Backsliding toward Bethlehem

I grew up quiet. I was docile, compliant, held my tongue when I should have spoken. This isn’t a thing to be proud of, and I’m not proud of it. I should have spoken the first time a man flashed me. I was eight. I should have spoken the first time a boy tried to pressure me into letting him touch me. I was nine. But I was a “good girl,” a seen-but-not-heard girl. So I stayed quiet.

Eventually—though not for many too many years—I realized that staying quiet is a form of self harm, that silence can equal death.

Writing ended my silence. When I started blogging ten years ago, I started posting things I didn’t say out loud, started telling stories I hadn’t told: the first time I was called a nigger, the night I was raped, the acceptance of my inability to have children. And when I wrote, people read. And I found I had more things to say. And more people read … and more and more, reading and reading and reading. Silence stopped being my default position. It became, instead, an occasional choice, a choice made to serve my needs, not anyone else’s.

In recent years, I have been anything but silent. My pain and rage have been loud and sustained. The steady drumbeat of devaluation and death that has been the storyline of Black and Brown communities calls up my voice again and again and again, has spilled across pages and pages, come to mic-ed spaces like this one to spill over audiences like you.

***

When I looked up “backslide,” I was surprised to have page after page of religious websites come up in the search results. At first I ignored them because nothing I think about when I think about backsliding has anything to do with religion.

I searched again. I was looking for something that might steer me away from the negative definition of the word that was dominating my writing. All my searches came up religious. Finally, I gave in and clicked the first site, “Ask a Minister” (seriously). And what to my wondering eyes should appear but definitions of backsliding that resonated more powerfully than the standard, “relapsing into bad ways or error.” Ask a Minister gave me:

Revolt
Refuse to harken
Pull away
Rebel

Suddenly backsliding looked like a badge of honor, something to which I could and should aspire. Biblically, of course, it’s all bad—backsliders were folks who “refused to harken” to religious rules, to the word of God. Okay, fine. But is that always necessarily a bad thing? Questioning authority—speaking up instead of keeping silent—can be exactly right, exactly the thing that saves your life.

And there it was—the memory of quiet, go-along-to-get-along me, and the memory of all the ways the stress and damage of my silence manifested in my health, in my bad relationships, in my fear of embracing my anger.

But no more. I have become a proud backslider. I have—to paraphrase my favorite of the “Ask a Minister” bits—refused to harken and turned a backsliding shoulder and made my ears heavy that they should not hear.

One. Hundred. Percent.

***

I was born on a Tuesday, and I used to like thinking about that old poem: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace …  I liked thinking that I might ever be seen as even the least bit graceful. And somehow my silence was part of that.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she sent me the biblical definition of grace: the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. I do tend to think of myself as the recipient of the free (and generally unmerited) favor of God, so perhaps I’ve achieved gracefulness after all. This graceful backsliding is such a relief. Freedom, finally, to just be my own authentic, un-quiet, angry, rebellious, refusing-to-harken self.



This piece was written for the July 24th Big Words, Etc. reading, the theme for which was “Backslide.”

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

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Episode IV: A New Challenge

#52essays2017

Yes, my title is an homage. And the challenge is an Everest-sized mountain I’ll attempt to scale this coming year. Wish me luck, folks, wish me luck!

Would you like to take on this challenge, too? I’ve been inspired this past year by the powerful work of my friend Vanessa. Just as I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll take a cue from V and write an essay a month in 2017,” she posted a challenge invite, and I couldn’t resist joining. Check out the details.

And I made this announcement image on canva.com!


So, it’s a Tuesday. That means it’s a Slice of Life day! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what’s up with the other slicers!

In honor of 2017 being the 10th year of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, and in honor of the fact that I’ve participated since the first year of the challenge, Stacey (one of the creators of the challenge) made me my very own Slicer badge!

original-slicer-girlgriot

A Woman of a Certain Age

As I was getting ready to head into Manhattan tonight, I overheard two folks talking outside my window. They’d run into each other and were catching up, a young-ish man and an older woman. They had a lot of crazy things to say and gossip to pass back and forth. They said their goodbyes and then there was silence as they walked away … then the guy shouts: “I just gotta say, you’re one of those people whose black don’t crack!  They both burst out laughing, and I almost did, too.

Today is my birthday.  Funny how fast these come around!  It’s my birthday, and I’m quite solidly middle aged now.  But I’m also one of those “uncracked” people that guy was shouting about outside my window.  Sometimes I feel every nanosecond of each one of my 52 years, but mostly not so much, mostly I’m well aware of how much I don’t look whatever people think my age should look like. I stressed out about my age a lot more when I was in my 40s. (Might have had something to do with all those younger men I dated … ahem.)  Now, I’m rude enough to tell people my age for no reason other than to make them tell me how not my age I look.  My vanity has done no mellowing over time!

Earlier this week, one of my neighbors asked me why she never sees me pregnant or with a baby (really, my neighbors will sometimes just say every damn thing!). I told her that time was past for me, and she said not yet, that I could probably have kids “up till you’re 40 or so.” Um, yeah. That time is p.a.s.t.

