Down at the Crossroads

I find myself at a curious moment. Curious in that I didn’t see it coming and would never have imagined myself here. Curious, too, because I don’t know how much is real and how much is La Impostora seeing an opportunity and seizing it.

Last week I attended an adult education conference. Three days immersed in my field. I’ve attended that conference several times. I’ve presented there a few times. I like it there. I feel at home there. I learn a lot there. I feel invigorated when I come home, re-energized for my work and ready to get moving.

But not this time.

I struggled every day of the conference. Struggled mightily. People presented interesting and important things. People shared good data. People brought up issues that are important to me. People shared excellent anecdotes about the work and the kinds of outcomes they’re seeing from their participants. People in the workshops shared their passion and determination. People came with their questions and ideas.

And it left me … cold. Uninspired.

How was that possible? How could I feel so disconnected from everything that was happening those three days? From the very things that have been the focus of my career?

There are some things going on with me right now that may have helped to  create that difficult experience. I’ve been trying to think about what can/should come next for me professionally. There’s a lot of potentially exciting stuff happening at my job right now, opportunities for my work to get different and interesting. I’m feeling energized by those things, but I’m also wondering how much longer I can be working in this particular world. I’ve been here four years, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also run headlong into many walls, and I’ve been halted in my tracks by systems I find I can’t work around. No one’s pushing me out the door, but I’m started to feel more acutely how much this isn’t the area I should be working in. Right field, wrong seat at the table, possibly the wrong table.

And then there’s La Impostora. Every time I start to think of what could be a better direction for me, she swoops right in to remind me that there are no good jobs for me because I’m not actually qualified to do anything, that it’s only dumb luck that has enabled me to last in my current job as long as I have.

Gotta love her.

Part of me hears that and knows it’s not true. Only a small part of me. The rest of me looks at job postings and can see nothing that would actually make sense for me. And when I see jobs that sound wonderful, their details — what degrees and experience candidates should have — confirm that my application wouldn’t move far in the selection process.

So yes, Impostor Syndrome is my constant companion, but she’s not the only problem staring me in the face.

And then I found myself feeling restless and frustrated at the conference. Going there seemed to shine a brighter light on my malaise.

I’m slated to attend a larger adult ed conference in a couple of months. Am I going to have this same disconnect, this same feeling of being removed from what’s happening around me? I certainly hope not. I have work to do, some stock-taking of my professional self. I don’t know if I’m talking about planning or a full-scale career change (at my age?!), but something’s got to give. I’m sick of this “off” feeling, and whatever needs to happen to get rid of it will surely be worth it.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Adventures in Fear and Procrastination

Today I had a writing date with two wonderful women. It’s the first time we’ve gotten together in a while, and I was looking forward to it. First, of course, I love them both and love spending time with them. Second, they are both really productive writers, ad that energy helps me, fuels me.

And finally, they are responsible for the essay I published on The Rumpus last year. They pushed and prodded me to not just post it on my blog but to submit it for publication. They helped me write my pitch letter and followed up with me to make sure I actually got it done. And I’ve been feeling the need for exactly that kind of writing support these days. I’ve fallen back into my old, familiar rut of not even thinking about sending out work. What is that? (Other than supremely annoying.)

They each gave me an extraordinary gift today. They each mentioned that their partners keep asking when there will be new comics to read.

Such a small thing, right? But so not small. So not small. The idea that anyone is thinking about my comics, that anyone is wishing there were more comics than those first four tentative ones from forever ago.  That is HUGE.

 

So, um, where are my comics? Good question. I’ve felt, not stuck exactly, more like frozen. And I’ve been this way for quite some time. I let the enormity of the project get in my head and scare me. I’ve had flurries of activity in the last couple of years — writing scripts, signing up for an online comics class, thinking about comics … but I haven’t really imagined myself working anything through to a place that looks like completion.

The closest I came to getting somewhere was a draft of a mini-comic. I sent my panels to a group of beta readers and got some helpful critiques back … and then I put all of it aside and did nothing. that was more than a year ago. More than a year.

This project is important to me. The discovery of comics as a form I could work in was huge. I thought I knew who I was as a writer, and then suddenly I was seeing a whole other way of being. And it was resonating with people. And it was fun. And it felt freeing and full of possibilities.

So why haven’t I thrown myself in and gotten some solid drafts written and drawn.

