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!

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La Impostora Regresa

Wednesday was a great day. An essay I worked hard on and was proud of was published on The Rumpus. I was (and am) crazy-thrilled. I pretty much never send my work out. I either post it here or leave it gathering dust in the back folders of my cloud drive. So writing a pitch, sending my essay out … it was a huge deal for me. And then to have the piece accepted … ! Of course I was happy.

In the essay, I give white people some marching orders, elaborate on something I need them to do. And, shortly after I shared the essay, two different white women commented to say they would be changing their behavior post haste.

Their comments surprised me. I mean, yes, I was telling people to make a change … but was I expecting them to do what I’d asked? Was I expecting them to tell me they’d listened to what I’d said?

My first response to their comments was to start writing back, something along the lines of: “Oh, well, you don’t have to make that change! I mean, if you *want* to, sure, but don’t do it on my account!”

Happily, I stopped myself from typing or sending those messages. Because I was asking them to make a change. Quite clearly. asking.

So why was I so quick to back off my request the moment someone let me know they were considering it?

Oh yes, she’s back!! La Impostora and her twice-damned syndrome!

I know, of course, that this is still a beast I have to battle. I haven’t kidded myself that I had somehow magically vanquished Impostor Syndrome as I lay sleeping. I’ve simply been waiting for her to rear her ugly head again. But I wasn’t expecting that head-rearing to happen in response to publishing this essay. And that’s silly, of course. I had put my work out in the world and it was getting a good response … of COURSE I would suddenly find myself pushing back against Impostor Syndrome. What better, more obvious time would there be for me to be showered with gifts from this treasure trove of insecurity?

Who am I to think I can tell white folks what they should and shouldn’t be doing? Who am I to think my feelings about people’s behavior meant enough, mattered enough, carried enough weight that I could say, “stop doing this thing you’re doing that’s upsetting to me?”

I’ve wrestled with my Impostor in the past. So many times. There have been times when I haven’t noticed her creeping into my thoughts. Those times, she has been able to drive a wedge between me and whatever goal I’m pushing toward. Those times are the most frustrating because I don’t recognize the pattern of self-denigration and self-denial until it’s too late to stop the thoughts and move forward. Sometimes I am able to see what I’m doing early enough in the pattern to shoulder past my Impostor and get shit done. The hard truth is that the Impostor wins these head-to-heads far too often. I am hoping that one day I’ll have done enough work on myself that, even if I still have to fight La Impostora, those fights will all fall into the second category, the push her aside and get back to work category.

In the case of my essay on The Rumpus, there were many opportunities for La Impostora to shove me backwards over a cliff. I had originally sent that essay to another publication. It was accepted, and then I received a contract that had some troubling language in it. I balked at signing, but my Impostor slapped me back: who was I to question what An Important Well-Respected Magazine wanted from me? She instructed me to sign and shut up. But I couldn’t get past my hesitation. I reached out to the mag’s editor to suggest some revisions to the contract language. By the time I learned that the magazine wouldn’t budge on the demands, I’d received an acceptance from The Rumpus … which was when La Impostora smacked me again: How dare I consider pulling my submission from The Magazine and moving forward with The Rumpus? And, too, there was no way I was good enough to be published on The Rumpus, so I should just forget all about that.

Sigh.

And now she’s back again, telling me to back down from the entire premise of my essay simply because someone read and respected what I said.

Listen (speaking entirely to myself here, but sometimes these things need to be said aloud and in public): I am a person who has the right to like or dislike whatever I like or dislike. I have the right to tell people to stop doing something that displeases or disturbs me … and they—because they are sovereign, fully-autonomous beings—have as much right to decide to do what I’ve asked as they have to tell me to shove off because they’re under no obligation to listen to anything I have to say.

I have no problem with folks taking issue with the point of that essay. I was ready for that, steeling myself against how hurt or angry it would make me. I was ready to defend myself, to haul out receipts and invite folks to step back. The few negative comments I’ve seen haven’t troubled me at all.

And maybe that’s a sign of progress in my fight against La Impostora. In the past, if someone questioned my position, I’d have been inclined to turn around and question my position right along with them. I mean, if something I said raised their eyebrows, I must have made a mistake, right? I’m not saying that I don’t make mistakes. I’m saying I no longer instantly assume that anyone questioning me must have the right of it.

