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.

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.

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.

Deaths and Entrances

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. One of the things that struck me was how “at home” at felt, as if I was surrounded by my own family. I need to mention that I don’t know my friend’s family. I’ve met his mother, I know his partner, but that’s all. And, too, I have an unconscionably small family, so what I was feeling wasn’t in any way related to how I’ve ever felt when surrounded by my actual family because I’ve never been around that many people who are related to me. Usually, when I attend services like this one and I only know one or two people in the room, I start off feeling awkward and uncomfortable, but there was none of that at this morning’s funeral.

What I felt was about being surrounded by Black folks, specifically Black folks who are close to my age. My friend’s dad was nine years older than I am, so the cousins and friends in the room were all within 10 or 15 years of my age –both older and younger. All those beautiful Black faces, all the nods of acknowledgement, all the warmly grasped hands. Family.

Faces of Black folks always feel familiar. And they can make me feel comforted.* I’ve written in the past about how seeing African American faces made me long for home when I was in France. My response to seeing Black people gathered, seeing all the different and lovely features that make up their faces, has only increased since that moment of recognition in France. There was a moment after the service, when we were all outside waiting for the family to depart for the interment, when a crowd of men – cousins and nephews, a brother, maybe a friend or two – all came together for a photo. They were the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hug every one of them, my heart was so full.

Funerals are such strange things. They can be beautiful, sad, celebratory, painful, life-affirming, cold. All these things at once, even. And even if we plan them ourselves — as my dad scripted the run of show for his funeral — we can’t truly orchestrate them, won’t have control over what they will be.

Today, September 30th, would have been my father’s 88th birthday. The fact of it being 30 years since his death is shocking and unfathomable to me. I have to do the math, see it plainly on paper, on a calculator screen, have to make myself see the number in order to believe so many years have passed.

My father planned his funeral. Once he stopped talking about surviving his cancer, when he had accepted that survival wasn’t going to be a thing for him, he moved immediately into writing out his wishes for his homegoing. At first, I thought it was strange, morbid. Then I saw how it made so much sense. True, he wouldn’t exactly be there to enjoy it, but a) he would surely be watching and would want to see things that pleased him, and b) what better way to guarantee the inclusion of people he wanted in the proceedings? (People like me. If plans had been left only with the people who were responsible for arranging his funeral, it’s pretty likely that I would not have been asked to speak. My father clearly understood that and made a point of assigning me a specific reading.)

Planning the ceremony pleased him, so how could it be wrong? The way he got into it reminded me of the intensity with which he had once planned elaborate halftime routines for my high school marching band. He was careful, thinking through options, order, all the possible configurations. And he thought about music, what songs he wanted sung, what lyrics he wanted read out.

As I walked into the funeral parlor yesterday, Earth Wind and Fire was playing. I was instantly lifted. “That’s the Way of the World” is one of my favorite songs, and to have that playing as I stepped inside from Amsterdam Avenue was so right. I’d walked up from the subway thinking about when I used to live in that neighborhood, thinking about how long ago I’d been priced out of that neighborhood, thinking about how not like home some things I’d seen on my walk felt. And then to walk in and be welcomed by those familiar voices and those excellent lyrics. It was perfect.

In 2003 when I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the fibroid surgery I was about to have, I took my father’s example and began to write out what I wanted for my service. I started with the music, with the very simple desire to have “Oh, Freedom,” played or performed. I sat with that idea for a while and then built from there.

When I’ve thought about that final playlist in the years since, other songs have risen up as obvious additions. First is “City Called Heaven,” particularly the way it is sung by Jubilant Sykes in his glorious voice (and once I get started with Sykes, I have to add “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” because … well … of course). But my set list isn’t all church-approved. Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” has to be there. And Amos Lee and Willie Nelson singing Lee’s “El Camino.” These songs will always make the list. And so will Earth Wind and Fire. The first musical selection during the funeral service yesterday was “Fantasy,” and that made me so happy. It’s my all-time favorite EWF song, and it’s on my funeral program, too. Hearing it in the funeral parlor was beautiful. Seeing people sing along was that much more beautiful. Adding my voice with theirs made me smile and cry at the same time.

