I always feel like somebody’s watching me …

Which is actually not at all true, but I can’t help thinking about that song right now.

Turns out, there are at least seven different people from my job who have been reading and commenting here. Seven. And there may be others who have just chosen not to contact me after reading last night’s post. I have seven different emails to respond to after yesterday, and included among them is one from the person I was actually thinking about when I wrote that post.

To be clear, no one is cyber-stalking me or bullying me or anything like that. I have just felt odd about some of the comments and odd about the fact that the person (and now, I realize, a bunch of people) was reading here but not letting me know they were reading here.

This discovery that my tiny little audience a) is bigger than I thought and b) includes people who are at least tangentially connected to me in the real world reinforces for me the importance of what I wrote yesterday. I can’t let any of that make a difference in what I write here, in whether or not I write here. These seven people know me/know about me in a very particular way. I fit into a certain set of boxes. If they are reading back through this blog, they will learn …

  • That I am often really angry
  • That I write and think about racism a LOT
  • That I have a lot to say about living while fat
  • That I am incredibly and unashamedly vain
  • That I’ve had some really ugly experiences in my life
  • That I’ve had some really fabulous experiences in my life
  • That I’m older than they might have thought

And sure, plenty of other things, too. Is it weird to learn these things about me and not actually try to meet me when we work for the same institution? A little, I guess. But it’s okay, too. I put all this stuff out there with the idea that it will be read — and read, quite specifically, by strangers. So I can’t really fuss when people do exactly what I hope people will do.

So I’ll keep posting in my Queen of Oversharing fashion. Maybe I’ll even post some of the things I wrote last year but didn’t share here. We’ll see.


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

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Charles

My uncle Charles was hospitalized Saturday. Today might be his last day in the world. I’m sad and angry about that, sad for myself, angry with myself. Not angry because I’m in any way responsible for Charles’ condition. Angry because of all the time I’ve had him in my life and haven’t visited more, haven’t called, haven’t turned away from own selfish pursuits long enough to include him in my life. Angry because his older sister died last month, and that should have been a wake-up call for me to reach out, and yet I did nothing to change my behavior.

In April I published an essay on Every Family’s Got One. I introduced my paternal grandmother in her decades-long role of foster parent, writing how I learned acceptance by spending so much time at her house, growing up surrounded by all the children she took care of and how some of those kids became family.

Charles was one of those kids. He and his sisters came to my grandmother’s house before I was born. We have an adorable photo of his youngest sister at four years old, smiling as she struggles to hold my toddler brother who’s almost as big as she is. Charles and his sisters were one of two core sibling groups of foster kids who stayed in our family, who became part of our family, who I call my aunts and uncles.

Yesterday tests confirmed our fears, told us that Charles, after the embolism he suffered on Saturday, no longer had “meaningful brain activity.”

No meaningful brain activity. Charles is gone. Our Charles. Our Chip, as we called him when we were kids. This kind, sweet-hearted man with the funny laugh. It doesn’t seem possible that it can be true. And now his youngest sister, no longer the mite of a girl in that long-ago photo but grown and a mother and grandmother, has to make the decision about whether to turn off the machines that are keeping Charles here.

My heart is with her. My heart is heavy with sadness. And my heart is lightened by the joy of thinking him reunited with his brother and sister, with my grandmother, of that big Charles smile shining bright.

Remembering, and Honoring, Loss

October, I’ve just learned, is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month. When I learned this, I thought this had to be a thing we have only recently been naming. These aren’t things we have been encouraged to call out, to draw attention to. Infant loss is too painful, so best not to talk about it. Pregnancy loss … well, it’s just been brushed under the rug. So to have a national remembrance day, that had to be some new business. Right. Imagine my entire surprise when I learned that it was created in 1988 … by one of the last people I’d have expected: Ronald Reagan. Color me amazed.

After my first miscarriage, a woman who was my friend at that time waved off my sadness, saying: “It’s no big deal. You’ll try again.” The fact that she was saying this to a single, childless, 40-year-old woman seemed lost on her. I was also a relatively poor woman, and “trying again” would be a very expensive proposition. This, too, seemed not to register with her.

