I wrote about Bendito arriving in my life around the time that it seemed a number of people discovered a 2014 Bark article I wrote about Cleo and the fraught relationship some Black folks have with dogs. The folks at the podcast An Animal Saved My Life over at The Dodo were kind enough to interview me about my sweet Bendito, who very soon will be 1 year old. I hope you enjoy it, especially if podcasts are your jam.
I appreciate being in a period of national relief. There is something so calming, even when the world is still in a shambles, about humane leadership. It allows my creative mind, anyway, room to react to events without trying to problem solve or anticipate the next horrific thing.
One result of that has been more space in my mind to reflect and create. One aspect of my life I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year has been my connection to The Bronx and why I am so attached to it as a site of my fiction and creative nonfiction, why it is a place that, when I lived far from New York City, pulled me back to it. I think I understand better having written this piece on Medium, but I’m not sure. It may be constantly changing like everything else.
Here’s an excerpt:
It feels like the least a Black woman can expect in the way of belonging and safety in 2021 is to not stand out from the crowd in an era of white nationalist fervor and anger. I want that sentence to mean less in the wake of this historic week but I fear it means more.The safest option, even when the world is quarantining during a pandemic, is to not make oneself more of a target for surveillance or harassment.
In the before times, I found subtle ways of trying to take up less space knowing I would be in a situation, or traveling to a place, where I would be The Only One or One of The Onlies. The stress of living in a cauldron of constant chaos and upheaval is offset by the relief of not having to navigate multiple reactions to my Blackness and my womanhood and their intersection, which seems to be the most intimidating and off-putting fact of my existence of all.
Staying in my lane, or my neighborhood, has become my safety, my insurance. My safety is that I am surrounded by others who more or less expect me to be here. That expectation is reassuring, because when white people are surprised by Black people, the Black people end up dead or in prison. It probably helps that I don’t move that quickly, since there’s a lot of me to move around. Even if I were to be one of those sudden movement types, there is, after all, a police precinct up the street. That said, I am not often made to feel like a suspect in my neighborhood, though I wonder if the Black men in my neighborhood would say the same. I bet even the famous ones would tell a different story.
I wonder: Do you feel like you belong to the place where you live? Why or why not?
My Poets & Writers Cover on Natasha Trethewey
I’m so excited about this cover story I wrote about Natasha Trethewey for the July/August 2020 issue of Poets & Writers, which is only available in print but you can order your copy here (better yet subscribe!)
I feel like I have been wanting to post about it since I got the assignment months ago, so now I’m bursting with joy and excitement. I wanted to just share some more about the wonder of Black creatives, the lessons we have across timelines & movements.
I thought when I read Memorial Drive that what magnetized me to Natasha Trethewey’s work was our common mother loss, but no, it was so much deeper than that. I loved and still do her resilience, her strength, her vulnerability and her focused ability to transmute pain into real, lasting beauty and triumph.
In our interview, I was honored that she trusted me so much to hold space for so much of her journey. She talked about going up to read her work and people introducing the life-shaping story of her mother’s death “with the word murder hanging in the air,” so her memoir was an opportunity to re-contextualize the life of her mother, the social worker and self-advocate who did not live because we have no way of really protecting victims of intimate partner violence and what a failure that is.
There’s so much more and I hope you will read the print issue. Here is more, another part that stays with me: “They have a saying in South Korea that you don’t bury a mother in the ground; you bury her in the chest, or you carry her corpse on your back…As much as I carry her corpse around, I have also planted my living mother in my chest, and she grows there continuously. I have both, two mothers.” May that offer some kind of comfort and/or recognition to all of us as we mourn not just our mothers, but Black daughters like Breonna Taylor & the many others whose names we can’t forget to keep saying.
Meditations on Staying Safe in the Bronx
Probably like everyone else, I have my decent days under self-isolation and I have my difficult ones. Increasingly, they are complex, especially as the parental holidays approach…but every day now has some kind of asterisk, doesn’t it? Here’s my latest on Medium, (here’s a friend link!) which, like everything I seem to write, is about the Bronx but also about trying to navigate grief and humanity and showing up for ourselves in the midst of all of it.
Before the pandemic, my hometown had been changing dramatically, while also remaining very much anchored in what it has always been. The Bronx is always treated like a predominately Latinx and Black outpost of New York City. But it is actually the city, too. At last Census count, there were roughly 1.4 million people here.
Like Queens, the Bronx has been highlighted as an epicenter within an epicenter of the coronavirus because of the high rates of infection and death among people of color here. The deaths of people of color from coronavirus have been at rates 50 percent and higher here in the Bronx compared to Manhattan, with some of the wealthiest zip codes in the city.
