By Susan Naomi Bernstein
Photo description: Birds circle under a gray sky at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. 12-24-2012
Pushing through the market square
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying
Today, a friend gave me a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay “Preaching to the Choir.” Far into the essay, Solnit shares a story about two New Yorkers of very different backgrounds in a time long gone by. These two New Yorkers find a moment of connection one day on the ferry, sharing their experiences of the raw winter weather.
I read the essay in class while my students worked on their writing. And suddenly, without warning, I began to cry. The story of the ferry reached through the recesses of my defenses and hit the nerve of Thanksgiving 2012, five years ago, a year after Occupy Wall Street and a month after Hurricane Sandy.
Yet that Thanksgiving five years ago holds powerful memories.
We were only a month beyond the superstorm and signs of its impact were everywhere, from the plastic grocery bags catching the wind in leafless trees, to circling hungry birds, to the piles of rubble along the coastline. The late autumn damp chilled the bones more than usual, and I had the sinking feeling that my partner and I would be leaving New York soon.
I tried not to give the feeling any attention, but economics demanded it. I had gone three years without full-time work and my partner had just applied for disability. We had no money. I had seen an ad for a job out west that looked like it might be a “good fit,” except for the fact that it was 2500 miles away from the place we called home. I knew that people would do anything to stay in New York City, including living in their cars on adjunct teaching wages. We did not have a car, and my partner was recovering from a serious illness. As much as we hoped to stay in NYC, we could not compromise my partner’s health, and we had already discussed many times the possibility of leaving.
The melancholy of that autumn is difficult to describe. Wrapped up in Autumn 2012 is that peculiar feeling of learning to treasure every moment because tomorrow was not promised, a cliche, of course, but our time in NYC was beginning to feel fragile and finite.
And then my partner and I learned about Thanksgiving at St. Mark’s on the Bowery. In the spirit of Occupy, everyone was invited to bring something so that everyone would have enough to eat, especially those who had survived the worst of the storm’s devastation.
Many of us who attended that Thanksgiving were homeless or living from paycheck to paycheck, or were still unemployed or underemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the US. We were four years into the fallout of the 2008 mortgage collapse, and the impact of the recession that followed can still be felt in all too many communities across the country. In New York City after the storm after the collapse, the suffering was palpable.
At St. Mark’s, we were able to offer food and also clothes and blankets. At the doorway to the church, we would let visitors know what we had available, and work with them to fill out a list of what they needed. Then one of us would run back to the room where the clothing was kept to retrieve the items for which visitors had asked. Our work together reminded me of the DIY spirit of Occupy Wall Street the year before. In order to create the promise of a better future, we would work in coalition in the present to alleviate suffering exacerbated by the recession. These circumstances helped us stay mindful as ever of the intersectional nature of suffering.
Afterward, as we walked to the subway in late afternoon, my partner said, “So many of us who volunteered couldn’t have afforded such a good meal on our own. But together we all had a feast.” This moment remains among the strongest of my memories of New York City. The air felt cold and heavy clouds covered the sun. The wind gusts were sharp against our faces. When that sense memory surfaces, as it did today, the weeping is immediate. I am back in that moment, in the deepest sense of community I have ever known.
As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, I find myself living in the desert, where my partner and I have made our home since the summer of 2013. My partner is recovering from heatstroke and cannot go outside in the extreme heat. Even in late October the afternoons remain warm, and in the last full week of the month, the temperature hits a record high of 99 degrees.
The university where I teach is located in this parched and starkly beautiful landscape. Our students come from all over the country and all over the world. Some have been impacted by recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Gnawing in my gut is the memory of the hurricane five years before, and the climate disasters since. I am thinking of food insecurity before and after climate disasters, and I am thinking of the heat which feels as if it will never end. I am also thinking about Halloween.
Last spring in our Stretch course (for students in need of extra preparation, Stretch offers English 101 stretched over two semesters for six full credits that count toward graduation and transfer), students had a culminating project that invited them to write a proposal for a project that would make the world a better place. More than a few students asked for help for students with hunger and loneliness, two ongoing frustrations of the college transition. The students were ahead of the curve. Hunger and first-year loneliness are two issues that have since received the national spotlight.
One does not usually think of my current institutional home as a place of hunger, or even of loneliness, perhaps. As the institution has grown in numbers in the last half decade, it has also grown more selective. That selectivity of students with higher test scores and grade-point averages does not fit the stereotype of hunger, nor does the notion of the high school success of “better” students conjure up images of loneliness.
Yet students may find themselves unexpectedly lonely, whether they commute from home or live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families. Transitioning from communities of origin to the very large community of our university can be daunting, if not intimidating or even downright depressing. For this reason, the stereotype is unfortunate. The struggles of hunger and loneliness often remain invisible to faculty and staff, no matter how well-intentioned we are.
