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

Equilibrium Shift

Epistolary poems, eh? That’s what I wanted? That’s what I wanted? Why?

Yes, this is a familiar place for me: choosing a form for April … and immediately regretting my choice because the form presents challenges. Yeah, sounds about par for the course.

I got lucky yesterday. Luck … and reading the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “The Famous Blue Raincoat” are what got me through that poem. Today, I’ve already hit a wall. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with an epistolary poem. Am I talking to younger me? Am I just reminiscing? I am just painting pictures of the past? I’m stuck before I even start.

Needless to say, I’m not thrilled with tonight’s attempt. My fingers are crossed for some growth and change for tomorrow.


Equilibrium Shift
Nine years old, Troy

You’re not going to love it here,
but it’ll be okay.
You’ll be here two years.
You can hold on for two years.
And you’ll be smart here — you’ll trust fear.
You’ll recognize danger
and steer yourself wide, away.
You’ll be bullied here
but remember — it’s just for two years.

It won’t be all bad.
You’ll learn to climb trees.
You’ll meet a crazy, kind old woman
who’ll treat you with care.
(How you knew she was a safe place …
I still can’t fathom.)
You’ll have your first for-real best friend.
You’ll rediscover the power of words,
wielding them deftly, both shield and lance.
They will build you an arsenal
a fortress
freedom.

It won’t be all bad,
but it will be bad.

One day your mom will miss your signals.
She’ll agree to a playdate you want her to refuse.
That will be a bad day,
a choose-your-words-carefully scary day.
You’ll feel the shift in your equilibrium,
a strange internal shudder,
and it will tell you —
the people smiling into your face intend to harm you. Yes.
But you’ll come through.

Why write you now?
If everything’s fine, why focus here?
There’s something you know, something about you,
something I need to accept, to protect.
I should have advice, helpful things to tell you,
instead, I look at you with surprise.
You’re such a puzzle to me —
who are you?
Nearly 50 years later and more worldly wise,
I’ve yet to process the secrets you’re holding.
I can tell you which choices I’d make differently now
as if you might care what path I’d choose.
I can tell you again that it won’t all be bad …

In the end, I want to tell you I see you,
take you back to that day when you saved your own life.
I want your hand in mine as we walk down the street,
your hand in mine all the way across town
back toward Burdett Avenue — your house, your family,
toward as much safety as that town could allow.
I know it works out. I know they don’t hurt you.
I know you get home. I know that you’re fine.
Still,
I offer my fangs, my claws —
you needed a lioness that day, and I want to be her.


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

Ages and Stages

It’s April first, the start of National Poetry Month … and of National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve decided not to keep going with the pantoum, not to keep breaking my heart with #SayHerName poems. I’m not saying I’ll never go back to one, the other, both. This isn’t that year, though. Today, in our time of pandemic, I’m choosing not to sink myself into such a deeply painful place.

I looked at a lot of poetry forms and narrowed my choices down to three and sort of had my eye very particularly on one. And then last weekend I went to a poetry salon, and the homework assignment we were given was exactly that same particularly form. And then I opened today’s prompt for Souleika Jaouad’s “The Isolation Journals,” and it was talking about the same thing. And so here I am, with epistolary poems.

It’s hardly surprising, right? We’re all cut off from one another. It seems only natural that we’d be craving comforting contact, comforting forms of contact. So of course: letter writing. When we first went on lockdown, I made a list of people who are far from me and decided to write a letter a week. And I’m certainly not alone. I’ve read so many posts about letter-writing in the last few weeks. So, to have my salon homework be writing an epistolary poem, to have Souleika Jaouad’s first prompt be to write a journal entry that’s a letter … well, it all just fits. This is where we are. This is where we’re going to be for some time.

In the salon, we were asked to write a to a past self, to pick an age and focus on who we were then, and write to that someone. I’ve had that prompt before, writing a letter to my child self. It always appeals to me. And it appeals to me now.

And that’s my challenge for April: to write an epistolary poem to long (and not-so-long) ago versions of myself. Maybe I’ll play around with meter or rhyme scheme, maybe not. I’m not going to bother with chronological order. I’ll just pick whatever age calls my name each day. And maybe there will be more than one poem for certain ages. I mean, God knows some years are so full or so butt-kicking that they’ll demand more than one poem.

And so, we begin. Happy poetry month, y’all!


Stitched into Silence
First day, junior high

Do you remember those jeans you embroidered?
You worked so hard, spent weeks getting them right.
You covered that denim in flower-power and peace signs
stitched S.W.A.K. over your right ass cheek,
a Black Power fist across the left.