I didn’t tell many people that I was trying to have a baby. Three, only: my sister, my friend Grace, and this woman. Her response to my miscarriage was part of the reason I told so few people. I don’t have a good history of people taking my pain seriously. I thought I was protecting myself from that callousness by telling so few folks. But I’d made such a bad choice in that one person.

Of course what’s also true is that, even if I could easily try again, and again and again and again, that ease wouldn’t have lessened the pain of that miscarriage. Why is it at all difficult for some people to acknowledge what seems a very simple, obvious fact? Why are women who lose pregnancies so often not given the space to grieve?

I have lost three pregnancies. All of those losses happened around the same time — two in the 10th week, one in the 11th week. Just before I would have started telling family and friends that I was pregnant. I didn’t tell Fox or Grace about the miscarriages. After my friend’s response to the first loss, I wasn’t prepared to share with anyone. That wasn’t fair to Fox or Grace, neither of whom would ever have responded with so little care, but I couldn’t take the chance of exposing myself to more dismissal.

My friend Sharline posted a beautiful remembrance on FB last week. That’s how I learned about this being Loss Remembrance month. It was also the first time I’d thought about the idea of a ritual to support my grieving, my release, my ability to move on feeling whole.

It’s 13 years since my last miscarriage. Obviously, I have moved on with my life. I’ve accepted as best I can the fact that I will not be anyone’s biological mother. I say “as best I can” because the pain of that truth bubbles up every once in a while, surprising me with its razor-sharp intensity, even all these years later.

In response to Sharline’s post, I said I wished I’d had a ritual back then. And I’ve been trying to imagine what that would have meant, what that might have looked like. And yes, writing about it then might have helped. I think most what I would have wanted was feeling safe enough and worthy enough to tell people what was going on with me. I didn’t have, then, the broad and strong circle of love around me that I have now. But I definitely had love, had people who would have stood beside me, embraced me, grieved with and for me. And I am sad to recognize that I didn’t see that then, didn’t know it.

There are surely other things that would have helped me process those losses, but having people I loved know that I was grieving and offer their support and comfort would have meant so much. I couldn’t give that to myself then. I was too afraid and uncertain and — I realize now — ashamed of my failure that I couldn’t bring myself to share with others.

Yes, failure. Because what is the one thing I’m supposed to be able to do as a woman? And there I was, proving again and again, that I couldn’t do it.

It’s National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, and I am sending wishes to all the women currently dealing with these losses. I hope you have friends and family around you, loved ones you can reach out to for support, who will hold you and lift you up. I hope the society around you isn’t full of messages that leave you feeling like a failure if you cannot conceive, carry to term, and birth a child. I hope the women around you who are mothers know better than to say hideously cruel things about how you’ll never know what love/sacrifice/exhaustion/fear (fill in with just about every feeling) is until you have a child. I hope the people you work with and for don’t assume you are always able to put in extra hours because you don’t have kids to go home to.

Some of you will eventually become mothers. Many of you, like me, won’t. I wish all of you the time, space, and ability to grieve. Give yourself everything you need to accept your loss, come back to yourself, and go on to be and do all of the things still waiting in front of you.


In 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.

Deaths and Entrances

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. One of the things that struck me was how “at home” at felt, as if I was surrounded by my own family. I need to mention that I don’t know my friend’s family. I’ve met his mother, I know his partner, but that’s all. And, too, I have an unconscionably small family, so what I was feeling wasn’t in any way related to how I’ve ever felt when surrounded by my actual family because I’ve never been around that many people who are related to me. Usually, when I attend services like this one and I only know one or two people in the room, I start off feeling awkward and uncomfortable, but there was none of that at this morning’s funeral.

What I felt was about being surrounded by Black folks, specifically Black folks who are close to my age. My friend’s dad was nine years older than I am, so the cousins and friends in the room were all within 10 or 15 years of my age –both older and younger. All those beautiful Black faces, all the nods of acknowledgement, all the warmly grasped hands. Family.