So that time is past, but now there’s time for about a bazillion other things.  This second half of my life is already shaping up to be very interesting — one knee surgery down, one to go, got fired for the first time in my life and have spent the last three months unemployed for the first time in my adult life, I’ve learned to spin, I’ve discovered a new writing genre to explore, I’ve reconnected with some old friends and started cultivating a gorgeous garden a new friends …

I’ve got work to do.  I’m only 52, but I’m already 52.  All kinds of clocks are ticking.  Think of how many crafts there are still for me to learn.  And how long is it going to take me to get over myself and stop hiding my grey hair with henna?

Time to prepare for embracing myself as the Crone, the wise, free, powerful me.  This non-working summer has given me a delicious taste of what the “free” can feel like — I have very much enjoyed my long days of reading, writing, strolling, thinking, seeing just how much I enjoy my own company — but I have a ways to go before I can pretend to wisdom or power.

I’ve got work to do.


image source

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Hello to everyone who began following the blog after reading my last post.  I appreciate the follows and the comments.  You intimidated me just a little, I won’t lie.  I’ve started and dashed half a dozen posts since that one.  I worried about what kind of writing you’d expect each time you saw my blog in your inbox.  Well, the fact is, you’re here.  Stick around and you’ll see how non-linear and nonsensical I can be one minute, how focused and fierce I can be the next.  This is a theme-less space that is often left to grow over with weeds.  I’m only today remembering that I should have started a 30 stories in 30 days challenge on the first.  Maybe I’ll jump in with that tomorrow.  We’ll see.  I hope you’ll keep reading.  It won’t be praise- or comment-worthy every time, but I’d love to have you jump in and start conversation when you’re moved to do so.  Welcome to my tiny little corner of the internet!

Classroom Resolutions

I don’t make my resolutions this time of year.  If I can be said to make resolutions at all, it would be the wish-list I write up for my birthday — the start of my personal new year.  So January first is more like a quarterly report.

But this year I’m feeling like making some school resolutions.  There are definitely some things I’d like to see become true about my classroom and my teaching between now and June, so …

  • More integration between my class and the teen peer education program
  • Redesign of our classroom, including getting started on the mural we want to paint on the big wall
  • Publish at least two books of student writing
  • Revisit goal-setting / education plans with everyone
  • Less me, more them
  • Plants!
  • Bring Carlos in to talk about the college transitions program
  • Find better ways to keep my adult and teen students working together
  • Read A Wish After Midnight (thanks for catching the error, Susan!)
  • Work through the geometry and algebra curricula (without suffering my usual math phobia!)
  • Find better science resources

All of these things are important.  Some will, of course, be much easier than others.  I’m really worried that my class is going to be completely teen-i-fied by the end of the year.  I don’t want to lose my ‘real’ adults now that we have so many new young people, and keeping that from happening is on me.

Lots of work to do, starting with Monday’s new student orientation.  I’ve missed my classroom, and I’m looking forward to getting started again.  I had hoped the last two weeks would include a little more time for me to focus on planning for next week … but when has that ever happened?

Time Flies

… not that I haven’t been having fun, but how can it be August 1st?  Wasn’t it just New Year’s?  Wasn’t it about six days ago that I skipped work to go to the inauguration?

One thing the quick flipping of calendar days means is that my birthday will be here much sooner than I’m ready for it to be here.  My birthday, a day which lives in infamy, has been an annual trauma for the last seven years.  And yes, I am selfish enough that this bothers me.  I can’t seemd to be truly comfortable celebrating the day, and at the same time I feel annoyed to have the day taken from me.  It was, after all, my birthday first.

But there’s more than a month before I need to worry about that.  In the mean time, I have a new school year to plan for, complete with many changes I have yet to figure out — new locations for classes, a new layout to our schedule, new systems we have to figure out and put in place.

I’m looking forward to being back in the classroom, though I’m not at all ready for it.  I miss my students, miss the energy boost of working with them, planning lessons for them.  My days have run past so quickly, I never got around to making any summer goals this year.  Instead, I’ll make some goals for the coming school year:

  • Be a better juggler: I have to get better at balancing all the work I have to do as a teacher with all the work I have to do as a program director … and still have time to breathe and get a few decent nights’ sleep each week. 
  • Continue to work on being a better math teacher.
  • Find ways to more fully fund my program so that I don’t have to spend so much time scrambling to cover salaries and make ends meet.
  • Develop a college transition program for our GED grads.
  • Be a better supervisor for our instructors.
  • Do more student publishing and encourage other teachers to do more student publishing, too.

I could keep this list going and going and going, but I think this is more than enough to keep me quite busy in the coming year.  In some ways, the entire list depends on my juggling ability.  Taking on the morning class last year took me out of my office for so much of the work week, I spent the whole year feeling like I was playing catch-up.  I don’t want to feel that way in the new year.  Or, at least, not all the time!

Money Can’t Get Everything, It’s True …

Today I’m prepping to head off to the NYACCE conference in Albany.¹  I’m going to be part of a presentation about THE BOOK and part of a meeting programs from around the state who’ve been awarded the new Literacy Zone grant from State Ed.

