Peace and power

Last week I printed out a photo of Detroit’s Joe Louis Memorial, the gloriously enormous sculpture of Louis’ mighty fist. I saw it in an article someone forwarded me and immediately knew I needed it posted on the half-wall of my cubicle. Needed it.

This sculpture is one of my favorite things in the world. The first time I saw it, driving from the airport to a conference at the Renaissance Center, I was so wowed I couldn’t breathe or speak for a minute. It is a thing of absolute, graceful power and beauty. It is magnificent.

Here’s one of the pics I took of it in 2012:

I printed the photo from the article (a slightly more close-up, angled, under-the-fist view) and tacked it to my cubicle wall.

I feel it there, casting it’s dark, black spell, enveloping me in its strength and conviction.

So many times during the days since putting it on my wall, I have hung up the phone after an annoying call or looked up after reading an email that has made me sigh and shake my head, and my eyes go right to that picture, go right to that beautiful bright light.

And I feel myself become calm.

The first time I saw it, I was with the woman who was my boss. She was appalled, thought it was “so violent.” I wondered if we were looking at the same piece of art. Violent? Where? How? Could she really not see the sleek, delicious glory of it, its heavy, soul-filling affirmation?

No, she thought it was angry. Angry.

Maybe it is angry. Maybe that’s why I love it, maybe seeing it then — two years before the finally-and-for-good emergence of Angry Stacie — was the initial push, the moment when my heart felt the vibrating resonance of recognition, felt how completely I would come to embrace my rage.

I don’t think so, though. Yes, to the vibrating resonance, but not in recognition of anger, or not anger as such. Recognition of the fullness, the beauty of being exactly who I was — as big, as loud, as angry, as strong, as emotional, as articulate, as fed-the-fuck-up, as loving, as hungry as I actually was.

Which is what it’s giving me now, too. I have to swallow myself at work sometimes, hold back my honesty, pretend to a version of myself that can be made to fit the space I’m given. Like not lashing out when a superior refers to  formerly-incarcerated youth as “little criminals” and can’t seem to understand the value proposition of creating education and job training programs for them. Like not slapping the hand of the coworker who reaches out to touch my hair.

That fist is a signpost, a reminder that I’m still here. A reminder that, even when I have to walk softly, I can still fight, can still push back. That my voice can still shout, even in the dark, especially in the dark. That fist is my mantra, my affirmation, my vision board all rolled into one.

I need the picture poster-size and on my wall at home. That fist. To wake up to it, to fall asleep under its watch. Imagine.


In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … I’ve fallen behind, but I’m still committed to writing 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.

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Q is for: Quotation

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

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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.



DIY (If You Want Something Done …)

On Thursday I wrote about getting the news that I hadn’t been awarded a writing residency I’d applied for. In their comments, Heidi from Wordsmithing and Akilah from The Englishist expressed interest in the DIY writing retreat I made for myself in 2012, and Akilah’s comment made me realize that I’d never written about it. So today I will.

In 2012, I decided to send myself away to write. In both 2010 and 2011 I’d gone to VONA and had my heart and mind and craft blown wide open. For 2012, I decided not to apply, but rather to take the money I’d spend on a VONA week and create a two-week writing vacation.

I was nervous about doing it because I’d never been particularly successful with writing on vacation in the past. I’d turned out a few pages, but mostly spent my time vacationing and maybe (maybe) writing in my journal. But those had all been vacations and not specifically writing retreats, and I wanted to believe that calling my trip something different would actually help flip whatever switch in my brain needed flipping to get me to be more productive.

So I planned.

  1. Find a place to go. I searched on Flipkey (like AirBnB) for a place to go. I searched in Mexico, in the Caribbean, in France, in Canada … Everything looked great, nothing looked right. And then I clicked to an apartment in Tulum and the first photo won me. It was a slightly fuzzy picture of a sunny kitchen table. When I saw it, the first thought I had was, “I could write there.”
  2. Figure out when to go. The retreat was going to be my birthday present to myself, so I wanted to go in the fall, as close to my birthday as possible.
  3. Make a plan for writing. I made my schedule very simple: I would write all morning and go to the beach in the afternoon (it was going to be Tulum, after all, home of one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet). I also signed up for an online writing class and planned the timing of the trip so that I’d be in the middle of the course while I was in Mexico.
  4. Make a plan for what you want to get done during the retreat. There was a story I’d been fighting with. I knew that, if I was ever going to find my way through that story, I needed to understand this one character I’d been avoiding. So I decided that I’d use my retreat to write about him, to figure out who he was so that I could make sense of what he was supposed to be doing in my story. I don’t know if this part of the equation is necessary for everyone, but having a specific project in mind before I started helped me. I wound up writing other things during the retreat, but having this clear idea already laid out in my head helped me know exactly where to begin on day one.