I tend to think I’ll be fighting La Impostora forever. I don’t want that to be true, but it feels true. Seeing ways that I’m getting stronger against her helps. And I know I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome more than once, but the more I “talk out loud” about it here, the better I seem to get at recognizing the pattern before it derails me. If it seems annoyingly repetitive, you’re welcome to scroll on by. Imma keep working through.


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!

The Words to Say It: Writing in conversation with my mentee

My mentee, Sophia, and I are working on our submissions for this year’s Girls Write Now anthology. Every year, GWN mentees and mentors get published together. It’s a lovely thing. The mentees, of course, are the stars of the show, so their pieces are more substantial. That’s the tricky part for someone as long-winded as I am! How to say what I want to say in only a handful of words?

Sophia and I have been brainstorming and free writing, trying to decide what we want to write about. She’s had a couple of writing deadlines in the last month, so some of our free writing has led to work that she’s developed for her other submissions. In January, she wrote a snippet of something that seemed like the tiniest frozen sliver hiding a colossal iceberg beneath its surface. I suggested she think about working on that for the anthology since we had so much time before the anthology piece would be due.

But now the piece is due (in a week), and our work is still pretty amorphous. She has added several additional snippets to the first, and each is powerful and compelling, but the work hasn’t yet come together. We’ve been in this place before, with Sophia writing all the way around a thing and then — just in time for the deadline — writing exactly the bit she needed but couldn’t find. We’re going to work for a while on Saturday, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll have one of those breakthroughs. I shouldn’t expect it, of course, but it’s clear that this is one of the ways Sophia and I mirror each other as writers. How many times have I woken up on the day of a reading with nothing to read? And on how many of those days have I “magically” managed to write something in time for the reading? Hmm … I’m seeing another mentor goal for myself: help move Sophia away from this nerve-wracking habit!

While it’s not necessary, each year that I’ve been volunteering with GWN, my mentee and I have chosen to write on the same subject. I like the companion-piece aspect of that, like that our pieces seem to expand in relation to one another. Sophia is writing about her relationship with her father … and heaven knows I have more than what to say about my relationship with my own father, so I thought writing my anthology piece would be easy.

Ha! Guess again.

Of course.

I’ve written so much about my father. And in some ways, that’s the problem. Not that I think I’ve said everything there is to say, but maybe I’ve said all of the easy things to say, the things I can say with the fewest words. And, too, I have to write something that connects, at least tenuously, to this year’s program theme: Rise, Speak, Change. I really like that theme, but I’m not sure any of the things I’ve been thinking to say about my relationship with my father can be bullied into fitting the theme.

Oy. Time to get to work.



It’s March 1st: The start of the 2017 Slice of Life Story Challenge! This is the 10-year anniversary of Slice of Life, which is hard to believe. I started this blog a month before discovering Two Writing Teachers. When that first SOL challenge started, I had no idea what I was doing as a blogger. I always credit that 2008 SOL crew — I think there were 12 of us then? — with making me into a blogger, and I credit them still. Today, there are hundreds of folks participating in the challenge. Every day, writers will post their links over on TWT. I definitely recommend clicking through to the site and checking out some of the work there!

 

One Last Night

This is Mr. My President and Mrs. My First Lady’s last night in the White House. I’m sure they’re doing it up, dancing and laughing through every room, singing old songs and clinking glasses. I’m betting there’s even a little cuddling under that last piece of mistletoe they saved just for this night. I’m sure they’re looking forward to having the tiniest bit of their real lives back — they won’t get too much of a return to normalcy, but that smidgen will surely feel like heaven.

Just about every day since Mr. My President was elected, I have said a prayer for him. (Does this surprise you? You couldn’t be more surprised than I’ve been.) Every clear night, I’ve given up my wish on the first star for him. I’ve prayed and wished for his life, for his health and safety, for the health and safety of his family, for him to have the love and support of his rockstar lady-wife and his fabulous daughters, for him to find the way to be the president we voted for.

Eight years of wishes. Eight years of dreams. And now I have to learn to say goodbye.

It hasn’t been an eight-year love fest. There have been those times … those times when Mr. My President has annoyed me, angered me, disappointed me, driven me crazy. He has backed things I’ve wished he wouldn’t, and turned his back on things I know he should have picked up and carried. But he’s always been my president, and I have always loved him, will keep on loving him. I love his poise, his sense of humor, his intelligence, his graciousness, his calm, his speechifying, his love of children, his measured contemplation of issues, his friendship with Uncle Joe, his love for his family … and most especially, his love for Michelle. For eight years he has stood center stage showing us what Black love can look like, showing us strength and grace, swagger and humility. And now, in his last act of modeling classy behavior, he will hand over this country to a man he would surely rather read for filth. And he will do it with dignity. Of course.

