Baking with What You Have

I am still struggling with internet connectivity in my home, which is making all things difficult, and really getting on my nerves. Verizon is due to visit me again tomorrow, so I’m going to pretend at optimism that the problem will be resolved. In the mean time, I’m going to take advantage of this rare moment of weekend net connection and post one of the essays I wrote in January.


This morning I made cornbread. Cornbread is one of my staple comfort foods. It’s quick and easy to make, it reminds me of my childhood, and it connects me to my mother and grandmothers.

And that’s part of why I made it. The other reason is that I wanted to bake something in my new kitchen, wanted to fill my new apartment with the warm scent of something in the oven.

I am months and months — and surely more months still — away from settling into this apartment. I’ve begun the slow process of unpacking, have grown familiar with my new commute, have been reminded of some of the awkward truths of living in an apartment building. One o the things that helps make this space full of boxes and disarray feel more like home, however, is using the kitchen, cooking for myself instead of buying take-out or getting by on cashews and cheese. I haven’t found my grocery store yet, but a handful of ingredients made the move with me, and so … cornbread.

 

Moving house forces me to look at all the things I own — as they’re going into boxes or as they come out. It forces me to see the things I’ve chosen to hold onto … and pushes me to ask why. I haven’t read more than a couple of pages of Marie Kondo’s book, but looking at my things as I begin unpacking has made me think I need to read that, that it will resonate with me and might help me find (finally) the way to pare down my possessions. This close look at my things has been eye-opening.

It’s no surprise for me to see how sentimental I am — the bits and pieces of ephemera I’ve carried with me for years that I just can’t seem to say goodbye to — but it’s a little maddening to see what my sentimentality costs me in time and energy and storage space.

Unsurprisingly, this sentimental keeping of things doesn’t only apply to the tangible objects in my rooms. Two days ago, it was The Morphine Man’s birthday. And of course I was aware of it, of course I spent time thinking about him. How much storage space in y head and heart is he taking up? And for why? Even if there is some future version of the world in which he and I are somehow back together, it won’t win me back all the time and tears I’ve spent on him in these intervening months, decades …

How do I declutter on all fronts? I want to own less stuff and hold onto less baggage. This move is a good time to start on the one. How do I start on the other?

 

The cornbread was good. I mean, of course it was. Cornbread is pretty much always good. But it was also clearly the first step on a curve. It’s the first thing I’ve made in this new oven, so there are still things to learn. With my last oven, it took me a while to learn the exact difference between the temperature in the oven and the setting on the dial: +50°. Things began to run smoothly after I bought an over thermometer. This new oven has its own secrets to reveal. One batch of cornbread isn’t going to tell me everything I need to know.

Patience. In all things. Sure. Easy to say.

Next up is maybe mac and cheese. Or maybe my molasses spice cookies. I’ve only ever made them successfully in my mother’s oven. My old oven was always and always just too hot for that dough. It will be interesting to see how this new oven does.

Patience. I rarely have much for myself, even as I am notorious for having oceans of it for others. Definitely need to draw some of that inward and give myself a break.

I’ll clear out some of my things as I empty these boxes. I’ll make room on my shelves and in my closets. Slowly. And I’ll clear out thoughts of AC, The Morphine Man, other people and things from the past that aren’t serving me today. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.

And, as I make room, as I clear away, there will be space for new things. Maybe I’ll finally learn to make tuiles and florentines, use my beautiful new counter tops to properly roll out biscuit or cooking dough. Maybe I’ll finally open my heart, air it out, be ready.


GriotGrind Next Wave logoIn 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.

Advertisements

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.

The Queen of Oversharing

I like describing myself as the Queen of Oversharing. This naming is kind of a lie. I tell a lot of stuff about myself … but not really. When we were crashing and burning for the final time, one of the things The Morphine Man accused me of was talking too much and saying nothing. He said I told a million stories about myself, but they were all surface, I never let people get close to my real self. This is pretty true … but it’s also kind of a lie.

I do tell a lot of stories about myself—practically this whole blog is stories about myself. A lot of my stories are told for entertainment value. My stories about traveling, about my various experiences with hitchhiking, about bad boyfriends (The Morphine Man included, of course), about growing up in a very particular kind of small, insular town—these are the kind of stories that fall into this category. They’re almost like long-form jokes, told to amuse the listener, show you how funny, or silly, or charmingly naïve, or comically vain … or whatever I can be.

