Celebrating the Journey

Tuesday was Juneteenth, a day that doesn’t and doesn’t mean something. I grew up with the conflicting assumptions that everyone knew about Juneteenth and that Juneteenth was just for Texans … and for me because my mother is from Texas. I was surprised when I learned there were folks in the north celebrating Juneteenth, but figured they must all be Texas transplants (because sometimes my imagination is just really fussily narrow).

Juneteenth, if you don’t know, is the celebration of the day in 1865 when troops arrived in Galveston and told Texas’ enslaved Africans that they were free. It has morphed into a general celebration of the finally-and-for-real declaration of freedom.

I knew about Juneteenth as a child — I feel, in fact, as if I’ve always known about it, though that cannot be true. We didn’t have a party or picnic or acknowledge it in any way, but I knew about it. Juneteenth was the one solid piece of historical information I had about my great grandfather, Samuel. My beloved Samuel. The one thing I knew about him was that he’d been born in slavery and remembered emancipation. My memory gives me a picture of a white man on horseback speaking the news down to a group of Black people. I don’t think this is something anyone ever told me. Rather, I think it is my writer’s mind making a visual for me to attach my history to.

I saw a lot of posts Tuesday from people who were a little snarky about all the “Happy Juneteenth!” posts, saying we have nothing to celebrate because we aren’t yet free, telling people to sit down and cancel the picnics because nobody’s got a reason for partying. I am willing to grant those people their disquiet. People can feel what they feel and express it how they need to.

But … I also don’t understand those people. Why do they need crush someone else’s joy? Why can’t they allow other people to feel what they feel? Why can’t they acknowledge that we can focus on multiple things at one time, that we can know how much work we still to do and need to see done while celebrating our existence in this world? Why is it so hard to just let people live?

It’s certainly true that Black folks aren’t yet free. In Donald Trump’s America, some of us may be feeling it more acutely, but I imagine that even the least awake Black folks have long been aware of this painful fact — even if they’ve never articulated it in quite that way.

That truth notwithstanding, the importance of Juneteenth remains. I think about Samuel. I think about what it must have felt like in his body and brain to hear the news that his enslavement was ended. It must have blown his mind wide open. Wide open. He was young, sixteen years old on that day. A boy but also a man. Was he frightened by the yawning unknown that was opening in front of him? Did the news of freedom flood excitement through his body, make him drop whatever he was holding and immediately turn to pack his few things and walk off the land to embrace his life as a freedman? Did he have family on that plantation, or was he alone there? Did freedom mean the start of a search to find the family he’d been sold away from or who had been sold away from him? Did the news make him want to laugh, to shout, to punch the air, to cry, to fall to his knees in disbelieving prayer?

I think about all of the people who got the news on that first Juneteenth. Did it also come with the acknowledgment that folks could have been free two and a half years earlier when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed but that, instead, their bondage had to go on for 30 months longer? I saw several folks on FB call out that detail, call out Juneteenth as a celebration of white privilege. Sure, that is some true bullshit right there, keeping folks enslaved for two and a half years after they’d been proclaimed free. But in truth, Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t do the trick. The Union had to win the war first, and politicians had to get a law on the books. So American slavery didn’t fully and finally end until December of 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The importance of Juneteenth remains. I’m thinking about Samuel, my Samuel. Sixteen years old and set loose into his life … with what resources, what aspirations? How did he find his way, how did he determine the shape of his world? Did he know how to read and write? What were his dreams, what possibilities did he see ahead?

I know that five years later he was a cook for a large white family. Did he know how to cook when he walked away from enslavement, or did he learn along the way as he moved toward that job?

Everything about him is obscured in shadow, illuminated only by my imagination. He lived in the brief, cautious hope of Reconstruction, survived the bloody horror of Redemption, and avoided the penal slavery sanctioned by the Black Codes. Did he thrive? Did his life mirror the dreams he had for himself? I can’t know, but I believe Juneteenth had immediate, powerful, tangible value for him. And it is most assuredly neither my place nor my desire to second guess that. Honoring the day is honoring Samuel and every other man, woman, and child who had to survive enslavement so that I could sit here navel-gazing about Juneteenth and its significance in 2018 Trump-World.

I understand the need to keep our eyes on the as-yet-unachieved prize: freedom, full citizenship, equal opportunity, and reparations in this could-be-great-if-it-ever-got-its-shit-together-and-made-this-happen country we built from the ground up. Yeah, I get that. I also understand and embrace the need to mark milestones, celebrate wins along the way. We’d be a lot farther behind the finish line if we hadn’t ever reached Juneteeth.

If our families, our friends, our neighbors, our elders, want to get a little happy on Juneteenth, we have a couple of options: join them or step back and let them have their moment of joy.


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.

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The Exceptional

Today is my wonderful niece’s birthday. Because she’s an April baby, I’ve been writing birthday poems for her for several years now. I thought I might have trouble doing that this year — how would I find something in the news that would let me ramble on about how fab my delightful god-daughter is? Well, thanks to Jezebel and Cardi B, I was able to set my worry aside. This poem would need some beyond-the-source-text words to do the things I wanted it to do, but I’m still pleased that I was able to make it work, able to extend my streak of niece poems one more year.

