on vacation.

This week it’s just me and my thoughts on the page.

This week I picked up The Artist’s Way again.  It’s the fourth time I’ve read it, and though TAW calls itself a 12 week program I’ve been mucking along with this fourth read for nearly a year. I always start the book with Very Serious Intentions: I will do everything I am supposed to; all the assignments, the tasks and artist dates proscribed!  I will keep to a weekly schedule! I will complete this 12 week program in 12 weeks!

This usually lasts exactly one week.

And then a year goes by and I find myself cracking open chapter 11.

I brought it out again because over the past few weeks I’ve read ideas about art and creativity and consciousness and reality. Sometimes those ideas have been presented in very academic language.  Sometimes those ideas have been so emotionally truthful and to the point, I need an evening to recover.  I’ve loved every bit of it; even the 20 page article that took me a day and a half to read (not understand, just finish).  However, this also happens: I start walking around wearing a heavy purple crushed velvet dust collecting cape. Moving my stacks of books up and downstairs. Settling in grumpily with my tea. ARRumph! Eating whatever random combination of food I can find in the fridge. Staggering back to read again. It all starts getting a little weird. And a little too singular. Craggy. Crabby. Cranky. Caught.

So TAW is the antidote. TAW released me from the grasp of the purple cape and the faculty office I was decorating in my mind. The lone spider plant. The walls of books. The…

To be clear: I cut up pieces of paper with words on them. I cut paper into long threads. I taped a paragraph to a window shade and took a picture of it.  I let myself run a pen across the page to catch whatever came up. I played.  TAW – for me – reminds me to keep art small, close at hand, constant. To get out of the way. To act in the smallest of ways.

TAW is very…what’s the word…cheesy? What do I mean by this…I can see artists…capital-A artists looking down their nose at it.  Intellectuals, absolutely.  They of the purple cape.  It’s mainstream (and if something is mainstream, it can’t be trusted). It’s like The Alchemist.  It’s like Instagram.  It’s not to be taken seriously.  This is what part of me decides.

However, I have to accept the much larger part of me that reaches out for it. I have to accept the part of me that does love the plain, the simple, the accessible, the daily, the constant art in and through and of everything. The approachable. The easy.

One of my yoga teachers, when she comes into down dog, says to herself: let it be easy

That caught me – ease.

…as I’m reminded of how often I armor myself (Aries, Ammun-Ra, Amon) with challenge, complexity, the serious, the savior, the protector, the conqueror…

Cut paper, catching words; to the present. To change. To being. To ease.

The car must go soon. Perhaps this weekend. If I don’t think about it, or plan for it, maybe I won’t even realize it’s happened and gone. It has been a long slow breaking away from the car.  A forgetting. An absently willful forgetting. Though it sits in its same spot and I pass it, now and then. In the morning when I take out Miles we see it parked there on the blue gravel. It’s there when I drop off the garbage behind the building.  Over the weeks, as it occurs to me, I’ll remove a bit here and there from the car; all that goes unused anyway (maps, pens, an umbrella).  Still a bag to be grabbed from the trunk. Still the glove compartment. Still. Still it’s there. I have just yet to start it that one last time. Drive it to the junkyard and trade it for it’s weight. I’d prefer if the car never moves and I get to be the one to pack up and leave. I’ve decided selling it to a stranger will be too complicated. Involving conversation, email, phone calls, schedules and what’s worse: negotiation. Perhaps someone will insult her with their offer. Sure, the driver’s side window does not quite roll up all the way but duct tape along the length of the window does the trick. Sure, the right side mirror is cracked. Sure. The entire right side of the body is dented in, both doors well rusted, and the left side body near the front has a dent, albeit clean. (Manhattan was not kind.) Yes, someone did cover the “H” on the steering wheel with a silver sharpie. And to pass inspection here in this current state, $1,000 will be required to fix the shoddy suspension that always pulls to the right and the many holes punched into the exhaust system. At least. But still.  This car drove through the Badlands and kept me safe in the Black Hills. This car drove through Wyoming and Montana and Idaho. This car made it to the rainforests of the northwest and rode like a queen over the Golden Gate Bridge. This car parked right now just off a dead end road that leads to a rib of river drove from San Francisco, past the salt flats in northern Utah, beneath an ombre dawn in Wyoming and down into Colorado all in one unbroken shot. This car. This car that I cannot bear to part with. That I will cry real tears over when it’s truly gone. Or before. This car that once belonged to my father, that I bought from him, stopping my payments when I decided I was finished. Seeing something differently can change reality.  The years told me: this car is yours. Smaller and smaller became the fact: it was once his. I forgot it with every mile I put between myself and home.  This car that I was embarrassed to drive, but drove anyway, after it had been totaled, until it became beloved. This car that, because it was totaled, helped fund my move to New York. It’s a magic car. This car. This car that I bring to the junkyard. This car that I proffer to the pile of metal. This car that I can’t yet part with. That I am letting sit in my parking spot, behind my apartment building. Unregistered. That I don’t even start anymore. That I just tap now and then when I pass it on my way inside. Run my hand along her side. Because I still can. Because we’re both still here.