You wore them once.

Do you remember? You worked so hard,
stitching, stitching, stitching long into those late-summer nights.
You couldn’t wait for school to start.
You couldn’t wait to be seen.

Junior High!
And weren’t you practically grown?
You’d had your first kiss,
you’d read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
          (though not yet The Bluest Eye.)

Junior high.
And you’d be ready that first day,
your jeans and their story,
jeans that would announce your arrival,
jeans that would wink and wave as you left.

You wore them once.

Because your sleepy, backward town couldn’t see you,
wasn’t ready to know you,
was so stuck in its 1950s timewarp
it had no place for your flower-child fantasy.

Even your friends laughed.
Even your friends.
At the end of the day, you took off the jeans,
folded and hid them in the back of your closet,
folded and hid all those possibilities,
stitched yourself into the background, into silence.

I’m here to tell you that those jeans were fire.
They were all the things you believed them to be —
cute, flirty, smart, funny
and that ivy down the side made your legs look so long.
I want to go back to that day in September
to say you were right and your friends were all wrong.

Grab those jeans from the closet, hop on your bike.
Ride down Westcott singing at the top of your lungs.
Who cares if your friends laugh —
who are they to judge you?
Stand up on the pedals, flash that fist in the air.
You are magic. You are magic. You are magic.


National-Poetry-Month-2020

The Wild Unknown

Since August of last year, I’ve had the pleasure of co-hosting a monthly storytelling event at an art gallery in Brooklyn. This is the show’s sixth season. It was started by a poet who has a love of the oral tradition, of the magic of stories around the campfire. Every year, he selects a pair of hosts, and every month the hosts bring two storytellers in to share 15-minute tales with the always-appreciative audience.

Three years ago, a friend of mine was hosting and he invited me to come tell a story. OMG, but that was fun! I was crazy-nervous, but it was also great to get to share some of myself in that way.

When I was asked to host, I was excited to give it a try. I had, however, no idea what I was getting myself into. Finding storytellers is hard. But really hard. Sometimes people say “Yes!” right away, but sometimes I ask one person after another and come up empty again and again. And even once I have people, I have no idea what to expect. I haven’t asked people who are storytellers, and everyone is super nervous about having to tell a story — not read something they’ve written, but stand in front of people and tell. I’ve asked people who are interesting to me, people who I know have a lot of interesting things about them. These things don’t mean they’ll tell a good story, but I am lucky: they always do tell good stories! The challenge of coming to be a storyteller unlocks a new door for them, I think. I mean, many of the people I’ve invited are writers, so they definitely understand a lot about how stories work. But writing a story isn’t really as much like telling one as you might think.

One pure joy of this hosting journey has been my completely delightful co-host, a young woman who is an artist and an actor and who creates in so many amazing ways, and who is full of energy and light. We connected as soon as we were introduced, and are already planning future projects to work on after our hosting year has ended. I can’t wait to see what our next adventure will be!

We’ve been having a lot of fun on this ride … and then COVID-19 hit. Our little Park Slope gallery with barely enough space for five people to distance themselves socially wasn’t going to be open for this month’s event. So … we did what half the world has done lately: we went on Zoom!

I was nervous: what if no one showed up, what if my computer froze (it’s done that in a few of my meetings this week), what if someone noticed that my house is a mess?! You know, all the worries.

But … all the worries were over nothing. Tonight was so much fun!

A — People came. As we approached start time, my computer screen started to do that intro-to-the-Brady-Bunch thing with all the squares popping up to show who’s joining the meeting. Not only did people come, but they came from places they wouldn’t normally be able to join from! We had folks joining from Long Island and Colorado. My cohost is Australian, and her mom zoomed in from outside Melbourne! So tonight was our first international showcase!*

B — People were so nice. This is one of the things I love about our in-person event, the way the audience is always ready to embrace the storytellers. And that was definitely true tonight.

C — The storytellers were sweet and open and wonderful. It’s such a gift to have people give you their stories, to trust you to hear them. I feel so lucky every time.

Every month, we have a theme for the evening. We’ve tried to have our themes connect to whatever show is up in the gallery. And we pick them well in advance. This month’s theme was “The Wild Unknown,” picked when we had no idea we were about to be plunged into the wildest of unknowns. Couldn’t have had a better theme for tonight.

COVID-19 didn’t beat us, couldn’t keep us down! We laughed and cried and laughed together. Which is maybe a good thing to remember as we shelter in place and pray for safe passage through this unsettling and straight-up terrifying time.

