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.

 

 

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Grand Dames

I spend a lot of time with women who are older than me, so it took me a little while to stop joking about feeling old and realize that I actually was starting to feel like one of them.

This mingling with the older crowd started when I was very young. They gave me comfort, guidance. My mother was well past middle age when she had me, and she mustered all the love she had when she could be both physically and emotionally present, but the convergence of those two things only happened infrequently. So I found other ways to get the nurturing I needed.

I found the gaps filled especially by other crones, or elders just a few years older than me. I somehow sensed all along that they were my sister outsiders. At dinner parties or orphan Christmases or birthday gatherings or memorials, to this day, I still find the oldest people in the room to talk to. They settle my spirit, calm my nerves, even when they are chastising me for something or complaining. I am especially in awe of black elders, because it is a miracle to grow elderly and serene and black in America, to thrive and smile and be well, despite the weariness of the years.

I always want to know from them how they got over, how they got through, what they love most about this life they keep living. My heart is always curious about the survivors.

While my mother was older when she had me, her mental state rendered her younger in practice and in practical things like keeping a house, raising a kid, finishing college. The older teachers, strangers and angels I met as a girl and a teenager filled in most of the blanks, as did my older sister, Rita. They gave me, in no particular order: love and life advice, books, encouragement, warm smiles, money for coveted Choose Your Own Adventure or Judy Blume paperbacks at book fairs, used clothes, food for weeks when we didn’t have any in the house, hugs, kisses and a deep, expansive faith in the potential for joy to be a prayer of nourishment that we can live and embody.

They became bridges from despair to hope and faith. Even when I temporarily stopped believing in bridges for awhile. One of the dangers of being self-parented and self-directed, even when you have an old soul, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. The loneliness and alienation, even when it is self-imposed, feels like it could kill you. It is not unlike being a writer and a journalist, this self-direction, in that you are always gathering and storing information to use later.

My faith in bridges has always been restored by mentors: Evelyn C. White, Octavia Butler who I adopted as a mentor unbeknownst to her after I interviewed her in 2004 and she told me how much she disliked the phrase ‘Grand Dame’ because it made her sound old and on and on and on. One of the biggest blessings of my life was the ability to say to Alice Walker during and after interviewing her that In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens gave me some important guidelines on how to live, how to be fearlessly myself, how to place my hands in the earth and be restored when I was uncertain about anything else.

These women and many others called behind their shoulders to me on the path and shared the potholes to swerve around: Jealousy, sexism, intimidation, racism. Remember where you came from but know you don’t have to go back; Indeed you may not be able to. Remember how you got here and remember to keep moving forward. Cherish the present. It is all you ever really have.

But the eldest of my mentors, real and imagined, was Amanda Jones. Jones, 109, was the first person I met who made me re-examine what I thought I wanted my life as an elder to be like. When I was younger, I sometimes believed I had all the wisdom I’d need to garner from others, enough to tide me over for the rest of my life. Jones ended my delusion.

She was the granddaughter of slaves and sharecroppers, born just after slavery was outlawed. In the throes of Reconstruction, through witnessing voting rights awarded to women, then blacks, to that moment in which we sat in her tiny living room in Bastrop, Texas, crowded in by the certificates and family photos on the wall that display a life well-lived and well-loved when she could make one of her last efforts on earth to cast a ballot for our first Black President.

I wish that she had said something profound, but the truth is, she was tired. One of her great-granddaughters spoke on her behalf and translated a lot of what she said. This was a woman who slept until 11 a.m. each morning and retired early, too. I smiled, when she grew weary and I thanked her. “I understand,” I added. “If I were 109, I wouldn’t feel like talking much, either.”

What stayed with me most about Amanda Jones was that she had survived so much with her resilient, sweet spirit intact. I saw in her example a woman who had been fully engaged in a life without letting hardship or adversity shape her. I think about her often now, as often as I think about my other friends and mentors, because — as Evelyn once said to me —  the older we become the more complex things seem to be.

I saw in her a vision of the old woman I wanted to become — a person whose fundamental nature could not be altered by the overwhelming demands of change or brutality or injustice. I learned from her, too, that such a life, such a presence, did not require anyone’s sign off or approval, merely the understanding that the strength and grace of Black womanhood  could serve as an example to the ones coming after us of how powerful one life can be.

Learning to be Big

I left work completely devastated and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in a season of severe self-doubt, mired in worry. This was about business, about a professional transition, but it was more than that. I was feeling like I was doing something and I had done something that is all too familiar and damaging to my writing life.

I was in so much pain because I was trying to be small.

As it usually does, it took my best friend’s observation to get me to stop with the ugly crying and chest heaving.

“You are always trying to be small and I don’t understand it,” she said. “But literally nothing about you is small.”

Nothing about me is small.

