Folklore’s Four Sisters

Scholarship, Fieldwork, Activism, and Artistry


Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #21
Forthcoming in Voices: Journal of New York Folklore, fall, 2021.

Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book

A few years ago, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times interviewed me about my work as a folklorist. When I started talking about my new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life, he listened, then said, “I guess what you’re saying is that a folklorist is a scientist of human expression—and that our creative expression stands as evidence for the soul,” then paused for a moment and laughed. “I think we’ve had a metaphysical breakthrough.”

Folklorists are often asked to define what folklore is. If we’re in a hurry or think that the person isn’t interested in hearing a complex definition, we may say something like “traditions handed down by word of mouth,” or perhaps a broader definition, “an expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people,” or we quote the definition given by folklorist Dan Ben-Amos : “artistic communication in small groups.” I usually try to steer away from defining the term and suggest that a better question is to ask what folklorists do. Folklorists work to document, interpret, present, and advocate for forms of cultural expression that society may view as marginalized or insignificant, but which are often at the core of a community’s identity and culture. We support undervalued and underacknowledged forms, traditions, and artists in order to bring them recognition, appreciation, and remuneration. This explanation suggests that folklorists will always be needed, because they are not studying things that are “dying out,” but forms and traditions that are sidelined by the larger society—there will always be opportunities for folklorists to pursue the values of cultural equity. 

My friend Samuel Lee once suggested that folklorists should wear a collar, that we are somehow akin to priests. Possibly, we think in some similar ways. In that vein, perhaps it’s even possible to go a bit further, drawing on the metaphors of the body, mind, heart, and soul—for the field of folklore draws on all four.

The body might be thought of as the body of work, the documentation—the stories, oral histories, and materials collected in the field. The mind is the scholarship or the interpretation of the documentation. The heart of the field is activism and empathy, central to the work of folklorists who collaborate with communities and individuals to amplify their voices and provide them with venues, resources, and ways to supplement their livelihoods. Perhaps, the soul of the field is the creative artistry embodied by the talented people with whom we work and collaborate—as well as our own artistic sensibility that we bring to the task.

A lifetime in folklore has led me to believe that there are (at least) four distinctive sides or approaches to folklore—fieldwork (body), scholarship (mind), activism (heart), and artistry (soul). I also believe that some of the field’s most interesting work happens in the spaces where they intersect:

Illustration by Eva Pedriglieri

The discipline of folklore is replete with individuals who work at the intersections of these approaches. A scholar such as Jim Leary from the University of Wisconsin is a passionate labor activist. Folklorist Amy Shuman from the Ohio State University is a tireless advocate for disability rights. Chicana postmodernist writer Norma Elia Cantú is a professor at Trinity University. Betty Belanus, a public folklorist from the Smithsonian Institution, is also a novelist.

Although fieldwork, interpretation, and activism in public sector work are widely recognized, as is the artistry of the individuals we present, the artistry of the folklorist is often underacknowledged. I admire work that brings the four sisters together, with the folklorist–artist or the folklore–writer playing a special collaborative role in bringing a project to life and rendering it compelling for both for the public as well as for the featured artists many of whom choose to work with us year after year and who may discover new, meaningful, and exciting perspectives on or approaches to their own work in the course of the presentation.

Here are some of the initiatives I so admire. Marjorie Hunt, who worked with Paul Wagner to create the documentary The Stone Carvers, uses all four approaches, and the artistry brought to the project was acknowledged by an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in l985. The film was also the subject of Marjorie Hunt’s dissertation and was based on fieldwork she conducted for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It served as an advocacy project at a time when stone quarries were closed and carvers had little work, but it is also a carefully crafted work of art.

Much of the work by folklorist filmmakers is accessible on, where free streaming gives the public access to more than 325 significant and hard-to-find films, along with contextual information. The films of Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Bess Lomax Hawes, Woody Guthrie, Gerald Davis, Bill Wiggins, Archie Green, and Bill Ferris—all of whom saw themselves as scholars, fieldworkers, and activists, as well as writers, filmmakers, and songwriters—are among those whose work lives on Folkstreams. “One of the ways we made Folkstreams appealing,” writes the site’s founder and curator, Tom Davenport, “was to treat the filmmaker as an artist, an ‘auteur.’ The films we selected for Folkstreams are not clips of performances … but documentaries that have a story, and in the best of them, give something of the catharsis that art conveys.” The goal of many of filmmakers on Folkstreams,” Tom says, “is not to make money, but simply to touch another person’s heart.” 

Some folklorists have separate but integrated careers as artists and performers. Karen “Queen Nur” Abdul-Malik is a nationally known storyteller, who also works as a public folklorist for the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown, New Jersey, and has emceed the National Heritage Fellowships awards ceremony. Based at the University of Missouri, Anand Prahlad brings together scholarship, creative writing, and public folklore. He is the editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of African American Folklore, as well as a poet, creative nonfiction writer, editor, scholar, songwriter, and musician. In the Columbia, Missouri community, he founded “Poets-in-the-Schools,” a program that arranges for poets to teach poetry to elementary students. He also works with the New Media Network project, which helps disadvantaged teenagers learn photography and videography and to display their works in local galleries.

Dr. Kay Turner created and toured with the lesbian rock band Girls in the Nose. She brought her artistic sensibility and approach to bear on her imaginatively written and edited books—Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars and Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms—as well as to her public programs at the Brooklyn Arts Council. For instance, she turned the 100th anniversary of the Williamsburg Bridge into a public folklore project, and invented a “Croning” ritual at the meetings of the American Folklore Society, during which women of a certain age are hilariously inducted into a “secret society” of female folklorists over age 50.

The 2007 book They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, a collaboration between folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet and her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, is a stellar example of a folklorist working at the intersections of scholarship, fieldwork, activism, and artistry, while incorporating personal history. Mayer ran a paint shop in Toronto in the 1960s, when Barbara was growing up. Barbara and her husband, the painter Max Gimblett, were convinced that Mayer was capable of painting his memories of his childhood in the village of Apt in Poland, which he so often spoke about. But it wasn’t until 1990, at age of 73, that he painted his first work, depicting the kitchen in his childhood home. For the next 15 years, he continued to paint details of his daily life. Bringing together scholarship, ethnography, and activism to recall the often-neglected robust life in shtetels and towns of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, They Called Me Mayer July integrates the artistry in Mayer’s paintings with Barbara’s carefully selected taped interviews, resulting in compelling, beautiful book, itself a work of art. Its purpose in part: to assure that future generations might remember more about how Jews lived than how they died.

Throughout the field, curatorial creativity plays a major role in the collaboration between folklorists and traditional artists who seek to shift the paradigm, reframe, and in some cases, reimagine traditional arts for new audiences. In other artistic disciplines, the role of presenter is often to simply introduce a performance and let the art speak for itself. When folklorists present, we often need to contextualize the performance and make it relevant to a new audience, a process that requires an in-depth collaboration with the artist. At City Lore, we describe ourselves as tradition-inspired, not tradition-bound. 

Emphasizing the artistry brought by folklorists to the profession may help us to answer some of the toughest questions put to us as folklorists. Are we part of an “extraction culture”? Do we need to decolonize folklore? Yes, we need to rethink some of our approaches, but I have never been one to suggest that I am in the field solely to change the world. If that had been my goal, I could have chosen politics or social work. I cherish the role of creative collaborator partnering with folk and community-based artists who choose to work with us in the service of beauty.  I am in the field because I serve in all the roles in the diagram—scholar, documentarian, activist, and artist/writer—and because I love to do this work.

