The Trouble with Columbus

Still playing catch-up, posting things I’ve written over the last few weeks but couldn’t post because of my internet-less home. I’m mobile hotspotting it tonight, so I’m taking advantage and trying to catch up with my essay count for the year. This essay is one I wrote after a trip back to Crown Heights near the end of January. I went to see my old landlords and collect the last of my things from the old apartment.


I know a fair amount of white people. And I like and even love a sizable subset of those people. They are coworkers, friends, made family. They are people I would trust — have trusted — with my health, my safety. They are people I’ve turned to for emotional and financial support. When I say, “some of my best friends are white,” it makes me laugh, but it’s also true.

But white people — the monolithic grindstone that is white people — break my heart daily, enrage me daily. white people force me, daily, to wonder how it is I am able to maintain relationships with any of their number.

I spent my Saturday in Crown Heights, my old neighborhood, the community I left a few weeks ago. The particular part of Crown Heights where I lived is one of the places in the city that has gentrified at breakneck speed. In the ten years I was there, the rapid-fire turnover of residents from mostly Black to more and more and more white was shocking and distressing to watch. When my landlords told me in the fall that I’d have to move, I knew that staying in the area would be a near impossibility.

Because, of course, with white people come higher and higher rents. And in my ten years of tenancy, rents had raced to dizzying highs well beyond what I was paying for my gorgeous, large, storage-rich apartment with washer and dryer and back garden.

And when I looked at apartments in the neighborhood in my price range they were a) half the size of my place (or smaller), b) badly kept up and clearly not as livable as my place, c) devoid of closets or cooking space or both, d) cut into strange shapes to carve as many apartments out of a formerly single-family home as possible, or e) all or a combination of the above. So it’s no surprise that my new apartment is not in Crown Heights.

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday, I passed the new Nagle’s Bagels on Nostrand and Dean, saw an even newer Tribeca Pediatrics office on Nostrand and Bergen. There’s a lot of new on and around Nostrand — cute bars, over-priced sandwich shops, gourmet markets.

There are still plenty of Black businesses in the neighborhood, still plenty of Black folks in the neighborhood, but for how long? How many of those businesses will be able to meet the rent demands of landlords who want to cash in on the neighborhood’s new, white popularity? How many of those Black residents, like me, will be pushed out when the need to move arises and the rents around them are so much higher than they’ve been paying that they can’t afford to stay?

There are a lot of reasons why neighborhoods gentrify. Crown Heights was surely an easy target because it has amazing housing stock and it’s beautiful: well-kept brownstones, ornate apartment buildings with courtyards and gardens, small pretty parks, close to major subway lines. And the bonuses: a good number of older homeowners looking to leave the city who don’t have family to come and take on a large home in Brooklyn, and a lot of lower-middle income and low-income renters who could be swapped out for folks able to pay more.

I’m not surprised that white people started moving to Crown Heights. I just question why white people have to live everywhere. Yes, a neighborhood may be nice. Does that mean it needs to be overtaken by white folks? There are plenty of nice neighborhoods that are already full of white folks. Yes, they’re more costly than the majority brown and Black communities, but that makes sense as Black and brown folks, on average, earn far less and therefore have less money than white folks.

Can we just live? Can we just have nice neighborhoods in which we can continue to live and thrive? Why do white people have to live every-damn-where? Why do brown and Black folks have to be pushed out of every place we’ve called home?

My old neighborhood is beautiful … because the Black folks who’ve lived there for decades made it beautiful, kept it beautiful, valued living in a beautiful community. No one was feeling house-proud with the hope that one day white people would move in and make the neighborhood “worth” something. The neighborhood was already worth something. It was home. And it was lovely.

Yes, I sound bitter. I am bitter. Gentrification has driven me out of nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to New York 30 years ago.

I am lucky. I know that. I am lucky because a) I make a decent salary and b) I have only myself to take care of. Yes, I have my mountain of baby-making debt, but even with that, I am able to have some options when it comes to choosing where I live. But even though I am lucky, my options were still too slim to enable me to stay in Crown Heights or any of the neighborhoods that came before Crown Heights: Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene. I am lucky, and still the white tide has once again swept me out of my home. How much worse is this situation for people with children, for people with lower salaries than mine?

I am still lucky. I was able to move into a majority-brown neighborhood. My rent is higher than what I was paying, but I will be able to make it work (please God!). I am further away from some of the comforts I’d grown accustomed to — a good grocery store, for one. But I have a beautiful apartment that already makes me happy and into which I am (slowly) unpacking and settling. I am lucky.

But for how long? Gentrification has already begun here — which is why my rent is so high. There are already plenty of white folks living here, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a Connecticut Muffin opens somewhere nearby, ringing the death knell for my tenure here.

And I just have to ask why, white people, why? Why can’t you leave some parts of the city alone, leave them for the folks you’ve already priced out of the rest of the city? Why do you have to live everywhere?

