Making the Heart Grow Fonder

When I have conversations about quarantine — which is, unsurprisingly, all the damn time — there is always a moment where I mention that I haven’t visited my family since February. (Presidents’ Day weekend, to be exact.) Whoever is in the conversation expresses some level of sympathy, and the conversation moves on.

I realized the other day that saying I haven’t visited my mother, brother, and sister since February doesn’t mean anything. I said it in April, said it in June … But some of the people I talk to maybe visit their families once a year, so my lament doesn’t hold any weight in their understanding, while it’s huge for me.

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting my family once a month. I’ve missed a month here and there, but generally, I’ve held my schedule. I visit because I love them and they are a few states away from me, and I miss them. I also visit because they love me and my being in the same place with them eases some of the tension in the air there. It gives us a chance to have conversations we don’t have over phone or email, let’s us do the regular maintenance requires on those ties that bind, gives us opportunities to laugh at foolish inside jokes, to look at old photos … and just be alive in the same space, together.

And I haven’t been to visit in five months. It’s starting to feel like a year. And the virus is still rampaging, and my job is staying virtual for the fall semester, so it might really be a year.

In these five months apart, I’ve missed each of their birthdays: first my sister’s early in lockdown, when we thought it might not last too long, then my mother’s, and just over a week ago, my brother’s. In about 6 weeks, my own birthday will be coming up. It’s on a Friday this year, so I would definitely have been spending it with them. My mother turned 84 last month.

Yes, I sound whiny. I am whiny. I know that I’m incredibly lucky. I am safe and healthy and working from home. My family is safe and healthy — even though my brother and sister are both officially “essential” and still have to leave the house and work. Our broader circle of immediate family are mostly safe and healthy (our Texas family is in the hot-zone with the virus creeping closer every day). I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m unscathed. I don’t make a lot of noise about what COVID is stealing from me, about the ways my life has changed since the start of lockdown, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it.

Absence is purported to make the heart grow fonder. I suppose. But I’m already supremely fond of my family. All this absence is adding up to sadness and frustration.

I need one of my mother’s hugs.

Unlocking Doors

Whoo, in a much better mood than last night. Thank goodness. 🙂

Sometimes it’s just like that. You get cranky, and it is what it is. I can’t do anything to change people who get on my nerves, but I can for-sure change how I respond. Again, thank goodness.

Today I started a writing, meditation, and self-care challenge (yes, because I have soooo much time on my hands, while working more than time and trying to write these poems and keep up with the forever essay challenge … yeah). I started thinking about two vacations I took with my mother years ago and how wonderful it was to see her slide out of herself and into a woman I’d never seen before. The trips were very different, and what I saw in her was very different one trip to the next, but both pleased me enormously. So I thought I’d write today’s poem for the me who did that traveling with her. Then I realized I didn’t want to cram both trips into one poem, so I’ve pulled them apart. Tonight is the first trip, a week on the southern coast of Jamaica. Just thinking about it makes me smile.


Dreaming inside Her Dreams
Forty-seven, traveling with my mother

The first morning in Jamaica
you found her on the verandah
her eyes full of the sea
her face soft and open.
Yes, you thought. She understands now.
Yes, she said. I see what you meant.
She relaxed into the heat,
chatted up fishermen
played dominoes
drank from a coconut fresh from the tree
drank in the quiet
drank in the comfort
showed you a face you’d never seen
so still, so at ease, so beautiful.

Maybe she was the woman you would have met
had she chosen that road not taken.
You watched her, fascinated
in love
and also sad
denying that life not taken
made your life possible.
Did she give up ease to give you everything,
to give you the chance to find this place
to dream a life so different from hers?

But here, this perch above the waves
this lavender heaven,
this you can give her
can share with her
and watch her sigh and smile,
be waiting for her when she arrives
whole and happy
sun glittering through her silver curls.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Getting by with a little help from our friends.

