Happy 2015 Everyone!
In this new year, I’ll be posting to the Write A House blog once a week. My intention is to write about my experiences here in Detroit, highlight some of the amazing spots in the city, and interview folks within the writing, publishing and arts communities here in the D. I’ve been here just over two months now, and can comfortably say that I truly enjoy living here. So much has happened in the past few months that a recap would be cumbersome, so I’ll try to focus in on a few elements to here.
One of the questions I get asked most often is what I think of Detroit, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. First, I will say that I find this to be a strange and complicated question despite its seeming simplicity. I tend to wonder if my opinion should matter, but I feel obliged to answer, particularly when Detroiters ask. My quick and polite answer is that I love it, and that people are so much friendlier than they typically are on the east coast. I should also note that when I tell students that I work with in the city about how friendly I find Detroiters, their response is ubiquitously surprise and disbelief. I typically tell them about how I would often try to say hello or smile at people in New York or Boston only to be met with a brick wall of disinterest. While I do love Detroit and have yet to be stonewalled by strangers, my feelings are, of course, far more expansive.
Overall, the transition from Brooklyn to Detroit has been personally revelatory for me. I find myself far less tense, moving with less urgency and having time and space to dream and create. I am also in awe of the amount of gorgeous visual art around the city, from landmarks such as the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Institute of Art, to neighborhood murals and graffiti writing. I am constantly enchanted, and at the same time, I just spent the first holiday season of my life unable to return to Cape Cod, where a large part of my family lives, for the holidays. I went into the season thinking this distance wouldn’t be too difficult, even joking that it wouldn’t be so bad to be away from family tensions. This proved to be a fallacy very quickly.
The day after Thanksgiving, on what would have been my grandfather’s birthday, my grandmother passed away. She was an incredible woman, Glenna Fern Lacouture, known to her grandchildren as Granna. She was an air raid siren during World War II, a Sweet Adeline, a registered nurse, and was active in Alanon. Throughout my life she was always taking care of other people, always making jokes. She was a healer in every sense. In a time when my personal life has seen many achievements and the world at large is plagued with violence, strife and discord, it’s hard to imagine the world without her in it. Whether or not she knew it, she was an anchor for me, and every day since she has passed, I find myself musing upon Granna’s ardent optimism and joie de vivre.
On the day of her funeral, I was teaching creative writing at Detroit International Academy for Young Women. My lesson plan for the day involved creating list poems in acknowledgment of the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and countless others based around the hashtag #ourlivesmatter. I had been nervous going into the day that I was doing too much. It was my second day teaching in these classrooms, and I thought maybe the subject matter would be too intense, or that perhaps I was setting myself up for a day steeped in grief. In the previous lesson, I had asked students to write “Where I’m From” poems, and many of them described trauma, decay, and destitution and I thought perhaps I’d be dredging up difficult emotions again. Instead, I found myself smiling, nodding and applauding the incredible young women as they expressed anger and exasperation, self-love and pride. They told me what I knew—that they were important, and in so doing reminded me that my life and well being mattered, too. My joy was different than the typical satisfaction of creating a lesson plan that clicked. I was genuinely moved by these students’ words, which kept me buoyant for days.
These students highlighted one thing that I think is essential about Detroit overall: a resilient spirit. While there is a great deal of talk about Detroit’s regeneration or rebirth, it’s well known that outside of the city’s center there is still a great need for investment. I have mixed emotions about resiliency as a concept because it means having to survive and build in the midst of struggle. I’d much rather tend a garden in the absence of struggle, but there’s much work to be done before that is possible. In the meantime, resiliency is necessary. It is easy to become disillusioned when you look around your neighborhood and see charred stumps of buildings and sandy vacant lots—places that used to be something to someone. From what I’ve seen, much of Detroit’s exterior landscape can easily mar the lush fields of one’s gorgeous and vibrant interior. For some it already has, and yet, there are very few people I’ve encountered who express any sense of fatalism. There is a sense that the city has survived much already and will continue to survive—not as is, but with work and care, it will change.
In the upcoming year, I’m looking forward growing and building here more than I have in any other place that I’ve lived. I want to take root and work alongside those who are pushing the city beyond mere survival to a place of thriving bounty for all Detroiters. I know it is possible, because I’ve already met so many brilliant people striving for the same thing. I know it’s possible because I’m optimistic. I get it from my Granna,
Casey Rocheteau Inaugural Write A House Recipient