Some of my stories are “Learn from my wacky mistakes!” stories, instructive but comical at the same time. When I was teaching, there were a lot of stories about that, and I still tell some of those. I loved teaching, and I learned so much from my students, and so many of my experiences in the classroom make for good stories. Those are generally more heartwarming or educational than comical, but there’s plenty to laugh about in those anecdotes, too.

So The Morphine Man wasn’t wrong. I absolutely do tell a lot of stories. I talk a LOT. And most of that telling doesn’t reveal the deepest, darkest corners of my soul, but I would argue a) that no one wants to have to look at the cluttered back rooms of my soul all the damn time, b) that there’s more to seeing and understanding who a person is than watching them take rib-spreaders to their own chests and dump their heart on the table for you every time they open their mouths, and c) if you actually listen to the stories I choose to tell about myself—even the foolish ones—there’s a lot you can see about who I am and what’s important to me and how I tick.

Do I also keep people at arm’s length? Yes. A lot of the time I do. I’ve had a lot of experience with people showing e how totally they couldn’t be trusted with my confidence, with not feeling safe showing much more than my surface. So I got good at learning to look as if I was sharing while keeping my soft underbelly well protected. So The Morphine Man was right on that score as well. I don’t think this skill, this form of protection, is particularly unusual. Don’t we all hold our vulnerabilities close to our chests? With luck, we meet people we begin to feel close enough to, begin to trust enough that we stare more of the deep-dark-corners stuff. I am glad that I have a strong circle of these kinds of friends now. I wish I’d had them in the past, but the storytelling helped me muddle through.

Which was, in the end, the problem with and for The Morphine Man, wasn’t it? He clearly hadn’t become one of those people for me. Or, he had, during our first go-round … but he proved unworthy, using some of the painful things he learned about me to inflict more pain. So during our last go-round, I withheld myself a little more adeptly, waiting to see if I would feel safe with him again.

But this blog is one place where I truly am Queen of Oversharing. I tell things here that I never say to anyone. Those are the other stories I tell, the “full-disclosure” stories where I share some close-to-the-bone stuff.

Those are the stories I write and, just before I post them, I send my family a heads-up email, cluing them in to this information about me that they didn’t know so they can hear it before I make it insanely public.

So what the hell is that? Why do I feel entirely comfortable telling ugly, painful stories about myself online when I’ve never told my family or closest friends those stories? I mean, sure, there’s the anonymity aspect of “telling it to the internet.” No one is sitting across a table watching and listening. You don’t have to see or hear anyone’s response in real time. You create distance simply by choosing to write rather than tell.

All of that makes sense to me. But, like the things I said at the start of this essay, it’s kind of a lie, isn’t it? It isn’t as though I’m writing anonymously online. My friends and family know where to find me and some of them regularly read what I post. That’s precisely why I send my family those heads-up emails before I publish the worst of my mess. I want them to hear it from me directly rather than stumble across it on FB or during their occasional scan of my blog.

But, if I want them to hear these stories directly from me, why haven’t I told them any of these things directly? Why do I only choose to tell them because I have suddenly decided to share the stories with the world?

Last week I wrote a post about my current experience with apartment hunting. It quickly ballooned into a post about a lot of other things—my infertility, the mass of debt I struggle under, racism, fear of homelessness. A jumbled mix of ways I clearly don’t have my shit together. It was hard to post that because I like looking like a person who most definitely has her shit together. I know that under the surface and behind closed doors, I am an entire mess, but I don’t like showing that off. But that house hunting post pulled back the curtain on my well-crafted façade.

It’s a weird set-up to have created: now, people I don’t know well or at all can do the most basic level of search and learn all kinds of unkempt, ugly things about me. If these were the things I kelp close to my vest in the past, does my sharing them here mean I’m no longer doing that … or that this is just another form of TMI performance and I have an even deeper, darker set of personal truths that I’m holding onto?

Of course, the answer to both questions is yes. And I also suspect I’ll eventually get around to writing those stories here.

I already know there are things I am both itching to write about and desperate to keep buried. These are things I hide because they make me look bad. But hiding them also holds me back, and that’s frustrating.

Yeah. So … stay tuned?