The Exceptional
(An erasure of a review of Cardi B’s album.)

Love, passion,
barbed yet fine.
Highly self-aware,
her wildest, most rancorous emotions
as a means of ascension.
Swaggering persona,
powerful, celebratory, cocky, free.
A glorious, uninhibited style,
original, contentious, true,
galvanizing, hypnotic.
She was worth the wait.
Her aesthetic designed
for authentic finesse.
The balance is proof,
a testament to her currency.
She is fun, perfectly charming,
an evolved reality,
an ambitious woman.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

Out like a … ram.

It’s the 31st of March, birthday of my wonderful Aries sister, Fox (Aries, the ram, hence this post’s title). She is my best-beloved, baby sister, my forever best friend, my voice-of-reason sounding board, and my cheering section. I have known her for her whole life and all but a short five and a half years of mine.

We don’t live close, which is still hard for me despite the fact that it’s been true for more than 20 years. She is always a call, email, or text away, but it’s not the same as having her in the next room. Not the same as meeting her early-early on Saturday mornings for a long walk in Prospect Park. Not the same as going with her to parties and concerts. Alas.

But we’re together for this weekend, and that’s all the way fantastic! We have laughed and shared stories and silliness, and we have a whole other day together tomorrow. So happy birthday to one of my most favorite people in the multiverse!!


It’s the final day of the 11th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! As the badge below proclaims, I am an original slicer. This challenge and my blog started the same year. My first blog post was January 28, 2008, and somehow I found Two Writing Teachers in time to sign on for Slice of Life only a few weeks later. And for all the time I don’t spend posting here during the year, I always come back for March. Always. Hope to see the slicing community grow even larger next year!

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.

 

Y is for: Yoctosecond

Say what now? Yes, Yoctosecond. A yoctosecond is one septillionth of a second. That’s right, a unit of time equaling 10-24 seconds. Apparently, “yocto” is a prefix that attaches to a bunch of things, things like “newton,” “volt,” and “watt.”

I chose it because not only does it sounds silly and I am a fan of silly-sounding things, but also because yesterday I met a family member for the first time, and a yoctosecond was about as long as it took for me to know how much I was going to love her.

I have a small family. Painfully small. Various issues and estrangements on both sides have left us with precious few connections. We’re tight as can be with the few of us there are, but that wider circle decoupled a long time ago, and for pretty much my whole life, we’ve been our small unit. My mom has reconnected with some of her cousins, and I met the granddaughter of one of the cousins. And I’m so happy I did.

It’s definitely not a given that I would adore any family member I got to meet. There was a reunion of sorts when I was in my 20s, and those folks were kind of awful. My cousin is from a different branch of the family tree, so I wasn’t worried she’d be like those cranky, classist, petty folks I’d bumped up against 30 years ago, but still. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you get it.

And what I got was a lovely, smart, funny young woman with whom it turns out I have a lot in common.

Feels nice to stretch out a little, make room for more family in our tiny circle.

Our tiny circle —
mother, brother, sister, me.
Small, smaller, smallest.
The shrinking net around us
now stretching open,
now stretching wider, wider
welcoming new ties,
our whole makes a greater sum.
We are expanding,
spreading our arms, embracing,
opening our hearts to love.

__________

Only one more day of writing chōka left! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the end of this challenge, but I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed this month. I’ve really liked exploring this form. I might just have to continue chōka-writing after April’s done. I’ll take that fun offline, though, and certainly won’t be aiming for a poem a day! It’s time to turn my attention back to the #52essays2017 challenge, start playing catch up with all these missed weeks that are glaring at me from my calendar.

____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



X is for: Xenial

It’s about hospitality to strangers, which reads to me like kindness and generosity.

Tonight was the sixth anniversary of a women’s poetry salon I’ve been attending off and on since the summer of 2014. (Yes, for someone who spends a lot of time talking about how she isn’t a poet, I sure spend a lot of time immersed in poetry, don’t I? I know.)

The salon is a lovely space, a welcoming group of women who are unfailingly supportive and encouraging of one another. There are a couple of guys who attend, and they are just as lovely.

Aside from the beautiful welcome the salon extends, I feel free there. I let down my writing defenses — the ways I try to keep myself “safe” when it comes to writing poetry. I have let myself write in new ways, let myself stretch and try and trust the moment in ways that I would have had to struggle to do before I joined the group. One of my strongest Black Lives Matter pieces came, nearly whole, from a writing exercise we did in the salon.

Tonight was the 6th anniversary party, and it was great! Excellent readers, friends in the audience I haven’t seen in ages. Nice all the way around. Tonight’s chōka was inspired by one of the conversations I had early in the evening.

Plumped and Full

I said to a friend
I feel like I’m coming back,
back into the world.
It’s a good feeling — airy,
light, full of power
like everything is open.
It’s a good feeling,
finally back to myself,
my lungs plumped and full.
It’s time to stand up, to sing,
take pleasure in all of me.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



Q is for: Quotation

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.