As much as my heart breaks for my friend, I was so glad he had the chance to honor his dad the way he did. I saw and felt so much love in that room, so much beautiful Blackness. May we all be so embraced, today and as we are ushered home.

__________
* I’ve also written about times when seeing the faces of other Black folks have made me feel sad, feel vulnerable and threatened – not by the people I’m seeing but by the truth of living in a world where the simple fact of our Blackness can put us in danger.


(My title is borrowed from Dylan Thomas. I’ve always loved that title … and the “incendiary eves” that occur and reoccur in this poem.)


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.

Expiration Dates

Years ago, a Ouija board told me I would die at 17. I was able to use the board alone, so no one had seen that answer spell itself out, and I told no one. I was 15, in the 10th grade. The idea of dying at 17 seemed both crazy and entirely possible and believable. What purpose could the spirit on that board have for lying about such a thing? So, I believed it. Two years to live.

Believing I knew I was dying didn’t change anything in the way I went through my life. I thought about it, but I didn’t do anything about it or do anything because of knowing it. The board had said I’d die of leukemia, which should have given me the idea of seeing my doctor. But I didn’t, and I didn’t spend any time in the reference section of the library reading up on the disease I was supposed to be dying from. I did nothing.

Except tell a friend, maybe two. Whoever I told didn’t hold onto my secret, and soon a lot of people knew – more of my friends, other kids at school, their parents, my mother.

My mother came home from some parent meeting asking questions. The next day in social studies, a girl sneered as she passed my desk and said, “That was some leukemia you had, huh?”

The scandal of being revealed as a liar blew over ridiculously quickly. My nonsense was news for perhaps the span of a class period. At home, I told my mother where my diagnosis had come from, and she promptly revoked my Ouija board privileges. End of story.

But I never actually stopped believing I was dying. My mother telling the moms at the PTA meeting that I didn’t have leukemia didn’t mean I wasn’t about to be stricken with the disease and go into rapid decline. I stopped talking about my soon-coming death but held onto the certainty of it.

Until I forgot about it. I finished high school. I went to college. During the summer of my junior year, on a train through the Pyrenees, it dawned on me that I was twenty years old, three years past the age I was supposed to have died.

 

Why was it so easy for me to believe some random hocus pocus about having a disease I would surely have been aware of having? Leukemia is no silent killer, sneaking up on its victims and snatching them in an instant. How could I convince myself I was sick when there was nothing abnormal happening in my body? I must have wanted to believe it, or it wouldn’t have been such an easy sell. What made me want to believe such a thing?

And how did I then just forget, move on as if nothing had happened and only years later realize I’d lived past my deadline?

 

In my late 30s, I needed fibroid surgery. Nine years earlier, I’d had a batch of tumors excised from my abdomen. My experience with that first surgery had been difficult, but I’d come through swimmingly. The closer I got to the second surgery, however, the more convinced I became that I wouldn’t survive. There was no reason for my certainty, but I was frozen by it. I could barely function for thinking about my soon-coming death. I never knew I had such a terror of dying until that summer.

When I was at the point of canceling the surgery, I told my sister. I told her because I wanted her to help me prepare for death, for what would happen after I was gone. I wanted her to promise to go through my apartment and clear out things I didn’t want my mother to have to see or deal with in her grief – my journals, my sex toys, etc.

My sister agreed to do a pre-parent sweep of my house. She suggested a handy system for me to use for organizing her sweep: put a sticky note on anything I wanted thrown out, and she’d take care of it. She didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince me I was going to be fine. She assured me that the sticky-note plan wouldn’t be necessary, but she also immediately agreed to help me. Together, we would spare my mother learning things about me it would hurt or sadden her to know.