Many stories have documented the health disparities that have been laid bare — showing that many black people at higher risk of being infected because of long-standing problems accessing affordable health care, distrust of healthcare providers and our likelihood of being among the ranks of essential workers.
I share in the collective anticipatory grief — grieving those you know will die — that now hangs over the city. It also feels hauntingly familiar. My father died by suicide a decade ago this month. As shocked and confused and angry as I was then, as long as it has taken for me to try to peel apart all of the emotions that still feel fresh in that grief, I know that to lose him now, when the way that we mourn is even shifting, would come with an additional stain and stigma.
I felt the most anticipatory grief for my mother, who died almost two years after my father in 2012. I watched her skin shrivel around her eyes and cheeks as Stage IV cervical cancer ate away at the fleshy, coy expressions she always made that taught me the finer ways to flirt, to help joy shine from one’s face.
In those months and days before she died, I felt a lot like I do now: I kept a daily vigil at the edge of the world I used to know with her at the center, whether I wanted her there or not. Mourning itself felt like a virus I needed to save others from.
Book Review| Memorial Drive : A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
I barreled unexpectedly through Natasha Trethewey’s beautiful and painful memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. I was compelled to finish it quickly the way we are taught to rip Band-Aids off our wounds to ensure that we won’t prolong a stinging sensation, so that we can get on with the healing part and rush through the grief. I explain a little more, too, in my video review on YouTube.
It is not so easy to recover from wounds that involve our mothers, particularly when they do not survive the failings of the world — the world that’s supposed to protect them.
Memorial Drive is the story of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn, through the past and present lens of her daughter’s keen, writerly eye. No detail is spared, which includes transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Gwendolyn and Trethewey’s former stepfather Joel, a haggard, menacing Vietnam War veteran who continually threatens the uneasy peace that opens the book and remains a question mark throughout its pages.
Poets are gifts to us in times of happiness and relative ease but particularly in times of despair, I think, because they can distill what we would normally couch in euphemism down to its essence. In short, they remind us that events are not only what happened but our histories are our active destinies. We can shape them as we wish, but the facts — comforting or not — well, those remain. For women and Black women most of all, there is a way that this power of witness can override the willingness and tendency of others to forget us.
The ache in my heart spread and flourished every time I read a new detail of Joel’s torment of Trethewey, his disregard for her mother or her brother. His manipulation was a knife, twisting and turning with every page; at one point, he breaks the lock to Trethewey’s new gold-edged diary and the violation the poet felt then and perhaps every moment after she had “found her audience,” was so visceral I had to stop reading.
Part of my reaction to the book, of course, is remembering my own mother’s experiences with abuse; the cavalier way in which she would recount having her nose broken by an ex-husband, the way we fled similar boyfriends and sought shelter in homes for what were then called domestic violence shelters. When I posted a review on Instagram, someone mentioned, too, that one of the other aspects of the global pandemic in this moment has to do with a common feature of disasters, which is a rise in intimate partner violence.
The neglect to which my mother succumbed was very different and, besides, you can’t compare one mother’s death to another’s. But what feels the most true here is that I understood that no one was listening to my mother, even when she documented her experience, even when I was a witness. From this, I learned that women were not considered the authorities of their experiences; that even if they were hunted and pursued until they were broken, they would likely not be deemed worthy of protection under the law.
This is a belief I would rather be convinced is untrue. It’s not really in my nature to give into despair. And yet, here is what happens in Memorial Drive, here is what takes the poet three decades to begin to approach & even now, with great suffering and agony: After many attempts to document the abuse and violence and to escape it, Gwendolyn was murdered by her estranged husband in June 1985. Like so many people who have experienced intimate partner violence, she could have been saved — there were so many people warned, so many signs, documented evidence of his threats to her life — and yet, she wasn’t.
This is devastating on so many levels, but especially in Memorial Drive because Trethewey composes the poetry of her extraordinary experience with clarity, grace and generosity while also compiling detail by way of utilizing the economy of every word to perfect effect. As a result, Memorial Drive reads like a classic memoir of grief, like a tragedy in slow motion, the narrative arc, already known, lingers over the text like a set of strings.
Cut Me Loose | Oxford American Winter 2019
So on Mother’s Day, I wandered around Orangeburg to make peace with the parts of Marguerite I didn’t quite know but which still clung to me like smoke. Early in the morning, I parked my rental across the street from the Edisto Memorial Gardens, home to fifty-four varieties of roses. Babbling in the background was the longest blackwater river in North America, an oil-colored waterway connected to the Combahee River—the same water Harriet Tubman used to lead one hundred fifty Union soldiers to various rice plantations on June 2, 1863, to free seven hundred fifty slaves. One thing I knew for sure: my mother loved water and she loved roses.
