Getting by with a little help from our friends.

Rearranging my position
On this friend of mine who had
A little bit of a breakdown.
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go.
What are you gonna do about it,
That’s what I’d like to know … *
The all-important question that I won’t be asking anyone any time soon.
Had a troubling conversation earlier with a friend who is definitely entering cabin-fever-freak-out territory. She’s been home longer than I have and called me today to discuss some catastrophe options she has been debating with herself.
Let me just say here that discussing — in a level of painful detail — catastrophe options is not a thing I want to be spending my time doing out loud. It’s bad enough that I have these thoughts from time to time. I don’t need to say them into the cosmos.
My friend is really scared, and I feel for her. We are scared. Most of us, maybe especially here in New York City, are scared. That’s real. And the reality of it makes it hard to take on someone else’s fears along with our own.
I said this to my friend, and she laughed. She acknowledged that she’d had “a stress explosion” all over me. “But,” she said, “didn’t I also give you today’s blog post?”
And look at that. She did.
I don’t want my friend to be so scared. She’s having trouble being home alone for such an extended period of time. That’s a problem I’m not having, so I tried to help her think of ways to fill her time more effectively. What she really needs, of course, is not to be on lockdown. I can’t do that for her. I offered to spend time with her virtually, as long as that time wasn’t spent thinking of all the terrible things that could become realities. I definitely can’t do that for her. We’re going to try streaming movies together. I hope something about that experience helps her.
It’s hard to take care of people from a distance. But this is what we have. We have each other long distance. We have whatever ways we can reach out, whatever ways we can offer calm, whatever ways we can be a listening ear, whatever ways we can offer a welcome distraction. Whatever ways.
__________
* Paul Simon, “Gumboots” (Graceland)

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


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.

If at first you don’t succeed …

I am a writing mentor with Girls Write Now, and I get the pleasure of working with Sophia, who is an entirely fabulous young woman. She’s a senior, and we’re in our third year together. I adore her, and still can’t guess how GWN was able to make such a perfect pairing.

We had our pair session today. We meet in a coffee shop near my office. I arrived a little ahead of Sophia and snagged a booth, our favorite spaces in this cafe. I fished in my bag for notebook and pen and looked up and there was Sophia, not looking her usual self. She gave me a half smile and slid in across from me.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said.

“Mmmhmm. Why don’t I believe you?”

She smiled a more real smile. “I hate saying ‘I’m in a funk,’ but I think that’s the only thing to say. I’m in a funk.”

“Why do you hate to say it?”

“It’s so dramatic. Sounds like I’m talking in a book.”

Ha. I like that. “Talking in a book.”

After some conversation, Sophia put the source of her funk on the table, announcing a bit flippantly that she is suffering through a mid-life crisis. She is feeling that she should have accomplished more by this time in her life. She is seventeen.

But I totally understand how she’s feeling. I told her she was a little early, that I hadn’t had my first midlife crisis until I was 18. We talked about where these feelings come from and how to deal with them. Sophia said she figured she’d have her next crisis at 25 (as I did), and that each time she had one, she’d move the goal posts down a few years, maybe to 30, maybe to 35.

As our conversations pretty much always do, we moved on to talk about a thousand other things. We talk all over the place, as if we have a shared stream of consciousness. At one point, we were talking about the ocean, about snorkeling, about how alien we feel about being in the ocean, about swimming, about rainbow fish and stingrays and manta rays and jelly fish …

And I suddenly thought of Diana Nyad and watching footage of one of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida and her being stung by box jellyfish. Both of us reached for our phones and looked her up. And we marveled at her decades-long push toward the goal of being the first person to complete that swim, and the fact that she accomplished it at 64.

Sophia put her phone down and looked at me. “She’s like us,” she said. I will admit, that took me totally by surprise because, as much as I might like it to be true, I don’t see a lot of similarities between me and Diana Nyad.

“No, she is,” Sophia insisted. “She tried to do this thing in her 20s and she didn’t make it. So she pushed the goal ahead a few years and a few years and a few years. And then she did it!”

I love that she drew this connection, and that it seemed to make her feel less of that funk she’d been carrying when she walked into the cafe. We said our goodbyes with Sophia looking more upbeat, more herself, than when she’d arrived. We’d only written for about 15 minutes, but we covered some good ground today.

I also love thinking about Nyad’s accomplishment. Thirty-six years working toward a single, precious goal. And, to my mind, being all the more impressive for achieving that goal at 64 than she would have been had she succeeded at 28. I think I’ve left mid-life crises behind me at this point, but I am holding onto this idea of Diana Nyad, this idea of staying true to my dreams and continuing to push for them even if I have tried and failed again and again.


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!

Charles

My uncle Charles was hospitalized Saturday. Today might be his last day in the world. I’m sad and angry about that, sad for myself, angry with myself. Not angry because I’m in any way responsible for Charles’ condition. Angry because of all the time I’ve had him in my life and haven’t visited more, haven’t called, haven’t turned away from own selfish pursuits long enough to include him in my life. Angry because his older sister died last month, and that should have been a wake-up call for me to reach out, and yet I did nothing to change my behavior.

In April I published an essay on Every Family’s Got One. I introduced my paternal grandmother in her decades-long role of foster parent, writing how I learned acceptance by spending so much time at her house, growing up surrounded by all the children she took care of and how some of those kids became family.

Charles was one of those kids. He and his sisters came to my grandmother’s house before I was born. We have an adorable photo of his youngest sister at four years old, smiling as she struggles to hold my toddler brother who’s almost as big as she is. Charles and his sisters were one of two core sibling groups of foster kids who stayed in our family, who became part of our family, who I call my aunts and uncles.

Yesterday tests confirmed our fears, told us that Charles, after the embolism he suffered on Saturday, no longer had “meaningful brain activity.”

No meaningful brain activity. Charles is gone. Our Charles. Our Chip, as we called him when we were kids. This kind, sweet-hearted man with the funny laugh. It doesn’t seem possible that it can be true. And now his youngest sister, no longer the mite of a girl in that long-ago photo but grown and a mother and grandmother, has to make the decision about whether to turn off the machines that are keeping Charles here.

My heart is with her. My heart is heavy with sadness. And my heart is lightened by the joy of thinking him reunited with his brother and sister, with my grandmother, of that big Charles smile shining bright.

Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.