NOLA, Darling

The second trip I took with my mother was a tag-along trip. She was headed to New Orleans for a conference and invited me to share her hotel room. “I always get a double queen,” she explained, and said I should get a plane ticket and come on down. So I did. She was at work all day, but we had our nights to roam the city together, and it was pretty delightful. Because it was New Orleans and because it was my mother. And so …


Sense Memory
(or, Dreaming inside Her Dreams, 2)
Forty-eight, traveling with my mother

Is heat the secret, the magic key?
Those nights in New Orleans
unlocked new doors
slipped her back and back,
into her childhood
into memories you’d never heard before.

That first night, walking through the Quarter
searching for dinner
settling, heat-flattened
in a tiny, crowded spot.
She was tired, a little depleted
enjoying her meal but subdued.
Then she tried the bread pudding.
One taste —
her face opened.
She smiled, closed her eyes, smiled more deeply.
It wasn’t just good
it was memory.
It brought her mother to the table.
You watched her change,
leaned in as the stories began.

That night on the tram,
windows open to thicken the stifling air
both of you half conscious
the heat drawing you down, under.
Then the story began again —
her first visit to New Orleans as a child,
her aunt who lived in
working for a fancy family on the avenue.
Stories from behind the scrim,
the curtain she kept drawn over her past,
spilling one over the other,
what she knew, what she saw,
what she dreamed, what she lived.

And what you wouldn’t give
to take her back and back again
into her memories
into the stories you’d always wanted to hear.

Every night of that mid-summer trip,
both of you soft and wilted in the heat.
It let her guard slip,
let the girl of her come out
come quietly out and into your arms.
Your sweet mother,
a woman you’d never known playing behind her eyes.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Unlocking Doors

Whoo, in a much better mood than last night. Thank goodness. 🙂

Sometimes it’s just like that. You get cranky, and it is what it is. I can’t do anything to change people who get on my nerves, but I can for-sure change how I respond. Again, thank goodness.

Today I started a writing, meditation, and self-care challenge (yes, because I have soooo much time on my hands, while working more than time and trying to write these poems and keep up with the forever essay challenge … yeah). I started thinking about two vacations I took with my mother years ago and how wonderful it was to see her slide out of herself and into a woman I’d never seen before. The trips were very different, and what I saw in her was very different one trip to the next, but both pleased me enormously. So I thought I’d write today’s poem for the me who did that traveling with her. Then I realized I didn’t want to cram both trips into one poem, so I’ve pulled them apart. Tonight is the first trip, a week on the southern coast of Jamaica. Just thinking about it makes me smile.


Dreaming inside Her Dreams
Forty-seven, traveling with my mother

The first morning in Jamaica
you found her on the verandah
her eyes full of the sea
her face soft and open.
Yes, you thought. She understands now.
Yes, she said. I see what you meant.
She relaxed into the heat,
chatted up fishermen
played dominoes
drank from a coconut fresh from the tree
drank in the quiet
drank in the comfort
showed you a face you’d never seen
so still, so at ease, so beautiful.

Maybe she was the woman you would have met
had she chosen that road not taken.
You watched her, fascinated
in love
and also sad
denying that life not taken
made your life possible.
Did she give up ease to give you everything,
to give you the chance to find this place
to dream a life so different from hers?

But here, this perch above the waves
this lavender heaven,
this you can give her
can share with her
and watch her sigh and smile,
be waiting for her when she arrives
whole and happy
sun glittering through her silver curls.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

I See Her

Had a great pair session with my mentee yesterday. We haven’t met in a couple of weeks because of my work schedule and her summer vacation, so it was extra especially nice to see her. She’s started doing the summer assignments she got for the AP classes she’ll be taking in the fall. For one of those assignments, she’s reading a book I hadn’t heard of, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. In addition to reading, she has to do some reflective writing after every 20 pages. Never mind that I love this idea and think I should start doing it my own self with every book I read. It also inspired our writing for today.

I asked if there was a line or section that really stood out for her already – she’s only just started the book. She showed me a passage about Robert Peace’s mother, Jackie, that ended with this line: “She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”

And we started writing.

I thought I knew where I was going, but I went somewhere else entirely. And where I went shouldn’t be surprising, but it caught me off guard all the same.

* * *

“She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”

Because isn’t that part of what you hope for when you have children, that they will just love you, one hundred percent love you? No judgment, no anger or shame. Pure love. Of course.

And I think about my mother’s reaction after she read my first Hunger essay. She felt bad about herself as a mother, wondered how she never knew about the camp counselor, the man at church, the boy, how she never knew about these bad things that happened to me, how she never knew about any of the bad thinking that was going on in my head.