Only two or three people were around, so I had the place to myself. Downhill, past incredible, tall trees, I went to the water, looking north and south. I walked west, toward the rows and rows of peach- and wine-colored roses, speckled, small, wide, glorious, with names like Glowing Peace and Coretta Scott King and Perfume Delight. Did you ever visit this place? Now, or then?
Fondling the delicate velvet of a full-bodied rose, I thought of everything a rose would have meant to my mother. How I took for granted a ten-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers when I wanted to attend to my heart, but how such a simple gesture would have been too much for her to even dream about. Even though no one was around me, I didn’t want to disturb the silence, and also, the unchaining. Something rusty and dark in me moved aside, a stone rolling away from a tomb. This was not the raucous, grandstanding, trumpet-blaring Free At Last freedom I’d always said I wanted, but something more profound. A healing. What sounded like my mother’s voice in my ear. I can’t believe you made it.
I looked up to stop the tears and spotted a Confederate flag flapping with nonchalance above the trees.
Only after my trip would I realize that, geographically, Orangeburg is a kind of nadir as defined by Imani Perry: “the lowest point in an orbit. It is the location directly below the gaze.” Look for it on a map: in comparison with its northern and eastern neighbors, Charleston and Columbia, Orangeburg is down and out of the way, overlooked.
The rest of my essay in the Winter 2019 issue of Oxford American’s South Carolina issue is here.
Starting from the Beginning
I think all the time about blogging, but then life calls. I don’t even know if people blog anymore, but to me, it feels like the people who care the most about hearing anything I have to say are over here, so I appreciate your patience. And that you have stuck around all this time.
Without saying too much more about it, if you have been a fan of my nonfiction work, consider pre-ordering a copy of the Oxford American 21st Annual South Carolina Music Issue. When the piece is out in the world, I’ll say a little more about it. I’m the most proud of the essay that appears in this issue that I have ever been about anything I’ve written.
In the past week, I’ve wrapped up a revision of about half of a novel; submitted a short story & received an acceptance (!) talked about the gloriousness of writing with a mentee — I am honored to be in the company of writers who are part of the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship program, which you can read more about here — and was excited to see this Lambda Literary video from the Emerging Writers Fellowship readings pop up on the timeline.
I also decided that it’s time for me to find an actual hobby.
Also: I am not without hobbies. I draw. I cook. But all of these things are productive. You know, like running marathons. [ Side note: The NYC Marathon is next Sunday, Nov. 3rd! If you’re in New York, come through! I’m at 42% of my fundraising goal, the deadline is Oct. 31st but I’m floored by the generosity of donors to my campaign who have helped get me to $1,268. That’s a lot of meals for the people who deserve to have the services of a food pantry and a hot meal served to them with respect & embodied empathy.]
And now I’m worn out. Totally pooped. Exhausted.
So, picture me out here in these virtual streets trying to play Grand Theft Auto V.
Yup, I’m dipping my toes in gamer world. If you have suggestions and tips on how to not suck, let me know? It took me a smooth 10 minutes to figure out how to make the main character walk around. I was irritated, but then, something cool happened.
I realize how much I love being a beginner. Maybe it’s the essence of being underestimated, both the self’s underestimation and that of others. I sort of enjoy not being very good at gaming. I can see how people get swept up into these other worlds, start spending money they don’t have (this is why I had to break up with Candy Crush! I was about to start buying lives and my soul just shook its imaginary head…) I mean, I only just started a few days ago. So, like, there’s time.
But this is also what I love about National Novel Writing Month every November– what matters so much isn’t the end product; there may not be one! The point is that you write like hell, roughly 1,667 words a day, and then hopefully, by the end of the month, you have 50,000 words. I just so happen to have a project or two that I want to sink into in November, so I’m in. I’ve been doing it almost every year for about five years. What about you?
On running the NYC Marathon again
Almost a decade ago, maybe the fifth or sixth time I tried to quit smoking, I started running.
Since I was a girl, I would sometimes just take off running around the block because I didn’t really have friends or anything else really to do besides read. And getting my heart rate going was my favorite thing.
I could feel the wind on my face. I loved the sheen of sweat on my arms and legs. I felt powerful, like the master of my own fate.
One weird thing about me, though, is that I don’t have a good sense of distance. A childhood friend would be so mad at me when I would guesstimate how far a walk from, say, the Fordham train station was to the Botanical Gardens. To me, especially because there was a big part of it that was downhill, it almost didn’t matter. “Maybe six blocks,” was a standard answer for distance of all lengths, all kinds, anywhere.