I’m excited about this grant.  It’s not for my agency, my program, it’s for our whole neighborhood, it’s about the community agreeing to work together to increase educational opportunities and improve services.  No, it’s not a $10million grant.  Yes, it would need to be that big for us to do all the things that we need to do.  But it’s not a pathetically small grant, either.  Six agencies in the community (including mine, of course) have gotten together to improve services, and we applied for the grant as a consortium.

Working as a team with agencies we also compete against for funding is a little weird sometimes, to say the least, but the Alliance — this group we’ve formed — pleases me.  My hope is that it will force us to focus on the needs of the community first and on our bottom lines second.  Ok, funding is important.  After this year of losing so much funding and having to fire so many teachers, I know that funding is important.  But I hate feeling that we’re driven by funding, that funding is the important thing. 

Not too long ago I read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded and it made me think in different and sometimes uncomfortable ways about the fact that I am in a position that means I am always chasing funding, that I am always shaping my program to fit fundingrequirements.  I had my first taste of this at an old job.  I wanted to start classes on Saturdays, the agency secured funding to make that happen, so I started planning.  I made a flyer to do some outreach for the classes … and my boss pulled the flyer and had it remade.  ABC Company Saturdays it said across the top of the page (or, you know, the real name of the sponsoring company).  What?  Turned out the funding was from ABC Company… and that we had to proclaim this fact on all our materials … and that was only the first of the rules imposed on my little Saturday plan.

Now, I drink ABC Company’s coffee.  Not every day, but I am definitely a customer.  I don’t hate ABC Company.  I don’t even hate that they want people to know when they’ve given money to community organizations.  Why wouldn’t they want people to know?  I don’t think they should get to tell me how to run my classes, however.  I think programming decisions should be left to the people who know and understand the program.  Yes, it’s much more exciting for the coffee folks to say they’ve provided classes for 125 people than for 50.  I get that.  But I also get that, if I enroll a progress-deterringly high 60 people in a class, I’m going to lose nearly every one of them because a class that big is going to come with about 65-70% attrition.

In the case of ABC Company, I ran my Saturday classes the way I wanted to run them … and we were seen as a failure because we didn’t enroll even half the people they wanted us to enroll.  We didn’t get refunded.

The Literacy Zone funding isn’t like ABC Company’s funding.  State Ed is actually one of my favorite funders.  But I can’t stop thinking about the difficulties of having to run around looking for money under every governmental and family foundation rock.  I am fortunate to have a boss in my current job who doesn’t believe in playing Twister with her programs to fit funder guidelines.  I worry, however, that we may all be pushed to abandon our positions on this shaky moral high ground if the economy doesn’t turn around soon.

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Yesterday I wrote a tanka to start the month, but was so beat when I got home I was too tired to get online and post it.  So here, a day late, is my May Day tanka²:

dogwoods are blooming
open in pink, cream and green
it’s the first of May
this morning’s light and easy
and pinch-tipped blooms make me smile

 

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¹  Don’t ask me to remember what the acronym stands for.  New York Association (?) of Continuing and C_____ (Community?) Education … Something big and inclusive like that.

²  Alejna has also written a May Day poem (I’m so happy to see more and more people writing tanka!).  Along with her tanka, she has posted the quite strange and fabulous video for Safety Dance.  Excuse me while I go watch it again … I will be singing that song for the rest of the day!

I got by …

… with much more than a little help from my friends!

I made it.  I finished the dreaded artist’s resume, wrote a proposal I think might actually sound good to the selection committee, and made to 34th Street before 10pm and got my parcel in the post!¹ 

It’s done, it’s done, it’s done.  I’d never have gotten through it without some serious hand-holding from my sister and without some very well-timed and uncannily on- the-money suggestions from my friend DR.  Ladies, you are my angels tonight!

And, of course, I’d never even have heard about this opportunity if not for The Harpist … and it was great to come home to a voice mail from her, saying she hoped I’d gotten everything together in time.

I wrote a tanka earlier in the week with today in mind … but it’s on my desk at work, so that will have to wait.  Instead I have three I wrote on the bus downtown on my way to catch the A train up to the post office:

that soft, milky smell
voices always a question
or sometimes a plaint
how does she manage all four
again I wish for just one

rain on my window
do those drops wish they were snow
long to be other
want mountains not worn concrete
or am I the only one

soft wave of your hair
my hand resting on your neck
this quiet moment
the space and time between us
all the reasons I am here

Yeah.  Guess I was feeling a mite creative tonight.  I’m so happy I pulled this off.  Yes, I want very much to be accepted, but at the same time, just getting this application in the mail was a huge step for me.  The closest I’ve ever gotten to applying for something like this was downloading the application, putting it in a folder … and then thinking how hard it would be to find someone to write a recommendation … or how none of my writing really seemed ‘right’ for what ‘they’ would want to see … you know, basically talking myself out of applying.  And I didn’t do that this time.  And that feels better than wonderful.

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¹Thank goodness for the all-night post office … but only for a little while longer.  On May 9th, all that late-night fun comes to an end.  They’ll be closing their doors at 10.  Very sad story.