Live On Your Own Terms: A Memoir Excerpt

Winter is one of my favorite seasons, and I really want to like Christmas, but it’s complicated by the fact that my mother died during this season five years ago. Even before she fell ill with terminal cervical cancer, the holidays have always been challenging, and I’ve never been particularly good at knowing how to genuinely celebrate while also holding the sadness that is also present other than doing what I always do — which is writing through it. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, published in 2016, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. 

2011
Marguerite loved to celebrate. You didn’t have to take the party to her: she was the party. Lights flickered in her eyes, her mouth would curl up at the sides, and she’d nod her head and shake her shoulders to music, shuffling her wide feet with socks curled over her toes leaving her heels bare, side to side, off-beat.

In the house of her best friend in Philadelphia or in one of our many apartments, she liked the music turned all the way up, and she could easily get lost, her arms lifted up, fingers snapping. She loved Christmas the most. She would wash her favorite red blouse in the sink and hang it on the shower curtain to dry a day ahead of time.

She said an extra rosary for the season, dragging in real or fake trees some years just to have the lights around her. There were rarely gifts under the tree or even blankets to catch the shedding pine needles. She would say, “You’re my gift. I’m your gift. Merry Christmas!”

We usually scrambled for food and warmth during Christmastime in New York City. The scalding radiators in our apartment were loud, rusty pieces of shit that sent steam spraying toward the ceiling in loud squeals. The refrigerator was often empty, but my junior high school principal, Brother Brian, or church volunteers usually made sure we didn’t go hungry on Christmas.

We made turkey and stuffing and plopped in front of us on a couch or plastic chairs to set in front of a TV where we watched It’s a Wonderful Life or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

“You kind of look like him, Shan,” Mom said.
“The reindeer?”
“Your nose gets red like that in the cold,” she said. She started to crack up, and the gap in her front teeth showed.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, smiling shyly at her.
“It does, and you have a dimple on your forehead too.”
“You know a lot about my face!”
“When you frown I can see it. It’s cute, Shan,” she would say. “It’s where your brother kissed you before you were born and came to me from heaven.”

 

Most years, instead of decorating with lights at home, we went to see the city’s most famous tree at Rockefeller Center, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It towered over the ice skating rink below, and both Mom and I stared wide-eyed at it, year after year: the giant, multicolored bulbs, the dark space between the branches, the giant toys. It was the real-life version of what she imagined a good monument to Christmas to be, better than any replica she could try to make with her hands.

“All we’re going to do is look at it?”

She said breathlessly, nodding, “It’s beautiful.”

Our last Christmas together, I woke up in the house of a family friend in Philadelphia, getting ready for church after a house full of children had been up for hours ripping open presents and running around the house. I had been sleeping on a twin bed in Rita’s home for almost three weeks, missing my own bed back home in Austin but afraid to leave since we didn’t know how long Mom would be alive.

 

My phone broke around the same time, and my big sister Rita teased me about the way I wrestled with the broken buttons before giving up. I held onto it for a few days too long because everything in the world seemed broken. Mothers leave their children; they die before we do, yes, but Marguerite was not yet old enough to leave me. Our lives were still broken in a way I believed only she had the power to mend.

I sat next to Rita at Stronghold Baptist Church, and I wept. I could only really cry in two places by then, in the house of God and at my mother’s bedside. For all my traveling and adventures, for all my ambition and making my way in the world, I was still a frightened little kid. We were in a season of celebration, and it felt like a betrayal to smile or give gifts. It felt like a betrayal of my mother’s life to even breathe, to just keep living my life as if it had meaning without her in it.

I needed the word, the exaltation of something much bigger than me, than us. I needed the infusion of glory and spirit, some light in a season of darkness to baptize me in a hopeful future. The present was breaking my heart. Whatever was coming for Marguerite had to be better than what she was feeling now. I was sitting in the pew with my sister, but my heart and mind were with Mom in that nursing home, so I asked Rita to take me there.

I cried tears of anger, release, and surrender. What if Mom made it through, by some miracle that she had always talked about, and she took medication, and we could be, finally, like all mothers and daughters? She hadn’t guided me like mothers are supposed to, but dear God, I was here and breathing and by most accounts a good human: that was something.

Hours later, I sat at my mother’s bedside. She had shit on her wrist again, which Rita wiped off with hard tissue. Mom’s wig was in the corner of her cubby. Rita sat staring at the television while I held Mom’s hand. Her fingernails were yellow but soft now; her fingers as thin as mine.

“I’m so happy to see you,” she said. She talked again about com- ing into money, about wanting to move into her house. “Maybe not that house. Well. God will take care of us,” she said, finally. She was high on morphine, and her eyelids would drop mid-sentence, like she was about to go to sleep.