She wanted to be old, that way she’d be able to hide in her set in stone ways and could look back on things instead of having to look ahead.  It was safer this way. Youth had betrayed her; had cracked a certain bowl of possibility she’d inherited, into which she’d placed her eventual offering. It was just as easy.  For this way of being was on the other side of slippers and the price of milk. Sensible hoops. Low heels. A modest neckline.  Her mouth seems to move in ways her hips will not. Have forgotten perhaps. As if peanut butter is constantly rearranged or small furniture. There’s the office and the dog. Two sides of the moon. Her towel comes to her knees and she ate a salad tonight because last week was Thanksgiving. Her room is a small shrine to Mary and she sleeps just a few hours each night. She does not dream, she speaks to God, and old age sweeps her under the bridge and through the water further from me. Some quiet tree has grown up between our years. Youth wrecked her, spoiling every clean living room and immaculate tub. Youth became another country; old age admits your sweaters and comfortable shoes. You become forgetful. Sensible as a hook stuck in the wall, a thing on which other things hang and way back when holds all your failures, all your faults. The day becomes so many steps to climb and your knees ache and the mail must be sorted, the recycling put out, shirts folded.  Life presses against the windows and the night becomes a stranger. She wanted to be old and frugal, eccentric and taupe. Poorly dressed. To shop at the Goodwill for bargains. To say I-love-you at bedtime. To discuss the Super and trust that deep down he’s a good man. Everything fits in its box, on its shelf in the fridge and chaos is forgotten. As are things like coriander and Coltrane. Life is long and deep with many tributaries, don’t you see, and dark eddying pools where death can be lost. Where selves are buried, where mistake gets caught among the reeds. It is better to be old. To miserably recount the news. To fling about the flaws of a recession, to chew with disgust the grist of the day. To rehash a story.  To pull your hair back and go.  To explain your day to the listening absence rather than live it.  Easier to feign age, weary bones, arthritic fingers; easier to bottle loss and sip it slowly. Better to do it now, before you have anything more to lose.

Reality, humanity, what are we counting?

Remember working for the Census in a makeshift pop-up office in west Harlem. Day two was much better and faster than day one.  (Remember when you lived in Virginia and drove the same four roads to work each morning and waited through the same lights and parked in the same concrete parking garage and sat in the same office and never looked out the window and met with the same students and took those four roads back to the same apartment to eat dinner and go to bed?)

