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.

A Head Full of Dreams

Tonight I had the pleasure of finding myself at Carnegie Hall for the last of this season’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra subscription. The evening was all Schubert and Prokofiev, and it was fabulous.

It also reminded me of something wacky and fabulous. Years and years ago — maybe in the mid-80s? — I had a series of dreams that had nothing to do with one another … except that each contained the same moment. The dream would be running along whatever it’s course was, and then everything would pause. All the people in the dream would turn and look in the same direction down the street, and at the end of the street a train would be passing on an elevated track. It would be moving in slow motion and was always ornately decorated. As it passed, Prokofiev would be playing.
This happened in dream after dream for maybe 10 days or two weeks. I have no idea what could have been going on in my subconscious at the time and why it required cinematic Prokofiev accompaniment, but there it was.
The complete craziness of dreams always astounds me. How our brains cook them up, how they do and don’t make sense, the things you can and can’t read into them … it all fascinates me.
I’d forgotten about the Prokofiev train until midway through tonight’s concert. I’m glad Orpheus brought it back to me. That’s definitely a dream worth remembering!

It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

I don’t know anything about classical music. I’ve played some — back in my mercifully short career as a high school flutist. I’ve sung a fair bit. I have favorite pieces. There are symphonies I love, composers who generally never let me down, but I don’t actually know anything. I haven’t studied, don’t understand intricacies or what makes one piece speak to me and another leave me cold. I’m that classic, “I know what I like,” kind of fan.

I could fix my ignorance, of course, take classes that would give me the background and vocabulary for all the things I don’t know how to say about this music. I don’t mind my not-knowing, however. Not really. I like coming to this music following my heart, my emotional response, rather than paying close attention to my head.

Last year and this — and again for next year — I have bought not one but two subscriptions to concert series at Carnegie Hall. And they’ve been all classical music all the time. Last year, one of the series was all Russian composers, and that was pretty fabulous. I hadn’t really thought about having a particular love for the Russians, but apparently my musical tastes run similarly to my early literature-reading tastes. Give me the Russians (shame to think this is something I’d have in common with THOTUS)!

The final concert of my subscriptions for this season, the last of my Philadelphia Orchestra performances, was Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. Of the three, as much as I have discovered myself as a lover of Mozart (I resisted at first because it seemed too easy, too obvious — he was someone I was supposed to like), the Bernstein and the Schumann won me, with the Bernstein resonating most deeply.

Just as I love choral singing — my one voice melded into a crowd of others — I love orchestral music, love the singular pieces all playing together to make a whole. And the beautiful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the dynamic and gracious conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite moment? At the end of the first movement of the Bernstein, the percussionist is called upon toe use maracas (what does the scoring look like for maracas, I wonder) … and he picks them up … and uses them as drumsticks to play the timpani!! That, truly, was everything. Every last thing.

* * *

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook about how self-doubt creeps in on me, makes me question whether I’m really a writer at all, whether I should just quit messing around and use my time more productively. Watching the orchestra, I wondered if that doubt is fueled, in part, by the solitary echo chamber that is writing. As a member of an orchestra, you can see and hear your work every time you take up your instrument. Your place in the larger whole comes back to you as harmony, rhythm, a full and beating heart of sound. And watching the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of some of the self-care I know my creative self needs, things I haven’t been making time for.

I like writing in community. I don’t mean that I like working on group writing projects (although that sounds like fun and could someone please propose one for me to join you on?). No, I mean that I like being around other writers while I’m working. I like basking in and soaking up that creative energy. I like not being alone, like working next to folks who get what I’m trying to do, having those folks be right there when frustration or procrastination hit.

And I know this. But somehow I allow myself to forget. Over and over. Somehow I set aside this vital truth and, instead of finding more ways to write in community, I isolate myself so I can get some work done … and I grind myself down smaller and smaller until I get almost nothing done at all.

My smart, talented lovely friend Lisa wrote a manifesto for nurturing her creativity while nurturing her new child. She drafted it on a dramatic length of butcher paper and hung it on her wall. I’m thinking bout that now, the larger-than-life, in everyone’s face commitment of that butcher paper. I’m thinking I need something similarly large, large like the poster I’ll be making of the Joe Louis fist, large enough that I can’t help but see it and can’t possibly ignore or forget about it.

It needs to say obvious things like “write in community,” but also things like “keep your Carnegie subscription,” “go to the singalong Messiah,” “go to the theater.”