Yeah. That would be the question. Yes, I can fall back on blaming La Impostora. She’s a handy foil, to be sure. And yes, she’s surely at least in part responsible for me stopping myself every time I make even the least bit of progress in this work. But this feels like more than Impostor Syndrome.

Adventures in Racism, AIR, truly is huge. And that’s daunting. When I thought I was writing a graphic memoir, working on a series of mini-comics, the work seemed, if not easy, at least do-able. Even the longer stories I’d planned to include weren’t all that long. There were a LOT of them, but the idea of the whole endeavor still seemed manageable, like something I could hold in my hands and see my way through.

When I had the realization that I wasn’t writing memoir but was using my memoir stories as frames for a series of essays about racism, the size of Adventures suddenly ballooned. When, out of curiosity, I wrote the script for what I thought was the shortest of the essays, I wound up with an outline for a 25-page comic. Twenty-five pages … when I’d thought it would be, at most, eight. How in the actual fuck was I going to make it through all the essays I’d mapped out?

So yes, the length of each piece made the idea of the entirety of AIR seem impossible. This is a classic way of freezing my process. The whole feels too big, I can’t focus on the pieces and plow my way through them (sort of like how my apartment is still full of boxes almost a year after my move).

The other impossibility is the fact that AIR is a comic. These crazy-long scripts are daunting because I will be the one who has to figure out a way to draw each of the panels. Me. I will have to do it. This woman who is one of the slowest, most unsure artists in the history of comics-making. I will be the one who has to draw these panels.

Now here, maybe, you’re thinking what so many friends have thought and said to me: I don’t have to be the one who draws this comic. I can write and, and I can work with an illustrator. That is 100 percent true. Except that it’s not. I could work with an illustrator, and the final product would be great, might even be spectacular. But it wouldn’t be right. When I see the finished comics in my head, they look like my little line drawings. And, too, this work is so close to me, I am greedy and selfish with it, want all the aspects of it to be mine, to come from my hands.

So, yeah. There’s that. Stubbornness. Absolute stubbornness.

 

All of this is read. The project is huge. And insisting on doing all the artwork myself will make it take that much longer to complete. All of that is true.

It all also feels like excuses.

Why am I really not doing the work? What am I afraid of that’s fueling my procrastination?

 

Over the summer, I got a push in the right direction. I stumbled on a call for writings that specifically asked for graphic work in addition to prose. And the theme of the journal matched the theme of my beta-tested mini-comic. Of course I had to submit.

I dredged up the critiques from last year and set about revising. I drafted new ideas for panels and figured out how to draw them. And then, just a couple of days before submissions were due, I realized there was a hole in the work, and I needed more panels. six to be exact. It didn’t seem possible that I could draw six panels in to days … but then I did. I got the thing finished and sent it in.

That was an enormous step for me. Completing a full comic — script and artwork — was something I hadn’t done since I’d worked on the memoir minis. And seeing that I could draw more quickly than I’d imagined was good, too. And actually submitting it to a journal? That was most astounding of all.

Okay. So lot’s of good stuff. What happened?

What happened was … I reverted to being myself. I sent my comic out into the world and behaved as if I could do not one thing more until I heard back from that journal. And I didn’t even realize I was doing that until I talked about it today with my friends — see how important writing dates can be?!

Even if, in some crazy version of the world, it make sense for me to refrain from submitting any additional comics until I heard back about that once submission, that certainly shouldn’t have meant that I needed to stop writing and drawing all together! And yet, that’s what I did. I haven’t looked at or thought about a script since that submission went in at the end of July.

What the hell?

Yeah. What the hell. And, never mind the possibility of creating and submitting new comics. I could have sent that one completed comic other places. They journal I sent it to stated very clearly that they were fine — as they should be — with simultaneous submissions. And yet I’ve done not one thing with that comic, haven’t even thought about other places that might be a good fit.

 

Despite my claim that whatever is going on with me has to be more than “just” La Impostora, I am beginning to see how absolutely this mess has her fingerprints all over it. How better to hold me back than to make me see my options as narrower and narrower still? How better to stop me in my tracks than to create random and nonsensical rules about when and how often I can send out work?

I procrastinate. It is perhaps the things I do best of all the things I know how to do. And my procrastination saves me from proving La Impostora right. If I ever get Adventures written and drawn, she never gets to pint and laugh and say, “I told you so,” when it isn’t perfect, when it doesn’t find and audience, when the world asks me to please sit all the way down with my delusions of being a comics writer.

