Forgetting

1.

It is almost Throwback Thursday again. I look down at my cracked iPhone that I feel too busy and too lazy to get fixed. I look at photos from this weekend when I was trying to forget The Thing That Made Me Want To Cry and I think I don’t want to share a photo of myself right now. I think about my mother’s scarf that my sister gave me that she never washed that still smells like her that makes me cry and smile at the same time, which is the kind of thing you can never really capture with words or a photograph. I think that I want to tweet about something but hundreds of people are dead in Mexico, Hurricane Maria is terrorizing Puerto Rico and healthcare that has kept a lot of people alive might actually not be around too much longer even if the news keeps up at this pace. I wonder if it is a good thing to forget how to tweet. I think that this could be a clever thing to tweet because it would be meta and then my train comes and I don’t have Wi-Fi anymore and it’s just as well that the moment passed.

2.

Last Thursday, my friend’s husband called me to tell me that the man who took care of my house in Austin was dead. The last time I had emailed Chuck was to ask him how he was, because Hurricane Harvey was terrorizing Texas and I was worried about my little aging house but I was more worried about my friends and I counted him in that number even if I’m not sure he knew it. Chuck wore big glasses like my Dad, and he spoke without inflection or accent, also like my Dad. As it happened, I met Chuck three years after my father died by suicide and a year after my mother died from cervical cancer. I did not believe I had tears left to shed or things left to write or feelings left to feel about possessions. I still felt stuff, emotions — almost. But generally, I just was a walking fog of sad. My problem then was that I could not stop remembering everything. I carried the past in my hair, on my shoulders, on my bookshelves, in my closets. When I spoke to Chuck’s good friend who called everyone that Chuck had taken care of like he had taken care of me — some dozens of people — I remembered meeting him at the house. It smelled like my dead dog, Cleo. My sad self haunted the place like a ghost. I can see us now, me looking at him blinking hard at me while I tried to explain why, exactly, I’d left everything in the house like I was just headed around the corner even though I’d packed most of the things I needed (books, clothes, journals) and driven them to Washington D.C. He was a good man, Chuck. He did not make small talk. He did not beat around the bush. Every once in awhile, he would send me a photo of a beach he was trying to get to know. He struck me as someone who worked diligently at being good in a world that was crooked. This is what will make it hard to forget that he was murdered.

3.

Grief makes me foggy, though I have become more forgetful in general. I worry this will show up in my writing and it has already manifested in some weird misspellings. But where I feel it most is my heart, the part of me that clings to memory, that is so sentimental. I worry that I will forget the beautiful and painful things that shape me, that have shaped me. I worry that I will forget that even when I lose people and I don’t get to say goodbye that there are all these amazing people in my life who love me who make me laugh, who do post several Throwback Thursday selfies unapologetically before it’s even Thursday. One good thing has come from becoming more forgetful, maybe two. Used to be I was so afraid of life and the powerful strangers in it that I figured it was better to act silent and mysterious, to make myself scarce, than to write something like this and just write it on out. The other thing is: Forgetting yourself gives you courage.

Advertisements

Expensive Denial: The Rising Cost of Ignoring Climate Change

This is my latest piece for Bitch Magazine, in its fall Facts issue. The reporting here is frustrating to recount, but there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that there is little here to dispute.

“In the aftermath of 45’s decision to exit the Paris Agreement—an accord between dozens of countries to work toward mitigating climate change through cutting carbon emissions—it is notable that the people who will pay the steepest price for climate-change denial and apathy are the world’s poorest women.

I take all of this personally as a word nerd who’s always cared about the environment, though I didn’t have easy access to clean air or green spaces growing up in the Bronx. Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and her poetry deepened my appreciation for nature, along with a strong desire to protect it. Years later, I was honored to work on lessening the impact of climate change as a deputy press secretary at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration.

For all these reasons, I always think about how major policy decisions impact women and the poor. At the intersection of my identities as a journalist, writer, and scholar who grew up in poverty, I am most attuned to the marginalized narratives of women like me, who hold up half the sky even as the atmosphere thins against our palms.”