Storytelling can move us. Storytelling can connect us. Storytelling can make magic even when we’re not in the same physical space together. Storytelling is how we weave ourselves and our worlds together. I am so lucky to be a part of this. And I can’t wait to do it again in April!

__________
* I really just want to say, “Wicked cool!” when I’m this happy and excited. I’m trying to rein it in …


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

Clean up in aisle two …

I’ve been working from home. I’ve been putting together distance learning plans. I’ve been listening to the news. I’ve been talking about the pandemic. I’ve been looking at articles about doomsday hoarders. I’ve been looking at people’s pics of the chaos in their stores. I’ve been seeing my neighbors swaddled in face masks and blue nitrile gloves.

What I’m saying is that I haven’t been asleep. I’ve been fully aware of the state we’re in.

But … It seems I wasn’t really aware, wasn’t really paying attention, not real attention.

Today when I took a break for lunch (I finally remembered to take a break for lunch!), I thought, “Oh, let me just place a grocery order.” I’m not out of anything, just figured I’d set up a delivery for early next week so I wouldn’t have to think about it.

(And yes, I’m a person who gets her groceries delivered. Neither of my “neighborhood” grocery stores is in walking distance of my house, and the cost of getting Peapod to come to my door is about the same as getting a cab home from either market. I don’t think I would have become a gets-her-groceries-delivered person if I hadn’t torn my rotator cuff in late 2017. Rolling into 2018 not being able to use my left arm for anything and knowing I was going to be even less able in the immediate aftermath of the fix-it-up surgery I had planned was what introduced me to Peapod in the first place. I’ve been a devotee ever since.)

Yeah, so I went on the Peapod site. There’s a pop-up message warning of diminished delivery options and the new COVID-conscious ability to have “contact-less delivery” and what-all. I clicked past it and filled my cart. Then I went to check out.

And discovered that there are no delivery days or times available before some time in April.

WTF?

Yes, every delivery slot was sold out, and the customer service line is down because everyone’s been sent home to shelter in place.

Oh.

Oh, you mean all this pandemic stuff is impacting my life, too? Really? Oh.

Yes, I am this ridiculous. Apparently.

 

I finished working around 6 tonight and figured I go to my favorite of the two stores in my area. I took a cab because … well, because I’m obviously a pampered little so-and-so. The driver and I talked about what his work week has been like — awful, hardly any fares 😦 — and then I went into the store … to find it almost completely picked-over bare.

I didn’t take pictures because we’ve all seen the pictures. I mean, I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve talked about the pictures. But I’d also been to the store as recently as last Friday, and the store was totally full of food, was totally fine. What a difference a week makes.

I kept wheeling my cart through the aisles, looking, thinking surely I’d find some little something to bring home. And yes, I did find a few things to bring home. But not the things I had on my shopping list. No yellow or orange peppers, no bananas, no grapefruit, no honey-wheat pretzel twists, no hummus, no Chobani Key Lime Crumble yogurt, no, no, no, no. no.

(Don’t be alarmed: my house is full of food. Full. You know, of food I actually have to put some effort into preparing, as opposed to food I can just unpackage and eat. I’ll be just fine.)

But, yeah. In the last few days, the craziness came right up to my door and swept past me in a tidal wave, and I was so busy navel gazing that I didn’t notice.


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

Let’s Go Living in the Past

I just discovered CNN’s podcast, Lectures in History. I was setting up to do some cooking last weekend and thought how I didn’t want to listen to music or a book. And then I thought, “I want to listen to someone talking about history.” And I was so bent on finding that for myself, I didn’t even spare any time to fall on the floor laughing at that entirely hilarious thought. Who says that to themselves? Well, apparently, I do.

And so. I searched for “history lectures” and found a lot of annoying minute-long clips from lectures. Definitely not what I had in mind. And then I found Lectures.

I’ve listened to a few lectures so far. And I’ll for-sure listen to more. I’m still amused by my sudden and burning desire to hear “someone talking about history,” but I’m glad it led me to this podcast. In truth, this desire isn’t surprising. I already subscribe to The History Chicks and Stuff You Missed in History Class and a few others that could be considered history podcasts. And much of the nonfiction I read is about history. I’m still amused by myself.

Maybe that amusement stems from the fact that I specifically went looking for lectures. The podcasts I listen to are definitely not lectures. There are, for one thing, usually a pair of hosts talking about the subject or interviewing some expert. Just sitting and listening to a professor go on and on about a thing? Not usually my sweet spot.

As a kid, I wasn’t much of a history fan – or, to be most precise, I didn’t enjoy the history I was made to study in school. It was uniformly dry and boring and had nothing to do with my life. The history I was introduced to at home – through comics about famous Black folks and stories from The Negro Almanac – was far more interesting.