The closer we come to bringing together these four sisters—scholarship, fieldwork, activism, and artistry—the mind, body, heart and soul of our work, the more folklore can do justice to the people and communities with whom we collaborate.




This essay is forthcoming in Voices: Journal of New York Folkore in the Spring, 2021 issue.


Robert Snyder
1 month ago



This is a wonderful and insightful essay. Decades ago, when I earned my doctorate in US history, I constructed a minor field for myself in folklore. I wish I had this read back then!

1 month ago



The field is and always will be alive.

1 month ago


Rob Bernstein
1 month ago


1 month ago



A Good read I’m going to share. 

I also like when Rory Turner told me his young daughter said to him how she now understands what folklorists do- she went on to say anthropologists study people, but folklorists make friends with them! Folklorists do like to make friends fooreeeeveeeerrrrrr!! 



I Am Not My Label!

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost 20
by Bob Holman and Steve Zeitlin

How the “Where I’m From” Poem Can Help Us Cross the Great Divide


Photo & illustration by Eva Pedriglieri

I am a Republican. I’m a Democrat. I’m a socialist. I am a white male. I am a Black female. I am trans. My pronouns are “they/them.” I believe the 2020 election was stolen. I believe the 2020 election was fair. I’m from open borders. Closed borders.  A wall. No wall. I’m Hispanic. I’m Latina. I’m Latinx. I’m an anti-vaxxer. I wear a mask. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Nothing Matters.

George Ella Lyon, former poet laureate of Kentucky and author of the widely influential poem “Where I’m From,” asks,  “Do we speak from the stances we take—or do we speak from a deeper place? Are we more than our labels?”

We all know about the Continental Divide, which separates the watersheds of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But Across the Great Divide—the project we hope you will take part in—reaches across a human not a geographical barrier. Families and friends are divided politically as never before in our lifetime. Across the Great Divide aims to set aside labels and find a way for us all to talk and listen to one another again. Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but the stakes are high, and maybe this simple idea of a hand and a poem can spark some thoughtful conversation and, potentially, some positive change.

Our project begins with a hand like this one, reminding us of our most basic commonality:


City Lore’s first foray with Across the Great Divide was the last ride for our old POEMobile, a brightly painted, poem-bedecked art truck that projected poems onto walls and buildings in New York City neighborhoods.The first POEMobile was a 1988 Chevy step van that was mechanically unsound and unsafe to drive. We had just received a new minibus for the POEMobile from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and we brought the old one to be junked at a truck repair shop in Yonkers. When we arrived, we asked if we could talk with the owners John and Kieran about Across the Great Divide. John met us at the door of the shop wearing a Trump mask, and we knew that we had come to the right place for the project.  On a large sheet of paper, Kieran filled out their hands like this:

But Kieran’s poem demonstrated far more complexity than his chosen hand colorings suggest, and we left with a new appreciation for him.

Victoria, a conservative, writes “I’m from Christians who don’t talk about their faith, but somehow I’ve developed a strong one that enables me, when I shut up, to see the light of God in strangers.” Devon, who filled out the conservative hand below is “from a small town where we know our neighbors’ names.” 


The multicolored hands like this one often suggest the complexities of even our labels. Hannah Thompson from South Carolina colors in “liberal” and is also a Second Amendment advocate. Her poem suggests that she is much more than either one:

I’m from Scotland, from Holland, from down a dirt road in Mechanicsville
I’m from homemade macaroni and layered chocolate cake.
From the aunt who taught eighth grade English for twenty years
From the uncle who drove out west to meet the Sioux.
I’m from the wall of pictures in unmarked frames
Holding us together through time and space. 

George Ella’s “Where I’m From” poem and widely-used writing prompt came from her childhood memories of growing up in Harlan, Kentucky where her parents owned a dry cleaning store. “I am from clothespins,” she writes, “from Clorox and carbon tetrachloride. / I am from the dirt under the back porch… /

I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons.
from Perk up! and Pipe down!

Her poem has almost magical powers. By letting us see resonant details of her childhood, it expresses the ineffable in all of us.  Steve’s daughter, Eliza, suggests that a person’s “Where I’m From” poem captures the images that may flash before their eyes just before they die. As we stare one another down across the Great Divide, it’s important to remember that it’s not “an eye for an eye,” but an I for an I.  

The folklorist Troyd Geist uses the poem as part of his Art for Life Program for seniors in Rugby, North Dakota.  He wrote to us about an elder whose poem began “I am from an iron and Ironing board.” When she passed away a few months later her funeral was centered around that poem. In the front of the church, her photo was prominently displayed on an ironing board draped with doilies, alongside her iron and her bright red urn.  

 “Where I’m From” poems also help us understand not only our political stances but the many different and distinctive cultural backgrounds Americans are coming from. Sahar Muradi describes her childhood:

I am from the burnt bottom of the rice pot
From Shabnam and Jawad and Yusuf
Who was born Alan or Alan who was born Yusuf
I am from padar’s purple prayer rug
And Bobo’s henna-dyed hair rusting on her head
I am from Two Boots Pizza next to Dollar Pizza
Next to Joe’s Slice
I am from “fear your God” and “obey your parents”
From “Nowruz Mubarak” on the first day of spring
I am from the cry of a baby, pink and just born
And the long-necked trees that throw shadows on my wall

A number of poems were submitted by formerly incarcerated women who participate in a program called Beyond the Bars. This one is by Roslyn Smith:

I am from my warrior mother’s womb, an ancestry of North Carolina slavery that migrated to Brooklyn, New York.

I am from behind the concrete barbed-wire wall of the prison industrial complex, free but still not free.

Jonel Beauvais, also writing from Beyond the Bars, expresses her Native upbringing:

I am from the land where the partridge drums
The original steward to the land
I am the one who is carrying the Creator’s footprints
I am the daughter who stayed till the end
I am the mother who kept her promise
I am the sister you feel safe with
I am the partner that loves you unconditionally
I am the friend that always has your back
I am the speaker of a million tears
I am one phone call away
I am asking for prayers
I am asking for presence
I am the women I admire
I am the woman I’d never thought I’d be…
But here I am!

City Lore recently began talking with the nonprofit Braver Angels, which runs nonpartisan workshops for Democrats and Republicans. With more than seventy-five thousand members nationwide, it takes a different but complementary approach to Across the Great Divide. While we encourage you to go beyond politics to the deeply shared personal details of your life, Braver Angels encourages its members to confront political issues directly. Its workshops often begin by separating Reds and Blues and asking each group to discuss what they think the other group thinks of them. In the facilitated discussions that follow, stereotypes of both groups are broken down. The focus is not so much on what the two groups believe, but on why they believe what they do.  Like City Lore’s Across the Great Divide, Braver Angels encourages participants to move beyond their labels. Braver Angels is easy to join, and runs general Red/Blue workshops on Zoom as well as single issue sessions on a variety of issues including climate change and race, even one that focuses on divided families.

Our capitalist society reinforces and encourages labels to more easily home in on our demographics and sell things to us, ­beginning with the news we like to watch as a “liberal” or “conservative,” and going on to pigeonhole our tastes in every facet of our lives. The poem is a way to express that no one else in this world is from the same place you are. They say that God is in the details—so are you.