Summer Reading

I’m always surprised when writers or aspiring writers don’t read. Reading was first a coping mechanism and an escape for me, but now it’s both work and joy. I love reading for review purposes but mostly for pleasure. Even if I’m not reviewing a book for a publication, in my brain, I’m doing it anyway, trying to sort out what works and what doesn’t.

download-5.jpg

The main challenge I have these days is how to find the ideal, public, air conditioned space and time to read comfortably. I have been awkwardly handling the 560+ page Advanced Readers Copy of The Hearts Invisible Furies by John Boyne, a delightful discovery. When I picked it up at Book Expo, one of the women in the booth nodded with vigor and said it was one of the best books she’d read in her life. Even a bookworm like me couldn’t pass on something like that.

I’ll write a proper review soon, but this book is delightfully funny — on each page is some exchange or brilliant dialogue that just cracks me up. The main character, Cyril Avery, is an adopted kid; his birth mother, Catherine Goggin is someone he’s met but doesn’t know it yet & there’s a far richer narrative unfolding now that I’m more than halfway through that I can’t even begin to sum up. The book comes out later this month, though, and I encourage you to read it.

I’m cheating on The Hate U Give with this book. I cheated on it with Aya de Leon’s The Boss, too.  I love the familiarity and humor in Angie Thomas’ debut, too, but I think the heaviness of the subject matter is keeping me from really engaging in it the way I’d like to.

I also just finished reading a review copy of Joanna Scutts’ The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led A Generation of Women To Live Alone and Like It. I always like reading about single women (I loved Rebecca Traister’s Single Ladies; In 2013, I published my first self-published e-Book based on an old blog called Single & Happy: The Party of Ones which emerged out of the — thankfully dead — media narrative that single professional black women were too successful to date their presumed mates, African American men) and how they’ve disrupted history by celebrating themselves in ways that have always just been expected for men. I wrote a review for Bitch that’s coming out in the fall.

What are you reading with what’s left of the summer?

The Big Chop

I realized that my hair was considered community property when I was five.

I write about this in The Beautiful Darkness – my mother’s love for long hair, how she believed it was a woman’s glory. My hair has always been a bit like me – hard to miss, stubborn, resilient. I was five when my mother burned me while straightening my hair. Whether it was accidental or intentional didn’t matter; I went to foster care for a year.

I took control of my hair after that, braiding my own extensions starting in third grade. My mother also decided I should get a weave that we couldn’t afford back then, which I hated. Left to my own devices, I tried box perms (terrible mistake) very long braids that I wore to my high school graduation, and eventually decided I wanted my own afro. But I went into a barber shop in the Village that is no longer there and woke up with an inch of hair.

CampMariah1998

At Camp Mariah Fresh Air Fund, 1997

The reception to the first big chop was not good. I was teaching writing to kids in the Bronx before going to college. When I reported to work the Monday after my run in with the barber, I was informed that I looked like Grace Jones. Eventually, I would take this as a compliment. At the time, I was insulted.

My mother sighed and said, “At least you have a pretty face.” Then she asked me if I was a lesbian. In retrospect, I wish I could have been brave enough to have a more nuanced conversation with her, to at least try.  But she was an old school woman, a woman who wore a wig and never her natural hair, someone who had internalized the notion as a kid in South Carolina and Philly that she would never be beautiful without the illusion of long, straight hair.

My hair was never straight, not all of it. But my locks grew long, down my back. I have always been an admirer of Solomon and believed in the spiritual significance of hair. That hair holds energy, and possibly strength. I was afraid to cut mine because I felt like I needed all the strength I could get.

My hair has also always been one of the sites of my comfort. Yet for years when I touched my hair my wandered to the free section of my hair in the back on that has resisted everything from Jheri Curls to braids. It was the reminder to me of what it would be like to have the whole of my head be a crown of freedom.

I thought about this when I moved back to Texas in 2005, particularly because I moved in the middle of a triple-digit summer. I never said this aloud but even though my locks were thick and a lot to manage, I secretly liked that I had friends who were attached to them, too. I got a lot of affirmation from people around my hair. The community property gaze: “I don’t usually like dreads, but yours are pretty. You know, not everyone keeps them up like that.” I lost count of the hands that reached out to touch without my permission.