I moved my chair up, trying to get close to her face. She couldn’t understand what I was saying when I asked what happened to her scarf. She was wearing a towel over her cropped gray hair.

“So are you going back to work or what?”

“I’m going to write.” I didn’t want to waste anytime talking to her about my future, knowing that she wouldn’t be around to see it.

“That sounds nice,” she said. “When are you coming back?”

After you’re gone, I thought. The next time I’ll be here is during your funeral. My eyes welled up, and I remembered that she hated to see me cry.

“I don’t know,” I said. I realized then that I could tell her what I wanted to tell her without saying goodbye. “I’m going to miss you very much,” I said. I told her I was leaving Philadelphia in a few days. In my head and in my heart I added, Goodbye.

She touched my arm. I rubbed hers, which was too thin, and moved from the chair to sit on the side of the bed, while she mostly stared at the television. She was curious about the coffee cup I had brought in with me. She looked at it and then me, and then she smiled, and I felt like she really saw me and really understood where my heart was. I smiled back at her, the most light I could muster.

“I love you very much,” she said.

 

“I love you, too, Mom,” I answered. I closed my eyes. I thought, I forgive you. God, please don’t let her feel too much pain. I hope this is enough, this sitting with her and kissing her on the forehead and letting her kiss me on the cheek.

She started to nod off. We left the nursing home, and for the rest of the night, I was in a fog. I wanted Christmas to come and go because I knew Marguerite wouldn’t live to see another one.

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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

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.

On Gloria Naylor and The Beautiful Darkness

When I was 16 or 17, I sometimes had the great privilege of riding with some of my high school classmates to author lectures at SUNY Albany. One of my favorite hobbies back then was attending readings, book signings and lectures. It was one thing to be obsessed with reading and writing, to escape in a world of words so frequently that the world sometimes startled me when I came back to earth. It was another to listen to writers, especially black women writers, share their experience in real life. Where I could see them and share with them my admiration.

So it was with Gloria Naylor, who I learned this week died recently at the age of 66. She was the brilliant author of The Women of Brewster Place, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. It was the former two that gave shape to the dream I had to humanize black women and render their lives in a way that was as beautiful as what I experienced in daily life.

But when I met her, she did not tell me what other writers always did. Keep writing your heart out. Send your work everywhere. Write everyday. Instead she looked at me in her poised, regal way and said, “Wait until your thirties to publish.”

“Well, I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer,” I said in response. I am nothing if not stubborn.

“You will not know your voice until you are older,” she said. She wished me well, then got back to signing books for the crowd that had gathered around us.

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans took me all of my twenties to get right, and still, I struggled with it as I entered my thirties. It was a memoir with a lot of different themes: running, stray cats. It was a memoir without a theme told from beginning to end, with no arc.

It was a memoir that many agents thought had potential and was beautifully written but ultimately they said they could not sell, or that I needed to fix and change to be more like name-the-hot-title. 

But there is nothing like watching the ones you love and admire most die while you try to find the best words to describe what their lives have meant to you. I no longer resent my resilience, but that doesn’t make it easier to live. 

I decided when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer in 2011 that I would write one last version of our story. My sister and my friends, thankfully, reminded me that I was depriving people who needed to read it of something significant that could help them.

I was reading a memoir that described winter elsewhere in the world as the beautiful darkness. And I thought immediately that surviving what happens to us in life is just like that. It is hard to see the beauty in what threatens to destroy us, but those things are still beautiful.

I have, in the past 15 years, written much about being self-parented, caring for my mother through our challenges with homelessness, her mental illness and poverty. I learned more about compassion and forgiveness for myself and my mother — both orphans in some ways — than I ever expected to working on this book.

As it happens, Gloria Naylor turned out to be right. It is a book that I could not have fully written or told in my twenties the way that I can now. The Beautiful Darkness paperback will be released later this month. You can pre-order the Kindle Edition here.

My Writing Process: Forget what you hear about writing

Nicole D. Collier, one of my favorite members of my virtual writing tribe, asked me to participate in the blog tour. Since I love to read and write about writing (in lieu, sometimes, of actually writing) and I’ve noted that some other writers I admire and respect, including Tananarive Due, Tayari Jones and Daniel Jose Older have all participated, I thought I’d add my humble thoughts and impressions to the mix.

1) What are you working on?