 

As I do for so many things, I blame Columbus, the first gentrifier, the man I hold responsible for planting the idea that white folks get to claim whatever land they see if they like it. Never mind that someone else is living there. Never mind that someone else has cultivated that land and made it a desirable spot. If white folks see something they covet, they simply claim it. And to hell with anyone else and their pre-existing claim.

The trouble with Columbus is that white folks have never stopped being Columbus. And the structures at the foundation of this society, the structures that continue to be strengthened every day, ensure that there will always be white folks with the means to Columbus whatever they covet, ensure that it will always be difficult if not impossible for someone like me to hold her ground. I have no ground, nothing to hold. I live wherever I live at the pleasure of white people. The moment they begin to covet what I have, I’ll have to be looking for the next place because I don’t have any ability to compete.

There was a moment in the late 90s when I was maybe in a position to buy an apartment. I didn’t know enough about money, credit, or real estate to recognize that moment, however, and it passed. Without my fertility debt, I’d be in a position to buy something now, but that’s not where I am, and this could be the last moment or one of the last. And realizing that makes me feel even more strongly the fetid, Columbusing breath of gentrification on the back of my neck. Makes Arrested Development’s lyrics play that much more loudly in the back of my head.

Got land to stand on, then you can stand up
stand up for your rights — as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand
ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

Got some land to stand on
no more achin’ for the acres
no beggin’ for leftovers
got some space of my own.
Got some grounds to raise on
no more achin’ for the acres
no givin’ to the takers
got some land to leave on.


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.

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Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

By Your Leave

Louis CK wants your permission. He wants you to make it okay that he whips out his penis in front of women who have expressed no desire to see it. He wants you to read his apology and decide that you can still like him, still stan for him, still want to see his comedy routines and his shows and his movies.

I mean, of course that’s what he wants. That’s his livelihood. So yes. That’s what he wants.

But he also wants your permission … to pretty much continue being exactly the same. He wants you to understand that his relationship with his penis is about using it to exert his privileged power over those he sees as his to dominate. He likes showing it to women, likes playing with it to their sometimes hysterical horror.

Some of us recoiled in anger and disgust when we heard Donald Trump say that, when you’re a famous man, you can do whatever you want to women. We may have recoiled, but that is exactly what Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein and every other man who’s being called out right now has banked on. They have been allowed to believe that, because of their fame or power or wealth or combination of the three, they can do whatever they want to women and to men they deem less famous, less powerful, less wealthy. Our allegiance to rape culture has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to accept women’s autonomy has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to believe women, our adherence to a strict code of victim-blaming, our knee-jerk slut shaming … all of these things have allowed these men to believe they can do whatever they want to women.

But Louis CK still wants your permission, still wants you to like him, to like his insistence on talking about his penis and the wacky hi-jinks he gets up to with it. He wants you to hear all the right words he has carefully crafted into his so-called apology … and ignore–or, better still, smirk at–the wrong ones he’s added for effect. And he wants you to see that he admits to the things his accusers claim: “These stories are true,” he says. And by saying that, he is expecting your instant forgiveness. He has admitted his guilt … even though he qualifies that admission, qualifies it so hard, the admission almost disappears. But he does own up to what he did. Now let’s welcome him and his penis back into the parlor with the polite company.

I will admit that it’s interesting to watch the different ways these famous men are choosing to respond when they are called out for what they’ve done. Louis CK is the first who response has so generously plumped itself up with both angry defiance and a begrudging, blame-y admission of guilt. It’s not a mix that’s completely unexpected, but it’s still unusual.

You can read his statement over at the NYTimes.

My first reaction when I read the statement was annoyance. That he had to talk about how he “never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” read like a slap in the face to every woman he abused. Here you are, performing apologetic remorse, and you need to talk about whipping it out … and you need to make the point that you only did that after asking permission first? Are you fucking kidding me?

The words in his apology statement–the ones after the repeated mention of his penis–fall into line in a way that seems right, that seems like saying sorry. They don’t totally get the job done, however. There’s far too much calling out of the fact that people admire and look up to him, of his fame and popularity.

There are other issues, too, but it’s that, “Hey! People like me!” shit that has my attention. This is why I said CK wants your permission. He wants to be able to start an “apology” for sexual aggression by talking in a sexually aggressive way, and then he wants you to nod with him when he tells you how important and well-liked he is–even by the women who are coming forward to accuse him. he can’t be truly bad if even his accusers look up to him and think he’s swell. Right? Right?

Obviously, his statement tells us, he’s not like these other men we’ve been hearing about. He asked first before assaulting anyone. Asked first! If these women could give him permission, surely you can, too.

The statement is almost a great apology. Almost. Almost. It mostly reads right, but it still goes wrong. Louis CK wants you to remember what you’ve come to know about him. You’ve loved his jokes about his desperate need to masturbate anywhere, any time. So how can you not feel for him now when you realize all of that was true?

For me, forgiveness–if there will be any offered–comes when there’s remorse, where full responsibility is taken, when the offending party apologizes to the person or people they offended. I don’t see that between the lines of Louis CK’s angry, petulant statement. And I most certainly have no desire to grant him an inch of permission.

