How can I combine my passion for the issues of education equity, prison abolition and youth solidarity in one poem written in one thirteen-minute sitting? If you had asked me before 7pm Sunday night I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but as the sky changed hues we all straggled into a warehouse in North Oakland and sat down in semi-comfortable chairs for the Uniquely Yours workshop. We opened our notebooks and Peggy started feeding us prompts. A few new folks but most of us veterans of this workshop, coming almost every month and forming close-knit bonds around shared expression. I had something on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t form it into the words that I wanted. My muse felt like an astronaut suspended in deep space with nothing to hold on to.
Then Peggy read the poem “Purple” by Alex Rotella and gave us the prompt, “Write about a moment when you were discouraged, or encouraged, or when you discouraged or encouraged somebody.” In this workshop it is assumed that everything we’re writing is fiction, even if it’s not. This gives us the freedom to write the truth while maintaining anonymity in our own experience. In other writing workshops I will write a piece and people will ask me about it as if the narrator is really me, Alec West, in real life, and the story I wrote was something that happened to me. Outside of Green Windows, I have to stop people and say, “This story is not about me.”
I don’t want what I say in a story or a poem to affect the relationships I have with my friends, my family, my readers, or the community at large. Outside of Green Windows, this happens whether I like it or not, but within the safe space that we all create together, I can write whatever I want, plumbing the pits of my soul for something I would never admit to my closest friend. When I share those secrets with the people around me through my writing, they nod and listen and tell me what they liked about it, then we move on. It never has to enter the relationships I form with those people outside of the workshop and it never leaves the room. With the safety afforded by Green Windows I can write freely and do the kind of self-exploratory work I need to do among others in my community who are doing the same thing.
I wrote this piece that night, based on that prompt. I thought about how discouraging it is for a teacher to have one of your students, someone much younger than you, die. I’m not revealing whether I’ve had that experience or not, but you can judge whether my writing resonates with you, and you can feel it if it is authentic.
To Be Judged
by Alec West
At twenty-four I was young to be a teacher whose student had died. Ricardo had what you would call a magnetic personality. He was tall and solid with long hair that descended to his shoulders like the coned branches of a pine tree. He wore the jail uniform like any piece of clothing you would wear. He seemed to have an air of acceptance of where he was and hope for where he was going. Both of these combined with patience, faith that he would get there, that took confidence. I only remember him really writing one piece in all of the writing workshops we had. He attended a lot of them, as he was in jail for six months after I got there and I don’t know how long he was in before.
Press play. Three months after he got out, a car crash. Ricardo was a passenger and he was dead. I’m not sure if he was 18 yet or not. I wrote in his obituary: “Almost as sad as his young death was how long he had to spend in jail.” Overall, Ricardo spent two and a half years in jail after he skipped out on probation to get a job so that he could support his family. A vast number of the people you will meet in jail are not there for their original crime, but for a violation such as staying out too late, or not checking in with their PO, things that are not illegal but could wind them back up in the system. Often these people are leading positive, productive lives and trying their best, but one misstep led them off track.
How many people are lost to parole violations, not even real crimes? How many are trapped behind walls when they could be connecting or creating with us? What if you were judged and your whole life was determined by what you did or what happened on your worst day?
There is a scene in the movie, “The Mustang” when a therapist asks a group of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes,
“How long from the idea of the crime to the committing of the crime?”
30 seconds. Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Less than half a second. The men answer with certainty as though a game show is asking them what they had for breakfast.
Can you judge the entire character of a person for an action committed without making a decision?
Do you feel safe?
I’m young in my teaching and I’ve only had one student die. I’ve known teachers who have lived through the deaths of several of their students. The loss we feel is mixed with blinding injustice as the world becomes a little less colorful, a little less vibrant, and we all become a little less powerful, despite the efforts we as teachers put out every day to keep the fire burning in our students’ hearts. Our students get snuffed out. We put our dreams into these children, and these children give hope back to us. Then, the system takes these children, takes them away from the rest of us. I am a teacher and I am in my twenties and I’ve had a student die. You can judge whether I am too young or whether this is too much, but this is the world we live in. I’m not ready to make a judgment about the world, and Ricardo will always remain perfect in my memory.
Do you feel safe?