If you’ve read this far, you are a likely candidate to join the many others who are stepping up to unite our United States! So now it’s your turn. Across the Great Divide is a way of communicating with those you may disagree with by offering an olive branch—a creative, personalized insight into yourself—to someone you know with different political beliefs. You can, of course, also send postcards to people you agree with. Have fun and help us Cross the Great Divide!

How does it work? IT’S EASY! Click on the link below

Be as creative as you can in coloring in the digital hand with your viewpoints. Fill out the hand with a few mouse clicks, using the colors you want to fill in the words that represent your social views and political beliefs. One participant had fun with the model and colored in all the words, however contradictory. 

You’ll see the word “poem” when you flip the card over. DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED! Just draw on your memories and start a few lines with “I am from. . .” and go from there. There are no mistakes. If you’d like to read your poem at an Across the Great Divide open mic, please join us on May 10th at 7:00 pm. Learn more here. 

Some respondents have no trouble dashing off a few lines to create their poems. If you are having trouble getting started, you can set up a simple phone or Zoom interview with one of our resident poets and get some assistance. We then send you a poem based on what you said, for you to edit. Write us at if you want to take advantage of this option.

The next step may be the most important: whom you send your postcard to. You can send it to anyone, but you may want to reach across the aisle, start a conversation with someone you think might fill the hand out differently from yourself. You may want to send them a separate email urging them to participate and then have them send their card back to you.

If you need more detailed instructions, visit our FAQ page or email us at

As Jayne Wallace, who filled out her hand as a liberal from Florida, wrote in her poem,

I am from ordinary people with extraordinary dreams, some realized, some not.
I am a regular American who knows we can do better.

And as John Henin, who is all for the wall, law and order, and traditional marriage, wrote,

I’m for what this country needs
I am for something working
If this poem can work, I’m for poetry




The Giveback: Parable of the Horse

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost 19
Intro by Steve Zeitlin
Guest Blog by Tim Z. Hernandez

Drawing by Eva Lia Pedriglieri

Tim Hernandez, a poet and grandson of a migrant worker, has taken as his life’s work to research the families of all the migrant workers killed in the infamous 1948 plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, memorialized in Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman’s song “Deportee” – “all they will call you will be deportees.” Tim’s wonderful book, All They Will Call You, documents and recreates the migrant workers’ lives.  This past November, we featured Tim on City Lore’s Tell Me a Story salon hosted by Annie Lanzillotto.  On air, he told the Parable of the Horse, a tale that has everything to do with kind of work that folklorists and collectors of stories aspire to, as well as the pitfalls we all too often fall into. If you work closely with communities other than your own, heed this tale. 

There’s a story that came to me during one of the last days I was in Mexico on my first trip. I’ve been back many times since then but there’s a story that was conveyed to me the first time I was there.

There was an old man named Don Miguel Perez who was friends with two of the passengers on the Los Gatos crash.  I was sitting at his house in in Mexico.  And sometimes he had a tendency to joke with me – my Spanish is not perfect, you know, so he would sometimes joke and tease me. One morning he said to me after he was eating his beans he said, “Have they told you the story about the horse?  And I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not and wasn’t sure where this was going. He said, the horse, el caballo.” 

And as he ate his breakfast that morning he told me the story that in the early 1990s, 1992, 1991, around there, there was a farmer by the name of Daniel Cardenas.  One day he was walking his ejido, out on his farm there, and then in evening he began to walk home on the cobble streets of Charco de Pantoja in Guanajuato.  As he was walking over the cobblestones he remembered that a storm had just passed the night before. and he saw that it had uplifted a couple of rocks in the road. 

 Daniel Cardenas started to put the rocks back and as he was doing that he noticed something strange inside the hole – he saw a skeleton that looked to him like a horse’s head.  And so he began to upturn some of the rocks and push them aside and started to build a bigger hole and look at what it was.  He made clearing around it, and sure enough a couple of farmers came along and they also agreed it was a horse.  And they told Daniel the only problem was that this horse looked a little bit awkward – it was different because it had really long back legs, hind legs but the front legs were much shorter than the back and the head looked bigger.  It had the shape of a horse but it didn’t quite look like a horse and they didn’t know what to make of it. 

And they looked at one another and said, “let’s go get La Maestra” because in that community they had one woman who had gone ahead to college and gotten her degree and returned to the town so they called her La Maestra. She came over and looked down on it and recognized it right away and said “these are some prehistoric bones that you found here, a prehistoric animal.”  And they were excited about that and she said, “I’m going to call my colleagues at the university.” 

She talked to them and they came over in a VW bus at the time. And the archaeologists came and they looked down into the hole and they said in fact it was prehistoric.  Now for the people of Charco de Pantoja and for anybody this was a really big deal because the rumor has been for many years that horses were not indigenous to that area – that they were indigenous to Europe and they were brought over to Mexico That was the common belief. So for them it was proof that as horse people – and they considered themselves horse people  ­– horses were from here all along.  They were indigenous to Mexico. 

Daniel Cardenas, the townspeople and the anthropologists were all very excited about it. So the archaeologists said, “we’re going to take the horse and we’ll let you know the outcome of our studies.”  And the community by then had gathered. The entire community of Charco de Pantoja had gathered and they said to them, “Wait a minute, you’re not taking the horse.”

 And they said, “we have to take it back to the university to do tests.”

 And they said, “no, no no, you’re not taking the horse.”  So they had a conference among one another, they talked.

 And the archaeologists said, “now here’s the deal.  You help us put the horse in the van, we’ll take it, and, when we’re done with our tests we’ll bring it back to this community – we’ll actually put it in a nice glass case for you with some labels – we’ll let it be stored permanently and proudly in your community so people can come by to witness and marvel at the horse.”

 They liked that idea. So they began to help the archaeologists load this horse into the back of the VW van.  And a photographs exist in a popular magazine (I don’t remember the name of the magazine)  but there are photographs that exist of an aerial view, a topside view of the entire community lifting this horse and putting it into the back of the van . And they drove away with the horse, with all the prehistoric bones inside of it. 

Tim Z. Hernandez Photo Credit-Ana Saldaña

Don Miguel Perez, the storyteller, looked at me across the table and he said to me, “we’ve never seen that horse again.” No one knows where the horse is. The horse never came back.  And then he looked at me and said, “maybe you can help us find the horse.”   You know, you found us.  And he wasn’t joking.

That afternoon I was at La Maestra’s house. She was giving me the horse file, and they asked me to look for the horse.  I flew back the next day and as I was flying back to my home in Colorado where I was living at the time. I thought about that story and why it felt more like Don Miguel Perez was conveying something more than just the story of the horse. And I think it occurred to me – and this is the meaning I’ve made of it  –  it was the last day I had been there gathering stories from them, interviews, and I think it was in some way Don Miguel telling me “you’re taking something from this community – bring it back.”



As soon as our show with Tim was over, Molly Garfinkel who had introduced the presentation began searching the internet for sightings of the horse, the prehistoric bones of an indigenous Mexican horse.  She saw no references to it, yet Tim does have some evidence of finding, and believes the bones were stolen and the fact of it hidden, whether by time or intention. Though the search for the horse continues, the parable can serve as a lesson for all of us who harvest the grain of stories and songs, and who need to give back to keep the soil fertile.  Let us fully understand that we need to create lifelong bonds with those who are kind enough to share their songs and stories, and find ways to do for them as they have done for us.




Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


Stories from Nurses on the Front Lines

By Samuel Lee

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #18

We write our names across our face shields so we’ll recognize each other and know we’re family.


“Being a folklorist is a bit like being a priest,” my close friend Sam Lee once told me, “you have a reverence for things – especially words. I’ve known Sam since my wife Amanda and I came to New York to work as folklorists for the Queens Council on the Arts in 1981. At the time we were doing the project, City Play, and Sam – who also has a reverence for words – told us stories about growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After his mother died when he was 14, he got a job working at Izzy’s poolroom. “I learned to shoot real well, and I would steer people to the numbers writers, the bookies. During the holidays, the numbers men would come around and give people in the neighborhood turkeys and give their children toys. When the cops came around, they would protect them because they didn’t want anybody coming around and taking their turkey man.”

 For as long as I’ve Known Sam, he was documenting stories, and a few years ago he told the full story of his childhood on The Moth Radio Hour.  Way back in1983, he made a video Rapping with the Rappers interviewing artists including WBLS’ first rapper, deejay Mr Magic, Fearless Four, Spyder D, Female artist D Bora, and LL Cool J to name a few. Currently he runs a storytelling program called Encounters in Black Tradition in Englewood, New Jersey. During the surreal days of the Corona virus, his love of stories emerged as a saving grace for his own well-being and as a window for all of us into what front line nurses braved at the height of the pandemic in New York.

~ Steve Zeitlin

Sam Lee

Sam Lee

When the virus struck, I was stuck like everyone else. I was in a basement apartment, quarantining myself, watching the news and netflix all day, eating 4 or 5 times a day and getting more and more depressed. I got a call from a friend, Michele Vapiano, who is the manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Englewood, New Jersey. She told me that the hotel was empty and they were giving away a lot of the food, and making rooms available for doctors and front line nurses. I suggested to her that I could set up a video camera in the lobby, and collect some stories.

I was blown away by the stories I was told. The nurses spoke to me like disciplined soldiers sent off to battle. On the front lines, everyone is the same – there’s no color, there’s no white, no black, woman, man, doctor, nurse or room cleaner. They were hugely empathetic human beings. Like medics on the battlefield, they were often ministering to people when they died. As one of the nurses, Melissa Porco, told me, “There’s many nurses including myself that take great pride that we can be there when a person transitions or passes. No matter what race or religion – we try to make that as comforting and as special – it’s truly an honor to be able to do this work with them. Even when the outcome isn’t what we want it to be – we have to accept it.  Be with them in that moment and be very present, that’s the key.”

I needed to do these interviews with front line workers for myself – for my own mental health – but also because I realized the stories needed to be told.  I have always taken as my tagline some words from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community… and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

The stories of these nurses gave me some badly needed hope. As Michele Porco ended her interview with me, “I would like to say to everybody out there not to give up any hope, that we will get through this. We’re here for you. We won’t leave your side. Hang in. It’ll be OK. Keep hope.”

The very first nurse who came in was Desserie Moran. When I first started interviewing her, I didn’t think this was going to be a quality project – but when I heard the emotion in her narrative, when she started to cry, I realized how deep these stories cut. She told me that when she drove home from work each night she just sat in her car and wept for an hour before she could even open the door to her house. Here is her story.


Desserie Morgan

How has the pandemic changed my life? I don’t sleep like I used to. When I do sleep, I’m dreaming constantly about Covid. When I’m at work I’m worried about my family at home. When I’m home I’m worried about my family at work. I’m a manager as well, and my responsibility is to make sure the people who report to me are safe.

When I’m at home everything has changed, my mental health has changed—hugging and kissing my children is such a natural thing to do, but I find myself feeling stand offish and pulling back – I’m so concerned that I’m going to get them sick. After I do hug them and kiss them I say a prayer – Please God don’t let me give them anything.

I feel like there’s a part of me that’s kind of damaged. That part of my life has changed – I hope not forever. I’m worried when I talk to somebody – I try to get a good look at them and remember them because I may not see them again – because you just don’t know with this thing.

On one of the first pandemic days, the patient in the room with me was not doing great. I was fixing her IV – and as I was fixing her IV her other hand reached over and grabbed mine and I realized she was trying to hold my hand. And I just looked at her and knew she was terrified – her oxygen was de-saturating and I knew she was going to have a rough couple of hours. And there was a very good chance I might be the person or one of the last people to talk to her before she needed to be sedated for intubation. So I tried to make her as calm and as comfortable as I could. I was looking into her eyes and although I was trying to limit my time in the room I knew that she needed me. So I stayed in that room and I held her hand and I told her that I was with her – that she’s not alone. She’s gonna make it through. And she said, “I love you, you’re an angel.” I had to be there for her in that moment.

My worst day so far – it was on a Sunday – I was a supervisor for the critical care department and I was called in by a frantic critical care physician asking me to find the I-pad immediately and to bring it over to critical care. I told him that patient-relations wasn’t there and there was no one to do it and he said we have about two minutes before this patient passes on us and dies and the family needs to see them. And so I ran to critical care with that I-pad and in that moment I didn’t have the opportunity to know what I was walking into so I was not prepared. And when I got inside and it was just myself and the patient. And I had the I-pad on and I dialed the number and I saw it was a 12 year old boy and his 8 year old sister and their Mom saying goodbye to the patient who was their father. And I have 12-year-old twins and a husband and I couldn’t disconnect from it. And I was staring and the way the I-pad communication works – you see them and they see the patient – and I was staring at them pleading with me to do something about their Daddy and I knew he had minutes, if even. And I kept saying “Honey, talk to your father, and tell him you love him and the Mom was on the other side trying to tell them “say goodbye to Daddy.” And it was so heartbreaking – and I fought back as much as I could. I’m not letting them see my tears. When it was over and I had left the room that same physician came and said “I’m so sorry to do this but we have another one right next door.”

So I went next door, the next room – and I had to do the same thing but this time it was a 19 year old girl and her 15 year old brother saying goodbye to their mother. So I went through that as well. I could not shake that – I could not stop thinking about it for days. I saw their pain, I heard their voices in my head. I couldn’t get past that. So that was definitely the worst day in my life.

The best day is whenever I hear the Rocky song. In my hospital they do an amazing job of celebrating discharges. If a patient is discharged from Covid, they are able to push a button on that person’s way out and it plays the Rocky theme song to just tell them what champions they are – whenever I hear that I’m having the best day.

There is no way in this world I could do anything else and be happy. The team I work with is family – we write our names across our face shields so when we see each other we know we’re family. When this is over everybody on the front lines is going to have to heal mentally. To make sense of what happened, process what we went through. It may be over physically but mentally it has taken a toll. It’s taken a toll.

But I don’t think twice about it. I’m a nurse. That’s what we’re supposed to do – if you’re called to this profession you just feel a need to help people. I don’t feel I’m putting them before my family – I feel like I’m doing for them what I hope somebody would do for my family.


 Desserie’s full story on Youtube filmed and edited by Sam Lee can be seen here .



Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.