I started tacking notes to things around the house, but I didn’t get far. Somehow, as improbable as it still seems to me, my sister’s participation in my planning was exactly what I needed. I started labeling my belongings and then, almost immediately, I forgot about it, and forgot about my impending demise.

I had my surgery. It went perfectly well. I recuperated.  I went back to my day-to-day. About a year later I was hunting through an old journal hunting up a story-start I wanted to flesh out, and I found the plan I’d written out for my funeral – what songs to play, who I hoped would speak, what I didn’t want folks to do. I didn’t remember having sketched it out, had entirely forgotten my certainty that the surgery would be the end of me.

 

Twice in my life, I have been entirely convinced that I was soon to die … and just as quickly, I have completely forgotten about my impending death and blithely moved on to some other thing. How is that possible? What is that?


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 Once-Long Road Is Suddenly Shorter

Every year before my birthday, I take stock. I think about where I am and what I’d like to accomplish in the coming year. I’m surely not the only person who does this. It seems a pretty basic, obvious thing to do before your birthday.

Some years, I draw up long, elaborate lists of what the next year should look like for me. This has mostly been true as I enter new decades, I guess. Sometimes my lists are full of fancy. Somethings they are depressingly earthbound — such as the year when almost the whole list was related to dealing with various aspects of my health. That was a bad list, a sad list, the kind I hope not to need to repeat often or ever. There should really always be some whimsy, some sparkly fun on the list. If not … well, damn.

This year, something strange happened as I thought about making my list. I haven’t been young in a long time, but this year for the first time I really thought about being old, about the fact that I’m closing in on being truly old and I need to imagine what I want my aging to look like.

So I did.

And I realized there are things I want from my old age that I hadn’t realized I wanted, ways I want to be living that don’t follow any kind of path from how I’m living right now. And I’m not entirely sure how to do anything about that, but I am sure that I want to do something about it, that I can’t just keep bumbling along and expect anything to change on it’s own. So I sketched out some ideas, some plans for a course shift.

Not a course correction. I wouldn’t say I’ve been on anything like a wrong path — or, at least not entirely on a wrong path — but I do need to make some changes, and some of them need to be significant.

 

I work with a lot of people who are much younger than I am. A lot of 20- and 30-somethings. Young people who are very clear, very focused on what they want from their careers and where they want to be heading. They fascinate me. Truly. How do they know so much about themselves already? How can they already have a sense of what they want to be doing with their lives long term … to have enough of a sense that they’ve already done so much to move themselves along those paths?

Not that I’ve spent my life flitting around aimlessly, falling from one experience to the next … but I kind of have, too. It’s only by chance that I find myself with a career in education. I just about literally stumbled into my first teaching job and discovered I liked it and was pretty good at it, and so kept doing it. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching for nearly 20 years that it occurred to me that education was my career.

Really the only thing in my life that hasn’t happened by chance is writing. This all needs more thinking through. For now, back to my birthday and planning for Big Life Changes.

 

When I made my list this year, I made a list that looks out to when I’ll turn 60, to where I hope to be at that moment. I have a short-term list, too, but all the things on that list connect to where I want to be winding up when I turn 60. And I think I’ll be projecting out five and ten years from now on. Otherwise, how will I ever have the chance to be the old lady I now realize I want to be?

The sad part of all this is being fully aware that there is nothing new here, fully aware that people the world over plan for their futures every day, and that people have been planning for their futures forever, that the only thing interesting about what’s happened to me is the fact that I’ve lived 55 years without thinking far enough ahead in my life to make a sustainability plan.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do … and a crazy-short runway.


(I’m torn about whether this “counts” as an essay … I’ve fussed with it a lot, and cut out a long not-quite-getting-it section that tried to tease out why I don’t look at my life as a long-term proposition. Maybe that’s a separate essay, maybe it’ll just stay on the cutting room floor. This bit it what’s left, and I’m sticking with 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.