True, for awhile this was nice, more than nice, spectacular, this was where you breathed life into dreams and lit candles and prayed at the alter of writing each night and it was all cradled and held and blessed and the promise of the future and the pearl and the night swirled and the sky above your childhood cracked open and begged you to leave.  But now?! And here?!! Here life is a mass, a human, pulsing, forgiving, distrustful mass. Of transit and rain and time. Remember going to the library with a scarf on your head, fighting the wind ripping the umbrella from your hands, the crowd of kids getting out of school, the weaving through the up, down dance of passing pedestrians using their umbrellas as shields, all of us blinded.  The quick cup of coffee before rushing out to work, late as usual. The cramming onto a bus and anxious minutes spent counting the seconds to round a corner, catch a light, creep along 96th street across the park. The pacing up and down the subway line, watching the clock, peering over the tracks, knowing its too late, you’ll be late, you’ll never make it. The running through the subway station, seeing a man laid out on the ground, a crowd of onlookers gathered, a puddle of something spilled out by his face. Walking on. And up. Stairs and now the street and now the umbrella and now the rain. And I’m late. Maybe I’ll get fired.  In a way I don’t care.  And I walk down a street, no one is out, kids getting off school, black girl in black slacks and a black v neck sweater, button down shirt, tie. She smirks. She has a short pony tail and silver studs in her ears. Hands in her pockets. I dodge others and a puddle and cross the street. I walk into 423 West 127th Street and show Vinny, smiling behind the glass, my badge that I dig out of my bag. I forget to sign in and he jovially reminds me (it’s day two and we’re still all smiles). I head past him and through the doors careful not to quickly open the second so that I don’t ram it into the back of some unsuspecting woman (what was her name? the one Barry told us was injured? Long sad pause…that’s why there’s a sign posted now…) or man waiting for the elevator or passing through the hall going outside for a smoke.  And up the elevator and into the small waiting room and (do I remember the code? 1906…) into the main office where I see Marisa Ross sitting legs crossed in the break room, she signed in right before myself, and luckily she tells me that they’ve not started yet. Relief.

Michael said you need $100,000 a year to live in New York and truly enjoy the city.  In my last job I was making $10 an hour. Good thing I like bread sticks. Which I left in the fridge. They will surely be gone tomorrow. The elements and shards of our job are slowly emerging; haphazardly strung together piecemeal through various packets labeled in all capital letters and dashes and numbers and misinformation and overhearing and regulating and repositioning.  Acronym’s float to the surface, tossed around, forgotten immediately.  Slowly but surely the intelligence is sucked out of the room, replaced with a dull humming government determined to collect data, train new employees and manage the office.  So we give up trying at any of it and naturally turn our attention to one another.  How else to get through the hours?

Daniel wore his shirt tucked out today! He has a PhD in French Literature and has struggled to find teaching jobs. Michael, the ex-IT employee who wanted to work “in the field” collecting census info door-to-door, is switching to the day shift in the office. It’s steadier work.  In New York you can blur and bend and break lines – you can be old and young at once.  Thomas (Tom) the kind, obedient elevator repairman is the only one of us interested in the census and reads the materials and manuals provided like they were gothic novels or true crime mysteries or how-to-build-an-elevator handbooks.  He engages the supervisor, Karen, with thoughtful, deliberate questions when she comes around and we all perk up and pay attention as if we too were truly wondering and just as invested as Tom.  Karen, a tall black woman, humors Tom’s gold rimmed glasses and straight yellow teeth but she too wants to get back to doing not much of anything.  Dwight, lives eight blocks away and walks with the eastsiders home but keeps going south on St. Nick where we turn east on 125th. Dwight is a pianist, a composer, studying music in Boston with curly black hair and soft words. On one of the nights where we are sitting around discussing absolutely nothing,  I ask him where he wants to live when he finishes school,  he says, “somewhere with a temperate climate.” Max has a strong, athletic, white jaw; broad shouldered with mouse brown hair and a slim waist. He’s worn the same pants and belt on both the first and second day.  He brought me sauce on a plate because I dropped mine on our walk home from Little Ceasar’s, one of the few places to eat in this neighborhood. Marisa Ross; opportunistic, story teller, cat-like limbs and aware; painfully aware of her breasts, her limp neck, bored dancing eyes. Aaron! The surprise comic relief of the second night. We ask him. Why did your supervisor get fired?

Well……(he looks down, looks around, Aaron used to be a cop)……. (meanwhile we are all wondering what he is going to tell us. Is he going to cover for him? Is he not allowed to say? We’ve all been told Aaron follows the rules, so maybe he’s trying to find a way out or around this question)….basically he didn’t do anything. !!!