Ugh.

Having my friends tell me their partners have asked — more than once — about my comic is an indication that La Impostora might just be wrong about me. That is a gift beyond measure.

 

Time to claw my way up out of this pit of procrastination and get back to work on my passion project. First up: submitting my mini-comic to a few other journals before I head home for Thanksgiving, rock La Impostora back on her heels and then dive into script-writing again.

 


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Magical Negresses, Robocalls, Ballot Boxes and American Greatness

A white supremacist group created a robocall for Georgia’s white voters. The call script is fascinating. Someone, doing what I’m sure they thought was an excellent and excellently funny impression of Oprah, talks about the plot to elect Stacey Abrams. Not-Oprah introduces herself as “the magical negress Oprah Winfrey” and talks about her own rise to fame being created by simple-minded white women and how that same constituency of simple-minded white women — “especially the fat ones” — will allow themselves to be duped into voting for Not-Oprah’s sister in struggle, the magical negress Stacey Abrams.

Well, this magical negress found herself full-on surprised by this ugly audio postcard … and surprised by her surprise. The campaign against Stacey Abrams as she runs for governor of Georgia has been nothing but bald-face lies, ugly snark, unscrupulous behavior, and disenfranchisement from the start. This call is nothing new and certainly shouldn’t be in any way surprising.

I don’t live in Georgia. I live in a racist northern state instead of a racist southern one. I don’t live in Georgia, but I’ve spent time and a tiny bit of money supporting Stacey Abrams. I would be thrilled to see her win today. She is one of what is — thrillingly — much more than a handful of Black, non-Black POC, and LGBTQIA Democratic candidates I’m pulling for this election. Their rise to the offices they seek wouldn’t be magical, wouldn’t mean the end of racism (see above, re: not magical). But their elections would each be important steps in a better direction than the one we’ve been headed the past 21 months.

I think my surprise with this robocall is in how comfortable the racists who created it feel. They are so comfortable, they don’t worry about alienating a large voting block of the Republican base. The call script is racist, sure, but that’s too basic a description. One that doesn’t do justice to the layers of hate and ignores the other ugliness on display.

First, the voice recording the call seems to be a man’s. Because of course. Because any Black woman who wields power and is proud and confident and talented is depicted as a man.

The script takes an old story and gives it an updated twist: as has ever been the white supremacist plot line, white women are held up as needing to be protected. The 2018 twist is that, in these modern times, rather than needing protection from the sexual rampaging of brutish Black men, white women need protecting from the cleverness of magical negresses (bearing gifts of free cars). Sweet.

The protection of white women in this call to action isn’t the protection of purity as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. This script calls out the need to protect white women from their own stupidity. White women, apparently, are so addlepated they can be seduced away from the fight for White Supremacy by Black women and their magical negritude.

White women are weak … and the fat ones are weakest of all. The excess adipose tissue must put too much pressure on their wee little brains. Because, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, if there’s an opportunity to throw in a little fat hate, why on earth would you let it pass?

It was the insult to white women that surprised me. White women have shown themselves to be pretty solid supporters of White Supremacy, gender inequality, and misogyny. Did the writer of this call script not see the results of the 2016 election, or the white women supporting Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or any number of other candidates and ballot issues that were entirely against their own best interest as women? Given that voting history, why come for white women?

But, of course, white women are a safe target, a safe tool to use against Black women … precisely because white women have been solid supporters of White Supremacy and violent patriarchy. White women have chosen to support white men over and over again. No matter how much evidence can be shown of a white man’s guilt, vileness, basic unfitness for a job, white women will stand up in support of him. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that the creator of this call felt entirely comfortable painting his womenfolk so insultingly.

 

I don’t know what Georgia (or Florida, or Minnesota, or Michigan, or New York …) voters will do today. I hope they will send a flood of Democrats to local, state and national offices. I hope everyone who cares about human rights, human decency, equity, and the values we like to think this country was founded on understands the threat we’re facing and has stepped into this fight with both feet, stepped in fully-armed and prepared for the long slog. Because despite the legendary magic of negresses, this fight needs more than our votes alone.

We are people for whom and to whom America has never been particularly great, but who choose to believe that it could be great if enough people stood with us to hold the line, to force back the noxious sludge flowing in the streets. We will show up, because we do. We will cast votes aimed at protecting our families and communities and keeping this country from tumbling further into hell.

