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

Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.

(I haven’t thought of that song in about forever, but it seemed fitting for this post. I just looked it up on YouTube and watched Tony Orlando sing while Dawn sleep-danced their way through the backing vocals, all of them standing in what looks like a courtyard of the New York Botanic Garden conservatory. Weird, pre-music-video days!)

I haven’t lived in an apartment building in ten years. And haven’t lived in a building where I heard much from my neighbors since … maybe 1988? I’m unaccustomed to this level of audio familiarity with strangers. A sampling:

One of my neighbors enjoys ping pong. I have twice been in the hall and heard a mother and child in the midst of an epic, take-no-prisoners table tennis battle.

One neighbor has two small, yappy dogs who clearly disapprove of everything they encounter, yipping angrily from the moment they enter the hall until they disappear into their apartment or the elevator.

One neighbor who tries valiantly to rap along with his faves … but who doesn’t really know the words and is always just a little bit off rhythm.

One neighbor has a singularly inconsolable baby who is decidedly not a morning person.

Another neighbor who is often in loud conversation with whatever he’s watching on TV.

It’s not awful, no. It’s just unfamiliar, hearing this much sound from people who aren’t actually in my home. One night I had the comical experience of hearing the music accompanying the scary movie one neighbor was watching. Just the creepy music. It was unnerving, made me feel as if I was in a scary movie and whatever the Big Bad was, it was coming for me.

On Superbowl Sunday, I had the surprise of discovering that this unexpected intimacy is about more than sound. Not only did I hear the very loud responses to whatever happened on the field, my apartment filled with the unpleasant smell of unbelievably skunky weed.

Yet, even with all these little incursions on my quiet, I was surprised to wake up one night to a sound I couldn’t place. I lay in bed trying to figure out what I was hearing. And then I realized that, yes, that would be my neighbors having … ahem … relations. Oy.

I am currently researching a quality white-noise machine to place beside my bed.

Lest I give the wrong impression, I’m no silent sister over here. I send my own little audio postcards. When I’m not laughing loudly while listening to my favorite podcasts, my neighbors have to suffer through my repeated renditions of “Shiny” from the Moana soundtrack or whatever else I’m singing as I get ready for work in the mornings. So far no petitions have been started to force me to shut up.


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!

Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

E is for: Earworm

Yes, of course I’m still watching April. Tell me you’re not. How are you managing to resist?

But I have other things going on, too. Thank heavens for multi-tasking skills.

__________

There is a random man I see on my way home from time to time. He’s one of my “bus neighbors,” someone I don’t know but recognize because we’re both regulars on the B65.

He seems a nice enough man, but he drives me crazy because he’s always listening to his music and doesn’t use headphones. Last night I learned that he’s bought himself a little bluetooth speaker!

He plays music I like, for the most part, but that’s not entirely the point. If I’m trying to read or write (or sleep), that music is the bane of my existence. If, like tonight, a song gets caught in my head … GAAAAH!!

Till We Just Can’t

Your repetition
driving me out of my mind.
Same nonsense words, looped
over, over … and again.
You keep telling me
to “get up on the floor” —
you’ve been telling me
near a solid forty years —
If I dance, will you fade out?

This, of course, is utter I’m-so-tired foolishness, but it is also a chōka, and I’m going to take these where I find them until I can get some rest and try to find some deeper inspiration.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7.



Can we talk? Can we?

In my List of Demands, I said this was a special moment, a chance for some non-black people to have their first real conversations about race. I meant that. I mean that. But there’s more to the story, more in the picture than is visible at first glance. Because I also said I wouldn’t be doing anyone’s homework for them in order for them to join the conversation. And I meant that, too. But maybe I need to be clearer about what that means.

When I read Brit Bennett’s excellent essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People,” I felt myself exhale. The essay had the warm, deep resonance of familiarity — my excellent, supportive supervisor … who assumed I’d been born out of wedlock, my generous, volunteered-in-Africa-every-winter doctor … who assumed I must have plenty of children — and her tone echoed one I hear in my own voice as I try to have conversations these days.

I don’t think my white friends are looking for any kind of kudos for being the nice, intelligent, funny, caring, supportive people they are. I don’t think they expect me to thank them for not being racists. I don’t think any of that. But I do find myself running aground in some conversations, and I’m struggling to figure out what to do about it, how to keep the conversations going while keeping my friendships going.

People have told me that reading my latest writing has pushed them to think about their responses to things in new ways, to think about issues of race in new ways. That seems good, like something I’d want to be an outcome. At the same time, my writing, and the articles I’ve chosen to post on FB, have been seen as challenging, have been met with responses that fall into the “But what about me?” category, that seem to want direct acknowledgement of individual goodness. I had a two-hour phone call last week that started as a discussion of structural racism and quickly got mired in “what about me?” talk.

So I’ll say again that I don’t think my white friends are looking for a cookie, or a medal, or any of the other patronizing prizes folks have mentioned in response to the “what about me?” conversation. I believe the pushback is coming from a sincerely honest place of “You can’t possibly see me that way!” … but that place bothers me in a way I have yet to fully articulate.

Several white friends — And can I say here how strange and unkind and false it feels to be identifying any of my friends in this way? Still. — have prefaced their comments to me in a way similar to my two-hour-phone-call friend: some version of “I don’t want to talk about black people and white people. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just be referred to as a person, not as a white person.”

Yes. I hear you. I get that.

But I want you to see the luxury of that. The privilege. I’d like to be referred to as a person, too. Living in a society that is normed on white experience, however, robs me of that right. It means that 99 times out of 100, what I am is added as a modifier to whatever other way I am perceived. I am a black writer, a black shopper, a black tourist. And I am all of those things. Of course. But you, my white friend, are described as a writer, a shopper, a tourist. And the fact that you can’t see that, can’t think that, before you tell me you want to be referred to as “just” a person? That’s a problem.

It’s a problem that makes my conversations with you difficult. But let’s be clear: it’s your problem. I cannot fix it for you. And if I could fix it for you, I wouldn’t. Because this is what I meant when I said I wouldn’t do your homework for you. This is your problem to fix.

I want to have this conversation, but more and more I have been wondering if I can, if I am able to do this without convo-killing displays of my anger, without me telling some of my (white) friends to step off, that I cannot be the lantern that guides them through this forest.

Last night I had dinner with a dear friend, and we tried to talk about some of this. we did talk, and it felt good and real and honest, even if I couldn’t put words to all the things I was thinking, even with my tangential digressions.

That gives me hope.