But how would she have known? She wasn’t with me every minute, and that would have been the only way she could have protected me from bad things, from bad people. And that wasn’t possible. And she isn’t psychic, so she certainly couldn’t have known about anything I was thinking if I didn’t tell her.

Her feeling bad about her mothering of me makes me sad. And it makes me think of that famous Anne Lamott quote, one of my favorite things I’ve read, ever: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

My mother did behave better. She was a great mother. Was she perfect? Of course not. Perfection would surely have made her an awful mother. Not perfect, but mine. And I have never looked at her with anything but love. Sometimes a desperate love, but always love. She’s my mother. I know that answer isn’t a given. But it is for me. Even when I haven’t agreed with her or wanted to do or be what she’s wanted me to do or be, my mother has always been one of those people who I love completely. And maybe part of that is that I’ve always known that she loves me the same way. Even when she hasn’t understood me, when she’s been puzzled or disturbed by me, when she’s wished I’d go another way, she has always been fiercely in love with me. How can I not reciprocate?

I own everything that’s happened to me. And I’m telling my stories. But I don’t want the barbs strung through my stories to catch her soft, smooth skin. I don’t want to hurt her, to make her question my love for her. I will write about her warmly … but I will also tell other parts of our story. Yes, her sending me to Weight Watchers when I was 13 was a mistake. Yes, a mistake that came from a place of love, but still a mistake. And all these things can be true at once – her love for me and not knowing how to make the world safe for me, my love for her and my honesty about her impact on my life.

I like to tell this funny thing about my mother. I’ve always said how lucky I am because I don’t have to worry about how my mother will react to the things I write about her … because she has always read my work backwards: when I’ve written stories that weren’t about her, she’s read them and asked how I’ve remembered so many of the details. When I’ve written things that were absolutely about her, she’s marveled at the power of my imagination. And that was sort of perfect. But it is clearly now done. I’m telling my stories, and she’s seeing herself in the lines.

There are a lot more Hunger essays to come. I don’t know if any of them will be as hard for her to read as that first one, but there will definitely be hard moments. And I worry.

I worry about how she will respond to things I write, how she’ll see herself in my words. I don’t want her to ever think that I see her with even the barest trace of pity or scorn. I see her. I see the woman she was trying to be in the face of the world she was in. I see her learning how to make a way every time the floor disappeared from under her. I see her standing up for us, her three very different, not at all easy children. I see her. I am impressed by who she is, who she was, all the ways she stays open to learning and growing.

Do I wish things for her? Of course. But not to change the past. That’s something I told her when we talked about that Hunger essay and she was wishing I’d been born to a better mother. Change one thing, change the world. If she’d been whatever that idea of a “perfect mother” was, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. “I like who you are today,” she said. Yeah. Me, too. And the person she is. I like how we’ve grown up to have this powerful, loving friendship, and that I can still count on her to mother me the way I sometimes need mothering.

So I keep digging, keep writing. I know there will be hard moments for her. And I know we’ll come through them. No pity. No scorn. Only love.



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, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

 

Black Bluebird Respect

In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

*

I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

My Story On Stage — SOLSC 3

I am proud to announce that I am part of the New York City line up for this year’s Listen to Your Mother reading! I was so nervous about auditioning, and I didn’t finish my audition story until the moment before I had to leave for the studio. Crazy. I’m lucky I had a story at all. I had weeks to write something, but could think of not one story to tell. Yes, that’s even more crazy than my last-minute finish. I have only about 600,000³ stories, many of them about my mother. Couldn’t think of anything. And partly that’s because I had to tell a five-minute story. There are few things I’m able to do in just five minutes, and talking about my mother is definitely not one of them.

Or so I thought! Thanks to a lunch conversation with on of my coworkers, I had an idea. I wrestled it into a five-minute box and off I went to audition … where a strange thing happened: I was nervous about reading, but I felt entirely calm about my story. Dare I say that I felt … confident? As soon as I finished the first paragraph, I knew.

Where did that come from? This story (which I’ll post after the reading) isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written. It hadn’t even been revised when I auditioned with it. A first draft is pretty much never going to be the best thing I’ve ever written. But still, I was completely certain of that story, certain it would land me in the cast.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out that “I got this” feeling ever since the audition. I’m not looking to become America’s Cockiest Girl or anything, but it would be nice to set aside the Poster Child for Low Self-Esteem mantle every now and then. Even more amazing would be to have this feeling about my writing on a consistent basis. Imagine how much work I’d submit!

While I keep trying to figure myself out, please consider coming out for the LTYM reading. It would be so great to get to meet you in person! If you’re not in New York, check the LTYM website, there may be a reading near you!


It’s Slice of Life time! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

SOL image 2014