In Dominican Spanish la ñapa refers to "the little extra" added on at the end. Just when you thought you'd gotten all that you would get, along comes your ñapa, like a baker's dozen, with one more kiss, one more pastelito, one more mango at the mercado.
Somebody Got There Early
On July 28th, 2014, I was at the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. I was thrilled, but overwhelmed with big feelings. As I said to any number of people: by this stage in life, we know that we don't get to be who we are without the investments and contributions of so many people, hundreds of "invisible hands," helping us along the way.
In one of my favorite poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, "Behind the Scenes," she writes:
When I see a President, a Vice President,
a Secretary of State
on sparkling tile,
beside noble columns of white,
I think to myself, "Somebody got there early,
and swept, and scrubbed; somebody dusted."
I felt enormous gratitude for so many people who got there early for me. How could my heart hold them all? I was reminded of why I became a writer. When I felt overwhelmed by strong feelings, confused or alone or furious and misunderstood, I learned to pick up a pen, to write. As Mami used to say, "el papel aguanta todo." The paper can hold everything.
What I've found is that if you work at what you love, surrender to its discipline (and by the way, it's never easy, even for writers, to write well!), over the course of many years, with luck, you develop the craft that allows you to create a container to express those feelings, pure and true. Expressing them might even save you, as Scheherazade found in the Arabian Nights. However, just so I don't mislead anyone, there are no guarantees. Those dark feelings can also tear you apart. We all know the stories of writers who succumbed to depression, drugs, suicide. But as Lorca noted in his essay, "Theory and Play of The Duende," any writer worth our attention has to contend with those dark demonic energies, which can be transformed into sweetness and light, if we work the words just right. But the hard work, over the years, is what you have to focus on.
I was reminded of this at the White House reception, after the decoration ceremony. A young Latina woman came up to me, introducing herself as a "big fan." We chatted for a few minutes, and then she asked me, "So what are you working on now?"
I thought of telling her that I was working on being present, being with her and with other incredible folks. (Among the honorees was one of my muses, Maxine Hong Kingston, whose memoir, Woman Warrior, inspired me at a low point as a young writer, when I didn't believe that my stories could be part of American literature.) But after a moment's reflection, I thought, yes, this young woman has asked the right question. Or rather, her question has pointed me in the right direction. Finally, it is about the work. That's what's truly being honored here, not the maker, but the thing made for all of us. (Of course, someone has to go pick up the medal!)
But as I was debating how to answer the young woman, the Marine Band started playing; Maxine and her husband Earl began dancing.
Just then, I happened to look out the tall sparkling window: summer light was splashing on the beautiful, groomed lawns. (Someone had polished those windows. Someone mowed the lawn, weeded, trimmed the bushes, scrubbed the inside of the fountain.) In the distance, through the iron grille of the tall fence I could see tiny faces peering in.
The day before, my husband Bill and I had stood on that side of the fence, along with tourists we met from China, India, South Sudan, and many Americans from all parts of the country who at some point in their own lives or the lives of their ancestors had come here from all parts of the world.
In the last few weeks the news had been filled with stories of undocumented children crossing into the United States, sent by desperate parents in Central America, who couldn't save themselves.
When my family arrived in this country in 1960, the Civil Rights movement was just getting under way. My parents had been allowed to enter as political refugees, fleeing the Trujillo dictatorship. Papi worked seven days a week to provide an education for his daughters, one of whom was now receiving a medal from our first biracial president. Folks had marched, demonstrated, died so he could be inside that White House. Somebody got there early for us.
I was full of gratitude, but also reminded that so much work remains to be done on the other side of the fence, where others watch and wait, for their turn, for someone to get there early, or not too late, for them.
On the plane back to Vermont that night, I did start working on a poem, entitled, "Gratitude."
Without their hands
parting the soil,
tapping it closed,
without their hands
To all of those hands who got there early, worked behind the scenes, planting the seeds, watering them, believing in that future flowering, the bouquets, along with the medals, belong to them.
August 4, 2014
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