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.

Water water everywhere.

Today was an art day!

I spent part of my day at the Industry City Open Studios event.  I did and didn’t enjoy it.  The bar was high, I’ll admit.  TheGo Brooklyn project was such a pleasure, yesterday’s event would have had to do some work to equal that.  Okay, but really, not that much work.  I didn’t have a WOW! moment at any point during the day, however, and that was disappointing, but I did see a handful of artists whose work I very much enjoyed, including one whose work I will save up for to purchase for myself and another whose work I’ll definitely be purchasing as a gift for my brother.  Mostly what I came away with was the sense that you have to be an artist with money to work in Industry City.  There was clearly a much more commercial feel to yesterday’s tour than to any of the spaces I visited during Go Brooklyn.  And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs to eat.  The feeling is different.  That’s all.

After Open Studios, I headed south east to spend a couple of hours with Naima (my writing mentee).  We worked on the science journalism piece she is preparing for her portfolio, and I discovered a science question I have that it might be interesting to investigate.  We also talked about her plans for college and what internship she might be interested in for next year.  For six months out of her junior year, her schedule will be modified to include an internship.  She is torn — engineering, interior design, medicine, community work.  Medicine is a new one.  She’s never mentioned an interest in it before today.  When I asked her about it, she looked a little sheepish.  “I don’t know if I really want to be a doctor, but my mom is talking a lot about it now.  She says it would be good for me.”  We’ll see if that one sticks.  The first two seem to be her real interests.

And now I’m on the train, soon to be on the bus, heading home and thinking poetry.  Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a water poem (hence the title of this post).  I never knew I was a water person.  I spent time at beaches as a kid, and I liked it.  I learned to swim in a frigid mountain lake that I played in every summer of camp as a child, and I liked that, too.  But I still didn’t know.  After college I spent a couple of weeks in the middle of a months-long hitch around Europe on beaches in Portugal and loved it.  Still I didn’t know.

Then I went to Jamaica for the first time.  Exactly nine years ago tomorrow.  And then I knew.  Not just that I was a water person, but that I should have been born in the Caribbean. How did that get so messed up?  I stepped out of the airport and into that wave of humid heat, and it settled into my chest and that was the end.  Heart lost.  Over.  I still have that feeling every time.  Tonight’s poem started with all of that in mind … but went a different way in the end.

Should
have been
aquatic,
swimming my days,
life on the water.
How
did I
never know?
Instead, I walk,
spend my days dreaming
waves,
dreaming
of the shore.
In my next life —
yes, in my next life …

natpoetrymonth1

Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer.  “Support” can be as simple and cost-free as sending the Indiegogo link out to your friends and telling them why they might want to help me get to VONA.  Any and all help is appreciated.  To date, I’ve received almost half my goal amount! I am encouraged and humbled by everyone’s generosity.  Thank you all!

__________

An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

The Face of Home

Thinking about the Baldwin story I posted the other day and about doing research at the American Library in Paris.  I had an interesting  surprise as I looked at a collection of Gordon Parks’ photos.  I remember turning slowly through the pages, just admiring the images.  Then I turned a page and saw a group of middle-aged black men gathered in a room.  In my hazy memory, they are in a tai chi pose, but I’m sure the reality of that photo is a little different.  Maybe a military pose, maybe a prayer pose.

I remember seeing that picture and stopping.  Stopping and staring and staring and staring at those men’s faces.  I remember almost starting to cry and not knowing what was wrong with me, what was going on.  I closed the book and stared at nothing for a while.  I went back to the photos and stared some more.  And I remember being struck by two things in the same moment: I missed black people — black American people — and those men were so beautiful in a way I hadn’t ever consciously thought about black people being beautiful.

I stared at each of their faces and confirmed again and again that each was beautiful, each was so different from the black people I was meeting in Europe, that there was something so “home” about them, something that made it clear that they were my people, they were connected to me in a way that the Africans I was meeting in Paris and the rest of Europe couldn’t be.

A longing for home, for the chance to see those faces, hit me so powerfully, I did cry.

I spend a lot of time looking at people’s faces.  And in my current neighborhood, I get to see a lot of black faces.  I still sometimes get a mini-jolt of recognition, but never anything as grounding and soul-filling as that moment with Parks’ photo.

_____

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

— Langston Hughes

uptown_gordonparks

Still Jonesin’

Yesterday’s post reminded me that I hadn’t finished putting up pictures from my trip.

P1020955So, ‘my’ part of Jamaica is a string of fishing villages that have turned themselves into a tourist destination.  In October, over the course of Heroes Weekend (mid-month), they host a fishing tournament that includes boat races and a who-can-drink-a-Red-Stripe-fastest contest and other funny business.  This trip was the first time I was down in October, so of course I went to the tournament.  Here are a few quick-takes from the final day. 