Rearranging my position
On this friend of mine who had
A little bit of a breakdown.
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go.
What are you gonna do about it,
That’s what I’d like to know … *
The all-important question that I won’t be asking anyone any time soon.
Had a troubling conversation earlier with a friend who is definitely entering cabin-fever-freak-out territory. She’s been home longer than I have and called me today to discuss some catastrophe options she has been debating with herself.
Let me just say here that discussing — in a level of painful detail — catastrophe options is not a thing I want to be spending my time doing out loud. It’s bad enough that I have these thoughts from time to time. I don’t need to say them into the cosmos.
My friend is really scared, and I feel for her. We are scared. Most of us, maybe especially here in New York City, are scared. That’s real. And the reality of it makes it hard to take on someone else’s fears along with our own.
I said this to my friend, and she laughed. She acknowledged that she’d had “a stress explosion” all over me. “But,” she said, “didn’t I also give you today’s blog post?”
And look at that. She did.
I don’t want my friend to be so scared. She’s having trouble being home alone for such an extended period of time. That’s a problem I’m not having, so I tried to help her think of ways to fill her time more effectively. What she really needs, of course, is not to be on lockdown. I can’t do that for her. I offered to spend time with her virtually, as long as that time wasn’t spent thinking of all the terrible things that could become realities. I definitely can’t do that for her. We’re going to try streaming movies together. I hope something about that experience helps her.
It’s hard to take care of people from a distance. But this is what we have. We have each other long distance. We have whatever ways we can reach out, whatever ways we can offer calm, whatever ways we can be a listening ear, whatever ways we can offer a welcome distraction. Whatever ways.
__________
* Paul Simon, “Gumboots” (Graceland)

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


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.

If at first you don’t succeed …

I am a writing mentor with Girls Write Now, and I get the pleasure of working with Sophia, who is an entirely fabulous young woman. She’s a senior, and we’re in our third year together. I adore her, and still can’t guess how GWN was able to make such a perfect pairing.

We had our pair session today. We meet in a coffee shop near my office. I arrived a little ahead of Sophia and snagged a booth, our favorite spaces in this cafe. I fished in my bag for notebook and pen and looked up and there was Sophia, not looking her usual self. She gave me a half smile and slid in across from me.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said.

“Mmmhmm. Why don’t I believe you?”

She smiled a more real smile. “I hate saying ‘I’m in a funk,’ but I think that’s the only thing to say. I’m in a funk.”

“Why do you hate to say it?”

“It’s so dramatic. Sounds like I’m talking in a book.”

Ha. I like that. “Talking in a book.”

After some conversation, Sophia put the source of her funk on the table, announcing a bit flippantly that she is suffering through a mid-life crisis. She is feeling that she should have accomplished more by this time in her life. She is seventeen.

But I totally understand how she’s feeling. I told her she was a little early, that I hadn’t had my first midlife crisis until I was 18. We talked about where these feelings come from and how to deal with them. Sophia said she figured she’d have her next crisis at 25 (as I did), and that each time she had one, she’d move the goal posts down a few years, maybe to 30, maybe to 35.

As our conversations pretty much always do, we moved on to talk about a thousand other things. We talk all over the place, as if we have a shared stream of consciousness. At one point, we were talking about the ocean, about snorkeling, about how alien we feel about being in the ocean, about swimming, about rainbow fish and stingrays and manta rays and jelly fish …

And I suddenly thought of Diana Nyad and watching footage of one of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida and her being stung by box jellyfish. Both of us reached for our phones and looked her up. And we marveled at her decades-long push toward the goal of being the first person to complete that swim, and the fact that she accomplished it at 64.

Sophia put her phone down and looked at me. “She’s like us,” she said. I will admit, that took me totally by surprise because, as much as I might like it to be true, I don’t see a lot of similarities between me and Diana Nyad.

“No, she is,” Sophia insisted. “She tried to do this thing in her 20s and she didn’t make it. So she pushed the goal ahead a few years and a few years and a few years. And then she did it!”

I love that she drew this connection, and that it seemed to make her feel less of that funk she’d been carrying when she walked into the cafe. We said our goodbyes with Sophia looking more upbeat, more herself, than when she’d arrived. We’d only written for about 15 minutes, but we covered some good ground today.

I also love thinking about Nyad’s accomplishment. Thirty-six years working toward a single, precious goal. And, to my mind, being all the more impressive for achieving that goal at 64 than she would have been had she succeeded at 28. I think I’ve left mid-life crises behind me at this point, but I am holding onto this idea of Diana Nyad, this idea of staying true to my dreams and continuing to push for them even if I have tried and failed again and again.


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!