None of the stories we’re hearing are surprising, are they? Men in positions of power have abused their power for the whole of recorded history, and surely for all the time before that as well. This isn’t news. Victims of abuse have tried to speak up … and have been slapped down, penalized, black-balled, criminalized. Silenced. By any means necessary. All in service of protecting powerful men. (Mostly we’re talking about powerful white men, yes, but let’s not kid ourselves that the buck stops with them. Despite the realities of racism–and because of the realities of racism–the system spends some of its energy protecting powerful Black men, too. Not as much, and usually not with the same level of dedication or success, but yes.)

The moment we are living in is interesting, this sea tide of accusations swamping our news feeds, this rush to believe the accusers. Not in every case, but that it’s true at all is new and different. I won’t pretend this signals the end of powerful men being given a pass no matter their crimes. I mean, hello, this country elected the poster child for white male privilege a year ago. We ain’t changed that fast, friends.

No. But something’s happening. Yes, part of this is about numbers. So many women–mostly women–have come forward that a) they are hard(er) to ignore and brush off and b) they are creating a space in which more people can come forward. Suddenly, we don’t have one woman we can call hysterical and dismiss by saying she made a mistake and is trying to make someone else pay for it.

But is it only about numbers? It feels like something else, something more. We are still fighting back against men who abuse power, but this is different, and I wonder where it will go–how far, how deep. I want to see it wend its scorched-earth way through the careers and reputations of every man who has thought his rights extended to another person’s body, safety, autonomy.

We have had hundreds of victims step forward and name their abusers. We have millions of victims share their #MeToo stories. What we’re seeing cannot be compared to anything that’s happened before. It feels like … well … like an actual opportunity for change.

I’m not as naive as that sounds, but I do think something different is happening now. We’ve had accusations in the past, but we’ve never had such a welling up of powerful, angry energy. There are too many people caught in this storm for this to be but a moment, something to casually quash and wave on its way as the accused move on to abuse again.

I assume there will be some hideous backlash. There always is. We already see men lamenting their inability to know how to interact with women, their apparently abject terror at being called out. There are already people (women!) comforting those men, telling them not to worry about their behavior, because they are so not the kind of men who would … Feh. We already have cable news talking heads fretting over innocent ment being swept up in the rush to accuse, to judge. There are already jokes about men we “know” won’t be accused, could never be accused.

So, slowly and inevitably, the status quo of our male-dominant society has begun pushing back. I still believe what’s happening now is and will continue to be stronger than that.

 

Do I feel for Louis CK and his fraternity of abusers, particularly for those who are or will suffer real consequences (finally) for their choices? No. Really not at all. Not at all. Not because I don’t believe people can change. I absolutely believe in our ability to transform ourselves.

These men, however. Yeah, not so much. They’ve hurt people, emotionally, physically, professionally. They’ve done it repeatedly. They’ve been made aware that what they did was problematic, was upsetting, was frightening, was damaging … and they didn’t opt to change their behavior, to make better, more decent, humane choices. No, they knew they were safe, knew they could deny successfully, knew they would be protected, so they continued to do exactly what they wanted to do. Louis CK even turned his abusive behavior into jokes, making his audiences complicit in his crimes.

No, I don’t feel even a tiny bit sorry for any of these men. I am full-on disgusted with each and every one of them. I am thrilled to see them called out and, at long last, held responsible for themselves.

Maybe they can change. Maybe–if they can get past their angry, I’m-the-real-victim-here bullshit–they will find ways to change. And I’ll be happy for them then … and happier still for all the women and men who will be safe in their presence.

 

Louis CK wants your permission. Refuse him. He wants your forgiveness and acceptance. Make him–make all of them–earn it.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Moving On

After ten too-short years of settling into my beautiful Brooklyn apartment and my equally beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood, I have to leave. My landlords are expanding into the full house, so it’s time for me to go. I’m sad about it. “Sad” doesn’t fully express the sense of loss I already feel, especially knowing that it’s unlikely I’ll get to stay in the neighborhood. Rents have outpaced me, rising considerably in the time I’ve been cozied up at home.

I wanted to call this piece “Paradise Lost” because that’s how I felt when I first got the news from my landlords.

It’s been a good ten years. I’ve done good work at both of my jobs. I became a bread baker. I became a better knitter. I became a vegetarian. I discovered and was embraced by the VONA writing community. I became a blogger, which has affected a sea change in my writing and my life–I’ve written hundreds of poems (poems! me), I’ve started working in comics, I’ve found a channel through which I can funnel my anger productively and satisfyingly. I’ve acquired a pair of new knees … and they aren’t perfect, but they’re better than they were.

A good ten years. I’ve been more happy than unhappy. And it’s true that not all of those things happened because I lived in my pretty Crown Heights apartment, but being comfortable at home didn’t hurt, feeling at ease and having a good relationship with my landlords and neighbors certainly didn’t hurt. Knowing I could take off for weeks at a time and my cats would be well taken care of didn’t hurt.

