"Christeene Fraser is a vibrant new voice on the poetry scene. Starkly confessional, yet warmly human, her writing strikes a nerve in the audience...a poet to watch."

Bruce Haring, Director, New York Book Festival

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Finding Stories in Unexpected Places

You know those random papers you have laying around your house? Tax forms, loan records, letters, paycheck stubs? That stuff is History. No, really. The everyday paper stash of our lives tells the story of our time, although it may not be all that apparent at first glance.

Recently I've begun volunteering for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an archival assistant. I've just finished my first project--creating a database of WWI Navy enlistee records from Port Royal, South Carolina. This is the first time I've had the opportunity to process records like these, and I came away with so much.

Some things I've learned from the WWI enlistee records:

1) Everything you own can be listed on one page: When an enlistee deserted or died, a full inventory of his possessions was made. Items generally included military-issue clothing, toiletries, and a few letters. What stayed with me is this realization that what we leave behind physically is incredibly transitory and insignificant compared to the life we've lived.

2) Military tedium can teach us a little about how to run our business: Part of the records included a weekly and monthly report of strengths and weaknesses, and a detailed account of how many soldiers were present, sick, needed, and the general quality of operations at Port Royal. There was a system of perpetual self-assessment that nearly any individual or business would do well to mimic. There is this quote by Robert Brault that sort of summarizes this, "Know thyself, or at least keep renewing the acquaintance." Any institution or individual that ever made any real progress was willing to do the difficult work of looking in the mirror. A lot.

3) Self-descriptions are telling: Technically this is not a part of the records I processed, but it's worth mentioning. NARA is the official repository for the national collection of WWI draft registration cards. The cool thing is that they have the registration cards of some very famous (and infamous) people--Al Capone, T.S. Eliot, Rudolph Valentino, and Robert Frost among others. The way registrants describe themselves is interesting. Harry Houdini, godfather of magicians, listed himself as an "actor" under occupation. That's a revealing statement isn't it? Actor? Self-descriptions can be incredibly poignant, even if they are somewhat inaccurate; particularly in retrospect. How might Hitler have described himself? A painter and idealist?

4) After everything else is gone, stories remain: I've gone through approximately 200+ enlistee cards and files, but what stays with me are the stories. The deserters. The soldiers casted-off into government hospitals for the insane. The suicide cases. The nineteen-year-old enlistee who died in a bar fight. The immigrant enlistees who came to America and earned medals for outstanding service to the U.S. Navy. Through these seemingly banal records, letters, and reports--our collective American history unfolds like a beautiful hidden flower. Lives come off the paper for me when I find someone with my birthday, hailing from my hometown, or bearing a 'Death Before Dishonor' tattoo. The time between generations seems so much smaller, and I am inspired, having found so many stories in unexpected places. I think this is the reason why genealogy becomes so encompassing for many people, because of this sense of connection despite the continuum of time.

The WWI enlistee records I mentioned will be available to researchers and genealogists soon. If you're a History enthusiast or just a curious onlooker like myself, come on down to NARA and take a look. You may find much, much more than you anticipated.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Face of Homelessness

"We must live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."

-Martin Luther King Jr.

This week the temperature in Atlanta dropped to an unprecedented low for this time of the year, clocking in at 15 degrees Fahrenheit this past Tuesday morning. Walking to work from my car, completely unprepared for the sudden shock of winter weather, I could only think: how do the homeless do it?

The truth is I already knew the answer to this question, in part, because I've been homeless. Twice in fact. I am the face of homelessness.

When I was a young child, about 2 or 3, my mother and I were homeless for awhile. I don't really remember it, but my mother has told me stories of us sleeping in her car. The lights and rattling of the city bus would frighten me, so she'd place a blanket over my head at night to help me sleep. In the morning we'd wake, and wash ourselves in a Taco Bell bathroom.

As an undergraduate student, after a series of unfortunate financial and personal circumstances, I found myself homeless again. I was an Honors student sleeping on the subway. Every penny I had, I scraped together to afford the 2.5 hour bus ride to and from college, and the occasional item from the dollar menu to feed myself. During the day I walked around New York City visiting free places like St. John's cathedral or the NYPL to stay warm. Luckily I still managed to look presentable, or even these luxuries would have been denied to me by well-meaning security guards protecting patrons or customers from the uncomfortable reminder of poverty in their midst. Now I work at one of the finest research institutions in the world. I go home everyday to a comfortable and modest house. I am well-fed and have insurance and the luxury of time to be able to write. I'm nearly finished with my Master's degree.