After awhile, my locks were my only lasting bridge to the past. When I twisted them, staring back at my face becoming my mother’s with just a hint of my Dad, I still felt like I could climb my way back there somehow. Maybe there would be a day when I could make things different.

JoshundaHeadshot

At Lady Bird Lake, Austin, 2012 

But the weight of locks, physically and spiritually, got heavier than I could have anticipated. I had always told myself that when my mother died, I would cut my hair. Start new, with hair that just mine to shape and love and judge. But I was too sad to care about my arbitrary aspirations in the service of meaningful transitions. Everything was changing.

I thought, often, of Audre Lorde’s poem, Stations. In part of it she writes:

Some women wait for something

to change and nothing does change

so they change themselves.

I wanted something to stay the same. It would be my hair if nothing else. I was not ready to change that part.

In the middle of a traumatic work situation, I had my locks cut into a short style, hoping to find a middle ground. I felt the impulse, many times, to just shave my head, even though there was stuff I didn’t know about my head shape, a bump at the base of my neck that seemed like it might look weird.

 

I watched as my fellow writers and friends and homegirls took the plunge with style. I was in awe and envious, but not yet ready.

What it would be like to wear a hat, or use a comb, or feel the pressure of a brush against my scalp? Or workout without worrying about the awkward, uncomfortable ponytail? These sounded like luxuries even though that’s ridiculous.

I just needed to give myself permission.

The thing that tipped me over the edge was a young friend who is not at all attached to her hair. She also had beautiful, long locks. But she just decided it was time for something new (ah, the 20s!) So she went for it. And my heart soared.

I thought, “Wow, I remember when I used to be courageous like that.”

I love courage. Cultivating bravery is the way God and the universe remind you that you don’t have all the time in the world to hesitate. Inspired by our conversation, fixated on changing this old story in my head about hanging on to weight in the service of strength or memory or nostalgia, I went about the work of shedding 20 years grief and heartbreak and heaviness. Even after I combed out my locks, there was more hair coming loose on its own, nosediving to the floor faster than I could get it all up. It felt like all of the transformation, growth, love, and healing was at the roots.

When it was done, my hands in my hair felt like home was the touch of my fingers to my scalp. A simple, amazing, beautiful step back to myself. This hair belongs to me, and no one else. I’m proud to call it mine.

BigChop2017

 

 

On Zadie Smith & The Missing Black American Woman Expert

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

It is easy to be smitten with Zadie Smith, as I think I am. She has freckles and I love freckles. She can sing. She has a lovely accent. She is witty. She writes well.

Actually, she’s brilliant. I’m a fan of her nonfiction, and I was smitten more with Changing My Mind, her book of essays, than with On Beauty, which was fine but not my fave. Same with Swing Time, which I just finished before I happened upon this complicated essay, “Who Owns Black Pain?” in Harper’s Magazine.

It starts with a very interesting look and assessment of “Get Out”, which I have seen three times. I have yet to read (not saying it doesn’t exist but I’m busy and read a lot but also miss things) the take from a black woman that I want to read which is: That is exactly what black men who dismiss black women and our beauty GET. What is? Get Out is. Rose is.

Erika Alexander brought me all of the joy in the world in that movie. All of it. (The only other movie I have seen three times, by the way, is the Ten Commandments, but that’s because my mother had both tapes when I was a kid and I couldn’t help myself. [Charlton Heston was kind of fine as Moses.])

I’m burying the lede, here. My point is not to catch up on the critiques I didn’t share the first three times I watched “Get Out” but to elaborate on something I’ve said before. Something I deeply believe and am troubled by: We live in a culture that prefers to hear about the lived experience of black women from everyone but black American women.

I will not name check them all. But I will say from personal experience and observation that there seems to be a vested interest in hearing from well-known British, African and other “Exotic” women of the African Diaspora about the pain experienced by Black American women. The only thing our culture loves more is to hear from Black men about the ways in which we are undeserving of their love, affection, desire or attention.

The problem is that none of these people are experts in the black American experience because they cannot clearly, definitively or expertly explain the purview or perspective of Black American women. Let’s look at some data.

Years of Census data show that black women are a little over half of the black population in the U.S. and have been for a long time. A recent report released by the National Domestic Workers Alliance explains that 80 percent of us are the breadwinners in our families. We are the majority perspective in our communities, even though people would prefer that it was otherwise. We are the bellwether for what is experienced by our sisters — yes, especially our white sisters — even when folks would rather not hear it.