Alec West is a teacher, activist, and author of What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV, his first book, available on Amazon. He lives in Oakland, but is moving to Richmond, and was born and raised in the East Bay. You can find him on Facebook: on instagram @alecwestwriter510, or writing in a local cafe.
"Creative Dialogues" is a new name for work I've been doing for many years. With Creative Dialogues, I bring together my skills and experience facilitating groups using creative writing, theater, participatory research, and restorative justice methodologies. Creative Dialogues help people very different from each other get to know each other better and make progress together with their goals and challenges.
Facilitation is about more than timekeeping and agenda-building. In any meeting or group gathering a good facilitator will strive to be aware of the whole space and everyone in it. Who’s dominating the conversation? Who’s not participating in any way? Who’s participating in subtle ways? Are we staying on topic? Are we understanding each other? Are we coming to a consensus if we need to? Can we hear each other? Do we need a break? Should a window be opened? A door closed? A facilitator is there for the group, not for themselves and the best facilitators are able to take themselves completely out of the conversation and help the group come to conclusions everyone will accept and in which they’ll see their own contributions.
These outcomes aren’t always achievable by direct talking around a table. This is especially true when individuals are very different from each other, with divergent points of view, with varying language skills and/or educational backgrounds, some with more power than others, with differences that come with prejudice and bias, etc.. There are many techniques that can help with these challenging dynamics. Art and creativity can enable a group to level the playing field and grow understanding in indirect ways. Through facilitation techniques that ask us to create together and respond to each other creatively, understanding grows naturally, not through debate or winning arguments, and we are more able to see viewpoints different from our own.
Let me know if a Creative Dialogue might be helpful for your group. Please contact me to arrange a free 20-minute phone consultation.
More information here.
I look forward to hearing from you.
- Peggy Simmons
Bertrell is a talented writer, painter, musician and filmmaker. We asked him how he chooses what medium he works in when he feels a creative urge.
Drawings, doodles, paintings posted get hearts and likes from a handful of true trusty pals then the crickets swarm gets swinging with their usual number. Paper receipts, napkins and envelopes all add to the clutter on top of my empty Dj casket/desk/coffee table. Clutter becomes organized trash. I curse at my forgotten unwashed paint brushes with their dried paints. Latex gloves both used and new lay around the place. Some inside out with oil paint sticks and pastels nearby. They provide a sense of frenzy to the quarters. Cool repurposed panels and canvas find a tired wall to lean on or hang on. An up-to-par verse to a rap song gets stored in old and new cell phone notes app. I bet it must get cold in there while waiting for a chance at getting recorded. My composition notebooks stack up next to older cell phones arranged near or around music gear or related items. Yesterday's video clips got dragged and dropped into named files. Ha, I laugh to myself because I realize there is little hope of a video editor having their way with them puppies. I try to organize them tho, just in case someone comes thru on the pro bono tip or I find a budget to work with.
I don’t clean up too much from any of these acts mind you. At times I feel like I lose intelligence with all this creating things. Yet I remain a happy hoarder of my own works for the most part. I Imagine I might gain better discipline and increase my coin collection if I was focused on marketing my artistic talents more so than creating them. This artist isn’t formally trained in any of the mediums that bully me into working with them. I just sorta keep things moving around me when I can. My only true job is to stay happy. This is how I think I choose what medium to work in when I’m creating, in short. Oh I’m artist in case I went over your head with my rambling.
Okay, for starters paid commissions have never, I repeat have never, come my way so the task of what to do artistically doesn’t have a bottom line of what pays the bills. It’s become a completely cathartic ritual of twiddling thumbs. A few weeks ago I got asked by a friend to write this piece for a monthly blog. So a Blog Post it is, Peggy! And now I am writing, but wait, please note, I seldom lift a creative muscle in my body from an outside request, much like a good DJ. It’s usually an internal self-driven process and is not so cut and dry as this. I’m mostly fueled by my personal study of light and sound on my journey into film making. Note I’ve always had a tough time finding steady work in film production so music production and visual arts have been my down-time besties. Okay, back to the process of medium selection. It sorta goes like this on a good day, well approximately: Mee nee my nee Mo. Laughing out loud. No, it’s not that simple but it’s not too far off.
A'ight, often I’m in between doing something that relates to a paying gig. Be it handyman help out with a property manager buddy to some carpentry or residential painting with a contractor pal. Add in helping a family member with something or other and I’m set.