Okay, enough of that. It’s bringing me down. Not everything has been rosy about living here, right? There are the awkwardly steep steps down to my basement that have been scary and difficult for someone with mobility issues. There’s the occasional leak under my back door when the rain comes down heavily and at just the right angle (though, surprisingly, not a drop came in during the biggest, most aggressive rainfall I’ve seen while living here: Superstorm Sandy). There has been the cavalcade of bugs that have made themselves at home with me: grasshoppers, lightning bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and those black-red bugs with the pincer-like mandibles! (Having the yard out my back door has been a dream, but I never imagined how many uninvited guests would wander in from that pretty patch of “wilderness”!)

I have a little time before I need to be out, but I’ve started looking. And as I’ve started looking, I realize that I don’t have much experience with apartment hunting. And that’s a crazy thing to realize because I’ve lived in nine different apartments in the 30 years I’ve been in this city. I have always found apartments really quickly and easily–once, much too quickly, so quickly I didn’t look closely enough to notice all the awfulness until the lease was signed and I was in the middle of it. A few of the apartments I barely had to look for at all, friends were moving out or looking for a roommate, and there I was. The others, maybe I looked at a small handful of places, but I always found what I wanted in no time. I looked at two apartments before seeing and falling in love with my current one. Two.

Two is not going to be my magic number this time around, however. I’ve already seen fourteen places, already been disappointed by the unsuitableness of nearly all of them. I’ve sent “contact me!” messages to dozens of people through at least five different apartment-finding websites, and I’ve wandered neighborhoods I’ve never considered living in–or never considered returning to.

It shouldn’t be as complicated as it’s shaping up to be for me. But homeowners and brokers give me the fisheye on the regular. Because, as steady and stable as I generally am, I also look like an unacceptable risk. 

I have a good job. I have a history of longevity both as an employee and as a tenant. I make a pretty decent salary, a significantly larger salary than the brokers are hoping for when they tell me what I need to make in order to be eligible for apartments in my rent range. I don’t smoke. I have cats, not dogs. I have no children.

But

I have a ton–make that a TON–of thorny, hairy, ugly debt. All that money I borrowed and charged during the try-to-have-a-baby phase is still hanging over my head. Well, not all of it. I’ve paid a chunk back, but the rest is still sky high, blocking the sun with its mountainous bulk. It makes for a lousy credit report and score, makes me look like the last person you want renting in your building.

Add that debt to their surprise at discovering that I’m the woman they’ve been talking and texting with. A big, Black woman with kinky hair is not who they expect to meet. A big, Black woman with kinky hair and crappy credit? Yeah, I instantly become an even less attractive candidate. (No, I don’t think every broker or homeowner I’ve met so far is straight-up racist, but their reactions to me have been such that all of them have failed the test. One of the things I liked about my current landlords when we met was their flying-colors handling of the test. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen two people show less surprise at finding me on their doorstep.)
And all that debt repayment means I’ve saved nothing, so buying is out of the question.

When I wrote about my fear of homelessness, this is where it comes from. No, I’m not two steps away from the street. Hardly. But I’m many steps away from stable, and a lifetime away from comfortable. And all of that mattered before now, but it didn’t matter in the same way. I was paying down my debt and imagined myself having at least another five years or so before I’d have to start thinking about moving (right around the time I thought my landlords’ oldest daughter might be thinking she’d like her own apartment somewhere not too far from home …).

So. Looking. It really does suck. But there is one interesting thing about this process that is maybe good. I have to tell my credit score story over and over. People have a hard time understanding how I can have a good salary and a crap score all at the same time. I didn’t know that was a weirdness, but apparently it is. So I have to say over and over to one stranger and then another that I ran up a crazy pile of debt while trying to have a baby, and now I’m paying it back.

This is interesting to me because this isn’t something I’ve ever been able to say without getting teary. But here I am, looking men I don’t know in the face and telling them this intensely personal and painful thing, saying it as if it ain’t no thang.

I first thought about this Tuesday. I was saying it to the gruff Irishman who was showing me the first nice apartment I’ve seen. He asked the credit score question and I gave my answer. And I thought, “I am saying that so casually, as if it isn’t hard to say, as if saying it in the past hasn’t sunk me into tears. When did I get comfortable with this?”

But I didn’t have time to keep puzzling over that question because something else happened, too. I said my piece, and I saw him change. He hadn’t been in my court before that moment, was clearly ready to move on to whatever his next thing was, was practically tapping his foot as I looked into the closets (so many closets!) and checked out the view (no buildings obstructing any of the windows!). But when I explained my debt situation, he morphed into a different man. He began to counsel me on how to write my application for the apartment, on how to write the accompanying cover letter he thought I should write to help the owner see why they should take a chance on me. He started telling me more about the apartment owners and the kind of tenant they were looking for and urged me to talk up those aspects in my letter.