So I was good to go. I was still worried about whether I’d get much work done, but I figured I’d done as much planning as I could or should, and that I’d have to trust myself.

I got to Tulum, the apartment was as lovely as the photos had led me to believe, I set up my writing corner of the dining table, and went to sleep early so I’d be ready to dive in with my schedule the next morning.

My schedule didn’t work out at all. Not even a little. Here is how almost all of my days went:

I got up early and had a little something for breakfast. I sat down with a cup of coffee or tea and started working. After working for a while, I started to feel ravenously hungry and had to stop writing … which would be when I’d discover that it was somehow 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon, that I had been working all day.

Two weeks in Tulum, and I made it to the beach twice. Twice. That is actually a crime, I think.

But —

I wrote like a crazy person. I wrote more in those two weeks than I normally write in a whole year.

I have never felt more content, more perfectly at ease in my body, more perfect. I was completely exhausted at the end of every day and fast asleep before 11pm … and then up with the sun to start all over again.

A big part of the success of my retreat was signing up for that online class. It was a class with Minal Hajratwala. I’d taken an online class with her once before, so I knew what to expect. Minal is an amazing and amazingly generous instructor. The materials she prepares, the exercises she gives … always fabulous. I was taking her Blueprint Your Book class during my retreat, and I had a huge breakthrough thanks to two of the exercises she gave us. She is an entirely lovely person, and if you have the chance to take one of her classes, I enthusiastically recommend it.

__________

It’s definitely not necessary to go to Tulum or to go away for two weeks to make a DIY retreat work. You can stay right in your town. You can:

  • Find an AirBnB place that’s not crazy expensive (my apartment in Tulum was $50 a night), rent it for as many days as you can, and go write.
  • Apartment swap with a friend who lives a short train ride or drive away, sit at her desk or at his kitchen table, and write.
  • Stay in a hotel for the weekend, order room service, tell housekeeping to leave you alone, and write.
  • Find a co-working space that will let you rent for 2, or 5, or 7 days, and let the fact that you’ve paid for the space inspire you to actually spend those 2, or 5, or 7 days writing.

The important things are to 1) set aside time to work, 2) be in a place where you can work without interruption, and 3) hold yourself accountable to giving yourself that time.

I’m looking forward to planning a retreat for myself for the end of the summer. I don’t know if I could ever be as insanely productive as I was in 2012, but I like having that bar to aim for.



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices

Getting Undone

The Undoing Racism training I’m attending is two and a half days. Ours will also have a day-long follow-up session next month. It’s been really interesting so far. In part, because the information and the way it’s shared is great. In part, because the facilitators are strong. In part, because I’ve met people I’ll definitely want to keep knowing after tomorrow’s session ends. In part, because some of those people are people I’ll get to work with, and it’s great to know they’ll have the same anti-racist foundation/vocabulary I have as we work on policy and programs. And in part, because two of the group members have had the courage to open themselves and be vulnerable in front of the group.

There’s the brave honesty of one of the white men in the group who is struggling with much of what he’s been hearing. I’m impressed with this man because I think other people reacting as strongly as he is would already have left the room. But he stays. He gets red in the face, and he’s having a hard time, but he stays.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not giving this man some kind of approval cookie for sharing his anger/pain/guilt-manifesting-as-frustration/whatever. I have no cookies — other than the snickerdoodles I bought for the group this afternoon. This man will have to deal with his feelings — or not — on his own. He’s clearly challenged and uncomfortable, and he’ll have to work out what to do about that.

No. I have no cookies, but I so appreciate him because, with his decision to be open in his resistance to the training, he gives the rest of us so much to talk about. There are other people in the group who seem equally challenged — a young white woman who has shut further and further down in her inability to express her discomfort, a biracial man (European and Asian) who seems conflicted about claiming an identity — but they are much more quiet in their struggles.

When I mentioned this training Tuesday, I said I was afraid that I’d walk into the room and see only people of color. I’m quite happy that didn’t happen. Yesterday we were a group of about 30, split almost equally, POC and white. We lost a couple of people today, but were still pretty evenly split. And maybe the evenness of that split makes talking up easier for that struggling man. I don’t know.