I am working on a book about how racism and sexism have contributed to the demise of traditional journalism and how people of color (and organizations, websites and companies that recognize their value) are changing the media landscape in important but often unacknowledged ways. I have also written a memoir in progress (excerpts have appeared in Huizache, Gawker and TED, among other publications) and every now and then, the poetry that I love comes back. I have worked for years on a short story that turned into a novella about the daughter of a train conductor and the graffiti artist she loves in the Bronx that I know will be published in some form someday.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question and frankly, not one that I think too much about. I am willing to admit that not thinking much about it might work to my detriment. Because there are so few people of color who are published and promoted well for work that is for people of color, in that we are the main audience and about people of color that also includes class diversity and is concentrated on the African-American experience, my creative writing and poetry are different from others’ in the sense that I am tacitly aware of internal and external geographies, their impact on how and when and where we tell our stories and how those stories are positioned or excluded from mainstream and popular cultural narratives about people of color — specifically black women. I hope that my reverence, appreciation and empathy for the intersections of my experience are reflected in the work.

The same is true for nonfiction. The main difference in my nonfiction writing is that I am fully aware of the power of the truth, or a truth, to change a life because it is how I was shaped as a young reader who dreamed of being a writer. I love that saying that the creative adult is the child who survived — that is the internal location or spiritual location I write from.

It helps that I have a wealth of traditional newspaper reporting experience, which gives me the power of knowing how to completely own a deadline and the discipline of structure while also giving me the confidence that comes with having failed and made mistakes and learned that failure, or whatever is subjectively considered failure is not the end of the world. There is always something more to write. I think my nonfiction is different from others’ who write memoir, essays and other nonfiction in that I seek to offer information for others to investigate or parse through instead of as a definitive statement or argument.I try to be authoritative without being obstinate and lyrical without trying too hard. I also try not to be too hard on myself when I fail at either of those.
3) Why do you write what you do?

One of the things that brought me a lot of comfort and joy as a young woman and a budding writer was reading elegant, beautiful and clear work about people of color who are traditionally not given models of ourselves in literature that have these elements. I write about women, women of color, the poor and working class and other people of color so that I can be a part of creating the beauty in the world that is otherwise missing when it comes to these groups. Perhaps because of postracial and postfeminist rhetoric, to some people it seems to be redundant and outdated to state and restate how important it is to be committed to writing about black women, especially those who are the least visible in classical or predominantly white canons, but I know how significant it was for me to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, for instance, while I was self-parenting and supporting my mother in ways that were beyond my young years or to read bell hooks and Cornel West in seventh grade before I understood what they were even talking about in Breaking Bread. The same can be said of the multi-volume memoirs of Maya Angelou who showed me that while it took courage, confidence and grace to be a Renaissance woman (she was a tall black woman, too, like me — and Octavia Butler!) it was possible to overcome a lot of internal and external resistance to do so.
4) How does your writing process work?

I have multiple processes and I think all creatives do. I write all the time. I write on my phone. I write little notes in a notebook that I usually carry around with me. I prefer to write longhand, which is slower than typing, and to transcribe. I love to write longhand when something is particularly meaningful to me or requires the kind of granular detail that I need to retain. (The most recent example of one piece I did this with is this blog about leaving Austin.)

I don’t necessarily write everyday anymore but I used to, faithfully, for many years. I think you build writing time into your life in a way that is completely natural for you. Do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel like so much work. I actually love work and am addicted to work, so for me, working doesn’t carry a negative connotation in the same way that say, relaxation does (No pun intended, I am working on that. I realize that I ain’t like everybody that way.) But the main problem new and/or young writers seem to face related to process is that they associate writing with work. I say do whatever you need to do to get rid of that mentality and get out of your own way in whatever way you need to to go from being a person who has always wanted to write to being a writer…because writers write. I value my work and the luxury and privilege I have to do it so much that I approach the page as a way to share the gifts that were bestowed upon me and to honor the many different people I’ve known who wished that they had the luxury of sitting down at a page to write.

Writers write but they should also read. I read everything, which is a significant part of my writing process. I believe heartily in taking notes. For nonfiction, I take copious notes. Everywhere — in the book, in a separate notebook, on Post-Its.

I write at all hours, but my best writing gets done when I have the least distractions which is either early in the morning or in the middle of the night. I try mightily to get every last bit of doubt or concern about anything else out of my head while I’m writing a draft and then go back to it when I have some sense and some energy and I can revise. Revision is the heart of my work and the most enjoyable and the most irritating part of being a writer. I revise most things I write a half-dozen times — even blogs — before I am satisfied with word choice and structure and order. Outlines can be really helpful for big projects, but I am not wedded to them.

On June 9th, two of my favorite writers and favorite women are going to post on their blogs about their writing process. Both of these ladies are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and their support has helped to keep me writing during some of my lowest points. I hope you’ll read and share their work widely.

Jo Scott-Coe is a fantastic nonfiction author, fellow tall woman and excellent teacher.

Juanita Mantz and I met at VONA in 2012 and her work has been published at xoJane and elsewhere.