Thanks, Obama.

(Surprise me tomorrow morning and change your mind about Leonard. It’s really the one thing I’ve most wanted you to do these last eight years. There’s still time.)

Girding my loins …

Only a few days until the Writing Our Lives #52essays2017 challenge begins! Time to prepare! First a little background. The “Writing Our Lives” part? That’s the name of the personal essay/memoir/creative nonfiction workshop created and taught by the incomparable, relentless Vanessa Mártir. I’ve never actually taken V’s class, but I’ve watched it longingly from afar, following its growth and the growth of its writers. I’ve been writing essays for a long time at this point, but I still flirt with the idea of signing up for WOL. I know V would push me to get out of my way … more quickly and more than I push myself. She would see the scrims I put up between my words and the deepest truth and call me on that nonsense. If you’re in NYC, I would definitely recommend checking out WOL.

I’ve never taken on a year-long writing challenge. I’ve done numerous month-long challenges, and I’ve successfully completed several NaNoWriMo novels. And I always learn the same thing from each challenge: when I push myself to write more and to write regularly, my writing improves. In each case, I feel as if my brain became more attuned to writing. Ideas flowed more easily because my brain settled into its “writer” space — and I didn’t give it time to slip out.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it’s what I told my students every year that I was a writing teacher. I believed it then. I knew it then. It’s interesting to find how easily — and repeatedly — I have let myself forget it when it comes to my own work.

I imagine this essay challenge having a similar effect. While the essays themselves may not be spectacular, what they will do to my writing muscles will be. So, as my title proclaims, I’m getting ready, prepping for battle. I’ve started brainstorming a list of possible essays topics. The list is all over the place … which will certainly keep things varied. Some of the items on that brainstorm list are already scaring the crap out of me … I think that means one of them needs to be the first essay I take on. Something about diving into fear seems like the right way to get started.

Certainly it’s possible that I’ll manage to get one essay posted in Week One … and then fall by the wayside for the rest of the year. But that seems unlikely — if only because I have called myself out loudly and proudly with my announcement graphic!

I’m afraid of this challenge, but I’m excited for it, too!

When Life Doesn’t Imitate Art

I am making my way for the second time through Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. This isn’t a book I would ever have chosen to read, but it’s the January pick for my book group, and so. As much as I was sorry to see this book win the group’s vote, I’m so glad it did. This is a stunning, well-written book that needs reading and heeding. I suspect it will get much more of the first than the second.

When my mentee, Sophia, and I had our pair session this week, I told her about the book, told her I hadn’t wanted to read it because I knew it would depress the mess out of me and be really frustrating. We talked about the history of mass extinctions and the sad fact that humans are causing this current die-off. And we talked about animals that have been lost …

And then this question happened:

“Mammoths are still alive, right?”

It froze me for a second because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that anyone would imagine that we still had Mammoths running around somewhere on earth. But it was a sincere question. So I put on my serious face and answered: “No honey, not for … um … thousands of years.”

This was the wrong answer, of course. She was so unhappy! We went online for verification of my “thousands of years” and talked about how cool it would be if Mammoths were still around (but would it be cool?). And then:

“What about Saber-tooth Tigers? They’re still around, right?”

Sophia is young, it’s true, but I’m still surprised. Aren’t these extinctions well-enough known to be the fauna equivalent of canon?

I broke the news about the tigers, feeling more and more sorry for bringing up Kolbert’s book with every second. Sophia was really hit by this information, and I was so unprepared for our conversation, I didn’t do a good job of helping her through it. This isn’t covered in the mentor’s handbook!

We talk more. I talked about some of the animals Kolbert highlights in her book, particularly the Great Auk, whose story really broke my heart. We looked at pictures of a bunch of extinct animals and talked about when they lived and what caused their extinctions … and about the fact that the cause was so often humans. We took a look at the Saber-tooths for nostalgia’s sake … and that’s when it all became clear:

“Because, you know, Ice Age is my favorite movie. I guess I just thought they must all still be here.”

Because … oh.

Sophia has seen this movie many (MANY) times. And I totally get having a favorite show really change how you see the world. I have a hard time remembering that George Washington was a big, handsome Black man who sings like Christopher Jackson. (No, really.) But I’m still thrown by this. Maybe I’m thrown because I wonder what gets covered in earth science classes? Maybe.I think it’s more wonder at the beauty and sweetness that is Sophia’s ability to believe in living Mammoths and Saber-tooth Tigers. And sadness that I crushed them, that I’m suddenly the villain who made them all extinct with one casual response.