Who’s with us?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Remembering, and Honoring, Loss

October, I’ve just learned, is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month. When I learned this, I thought this had to be a thing we have only recently been naming. These aren’t things we have been encouraged to call out, to draw attention to. Infant loss is too painful, so best not to talk about it. Pregnancy loss … well, it’s just been brushed under the rug. So to have a national remembrance day, that had to be some new business. Right. Imagine my entire surprise when I learned that it was created in 1988 … by one of the last people I’d have expected: Ronald Reagan. Color me amazed.

After my first miscarriage, a woman who was my friend at that time waved off my sadness, saying: “It’s no big deal. You’ll try again.” The fact that she was saying this to a single, childless, 40-year-old woman seemed lost on her. I was also a relatively poor woman, and “trying again” would be a very expensive proposition. This, too, seemed not to register with her.

I didn’t tell many people that I was trying to have a baby. Three, only: my sister, my friend Grace, and this woman. Her response to my miscarriage was part of the reason I told so few people. I don’t have a good history of people taking my pain seriously. I thought I was protecting myself from that callousness by telling so few folks. But I’d made such a bad choice in that one person.

Of course what’s also true is that, even if I could easily try again, and again and again and again, that ease wouldn’t have lessened the pain of that miscarriage. Why is it at all difficult for some people to acknowledge what seems a very simple, obvious fact? Why are women who lose pregnancies so often not given the space to grieve?

I have lost three pregnancies. All of those losses happened around the same time — two in the 10th week, one in the 11th week. Just before I would have started telling family and friends that I was pregnant. I didn’t tell Fox or Grace about the miscarriages. After my friend’s response to the first loss, I wasn’t prepared to share with anyone. That wasn’t fair to Fox or Grace, neither of whom would ever have responded with so little care, but I couldn’t take the chance of exposing myself to more dismissal.

My friend Sharline posted a beautiful remembrance on FB last week. That’s how I learned about this being Loss Remembrance month. It was also the first time I’d thought about the idea of a ritual to support my grieving, my release, my ability to move on feeling whole.

It’s 13 years since my last miscarriage. Obviously, I have moved on with my life. I’ve accepted as best I can the fact that I will not be anyone’s biological mother. I say “as best I can” because the pain of that truth bubbles up every once in a while, surprising me with its razor-sharp intensity, even all these years later.

In response to Sharline’s post, I said I wished I’d had a ritual back then. And I’ve been trying to imagine what that would have meant, what that might have looked like. And yes, writing about it then might have helped. I think most what I would have wanted was feeling safe enough and worthy enough to tell people what was going on with me. I didn’t have, then, the broad and strong circle of love around me that I have now. But I definitely had love, had people who would have stood beside me, embraced me, grieved with and for me. And I am sad to recognize that I didn’t see that then, didn’t know it.

There are surely other things that would have helped me process those losses, but having people I loved know that I was grieving and offer their support and comfort would have meant so much. I couldn’t give that to myself then. I was too afraid and uncertain and — I realize now — ashamed of my failure that I couldn’t bring myself to share with others.

Yes, failure. Because what is the one thing I’m supposed to be able to do as a woman? And there I was, proving again and again, that I couldn’t do it.

It’s National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, and I am sending wishes to all the women currently dealing with these losses. I hope you have friends and family around you, loved ones you can reach out to for support, who will hold you and lift you up. I hope the society around you isn’t full of messages that leave you feeling like a failure if you cannot conceive, carry to term, and birth a child. I hope the women around you who are mothers know better than to say hideously cruel things about how you’ll never know what love/sacrifice/exhaustion/fear (fill in with just about every feeling) is until you have a child. I hope the people you work with and for don’t assume you are always able to put in extra hours because you don’t have kids to go home to.

Some of you will eventually become mothers. Many of you, like me, won’t. I wish all of you the time, space, and ability to grieve. Give yourself everything you need to accept your loss, come back to yourself, and go on to be and do all of the things still waiting in front of you.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

A Writerly Obsession

At my first for-real job, I was a bookkeeper. “For-real job” means the first job I took with the intention of doing the job for more than a minute, the first job that wasn’t simply a way to finance my next vacation – though I didn’t stay there over-long, and it did finance some vacations.