__________

I am lucky in that my family have never responded badly to anything I’ve shared  or to the fact of my sharing. Their response is always a reaffirmation of how much they love me. (As I said: lucky.) Sometimes my mother worries about what parts of myself I expose because she doesn’t want anyone to use information against me. And I suppose there are ways info I share could be used against me, but I’m pressed to come up with a likely scenario for that.

I’m wondering how other people navigate this king of sharing/not-sharing line-straddling. Do you just dive in and tell all the things? Do you keep your telling strictly surface? How do your families respond when you go deeper, telling your more private-seeming stories in a public forum?


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 fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I decided to dedicate my NaNoWriMo writing to writing essays, and I’ve been catching up! Whether I reach the goal or not, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


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, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



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 do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Fat Talk: Rubber, Glue, and Things that Can’t Be Unseen

My body, as should surprise no one, is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me.¹ I am visible. And visibly fat. And people struggle with that, with being forced to see me.

I encounter these people everywhere. Their faces usually give them away, but quite often I don’t need to see their faces because they are entirely comfortable saying all the things they are thinking. The woman in Macy’s who looked at me with horror and said, “I wouldn’t even leave my house if I were big as you.” The woman walking down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn who pointed at me and said, “She’s big as a house! So disgusting!” The man who violently drew himself away when I sat beside him on the subway and then flung himself out of his seat, calling out loudly–calling for agreement from an apathetic car of morning A-train commuters: “I shouldn’t have to sit next to that! Shouldn’t even have to see that.”

You get the idea.

Whenever I tell stories about the things strangers say to me, people respond with amazement that anyone would talk to me in whatever way I’m describing. I have stopped being surprised. People really just don’t hesitate to say whatever they want to say. That freedom comes from three specific places. 1) The popular view that fat bodies are public spaces and, therefore, fair game for commentary. 2) The understanding that it is always okay to shame fat people, that other people will condone it, maybe even join in. 3) Fear. Fatphobia is a powerful force. A fat body is abandon, lack of control, a turning away from order. And that’s scary. There’s safety in conformity. The fear is also about contagion. Fat bodies are so reviled, the sight of one spurs a vehement there-but-for-the-grace-of-God response and a recoiling, an irrational belief that the horror could spread and infect others. “What if I were that fat?” (Imagine Psycho shower-scene sound effects in the background.)

*

I signed my nerdy self up for summer school one year to retake a math course because I wanted a better score on my Regents exam. This was the summer before senior year. I was 16, decades too young to have developed and settled into being the Bad Fatty I am today. I was as horrified and ashamed of my fat body as society would wish me to be.

One afternoon as I left class, I was walking down a long hallway when I heard boys behind me mocking me. There were two of them, young, maybe 7th or 8th graders. They were chanting, almost singing at me: “Tubbalard, tubbalard, tubbalard …” The full length of that impossibly long hallway until the freedom of exiting the building and disappearing into my dad’s car.

It was a while before I realized that what they were trying to call me was a tub of lard, a bucket of pig fat. I honestly don’t think they knew they were saying tub of lard. They just knew fat people were called tubbalards, and I was nothing if not a fat person, and so.

That was the first times I can remember being called out because of my body. Summer school was on unfamiliar turf, a school that wasn’t mine, full of kids from three different districts. I wasn’t a person to anyone there, not a friend from homeroom or a favorite lab partner or a stand-mate from band. I was Fat Girl. And fat people were for mocking.

I wonder now if what I felt that day planted the seed that would eventually become my efforts to hide my body from public view, draping it in loose, dark fabric to make it disappear.

At the time, I did what I always did when I was attacked: I comforted myself with my intellectual superiority. I’m not kidding. Being educated and smart had been the protective mantle I’d wrapped around myself since kindergarten. I was that kid, that snobby, brainy kid. I didn’t show that side of myself often, but it had an active role in my thoughts. I listened to the way those boys talked, to the clear indication that they didn’t understand the insult they were hurling at me, and I dismissed them as dumb.

That didn’t keep the experience from being painful. Hardly. But it was a way of distancing myself, pulling myself out of the moment.

*

I’m not that girl anymore. When people say awful things to me about my body, I sometimes choose to ignore them because I haven’t the time or energy to be bothered. More often I slap them back because I have the time and energy, and they need to know.

A couple of years ago, I encountered a man who felt compelled to tell me I shouldn’t be wearing my knee-length dress because my legs were too big.

