S.W.A.K.

I think 5th grade was the first time I got a note from a girlfriend with S.W.A.K. written across the closure of the envelope. It might have been a birthday card, or an invitation to a party. That “sealed with a kiss” felt like magic to still-kind-of-new-in-town me, felt like cement that could keep our connection strong forever.

That didn’t turn out to be true, of course. Some ten year olds hold onto their friendships for life, but I wasn’t one of those. Now, however, I have friendships that nourish and sustain me, friends who are friends in all the ways I want and need, in all the ways ten-year-old me couldn’t really imagine. S.W.A.K. indeed.

Tonight I spent some zoom time with a couple of these beautiful people … and so, tonight’s poem — not only for these two loves, but for all my lovely friends, these bright lights for whom I am so grateful. The source text is, once again, “here yet be dragons” by Lucille Clifton.

Bound

There are those people,
the ones with whom I never feel lost
the ones who laugh, read me stories, sing poems
the ones who
know that out here, among
devils and demons, there is always us
always this love, this friendship, that we can
trust our open hearts to one another, feel rather than imagine
the warmth and safety of revealing ourselves.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve 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. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!

Continuous Passive Motion

Today, in a BIPOC antiracism group I co-facilitate, we talked about Atlanta, and one of the women in the group brought up the belief that Black people and Asian people don’t get along. She talked about some of the responses to the Atlanta attack that were coming up in her friend circles and in her family. And that conversation reminded me of this:

After my first knee surgery in 2016 (not my first knee surgery, but the first one I had that year … it’s a long and un-pretty story), I left the hospital and did the first couple of weeks of my recuperation in a really nice rehab facility in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most of the nursing assistants in that place were Asian women. Many of the patients were Asian, too, but not all.

I had brought a lot of pass-the-time stuff with me, imagining that I’d need the distractions, that I wouldn’t just be doing physical therapy or sleeping, which is generally what one does after knee surgery. One of the things I brought with me was the baby blanket I was knitting for a friend’s newly-arrived first child.

Everyone was interested in my knitting. They would all ask what I was working on, and I’d tell them, and they’d say it was a nice gift. One morning, I’d gotten some super adorable pics of my friend and her baby, so when the first person asked me about the blanket, I decided to also show her the picture of the gift recipient. I pulled up the photo on my phone and handed it to the nursing assistant. She looked shocked, which wasn’t the response I was expecting. She turned the phone to face me.

“Your friend is Chinese!”

And that was true, but so? I acknowledged the yes, my friend was Chinese. She nodded and handed back my phone. “Wow,” she said quietly. I’m not sure she actually looked at the baby at all. I was puzzled, but let it go. I showed the picture to some of the other Asian women who took care of me and got almost the same response each time.

Months later, after my second knee surgery that year (as I said, a long and un-pretty story), I was back in the same rehab place. A friend had come to visit me, and then another friend arrived. Both are women I knew from my old job. The first woman who’d come by is white. The second woman who came by is Chinese — not the mother of the baby, whole different friend group. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the white woman Anne and the Chinese woman Miao. While we were hanging out, one of the nursing assistants came in to check on me. She looked stunned to see Miao and immediately excused herself. Thirty seconds later, another assistant came to the room, got a look at Miao and dashed away. This continued. Maybe five or six more times.

Anne remarked on the incredible attentiveness of the CNA staff. It seemed pretty clear, however, that the staff were coming to see Miao with their own eyes, some in-the-flesh proof of my having Chinese friends. When I said this and told Miao and Anne about the baby photo, Miao nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s surprising that you have Asian people for friends. I was taught to think Black people don’t like us. Maybe they were, too.”

Which made me feel sad and naive at the same time. The idea that Black and Asian people don’t get along wasn’t new. I just hadn’t thought about it or seen it play out in such a glaring way in my own life.

my friends wondered if seeing Miao would mean I’d get better treatment. I waved that off as ridiculous, and am happy to say that I was proven right. I was already getting fabulous care. The only way they could have improved on their treatment of me would have been for one of them to morph into my mom and come sing me lullabies to put me to sleep each night.

The idea that Black and Asian people don’t like one another is absurd … or it should be. In the BIPOC group today, we talked about the ways anti-Black racism builds walls between groups, keeping everyone under its thumb, keeping everyone busy laying blame on one another rather than looking at White Supremacy. The careful and intricate constructions of racism keep doing their work, keep humming along under everything.

One of the tools used to support recuperation after knee surgery is a CPM machine: Continuous Passive Motion. You put your leg in this device and it moves your knee through its full range of motion until you turn it off. I both loved and hated that machine. And in our BIPOC group today, thinking about the shocked women in the rehab center, I made the connection that one of White Supremacy’s powerful tools is that it functions like the CPM machine. You don’t have to move a muscle. You are strapped into the apparatus, and it cycles you through the various ranges of hateful motion. It functions in the background with no need for your awareness and will continue to do so until you take deliberate action to shut it down.

When will we be ready to turn off that switch?


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

What I Don’t Want to Say

Since Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about all of my Asian friends … but I haven’t been checking in with any of them. Not directly. I’ve certainly clicked “love” or “care” or “angry” on their FB comments. I’ve shared articles they’ve posted. But I haven’t reached out.

And, clearly, I feel lousy about that, or I wouldn’t be writing about it now.

Last year, people started checking in on me. Sometimes more than once a day. Lots of people. Close friends, not-so-close friends, people who weren’t really even friends at all. I got emails, texts, notes on Messenger and IG. It was a lot, and I had no idea what to do with any of it.