I kept the financial records of a small professional organization. Real work, not the paper pushing I’d done in my previous job. I can’t imagine anything I could have said in my interview that would have inspired anyone to offer me that position. I didn’t know the first thing about being a bookkeeper … and I wouldn’t have tried to gloss over that fact, as it never occurred to me that possessing the necessary job skills was … you know … necessary.

I was trained by the woman who’d been the works-when-she-feels-like-coming-in part time bookkeeper. Let’s call her Edith. She was a bored lady of leisure, childhood girlfriends with the director of the organization. She had stepped in to help out a couple of days a week. Then the organization had grown, and part time was no longer enough time, but she had no interest in working every day. She was in her mid-forties, and casually glamorous. I remember loving her wedding ring — it was a broad gold band, a crowd of people standing hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm.

The organization’s records were kept in the kind of old-fashioned ledgers I’d only seen in movies. They were awkwardly big. I remember them as enormous, but they were most likely legal size. Thick, hard, cloth covers with leather-wrapped corners, bound on the short end with metal peg-and-clamp fasteners. Edith handled them carefully, as if the slightest jostling might shake the ink loose.

The desk was like any desk, but instead of a chair, there was a tall stool, a backless barstool. And when it was time to teach me how to keep the records, Edith opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a fountain pen.

The pen was an old one, a Parker. The pen may still exist, but I couldn’t find it when I searched. The Parker Vector is similar in cost, so it may be the modern version of my ledger pen. My pen had a silver cap and a dark-but-transparent blue barrel, and it took cartridges.

I’d never used a fountain pen, so Edith gave me a crash course in pen use and maintenance. She gave me the location of the one store she knew of that sold the ink cartridges, showed me what I now know to describe as the nib’s flexibility. And she showed me how to “erase” any errors: lick the corner of your Pink Pearl eraser and rub gently until you’ve worn away enough of the paper that you can write over your mistake. Natch!

And then we got into the books. Edith was patient, never once her losing her mind with anger at my inability to learn even one thing about keeping those books. Because really, I didn’t learn a damn thing. My training ended, and Edith was gone, and I was on my own. I sat on my high stool and leaned way down over my ledger and played at bookkeeping.

And I followed Edith’s rule and used the Parker only for the ledger. And, when that pen died, I didn’t do the perfectly reasonable thing and pick up a ballpoint and get back to work. No. I went out and bought a new Parker. It never occurred to me to use any other pen.

At the turn of the quarter, the accountant came. I handed over my ledgers with pride. I was a little cocky, thought I was doing the job. The accountant took my books into the conference room and sat behind closed doors for a couple of hours. Then he called me in to review.

The accountant, David, was a lovely man – older, stocky, Jewish, with a gentle voice, kind eyes and beautiful wavy silver hair. We chatted for a while. It was our first time meeting, and he wanted us to get to know each other. As our chat wound down, he asked what I’d studied in college. I gave what had already become my standard airy, dismissive wave and smile and said, “French and photography. I know! It’s the perfect training for my job!”

We laughed, and he repeated my answer. “French and photography. I knew it couldn’t have been accounting.”

I won’t lie: I was more than a little surprised. Something was wrong with my books? My precious ledgers weren’t perfect?

David, because he actually was a lovely, kind man, spent the better part of the afternoon giving me a crash course in accounting. Most important and most mind-blowing takeaway? The grand totals of my rows and columns had to match! No, seriously, that was the whole concept of balancing the books.

French and photography. Right.

With David’s patient help, I got to be as good at my job as cocky-first-quarter-me had imagined she was. I stayed in touch with David. We exchanged Hannukah and Christmas cards for several years after I left that organization. Whenever I got a new job, he was sure to ask how my French and photography were helping me out.

Most of that is not my point. I just couldn’t resist telling that story.

The first of my two actual points was about Edith’s set-up for this job: the old-school ledgers, the high stool, the fountain pen. It was as if she thought her job was an audition to play Bob Cratchett.

I liked it, that’s true enough, but it was hardly normal, and it certainly wasn’t necessary. Ledgers had moved into the modern era years before. Everyone in the organization had a desk chair. She could have kept the books with a regular pen. Her insistence on using the fountain pen for the ledger when she used a workaday Bic for everything else was just odd – except in the context of her playing the part of bookkeeper in a period play.

Edith’s random oddities are responsible for my second and more important point: my introduction to fountain pens! She planted the seed. My bookkeeping job made me familiar and comfortable with fountain pens. And today, I own many too many, so many that I probably need an intervention.