And you’ll notice how few of those things have specifically to do with pen and paper, with me actually doing some writing. But I think that’s another part of the point. Because yes, I need to sit down and work — with other people when that’s possible — but I also need to feed my creativity. When Julia Cameron wrote about “filling the well” in The Artist’s Way, she wasn’t talking about writing every minute of every day. She was talking about the exact opposite, about the fact that we can’t create if the well is dry, if we never give ourselves the chance to take in beauty, nature, music … whatever is going to replenish our spirits so that we can sit down and do the work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is definitely a well-filler, but my Carnegie season is finished. I won’t be back in my second tier box until the fall. But there are so many things I can do in the mean time. I have a whole summer of well-filling ahead of me, a whole summer to remember to make artist dates and friend dates … and writing dates. I have a friend with whom I have semi-regular writing dates. First summer task: do a better job of making those dates more “regular” than “semi.” It’s a start.

__________

(There was no way I could resist using that title. As soon as I started writing this post, it came flying up from the deepest depths of my memory. I couldn’t even remember what songs OMD were known for, but the name was right there, ready for me to scoop it up. I went to The Google, and was reminded of If You Leave. Oh yes, it all comes back to me now …)



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

M is for: My Mother’s House

“Home” is wherever my mother lives. Which means home has been places I’ve never actually lived like Boulder, Colorado, and Rockville, Maryland. Anywhere she is, when I go there, I’m going “home.”

And here I am for this Easter weekend, for the belated celebration of Fox’s birthday. Home. With my family. The place I can always be the absolute, 100%, full, entire Stacie. I can say every nonsensical thing, can be as unclever as I sometimes am, can look a mess, can just breathe deeply. I have that ease with some of my friends, but it’s still not the same as what I feel at home. Even when it’s tense here, there’s still that comfortable pocket of freedom to be myself. I feel supremely lucky to have this space.

And tonight, Fox and I are hanging out, listening to music, watching videos … and it’s all I want.

__________

Orishas

A Lo Cubano
pulsing on the stereo —
this music, my heart
every beat calling my name.
What is the secret
connecting this to my soul?
Piece of history
or a piece of who I am:
under my skin, beyond words.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



E is for: Earworm

Yes, of course I’m still watching April. Tell me you’re not. How are you managing to resist?

But I have other things going on, too. Thank heavens for multi-tasking skills.

__________

There is a random man I see on my way home from time to time. He’s one of my “bus neighbors,” someone I don’t know but recognize because we’re both regulars on the B65.

He seems a nice enough man, but he drives me crazy because he’s always listening to his music and doesn’t use headphones. Last night I learned that he’s bought himself a little bluetooth speaker!

He plays music I like, for the most part, but that’s not entirely the point. If I’m trying to read or write (or sleep), that music is the bane of my existence. If, like tonight, a song gets caught in my head … GAAAAH!!

Till We Just Can’t

Your repetition
driving me out of my mind.
Same nonsense words, looped
over, over … and again.
You keep telling me
to “get up on the floor” —
you’ve been telling me
near a solid forty years —
If I dance, will you fade out?

This, of course, is utter I’m-so-tired foolishness, but it is also a chōka, and I’m going to take these where I find them until I can get some rest and try to find some deeper inspiration.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7.



Alliterative Descriptors — Blackety Black Edition

I stopped watching Scandal early-ish in Season 5. I was so tired, and it was so convoluted and conniving, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Then last week I went back. The new season is on and I wanted to be able to peek in and understand where everyone was and how they got there. So I went to Netflix and slid into Season 5. From the top.

And you know? Never mind that it’s still convoluted and conniving and crazy and cringe-worthy and all the other alliterative descriptors I might think to use. Never mind that I can’t stand Fitz and have never found that man – the character or the actor, but so particularly the character – attractive. Never mind that even Olivia turns me off and annoys the crap out of me most of the time. Never mind all of that. I need to be watching Scandal, desperately need what this show is giving me.

How have I never noticed the music? How have I managed to watch four seasons and never notice the music? Where have my ears been? This show – which should come as no surprise – is so Black. But sooo Black. Powerfully, unashamedly, doggedly, determinedly. If it had a theme song, it would have to be the fabulously nonsensical yet bizarrely affirming “I’m Black,Y’all.”

And it’s not because Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope is the primary character, although yes, she’s part of it. And Joe Morton as Papa Pope is part of it – he is, after all, everyone’s favorite Brother from Another Planet. But the Popes are barely in the real world, certainly not anywhere near what my real world looks and feels and smells like. They are definitely Black, but they don’t make the show Black. No. For me, all that unapologetic Blackness is in the music. The soundtrack to Season 5 is a glorious celebration of Black music as Black voice, Black mood, Black conscience … and I am so here for it.

