For The Motherless or Unmothered

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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 “For The Motherless or Unmothered”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mourning my country

I woke up to news that the country I was born in, that I love, that I have never seriously planned to abandon has decisively elected to the American presidency a racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic zealot. A man who has shown us the extent to which he is uninterested in an inclusive country. A celebrity who time and again wantonly displayed his open disregard for women, for African Americans, for Latinx while much of corporate, mainstream media leaned in to give him free publicity, to guffaw at his ignorance, to almost secretly admire his brazen hostility.

Reading the words “President Donald John Trump” evoked nausea and despair. It evoked sadness and rage. But mostly, it evoked exhaustion. Yes, I know that fighters do not give up. I am a preternatural optimist. I was born fighting. All I have known in my life is the stubborn will to continue to rise from the ashes of wildfires not of my own making.

But today I do not care about being a phoenix. I care about witnessing again the abusive relationship I have with my country and its democracy. Today, it feels like flags should be flying at half-staff. Not because democracy is dead, but because it is broken, and we have all watched it break and we have not done enough to keep it alive in a way that ensures an inclusive future.

I wrote this for Bitch Magazine, even though I still feel as speechless as half the country.

The Story of Our Talent for Survival

I remember exactly when I learned that reading in the hood is a revolutionary act.

It was at the heavy hands of Michelle, the largest sixth grader I’d ever seen, who was one of the Bronx girls around the way who liked to chase me to deliver a beat down as punishment for not letting her cheat off of my spelling test.

Reading was dangerous because it sent a signal to hood residents that you did not intend to stay, even if they were not considering a way out. Books seemed to suggest that even if your body was stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind was on the path to freedom.

That’s why I became a professional reader long before I was a writer. Books gave me hope when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. They helped me shape a future for myself that was beyond the limits of poverty, neglect and my mother’s mental illness.

Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Even the presence of the elegant, poised, brilliant President and First Family does not negate the long shadow of prevalent biases about all black people as subject to abject poverty and dysfunction. But that was the real life that I led, even if it wasn’t particularly attractive.

I read to cope. I found solace at the library. Especially from Michelle, because you couldn’t get in the West Farms public library branch without a library card and she definitely didn’t have one.

I inhaled whatever was in the new book section. Self-help books, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. Because as a third or fourth grader in and out of public schools in each of the five boroughs because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf fed my spirit. Resting my mind in black girl poetry and prose gave me hope when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born only came after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old — a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation.

I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer empathy and community to those who know what it is like to live with anything like a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless. We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors.

Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar — all variations of what I have heard. But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere.

This book is for her.