After my stint with the books, I didn’t find my way back to fountain pens for three or four years. I was in Kate’s Paperie and found myself at the pen counter, practically drooling over the loveliness under the glass. I went back to the same pen again and again. The saleswoman, clearly sensing that I needed only the gentlest of nudges to turn me from a looker to a buyer, inked the display pen and let me write a few lines to see how it felt. Well, of course, it felt wonderful. Smooth across the notepad she’d placed in front of me. Clean, thick line – not bold but assertive. I walked out with that pen, a black-with-gold-trim Pelikan M250 – piston-filled, thick but lightweight, logo at the end of the cap.

Pelikan M250

I was reading Natalie Goldberg then, my first go-round with Writing Down the Bones. So I was doing a lot of writing, filling pages, filling notebooks. And the Pelikan was an excellent companion on that journey, so fluid my words spilled out effortlessly across all those pages.

A year later, I was back in Kate’s buying a ridiculously over-priced birthday gift for my new love (the start of my saga with The Morphine Man) — a gorgeous hand-bound notebook with a birch bark cover and thick, ultra-smooth, creamy paper. A notebook like that deserved a fine writing implement, so I moved slowly down the gleaming pen case until I found a deep green Waterman – slender but heavy, it’s green a dark, marbled resin. I bought it for The Morphine Man … but I knew before I got home that it was really for me. And so it was. (He loved the notebook. Was none the wiser about the pen.)

I used to think pens were necessary, disposable, interchangeable tools. If you lost one, you picked up a new one and moved on. I had favorites – the Pilot Precise rollerball was a particular love – but I wasn’t attached to any pen. The Pelikan changed that. I have only lost one pen in the 30 years since I bought that Pelikan. One. And I agonized over that loss, still occasionally kick myself over my carelessness and hope the person who found my gorgeous Levenger True Writer Kyoto took good care of it and wrote well with it.

And my handwriting has changed. It was never truly terrible — despite the bad penmanship marks I got in grade school — but it is definitely nicer now. This seemed a strange fact at first, but then, the last year that I was teaching, my students helped me solve the mystery. One of the goals that bubbled up at the start of the year was that a lot of the younger students wanted to improve their handwriting. No one had ever asked about good handwriting before. I started researching … and writing with a fountain pen was one of the top recommendations. It was all about ease of ink flow eliminating the need to exert force with the pen, allowing the writer to loosen their grip and write more comfortably.

I bought a set of student pens and gave a little tutorial on how to hold it, how to write with it. No one had every used a fountain pen, and most hadn’t noticed that I always wrote with one. We had a lot of discussion about that. Sadly, I’d been writing with a fountain pen for so long at that point, I had no “before” examples, no pre-fountain writing to show the difference.

My students thought the pens were funny, and the novelty made encouraged practice. Not everyone stuck with it, but the ones who did saw that their writing changed. And they noticed, as I had after switching to fountain pens, that they could write for longer periods of time without their hands hurting. I wonder if they stuck with fountains long enough to see their hands change, too. The tip of the middle finger on my right hand used to have an ugly, rough, half-callused indentation. It doesn’t anymore.

That year of Bob Cratchett playacting had quite the long-term effect. I don’t actually know how many fountain pens I own – I’ll make a conservative guess and say four dozen. Sailors, Esterbrooks, Pilots, Platinums, Pelikans, and any number of other brands, big names and unknowns, fancy and expensive, and three-dollar beauties. It’s fair to say I have a pen problem, but there are far worse vices, so I give myself a pass.

I wonder what made Edith choose that Parker, why she didn’t keep the ledgers with whatever pen was on hand. Was it really about the choice to turn her work into a game – setting herself up like a Dickensian clerk on her high stool with her tiny numbers noted down on those wide green “eye-ease” sheets? Whatever her game, I’m grateful to her. I’d surely have been introduced to fountain pens eventually, but maybe by that future time, I’d have been so entrenched in my writing habits, complete with a favorite pen, that fountains would have been just an interesting curiosity. Edith and her Parker came along at the exact right moment!


(The pen in my GriotGrind image is my perfect little Sailor pocket pen. I have a crazy number of pocket pens, mostly Platinums and Pilot Elites, but my Sailor with it’s excellent blue-black ink is a go-to fave!)