Aaron tells us how to get around the system with our hours and earn an extra seventy cents an hour (or was it a day?), talked to us and answered our questions, to the best of his ability, about the census, the office, our jobs. Luckily he spared us the reading aloud from a script for four hours.  Then the elevator was stuck, broken! Is there anyone on there?! Calling the police. Using the stairs on our break. Someone set off the alarm, the alarm blares for 15 minutes, Aaron lets us leave to escape the noise. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life.Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life.

New York. Running to catch my bus at night’s end! Sprinting for blocks!! But missing it!!! It pulls away just as I make it to the doors! Walking along 125th. Harlem! Harlem! Harlem! Remember when I saw 125th from Metro North, could only see it from the train because I was too scared to get off, interrupt my trip, and explore. And now? Harlem is nothing big, nothing scary (too scary), now I’ve walked that street a hundred times…now 125th is just another street in my life, my mind, my dreams. Another piece of me.

Life!

 

 

 

 

 

In Pursuit

This morning, seated, I thought of my mother wearing braces as an adult.  I thought of the way, before braces, her front right tooth slipped just in front of the left.  A delicate thing.  I only remember her tooth positioned just so from pictures and not many memories remain of the years she wore braces. Where was my mother in the dark of memory? Where was her mouth? Always shut perhaps. Years ago in our brick home she was quiet.  Around friends, or storekeepers, people out in the world, she would come alive, bubble up with friendliness, carry any conversation. Pull back into the driveway, walk through the door of the brick ranch and the winds changed.

The third daughter, towering over the little boys four.  A sheaf of porcelain, a layer of white cloth, folded gently, the crag of a mountain, a wrinkle within stone. This was her tooth, her mouth. Her words land, unfinished thoughts, pieces of them – there to be taken notice of, or not. They are toys left in the yard.

I cannot pull easily the early memories of my mother. But they are there.  There but not there.  She too was steeped in loss.  A father there but not there.  The third daughter, buried within the seven, later learning to avert her eyes, close her mouth.  An effective way to abide all the loss is to unsee.  To mirror the shimmery boundaryless unknown. Words become feathers, fallen leaves, muted shells.

The tooth reminds. So much flows from the tooth. Ripples outward. I remember when my mother dyed her hair a deep and firey brown with hues of auburn. I remember seeing her after she’d just come from the salon, walking down the hill of our neighbor’s backyard.  She was wearing a long denim skirt that softly skimmed the grass.  She was clean and fresh and in the afternoon sun dropping down the light caught the highlights in her hair and her head was on fire.  It was cut shorter, so that it rounded and angled into a smooth crispness stopping just above her narrow shoulders. Making them gleam.  She walked down the sloped hill of our neighbor’s long, unmowed lawn headed down to the Cannon’s, whose backyard spread out behind both our houses.  She was going to see her friend, probably to show off her hair.  I ran to her and followed her along but also felt the space between us; the space created so that I could admire her. She was not comfortable with my affection, my silly fawning, my compliments, my tripping over myself awe, with the glow in me that rose up to meet her beauty, wanting to be near.  She did not likely know how to receive that in public, around her friend Sue, in front of the neighborhood kids. She of the tooth.  She of the closed mouth and words of little. She made light of my affection, threw it off as a foolish thing. Shoulder blades of knives, she cut her small way down the hill and I was so in love.  So pleased to watch her beauty from afar.

Virus

I was well-fed, loved, looked after, raised inside a gray cloud-like deterioration. The gray degringolade was a vial of drink that I drank, bringing the sleep of sleeping beauty. Lightening bolts were locked in throats. Thunder was hushed into oblivion.  Books were opened. Kingdoms reigned in other rooms; basements, backyards, a few states away.  Though scrubbed and sorted, with everything in its place, this fog thrived. The seasons would ebb and flow, wet or dry, yet the creep of mist stole from the corners, thickened the walls, was breathed into our lungs for years.  Fear of the world pumped through our vents, our veins.  Fear of stepping beyond, screaming out, trying and failing and writing with crayon on walls, running with bare feet free through the house, through the yard.  There were rules and laws and lines and obligations and I was a good girl who followed them, followed them to sleep, beauty, to my own numbing timbre.  Obliging to secure peace, to secure happiness, safety for all.  This is family.  This is childhood.  An education in shame.