“Girl, this is more like fifteen blocks!”
All I could do was shrug and apologize. I was used to just meandering the city, a habit I learned from walking everywhere, borough to borough, with my mother. We walked to save carfare, walked to go to the welfare office, walked to church, walked to the pantry, walked and walked and walked.
But running was mine. Running was mine when I was a kid and it was mine when I joined the track team and set a school record my freshman year. It was mine even when I felt like I was coughing up tobacco residue during Austin 5Ks. Then 10Ks. Then half marathons. One, two, three half marathons, 13.1 miles each, and I wondered about the marathon distance, whether I was brave enough to fail. 26.2 miles, even to someone who doesn’t have a normal estimation of distance is still really damn far.
But here is what I wrote about that about four years ago, in a longer post, Running Through Madness:
Next thing I knew, I had made the lottery for the New York Marathon, the same spring when I learned my father had committed suicide.
Both reminded me that nothing was impossible.
It turns out that running 26.2 miles, and training body and soul to do it, is useful for heartbreak. It does not mend anything, your muscles are all broken, and that becomes the point. Everything is weary and strained and exhausted like your heart.
It took me almost six full hours to run that marathon. I started with thousands of marathoners around the world before the sun came up and finished with just a few lonely Clydesdale running souls just as the sun was going down.
This year, I am running the TCS NYC Marathon again with some of my colleagues at the New York Common Pantry. I sit on the Junior Board for the pantry, which helps serve New Yorkers with dignity.
I’m raising $3,000 to help feed New Yorkers who may not have the resources to make ends meet. The New York Common Pantry provides 6+ million meals each year. We are committed to meeting the needs of underserved New Yorkers by providing nutritiously balanced food and services.
I’m also running to see if I can be a little faster, since I have distance and time has helped me heal the heartbreak that got me running in the first place. But the thing that gets me out the door for running miles that take hours to complete is my passion for making sure the hungry get fed. I hope you can contribute to help with the cause. (I also accept prayers, Biofreeze products and chocolate chip cookies.)
Lane Moore’s How to Be Alone
“Your commitment to survival is more than a notion; it’s a balm, an affirmation, an eternal love note, and a sacred love manifestation that starts as a whisper and rises into the atmosphere. How to be Alone gave me closure. What a gift it is to know that there’s another person in the world who’s so brave and true to her spirit that she survived the hardest parts of being alive. Instead of sinking into despair or madness; being waylaid by bitterness or tragedy; or turning the grueling and terrifying dark of isolation against yourself, you’ve transmuted it into a fire so bright that it blazes brilliantly, with a classic, universal humanity. James Baldwin said, “You think your heartbreak is unprecedented in the world, and then you read.” How To Be Alone is like that.”
— In which I write a very vulnerable open letter-review for Bitch Media to the beautiful bad ass Lane Moore, whose tremendous and lovely book, How To Be Alone, really helped me sort some things out in the best, most heartbreaking way. Shout out to those of you who remember my Single & Happy blog & eBook days. Feels like a lifetime ago now.
P.S. New Yorkers: Lane will be in convo with the HQ host (!!) at The Strand tonight at 7 p.m.
Three Ways to Help Alleviate Hunger
I do a lot of talking to my students and others these days about the importance of being specific in writing and in life. One of the things that’s hardest for me to be specific about, both in terms of cultivating self-compassion around the trauma it brings up to write about it, but also the ways that our society stigmatizes black female experiences of poverty, is hunger — in the physical sense, but also in the emotional and mental sense.
I always say that fall is my favorite season. I love the delicious feeling of the air cooling in New York City, the way the leaves transform from green to marigold. I break out my new boots, my favorite sweaters & my best turkey chili slow-cooker recipe.
But autumn also brings a familiar, old ache in my body, somewhere between my heart and my stomach. My heart longs for what I imagine families or couples or people who belong to broader fabrics are preparing for, but that’s not the whole story of this ache.
Some of the story is that Thanksgiving calls to mind my great-grandmother Patty Randolph, who was Cherokee in South Carolina long before I was even an idea in anyone’s concept of the future, though I’m not certain if she was listed on anybody’s official tribal rolls because of our connection to blackness. (It is, apparently, another inheritance of mine to be a perpetual outsider and I may forever belong to the tribe of misfits.)
Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have inherited her high cheekbones and the scarlet blood that runs hot right beneath the undertones of my skin. I carry her imprint on my face, in my eyes, in my flesh, the same way my mother did.