Because he felt for me, because there I was, childless–this fact already established before I’d come to meet him and see the place–and telling him I’d spent myself into a hole trying to have a kid. And it turned me into an actual human being for him, a person. I don’t know why he wasn’t interested in being helpful to me before that moment. I can speculate, but I really have no idea. But all of that melted away and he turned into the man he probably is most of the time.

I don’t tell this story about myself to turn myself into a human. It never occurred to me that that would be the result (or in any way necessary in this context). It’s the actual answer to the question about my credit, and telling it is easier than making up a story. But now I see that not only has it helped me get past the awfulness of saying it out loud, it also clearly impacts the person who’s listening to me. This shouldn’t surprise me, should it? I haven’t been meeting with brokers who are androids or robots and incapable of experiencing human emotion. Maybe every single one of them has felt differently about me after hearing my story, but this man was the first one who made his change of attitude so dramatically obvious.

That apartment I saw Tuesday was the first one I’ve seen that I really like. Thirteen duds to get to one place with the potential to be fabulous. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty and large and has great closets and great windows and a doorman (who, apparently, was an engineer in Georgia before he came to this country decades ago) and laundry on-site … It’s nice. I’ll have to jump through a series of hoops to apply for it, but the broker, let’s call him Patrick, has talked me through each of them.

It’s a relief to finally see an apartment I can imagine living in. True, I haven’t been looking long, but really everything in my price range has been totally unacceptable. All have been less than half the size of my current place, one had roaches in the medicine cabinet! (Always check the medicine cabinet!) I haven’t seen roaches in so long, I wasn’t prepared and did a terrible job of hiding my startle response. The broker looked over my shoulder to see what I was seeing and shook his head, “Should I just show you out now?” he asked. I nodded. I mean, there was no way I was ever going to be able to live in the tea-cup-sized house, but then to have to share it with roaches? No.

Tomorrow I’ll see a rent-stabilized place that looks even nicer than the one I saw yesterday. Big, eat-in kitchen, better transportation, across the street from a beautiful park. It’s a little more than I’d wanted to spend, but if it’s as nice as it looks online, it’ll be worth it. And there’s another on deck that has potential, too. I want to move before the end of the year. Seeing a lot of perfectly unsuitable apartments was beginning to make that seem like the height of Pollyanna-ish fantasy. Now I have some hope again.

There’s another thing I realize I’ll have to deal with if one of those three apartments becomes my new home. And I hadn’t thought about this until I stepped off the bus on Tuesday and started walking to the apartment. I was in a part of Brooklyn I haven’t spent much time in. The adult ed program I ran years ago offered English language classes in a senior housing building there–I passed the building on my way to meet Patrick–but it’s not a neighborhood where I’d normally find myself. To be as plain as possible: it’s a very (VERY) white neighborhood. Super white.

And you know, I like white folks well enough. Some. And yes, some of my best friends are white and everything.

But I haven’t had to live in a white neighborhood in ten years. Crown Heights is gentrifying at the speed of light, but it’s still full of Black folks. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that leaving the neighborhood might also mean leaving the pleasure of being surrounded by people who look like me. The pleasure of riding home at night on what I like to call the Black World bus.

I’ve lived in white neighborhoods before. I grew up in white towns. I’ve lived in Park Slope and Cobble Hill. This is a thing I know I can do. But the fact that I’ve already done it is always why I know it will be hard, especially after so many years in Crown Heights. Especially since we’ve entered the age of white folks putting Black folks’ lives in danger by calling the cops for nothing at all.

I lived in Cobble Hill before moving to Crown Heights. If you don’t know Brooklyn neighborhoods, just know that Cobble Hill is a ridiculously over-priced neighborhood full of chi-chi restaurants and tiny boutiques that have three items on display, each costing as much as your rent. (This is a mild exaggeration. Mild.) I lived there for seven years. And for the whole of that seven years, I got to watch my neighbors see me approaching or realize I was walking behind them … and clutch their bags more tightly or pull their children closer, or stare at me with suspicion and fear. It was, to say the least, fucking exhausting.

I think of all the ways I’ve had to adapt to white neighborhoods, change my appearance or behavior on the street just so the people around me aren’t frightened by seeing me. I don’t walk with a scowl on, or with my head down. God forbid I should look angry or like someone trying to avoid eye contact so you can’t identify me after I mug you. And I don’t make eye contact because then I look defiant or angry or confrontational or like I’m sizing you up to decide if I’m going to mug you. I don’t walk closely behind people, I make myself give a half smile and a nod or say hi or something to show how open and personable I am. I make myself not have an explosive reaction when people assume I’m someone’s maid or nanny simply because that’s the only role they’re willing to ascribe to a Black woman walking around in their community.