And so, to New York (in New York, I was told, the rules are different) to learn new ways under cover of anonymity and high rent. Compromise and Negotiation and Communication. What do you want? Always. Say it. Make it plain. Say it and make it so.

Excuse me, getting off here. Taxi! 95th and Park. Yes, I’m in a hurry.  No, I don’t want that one.  

Say it. With clarity and resolve and urgency, again and again.

I look back and sigh. What were the jobs I sought? Administrative assistant, receptionist, host, census taker. The communicator, support staff, navigator, task completer, receiver of direction, keeper of the gate, taker of the coat, collector of the receipts, runner of the errand.

The first man I dated in the city said I was clearly a higher education administrator or a free spirit.  We were of the same mixture of black and white bodies.  We were mutually terrified of one another’s image and one another’s rage.  It hit too close to home.  He could not believe in fiction or poetry; found safety in ideas, intellect, anger.  I saw my parents in the mirror. Him needing to be large, needing me to be small by his side. Him the only child of his German American mother, resenting the void left by his father. Their interwoven dance and how it began to sit in his stomach. The phantom that would find him on a street corner at 1am; the tortured, the addict, the absence.  Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. Having to be perfect in the world of university; being the shiny black man in the white female world of the social sciences. Having his white woman. I would be her.

Harlem’s early summer spit me back out on the other side, into the city without this man I left on the 1 train. And then the city became a collection of the places where we, when we.  (Had that fight where Sally dropped off Harry in front of the Arch!) At summer’s end I would enter a new city, Rockefeller Center, the place of my next temp job. An office of men and their secretaries on the 23rd floor of 75 Rock. Working just this side of the creatives, the artists, the entrepreneurs of media. The money makers, cultural transmuters, consultants to the stars and upstarts alike. Answering phones and transferring calls and ordering office supplies and snacks, delighting in free lunch Thursdays from Mangia in midtown, assisting one of the men, a kind Jew in a small unassuming office.

Spring.

Both man and job replaced by a much younger Irish German (barely a man) and a much more corporate private equity firm on 47th and Lex. Walking each day from the subway stop past the former residence of Georgia and Albert where she painted the city growing into the sky and (wisely) dined out every evening. Crossing Bryant Park and the radiator building she once claimed. Wondering at this life and how strangely it twists and turns.  This new love was heady and quick and against better judgement, I fell.  Exposed my strange 29 year-old receptionist self in front of all my beloved’s 11 siblings and two parents, privately aghast.  Who was this woman? I wondered the same.  Writing in notepads at work, miserably stocking the fridge through tears, fleeing just across the river to a small white apartment. To stand at the edge of the Hudson and wonder after the city from afar. To wonder, what exactly is happening here? To freeze, in place, for a year.

But, we cannot escape ourselves. The truth becomes the steady known. Wrested out of all that change and flight; all the escape plans hatched, the evacuations taken, the steady rock will be revealed. How many places must be seen, how many places must offer equal parts bewilderment and peace, before one touches down?

A few years before all this, after a late summer spent traveling west with a friend, feeling free and freely squatting in the Chicago apartment belonging to my sister, I had a dream.  I approached a cinnamon-colored man wearing white, who I thought was an old love but as I got closer realized he was an older man, unknown to me.

He said: See everything, so that you will mourn nothing.  Take it all in and have no regret.

At the time I thought it meant I should keep traveling.  But now…to see deeply, with clarity, the thunder, the lightening, the strange, the sorrow, the magic…

Compromise and Negotiation may be necessary rules to navigate the city.  But seeing everything may be the antidote to shame.  See everything, all of it, the whole entire.  See exactly what it was. See exactly what it is.  Then say it and make it seen.

 

 

 

 

How many times have I returned to James?