Faces of Black folks always feel familiar. And they can make me feel comforted.* I’ve written in the past about how seeing African American faces made me long for home when I was in France. My response to seeing Black people gathered, seeing all the different and lovely features that make up their faces, has only increased since that moment of recognition in France. There was a moment after the service, when we were all outside waiting for the family to depart for the interment, when a crowd of men – cousins and nephews, a brother, maybe a friend or two – all came together for a photo. They were the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hug every one of them, my heart was so full.

Funerals are such strange things. They can be beautiful, sad, celebratory, painful, life-affirming, cold. All these things at once, even. And even if we plan them ourselves — as my dad scripted the run of show for his funeral — we can’t truly orchestrate them, won’t have control over what they will be.

Today, September 30th, would have been my father’s 88th birthday. The fact of it being 30 years since his death is shocking and unfathomable to me. I have to do the math, see it plainly on paper, on a calculator screen, have to make myself see the number in order to believe so many years have passed.

My father planned his funeral. Once he stopped talking about surviving his cancer, when he had accepted that survival wasn’t going to be a thing for him, he moved immediately into writing out his wishes for his homegoing. At first, I thought it was strange, morbid. Then I saw how it made so much sense. True, he wouldn’t exactly be there to enjoy it, but a) he would surely be watching and would want to see things that pleased him, and b) what better way to guarantee the inclusion of people he wanted in the proceedings? (People like me. If plans had been left only with the people who were responsible for arranging his funeral, it’s pretty likely that I would not have been asked to speak. My father clearly understood that and made a point of assigning me a specific reading.)

Planning the ceremony pleased him, so how could it be wrong? The way he got into it reminded me of the intensity with which he had once planned elaborate halftime routines for my high school marching band. He was careful, thinking through options, order, all the possible configurations. And he thought about music, what songs he wanted sung, what lyrics he wanted read out.

As I walked into the funeral parlor yesterday, Earth Wind and Fire was playing. I was instantly lifted. “That’s the Way of the World” is one of my favorite songs, and to have that playing as I stepped inside from Amsterdam Avenue was so right. I’d walked up from the subway thinking about when I used to live in that neighborhood, thinking about how long ago I’d been priced out of that neighborhood, thinking about how not like home some things I’d seen on my walk felt. And then to walk in and be welcomed by those familiar voices and those excellent lyrics. It was perfect.

In 2003 when I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the fibroid surgery I was about to have, I took my father’s example and began to write out what I wanted for my service. I started with the music, with the very simple desire to have “Oh, Freedom,” played or performed. I sat with that idea for a while and then built from there.

When I’ve thought about that final playlist in the years since, other songs have risen up as obvious additions. First is “City Called Heaven,” particularly the way it is sung by Jubilant Sykes in his glorious voice (and once I get started with Sykes, I have to add “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” because … well … of course). But my set list isn’t all church-approved. Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” has to be there. And Amos Lee and Willie Nelson singing Lee’s “El Camino.” These songs will always make the list. And so will Earth Wind and Fire. The first musical selection during the funeral service yesterday was “Fantasy,” and that made me so happy. It’s my all-time favorite EWF song, and it’s on my funeral program, too. Hearing it in the funeral parlor was beautiful. Seeing people sing along was that much more beautiful. Adding my voice with theirs made me smile and cry at the same time.

As much as my heart breaks for my friend, I was so glad he had the chance to honor his dad the way he did. I saw and felt so much love in that room, so much beautiful Blackness. May we all be so embraced, today and as we are ushered home.

__________
* I’ve also written about times when seeing the faces of other Black folks have made me feel sad, feel vulnerable and threatened – not by the people I’m seeing but by the truth of living in a world where the simple fact of our Blackness can put us in danger.


(My title is borrowed from Dylan Thomas. I’ve always loved that title … and the “incendiary eves” that occur and reoccur in this poem.)


In 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.

Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because not everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’m no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


In 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.