All of the aforementioned activities may or may not happen before I can get a good blank stare in at Rachel on MSNBC or Wolf on CNN. Then out of nowhere the Medium Muse Dealer hits me up. This is how our conversation goes most of the time:
Medium Muse Dealer:
What’s up with it?
Oh nothing much. What chu got up? What you smoking on?
Medium Muse Dealer:
Oh I’m busy, you know me, I keep it turned up .
The better question, my man, is what you got up? You working?
Man, I’m always working. It’s a lifestyle. A movement.
It’s what I am. I’m Work. You already know this. I wish you’d cut to the chase.
Medium Muse Dealer:
You funny as shit, yo, I dunno. I heard you had some slapping beats wasting away in that laptop you keep in yo backpack. I think we need to get to mixing them bitches down.
Me Slapping Beats? In my backpack?
Mixing down? I’m not sure what you're talking about.
Medium Muse Dealer:
You got too many jokes.
Man, those bitches don’t love anymore. They just pretending.
Medium Muse Dealer:
Stop it Dude... you're tripping. Put those Sony’s on and talk to your music part for a hour or two. You owe it to the world, bruh. Come on. If not two hours maybe a half hour, a good 45 minutes or sumthin. Come on kid, stop fronting.
Naw, I’m cool. I got way too many channels to surf right now.
Plus I got some lightweight depressing thoughts to muddle in. Maybe next week. Besides the crib is a mess.
Medium Muse Dealer:
I know what you mean. Well, fuck it then. Go on and take a picture of that canvas panel piece by the bathroom and post it. Gotta keep checking your phone for those ten likes, yo. Lol.
Haaaaa. A'ight a'ight only for a couple hours, tho.
Several hours later after I have swapped out bass lines, added drum fills, guitar variations, panned DJ scratches and cuts, and added reverb and echos to songs that by this point I’m literally sick of listening to. Then I stop to see that the piece of art I thought was all that has gotten three likes. Unmoved I send a text to Thugette, call Moms and try to get some sleep.
I awake and the process repeats with a different variation of actions. I get called and hustled by my Medium Muse Dealer about what creative endeavor they deem more urgent and I bargain my time down on the act and give in. Be it painting a picture, developing a story for a screenplay, or logging the points for edits on video footage.
The Medium Muse Dealer basically owns me. Peggy, please send help
Here is a peek into Montez Price's Career Change Album
that Bertrell is producing:
The Uniquely Yours monthly workshop started in March 2009!
For ten years, these workshops have inspired all kinds of voices: ages 14 to 82, high schoolers, adults working on their AA, people with MFA’s, science fiction writers, poets, memoirists, children’s book writers, essayists, novelists, songwriters, homeless, renting, passing through, house-owning, from all corners of Oakland and all spots on the gender-queer spectrums, with various racial and cultural identities.
Listening to the other people’s writing always amazes me--the variety that flows from the same prompt in the same town on the same evening.
- regular Green Windows writer
For ten years, writers have said they’ve done their best writing in this community.
For ten years, we’ve offered a sliding scale workshop anyone can afford.
For ten years, we’ve shown up consistently, out of belief in the writing and in the community, donating time and professional facilitationwhile paying way-under-market rent to The Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a grassroots organization that has been a cornerstone of the Oakland art community.
For another ten years, with the increased cost of living in the Bay Area, we must find ways for this workshop to pay market value for facilitation and rent.
For another ten years, we need your help.
We need only $6,000 per year to make this work sustainable.
Can you donate $10/month?
I look forward to writing with you soon.
Read writing and testimonies from these workshops our blog.
Listen to why I think these workshops are special:
Our blogger this month, Roxanne Rocksteady Jones, first attended a Green Windows writing workshop in 2010 and has consistently written with us at every opportunity since. We asked her why she keeps coming back.
I keep coming back to Green Windows because I really got motivated when Peggy first invited me to the class to get over past things and express myself more.