Building on students’ suggestions from their projects to make the world a better place, we created a team of undergraduate and graduate students and adjunct faculty with the purpose of creating a community writing group for new students. Our graduate students participating in the Stretch teaching practicum came up with the idea of a large write-in on Halloween morning, a day when several of us taught at the same time. We found a room, obtained money for food, and invited other teachers in our program and their students to attend.
October 29, 2017, marked five years since the hurricane, five years since the last Halloween I spent in NYC. It was an uncanny Halloween. Because our neighborhood was on high ground, we had no flooding, though the damage from high winds added to the number of lost trees our neighborhood had sustained from a tornado the year before. Even as children along the Atlantic Coast faced Halloween with food shortages and without electricity children from our neighborhood dressed in costume and did trick-or-treating at local businesses, as they had every year before.
But the annual Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan was cancelled, and along the water, there were greater troubles. People were trapped on the upper floors of public housing high rises because the electricity was off, the stairwells were dark, and the elevators were down. A wealthy neighborhood where our congressional representative lived burned to the ground. The subways and most other public transportation had stopped running. As a result, during that first week after the storm, we had an inadvertent break from school.
Palimpsest, I remembered thinking then, the traces of a more distressing material reality breaking through a bright shiny surface. That is how this sixth Halloween celebrated after Sandy feels as well.
But Halloween is a trickster holiday. Our event planning team plans to dress up for the festivities. We will offer breakfast food, and I will continue thinking through the lessons of Halloween in 2017 and that long ago autumn of 2012. When survival is the most significant goal, we all have the potential to learn to help each other, and to help ourselves find the road back to our hearts. When the hierarchies are gone, coalition becomes possible.
Nothing in this struggle is easy, especially since universities do not work this way, and life itself does not work this way.
Yet the palimpsest and its traces remain. And it is still our job to pay attention to and to work in coalition. Coalition, in this sense, means working collectively and horizontally, through the challenges of consensus decision making. Neither top down nor hierarchical, coalitions allow us to make sense of working in the midst of differences, without either celebrating or ignoring those differences. This is harder work, but work that offers, perhaps, deeper and more lasting growth and transformation. In coalition and through consensus, more of us can contribute to strengthening our own communities.
In other words, my greatest hope is that we can offer mutual support in the midst of challenging times. Sara Ahmed suggests that “To share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility.” Addressing such challenges does not preclude “joy, wonder, hope, and love,” which “are ways of living with rather than living without unhappiness” (196).
Even more, in working for mutual aid, I am more interested in alleviating suffering than in reinvesting in hierarchies. Hierarchies, I have come to believe, try to keep a sense of normalcy, even as the traces burst through the page. Those traces cry out for attention in a world that would prefer to ignore them, as often happens when institutions perceive that applicants are in need of “remediation,” and therefore viewed as a liability. Despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, the institution can classify the need for “remediation” as a reason for exclusion.
Raising admissions standards to leave out students with lower test scores, for instance, marks such students as forever trapped by an empirical measurement of a single performance. This exclusion has become common practice and negates the need to foster potential among people whose life circumstances stand to improve with equal access to educational resources. Until we make this hierarchy of educational access visible and open to interrogation and transformation, we, as educators, will continue to exacerbate the problems of unequal access to institutional resources, and cannot claim ourselves as true agents of change.
When we do pay attention, we can uncover hidden glimpses of our own humanity. We can affirm our “contingent collaborations” (Tuck and Wang) with students, against all hope and against all immediately visible evidence of the possibility of collaboration. With such affirmation, we may also find traces of a more compassionate future that we can all take responsibility for creating. Contrary as it seems, I have never felt such comfort in the cold as on that first Thanksgiving Day after Sandy in 2012. Walking to the subway, I sensed the moment of a future not yet visible, if only I could find the courage to discover the unimagined light.
Photo description: The Stretch Halloween Write-In Planning Team: Bill Martin as a hippie, Meghan Kelsey as a dog, Susan Naomi Bernstein as a glam rocker, Ian James as Perfume Genius.
Susan Naomi Bernstein has a longstanding commitment to Basic Writing pedagogy as a means of enacting educational equity. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing (MacMillan), a professional development resource now in its fourth edition, and she blogs on Basic Writing pedagogy for MacMillan’s Bedford Bits. Her recent work includes “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” published in Welch and Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Her work also has appeared in Journal of Basic Writing, Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy, and elsewhere. She has taught in rural and urban settings from Northern Appalachia and a Native American Community in the Southwest to Philadelphia and the Bronx. Currently, she lives and works in Arizona where she co-coordinates the Stretch First-Year Writing Program at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.