Looking Back at the Corona Virus Ten Thousand Years from Now

by Kewulay Kamara

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #17

Kewulay Kamara


You don’t even know what you know till somebody asks,” my friend Kewulay Kamara told me. Born in the village of Dankawalie in northeast Sierra Leone, Kewulay Kamara is a member of the finah clan who serve as the oral poets and masters of ceremony for their communities. He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 and, as an adult, he carries on the finah tradition as a storyteller and filmmaker with his new tools – the computer and the camera. Kewulay is also part of the futurist movement, working with UNESCO as a consultant and performer for their Taskforce on Foresight and Strategic Planning throughout the world. As a storyteller, Kewulay continually asks me get beyond whatever we’re going through to think about how we want things to be remembered. So who better to ask how this horrific era in our history might be remembered ten thousand years from now?

Steve Zeitlin



In the spirit of the tradition that says: What is said is done and what is done is said, and of the persuasion that trusts that the infinite universe is created out of utterance, I want to tell the story today of COVID-19  as it will be told ten thousand (or even one million) years from now because, as Einstein foretold, chronological time is a fiction, and because what is said is done. I want to do this in the storytelling modality of the West African practice of libation. Let us stand on this earth 10,000 years from now, and pour a libation to honor the spirit of the ancestors who suffered through this pandemic. Let us begin by recounting events from way in the past and, at the same time, let us stand here today to project a future in the present. I will be there as I am here to witness today.

COVID-19 came at a time when the world had grown closer, when national borders seemed less important, and when the movement of people and things had begun to increase exponentially. The advent of COVID-19 had been predicted years in advance, yet its stealth, swiftness, and ferocity caused frantic course reversals: borders closed, neighbors masked, cities locked down, blocks blockaded, families separated, walls sprouting, and human immigration reversed like rivers flowing upstream. Everyone was advised to speak only with their mouth covered and their hands in their pockets; everyone was afraid even of their own lips.

The sages of the time sought to get a handle on The Mysterious Traveler.  It was not human, it was not a plant, it was not animal, and it was not spirit; it was neither male nor female. No one actually claimed they’d seen it with the naked eye, but they understood that the naked eye does not know its enemy. It was known by its mark.

They saw the mark in one place first, but before the people could come to terms with it, the marks were spreading everywhere. Confusion and panic set in at the very foundations of power. Its path was mysterious—that is why some started calling it the Mysterious Traveler. The MT was like a hurricane that swept through cities and towns with abandon. It did not speak anyone’s language. It did not discriminate. It spared not the high and mighty royals, neither the holy people on the mountain, nor the prostitute in the street, the destitute in the gutter, the feeble in the wind, the humble on the earth, neither the young nor the old. The so-called “good” and the so-called “bad” met the same fate it its path—yet some could get out of its way more easily than others. As always, the working poor, the people of color, and the health care workers who could not get around its deadly approach, and stood firm in the face of it, paid the highest price.

The MT struck with a vengeance, killing over 100,000, including many of those who were brave enough to care for the sick. Many died difficult, ugly deaths, strapped to ventilators, and were so contagious that they died alone, with no one to hear their final gasp.

To some it appeared that the MT had come to turn every human folly and concern upside down. Before MT, humans had been fixated on economic growth, which translated into senseless movements directed by their priest, who uttered daily oracles from the stock markets. Every human value was subsumed under the assumption that what was good for the market was good for all. To service the market, forests were cleared, the wilderness decimated, the rivers dammed, and the oceans reduced to cesspools. It all made sense in their calculus, their primary method of reckoning good and bad.

Kewulay Kamara with the blacksmith’s bellows handed down in his family. Photo by Tom Pich

With the MT came this headline:

Coronavirus: Mexicans demand a crackdown on Americans crossing the border.

It was a time when many predicted that a tide of African immigrants fleeing global warming would traverse deserts and meet a tragic demise baking in the sand under the sun, or that they would cross oceans, braving wild seas in flimsy traffickers’ boats, or face border dogs, armed guards, and razor wire fences on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. The MT saw this reversed. During the reign of the MT came another headline:

African countries close their borders to European travelers, adventurers, a move that should have been considered 400 years before.

For the world of animals and plants, the MT was a superhero: it was the Liberator, the Avenger. Every animal in the bush, fish in the oceans, and tree in the forests was given breathing space as a consequence of the stay-at-home commands. As soon as humans started staying home, turtles reclaimed the beaches. Penguins danced. Fish in the oceans and trees in the forests were all given space to roam and to breathe. And homebound pets celebrated newfound time with their owners.

In Hong Kong a piece of graffiti read something like this:

Let us not go back to normal, because it turns out normal was a huge problem.

Before the Mysterious Traveler, the most rigorous arguments, the most courageous resistance, and the most fervent prayers couldn’t slow the traffic on the roadways, the seaways, or the skyward-belching factories, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions, to save the planet. The sun grew angry and joined forces with the rising oceans. The winds grew furious and spat fire as the earth grumbled. Yet for all their might, tornadoes and hurricanes only caused momentary discomforts. MT kept the cars parked and quickly smog began to clear. Human arrogance suggested that human beings had the power to determine their own destiny, as well as the destiny of the universe. Now it appeared to the wise that, ironically and tragically, in ways perhaps only the Gods can fathom, the survival of the species was aided by the Mysterious Traveler that killed so many. The earth had painfully and frighteningly been compelled to PAUSE!

During the PAUSE, people searched for sanity by at once separating themselves physically and yet reaching out to one another emotionally, calling friends and family, inquiring about their colleagues, and appreciating their personal relationships as the most redeeming element of their existence. Although calamities undoubtedly expose humans’ duplicity, treachery, and cowardice, the MT also revealed their ability to act with nobility.

The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing doctors and nurses to make agonizing decisions of who lives and who dies. It is the toughest and most heartbreaking decision a person could ever have to make. Infected with COVID-19, that is exactly the decision that faced 72-year-old Italian priest Don Giuseppe Berardelli. And in the highest of priestly callings, Berardelli chose to put others’ lives before his own by giving up his ventilator to save the life of a younger person.

Kewulay Kamara

We could imagine him saying, as he lay gasping, “I live!”

Let the story be told that even while spreading death and devastation, the Mysterious Traveler encouraged us to look within. No fear, no shame, no war, no famine, no hurricane, flood, plague, or guilt can change who are. The times, they are uncertain. We embrace the uncertainty because we are certain that tomorrow will come. I live, we live, right here and right now. We are in-the-future beings. Let us beat this pandemic, recognize the preciousness—and fragility—of humanity, prepare our scientists and factories for the next one, pour a libation to the future so that our descendants may pour a libation to the past. We give water because we living beings are made of water. In the spirit of all those ancestors in body and spirits seen and unseen, in town and in the bush, in oceans and the deserts, in the plants and animals who gave us life, we pour a libation to you and to the ancestors as yet unborn.

Nesting Eggs: Planet/Language/Culture/Community/Family/You

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

Making the Case for City Lore

The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question. It came out of the blue: “So what is your hope for the future?” 

As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folk culture. Founded in 1986, City Lore works to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring community-based and folk artists into schools, project poems from our POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage. All these are, in themselves, reasons to go online and join City Lore this very moment.

Yet my hope for the future, and the reason City Lore is central to our collective future and worthy of your support, goes beyond this mission. My hope is that each soul whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet will continue through the generations to bring something new into the world, to retain their individuality, to develop their own sense of humor, and to tell their unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I share with my brothers. (We still address one another with “Yo, Sire”; and when someone once asked my brother Murray why, he answered, “Respect.”) These expressions were the “language of us,” as the writer Virginia Randall notes.

Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from Quebec’s Abnaki tribe suggests that “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” I have come to think of the layers of our existence as the set of nesting (matryoshka) dolls that sit in my tchotchke cabinet at home. I imagine the doll within a doll within a doll, first created in Russia in 1892—or the similar brightly colored eggs—as our fragile blue-and-green planet, nesting diverse languages, nesting diverse cultural groups, nesting communities, nesting families, and, finally, nesting the smallest doll, the distinctive individual. Today we witness a corporate assault on each and all of these meaningful layers of our existences.



Languages nested in our blue-and-green planet. Half of the world’s languages will disappear in this century. Scholars have shown that the areas of the world where languages are disappearing are often the same once-isolated areas where plant and animal species are disappearing. So there is a simultaneous assault on our planet egg and the languages nested within it, a connection between species diversity and language diversity.



Cultures nested in language. An ancient but renewed clannishness and demonization of our fellow human beings, fueled by social media, pits Americans against one another. Racism and xenophobia disparage cultural diversity, while anti-immigrant policies seek to strangle multiculturalism and cultural variety – a variety that has thankfully been replenished by successive waves of new immigrants who, since our nation’s founding, have been one of the most important wellsprings of our distinctly American creativity and renewal.



Communities nested in cultures. Our local  communities are threatened with gentrification that erodes the economic, age, ethnic and cultural diversity of neighborhoods, often tearing apart the fabric of community.


Individuals nested in communities. And then there’s you and me, the nested individuals.


Today, corporations are continually merging into larger and larger entities and increasingly dominating both the global economy and our individual lives with their relentless adherence to the bottom line. On the global scale, they are willing to sacrifice the planet for profit, but their assault affects us on a subtle, personal level as well. If they can put you and me in boxes, know what we watch on YouTube, try to sell us anything we’ve ever googled, they can customize their marketing such that they can shape our tastes and nudge us into market categories, slowly shaping who we are and how we behave. Capitalism runs on homogenization. 

In this new world era, governments are viewed as corporations (small ones at that), and we the people not as citizens, but as consumers. The nuances of art threaten to become simply “content” produced by “creatives” for large corporate entities. From their perspective, minority languages, climate change, diverse cultures, and individuals with unique tastes and personalities are simply hindrances or distractions brushed aside for short term gain.  

So, as poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our job as individuals is to push back, to fight against an assault on the nested layers of our civilization: for a clean planet that sustains diverse life forms, for diverse languages, for diverse cultures, and for diverse communities and families, while at the same finding meaning in our limited time on earth. On top of everything else, our job must also be to protect, maximize, and treasure our own personhood. In the virtual world, people live on their phones rather than in physical places, and develop relationships online rather than with the their neighbors. In this new world where we are continually bombarded with ever-more-subtle advertising, we are tasked with sustaining our sentience, interiority, and free will. “There will be no one like us when we are gone,” wrote British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science Oliver Sacks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, “but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

Steve Zeitlin with his nesting dolls. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

In spite of everything, I still believe that there will always be people in search of authentic experiences, art forms, and traditions, created and shared person to person, expressions of individuality nested within cultures and traditions. People will return to those experiences because that’s where meaning lies. It is there that personal, family, community, cultural, and linguistic diversity is expressed. That’s why City Lore is still here—you can access that distinctiveness and singularity by attending any of our programs.

In addition, the work that we and our colleagues in folklore and related fields do and have done to document and preserve folk and community traditions can serve as touchstones for the creativity of future generations. Today, you can find yourself in the diverse cultures, communities, and languages that we share with you at City Lore. The deeply rooted experiences may give us the tools and reasons to fight back.

My hope for the future is bound up with language and an appreciation of cultural diversity. Is that more important than world peace? Perhaps not. Yet if the planet ever does become a “peaceable kingdom,” here’s hoping it’s not because we have been corporatized into sameness but because we have learned to communicate across differences. 

You can join City Lore – “a practical application of a utopian endeavor” – by Clicking Here for the membership form.  You either send it back to us or click on the donation level that will take you to PayPal.



Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


Dividing Up the World: Two Kinds of People

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #15

Sitting next to me at a bookfair, a poet told me that the kindest thing his father ever said to him was, “there are two kinds of people in the world, and you’re neither one of them.” I was reminded that my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, once collected examples of dividing the world into two kinds of people in notebooks that have sat on our bookshelf for some thirty years. I pulled them out for this month’s Poetry of Everyday Life blog. 

And well I should because, after all, there may be two kinds of people in the world, but Amanda, City Lore’s Education Director and our guest blogger, to her credit, is definitely neither one.


Dividing Up the World

by Amanda Dargan


Illustration by Eva Pedriglieri

I grew up on a farm in Darlington County, South Carolina, and one day my father, Lucas Dargan, announced that as a sideline to his work as a forester he planned to start raising chickens and selling the eggs. At the local feed and seed store where he went to buy supplies, he got into a conversation with the owner. “Lucas,” the owner told him, “you know, there are two kinds of people in this world, those who want to get into the chicken business, and those who want to get out.” 

Years later, when I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, I started keeping a notebook of these everyday expressions that I heard or found in conversations, newspaper articles, and books. My father, always a rich source of these and other expressions, gave me another example. On returning from a trip to Italy, he told us about a harrowing taxi ride in Rome and the driver’s response to his concern about the speed and recklessness of the city’s drivers, “There are two kinds of people in Rome, the quick and the dead.”  A similar expression is used to describe two kinds of men–“ the quick and the wed.”

Amanda Dargan. Do you unroll toilet paper from the top or from the bottom?

At the same time I became interested the rhetorical tactics these phrases employ. The “two kinds of people” expressions my father reported are  examples of one of Aristotle’s three laws of thought, the law of the excluded middle. The chicken business expression leaves out precisely the category my father wanted to be – someone who enjoyed and was successful in the chicken business. It also leaves out people who have never considered getting into the chicken business. The Rome taxi driver’s “quick and the dead” expression leaves out the category of those who drive safely and survive.

In addition to the excluded middle, dividing the world expressions often employ the strategy of foregrounding a detail that divides a wide swath of human personalities into two types, often using a mundane behavior to illustrate a larger personality type. Alan Guignard, a friend who was part of a group I travelled with after college, complained that there are two kinds of people in the world, life saver suckers and life saver chewers. He was a life saver sucker, and we, his traveling companions, who gobbled through a whole pack of life savers while he still sucked on his first one, were life saver chewers. Life safer suckers, he declared, are more deliberate, frugal, inclined to delay gratification, and stick to a plan. Life saver chewers, on the other hand, are impulsive, seek immediate gratification, live in the moment, and scrap the planned itinerary when they see something they find more interesting. 

“There are two kinds of people,” our friend Holly Cutting Baker declared, describing another character trait that embodies a larger personality type,“rumpled and unrumpled.”  Rumpled people look rumpled no matter how much they iron their clothes. “I’m definitely a rumpled,” she said. “Unrumpled people look neat even if their clothes are rumpled.” Steve Bannon, for instance, would be a rumpled; Barack Obama, unrumpled.