“Big-legged women in short dresses,” he said. “You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”

I feigned surprised dismay for a second then smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me,” I said. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them. You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

People who are horrified at the sight of me act as though I expand to fill their entire field of vision, as though I become the only thing it is possible to see once they’ve clapped eyes on me. And–while this would be a weird and potentially excellent super power–it isn’t reality.

These people know they can look elsewhere, know that I’m not spreading a dread obesity virus. They call me out because they can, because it is entirely safe to aim their darts at me. Fat hate hasn’t ever come close to going out of fashion, and now that THOTUS² has made many other hates acceptable again, fat hate will remain available to all.

I wonder if people realize how much of themselves they reveal when they give voice to their ugliness. When they come for me, their comments expose their fears and vulnerabilities. I’ve written about this before, about how the things people say to me are pretty much always about them, that I am just the convenient target at which they can aim their insecurity and self-loathing.

That woman who said I was disgusting and big as a house? Obviously feeling disgusted with herself because she has been made to feel that she’s taking up too much space or getting above herself, too big for her britches. The woman who said she wouldn’t leave the house if she was as big as I am? Clearly feeling over-exposed in some aspect of her life, wanting to hide herself from the spotlight. Those boys in the hall at summer school? Probably feeling crappy, feeling like sacks of shit because they were stuck trying to unfail classes while their friends were enjoying the summer–playing ball, going camping, lazing by someone’s backyard pool.

This isn’t me doing some “I’m rubber, you’re glue” back flip. I mean sure, it is … but it’s also real. We lash out at other folks when we’re upset about our own shit. Make that other person question themselves or feel bad about themselves in the hope that it will distract from the ways we’re questioning or feeling bad about ourselves.

*

My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. And whatever anger or fear they’ve been wrestling with gets stirred up with their fat hate and fired at me.

Knowing that doesn’t make mean comments easier to hear, doesn’t excuse anyone’s rudeness or fat prejudice. Haters still need to be read, slapped right the fuck down. And I’m usually here for that. But let’s be clear: dealing out clapbacks is work. I’m pretty good at it, but only because I’ve had so many years of practice. So. many. years. Summer school me didn’t have any snappy retorts. She had to focus on not crying, not giving those boys additional ammunition.

My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. But–as I’ve said before–my body is mine, my business, not anyone else’s. I am a fully unrepentant Bad Fatty: ready, willing, and able to get in folks’ faces and hold up a mirror to their bullshit.

Yes. All comers beware. The Fat is strong in this one. Folks need to watch out for how much of their tender underbellies they expose to me.

_______________
¹ The truth of my body’s visibility stands,  even in the face of the contradictory truth of my body’s invisibility. I walk in the street, and people walk right into me. They stutter back in shock, saying, “Oh! I didn’t see you!” their voices childlike in wonder and amazement.

How is it possible that I am so un-see-able when I am, most assuredly, corporeal? I have mass. I fill space. The folks who run into me certainly feel the solidity of me, even though they have managed not to see me.

I am the triple-whammy of invisibility: Black, fat, disabled. We are trained not to see such aberrations. And when they come lumped together in one person … instant invisibility.

But let’s turn aside from those can’t-see-me folks. They will need their own separate essay. My lens is trained on the see-me-but-wish-they-didn’t folks.

² THOTUS is that man, 45, the Titular Head oThese United States–I say his name only when there isn’t another option, and I never attach it to the title he has usurped. Punto.

 



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

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.

Fat Talk: You Don’t Know Me

I’m a member of my local CSA. My farm share gets delivered to a church a couple of blocks from my house, which is perfect. What’s not perfect is the awkward, narrow, sharp-turning staircase down to the church basement. I’ve never liked those stairs. I like them even less right now because I’m having trouble with my knees, and those stairs try me.

Last week, I picked up my share and started back up the steps with my pretty Mexican shopping bags full of goodness.

“That’s what you need to do,” a woman said from the top of the steps. I wasn’t sure at first if she was talking to me because that comment felt like I’d entered the conversation mid-way through. I looked up at her, and she smiled.

“You need to work it,” she said. “You need to strengthen it. That’s the only way. And eat more of those vegetables.”

Oh, right.