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Wild Animals, Redux

I often write about the sleepy little upstate New York town where I grew up and my experiences with racial prejudice when I lived there. I focus particularly on two incidents, moments when I used violence in response to the hate that was spit in my face. I’ve been thinking a lot about those incidents lately, thinking about my choice to use violence, about the fact that – as satisfying and effective as my violence was in both cases – I have not become a person who regularly reaches for violence.

I’m not shocked that I haven’t grown up to be a violent person. I’ve never been particularly physical, and I’ve most definitely never been a fighter. More like the opposite of a fighter. I have always been the first to flee, shut down, or capitulate in the face of confrontation. I was mouse-quiet, mouse-meek. I was go-along-to-get-along obedient, kind even to people who weren’t kind to me. That was the “right” way to act, the way I was “supposed to” be.

Except for those two, seemingly aberrant moments. Those two acts of physical violence when I was 12 nudged aside the scrim, gave me brief glimpses at another version of myself. Both came in response to race-based verbal abuse. Clearly racial prejudice was the line silent, docile me wasn’t willing to let others cross with impunity.

The first person to trigger my violence was John. He was older than me by a year or two, and for months he had waited for me outside the door of my history class. Every day, he cycled through a banal but still unacceptable set of insults: ugly black bitch, stupid black bitch, lazy black bitch, nasty black bitch …

At first, I behaved as he must have expected me to: ignored him, reasoned with him, pleaded with him. He found my efforts amusing, and I succeeded only in encouraging him to continue.

Then I changed the script. I approached history class, John’s mouth opened for his daily spew … and I slammed my textbook into his face. It made a deeply satisfying flesh-to-hardcover “SPLAT!!” and John never spoke to me or came near me again. He would, in fact, move to the other side of the hallway when he saw me coming, which was also deeply satisfying and made that smack in the face a gift that kept on giving.

The second recipient of my physical wrath was Michael, a boy in my grade. In science class, I accidentally caught his finger between a desk and chair as we rearranged our seating one day. The surprise of that pain turned Michael into the first person to ever call me a nigger. He spit it at me so fast, had the word handy, so close to the surface, I have no doubt that was how he thought about me all the time.

I had never been called a nigger before, and the surprise of that pain made me grab Michael by the throat and squeeze tight, made me get in his face and invite him to say it again. And I kept inviting him to say it again as my fingers were pried from his bleeding neck.

Choking Michael was almost as satisfying as the book-slap I’d dealt John. And it had the same effect, in that Michael never spoke to me again. (I spoke to him once after that, five years later. I was walking past him and a group of his friends who were hanging out on the Vischer Avenue steps – where my high school’s version of the cool kids hung out – and one of the other boys had something snarky to say about me that made everyone laugh. I paused, then walked up to Michael and ran my finger over the scars I’d dug into his neck. “I see they’re still there,” I said, then turned and kept on walking.)

These were isolated moments – split-second reveals of the me who wasn’t interested in going along to get along, the me who was more than happy to take fools down and keep moving. My actions were so far outside anything that could be considered “normal” for me as to be horrifying … but I wasn’t horrified. Other people were horrified, particularly in the case of my choking Michael, but both moments felt entirely comfortable, necessary, correct. Nothing could have been more natural than introducing John’s face to my history book, than the feel of Michael’s neck in my fist. I have never regretted either action. I don’t regret them today.

As I write this, however, I realize I’m lying. Those two instances of violence weren’t the first. They were the first of that specific, retaliatory type of violence, but not the first signs of my willingness to use physical force. The year before, sixth grade, I tried out a different kind of aggression. In sixth grade, we still had recess, almost entirely unsupervised time on the playground. And there was a brief period during that year when a group of boys faced off against a group of us girls. There was a boy named Guy who was the largest boy – not overly tall, but heavy. I was always lined up to face him because I was the largest girl – tallest and biggest. We’d form opposing lines, armed linked, and we’d advance on each other, chanting: “We don’t stop for noooo-body!” And then we’d smash into each other as hard as we could, trying to break the enemy line.

Why did we do this? Who knows. I can’t imagine why we would have started, what we got out of it, how we chose to stop. Was this the only way we could think of to release the tensions that built up between us?

