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.

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.

Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because no everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’ no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


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.

When all else fails … blue-footed boobies.

Again with the too-tired-to-think. In lieu of thinking, I will string together random, unrelated things, call it a pot pourri post and be done. Given how tired I’ve been this month, it’s a wonder there haven’t been more of these! Here goes:

Today, someone tried to goad me into an argument, and I was a) able to see that fairly quickly, and b) frustrate them by refusing to rise to the bait. I need to remember this — and remember how to do it — in the future.

Because of some silliness a friend posted on FB, I realized that my name — when the letters are alphabetized — is Aceist. For some reason, this pleased me. I like the idea of it, like I’m really into aces. This nonsense is less clever-feeling with my middle name, which turns into AAIICPRT and sounds not at all like a name, or a title, or something with actual meaning.

I am in my mom’s house (because tomorrow is Fox’s birthday, so I’ve come down to celebrate!), and the World Wildlife Fund calendar in front of me has for this month a picture of a Blue-Footed Booby in the midst of the bow-curtsy move they make when trying to attract mates.

And seeing that picture of the Booby inspired me to go look up Blue-Footed Boobies, which meant I went down the rabbit hole of watching video after video of this cuties, which is why I know that the photo is of the mating ritual. I watched a silly video about Boobies and now I’m a bona fide expert.

Tonight, instead of Boobies, I have my mother’s dog and my brother’s dog to keep me company. I miss my cats, but it’s always nice to have some dog time.

I think that’s all I can manage. Enjoy the Boobies. They’ve got a lot more to offer tonight than I do!

Image result for blue-footed booby
aboutgalapagos.nathab.com

It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Baking with What You Have

I am still struggling with internet connectivity in my home, which is making all things difficult, and really getting on my nerves. Verizon is due to visit me again tomorrow, so I’m going to pretend at optimism that the problem will be resolved. In the mean time, I’m going to take advantage of this rare moment of weekend net connection and post one of the essays I wrote in January.


This morning I made cornbread. Cornbread is one of my staple comfort foods. It’s quick and easy to make, it reminds me of my childhood, and it connects me to my mother and grandmothers.

And that’s part of why I made it. The other reason is that I wanted to bake something in my new kitchen, wanted to fill my new apartment with the warm scent of something in the oven.

I am months and months — and surely more months still — away from settling into this apartment. I’ve begun the slow process of unpacking, have grown familiar with my new commute, have been reminded of some of the awkward truths of living in an apartment building. One o the things that helps make this space full of boxes and disarray feel more like home, however, is using the kitchen, cooking for myself instead of buying take-out or getting by on cashews and cheese. I haven’t found my grocery store yet, but a handful of ingredients made the move with me, and so … cornbread.

 

Moving house forces me to look at all the things I own — as they’re going into boxes or as they come out. It forces me to see the things I’ve chosen to hold onto … and pushes me to ask why. I haven’t read more than a couple of pages of Marie Kondo’s book, but looking at my things as I begin unpacking has made me think I need to read that, that it will resonate with me and might help me find (finally) the way to pare down my possessions. This close look at my things has been eye-opening.

It’s no surprise for me to see how sentimental I am — the bits and pieces of ephemera I’ve carried with me for years that I just can’t seem to say goodbye to — but it’s a little maddening to see what my sentimentality costs me in time and energy and storage space.

Unsurprisingly, this sentimental keeping of things doesn’t only apply to the tangible objects in my rooms. Two days ago, it was The Morphine Man’s birthday. And of course I was aware of it, of course I spent time thinking about him. How much storage space in y head and heart is he taking up? And for why? Even if there is some future version of the world in which he and I are somehow back together, it won’t win me back all the time and tears I’ve spent on him in these intervening months, decades …

How do I declutter on all fronts? I want to own less stuff and hold onto less baggage. This move is a good time to start on the one. How do I start on the other?

 

The cornbread was good. I mean, of course it was. Cornbread is pretty much always good. But it was also clearly the first step on a curve. It’s the first thing I’ve made in this new oven, so there are still things to learn. With my last oven, it took me a while to learn the exact difference between the temperature in the oven and the setting on the dial: +50°. Things began to run smoothly after I bought an over thermometer. This new oven has its own secrets to reveal. One batch of cornbread isn’t going to tell me everything I need to know.

Patience. In all things. Sure. Easy to say.

Next up is maybe mac and cheese. Or maybe my molasses spice cookies. I’ve only ever made them successfully in my mother’s oven. My old oven was always and always just too hot for that dough. It will be interesting to see how this new oven does.

Patience. I rarely have much for myself, even as I am notorious for having oceans of it for others. Definitely need to draw some of that inward and give myself a break.

I’ll clear out some of my things as I empty these boxes. I’ll make room on my shelves and in my closets. Slowly. And I’ll clear out thoughts of AC, The Morphine Man, other people and things from the past that aren’t serving me today. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.

And, as I make room, as I clear away, there will be space for new things. Maybe I’ll finally learn to make tuiles and florentines, use my beautiful new counter tops to properly roll out biscuit or cooking dough. Maybe I’ll finally open my heart, air it out, be ready.


GriotGrind Next Wave logoIn 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.

Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!