Not all dividing the world expressions are binary. Others divide the world into three or more categories based on their approach to a common behavior. John M. Richardson, Jr. once claimed, “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen; those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

Some of these expressions are built around a tautology. James Thorpe claimed there are those who love to talk, and those who hate to listen, modifying the more common expression those who love to talk and those who love to listen, and suggesting that the later category does not exist.

Some divisions signify absolutely nothing more than a difference in habitual behavior. My friend Craig Schaffer once told me that there are two kinds of people, those who eat artichoke leaves with their top teeth and those who eat them with their bottom teeth. Similarly, another expression divides the world between people who pull their toilet paper from the bottom and people who pull it from the top. Those divisions don’t seem to indicate larger personality traits, just habitual behaviors, and they also exclude the middle category of people who aren’t so set in their ways and may choose to vary the way they scrape artichoke leaves with their teeth. 

For philosophers, mathematicians, and logicians, these dividing up the worlds can be expressed in mathematical terms. The law of excluded middle is written by the mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce as {(x → y) → x} → x.  I won’t attempt to explain.

For folklorists, dividing-the-world expressions are a form of verbal play. They are a way of simplifying the complexity of human beings, often by drawing on stereotypes, by putting them into distinct categories in order to persuade, express an insight, or argue a point of view with wit and humor. For example, optimists and pessimists are described in a popular expression as those who say the glass as half full, and those who say it is half empty. My daughter Eliza suggests a different way, which is not included in this binary expression: If you take an empty glass and pour water into it, it’s half full. If you take a full glass and pour water out, it’s half empty. A friend, Carol Klenfner, quoted a man who told his grandchild: “You ask if the glass is half full or half empty?  What does it matter? It’s such a beautiful glass.”

Some dividing-the-world expressions create a false dichotomy to stake a claim or denigrate a category of people. For example, those who love the art or music of, say Beyoncé, and those who have no taste. When Steve told his father that he was planning to teach high school, his father said, “There are those who do, and those who teach.” And one cynic added, “those who teach teachers,” as if those in this category were somehow on a still lower rung of the ladder. At City Lore, in fact, we do teach teachers and consider it a high calling.  

On reading this the folklorist Phlip Nusbaum reminded me that There Are Two Kinds of People in the World was also the title of a song by Little Anthony and the Imperials back in the 1950s. (That’s the group that sang the hit Tears on my Pillow.)  It goes:

Just two kinds of people in the world
why can’t we fall in love

The tendency to divide the world into opposites has itself become an expression. The American humorist Robert Benchley is credited with the expression, “There are two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.” Hmmm, which am I?  Another claims there are two kinds of people, those who live life and those who ponder it. If you’ve read this far, you must be one of them.`

After a few years of considerable frustration, my father did get out of the chicken business, but not before he inspired a way of dividing the world in our nuclear family that has become a favorite Dargan-Zeitlin family expression to use when someone gets too bossy around the house. When my youngest sister Rosa was a child, my father asked her to do a household chore. She resisted and asked, “Why?”, to which he responded, “Because I asked you to, and I’m the boss.” “You’re not the boss of the house,” she told him defiantly. “Momma’s the boss of the house. You’re the boss of the chicken house.”

Please send your Dividing up the World examples to


Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Time All At Once

Carrie’s Cosmic Seder

Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin

Brodsky-Stein and Zeitlin Seder, 1946

After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her family Seder in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, and led them to freedom.

As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The forthcoming Passover nights will certainly be different from other nights as Jews around the world struggle to cope with the horrific pandemic surrounding us. Yet however we choose to mark the occasion of Passover this year, Carrie’s thoughtful piece reminds us of the meaning of the celebration, and how much it will mean for all of us to celebrate together with our family and friends next year.  

Caroline Harris

The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story.  On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder:  the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner.  The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.


The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer.  For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”

The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.

The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either.  It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.

More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.

Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story.  Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.


Caroline Harris and Howard Goldman Seder, 2018

Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced:  slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism.  The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events.  Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.

The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses.  We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died.  Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.

Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.


We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.

But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”–  It would be enough.  The Haggadah’s vision extends further.

Where does the story end?  A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year.  Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.

Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come.  We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world.  In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging.  From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.

But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path.  We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.

And then we sing.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

The Gravedigger’s Tale

Poetry of Everyday Life, Blogpost 12

Born in Aiken South Carolina, raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Donnie Williams, a gravedigger, spent many long years digging his own grave.

“There was a time when I was actually looking at a death – my own,” he told me.

“When I was growing up, I was in the church – but I strayed.  I first started selling drugs when I was 13 – by 14 I started making real good money.  My grandmother would come and get me and we would go to church and then when I leave church I’d go back to doin’ what I was doin’ – and sometimes I would see my grandmother coming and just go hide so I wouldn’t have to go to church. Like my mother always says, ‘God has a way of bringing you down.’  At 15 I was doing really well. At 17, I ended up in the penitentiary.

Donnie William, Gravedigger

“They gave me 75 years to life – my mother, my grandmother and the church they worked on it and worked on it and after 2 and a half years, they got me out.

“When they finally got me out my grandmother said ‘you’re not going back to jail and you’re gonna get yourself a straight job’ My grandfather got me a job in 1980 in Beth David Cemetery. When I first started out I was just cutting grass with my grandfather. Yeah I used to walk by just to watch people dig the graves and I was wondering when it would be my turn one day –and sure enough one day I came in and a man handed me a shovel. I went in there digging like an old steam shovel.

“I started liking it so after 5 years I cut the drug dealing and stuck with the cemetery. Became honest. If you’re good at something it pays to be good at that – some people are good at writin’, some people good at photography. I was pretty decent at being a grave digger. I learned how to take a rounded spade shovel and make a square hole.“

But when my mother died and I lost my best friend I started drinking heavier and became an alcoholic, and then I became a functioning alcoholic, then I became a functioning fighting alcoholic.

Donnie Williams has mastered the art of digging a square hole with a rounded shovel.

“I used to get out there and tell the guy, ‘you don’t have to dig the grave, I’ll dig it.’  I’d go to the store and get me a six pack and I’d dig the grave 5 and half feet, a little deeper. Then I’d make a square hole down there, bury the six pack under the grave and go.

“But I knew I had to get my life together and in order to do that I had to go somewhere and find somebody and find peace in my life to make myself become who I used to be.  And that’s what happened. I checked myself into a clinic.

“I was in Odyssey Rehab and I was in there for about a year and a half going on- almost two years – and I was beating my own purpose – I was still going out drinking, tellin’ people no I’m not drinkin’, getting dirty urine but you know when I thought about it I thought it’s time to get yourself together – you came here for a reason – so I started stoppin’ little by little.

So one night I came to my room and the light was kind of dim. And there was this person sittin’ on my side of the bed—so I asked this guy, ‘you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’  He didn’t say nothin’ to me – so I said, maybe he’s sleepin’ – I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, you’re in the wrong room – and if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna whoop your ass.

He says to me, ‘hmmmm.’

I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’

He turned around and lifted up his head and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t know you. But you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t get up out my room there’s gonna be issues here.’

So the man looked at me, eyes red as fire and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘I don’t know you and don’t really give a damn.’

The man turned around and said, ‘I’m you.’

My head started spinning, really.   I had started thinking, and was thinking maybe he’s drunk.

He says, ‘I’m you.’

I said, ‘what do you mean, you’re me?’

He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you.’

‘The drunk in me?’

Couldn’t figure that one out either.

Then he told me, ‘you’re leaving me.’