Sigh. Well, I am human, after all. And we’re all definitely the villains in Kolbert’s book, villains of the unsightly drama that’s been playing out for decades but moving faster and faster in recent years. The Sixth Extinction should be required reading. Yes, to make sure you know that we no longer have Mastodons and Mammoths (not related to each other, by the way!), but also to understand the loss of the Great Auks, and now Panamanian Golden Frogs. But, more importantly, I’d hope this book could force us to come to terms with the destruction we’re wreaking across the globe. Yes. In a perfect world.

But, if we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have pushed the earth to this point, would we?

Found – Poetry in Community

This past April, I didn’t write a single poem. And maybe that doesn’t matter, but it does, too. Every April since 2008 I’ve written poems. Every April since 2009, I’ve done a poem a day for the month. But this year I couldn’t make it happen. My poetry brain shut down. Part of that, surely, was rustiness — for writing in general, but definitely for poetry. I kicked myself over it. A lot. But I finally had to just let it go. It was clear that I wasn’t going to produce any poems, and I needed to move on. I had another knee surgery looming on my horizon, and I had work to do. So I moved on.

But it still ate at me.

And then today, for our third Girls Write Now genre workshop, we wrote poetry. Specifically, found poetry. No matter how many poems I write, writing poetry scares me. Always and always. And, at the close of a year in which I failed to meet my annual poetry challenge, I was more scared than I would usually be. But I have such a good time working with my mentee*, I was looking forward to today’s workshop, despite the looming threat of poetry. Our guest presenter was the amazing poet, Rupi Kaur, and she led us through the creation of our first poem of the day. She wanted us to respond to a series of questions … from the point of view of wallpaper. When she said it, my brain immediately relaxed. Because I could write anything, right? As wallpaper, there was no pressure. I didn’t need to make sense, didn’t need to be clever or “right,” I could just go with whatever came into my head. She asked questions such as, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” and “How do you feel?” And I tried to just write my answers, not worry overmuch about the line that came before or whether or not the end result would amount to anything. And the end result gets weird in places, but it works, too:

In Situ

I am thick with dried glue, stuck fast to plaster
I am lonely — who looks here? Who really sees me?
To flap free in wind, a flag proclaiming a nation …
instead, here — these dry frames blocking the sun, nails in my eyes.
I could have wrapped novels, embraced classics.
Where will I go when the family leaves, the renovation begins?
If only my stripes and curves had value, were valued —
if only I hadn’t bent to the axe blade, given myself to the pulper.
There was shine and power in that new roll,
but that doesn’t excuse bringing my sisters with me.
My sisters, who could have made their own choices.

And then moonlight drapes over me, a silver renewal, washing clean.
I feel myself then — all adornment, all quiet civility —
here, gilding these walls, creating comfort, home.

It’s weird (and that title is annoying), but there are bits that I like. And overall, I like the reminder: that I can put words together however they come together, that I don’t have to agonize over everything all the time, that I am allowed to write things that don’t work and don’t make sense and won’t stand the test of … well … anything. And it doesn’t matter. I can write nonsense and move on to the next thing. I’m amazed at how easily and often I forget that, how adeptly I construct barriers between myself and my writing.

After the wallpaper musing, we worked on erasure poems, taking texts and “finding” our poems within them by crossing out (erasing) the words we don’t want in our poem. And I found a magazine article about making cheese … and created two poems that make no sense at all but which I like very much.

(Untitled 1)

This story, perfect storm.
Community, all, fair weather,
able.
Now made the bargain
opportunities
independent,
opportunity learned.
You —
with specifics,
craft.

(Untitled 2)

I came one day —
delicious-looking.
I asked. He said.
Continued making, starting,
following, famous.

I didn’t know our privilege.
I found minutes
realized opportunity,
a hands-on reality.

She agreed.
They would.
I needed, I could.
I worked truly,
indirectly,
next.

A fun day for this rusty, gun-shy girl. Before leaving the workshop, I grabbed an article about Brazil from a travel mag … I feel more erasure poems coming on!

_____
* I have a new mentee! Naima, who I had the absolute pleasure of working with these last three years, graduated in June and is now off in college. So, in September, I was paired with Sara … and I completely adore her.