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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Off the Page...

Earning One's Stripes
by Tama Westman

With a strap on each shoulder, a bag in each hand, I boarded the plane. This was it! I was a “writer on assignment.” Just the tingle of the phrase had me cocking my head at an angle and walking with a wee swagger.

A spanking new camera bag housed a professional new-er camera, one which replaced the digital dinosaur that I had duct taped together for years. I even had a card reader tucked inside that promised to download all the images in microseconds. For the last ten years, I had painstakingly taken one picture at a time from my camera, often times, freezing up the computer in the process.

A snappy haircut from the stylist in town and a slash of red lipstick, and I was raring to go. Gear stowed, I sat down and rechecked the itinerary. Yes, I was on the right flight. Seat 22-B, yep, that’s me. Ready for adventure, ready to fly.

Tacoma, Washington—I had never been there before, and while the week was a grueling mix of interviews, learning how to use the #$)*(&^! camera and trying to find my way around a strange city in a rental car, still my excitement could not be dimmed. I was there as a professional, not a girl with a hobby or a mom with a camera. (Not that there is anything wrong with these, I just had serious temporary perception problems.)

My assignment was to check on a few of the non-profit outreaches that had received grant money and see how that money was being used to transform lives. I was to travel to Tacoma one week, Memphis the next, Knoxville and Phoenix were listed too.

Viewpoint revision
My image of the high life, of hitting it big, was quickly removed, however, as I talked to people whose lives were impacted and changed by the efforts of a selfless few. In a heartbeat, I found that I had come with scales on my eyes. As I shot photos in the projects of Memphis, I did not see drug addicts and villains as I had expected. Rather, I found a victimized people, beaten down by circumstances, a community.

They say wherever you hang your hat is home. In the last two weeks, I learned that wherever you hang your colors is home too. I talked with Vice Lords who took tutoring classes on the sly to raise their GPAs, desiring a chance to go to college. I interviewed Crips intent to make it through the end of the day without “taking nothing”—keen to clean the drugs from their lives and start fresh. I spent time with children from single parent homes who had learned by the age of five how to duck into the center of a building when shots rang out.

Mothers on welfare shared their stories with me of how proud they were of their college-enrolled children. It touched me how much of a turnaround education was for those in a poorer culture, how critical in changing cyclical patterns of poverty and despair.

Badge of courage
And in the week that I spent in Memphis, walking and talking with those whose efforts far-surpassed mine in survival, I was the only woman in a room with 80 Crips and 95 Vice Lords (rivaling gang members), was shot at nine times in a downtown churchyard, and fell out of a moving open-air jeep when the driver took a turn too fast.

I guess you could say I earned my stripes as a journalist. More importantly, I think I earned a few stripes as a human being.

I went to write about the impoverished and found people rich in strength and love. I thought I would photograph evidence of urban decay, and found a beauty of city community I had not known. I went a cocky, hips-swaying journalist, and returned humbled and fairly bruised. I thought I had little, a writer’s wages aren’t staggering; however, I learned that money and things are no indication of wealth. They are simply items collected along the way.

My life as a writer. Had I known it would be so life-changing, I wonder if I would have chosen it? I did not realize that in looking through a viewfinder, my own blinders would be removed. In learning of those whose lives had been changed, my own was changed as well. I am still looking forward to boarding the next plane. But next time, I think I will pack less attitude and just maybe, a bulletproof vest.

I couldn’t help but share this experience with you. My work as a writer changed so much this last month. How about you? Are there parts of your writer’s life that have added dramatically to your sense of self?  Have you learned lessons along the way that changed you forever? Met people whom you’ll never forget? What a wonderful privilege to be able to write the stories…be encouraged to keep plodding on, to find the treasure, the joy, in your work.

Tama Westman writes the Off the Page column for Write From Home. As a correspondent and columnist, she publishes news articles, feature stories and her column, Cuppa Thoughts, regularly with her local paper, the Chaska Herald. She has served as the editor of the award-winning literary magazine, Haute Dish. Her articles appear in several local newspapers and, nationally in The Gathering and Light & Life Magazine.

She teaches creative writing and poetry classes with the AHEAD program (Achieving Higher Education and Dreams) at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN, mentors high school journalism students, and teaches beginning and intermediate writers at conferences throughout the country. Married with two grown children, she keeps her balance with a cup of tea taken in the afternoon in her English garden. Further samples of her writing can be viewed on her Web site, http://www.tamawestman.com feel free to e-mail comments to tama@tamawestman.com









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