While I was taking the class, I went to a women's group and we had incense and candles and meditated and were asked to take whatever was on our mind and bothering us, from childhood to early age to teen to young adult to adult, and write it on a piece of paper, then read it to ourselves, then ball it up. It made me get rid of what was bothering me. I had been feeling like I had been tortured since a little girl. But as I wrote, I released things through the tears in my eyes, from my stomach, my belly, to my lungs to my throat, releasing it, throwing it up, freeing myself. So my writing is more like a journal: Instead of using my voice, I'm using my writing, screaming so the world can hear me. Instead of marching in the streets with the 99 women's march, I'm the 100th woman, marching with words.
Young women, girls and teens are speaking up with their voices. You know, some people can't speak. Some people can't hear or talk. But they can read with their eyes. Reading, and other people reading your poetry or stories, is inspiring in either a happy way or sad way. They can learn to relieve what is bothering them, too.
Now I'll hand a person a pencil, ink pen, or crayon and say, "I would like to hear your story. Would you like to write it down?" People think homeless people want money or food. Some people just want people to hear their story, to sit and listen, or release something, or just be quiet together. So asking them to tell their story, what's bothering them, they are like. “Oh, I just wanted you to hear this." Sometimes it doesn't make sense, but I don't care. They just want someone to listen. Most people don’t have time.
For 2019 I would like for the city of Oakland or Green Windows to have an open mic where women, men too, but women, can say what's on their mind or what they went through, or what they want to release. Then we can give each other hugs after and let each other know we are loved no matter what gender, race, color or nationality.
When I think about the violence done to people of color and queer people, I want say, “No matter your gender, we are praying for you, be strong, keep your heads up, know that you are loved. I hope they catch the racist haters out there who try to torture you. We are going to kill them with love because love is what makes the world go around.”
Below is a piece of writing that I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. It was published in the 10-year anthology, Writing from Green Windows.
Who’s Your Daddy?
By Sister Roxanne Rocksteady Jones
Trick or Treats
Who’s your daddy?
Ok! Soul Sisters
Girls, here we go
Dancin’ to the beat of Aretha Franklin
and Lady of Soul, Diana Ross
and Lady Sings the Blues
Here near downtown Oakland
the block of 22nd, Telegraph and West Grand Ave
which is now called Uptown
Here on the sparklin’ psychedelic rainbow dance floor
in this ol’ ol’ ol’ red brick building
used to be the Pancake House
which is now called Disco City
Shakin’ our money maker
as the mens would say
Shakin’ what your Mama gave you
Shakin’ our bootays
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
Girls just wanna have fun
Actin’ like our Mamas’ drinkin’ brandy
Vodka with pineapple juice
Laughin’ havin’ fun
Cryin’ talkin’ about the good good ol’ days
about the no good men who almost stole our hearts
Rememberin’ the good good good ol’ ol’ ol’ days
When our Mamas was also on the dance floor
Partyin’ and shakin’ their old money makers
Their groove things
Their asses, as the ol’ men would say
Drinkin’ brandy with milk
7 Up with Courvoisier
Vodka with orange juice
Gin with apple juice
Dancin’ to the Temptations
Gladys Knight and the Pimps
Dancin’ til’ the funkadelics the freaks
Come out at night
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
and our Moms cryin’ about our no good daddies
on the dance floor
as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown
Sings the number one song
I like the girl with the hot pants on
She can do the boogie woogie all night long
Oh my God, he’s singin’ about my Mama
who’s your daddy?
James Brown, Father of Soul
Goin’ back to the good good good ol’ days
Trick or Treat
Who’s your daddy?
When I was a teenager, I was very ambitious. I was convinced that the stories coalescing in my head were so vivid and important that I would make a great working writer, sell enough copies to support myself, maybe have my works taught in English classes, and follow in three of my relatives’ footsteps. What I didn’t fully understand, however, is that being a working writer requires a day job—or in my case two—especially if you’re publishing books by yourself. The major traditional publishing companies were, and sadly still are, the gatekeepers of literature, and generally wary of investing too heavily in unproven writers, which is why I was so determined to do it myself.
In college, I intended to collect my rejection letters to remind myself not to give up. Unfortunately, some time after my sixth rejection, I had a serious health emergency, then life caught up with me, and I misplaced my collection. But at least I never stopped reading, or watching movies, or listening to music, and finding things in life that inspired me, because those experiences help maintain the vibrancy of my stories, and even to help ground them in reality, to make more sense of them. Even generative writing programs like Green Windows have been invaluable. As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote, “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.”
