Black Bluebird Respect

In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

*

I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

My Story On Stage — SOLSC 3

I am proud to announce that I am part of the New York City line up for this year’s Listen to Your Mother reading! I was so nervous about auditioning, and I didn’t finish my audition story until the moment before I had to leave for the studio. Crazy. I’m lucky I had a story at all. I had weeks to write something, but could think of not one story to tell. Yes, that’s even more crazy than my last-minute finish. I have only about 600,000³ stories, many of them about my mother. Couldn’t think of anything. And partly that’s because I had to tell a five-minute story. There are few things I’m able to do in just five minutes, and talking about my mother is definitely not one of them.

Or so I thought! Thanks to a lunch conversation with on of my coworkers, I had an idea. I wrestled it into a five-minute box and off I went to audition … where a strange thing happened: I was nervous about reading, but I felt entirely calm about my story. Dare I say that I felt … confident? As soon as I finished the first paragraph, I knew.

Where did that come from? This story (which I’ll post after the reading) isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written. It hadn’t even been revised when I auditioned with it. A first draft is pretty much never going to be the best thing I’ve ever written. But still, I was completely certain of that story, certain it would land me in the cast.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out that “I got this” feeling ever since the audition. I’m not looking to become America’s Cockiest Girl or anything, but it would be nice to set aside the Poster Child for Low Self-Esteem mantle every now and then. Even more amazing would be to have this feeling about my writing on a consistent basis. Imagine how much work I’d submit!

While I keep trying to figure myself out, please consider coming out for the LTYM reading. It would be so great to get to meet you in person! If you’re not in New York, check the LTYM website, there may be a reading near you!


It’s Slice of Life time! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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Fundraising A-Go-Go

Tonight I’m doing something I have a hard, hard time doing: asking for help … specifically, asking for money. I am beyond happy at being accepted into the graphic novel workshop for this summer’s VONA Voices. The cost of the workshop, room, board, and travel are a bit stiff for me this year, however, so I’ve turned to Indiegogo.

For the next six weeks, I’ll be trying to raise the cost of this workshop and trip. And you can help! If you can donate, that will be so very much appreciated. If you can’t, please consider sending the link for my campaign out to your networks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram … and all the cooler, newer social media hot spots I have yet to discover.

Here’s the link to my fundraiser!

I’ll be working on Adventures in Racism in this workshop, getting a better handle on how to move forward with the comic, how to most effectively use comics to tell the stories I want to tell. AIR has potential, but I need a lot of work, and I need the kind of help VONA can give me.

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But tonight’s post isn’t just about me with my hand out.  It’s also about poetry.  And knee surgery.  I continue to work on my Aruns this month, and tonight’s is in honor of the fact that today makes exactly one year since I had my knee replacement surgery!  I can’t believe it’s already a full year.

One
year. One
long, short, hard,
easy year. One
knee — seems a simple
thing.
But not
simple, not
snap-of-fingers.
Not.  This year is gone.
Gone
quickly.
Gone easy.
Gone.  A new knee —
year in the making.

natpoetrymonth1

 

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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.

Ingrained.

Writing about The Language of Flowers last week and thinking about my grandmother’s work as a foster parent brought me to a surprise understanding of something about myself.

All those years of visiting my grandmother, hanging out with the changing roster of foster children, thinking of all of them as family. The regularness of it all settled into me and made me know certain things, know them as things that just were true. And that meant that all the things about all those kids that weren’t “normal” were.  The kids with severe developmental delays, the kids with personality disorders, the feminine boys, the masculine girls, the girl with vitiligo, the girl who was covered — face, chest, arms, hands — in twisted, burn-scarred flesh … everything was normal.*

I think Mom’s house planted and nurtured acceptance in me, the ability to see whatever people were, whatever they couldn’t help being, as normal. I lacked tolerance for things that were choices, things that could be controlled: a bad attitude, prejudice, selfishness, littering. This is the first time I’ve seen a connection, the clear line from Mom’s house of “everybody fits” to my ability to take people as they come.

I’m far (FAR) from perfect — made some serious missteps in high school and didn’t quite correct them until I’d been at college for a while.  I’ve made any number of missteps in all the years since — but I’m not bad.  I’m still pretty intolerant of things that can be controlled (racism, homophobia, fat jokes, littering), but for the most part those lessons learned unconsciously while playing at my grandmother’s house have stayed with me.

I want to be clear, place a solid divider between “acceptance” and “tolerance.” I tolerate a lot of things — (some) conservative political opinions, the weather, reality TV. I may not like or agree with them, but I can put up with them. Acceptance is something else all together. There’s nothing to think about, no judgments to make. What is just is. And it’s fine with you, and it doesn’t threaten you, and you don’t pat yourself on the back for accepting it, and you don’t show it off to your friends because you imagine it gives you some kind of gritty street cred, and your life goes on.  When I can’t accept, I work for tolerance.  But I don’t let myself forget that they aren’t the same thing.