Those violent clashes – how did none of us get seriously hurt? – were different from what happened the following year, but maybe it was the experience of not stopping for “noooo-body” that made me know I had the strength to lash out when faced with John, with Michael. I may have chosen to slip behind the scrim of meek docility, but maybe that retreat was a tactical choice because slamming into Guy over and over again had given me an idea of what I could take, what I could dish out. Maybe I understood that part of the power of my violence was in doling it out sparingly.

My violent outbursts produced zero consequences for me. In the case of me planting my textbook in John’s face, no teacher or other school authority figure saw me do that, and John, apparently, never reported me. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk me explaining why I bashed him with my book. I was in class for the second incident, however. It was my teacher who pried my hand from Michael’s throat. There should have been some effort at a formal response, some kind of reckoning. But … no. The dramatic fact of my choking Michael blew over almost immediately. I appreciate that this surely wouldn’t be true for a seventh-grade girl today – and specifically not for a Black girl. And I appreciate that it really shouldn’t have been true back then. I physically attacked another student, broke skin and drew blood. As much as I don’t regret my actions, more should have been done than sending me to the nurse’s office.

No one spoke to Michael, no one suggested that he might want or need to apologize to me, or at least remember not to call Black folks niggers (although, I suppose my actions might have gotten that point across). The school nurse, Mrs. Workman, did talk to me, but only so far as to wonder what was wrong with me and if I thought I was a wild animal. She never thought to talk to me about better ways to deal with my anger, and it certainly didn’t occur to her to wonder how I was feeling.

The incidents receded. Other students might have talked about them, but I released them and moved on. None of my friends said a word. No one came to John or Michael’s defense. I’d like to think I put the fear of God in them, that they didn’t want to upset me further, didn’t want to risk getting these hands! I love the idea of that, but I doubt this was the case. The less pleasant truth was likely more along the lines that all of us lived with violence on a regular enough basis that it was just the norm to let flare-ups fade away.

I focus on the incidents with John and Michael because of the racism at the heart of each. And because it’s so interesting to me that it was race-based abuse that drove me to a volatility no one would have dreamed possible from me. But I was a kid raised on “Negro American History” comics, flashcards of famous Black folks, the Afro-American History Calendar, The Negro Almanac. I had strong and clear feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. Had either John or Michael mocked or attacked me because of my gender, my body, my looks, I don’t imagine I would have stood up for myself, and I would definitely not have turned violent. But attack me because I’m Black? Not today, Satan. I knew exactly how I felt about that and exactly what crap I was not going to take. Come at me with racist bullshit, and it’s on.

In the many years since seventh grade, I’ve chosen non-physical ways to fight back, which is 100 percent more my style. Unsurprisingly, the weapon I’ve wielded most often has been my voice. Who could be shocked to know this? Words were the tool I used in my earliest responses to bullies. When faced with racist nonsense in kindergarten, I wrote my way out. When faced with a bully in the fourth grade, I talked my way out. My words, my voice, have always been my friend, have always come to my aid.

I say that the incidents with John and Michel pulled back the scrim, gave me a glimpse of another version of myself. And that’s true. That stand-and-fight version of me disappeared after I attacked Michael. It resurfaced briefly years later in Europe when a man tried to rape me. I fought him briefly, but then immediately began to use my words – once again, I talked my way out. It surfaced again on the 4 train one morning when I delivered a vicious kick to the shin of a man who had followed me through a crowded train car, defiantly positioning himself behind me and putting his hand between my legs. Clearly, what was true in high school – that I wouldn’t have defended myself if John or Michael had attacked my body – has stopped being true. That sounds like progress.

I think about how completely I put myself behind that scrim of docility after choking Michael. As much as I didn’t regret my actions, perhaps my violence seemed extreme to me, felt out of control or unmanageable. I didn’t know that part of myself, didn’t know what to do with a me who was a fighter.

Did I frighten myself? Perhaps just a little? Did I make myself wonder what else was hiding beneath my surface, what else I was capable of? Could that be where I learned to fear my anger, to swallow it rather than express it? Maybe. If this is the case, I’m sad to know it, sad to think that seeing myself express my anger so purely and effectively might be the thing that cut me off from my anger for so many years.

But perhaps, then, it makes perfect, full-circle sense that it was race-based violence – the murders of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes and white domestic terrorists – that has drawn my anger to the surface once and for all? Racism remains the sure-fire trigger, the line I cannot allow others to cross.


I wrote about John and Michael early in the life of this blog. The title of that post was, “Only wild animals act like that.” And I chose to echo that title for this post.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.