I say this not to brag about some arduous journey that I've come through victoriously, but rather, to say I could very well be homeless again. And so could you.

Lately I've learned that Atlanta, my own city, has the highest rate of homeless children in America. I've also recently read about the alarming increase of tent cities across America. In Florida alone there are a projected 8,000 people living in the woods near Disney World. While tourists spend nearly $100 in admission for the privilege of playing in a fantasy world, 8,000 people live in the shadows of Cinderella's castle in pop-up tents, cooking their food in coffee cans. Please understand, I am not condemning people for wanting a good time. But I do feel that there must be some sort of coming together as a society, or we will perish.

I don't know where I am going with this post emphatically, other than to say that something's got to change in this country. We need to wake up. Stop bum-rushing stores and trampling each other for gizmos from China, and start looking at each other, talking to each other again. Start helping one another with the same voracity we use to please ourselves. Not just because it's cold outside. Not just because it's nearly Christmas. But because our collective fate is determinant upon it. Because it's time to be human again. Because the true success of our lives is measured by what we do to help one another chip away at the overwhelming struggle that life guarantees.

One small step we can take is to understand the face of homelessness. It is not always the crazed beggar on the train, or the limbless veteran downtown that you give change to on occasion. It is families. Children. Someone's impoverished grandma. It could be the Honors student you sit next to in class. It could very well be you.

Check out this article by The Huffington Post about tent cities in America.

Get the latest facts about poverty in America.

Connect with a local charity you care about.

Say 'No' to the extravagant and indulgent lifestyle we've come to accept as the American Dream, and live within your means.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dear Self: How About for Christmas You Stop Being an Egotistical Schmuck? Okay? Ok.

I think I've been going about this the wrong way. And by "this," I mean of course, writing, and life in general.

I just turned 27 a few days ago, and it's admittedly freaked me out (just a little). Naturally, the addition of each year forces us in some way to do a retrospective, a self-survey of our lives to some degree. Am I where I want to be? Am I WHO I want to be? The answer to that is 'yes' and 'no.' It's both.

I don't know that I can agree that 'art for art's sake' is enough, is a sufficient raison d'etre for writing any more. There is absolutely no lack of egotists stroking their neuroses with a pen. For the sake of hearing themselves talk out loud. For the sake of someone else's praise. For the sake of deluding themselves into believing they are enlightening the reader with something original or revolutionary or avant garde when there is nothing new under the sun. Their writing, their accomplishments serve absolutely no greater purpose than to congratulate (or exonerate) the person behind the pen.

I have been one of those people I condemn.

I don't think writers start out this way. I think true writers write because they must. Why else would you force yourself upon something that seems so unnecessary and generally snickered at in this world of quantitative urgency? Somewhere along the way, certainly as a writer's profile increases, we forget that our words have actual power to help people, to transform culture. Our skills can be used for more than self-glory, as more than a blanket to warm our past hurts and wrongs.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I want to do something more than glorify myself with that I do.

There is a quote by Swami Vivekananda that I admire:

"Do not stand on a high pedestal and take 5 cents in your hand and say, 'here, my poor man,' but be grateful that the poor man is there, so by making a gift to him you are able to help yourself.It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver."

I've spent too much time trying to bless myself through accomplishment and recognition, and felt altogether emptier as a result. I don't have a ton of money. I have enough, and for that I'm grateful. But what I do have are a few chapbooks and a certain skill set. So what I propose is this:

1) From now until the end of January, 100% of all sales from my chapbook, Desir, will benefit "Celebrating Angels, One Cupcake at a Time." Celebrating Angels is a not-for-profit organization that hosts cupcake parties for children in Atlanta-area homeless shelters. In addition to cupcakes, Celebrating Angels also donates much-needed seasonal items such as school supplies and winter coats. For every book purchased at $5.00, I will match by $2.00. Whatever I collect by February 1st will be donated, in full, to the organization. See below for purchasing info.

2) I will offer my skills as a former English teacher for FREE tutorial services. I am willing to assist 2-3 middle or high school students on Saturday mornings for help in English, History, and test-prep/study skills. Email me for details: laliterati83@gmail.com

3) I will also extend an offer to help with reviewing or editing resumes or CV's. Please email me with the document attached to the address above. I am happy to do basic copy-editing and/or give suggestions for revision, GRATIS.

This is by no means a permanent solution to the dilemma of ego and art, but it is at least, a small light. A small move to remember that any talent I have, however large or small, is undeserved. It does not originate in me, or for me.

To purchase a copy of Desir, send $5.00 cash or money order to:

Christeene Fraser
Emory University
Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library
540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta, GA 30322