Long Day’s Journey into … Tears

Had my first crying-on-the-job moment at the new job today. I guess that’s one of the perks of working from home, right? No one had to see it. I could click my camera off during the zoom meeting and just focus on keeping my voice together. And then when we were done, I could just put my head in my hands and sob for a few minutes.

… Not too many minutes, though, because I knew my boss would call to make sure I was okay, and I needed to have a normal, not-sniffly, not-weepy voice for that convo.

Sigh.

Not the first time I’ve realized that my stock-up plan for sheltering in place was deeply flawed in that it didn’t include any wine.


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

Pondering the Pantoum

Hey, friends, it’s Pi Day! I neither baked nor ate pie today, and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is our rapid progression toward April and me still with no idea what form I’ll focus on for National Poetry Month.

For folks who are new to this sleepy space, that’s a thing I do: pick a poetic form and explore it by writing a poem in that form every day for the month.

… or try to. I ran aground last year. I chose to write a pantoum a day. I also decided to dedicate the month to Say Her Name and have each day’s poem be for or about a Black woman who’d been killed by the police. I broke my own heart every day writing those poems, and I didn’t make it through the full month.

Part of me wants to stick with the pantoum this year. It’s an interesting form and I have the feeling I’ve got more of them in me. I don’t imagine that I can put myself through another Say Her Name month, however. It’s just too painful. There are, however, plenty more women to write about. And, too, I didn’t think I did Eleanor Bumpurs justice. Hers was my April 1st poem (this is an “of course” for anyone who knows me). The first poems of the new form are always my roughest, and I always thought I’d go back to her, end the month with her.

I’m undecided. There are, after all, so many other forms to explore. It seems … lazy almost to stick with the same form two years in a row. I did that with the arun, though. We’ll see.

I wonder if we’ll still be socially distancing and self-isolating come April. Seems likely the answer will be yes. Maybe more yes then than it is now. And I wonder if that will make a difference in the feel or quality of what I write, if my writing will see claustrophobic somehow. I guess we’ll see about that, too.

I’m not totally decided. I’m still looking around at other forms, but that pantoum is calling my name just now.

What are you planning for National Poetry Month? How do you celebrate? Do you write a poem a day? Do you make sure to have a poem in your pocket? Do you post your favorite poems on your blog or FB page? Are you already planning your month … or are you marveling at how nerdy I am to be thinking this hard about this so many weeks before the fact?


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

Fleshing Out the Five: Parlor Tricks

So … I’ve decided to make a post about each of the random facts I included in my Counting to Five post. Is this cheating? I think not! Besides, my brain is tired. All the awful drama unfolding with this virus and people’s responses to it is a lot. So I’ll dip into these little stories and give us all a break. So, in no particular order  …

The third item on my list was:

I was once the host of a party at which a friend’s +1 thought his clever party trick would be to insert himself into groups and diagram the sentences of everyone trying to have a conversation. <sigh>

Yeah, it’s hard to be a hostess. It’s particularly hard for someone like me who suffers from Manic Hostess Behavior. And to have this guy show up at my party and start diagramming people’s sentences … the peak of petrification for a manic hostess. For realz.

There isn’t much of a story here, but there are all the things I think about this incident. A friend’s parents have an extraordinary apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This friend, another friend, and I would sometimes throw ginormous parties when said parents were traveling. We invited crazy numbers of people. We had the idea that our different friend groups should meet, that surely they would like one another as much as my two girlfriends and I liked each other. This turned out to be true and not-true, of course, because that’s how things go.

And that is how, at one of our parties, I walked up to a group of surprised-looking people and found this guy. Had he been a simultaneous interpreter, that would have been cool. But a simultaneous diagrammer? That’s weird. Totally impressive, to be sure, but still weird. And also annoying, as it gets in the way of smooth-flowing conversation.

He was getting quite a kick out of himself. I remember him laughing each time he finished a sentence and could imagine him mentally making a little hash mark, like notches on a headboard: “And one more!” I played good hostess, stepping in to let those people find their way out of the non-conversation. I allowed a few of my own sentences to be diagrammed as I led him to the snack table. I wound up doing that several times before finally giving up.

Giving up is, of course, complete hostess fail. How could I abandon my guests to that nonsense? But I couldn’t bear another go-round with him. And he wasn’t even the +1 of one of the folks I’d invited. I just couldn’t let him be my responsibility all night, not if I wanted to enjoy some of the party my own self.

Okay, real talk. Being able to diagram a sentence on the fly is amazing, but who walks into a party thinking this skill is how they will make friends and influence people? And how hard does one have to practice at home to develop this skill? And, if you have this skill, why would you need to demonstrate it with every single sentence uttered by anyone standing near you?

Trust me, sir, this is neither necessary nor welcome. And that girl you’re trying to hit on? She’s already seen you do this really weird and annoying thing, seen you do it over and over again, even with the sentences you’re saying to her as you try to chat her up. It is not working. It really is not. Stop now.

It can be super awkward going to a party where you know exactly one person. I get that. I’ve been that person, and I’m really not good at it. This is still the wrong parlor trick to pull, uninvited, out of your hat. I say “uninvited” because it might actually work if you handled it differently. Maybe you told everyone in the group that you had this talent and challenged them to try to stump you. Then everyone would be in on the fun and you wouldn’t be cutting conversations off at the knees by inserting your diagrams all over the place. In this scenario, your skill would be a game everyone could play. I think that’s probably the only way this would ever be enjoyable for other people in the group.

None of that is what happened at that long-ago party, however. The young woman that guy tried to hit on immediately removed herself from his presence. So did most of the other people he threw diagrams at.

And me, the manic hostess? That party was decades ago, and I still remember this weirdness. I can’t remember anything else about the party, but I remember this. Ugh.

 


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

Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

__________

* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

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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.