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.

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.

The Autumn of My Life

Friday was so chilly. I knew I’d need to leave my flip flops and tank tops home, that I’d actually have to wear … gasp! … a jacket. So I dragged by jean jacket out of the closet and put it on. It felt so heavy and foreign and awkward – and I was instantly missing summer.

As I hung my jacket on its hook in my office, I felt and heard the crinkle of paper in one of the pockets. “Oh, let this be a treat left over from Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!” I thought as I unbuttoned the flap and slipped my fingers in … and sure enough, it was a poem! And not just any poem (as if there could actually be such a thing as “just any poem”). It was the perfect poem for this end-of-September moment: “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell, one of my long-time fave-fave-favorites.

Blackberry Eating
Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014)

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making;  and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, started, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Mmm …

I have always loved this poem, it’s “many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,” it’s “silent, startled, icy black language.” It is a bit of divinity, small enough to hold in your hand, rich and juicy enough to flood your senses.

Earlier this week I rode home in a cab, exhausted after a work event. It was a cab with an enormous moon roof. I leaned back and looked up through that window and there was the huge and beautiful harvest moon. And I smiled and watched it all the way downtown, all the way home.

One of my first experiences in my new place was being awakened by moonlight, its white-silver shine filling my foreign bedroom where I lay, cozied in familiar linens, my heart weighted with loss, with leaving the only place I’d ever lived in my adult life that had felt like home. Being pulled from sleep by the glow of the moon made my heart lighter, gave me the hope of making a home in this new neighborhood.

This is a transition, this move from summer to fall, from solstice to equinox. I am a late-summer baby, born in mid-September. My new year’s day marks the rounding of that corner for me, the slide into autumn.

And I love autumn, love the cool days, the changing leaves, the colors in the sky in those early sunsets. I love the need to wrap a pretty scarf around my neck, to grab something warmer than a sweater. I love autumn, but it slips in on a wave of sadness for the loss of summer, for shortened days, for distance from the sun creating cooler light.

We still have some warm days ahead – our five-day forecast is already boasting some 80˚ weather in the near future – but fall is here. It’s a reminder to me to get serious, to start paying attention to that list I made when I took stock of myself in the weeks leading up to my birthday. Summer isn’t a time to be lazy, exactly, but it is more languorous, more easily sensuous. The arrival of fall is the early-warning sign, the reminder to get busy, get some work done, get ready. Because, as we all know: winter is coming.

That’s an easy line, of course, but that makes it no less true. And truer, perhaps, because I’m thinking about my coming old age. And because a young friend has just lost his father, his father who was only nine small years older than I am. I’ve just made a world of plans, but how little time is there to realize any of them?

It’s autumn. Time to get cracking. My winter storehouse won’t fill itself with nuts. That’s on me.


(And yes, I’m old enough that my title came to me because I remembered Bobby Goldsboro’s song, but then I looked up the lyrics, and the song doesn’t really fit with where I saw this essay  headed, but I’m nothing if not stubborn, so the title stuck.)


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.