The Price of the Ticket is a collection of non-fiction essays written by James Baldwin and in the introduction (which upon re-reading reminds me of my love for James; I am transformed into fireworks and explosions of love and he would likely roll his eyes at such sentimental nonsense) he recalls that the beginning of his career was precipitated by walking up to Beauford Delaney’s front door. Beauford Delaney was a gay, black artist living in the Village who welcomed this fifteen year old into his studio apartment, into his room filled with paintings in process and into the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, to name just a few.  Delaney embodied a rare expression of dignity and integrity, impressing upon a young James this possibility: to be a black man, painting, living and working as an artist, amid the white world waiting with jaws wide open to devour you upon a single missed step. For James, Delaney would open the curtain on the tools needed to sustain an artist’s life, the powers that sought to destroy that life, and more importantly, the value of his black life; his inheritance as a black man.

The Fire Next Time, is the essay I have most often returned to in this book nearly 700 pages long, but there are so many others. I open this book when I need steadying and comforting; when I need to walk up to the door of an artist and be shown the way in; when my integrity needs to be checked against good measure; when I need to be reminded of my value, my inheritance; when I need the guidance and the strength to continue on.

It’s amazing to me how often in conversation I’ve referenced this book, James Baldwin, or his essays, and been met with a polite but blank face; no recognition whatsoever. I conceal my shock but clearly, he is my Beauford Delaney; the gatekeeper who opened the door on a life that I wanted; the guide who would show the way and bolster me with the needed tools.

More than this, James Baldwin is a genius, a prolific reader, a self-taught writer, and a teacher – one that I hope more people in the years to come will seek out, because James is not just a part of my inheritance as an artist and a woman of color in America.  James is here for those who believe themselves to be white as well.

This week, I read a chapter of Maya Angelou’s book from her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She writes of her eighth grade graduation from her small colored school in Arkansas. With tenderness she describes all the preparations for the ceremony itself; the procession, the songs to be sung, costumes sewn for the grammar school students, the pale yellow dresses each girl in her class will wear; her nerves on the day of the event; all the modest, individual acts of attention and reverence shown by her family to give gravity and meaning to her night.  I won’t ruin the chapter by revealing what happens, but, by the end of the evening, having endured heartbreak, the group of students, parents and teachers stand together and sing, Lift Every Voice and Sing, what was considered at that time (late 30’s, early 40’s) the Negro National Anthem.

I’ve read this song (it is a poem, set to music, by James Weldon Johnson) before but never stood with others to sing it aloud. So of course, I searched for and re-read the lyrics online.  And given what has happened in the past few weeks…when so many profess a desire to understand, to educate themselves, are unsure of where to begin…the song is a door, a way in.  It will likely seem a strange anthem to some, who are used to “O Say Can You See. ” It will be the Unknown. Read it.  Better yet, copy the lyrics down by hand, one word at a time.  Read it again.

After reading Maya’s story, I thought about the integration of schools and how a system could deem a song unfit, utterly unnecessary, so that as a little girl I never knew it. I did not inherit this song by singing it with classmates every morning; it would never comfort me, it was never mine.

It’s impossible to read the lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing, especially given what has happened in the past two weeks, and not receive something. Hope, heartbreak, strength, perseverance, grief; the black Americans who sang this song – once called Negros and coloreds and niggers – knew all of it in their bones. So their anthem was not about bombs burning over a flag still waving. No flag appears in this song. There is a path, there is a land, there are voices, there is a God. If you read Maya’s story, about her graduation, and then read this song, it will break your heart. And I hope that it does.  Because, heart broken open is how we can best receive what is Unknown, is how atonement becomes possible.  A broken heart is usually what brings us to that door.

James Baldwin is also a good place to start.  Though there are so very many.

So, I will end this long post with James.  With how he closes his introduction, to The Price of the Ticket.  Because our liberation is bound up with one another. For better and for worse.

……

In the church I come from – which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong – we were counselled, from time to time, to do our first works over.

To do you first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.  Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.

This is precisely what the generality of white Americans cannot afford to do.  They do not know how to do it–: as I must suppose.  They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.

Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World.