I said, ‘leaving me?  If you don’t get out of my room, you right you’re gonna be leavin’ me.’

Then he turned around and told me the whole story.   He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you and you’re leavin’ me.’ And it was then I realized I had stopped drinkin’ for a whole year and I didn’t even know that God was with me then, without the bottle, without any medication. I was sober – and from that day to this day I haven’t seen that person since.

That’s a phenomenon I really would like to understand – but you know what? I ain’t in no rush to try to push it either.  I take it day by day and I let it go and if he show up again, maybe I can ask that question.”

“You know,” I said to Donnie, “you’re a great storyteller.”

“Never a storyteller.  I’m only telling you facts of what’s happened to me. Now I don’t know about anybody else. You asked me about me, and I can only tell you about me. And everything I tell you about me is the God’s Heaven truth. I’m telling you facts, not stories, there’s a difference. I don’t mind telling you because that’s part of what God put in my life.”

The grave digger’s tale is true. These are the facts.  To paraphrase the writer Virginia Woolf these are the creative facts; the fertile facts; the facts that suggest and engender.  I shared Donnie’s story with my friend, the poet and therapist, Marc Kaminsky.  “In Donnie’s story,” Marc said, “facts become images of transformation; they evoke the conversion experience through which the divided self becomes healed and whole through the intercession of grace.  His story belongs to the poetry of everyday life because he is thinking in images. Is the mysterious event in the room a hallucination or a revery or a visitation through the unconscious? The vision confirms that Donnie is leaving his drunken – his divided, dissociated – self behind; it is the revelation that leads to lifelong change.“

Donnie now has five successful children, and is gainfully employed as a grounds keeper in New York City, working with two wonderful women who “regrouped” him.  Long before he sat down with myself and filmmaker Heather Quinlan, Donnie testified to these storied facts of his life each Sunday at Peace Mission Church of Christ in Queens, elevating them to a revelation beyond storytelling, his poetic evocation rising up into the eaves, told before God and everyone – encouraging all of us to walk away from the dark side of ourselves.


“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.












The Fulton Fish Market and the Soul of Naima Rauam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost 11

Fish Market, Early Morning Hours, Naima Rauam, watercolor

“I take great pleasure in getting to know something really well,”Naima told me,

and having painted the fish market for so many decades, I feel I really do know it well. I know the nuances of fish, of building interiors, of light and how it falls on fish, how everything sparkles, how shadows swallow up a journeyman. I feel my soul resided there and when the market left the Seaport in 2005, dang if my soul didn’t go with it. . .

Some would argue that the soul of a sentient being is an invisible ray of light illuminating the darkness of one’s inner self.  Others believe the soul has no shape but takes on the forms of places and people we internalize, connect to, and love. Unbeknownst to her, Naima Rauam’s journey of the soul took her from the Art Students League to the Fulton Fish Market in 1966.

I was studying at the Art Students League and had a class assignment to bring back an action painting. Someone said, “go to the fish market, there’s lots of action there.” SO I climbed on the subway and thought, gosh, all the fish are dead – there’s no action there. But I had already invested my fifteen cents on train fare, so I continued.  As I walked down Fulton Street toward the fish market, I encountered the most amazing activity. 

Naima began painting the fish market at the age of 20, and when she settled permanently in New York, she moved first into the adjoining fish smokehouse on Beekman Street where she “slept on the floor between my bicycle and computer, and my easel and art supplies. Outside I could hear all the guys in the morning and throughout the night, yelling and screaming and doing their fish thing.  To me it was just a lullaby.” Later she moved her studio into the Market’s fabled Tin Building.

When the smokehouse was sold, I went to live on the Lower East Side. I would walk to my studio in the middle of the night, through dark and silent Chinatown, toward a distant glow, which was the market. I could hear a little bit of the activity as I got closer, and then, the roar as I came upon it! It was wonderful. I could be dragging, having roused myself from sleep at three o’clock, but when I got to the market, its energy electrified me, and I was eager to get to work, to sketch and paint, and be part of the market.

Peck Slip, Naima Rauam, watercolor

The market had a nightly rhythm to it. In the evening, I saw dark streets and the night sky of course, with just a few bits of light here and there. Perhaps a second floor office was illuminated, or one storefront fish stand had some lights on. Then, little by little, more lights would go on, and by 1 o’clock in the morning the place was ablaze with spotlights and rows of fluorescents. Intense light was focused on the fish and the work areas, while just a few feet away there was darkness. It was so interesting to see… the journeymen, for instance, load their hand trucks in brilliant light, and disappear with them into utter darkness.


The Tuna Cutters, Naima Rauam, oil

Journeyman’s Fire, Naima Rauam, watercolor

There was also ebb and flow to the activity, and every night was different. You never knew what the seas and rivers would yield, nor how much. Different fish, new displays, stacks of crates without rhyme or reason, these were fodder for my artwork. Every night I’d see new compositions for paintings. I couldn’t draw fast enough, couldn’t take enough photos, but I tried. I wanted to absorb everything about the market, the way it functioned, the way it looked its color, its light. It was the light that really impressed me so much so that, now with the market gone… I’m more sensitive to light in New York City now, and sometimes I walk around or drive around town at night just to visit the light.

In the Bronx, Naima Rauam, pastel

After years of talk, Mayor Giuliani finally managed to extricate the Fulton Fish Market from its moorings at the South Street Seaport. In 2005, the market moved to a new warehouse-like facility at Hunts Point in the Bronx. “I go up there, and while I’ve done a handful of paintings, it’s hard to find inspiration. Downtown, in quirky little spaces cobbled together over 183 years, you had the likes of Al Fish and Joe Tuna dishing out their versions of the fish trade. In the new place, it seems like just so many guys in dark jackets swallowed up by one immense space of white walls and white lights. Downtown, the fish market was a way of life. It had a soul. In the Bronx, it’s just a business. So I say to myself, “well heck, I’m going to keep painting the old fish market. . . . Perhaps that’s my purpose now, to keep the memory alive of what it was downtown.”

Monet had his water lilies; Toulouse Lautrec had the Moulin Rouge; Naima Rauam has the Fulton Fish Market.

For Dick Zigun it was Coney Island, where he opened his theater and sideshow on Coney’s fabled Boardwalk in 1981. A friend, Kathryn Adisman, once said to him, “I love that place.”

“I am that place,” he answered.

When we are in the places we truly love, perhaps our deepest selves find their bearings and can sense their own presence in place. This is the place where I am who I am – I can sense who I am in the world through this place.

Beneath the images of the fishmongers with their hand trucks and what Naima calls the fish cutter’s “ballet of the hands,” lies an interplay of darkness and light, sparkle and gloom in the deeper and unseen arena of the soul. The fish sellers were scurrying about their daily hustle, but Naima was seeing the darkness and light, their shapes as they worked. They too could see it when they looked at her paintings, which a number of them purchased and others commissioned. There is something deeper going on below the quotidian that art has the power to beautify. From the bits and pieces of the urban environment that reflect the light within us, we create an architecture for the soul.

Naima put it more comically, “My Raison D’Etre is a cod.” Fillet of soul.


Naima is part of an exhibit, Waterfront Heroes, cosponsored by City Lore, Long Island Traditions, and Staten Island Arts. If you feel about a place the way Naima feels about the Fulton Fish Market, please write to  Photo by Tom Pich.












“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.




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