Does all of this sound ridiculous to you? It should … except that it’s totally necessary in certain neighborhoods. After I moved to Crown Heights, I was back in my old neighborhood and saw one of my former neighbors. She was about a block away from me. I waved at her, and she looked distressed. I waved again. Her look stayed distressed. As I got closer to her, I spoke, greeting her by name. When she realized I knew her name, she allowed herself to see me–not to just look at the person approaching her but to see me–and realized that she recognized me. “I guess you didn’t see me waving,” I said. I mean, I figure she had definitely seen me, but I also knew there were times when I walked around so in my head I didn’t see the people right in front of me. Also, I was giving her an out because I didn’t feel like being bothered with anything more serious. But she didn’t take the out I’d offered. Instead, she told me the truth, her very odd and telling truth: “I saw you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read that hand gesture.”

She. didn’t. know. how. to. read. my. hand. gesture. The mysterious and frightening wave. This is how annoying and wearing it can be to be a Black person on the street with white people. Do I really want to move back to that? Do I really want to have to deal with that nonsense morning, noon, and night?

Sigh.

 

(Yeah. This is what happens when I don’t censor or carefully edit, when I just say all the stuff, even when more than half of it belongs in another essay and some of it really just belongs in my head!)

What I want to say is that I’m scared. I have gotten so comfortable that this change looms so much larger than it should, and I’m scared. Whatever happens, it will be fine. I’ll go out tomorrow and see these two apartments. And I’ll find and hold onto my optimism and my belief that I really am a good risk despite my debt and my Black skin and my nappy hair. And I won’t be living in my so-comfortable-it-seems-made-for-me home anymore, but I’ll find a new so-comfortable home. I new place for my cats to explore, for my books to line up side by side, for my knitting stash to grow, for my friends to come for dinner and brunch and writers’ group and book club. Home. Again.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Yes, yes, of course … me, too.

Women are all over FB right now posting “Me, too.” Some are posting with the tagline: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some are posting their actual stories. And it’s powerful … and triggering. And enraging. And starkly hideous.

I posted my “Me, too” and thought I’d leave it at that. I did just write about being sexually abused, after all. And I’ve written in the past about experiences with sexual harassment, about assault. Did I really need to say anything more?

But the tidal wave of “Me, too” posts flooding my timeline began to overwhelm me. I’m not surprised by them. Hardly. I am more surprised by women who can’t say “Me, too.” It just seems likely that nearly every woman everywhere has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, some manifestation of the complete social normalization of rape culture. Still, the posts felt so heavy, so painful.

So, too, the number of women posting about how they never told anyone, how they felt responsible, how they put themselves in harm’s way against their own discomfort or awareness of danger because of concern about how the man would feel or be impacted if they didn’t acquiesce.

And I am impressed that so many people feel comfortable enough, safe enough to be able to post. And I’m feeling for all the people who don’t feel safe to post and are holding their silences. And I’m grateful to my non-binary and male friends who’ve posted their “Me, too” stories, driving home the full range of this issue.

But at the end of this day, I find myself wondering what all these posts add up to. Where do they leave us?

As I said, its’ not surprising to see how many women are posting. But what do any of us hope the result of this will be? Those of us who have had to deal with harassment and survive assaults will see how completely not alone we are, will maybe release some of the shame we have carried when we see that what has been done to us wasn’t our faults, doesn’t say anything about who we are as people.

And that’s a good outcome. I guess what I’m really wondering is: will any man who has ever harassed or assaulted a woman look at those posts and see himself?

Why is it so hard for me to believe that’s possible?

*

A couple of years ago, something similar happened on Twitter. Someone called on women to post about the first time they were sexually harassed. Again, the volume of responses was overwhelming. For me, the truly overwhelming aspect was how young we all were the first time we were sexualized and made to feel uncomfortable or frightened because of the way a man or boy behaved with us. The tweet I posted was about a man who masturbated at me … when I was eight. And so many of the tweets were stories about experiences in third, fourth, fifth grade. Very young girls.

At the time, I was frozen in my efforts to make sense of it. It was too ugly. Yes, in some small way, I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one, but not really. Knowing that third grade girls everywhere were having awful experiences was cold comfort at best.

I had a longish tweet convo about this question of how young so many of us were at that first experience. One of the things that kept coming up was the fact that we as girls had just begun to have awareness of our bodies as pleasure centers, of the idea and experience of sensual pleasure. And then whatever awful thing would be done to us, and we would blame ourselves. Because, if we hadn’t discovered that strange, surprising world of physical pleasure, then surely that man or boy wouldn’t have said or done whatever he said or did.

And the worst part of that realization was that, in a twisted way, it’s likely one hundred percent true … Not that we as children were to blame for our assaults, no. Absolutely not. But that, as the women in that Twitter conversation and I eventually concluded, those men and boys who harassed or molested us must have sensed the change we were living through. They detected whatever that new physical awareness was … and they came for us. They decided we were fair game.

*

And from that moment forward, those men and boys saw us as available to them, as “ready.” And we grew up encountering those men and boys again and again and still again.