Acceptance doesn’t mean acting as if there is nothing to accept. In other words, I don’t pretend that I can’t see difference. That seems silly at best, and insulting or worse the rest of the time.  It drives me crazy when people are trying to have a conversation about race and someone says, “Oh, I don’t see color.”  Not seeing color is an erasure of me.  Accepting someone shouldn’t mean negating/denying/erasing the things that make them different.  Acceptance means that the things that make someone different might be interesting, but mostly they don’t matter in the slightest.

And that was the never-spoken take away of growing up at Mom’s house, a lesson so deeply rooted, it seems more innate than instructed.

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Check out all the slices at Two Writing Teachers!

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* Okay, not everything was normal.  There was one girl who freaked me out. I don’t remember her name. Or how old either of us was when she came to Mom’s house.  I remember one day a bunch of us were playing on the far side of the flower garden near the garage.  I came around the side of the garage and found her squatting down, eating dirt.  I can still remember the shock of that, how wrong it felt and how I didn’t know how to respond to it.  I remember she was eating the way shame eaters eat — hunched over, hiding it, stuffing it in quickly so no one would see — and her posture alone told me I shouldn’t think what she was doing was normal.  Another time I caught her eating tattered leaves that had been picked off of harvested cabbages and thrown onto the refuse heap.  She swore that Mom had given her the cabbage.  I remember thinking how hungry she must have been to eat those dirty, wilted leaves.  I also wondered how she could be hungry when Mom served food for an army no matter how many kids were under her roof, and her portions were definitely not small.  She was only at Mom’s for a short time, and I don’t remember much else about her.  I have since learned about kids eating things like dirt and ashes because of minerals their bodies are lacking or because of stress.  At the time, it was just strange, she was just strange. Strange, which was troubling, not simply “weird, ” which was endearing.  She was maybe the only child I thought of that way for years.

It’s spring, and this young woman’s fancy turns to … notions.

I spent my last few weeks of college crazy-busy finishing papers and getting ready to graduate.  I needed two outfits for graduation weekend, one for the senior dinner, one for graduation.  And one of those outfits would double for the second graduation I would attend that weekend, my mom’s.  I needed things to wear, but I was too busy to think about it, too busy to make anything.

I started sewing in 7th grade.  At first, I made clothes because we didn’t have much money and making was cheaper than buying.  I wasn’t a great seamstress — too hurried, too careless — but I got the job done.  In 8th grade I took sewing in Home Ec (do schools still offer Home Economics classes?), and got more practice sewing.  I made a pair of singularly unattractive peasant tops that I loved.  Then I realized that sewing was more than a money saver.  It gave me two additional gifts: 1) I could make clothes I liked that were my size, and 2) I could guarantee that no one else would have the same things I did … and that last suited my already raging ego just fine.

So.  Sewing.  I’ve gotten better over time, have made some things I’ve really loved: a blackwatch plaid, wool crepe shift that made me feel like a first lady, especially when I wore it with pearls and my excellent green Vaneli heels, a dark blue linen vest and skirt “suit” that remains the sexiest outfit I’ve ever owned, a hot pink jersey top that made the perfect backdrop for the Oingo Boingo pin I used to love, a red winter coat in a thick red wool with an enormous shawl collar that made me look like I was trying to recreate an old Blackglama ad.

But for graduation, there was no sewing.  I shopped.  I found a dress and a summer suit. Done and done.  I wore the suit to the senior dinner and the dress to my graduation.  I finished college and the got ready to watch my mom do the same.  I decided to wear the suit.

It was a cotton-linen blend with thick grey and white stripes, thicker on the jacket than the skirt.  The skirt hit just above the knee, the jacket had shoulder pads that I cringe at the thought of today. I can’t remember what shoes I wore, but they were probably pumps, probably black.

My mom went to a larger school than I did, so there were a LOT of friends and family under the big white tent that Sunday.  A lot of friends and family … and seemingly every third woman was wearing my suit!  It was a complete horror show.  Oh, there’s my suit in powder blue.  There it is in pink.  Oh, she found it in peach.  Yes, and all three of them have it in grey … so does that woman right in front of me.  Result!

Yeah.  I mentioned my vanity above.  My raging, petulant-teenager vanity.  Imagine my pleasure at seeing at least three and a half dozen women wearing my suit. Clearly it was the suit of the season.  I was right on trend!

