement.) Last night, the first reading was held at Midtown BBQ & Brew in Mount Vernon, and it was a great mix of talented people.

Featured readers included Steven Leyva, who shared poems about New Orleans and Baltimore from his book Low Parish; Garvi Sheth, who read an excerpt from her young adult novel that combined a one night stand with pancakes; Lauren Flax, who gave a date the writers’ workshop treatment – harsh, honest, and oh-so-hilarious; Shagrila Willy, whose lyrical poems included musings on fireflies; and Dario DiBattista, who shared a memoir piece with a hint of vampires.

Lauren Flax

The open mic portion yielded some great surprises, including an experimental mix of Mick Jagger and Gertrude Stein by Dylan Kinnett.

The night was inspiring, energizing, and fun. Check out the Seltzer Facebook page for updates on the next event.

Shangrila Willy


May 5 2012

Weekend in Paris

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly to Paris for the weekend – yes, the weekend! I felt very fancy. But even though I spent only two days in the City of Light, I managed to see the classic sites and get a feel for Paris life. Here are some tips on making the most of a short trip.

la Tour Eiffel

Take a night flight. I slept on the plane and arrived on Saturday morning, rested and ready for an adventure. I had a short list of places in Paris I wanted to visit – the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Notre Dame – but I also kept the schedule flexible to allow for time to relax.

Stay in a convenient location. When you’re short on time, location is key. The Hotel Castille (right down the street from Chanel!) was within walking distance to The Louvre and Tuileries Gardens. My husband booked our room just a few days before our trip and got a great deal on Jetsetter.

We had lunch Saturday at Madeleine 7, a cozy bistro that had beautiful salads and delicious house wine, and then headed to the Eiffel Tower, taking a detour to walk by the Opéra de Paris and The Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Lunch at Madeleine 7

Walk whenever you can. One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is on foot – I feel like I get a greater sense of the place that way. Paris was no exception. Hearing snippets of conversation from other pedestrians, seeing towers of chocolates stacked in a confection shop window, and feeling the crunch of gravel under my feet in a park all made for a more immersive experience.

I spied this spectacular store front down a side street near Notre Dame.

On Sunday, after spending a few hours exploring The Louvre and taking in a special Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (and, of course, the Mona Lisa), we strolled along the Seine River toward Notre Dame, passing street vendors selling watercolor prints, musty old books, and quaint souvenirs. I think French architecture is stunning, and the muted cream of the stone walls and slate blue of the roofs mingles with the expansive sky. After reading this article in Harper’s, I almost wished it had rained on our trip. Almost.

The Louvre Museum

A highlight of the weekend was a stop a The Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Paris hotel. While drinking what was perhaps the most delightful (and, at 30 euros, most expensive) cocktail I’ve ever tasted – the Serendipity, made with Calvados, apple juice, fresh mint, and champagne – sitting in a cozy leather arm chair in the wood-paneled space and surrounded by photos of Ernest Hemingway, the manager announced that the next day the bar would close for 2 1/2 years. How lucky that we happened to stop in…serendipity, indeed.

Notre Dame Cathedral


Mar 29 2012

The Joys of Flying

Sarcasm? Not at all.

You could probably say I travel more than the average person (although, honestly, not as much as I’d like to). One summer not too long ago, I was home only two weekends from the beginning of May to the end of August. I’ve had my luggage lost. I’ve sat by my share of crying kids. I’ve missed connections and encountered customer service agents with no concept of service. I’ve certainly experienced the hassles and inconveniences that plague modern air travel, but I’ve realized that, despite them all, I actually look forward to flying.

In the quest to balance work, grad school, freelance assignments, and the rest of my life, time has become the one thing I continually crave. Sure, it’s not always easy to get comfortable in a 17-by-32-inch space, but when else do I have the freedom to delve into a book for more than an hour at a time? When else do I have permission to people watch without guilt or the license to become completely lost in thought? When else am I actually required to turn off my iPhone and take a break from the neverending flood of emails and the constant current of social media?

I have a love of long-form journalism, and while waiting for a recent flight to Indianapolis, I sat in the airport and finished an article I had been digesting in small bites over the past week as I ate my morning cereal or bounced along on the Metro into D.C. It was wonderful to reach the end in one sitting. Then, on the plane, I became engrossed in A Year in Provence, a book I’d been trying to dive into for an entire month but hadn’t been able to concentrate on for more than two pages at a time. I ordered a glass of wine and lost myself in descriptions of life in rural France. When we landed, I felt refreshed.

Unencumbered by the real world on the ground, the time in transit can be a mini escape. And that’s where I find joy in flying.