Maybe I never noticed this before because I didn’t need it as much in the past as I do in this moment. Maybe I stopped watching in part because I was getting further and further away from Pope-world and the cognitive dissonance was too much for me. And, while I’m still plenty far from Pope-world today, I need to dive in anyway, need to gather as much Blackness around me as possible. So I was drawn back to the show … and found my heart and soul waiting for me there, the running conversation under the scenes.

Just so you know:

  • You Got the Love — Rufus (yes, featuring Chaka Khan)
  • Got to Be Real — Cheryl Lynn
  • Do Right Woman, Do Right Man — Aretha Franklin
  • How Do You Keep the Music Playing — James Ingram and Patti Austin
  • You’re All I Need to Get By — Aretha Franklin
  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) — Stevie Wonder

That’s just in the tiniest toe of a dip into the first four episodes, people! So 👏 damn 👏 black 👏.

On Sunday I went to a meeting of an anti-racist group. It was a meeting only for the POC members of the group. They meet monthly, and I’ve been wanting to go for a while, but Sunday was the first time my schedule allowed it.

And then I woke up Sunday, and the weather was awful: iced-over snowy rain and so cold! I didn’t want to leave my cozy apartment, and certainly not to head downtown to a meeting place right by the river!

But the chance to sit in community with a group of POC working for social justice and equity was too great a lure. I got my act together and got myself to DUMBO.

Thank goodness, too. Those two hours were fresh air. I could be as serious, silly, snarky, angry, frustrated, amused, or sad as I wanted, and no one expected me to explain, defend, modulate, or disappear my feelings. I could just have them.

And so I gathered a little more Blackness to me, wrapped myself in it as I would a fleece and mink blanket. Blackness — POC-ness — is the balm for my head and heart these days. I’m not closing doors on white folks. Can’t afford anything like that. There’s too much work to be done.

There is so much work. And I won’t get any of it done if I don’t look out for myself, find ways to take care of myself. I need to remember my sanctuary spaces, need to find myself some peace, need to put some shine on all the Blackness, all the big, bold, bodacious, brazen, blackety, black Blackness. Those alliterative descriptors are set to become my new mantra.

Time to slip back in. Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron, and more Aretha on deck. Shonda clearly has my back in this fight.

“I’m black y’all, and I’m black y’all
and I’m blackety black, and I’m black y’all …”


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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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It’s Slice-of-Life Tuesday! Click on the badge to visit Two Writing Teachers and see what the other slicers are writing today!

That’s How Strong

Today was a Girls Write Now day. A chilly-warm day that gave enough of a tease of spring that I wore a short jacket and my favorite of my new dresses … more fool me. Because this dress has a loose, flippy skirt, and it’s a windy chilly-warm day that has had me doing an awkward Seven Year Itch reenactment every three seconds everywhere I go. Hardly ideal (but also comical, I can’t deny it).

No matter. GWN was great. I had, as always, a great time seeing and writing with my mentee. I saw another mentee I love but don’t often get to see. I met anotger mentor and discovered a shared passion for Octavia Butler. And I started a piece that could definitely turn into something. Result!

Tonight I went to an Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert with RedEmma. A creativity-and-culture-filled day is always a good thing. The concert was excellent. Because the music was lovely, because RE had seats in the second tier boxes, and because we arrived early enough to have a delightful conversation with an even more delightful couple who joined us in the box.

I’m on my way home now, hoping I can cap the day with a poem I like as much as last night’s (and get it posted by midnight!). Hmmm … not likely, but let’s see what I can do.

Staying Power

“Only the best for you, babe,” he says, handing her into the red, plush seat, standing a moment to be sure she’s comfortable. “We’re together 71 years,” she tells me. Only the best, I think. For nearly three-quarters of a century. I can’t fathom them. My fantasies of “long-term” fall decades short, don’t graze twenty. Seventy-one is outside my ken. Laughing at each other’s jokes, ready to tell strangers how they met. Almost three-quarters of a century. He gets a special smile when he remembers seeing her the first time, still calls her “babe.” I’m seeing them, hearing Otis as their sound track, giving me “That’s how strong my love is.” Yeah. All of that.


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Are you writing poems this month? Where can I see them? Let’s share this craziness!

As I did last year, I’ll be following along with the Poem-A-Day challenge at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides Blog. Today’s prompt is to write a seasonal poem, but my day had other ideas. You can post your daily poems on Brewer’s page. The top poem from each day will be included in an anthology later this year!