Nobody can really tell you how to write (no matter how much they might want to), because the creative process is an extension of your unique, individual thoughts, feelings and ideal method of expression. When we write, that process is the crystallization of concepts that we wish to transmit, however raw they might be at first. Editing is the process of cutting, refining and burnishing those ideas like gemstones. When we read, watch or experience other things, we are mining … looking for the things that resonate with our own experience.
In summation, we need to look for the things that inspire us, and we will know that they’ve inspired us when, all of a sudden, in spite of whatever obstacles that external forces throw in our way, our world-views and the stories connected to them begin to make sense again.
Below is a piece from a previous Green Windows workshop. Enjoy!
“THE HEARTSCAPE FACTS” THREADS ON WWW.MAPPINGTHEHEARTSCAPE.COM, DATED 07/29/2011
by Rachel Golden
It has long been believed that Atlas Galt, the keytarist for Heartscape, was named after the Greco-Roman god who supposedly held up the Earth on his shoulders. Whoever first started that bull-crap was clearly an Objectivist twat, because any fourth-grade textbook will tell you that Atlas was the Greco-Roman god who held up the SKY on his shoulders, which was no doubt an easier job because the sky is way lighter!
PantherHands: OMG LOL!
RocketSauce: FUCK OBJECTIVISM UP ITS FAT WRINKLY ASS!!!!!
Diogenes: LOL nice one, Rocket!
RighteousPath: Damn, that got political pretty fucking quick.
BigNo: Not even the internet is totally free of politics, sadly. Up north, we have a contemptuous asshat named Stephen Harper to thank for that. Part of me is tempted to go scale Mount Everest for that very reason.
Howitzer: Fuck Stephen Harper!
LunarRover: Wait a goddamn minute… I think I know the smart-ass piece of shit who wrote this post in the first place.
BigNo: Do you, now?
LunarRover: I’d accuse Biggie, but that’d be too easy, and frankly he’s not one with an affinity for Greco-Roman gods. Diogenes the dog, I accuse you! Do you hear me? J’accuse!
Diogenes: Ruh-roh! Guilty as charged.
LunarRover: More like “guilty as fuck”!
VMyson: Bad dog. No biscuit. LOL.
Howitzer: Holy shit, I love this fucking forum so much!
LunarRover: And the forum loves you, too, Howie.
SidPernicious: I don’t love Howie, gaymo.
VMyson: That’s because you’re an asshole, Sid.
Howitzer: LOL TRUE DAT!
SidPernicious: I’d rather be an asshole than a gaymo, like you gaymos!
Diogenes: Aw, sorry to hear you’re not comfortable with your sexuality, Sid. You might want to get in touch with someone at PFLAG, and maybe get some shit off of your chest.
SidPernicious: Why the fuck would I do that, when I have you chodes to get into bitch-fights with?
BigNo: I think what my associate meant is that you should do yourself a favor and “get some santorum off your chest,” Sid, because I’m pretty sure I can smell it from here.
RocketSauce: Yeah, Sid, it’s not our fault you’re so deep in the closet, you’re finding Christmas presents!
RighteousPath: Embrace your queerness, Sid! We believe in you!
VMyson: OMG I’M DYING!
SidPernicious: FUCK YOU PUSSIES!
SidPernicious has logged out.
VMyson: LOL what a dumb-ass!
Howitzer: Some motherfuckers just don’t have the introspection to be able to laugh at themselves.
LunarRover: Wait a sec, do kids these days still say “gaymo” when they want to insult people on the internet? Seriously?
Diogenes: I know, right? It’s so last decade…
BigNo: Kids are so unfashionable.
Green Windows has recast how I see myself. Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I have a community to draw from. Yes, my words have a place. - Catherine
You like me best when it's cold out. Something sexy about more clothes over less. That gray shirt with your coiled strength below it: that thin barrier smooth against my pushing shoulder blades.
You like me best, but you love him most. "He's my best friend, mama."
He likes me best when he's giggly. It turns out that the most base human state is polarity. Within ten minutes, gleeful hee hees and ha has, wailful mourns and utter ambivalence.
