February New Directions Weekend: Friendship

Elissa Vinnik

For this post, I’m pleased to introduce my new blogging collaborator, Elissa Vinnik. Elissa began attending the summer writing retreat two years ago and this year joined the New Directions community for our weekend program. 

Elissa is a proud public school 11th grade English teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY and writes poems and pursues activism when she’s not busy learning from her students or giving feedback on their their work. She’s a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE) and she can often be found talking, thinking, or reading about how to make public education more anti-racist, feminist, and queer; making art, reading books; and thinking about what to eat or cook next.  

I’m very happy that Elissa agreed to work with me on the New Directions blog; what follows is her first post. I am sure you’ll be as impressed with Elissa’s reflections on our most recent weekend as I am.  – Gail

On Friendship and Radical Imagination: Reflections on Towing a Cow by a String

– by Elissa Vinnick

Weeks after Donald J. Trump assumed the position as the 45th president of the United States, analysts, therapists, and others gathered at New Directions to consider the role of friendships in our lives. In a weekend organized fittingly by a pair of friends, Anne Adelman and Christie Platt, participants heard from Steve Tuber, Ph.D. about the friendship and play; Lisa Gornick, clincal psychologist and writer about how examinations of friendship in therapy and fiction offers opportunities for change an growth; storyteller Judith Stone about the surprising friendship that was born only moments after an analysis was terminated; and Erica S. Perl, a former attorney turned children’s and young adult novelist about friendship in children’s literature.

I watched, listened and learned as these speakers made observations, constructed narratives, and distilled with precision the roles friendships have played in the undercurrents and shifting tides of their lives. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I was particularly drawn to the children’s author, Erica Perl, given my daily proximity to young people in my work as a teacher.

Ida and Dotty, Illustrator Julia Denos, Publisher Harry Abrams

Perl described the messages she hopes her characters convey to her young and young adult readers. In her book Dotty, an elementary school aged Ida brings Dotty, an imaginary polka dotted cow, to school by way of a blue string that she carries in her fist. Initially, the other children have strings and imagined creatures of their own; however, when they give up their menagerie of creatures and discard their strings, they tease Ida for holding onto Dotty.

Erica Perl

It is the reader’s job, Perl noted, to assign words like “imaginary,” “bullying” or “teasing” to the narrative; they never appear in Perl’s work. Her readers, she asserts, make meaning through images and dialogue without the aid of such signature words. Not only are young people attuned to her characters’ emotions, but when asked how the character Ida feels in the moments when she is teased, Perl describes how her young readers identify five or six emotions: frustrated, sad, lonely, embarrassed, hurt and angry. Children, she reminds us in her talk, have the ability to make as much meaning from the absent words as they do from those presented, and they have the capacity to identify multiple emotions at once. We underestimate younger people’s ability to tap into the nuances in moments of tension, loss, or joy.

I wonder if we adults overestimate our abilities to assess our own varied emotional landscapes and see what lies in the negative space even as we know this is the ongoing task of the adult, the teacher, the writer, the friend, the analyst, or any combination thereof. Just hours after learning from Perl and Dotty, New Directions participants presented their own work at the Saturday evening Open Mic. Like the children working to make sense of Ida’s teasing, many who read at Open Mic were trying to make sense of their rock-filled emotional landscape during these political times, the dogged hilarity and triumph of a group of analyst writers in search of the impossible: a port-a-pottie at the Women’s March on Washington; the memory of a years ago date who casually dropped the word “pussy” prompted by the wearer’s very own pink pussy hat; the passionate disgust shouted in silence on behalf of a Muslim family being searched at an airport; and the excruciating and gruesome specificity of a nurse’s notes taken years ago when abortion wasn’t legal and the writer’s patient had tried to perform her own. The writing was powerful and emotions ran high for many of us. True to its strength and spirit, the New Directions community provided  a collective for announcing, exploring, and holding of the anger, joy, fear, sadness, hope, despair and many other feelings these political times have set in motion.

There were the graduates from New Directions, too, who shared with deep senses of gratitude, joy, and triumph in their reflections about their New Directions experiences. After reading an article than had been deemed too political, one graduate told her audience with awe what “a help [it was] to read what other people were writing about what it’s like to be working and thinking in a time when everything is against thinking.” I watched a writer admit at the microphone her own hesitation to name herself as such and then continue only to describe the process of launching a journal in which her own essay is featured beside poems and essays written by people she “never would have thought were writers.” She told the audience,

I realized that this is New Directions. This capacity that I’ve…developed here to have confidence to feel… The competence to write something myself… To really be able to express what is really important to me now and bring other people into that.

Another graduate told the audience,

Little did I know I would find a type of family here with warm supportive analytic writers who would gently and boldly help me discover, develop and understand my own inner home as a writer. With each weekend, I found myself looking forward to it with excitement and dread…

There was the staying power and juxtaposition: the joy and the dread, just like the aforementioned hesitance and competence, and earlier in the evening, the humor and the darkness, the beauty in the seeing of the pain. It reminded me of the children Perl described naming so many conflicting or complementary emotions.  When asked about bringing Dotty to life on the page, Perl said:

I wanted to write or say what I wanted to hear as a child. You don’t need to outgrow your imagination. It can be a friend to you. It can be a friend to you just like a teacher can be a friend to you or an imaginary friend can be a teacher to you.

Perhaps this is the radical imagination we need in these times to be worthy friends to one another: to see in ourselves and our friends imaginary bespeckled Dottys so that we might nurture the identities and inner homes we don’t yet inhabit. This carrying of our imaginations with a mixture of “excitement and dread” can be our balm, our refusal to outgrow what we might become or create if we are willing to let ourselves be buoyed by the same confidence and pride with which Ida tows her Dotty.


  1. Irene Smith Landsman says:

    Thank you so much for this fresh and insightful perspective! It helps me appreciate even more the miracle that is New Directions.

  2. Catherine Anderson says:

    Thank you Elissa. Your writing is incredible (as many of us already knew from the summer retreats). We will be a richer group from your participation. This blog post succeeded in evoking the weekend in a powerful rush- thanks for helping us re-experience it again. I’m already looking forward to your next contribution. Catherine

  3. Liat Katz says:

    Really enjoyed this, Elissa! Especially your conclusion: “Perhaps this is the radical imagination we need in these times to be worthy friends to one another: to see in ourselves and our friends imaginary bespeckled Dottys so that we might nurture the identities and inner homes we don’t yet inhabit.” Really a good summation of the events and the spirit of the weekend. Looking forward to reading more of your writing.

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