How does now saying, “Me, too” affect any of that? Those men and boys didn’t hear us when we were children. Why on earth would they hear us now? Can we really believe they will suddenly (snap of fingers) have the epiphany that enables them to see themselves as predators, as the ones who need to address their attitudes toward and behavior with women?

*

Years ago, I took an amazing class at the American Place Theater. The class was for teachers, showing us ways to incorporate theater exercises into our teaching of literature and history. In one exercise, I was sitting around a coffee table with three women. We were tasked with creating a scene about an adolescent girl getting her first period. We started by acting out our mothers’ responses to that milestone moment. The first woman showed her  mother’s careful demonstration of using those awful belts we had wear before adhesive strips were a viable thing. The next woman turned and pretended to slap the woman next to her, saying, “You’re dirty now. You’re a woman. Don’t look at men.”

All of us at the table were mortified (and I felt grateful for the first time ever about my own mother’s exuberantly joyful response that, at the time, I’d found completely embarrassing).

This idea that the simple fact of our bodies, our completely as-they-should-be female bodies, is not only wrong but is our fault is unutterably disturbing.

*

As so we are seeing women reclaiming themselves with that “Me, too.” It’s all of us saying, “I, too, have been acted upon, have been made to feel less than, to feel guilty, to feel wrong simply for being alive in my body, simply for having a body that men have grown up to feel ownership of. And it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing I did wrong, and you need to see how many of us there are telling this story.”

And it’s powerful, and enraging, and sad.

*

But I would rather see men posting, “Me, too.” I want them to post “If all the men who have sexually harassed or assaulted a woman wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

All meaning every man who has catcalled a woman, hissed or whistled at a woman, looked at a woman as if imagining her naked, walked down the street beside or behind a woman trying to get her number, brushed against a woman to feel her breasts or butt or have her feel his erection, called out to a passing woman what “rating” he’d give her or whether or not he’d be willing to “smash that.”

All meaning every man who has grabbed a woman by the arm or shoulder when trying to “holler at” her, come on to a child or teenaged girl, gotten angry and up in the face of a girl or woman who hasn’t welcomed his advances, followed a woman, leered at a woman as she breastfed her baby, bought a woman dinner and assumed she would “repay” him with sex.

All meaning every man who has watched his friends treat women in any of these ways and has said noting, has laughed, has looked the other way, has gaslit his sisters, girlfriends, and female coworkers who have complained about another man’s behavior, telling them, “Oh, he’s harmless,” “He doesn’t mean that,” “You’re too sensitive.”

All meaning all. Maybe then. Maybe then, we would not only get a sense of the magnitude of the problem but actually see men take responsibility for their misogyny and start to dismantle it, start to change their behavior and respect women as human beings who have the right to exist, to live their lives free of molestation, as beings who owe men not one damn thing.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

H is for: Heft

As in lifting something heavy. As in the weight of something heavy. And H is for Heavy. As in something of great weight, difficult to lift, move, or carry. As in of great density, thick or substantial.

And what does all of this have to do with my decision to spend this Poetry Month writing chōka? Yes, that would be the rearing of my Little Hater’s ugly head. Let me explain.

Last week, I noticed that I was feeling comfortable with my poetry challenge. Anyone who has read my April writing for more than a minute knows that I have struggled mightily with poetry, with the idea that I can write poetry, with the idea that I would have the nerve to post those poems online, with the idea that I would have the unmitigated gall to call myself a poet. Just about every April since I started my blog, I come here and try to push back against all of that and write poems. I force myself to post them, even when I know they aren’t even good enough to be called mediocre. Because I have to. Because to not do that is giving in to that mean, awful voice that has been telling me since I was 18 years old that I can’t write poems.

Learning a new form sometimes pulls me out of that negative loop very nicely. I don’t know what or why that is. Maybe it takes so much focus for me to wrap my brain around the new patter there isn’t room for my Inner Critic to slip in.

So I was feeling that, feeling pulled away from that mean voice, content to just play with the words.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed.

Yes. As soon as I noticed that I was feeling comfortable … all that comfort drained away and the tidal wave of doubt flooded in. Of course..

My doubt wasn’t about whether or not the poems were good. Or, rather, not much about that. It is generally a given for me that the poems aren’t particularly good. I am always surprised when I like a poem I’ve written. That is hardly the anticipated result. So I chided myself for not writing good poems — that one from Thursday night is still pretty unforgivable — but then I realized that quality wasn’t what had me thinking negative thoughts about my poems.

No, my Inner Mean Person was kicking my teeth in because my poems were boring. Plain and simple. My poems weren’t about anything substantive. When I did my last year of aruns in 2014, I was just getting into genealogical research, and my poems were about Samuel and finding family and history. When I did prose poems in 2015, my poems were little Black Lives Matter protest songs. In 2009 when I started this April business, I wrote about love, about Sean Bell, about Black death. From the beginning I’ve landed on serious subjects. My poems may not have been good, but they had weight. Heft.

Thursday I wrote a poem about having “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie” as an earworm. Such a piece of fluff as could be carried away by the softest exhalation.