What I know, what I have learned is that Native Americans have a different view of what harvest looks like, of what the Thanksgiving meal looks like, or should. Still, tradition and ritual are the arms we wrap around the narratives we prefer to inform our legacies in the world. Put another way, at the end of my life, I imagine I’ll look back on moments and highlights and collect the holidays at tables with chosen and/or biological family as those defining moments in which I became more whole. When I found another part of myself that fell away from me when I was young.
To say these parts fell away, too, is a bit passive, even; but to say they were stripped is too harsh. Like I said, the specificity of it is hard.
It’s one thing to tell people that when you were a child you sometimes didn’t eat for days, or that you were homeless sometimes, but what I’ve found is that you can never really explain to another person what it means not to be able to eat three meals a day because there just isn’t food in the house. It’s one thing to say that the UN estimates that 820 million people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment.
It’s another to explain that if you live at a shelter as a kid with your single mom, you eat when meal times are. If you miss the meal times because the train was late or your mom’s appointment with her social worker ran later than she expected, you might just have juice because meal time is now over. Also, meal time can mean a cold sandwich on a cold day andan ice cold drink.
James Baldwin said it was expensive to be poor. This is what he meant.
I experienced hunger like this: drinking water and sleeping and listening to music and reading books to quiet my thoughts and fantasies and longing for food, wondering about when the next food pantry day would be at the nearest church. Those were the days, between checks or public assistance or money Western Union-ed from my brother, that made the real difference.
Beggars, they say, couldn’t be choosers. I was always grateful, truly. Thankful.
When other people donated food, though, we got whatever was second or third best – canned creamed corn, or canned peaches, or green beans. Mixed vegetables. Canned pork in a silver can with a pig drawn crudely on it. Corn Flakes. It was not for us. It was for some hungry desperate family of two and we happened to be the receptacles, like garbage, which is exactly how I felt for many years.
I can’t even tell you how often I was hungry in this desperate way as a kid – probably two, three times a month from the timeI was five until I went to boarding school on scholarship when I was 15. If we didn’t have money to travel to see our family for Thanksgiving, we went to a Catholic church, a soup kitchen, a Salvation Army with people who only had it slightly worse than we did, since sometimes we were actually living in an apartment when we had our Thanksgiving meals with other homeless people – but sometimes we didn’t.
I mention all of this because the reason I’m a proud member of the Junior Board at the New York Common Pantry is not necessarily because I like the way it sounds, or because I am affluent enough to remain on the board without stressing out a little bit about it, honestly. I volunteer and evangelize onbehalf of the New York Common Pantry because hunger and poverty are like so many other problems in our world — it’s much easier to see and talk in generic terms about what other people should be doing on other continents. But here, in the U.S., in your state, perhaps in your very building, on your block, maybe in your family, there may be someone who can’t afford to buy groceries for Thanksgiving. Maybe there’s a single mom with a little girl nerd like yours truly, and they are living a story just like mine, but they are too proud, too ashamed, too close to the ache to say anything.
The best thing about growing into a different narrative, or many different narratives, is that I can write my story in the service of action. I can do my small part to make sure others don’t go hungry. if you’re reading this, the same is true for you. If it is, here are some ways you can help alleviate food insecurity for some of the 1.4 million New Yorkers who rely on emergency food assistance every year:
- The Junior Board is holding its third annual fundraiser, Friendsgiving, on November 8th. Tickets are $100 for a meal at the New York Common Pantry headquarters.
- You can also enter to win baskets that include high quality experiences like tickets to performances at Carnegie Hall or the One World Observatory or Gospel Brunch at RedRooster. (Thank you very much to the generous sponsors/donors who have donated to us, especially the ones who responded to my awkward emails — I hate asking for money but I will definitely do it if it means more people have food in the city I love, so thank you for bearing with meand even more important, thank you for your generosity!) Whether you want to attend the dinner (it will be delish!) or just want to give a donation, please list my name in the “In honor of” section: https://ycp.ejoinme.org/MyPages/JuniorBoardFriendsgiving2018/tabid/1003286/Default.aspx
- From now through November 9th, the New York Common Pantry is hosting a food drive. You can shop and send food items to the New York Common Pantry that are most needed directly online from this link: https://yougivegoods.com/shop?drive=7972
- You can arrange to have items from your company or organization’s food drive picked up by November 14th by filling out the Google Link here: http://nycommonpantry.org/2018-thanksgiving-food-drive/
Finally, if you will be in New York this Thanksgiving, or if you have been in the past, and you know of valuable ways to commemorate the third (?) Thursday in November, I’d love to hear them. I’d love to volunteer on Thanksgiving morning or make a new tradition — possibly involving my slow cooker to serve others — but maybe something else I haven’t yet imagined.