The slave is in another condition, as are his heirs: I told Jesus it would be all right/ If He changed my name. 

If He changed my name.

The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.  The Irish, therefore and thereafter – again, for but one example – had absolutely no choice but to make certain that I could not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the consent of the governed, kill me.  Which means that we can be friendly with each other anywhere in the world, except Boston.

What a monumental achievement on the part of those heroes who conquered the North American wilderness!

The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white—: and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less.  This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.

 

Beloved

I don’t have a prepared post this week.  The ideas I’ve been thinking over for the past few days seem best saved for another time. 

But there is this. 

I was going to write about Isaac Carter.  The boy who, in the fourth grade, broke up with me after one day.  We seemed to have had a whirlwind romance (some things never change) and it became established within a school day’s time that we were “going out.”  We may have even spoken that night over the phone, though I can’t imagine what two fourth graders would have said to one another. But Isaac was charming and seemed worldly (he wasn’t from my small town) and brave; it doesn’t surprise me now that he would be so bold as to dial my number after the sun went down.  Which, to be clear, at nine years old was really the house phone belonging to my parents: 540-433-2019.  Something must have ensued that evening and apparently, I crossed a line.  The next morning in gym class I’d been informed we were no longer going out and what’s worse, I overheard him laughing with his friends: “She’s too sensitive.”

And damnit if that didn’t sting. It stays with me still.  

So, of course, nine years old, what do I do?  Stick my nose in the air and Cleopatra past him for the next week.  Unbothered.  Inwardly aflame.

Somehow though, this nine year old (maybe he was ten) made it possible for me to soften to him, so that by the end of the year, we were on friendly terms.  And when we ended up in Mrs. Sullivan’s class together the next year, Isaac was instrumental in setting me up with a boy I really liked.  He was the one I confided in, hoping he would put in that good word for me with my beloved.  He was my counselor. He was a realist.  Isaac was lightskinned, smart, a smooth talker, a bad boy who didn’t seem in the least concerned with what the teacher thought about his actions (or inaction), though that may have been a cover. Isaac was quick to laugh but also quick to cut you with his eyes or his sarcasm if necessary.  In the fourth grade Isaac was well aware of manhood and adulthood in ways I wouldn’t know for years.  He reminded me of Ron Johnson Jr. from A Different World, but with none of Ron’s fragility or foolishness.  Isaac was the first smooth talking city boy to steal my heart (some things never change).  

I don’t know the details of what happened to him.  But it seemed after the fifth grade he drifted away, maybe he left town or maybe he just stopped showing up at school. By the time I was in high school, Isaac was in a wheelchair.  He’d been shot in a small apartment complex in our town and was paralyzed.  

I’d been too sensitive for him.  Maybe I’d just been a little girl, or maybe he knew me better than I knew myself.  

Today when I walked my dog along the same street I usually take to return home, next to a line of empty seafood delivery trucks parked against a sidewalk, I passed a police car, an SUV on my left, with a cop posted in the front seat.  There had been some crime committed on that street just a few days earlier and the ribbon of plastic yellow tape still blew in the wind, caught on the wheel of a parked truck.  Across the street and mostly hidden by the trucks, sitting on the sidewalk and leaning up against a concrete retaining wall,  sat a blue-black man, with headphones plugged in his ears watching something on his phone.  There’s a men’s shelter nearby and when I walk my dog I often pass men sitting along this street, on unused concrete medians that sit to the side on blue gravel rocks or leaning up against the retaining wall below a parking lot. I’ve seen this man before, always looking at his phone, and today when I looked at his face, he seemed so absorbed by whatever he was watching, leaning gently into his left shoulder, the sweat on his face relaxed and softened the lines that have taken sixty or seventy years to spread; he looked younger today, almost boyish.  The tears welled up in me so easily. So quick.  What if it was him? What if it was his neck, his tender sweaty skin, smashed into the pavement? His trembling limbs. His heaving belly.  Someone’s son.  Someone’s confidant.  He sits reclined, breathing gently now, at ease, beneath a lovely spring twilight. What if it was him gasping, pleading, begging for air?  Praying to be seen, to be heard, to be released.  That boy, that man; confidant of the most innocent. The beloved. I am at a loss for words; I can only bow, humbly, on behalf of a world that does not deserve you. 