Our second brave one is a Black woman who talked about recognizing herself yesterday as a person who protects white people, who soothes and reassures them so they will feel comfortable, so that they can know we’re not (heaven’s forfend!) talking about them when we say all this stuff about implicit bias and white privilege.

I appreciate her for her own sake but also for mine, for the fact that I recognized myself as a protector, too, but chose to process that in my head and not aloud. While it’s true that I haven’t been much of a protector of late, the pull is still there. As soon as I hear the hurt in someone’s response to what I’ve said or written, I want to reach out and let them know how great I think they, individually, are. I’ve mostly been able to refrain from doing that. And hearing the facilitators talk directly about that yesterday was a harsh spotlight for me. And a necessary one.

I knew before I’d gone through a full hour of yesterday’s session that I would want to take this training again. Today cemented that knowledge. People often take it more than once — one of the men in our group has been six times already! — but I hadn’t expected to be ready to re-up so quickly. There’s a lot to learn about how to have these kinds of conversations from watching the ways our facilitators guide conversations and push people out of their comfort zones. And the conversations change each time because, even though the training stays the same, the facilitators and groups change each time.

So curious to see what tomorrow’s work will be. And what our one-month-later session will be in April.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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Talking the Talk

Tomorrow, at long and great last, I will start the Undoing Racism training that’s offered by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I have been trying to attend this training for years. So now I will. I’m nervous about it, but I’m also looking forward to it.

And perhaps it’s coming at the exact right moment. After all, starting this week when I order my Grande Chai Latte (2 extra pumps, whole milk, extra hot, with whipped cream), I could be invited into a conversation about race with my barista. No, really. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has launched his Race Together gimmick, ploy, money-making scheme, social awareness campaign.

I feel a few kinds of ways about this. I live in a city where it might be both easier and harder to have the conversation Schultz seems to want to generate. But I still have doubts about the potential for success. How have baristas — in this city and across the country –been trained to have this conversation? Have all of them gone through the training I’m about to embark on? How is it that Schultz thinks he is the man to start this conversation? I have extreme wariness. This could be an amazing, world-changing  thing. It could also be a fail beyond measure. And it could make it that much harder for this much-needed conversation to happen in a real way.

Full disclosure: I have every intention of buying more Starbucks in the next few weeks. (So yes, perhaps Schultz’s work is done?) Because I want to see what happens. I might want to find the little “Race Together” message on my cup, but I’m actually more interested in watching other people respond to that invitation. Good thing we just had a pay-week, eh?

In the mean time, I’ll be headed to this long-awaited training. As I said, I’m nervous about it. I’m not worried about the People’s Institute. I have all faith in their training. I’m worried about who’s going to be there with me. I’ve been to trainings in the past that have had similar goals. They have all been … less. Less than what I wanted, less than what the organizers intended, less. At two such trainings, the only staff who signed up were the staff of color. At the third, it was all the staff of color, and one white woman who didn’t claim whiteness. Not that people of color don’t need these trainings. Of course we do. But the fact that none of my white colleagues* in those old jobs saw the need to be in the conversation said so much to me about them, about my work environments, about the casual, comfortable obliviousness of privilege.

So I’m nervous about tomorrow. I don’t want to walk into that training room and see six black and brown people. This is work for everyone, and I want to see everyone at the table. I want to have this conversation … and maybe I even want to have it with a barista.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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* Or, none of my colleagues who were willing to claim whiteness — I don’t mean to be so snarky about that … but (clearly) I kind of do, too.

The Empire (well … Edward) Strikes Back

And here is the delicately-skillful coda to Friday’s meeting/my outraged post.

Speaker Man told Edward that he should write a “nice” email to raise his issue. And Edward has done him one better, writing a lovely email thick with chapter-and-verse detail backing up the comment he made Friday. It’s calm, measured, and entirely on point. I might have been able to go that far, but Edward does me one better, too. He is generous. He raises the dialogue far above the hiss-and-spit level to which Speaker Man lowered it. He gives Speaker Man and Facilitator Woman the benefits of many doubts. He is … well, he is exactly the man I’ve always known him to be.

I shared my “Speaker Man” post with Edward. He liked it, but his own writing is so much stronger. His level response to Speaker Man is scathing in its gentle insistence on civility and the laying out of facts. He is the kind of deft, razor-sharp advocate the table-beaters — of 50 years ago and today — love. The community residents and the field he champions are lucky, lucky, lucky.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014