Yes, because that’s the thing. She is giving me health and fitness advice because she looks at my body, sees me moving slowly up the stairs and decides that she knows all there is to know about me and that she is uniquely qualified to give me advice because—clearly—I don’t know jack about taking care of myself.

“Do I know you?” I was taking one step at a time because the shopping bags were awkward, and my left knee was steady cursing my name.

“I’m just telling you what to do,” she said, nodding. “Just being helpful.”

“Let me assure you that you are, in fact, not being helpful. At all.”

She looked surprised. And peeved. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you don’t know anything about me so you shouldn’t be giving me any advice.”

She scoffed theatrically, like something out of a book. “What do I need to know? I can see you, can’t I?”

I took the last two stairs more quickly than I should have so that I could look down into her face from my superior height. “Yes, you can see me, and you think that answers all your questions and somehow means you can tell me what I should be doing with my body. Since you aren’t my doctor, or my physical therapist, or any other medical professional I know and trust, I’ll ask you to keep  your suggestions to yourself. Last time I checked, eating more vegetables wasn’t the key to recovering from surgery.”

“How am I supposed to know you had surgery?” She stepped back from me … my size seemed to have her feeling a little afraid. Well, good for her.

“How, indeed?” I said, turning for the door. “All the more reason for you to keep your advice to yourself.”

This isn’t a way I normally talk to strangers. To anyone. I am usually much more accommodating. But when strangers think they have something to tell me about my body, I’ve set accommodation aside. I am not here for that. Not even a little.

Is it true that a lot of the work I’m doing with my physical therapist is strength training? Yes. Is it true that eating a lot of vegetables is generally a good thing? Yes … but I’m a vegetarian, so that’s pretty much core to the brief. Is it true that none of that matters because the point is no one should be telling strangers what’s true about their bodies or their health and what actions they should take? Yes, exactly.

I was leaving the gym one night before the first of the two surgeries I had last year. I was walking with my cane. As I came out of the locker room, a man on one of the weight machines nodded at me and said, “You keep coming here, you won’t need that anymore.”

“The only thing that will mean I don’t need this anymore,” I said, “is successful surgery. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m being supportive,” he said, his voice petulant and angry.

“No,” I said. “You’re being a jerk.”

If you look at me, there are some things you can be pretty sure of:

  1. I am Black
  2. I am tall
  3. I am a woman
  4. I am fat
  5. I have a cane — I may or may not be walking with it
  6. I have natural hair
  7. I’m not wearing makeup

That’s pretty much it. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately understand why I have a cane. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately know what my cholesterol levels are or my A1C or whether I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder … or anything at all other than my physical appearance. But people are always assuming they know all about my health simply because my body is large. This is annoying as fuck.

And yet, people are entirely comfortable telling me what I should be doing with my body, talking to me as if they are experts on my health. My fat body is a public possession, something that is eternally open for discussion.

Except … not. Not anymore.

I decided years ago that I was no longer willing to accept public discussion of my body. That doesn’t keep people from opening their mouths. They’ve always been allowed to talk to fat folks however they choose, so they step right up with whatever nonsense they have to say. What my decision means is that I shut them down with some quickness.

In Hunger Roxane Gay talks about people taking items out of her grocery cart and commenting on the food she’s buying or food she’s in the act of eating. This infuriated me. Who, exactly, do people think they are? I wish someone would try to take something out of my grocery cart. Are you kidding? Are you kidding?

In case there is any question, let me be clear: my fat body is no one’s fucking business but my own. If it troubles you to see someone so fat, just take silent comfort in the fact that my body isn’t your body. If you used to be fat and went on some diet that saved your life, that’s amazing and fab … for you. Keep all information about that miracle diet to yourself because you’ll notice that I haven’t asked to hear it. If you’re a medical professional who specializes in weight management, just remember that you’re not my medical professional, and remain silent.

You want to offer me advice, to share whatever thing it is you think you know that will be magical and life-changing for me, that bit of wisdom that will solve the problem of my fat.

Yeah, okay. That intense concern you’re feeling for me? Bite your tongue on it. Save it for someone who’s seeking it out, who will be made better by it, who will feel cared for because of it. That person isn’t here. I am not she.

The shorthand version of everything I’ve said here? You don’t know me … so shut the fuck up. Punto.


One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

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 a full six months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to keep going, to try my best to write 52 essays by year’s end.