So it is understandable that some of us — and for the purposes of this blog, I mean me — had a visceral reaction to reading these words from Zadie Smith (italics mine):

“To be clear, the life of the black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1963. Her schools are still avoided and her housing still substandard and her neighborhood still feared and her personal and professional outcomes disproportionately linked to her zip code. But her physical self is no longer reviled. If she is a child and comes up for adoption, many a white family will be delighted to have her, and if she is in your social class and social circle, she is very welcome to come to the party; indeed, it’s not really a party unless she does come. No one will call her the n-word on national television, least of all a black intellectual. (The Baldwin quote is from a television interview.) For liberals the word is interdicted and unsayable.”

To me, this paragraph simply means that Zadie has not been paying attention.

Yes to the lack of progress for the most part since 1963.

No to the fact that the physical bodies of black woman citizens are not reviled.

Hello, Serena Williams — apparently a naked black pregnant body means that the celebrity pregnancy photo shoot has jumped the shark. Hey, Kodak Black: This dark skinned black woman doesn’t want you, either. I could go on and on for days and days: Black women are most likely to be victimized by Intimate Partner Violence. In Seattle, a mentally ill black mother was shot by police in front of her children. Twitter has been ablaze with the justification of infidelity because Jay Z and Beyonce have wisely monetized the challenges of black love.

In any event, this is not what love looks like.

Also, a college professor who defended Black Lives Matter on Fox News was fired from her job simply because she expressed her personal opinion during her free time. This is not the same as someone calling her a nigger on air. But it is today’s equivalent. Let us not forget the government employees who called First Lady Michelle Obama an ape before she and Barack were even out of the White House yet.

So I thought these things, or I felt them and let them sit with me. Then I read some more of Zadie’s piece:

(On Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till): “Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too….Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

Listen. The definition of blackness in America is like everything else: It persists from slavery times. The persistence of hypodescent, better known as the “one drop rule”, means that actually whatever you are in America, whether you are pledging transnational unity to us or anything else, if you have a drop of black blood in you you are considered black. I don’t have kids. I don’t give parents parenting advice because who am I do to that? However, honey, blackness is not about complexion, it is about blood. Black suffering will always be the concern of your kids, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If you think this is a philosophical question, I invite you to actually talk to some Black American mothers about that.

Speaking of Black mothers:

“I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation.”

It must be very nice to gaze upon an artistic representation of Emmett Till without experiencing rage or connection, especially in these times. Here is some data and anecdotal evidence compiled by African American women and scholars on the very real experience of Black women who exhibit symptoms associated with PTSD as a result of their exposure to the violence that has been waged against black children since before and after Emmett Till’s lynching. What is missing here, in this passage and in this piece overall, is a confrontation with the privilege that comes with viewing black pain from a cultural remove informed by geographical framing if not racial difference.

They might as well be the same.

“…I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed—and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible—that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another. Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.”

Again, this is a privilege that Zadie does not recognize in herself. The issue of Dana Schutz’ painting was covered with far more nuance in the New Yorker perhaps because Calvin Tompkins did not have the same penchant for overcompensation. Zadie is allowed to resent whatever she wants about black pain, but if she’s not in communication with a painting about a seminal Black American moment — politically, psychologically and emotionally — that is because it is not a moment that has any meaning for her. That moment or cultural reference point does not require her to feel authentically black. But it also doesn’t mean that she has expertise in how black pain should or should not be processed or how to define it.

Finally, let us discuss this:

“But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good—therapeutic!—to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved. We can’t breathe. We will not be executed for traffic violations or for the wearing of hoodies. We will no longer tolerate substandard schools, housing, health care. Get Out—as evidenced by its huge box office—is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen.”

Which collective voice is this, exactly? From where does it speak? Who agreed? Is this meant to be satirical, or is it real?

We have been moved. We are being moved. We are being suffocated. Not only are we being executed, but the police who are doing so are being acquitted. They walk and we continue to mourn, our black pain exposed and unprocessed. Over and over and over again.