I have a big laugh, a big smile. I have big feet, a big heart, and a big gift.

This is obvious to so many people, but until now, it has not been at all obvious to me. I don’t take these things for granted as much as I have been so busy thinking of other things that I haven’t allowed myself space to think about this.

My first thought was of Marianne Williamson, because this quote has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. It was my dear friend Portia, when we were pen pals (remember those?) 20 years ago who transcribed it in her remarkably beautiful penmanship in purple ink:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These are nice words and I like them and I loved to read them. I read them many times over the years. Each time, I felt the recognition of their truth but I didn’t  own being a child of God. Not really. I talked about it. I wanted desperately to believe it. But I also wanted to hide my lamp under a bushel, even if Scripture is pretty plain about why that’s not a good Standard Operating Procedure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. When I was a kid, I was literally smaller. Well, thinner. But I longed to have girth and heft, to be seen, to be a force like my mother, who was physically solid, strong.

The thing about visibility for women, for black women and girls, is that when you are seen, you are also a target. My bookish nerd brain decided, once in the Bronx, where most of us are invisible by default, and again when I entered the workforce, that the best way to keep from being a target of anything was to shrink.

This is where being mildly introverted comes in handy. It allowed me to fold myself and my personality up and tuck it quietly between the pages of a book. This presents to others as a feminine virtue, I think, as modesty and humility. Perhaps I also have some of that, but primarily, this was about survival.

Because God has a sense of humor, my height was always the main inconvenience on this front. Except for the random times when they were lining us up in reverse size order during elementary school — once a year! — I was the last or second to last person in a size order line.

Always visible from the front.

Always subject to someone’s question about my nonexistent basketball-playing ability.

Never ready for the attention.

I think some of this comes from not being used to having things. I wonder if that’s why it has taken so long to accept and to grow into the power of presence that my height has given me or the gift of writing. After all, the natural reaction to being unaccustomed to having things is to give them away.

I gave my power and gifts away in so many ways as a girl and a younger woman that it is impossible to recount them all, and merciless to try. The main reason I wanted to shrink is because of a feeling of deep guilt about succeeding in my life where my mother had failed. She wanted so much for her dreams to come to fruition she repeated them daily until she got sick. She chased them until she decided she was ready to move on to the ultimate dream.

I carried, while Mom was alive, this feeling of both wanting her to have everything that I earned and knowing that I needed to keep what was mine. She had raised me, she had given me this wellspring of compassion and empathy — for all of the difficulty that had come with it. Someone should compensate her for the hard life she had lived, I thought, even though I realized that some of the hard living was her choice.

She said she was jealous and that she wanted me to soar. What I took from those two statements was a rejection of anything I did because she couldn’t have the things she wanted most.

So to believe in my own expansion or expansiveness felt like a betrayal of her. Our mother is the beacon whose every word and action sets our moral and emotional compass. I found myself longing to move out from under my discomfort by undermining and sabotaging myself. Becoming flat. Quiet. Discreet. It seemed there could be only one big woman between us.

I let her be the sun and the sky. I was content to be a shadow, even a few years after her death.

The weird thing about grief is that it can set off in you a series of unconscious reactions. When you lose your footing, when you lose ground, the first thing God sends you is a reminder of what is familiar. You can chose to cling to the blanket or toss it aside for more discomfort in order to grow.

I clung to the blanket. I met people who reminded me so much of my mother; they displayed her ambivalence about how I should be in the world more than anything else. It happened in friendships, new and old, that had run their course for too long. It happened at work and in love, when I was least aware of how my playing small was at the core of so much suffering.

They assured me in one breath that they could nurture me and help me shine. In another, they helped me sabotage myself with manipulation and envy. Even when I was trying so desperately to be small, I was still, apparently, a threat.

It took falling apart in my best friend’s kitchen for me remember myself, to begin to see myself as others see me.

It has always been unfortunately comfortable for me to feel as though my success as a writer has come at the expense and inconvenience of others; That by becoming bigger, becoming my full self, unfolding the fullness of God’s gift to me, I would somehow be stepping on someone else, taking more than I am worthy to have. Being what the world often tells black women we are: Too big for my own britches.

It turns out that I have, in this way, been my own worst enemy. I’m forgiving myself for that, for the fact that I have never really loved myself enough to believe that it is enough to believe in my own expansion.

It is enough to give yourself permission to divest yourself of the opinions and reactions and feelings of others. You can feel and be as limitless as the horizon if you are willing to allow yourself to have all that you are capable of having and become all you are capable of becoming.

I am stepping into the big shoes that have always been mine to fill, at least I am working toward that. Life is too short to settle for a corner, for a side part, a dark shadow. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and it’s what I’ve seen. It is scary but beautiful and necessary to stand in the light or — even better — to become a brighter sun.