It was early June. It was right after the murder of George Floyd. Yes, because that’s why everyone who knew me was checking in.

(Of course, when I say “everyone,” I am lying. There were some unsurprising and conspicuous absences from the cavalcade of “How are you doing?” messages. The folks for whom Floyd’s murder didn’t register, didn’t matter, the ones who were entirely pissed off and threatened by the uprising that spread across the globe but couldn’t acknowledge the wrongness of the killing that sparked the protests. Those people didn’t check in. And yes, I have those folks in my various “friend” lists. I leave them there so I can get the occasional glimpse of what’s happening in that mindset. It’s bracing, to say the least.)

I appreciated that my friends and everyone else were thinking about me. I mean, I mostly appreciated it. I was also really frustrated by it because, often, the checking in was accompanied by a request for me to do something — when was I going to start posting about it on FB, when would I write some essays? And yes, people had reason to expect some kind of written response from me, since that was a way I’d shown up after so many other murders of Black people. But I went silent last year, so a lot of the people who reached out also asked when they were going to hear from me.

And that didn’t feel good. It felt, instead, as if I couldn’t just rage and grieve in private but had to share, had to do some rib spreading, let everyone see my feeble, shredded heart.

And I really am not trying to sound as much like a jerk as I sound right now. I love my friends, and they love me. I imagine they struggled with what to say to me just as I’m struggling right now.

I haven’t been contacting my friends. And that’s because I remember how I felt over the summer and don’t want to pile on. At the same time, I have to be honest and admit that I have no idea what to say. I certainly don’t want to say, “How are you doing?” because how can anyone be doing right now? What would I have wanted people to say to me last year? What would have felt less like pressure and more like love?

And maybe that’s all there is to say, maybe that’s what I would have wanted to hear last year. My love feels thin today, though. Doesn’t feel like nearly enough, though it’s the only thing I have in abundant supply.

There’s no neat and tidy bow to tie around this. I’m sad and angry and angry and angry. And I feel like a bad friend right now. Raging and grieving in private feels selfish today.


It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Writing to My Past

Day three of what promises to be a dramatic slog through my bygone years. These epistolary poems are clearly planning to kick my butt all month long. Between the dredging up of less-than-lovely memories and the struggle with the form itself, I can see this is going to be a month of fun for me!

Some interesting things are happening, however. My first poem wasn’t at all the poem I was planning to write. I hadn’t even been thinking about those embroidered jeans. I sat down with 12-year-old me in mind and a very specific memory of that time that I wanted to explore in the poem … and the very first line set me on a completely different course, my first idea wholly forgotten. I’m always fascinated when that happens, when the writing refuses your control and just does what it wants.

I had a conversation about this with a boy last summer, this idea of letting the characters do what they will, let the story go where it’s going. He wasn’t for it, said he didn’t put much stock in characters charting their own course. (Probably that was the clear signal that he and I shouldn’t have been trying to date, but sometimes I am slow.) I, meanwhile, very much like the loss of control. Well, let me be most honest: I like the loss of control if, as with that poem, it happens so seamlessly that I don’t even notice it until the end. If I become aware of what’s happening while I’m writing, I tend to fight it. Hard. This usually culminates in either nothing getting written or something really inferior getting written, something that feels as mangled and manhandled as it has been.

Which, I think, is one of the problems I have with most poems I write. I struggle so hard to get them written that they feel pretty mangled and manhandled by the time I get to the end. Tonight’s is definitely no different.


Graduation
Five Years Old, St. Ann’s School

You’re still a baby,
yet there’s already so much I don’t need to tell you.
For example, you know these children are liars —
chief among them that boy, the one who sits behind you,
the one who tells you being Black means you’re dumb.

You already know he’s inconsequential,
he and the girls who make fun of your skin.
And your teacher, who always takes care not to touch you,
showing age doesn’t have to mean wise.

It’s good that you know — it spares and prepares you —
I’m glad that you know, though I wish that you’d waited,
that you could have stayed ignorant …
at least through first grade.
I want to say it’ll all be worth something,
your annoyance, your sadness this kindergarten year.
Ugh. I hear myself writing you aphorisms:
This adversity will make you stronger!
Yeah. But sometimes, what doesn’t kill you
still kills you.

I’m not wrong, though.
This bullshit will plant a seed — deep in your center.
You’ll come away knowing you can trust yourself.
You’ll know that, when you see racism, it’s real.
This will be one place you can’t be gas-lit.
That’s a gift … a shitty and also a great one.
So maybe we can thank St. Ann’s for it.

As is often the case when I write to my past,
I have the need to point out that we have survived.
That, too, is worth something —
of course it’s worth something.
But I’m left with the sadness I see in your eyes.
In that famous photo of you and Cecelia —
Cecelia, the one child who dared to befriend you.
You’re seated together on the last day of school,
seated together in your white caps and gowns.
It’s a snapshot of an instant
but seems very telling.
Cecelia looking away, her mouth a straight line
and you making a smile, but your eyes don’t agree.

I long for a second shot of you and Cecelia
one with you both collapsed into laughing.
I want a look on your face that’s not resignation
a look that says: “Look at us! It’s graduation!”

Five years old and you’d learned that you could be hated,
hated, for being a little brown girl.
The thing that I want and don’t want to tell you
is how that hasn’t changed —
has not.
And never will?

I long for that second shot of you and Cecelia,
a look on your face, maybe knowing, maybe sure.
A look that tells me yes, you know
all the things I wish you did not have to know —
and you’re still a little girl laughing,
still five, still fine.

Graduation Day


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

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