I’ve been writing with Green Windows for about 4 years now. I met two of the regular attendees at a coloring club meetup. I was feeling brave enough that day to venture out of my normal routine to do something like that, and holy hell am I glad I did. My first night there I heard writing like I’ve never heard before. Not like the crap they made me read in school, not the forced-to-sound-like-this writing from my creative writing class in college, not what I always thought poetry “should” sound like. I heard real, raw, authentic voices from real, raw, authentic people. We were writing at Chapter 510 then, and being in a space that could hold the creative energy for youth helped me work through some shit. It also inspired me to start a group at the elementary school where I worked using the same method that we use at Green Windows after reading Pat Schneider's book about the AWA method. Listen to some writing by an inspired 10-year-old sometime. It changed my world.
This group of people has become more than just a creative outlet for me. It’s where I sort out all the things inside and around me and find a way to feel all the feelings and have other people witness me doing it. It’s become a group of fellow soul travelers, friends, mentors, and family. I honestly cannot imagine my life without it.
When Peggy offered to take me on as her apprentice, I was beyond honored. I told her that no matter how busy my life can get, I’m learning how to make time for the things, the spaces, and the people that feed my life. What would be my life be without them anyway? Green Windows and the community of people that are part of it fit all those categories. As a therapist and someone who’s participated in and facilitated healing spaces for years, I can confidently say there’s something really special going on at Rock Paper Scissors every 4th Sunday of the month.
Writing a blog post means I’m sharing my work, too. I thought about adding a fun poem, one that invokes a laugh or at least a chuckle. Maybe one of my short pieces about my mom’s tomatoes or my brothers’ paper towel karate belts or how my dog looks at me when she pees or the time I met a human bunny rabbit on the Lost Coast. But the bravery of folks to speak truth inspires me everyday to speak mine more, and lately I’ve been encountering too much of that bravery to keep crawling back into my cave where it all feels easy and protected. I shied away from true tales of horror inflicted on women and children for many years, because it reminded me too much of mine. Maybe that’s where you, reader, need to be right now, and so I’ll give the disclaimer that this is not a fun piece. It’s a part of a journey, the part where it’s all super thick forest with no map, no machete, no rope. Hopefully, hearing a piece of my story will give you strength to write yours.
(more about Lena)
men teach me to like rape
by Lena Nicodemus
ferns & nitrous ice fog on the cold sand
a fallen tree trunk
lifting up on hips & lifting up of t-shirt
a stupid fucking visor hat
and when you look at me you look nervous
but I don’t say no
your hands are cold up my shirt & you
push your tongue too much into mine
but I don’t say no
you stick your hand down my pants
root around for whatever loose change
you’re looking for
and I remember we’re at where people who
go off trails can find us,
not far from the shit food of the national parks lodge
and I still don’t say no
later I say no and I laugh but I’m not sure I’m joking
and you hardly stop to check
I’ve been taught for my whole life to say
yes yes yes
I don’t imagine myself saying no or
why I would
the stories I hear from the couch are
always the same
men getting robbed at gunpoint and women getting raped
and then there are the stories where it’s little boys and girls
and the guns are your cousins
and I guess both guns could be your cousins
and I used to be scared of the word
and have to spell it out when asking friends
if movies had
I could watch them and
I don’t watch anything other than
the office it feels like anymore
because getting surprised by a rape scene in a movie
I thought was rated PG-13
and really 13-year-olds can watch this?
it’ll knock me out and before long
i’m scared to go out or even ride my bike anymore because
all the hey baby’s and looks feel like rape
because when i feel triggered it’s like
I’m being raped
but since I was young,
men teach me to like rape
men teach me to call nonconsensual sex “kinks”
and “it got a little rough”
and stopping to ask me once for a safe word neither of us use isn’t consent
and anyway girls can’t consent to sex only women can
and you didn’t invite a woman back to this apartment, did you?
I heard about Green Windows on an aimless walk through downtown Oakland at dusk one Spring. I remember the sky was pink and I was climbing my way up from rock bottom and pure Hell. I think I was only a few months sober. Back then, Green Windows was hosted at the original Rock Paper Scissors Collective art workshop on Telegraph Ave. I opened my mouth for what seemed like the first time since I was a kid and spoke about what was really important to me. We sat on unassuming chairs in a paint-splattered room and people listened to me. I never did AA or any kind of structured help program. Green Windows was it for me. Every month I would join a friendly assortment of colorful people, I would write, I would share and I would listen. In this way, I built myself up from broken, devastated pieces into a positive member of a tangible community for the first time in my life.