I took some history classes in college … and they continued the dry-and-boring motif. I mean, Renaissance and Reformation England? Seriously? And there was a course on ancient Greece that was interesting because the professors who taught it argued with and contradicted each other all the time, but the subject fell flat for me. And European intellectual history? Um, no. Why didn’t anyone smack me, give me a good shake and tell me to study something I actually found interesting?

I discovered that I enjoyed reading and studying history when I became and adult education teacher. The bits of history covered on the GED exam frustrated me – a lot of out-of-context information that didn’t invite digging in and learning anything. So I started digging in with my students. We read Howard Zinn’s People’s History to start, and that opened plenty of new doors, plenty of new things to investigate.

And I realized I actually loved history … when I got to take it on my own terms, when I was studying things that had clear connection to my life, when I went beneath the surface and had the chance to look at the inner workings of systems and the deeper causes for the surface manifestations we had seemed to focus on in school.

My students routinely tired of my intensive digging, of the ten thousand Aha! moments we’d have in the course of a particular unit. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty obsessive when I get into something. I learned how not to overload my beleaguered students, but my own digging continued.

As I said earlier, much of my nonfiction reading is history. I love history written well, written as if it’s fully alive and on the gallop. Books like The Boys in the Boat and When the Garden Was Eden. The first is about the gold medal-winning men’s crew team from the 1936 Olympics, and the second is about my heartbreak team, the New York Knicks, back when they one their championships in the 70s. And yes, there is a theme there. I love good sports writing. Love. It. I’m no one version of a sports fan as much as I have my teams and my faves. But good sports journalism wins me every time.

And then there’s Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet. Other loves: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Songlines, Life and Death in Shanghai, White Rage, and The Warmth of Other Suns. So I’m pretty steeped in history on a regular basis. Sometimes, even when the history is terrible, it’s a good break from present-day terrible. Sometimes – as was the case with both White Rage and Warmth – what I read introduces me to myself, to my family, shining a light on something I hadn’t found a way to see before stumbling across that reading. Both of those books showed me my parents in various ways, showed me things I thought I knew and realized I had only focused on the smallest piece of the story and not a fuller telling. Both sets of revelations hit me like a wrecking ball. Both made me grateful.

I’ve been discovering great stuff as I’ve listened to these lectures. More things for me to dig further into and look at more closely. The first lecture was about enslaved people suing for their freedom. It centered on a particular family, but covered other ground, too. This has been my favorite so far. Next was a talk about Feminism and popular music from the 60s and 70s. And then I took a bit of a misstep and listened to a lecture 50s and 60s counterculture. The professor was a little too charmed by his cleverness, which I always find irksome. And, too, at that point I’d started to wonder if any of the lectures would be by women as all three of my choices had me listening to men (I checked the show notes then and yes, there are women, but men definitely get the lion’s share of episodes. Feh.)

Okay, enough time has passed since I started writing this essay (two days) that I’ve listened to a couple more lectures, including the first I’ve heard by a woman. I’ll keep listening, but my pace is going to slow down. Bingeing these lectures hasn’t been all that nice. Half of them confirm for me that we’ve been ugly for a good long time – as a people, as a country, as a civilization. Our history has bright spots but the broadest strokes tell stories of oppression, violence, and evil. Also, I do miss the back and forth I get on the other podcasts.

The biggest reason I need to slow down in this consumption is that – in the instances where professors elicit responses from their students – the students often say really problematic, wrongheaded things … and the professors mostly let those comments pass. Rather than push students not to be lazy thinkers and fall back on tropes and racial biases, they either affirm the nonsense (!!) or gloss over it with responses that imply the students’ comments are at least partially correct and then they move on to pull answers from other students.

Obviously, I never want professors to respond the way I did when I heard some of the students’ questions and comments – saying aloud, “You’re an idiot,” or “Thank you for your racism.” Not that, but I expect professors to make their students see that they have to do the work, have to examine ideas, not just relax in the comfort of what this society has spoon-fed them. Ugh.

I’m sure there will be other lectures that don’t trigger this particular disgust or annoyance. I’m also sure that, even with the moments of disgust and annoyance, I’ll keep working my way through the back catalog of episodes. Because yes, I am a “historophile,” not a history buff, not hardly, but a lover. And Lectures in History feeds my habit.

We’ll go walking out
While other’s shout of war’s disaster.
Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.

It’s always nice to slip a little Jethro Tull into the conversation. The lyric isn’t exactly accurate for my feelings about discovering this trove of history fabulousness, but I like it all the same.

Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.


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 kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


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.