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There were a few different soccer games underway when I arrived.  I was in a growing crowd of people on shore waiting for the last of the fishermen to come back so we could see if anyone had caught anything to top the 4o-pounder that had been caught on day two.

P1020952P1020953P1020988I love how in his own world the boy in the first two photos is … but I was also a little distressed by how he kept disappearing between the boats.  I was sure he was going to be hurt, but he was fine.  It’s a different child in the last picture.  I just liked the way his position in relationship to the boat makes me think of the word ‘longing.’  Definitely a feeling I can relate to!

 P1020961Here’s another shot of Kenrick, who is somewhat annoyingly camera shy (says the woman who is painfully camera shy).  Whenever he saw me raise my camera, he turned away.  The few pictures I caught of him were all from far away so he wouldn’t know I was stealing his image. 

P1020960And then there’s this man, who I don’t know at all, but I was fascinated by how much he reminded me of the actor who played Omar on The Wire.  I suspect Omar would like this part of Jamaica (lots of pretty, light-skinned young men) … though I’m not sure Jamaica would be too crazy about Omar!  (Digression: saying that about Omar reminded me of a young woman I met at the conference on Tuesday.  She was telling us about her work (researcher) and said, “Black men are my main focus.”  It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut and not let everyone at the table know that my main focus is black men, too!)

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P1020964P1020965This is Ted, one of the boatmen who gives water tours.  I was just snapping photos, not really paying attention (waiting for my next chance to try catching Kenrick), and when I looked back through my photos at the end of the day, I really liked this trio.  I love the look of the boy in the second and third photo, love the way Ted is lifting him so casually, so easily, as if he weighs no more than a handful of seawater!

P1020967P1020966P1020969The first photo is Ted’s boat, Di Evil Tings, another of my favorite boat names.  It’s Ted again in the second two shots, maybe practicing for the boat races, maybe just showing off a little because we were all wanting to see a little action while we waited for those last fishermen.  Either way, I find this one of the coolest (and scariest) things the boatmen do.  I’ve been in one of these boats when it’s been up out of the water in a similar way … and my heart was in my throat the whole time!

P1020968So, as I was saying about Omar … this man is a bit old for Omar’s taste, but you get the idea.  I don’t know who this man is, but his clothes interested me.  I am naive enough to continue to be surprised by how certain parts of American culture are adopted (and adapted) in other countries.  I’m not sure I want to see my students and their friends running around with this adaptation of the low-slung pants, but I’d be happy if my students and their friends stopped running around with any of the more familiar versions!

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 I might have found this guy interesting … if he had done anything more than sit beside me and stare at me.  For a LONG time.  Finally I asked if I could take his picture.  He seemed surprised, wanted to know why I wanted his picture.  I went for honesty: “You’re just sitting here staring at me, I figure I should get something out of it, too.”  He thought about it for a minute, then agreed to let me take his picture.  This is his serious, picture-taking face.  And, yes, this face looks just like the other expressions he tried out before settling on this one.  I once heard Sting say that everyone has three expressions (and he then went on to show that he, in fact, only had two) … well, this guy seems to have only one.

P1020975And finally here is a fisherman bringing in his big catch.  This wasn’t the first prize fish, but it was plenty big enough for me.  In the background is the El Tazar (the red boat).  That’s the boat that caught the winning fish.

Sadly, by the time the fishing prizes and trophies were awarded and the boat races were won, it was so late I started back for the house.  So I didn’t get to see the beer drinking contest or any of the other funny bits.  Maybe next year!

Hodge Podge

Listening to the Bad Plus play Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” … really strange and wonderful.  Makes me think of Chris Reilly and Radiohead, of course.  And also sends me right back to high school.

This has been a quiet, lazy day.  It wasn’t supposed to be.  I have an enormous to-do list that I let languish.  I just can’t work seven days straight.  I’m going into the office tomorrow, and I’m traveling tomorrow for the conference.  I just couldn’t make myself work today, too.  I’ll pay for it, sure, but I think I don’t mind.

One of my co-workers has just returned from Jamaica (yes, I am insanely jealous).  She went for a friend’s wedding, and they spent a couple of days in ‘my neighborhood’ at the end of the trip, so I got to sit and look through her photos yesterday and see many many familiar places … and a few familiar faces, too!  I am truly jones-ing for a vacation right now, and seeing her photos really made me want to be ‘home.’ [sigh]

I drift quietly
heart, mind, peacefully at rest
I can close my eyes
here is the place I should be
this love, this touch, takes me in

Hmm … not quite.  I could write a Jamaica tanka every day for the next month and still only skim the surface.