In Green Windows, you always have the option to pass on sharing a piece of writing. I have never done this. I have written pieces of writing that scared me into shaking, pale-skinned jello in these workshops. Sharing them in a safe, confidential space with warm, loving people who all share their stories in turn has brought me healing that feels divine. Again, you don’t have to share if you don’t want to, and plenty of people choose not to, but I have made serious progress emotionally and spiritually just by saying what I need to say, even if I’m terrified.
After a while of coming to these workshops, you start to see the same people. You admire their writing and then get to admire them as people. None of us are big-shot prestigious writers (at least not yet). Almost everyone is available to talk or share a ride home or a slice of pizza after the workshop. The community of people I’ve met coming to Green Windows over the years is what keeps me rooted in the Bay Area. It brings me pride in my home and I feel like I’m releasing stagnant energy and rejuvenating by writing, reading and listening.
As long as I live in the Bay Area, I’m going to keep coming to Green Windows workshops. This community has played no small part in making me the person I am today. Peggy, her helpers, and all of us do a lot of work to keep the space open to truly anyone who wants to come through these doors and write. The participants in these workshops feel like a cross-section of Oakland and the greater Bay Area and I haven’t seen this diversity in one space anywhere else. Green Windows writers have the privilege of coming to awareness of what life is like for people different from us. This work is important for keeping myself humble and keeping myself engaged in the struggle for justice and in building community. Here, I have the space to dig into myself and find veins of painful, traumatized gold to bring into the light and inspire others. I am grateful to live in a time and place where this is possible.
Below is a piece of fiction I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. I hope you enjoy it.
Different Kitchens, Different Friends
by Alec West
The refrigerator makes a sound that most people don’t hear. My friend Charles grew up on a boat and said that when he had to live in a house he hated the refrigerator. It was so loud, it kept him up at night. He wasn’t used to it.
My friend J used to come over and raid my fridge. He showed me how to cook tortillas on the stovetop. Years later, he admitted that he’d had a gun on him in our house. Old friends were trying to kill him, and he had to protect himself.
My friend Basil also used my kitchen. He is dead now. I remember him standing in my kitchen, having a conversation with my Mom about yogurt-coated granola bars.
“These are actually sweeping the nation as one of the best new things!” he said. His wide eyes were shifty and unfocused, his blond, box-springed hair was like a brillo pad under a wool cap or a hoodie. We went on that afternoon to get drunk in an alleyway with fresh green grass growing. It was springtime, and we were enjoying being young and the bold, deep flavor of loneliness when you have someone to share it with. Then Basil bought a bottle of vodka from a homeless man with my money, and we blacked out in the bathroom of a drug store.
This kitchen, on Lake in Piedmont, by Beach Elementary, was the first place I discovered alcohol. I remember coming home in a nice button-down shirt from the freshman dance and finding the liquor cabinet open.
Vodka and Gin. I filled up two plastic water bottles full, one red and one blue. My friend Red covered the stairs at the Morcom Rose garden with orange, green, white, and yellow puddles from the paints in his stomach. They were inkblots spilled over a page. Somebody was holding their pen up too long thinking about what to write and splotches ran through. Back then there was less loneliness than hope and excitement. I felt like I could still be part of something here if I tried. Red was my first drinking buddy.
Years later, I find myself in my brother Gabre’s kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. He has liquor bottles displayed above the cabinets where he keeps plates and dishes. He was a teetotaller all through high school, and now that he is in college, he is drinking. He felt that he had earned the privilege with his success. My friends and I taught him all about top shelf bourbon and scotch. Now he is a connoisseur and a snob, and at six pm on a weeknight he is shaking the cocktail mixer, fixing a drink.
My friend Hombre’s Dad’s kitchen looks out over the whole of San Francisco. You can see the city shimmering with light and heat and fog and silver and gold during the day and shining with purple and orange at night. It was the perfect place to enjoy a blunt with some close friends. My friend Hombre had sixteen pot plants growing on that back deck in high school. At first, his Dad didn’t notice, then he didn’t care.
Tall, fragrant bushes, sticky flowers and phosphorescent leaves. Orange hairs, white hairs, purple hairs. Acid and mushrooms and looking at the clouds. Hardcore music. Drum and bass music. Dubstep. A State of Trance.
