This summer was the second in a row I got to teach writing with one of my favorite groups on earth, Young Women Empowered. Y-WE Write has educated me about what it means to foster brave space with young people, how to be vulnerable as a creator and writer and teacher, how to find my process through explaining it, which parts of my story are most beneficial to share with this generation of young writers now. It has been held at Whidbey Institute, on Whidbey Island, which is also home to the writer’s residency Hedgebrook. For this reason, the Pacific Northwest has become my healing sanctuary, place where I have been shielded from hard things in recent years.
So it was with a heavy, heaving heart that I peeked at the news to take note of Aretha Franklin dying while I was there. I got there almost two weeks ago Sunday, and spent the full week waking in the morning to some of my favorite songs, trying to articulate what she meant to my life. Before she died that Thursday, one of my students asked a question about how you keep from feeling like so many people are writing about something or someone that anything you write might be inferior — and I could hear their voice in my head as I read and bookmarked long articles and obituaries for Aretha, wondering what, if anything there was left to say.
When I was done showing up for the young women I came there to teach, as we mourned and celebrated Aretha together; after I cried leaving them and they offered me such sweet, adoring words of affirmation and I flew to Newark on a red-eye, landed, drove 2.5 hours to the middle of Pennsylvania for a two-day workshop to discover a really significant shift to my work in progress that will make it soar in a way that I could have never found on my own (Thank you Highlights Foundation!!) drove 2.5 hours back to New York City after being away from home 10 days, attended an all-day faculty orientation the following day that left me with just enough mental energy to finish writing what I needed to, I was able to write this piece about Aretha Franklin and what she means to me, and what I believe she means for Black women, in particular. It was important to write not because I felt like I needed to write about Aretha because other people were writing about Aretha, but because I wanted to read work about Aretha that centered what I know other Black women would want to read and see lifted up about the Queen of Soul as we prepare for her homegoing.