I agree with Zadie on one thing: “Get Out” was cathartic, but not because it is the opposite of post-black or post-racial. Both terms were always fictive. It was cathartic because without its alternate ending, it provides relief from the reality in which we live. Its horrors were amusing to me because they are totally plausible and not at all inconceivable. I was reminded that black bodies, even black women’s bodies, are wanted for what they can offer in terms of plots or potential solutions, but they are never considered the meat of the story. In “Get Out,” as in Dana Shutz’ Emmett Till painting, as in Zadie’s assessment of black pain, there is a distance from the reality of black American women who are the beating heart of what it is to be a black American. That means that an entire core of expertise and authority go missing. Their absence is the real horror.

The answer to who owns black pain is always black women. It lives in us. We sing from it. We die from it. Our identities, our bodies are shaped by it. No one ever asks us what it feels like to never be free of this historical torment and heartbreak, but it might just be that that’s part of being an authority in your own agony.

For The Motherless or Unmothered

mom and dad

Mom & Dad & Me & Mom

I live at the center of an odd emotional Venn diagram that falls around this time each spring. I learned of my father’s suicide on Earth Day in 2010. My mother died from cervical cancer in early 2012.

It is my mother who I miss most because insofar as I knew either of my parents, I knew her or tried to and she sometimes let me.

I am a word person but I increasingly love numbers as I get older. They are specific and neat. They offer a clarity words can obscure.

It has been five years since I commemorated Mother’s Day without my mother’s physical presence, without her outside voice shouting at me on the phone to wish her a happy mother’s day, or the arrival of a card she’d sent to me as if to say, “This is how you send a Mother’s Day card…see?”

It has been five months since I moved home to the Bronx, the place I left because my mother was here, insistent and ever-present and manic in a way that made it difficult to be close.

Before I returned, it had been 17 years since I had been a New Yorker. Every day that I was away, I missed being here: The noise, the dirt, the crowds. The possibility, the energy the light pollution that shames darkness and makes visible stars seem like survivors.

I left poor and afraid, following pragmatic versions of my dreams to Texas and the West. I came back successful by some measures, with enough experience to give back what the world had given to me, still battling survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome, writing through it in this new, shiny life of freedom.

Continue reading

On Marching & The Performance of Solidarity

A version of this blog also appeared on Medium

On President Trump’s 100th day in office, I’m thinking still about a lingering, ongoing sense of being reluctantly invited to join a spectacle of social change. It’s not the only reason I’m sitting out the People’s Climate March – I’m also busy, tired and need to have some time in my life when I’m not losing sight of what is true for me, which is that writing is my activism and my self-care but sometimes that looks like being silent, reading a book or being unproductive for a change.

But back to the spectacles.

The Women’s March was the most popular of these to date and I sat that one out, too, for a number of reasons, including concerns I had around inclusivity and representation. I know we’ve moved on and we’re so much better than this, but I will never forget learning first about the Women’s March from other black women who noticed that it was first named after the march led by black women as if that first one had never happened. Surely, it was merely a generational misstep, right? But so what. Erasure is erasure. If people erase you once, they will do so again.

But despite my personal ambivalence about an ongoing and popular performance of solidarity — the notion that by simply showing up and being physically present with mission-aligned people, the important intersectional work of sustainable social change becomes inevitable — I ignored the same problems with diversity that plagued the March for Science by making it a point to get to the satellite March for Science in New York City on Earth Day last Saturday.

IMG_0460

The sense of resistance to inclusion resurfaced this week when I read about Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.’s encounter with police at the D.C. March for Science, which involved him being slammed against a food truck. He told ThinkProgress: “For me to go through that amplified what a lot of people of color have told me — that they don’t feel welcome in the environmental movement, or they can be singled out. I’ve been in the climate movement for a long time, and for the first time, I felt out of place. At that moment, I was just a black guy who was stopped by the police, harassed, roughed up, and let go.”

Rev. Yearwood went on to say in his HuffPost piece that broadening the environmental movement in particular, in terms of numbers or diversity, will only happen when meaningful things are put in place to do so. That includes the empathy that comes with knowing what it looks like to march as a person of color for science, for climate or any issue, for that matter.

It will mean going beyond performing the work of social change and solidarity.