We found a vast, dark basement full of all flavors of people who did drugs in San Francisco, from hardened criminals to kids like us. Hombre wanted to wear sweat pants and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. We told him to go for it, but he didn’t do it. We were too young for ecstasy, we felt, so we took trucker speed, those pills you buy over the counter at the gas station for like five bucks. That and a lot of marijuana, and we didn’t sit down for six hours.
All this is what I remember of my childhood in the East Bay. What were we gonna do? We were making the best out of a teenage situation in suburban California. No, you’re too young to get into the club, but there’s this alleyway and this bag and this homeless guy who agrees to buy you alcohol. I’m not joking when I say that homeless guy became my best friend. His name was J, he was only a few years older than me, and he taught me a lot.
Alec West is a Bay Area native and has been writing and publishing since he was twelve, when a fierce middle-school teacher taught him that he was worth something. He has been published in Slingshot Magazine, The Anthology of Poetry By Young Americans, The Moon, and The Highlander. His first book, “What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV” will be available in print and e-book in December 2018. Follow Alec on Instagram.
Once again, I'm thankful for the opportunity Green Windows has afforded me to share a vital part of myself. A request was made for an upcoming post, and I jumped at the chance. The following is a story that I feel captures the elements of writing and inspiration that I enjoy. As always, a hearty thank you to those who choose to humor me in my strange, literary journey.
Pockets Picked Clean
by Philip Staley
4 pink, oblong capsules; a handful of .40 caliber bullets; a half-box of Sugar Smacks cereal and $32.
Jacques wondered how his life had taken this wrong turn and ended up here in this bad joke of a roadside motel. His brother, Anderson, lay sprawled on the sparse carpet like some hideous, squashed bug. Their new companion, Lacey, slept so angelically, curled up like a child in the cheap, poster bed.
Jacques looked over again at the rickety table and the articles resting on its surface. Why were the most dangerous objects in life always shaped like cylinders?
He had minutes before Lacey woke up, to consume her “morning cocktail” of several 500mg Depakote tablets and the most burnt convenience store coffee in the Tri-state area. After their desperate breakfast, the trio would have to move again. Anderson doing the breakneck driving, and their drug-fueled siren earning her keep by getting them into those unspeakable places sure to come up on the journey.
Jacques couldn’t help but muse over Lacey. Despite the deficiencies in her brain biochemistry, she was a knockout that “looked like California.” She was the perfect face of the operation, which included negotiations with hard men that had even harder problems.
This particular job was revenge, which coincidentally always tasted so viscous and metallic; similar to the tang of an empty shell casing or a stale mood stabilizer on the end of one’s tongue.
Lacey shot up from the bed as if she’d been touched by a faith healer. Her eyes were wild with the last traces of somnambulism and the myriad hells inflicted by her subconscious. Jacques hurried to the table to assemble her morning offering, fumbling and knocking several bullets to the floor. Anderson stirred on the thin carpet, his half-asleep face a twisted mask of post-indulgent contortions.
The dingy room itself was sweltering; a literal hotbox. Lacey appropriately was covered in a sheen of slick sweat, and not much else. Even the walls were scorching as Jacques moved to peer through the raggedy blinds, taking in the bleak, white-hot landscape of the desert ahead.
The real trick would be making the proverbial “dollar out of fifteen cents," as the trio sped through the blasted highways inching ever closer to their fractured goal.
Slumbering Anderson wasn’t without his problems either, not venturing too far from his dirty syringe and the trail of the dragon he was currently chasing. There was no one else, thought the reluctant ringleader. This is how it had to go down.
With nearly two score dollars and an ill-conceived plan, Jacques continued to appraise the scenery and the shopworn,’72 Fleetwood convertible that somehow got them this far.
He’d inherited it from his Uncle Ray; a flim-flam man who pretended to have so much soul, but was as alabaster as the rest. He too had a penchant for dangerous cylindrical therapy.
But this was it, the cost of freedom; Off the grid and out of consideration. 2 bit hustles being the order of the day when the ink on your ID was still wet.
Jolted from waxing philosophical, the happenstance shepherd recoiled slightly as Lacey slurped her foul, room temperature coffee. She eyed him and the cereal hungrily, making Jacques wonder how far her appetites truly extended…
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