Of course, there are plenty of heavy, serious, somber things to write about. Every. single. day. But I haven’t found my way into those stories, found the way to tell my piece of any of those stories. And so I — and you, dear reader — am stuck here, in this fluffy place. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe I need to be here, churning out banal chōka to give my brain a rest, a chance to sort through and process all the everything else. Maybe when that’s done, I’ll find my way back to writing poems with heft.

Spring

Smooth, shining spring day
here at last, reminding me
of April in France
Paris opening her arms
no longer stiff, cold
finally welcoming me.
Claude driving us fast
along the Champs Elysees
the air honeyed, light.
Spring reminds me of Ludlow
those days with Walter —
was it pollen in my eyes
blinding me to him?
A later spring, me and Ray
the back of his bike
cruising up the Palisades.

It is again spring
and this old woman’s fancy
turns to thoughts of love
(loves) in the dim long ago —
wringing verses from their bones.

_____

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.

(Is this an essay? I’m going to call it one. It needs more work, but it’s enough of a start to give my revision some direction, an idea of where I wanted to go.)



Deadlines, Doubt, and Dealing with Impostor Syndrome 

I had an important deadline Saturday, had to submit something or I’d miss my chance. I found out about this deadline in January. Jan.u.ar.y. I’ve had many weeks to make this happen. Here’s how I worked on it:

  1. Stared at the information.
  2. Thought about how much I wanted that thing.
  3. Stared at the information.
  4. Wondered why anyone would ever consider me for that thing.
  5. Clicked away from the page, telling myself I couldn’t work on it then because I had so much going on and I had to do some homework before I’d be ready to work on that.
  6. Ignore it for a few days.
  7. Repeat from step one.

Over. And over. And over again.

I finally started working on this on Sunday. Yes, when I had hardly any time left to get my work in order. Of course.

Every night last week, I sat down to work, and every night I pushed away from my computer, telling myself I would never finish and shouldn’t be trying anyway because I’m all wrong for this opportunity.

Needless to say, this is horrifically frustrating.

So what’s my story? Clearly, as is true for so many people, particularly women, particularly women of color, I keep running smack into the solid granite wall of Impostor Syndrome.

There are plenty of reasons to love the amazingly talented Viola Davis. Having her call out Impostor Syndrome just moments after being handed her Academy Award was kind of amazing.

I read  about this thing years ago, maybe as long ago as 2011. I recognized myself then, recognized the ways I tear myself down, doubt myself, struggle against the fear that I’ll be unmasked at any moment. On one level, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone, that there was actually a name for the way I thought about myself. At the same time, it was disturbing to discover the realness of what I was doing. I recognized it, but I didn’t try to do anything about it. I didn’t know what to do about it. Yes, there were things I’d learned about stopping a thought, replacing it with a better, kinder, more based-in-reality thought. I’d seen that work when I tried it with bad body thoughts (it’s a body/fat acceptance thing … fodder for another post). But I don’t seem able to catch myself when I sank into Impostor fears, at least not immediately, not quickly enough to stop myself from sinking. I figure out what I’m doing only after I’ve fully shot myself down.

I may have only learned about Impostor Syndrome a few years ago, but I’ve been letting it hold me back for so much longer. All those times I didn’t stand up for myself, just accepted whatever awful treatment was doled out to me …Yeah, that was me believing I deserved to be treated like crap, that whoever was cutting me down was simply seeing me for who and what I really was and letting me know. When a supervisor lost confidence in me and stopped backing my play, I never questioned it. It made perfect sense to me. Clearly she had finally realized I was a fraud.

I had been planning to write that I’ve been losing the fight against Impostor Syndrome for my whole life. But I’ve been trying to track back to when I first felt unworthy, and it’s definitely not my whole life. But it is easily the last 15 years, and that’s a painfully long time.

I shrugged it off a moment ago, but stopping the thought really does have to be step one here. I can’t fight the cycle if I don’t see it coming and cut it off at the knees. I need to see those moments as they happen and shut them right down.

And, in some ways, this is a perfect time to be pushing myself in this way. I’m about to be putting myself out in the spotlight in a couple of ways that will surely trigger Impostor Syndrome again and again. Ramping up my vigilance now, at the start of this “spotlight season,” will be good for me … and it will be challenging, and exhausting, and demoralizing … and so helpful in the long run.

Yes, I can already see that this has to be part of my Be Your Own Cabana Boy self-care plan. Maybe one of the most important parts. Seeing myself clearly, not putting myself down, not standing in my own way … these things are as important as feeding myself well, as getting enough sleep. It all comes back to that comment I threw in so casually at the end of yesterday’s post: I’m worth it. Those L’Oreal ads were clearly onto something. I’m worth this hard work, so it’s time to put in the time.

Is Impostor Syndrome something you’ve dealt with? If so, what have you done to push back against it? If you’ve never faced this, I’m super happy for you, and I’m also super curious about you! How do you think you’ve avoided it?



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
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!


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

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