Because I believe this, even though it’s sort of at odds with my status as an outgoing introvert, I forced myself out of my comfort zone on Saturday.


Part of why I was so invested in attending the March for Science is because I spent the better part of a year and a half at the end of the Obama Administration with a group of people I affectionately refer to as “the science nerds,” working as a deputy press secretary in the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Energy. With a team of brilliant appointees and federal staff, I helped connect journalists to subject matter experts on energy efficiency, cybersecurity, wind and hydropower. I led the Energy Department’s coordination with the White House on initiatives related to deploying solar to low-income neighborhoods, broader incentives for electric vehicle adoption and more.

But my favorite part of each week was preparing a news briefing for former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. Secretary Moniz is a tireless nuclear physicist, whose sharp wit and fast mind are as acute as his grasp and eloquence related to the vast auspices of energy — whether he is discussing coal, carbon capture technology, energy efficiency or nuclear fusion. He could — and did — hold court for hours on negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal, the importance of investing in energy infrastructure — from the electrical grid to shoring up the country’s petroleum reserves.

What I knew about climate when I joined the Department of Energy would not fill half a page. But from the wise folks I worked with, I learned that simultaneously, the earth was warming and our energy infrastructure was falling apart, but there were ways we could mitigate these changes. We could be more mindful of how the ways we used energy contributed to harmful carbon emissions.

hurricane-katrina-4

From the Paris Climate Agreement to Grid Modernization, the work I was a small part of seemed meant to not only make a meaningful contribution to climate in the near-term by fending off catastrophes like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, but in the long term, too, by calibrating the energy efficiency of appliances (to name just one example) to make them both affordable and less damaging to the environment. It was cool to imagine a world in which our federal government would be as invested in harnessing the natural abundance of wind, solar and hydropower in an effort to keep us from the disasters that are inevitable from the impact of climate change.

It was there that I also learned about climate resiliency and the lack of attention to how environmental racism impacts people of color and low-income communities. I learned more about how African Americans have already been hardest hit by climate change. How global warming has led to a climate gap most evident in poor communities.

Then there is the inconvenient evidence that throughout history, science has been leveraged to exploit people of color. That made it all the more ironic that the powerful HBO film based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, aired on Earth Day, the same day as the science marches were held. The film truncates Skloot’s recovery of the lost history of how the unauthorized use of Lack’s cells revolutionized science with a stunning performance by Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter.

I watched the film the day after the march, disappointed at the missing conversation around these two related events. I’m thankful that civic engagement and social change organizing continues to move forward, not just in North America but around the world. But the idea that performing solidarity simply by showing up with clever signs will change the fact that some bodies are protected and others are not (in theory or in practice) is flawed. As the People’s Climate March and May Day rallies approach, I wonder how this will begin to shift, if at all.

Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

IMG_0195

Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

IMG_0203

Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.

 

 

Aster(ix) Journal: Forever Shifting

I recently moved back to New York after being away for a little while, and as I get reacquainted with home, I’ve also been looking through the archives to assess how much has changed and how much remains the same. 

When I search my memory for a time and space in which I felt completely at ease, utterly loved, comfortable and surrounded by serenity, I cannot conjure a single moment or geographical location. When people talk about home to me, a single woman, it is as if they are talking about marital love. They are talking about a space I have always yearned for but never found. They might as well be talking about their common experience in outer space.

But I think I know because of how I feel when I write, or when I run, or when I’m reading. These are things that keep my nervous heart from beating out of my chest when I’m afraid and anxious and I have insomnia. Or when I’m making myself dinner, and chopping garlic just so, and cutting up onions or slicing mushrooms. Or when I hear a song that reaffirms God’s love for me, or reminds me that my love really had chosen me just for me and we would be together forever until we weren’t. Home to me is something I still don’t quite understand except when I feel close to it. — From the Tierra/Home issue of Aster(ix Journal

A panel at Princeton, March 9th

I’m not the best at telling people where I’m going to be, because I’m not that into self-promotion, honestly. But it’s easier when other folks are involved, which is why I love panels, and in this case, really looking forward to being in conversation with these ladies.

If you like the Princeton African American Studies Department Facebook page  I’ve been told they’ll share a livestream.

Black Feminist Futures Poster - 03.09.2017.png