 

 


Feb 26 2012

Roadside America

I’ve been researching a story for the travel writing workshop I’m taking this semester at Hopkins, and I just have to share a brief post about it – this is one of the most curious things I’ve ever seen.

Located just off Hwy. 78 in Pennsylvania, about halfway between Harrisburg and Allentown, Roadside America is touted as “The World’s Greatest Indoor Miniature Village.” And, after reading these reviews on Yelp, I had to check it out.

Last week, I drove two hours to the middle of Pennsylvania to see what all the fuss is about. I must say, it’s fascinating. The exhibit is 8,000 square feet of miniature models, all made by one man – Laurence Gieringer. He began the hobby as a boy and continued until his death in 1963. His granddaughter, Delores Heinsohn, now runs the attraction. “It’s very difficult to explain to people who have never seen it,” she says.

True, but I can try.  There are more than 300 buildings, 10,000 trees, and 4,000 miniature people. Everything is made by hand. Several model trains and trolleys run through ’50s suburban neighborhoods, rolling farmland, and a pioneer town. There’s even a cemetery beside a church with names written on the tiny tombstones. Visitors can push buttons along the self-guided tour to animate different parts of the village.

It’s kitschy Americana, but on a scale so grand it’s kind of awe-inspiring. And you have to admire the craftsmanship and dedication it took to build it.

Roadside America doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s totally worth the $6.75 ticket price. If you’re taking a road trip through Pennsylvania, it’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs.

 


Feb 15 2012

What Lies Beneath

I stepped through a narrow passageway and into a small room with thick stone walls. The warm, humid air weighed on my lungs with the mustiness of centuries past. The tour guide, a thin young man from California with Harry Potter glasses, who was living in Rome to study Latin, led the group past rows of pagan crypts, and as I peered through the openings that had been cut away in the stone, I saw some had hollowed-out spaces in the walls for crematory urns, while others housed elaborately carved sarcophagi. The guide shared the detailed history of the site, from 64 A.D. when Saint Peter was killed on the Vatican Hill, to 329 A.D. when the original St. Peter’s cathedral was built on land that once contained the Circus of Nero, to the 1500s when the current Basilica was designed by Renaissance artists including Raphael, Leonardo DaVinci, and Michaelangelo. I was astounded to see mosaics and frescoes from thousands of years ago, remarkably preserved and with still-vibrant colors, lining the walls and floor of one of the tombs, and intricate stone carvings in another, which we were told was the tomb of the Valerii family. The guide pointed to holes in the walls of one particular room and said that in ancient times it was customary for families to sit atop the crypts and share a meal to honor their deceased relatives. They would pour wine through holes in the roof “to nourish the souls of the dead.” I thought it sounded like a lovely tradition.

An outside view of St. Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos on the necropolis tour.

My husband and I were on a tour of the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica. While researching tours before our trip to Rome, I came across a blog that mentioned this little-known opportunity, which is different than the usual “crypts and catacombs” tours available in the city (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again to provide a link, but you can read other reviews on TripAdvisor). The Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office) of the Vatican occasionally offers tours for a limited number of people – about 250 each day – to visit the the archaeological site underneath the Basilica. The necropolis was discovered in the 1940s during an excavation performed to build grottoes underneath the church. If you’d like to take the tour, you must email the office with the dates you’ll be in Rome, the number in your party (participants must be at least 15 years old), and your preferred language, and they let you know which date and time you will be able to take a tour. The cost is 12 euros per person.

I had been looking for this kind of uncommon experience, and not knowing if I’d even get a reply (I’ll be honest – I was skeptical), I emailed the excavations office with a request. After a few days, I received a reply with our tour date, information to confirm our reservation with payment, and a list of rules (as is the case for visiting St. Peter’s, men and women must follow the dress code and have their shoulders and knees covered).

The High Altar inside St. Peter's Basilica.The necropolis tour ends directly below this spot in the church.

The tour takes visitors three levels below the current altar of St. Peter, where you can see part of the original shrine (the Trophy of Gaius, which was built around 200 A.D.), as well as what are believed to be his actual remains.

This tour is a pilgrimage for some, and even though I’m not Catholic, I found it to be a fascinating lesson in culture and history. We emerged from the tour into the Vatican Grottoes, where many of the past popes are entombed. We joined the sea of tourists flowing upwards to the opulent cathedral above. The contrast between the vast basilica, with its gilded statues, intricate marble floors, and soaring arched ceilings, and the cramped, stone-walled, necropolis three levels below, was startling. I looked around and realized that most of the tens of thousands of tourists that visit St. Peter’s each day will never experience the rich history that lies beneath.