I think about that graduation moment every spring, every time I look into shop windows and think, “Oh, that dress is kind of cute.”  I make myself remember that pretty May day full of identically dressed women, and I turn my thoughts to the beautiful new machine set up on my sewing table downstairs, and to the stack of patterns and piles of fabric waiting for me to start working on new additions to my warm weather wardrobe.

It’s spring and my thoughts turn to sewing notions, all the bits and pieces that will add up to make the closet full of new dresses I’ve been dreaming about.  Time to get started …

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Check out the rest of the slices at Two Writing Teachers!

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The one about me and Elvis.

(Not that Elvis.)

There have been a few slices this month about music and memory, songs that take us back to some particular place, time, person. I’ve written a few posts like that, too.  (My favorite is the one about Prague and She’s Crafty.) These new posts are inspiring me to dip back into that well.

There are so many songs, right?  So many memories tied to music.  The first workshop we did for Girls Write Now was “Music Memoir,” and I wrote a piece about a song that called up sadness over the loss of my father.  And then there’s the one about When Doves Cry and the memory of falling in love in Ljubljana.  So many songs.  So many memories.

The one that keeps tapping my shoulder tonight is from the same trip that gave me the Beastie Boys memories of Marek.

I spent a lot of time walking during that trip to Prague.  And a lot of time alone.  My friends all had school or jobs, so their days were spent in their lives and we would meet up after dinner.  So during the day I walked, from one end of the city to the other, through tiny cobbled streets, in and out of parks, up to the castle, back and forth across the bridges over the Vltava.  I listened to music most of the time because it was a way to put up a wall. (Hmm … that probably needs explaining, but that’s a longer story.  Maybe tomorrow.)  And although I listened to a lot of different music — Jimi Hendrix, Joe Jackson, Joni Mitchell — the song that is locked to the city for me is Elvis Costello’s (The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes.

I hear the opening beats and I’m sitting on a bench by the river, writing in my journal, trying to find the words that will make the golden light and the smell of lilacs stay alive on the page, trying to keep track of the few words I was learning in Czech, starting to work on a story that would grow into the first long story with a fully completed arc I’d ever written. I hear that song and I’m riding the tram, and I’m walking, walking, walking … up to the castle, back down through the gardens, around the Old Town, around the Kampa, stopping for coffee or ice cream (two of the three kinds of “food” I knew how to say in my first days in the city), and then starting over again.  I remember the gorgeous garden I discovered on some side street, the gate open and the ivied stone benches too inviting to pass up.  I have no idea if that was someone’s private home, a school, a business.  There was no one around for the whole time I sat there dreaming.

I haven’t been back to Prague since that trip. I imagine it is hugely different now (that visit was in the mid-80s, after all).  I hope I would still find it magical, still find at least some of the tiny corners of loveliness I found on those long walking days.

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Find all of today’s slices on Two Writing Teachers.

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Memoir on My Mind (SOLSC 10)

Because I clearly just don’t have enough projects to focus on in the miles of time I have outside of work, I’ve taken on yet another.  I signed up to be part of The Memoir Project, a project to create 500 handwritten memoirs. (There are only 475 folks participating as of this moment, so you can still go sign up!)  In brief:

Take pause and hand write a story that defines you. Your memoir can be the story of your whole existence or a specific point in your life. This collection will travel in our Mobile Library and eventually be installed in our permanent collection at The Brooklyn Art Library, preserving a common human history through the eyes of those that lived it.

I signed up in early February, and a little notebook, complete with protective “sleeping bag,” arrived in the mail a week or so ago.  I’m allowed to write my memoir however I like, as long as I don’t use objects or processes that could fall off or damage another book in the collection, and as long as I stick to the maximum book measurements (5″ wide x 7″ tall x 1″ thick — which is much thicker than the notebook that was mailed out).  And, as long as my book is straight-up ink on paper, it will be digitized as part of the collection.  And I might even have a chance to read my memoir when the tour comes home to Brooklyn this summer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the project, but I’ve yet to do any writing.  In part because I’ve been caught up with other things, but also because I’m thinking I want to make a different kind of book to write in.  I’m thinking the coptic-bound books I learned how to make at the Brainery might be good.

And, too, I’m still deciding what I want to do with my memoir.  The “story of my life” seems a little daunting to capture in one small notebook before the end of May, so “specific point in my life” seems the way to go … but how to choose?

Of course, the answer is to just start writing.  It’s much easier to make a choice when you have something to choose from.  So I think that’s my assignment: the VONA writers will be at my house in two weeks, which gives me a week to get a draft of something going so I can submit it to the group.  Time to start dragging the lake, dredge up some odd-bits from my past and start shaping them on the page …

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Click over to Two Writing Teachers to read more of today’s slices!