May you rest in peace tonight.

 

Jane Eyre

Last night, I had a good cathartic cry.

And afterwards, in the spirit of the aristocratic English characters I’ve spent the week with, I was much too upset to put my thoughts to the page at that late hour. Instead, I decided, sensibly, to retire for the evening.  Take a brisk walk on the morrow and clear my head. 

How, Charlotte Bronte did you do this to me?!  When have I ever sat, tears streaming down my cheeks, while reading a book? Clearly, my previous reading material of choice has been nap worthy.  This gothic English romance novel published in 1847 went straight to the jugular.  

Yes, I’m serious. Yes, this comprised my week.  

Maybe my infatuation with this story is due in part to the older sister in me; maybe that’s why I’m drawn to tears by Charlotte’s organized tale replete with happy ending, rather than Emily’s darker, bizarre tragedy (Wuthering Heights). Maybe that one is worth a re-read.  I must have the tea and blankets at hand to see me through it. By jove!   

Maybe, I cried, because it was my grandmother, June, who gave me Jane Eyre, who wrote the inscription on the inside cover in her neat cursive. Maybe that contributed to my tears last night. I only looked at it about ten times. 

As a little girl who grew up reading, and re-reading, ad nauseum, little orphan Anne of Green Gables (not just the first book, the entire saga, deep into the pleasant and predictable sixth and seventh books of the series, when L. Maud Montgomery must have felt she had a cash cow kind of thing going with Anne, so why stop?) it amazes me that I’ve not read Jane Eyre sooner in life.  I was a young adolescent when June gave me this book in 1995.  I started the book a few times but was never hooked and never lasted long enough to see Jane leave Gateshead Hall. 

Sadly, I watched the movie about six years ago while living in New Jersey and really craving a romance of the English moorland variety; the movie somewhat spoiled this reading, as I knew the identity of the monster in the attic. For some reason, I thought slavery and race was more overtly involved in this story, but no, maybe that was Wuthering Heights.  Charlotte was a master teller of story but not really a revolutionary using her art to criticize the aristocratic economic institution built on the exploitation of the English working class and chattel slaves abroad.  

Still. I cried like a baby. 

I cried because I should have read this book in 1995 and probably every year after. June gave it to me at an extremely appropriate time in my young life – in that very last year of girlhood, just before I became the strange being of no longer a girl, not yet a woman, where I would wander for at least the rest of the 90s.

I think she wanted me to know this story and the wisdom it contains. That women have lives filled with more than just home; they too voyage and explore, it’s just that women have more cyclical cycles to their hero’s journey.  Women will have to depart and probably just as often have to return home again. Transformation occurs. The people you once despised you will eventually pity and maybe even be able to sit in their presence though they’ve wronged you. Real is the presence and power of spirit (this story was likely very aligned with the ways my Catholic grandmother identified ‘spirit’ and the divine) but the reading can also be interpreted more broadly: to the strength offered by inner counsel, contemplation, humility before the God of one’s own understanding, the power of Nature to be a benevolent protector and Mother.   

But the most important lesson of the story, I think, and the one June would have most wanted me to know, is contained in Jane herself.  In spite of Jane’s lack of beauty, wealth, or stature in society (as an orphan she has no family, as a governess she is of the working class) she did not let herself give in to her passionate love for a wealthy, established older man – to do so – even though he was crazy about her – would have been to betray her soul.  It would have put a price on the priceless. Sometimes, the ones we love and the ones who love us, come at too high a cost.  And our hearts, our intuition, the still small voice within will tell us (loudly, if needed) that you can never be free when you enter into something that would somehow make you smaller.  It is emphasized throughout this tale, Jane’s diminished size, her elfishness, in almost every capacity. Her short and slender frame, her modest wardrobe, her lack of family and connection, her poverty – still, she never plays small. She never throws herself away.  Even for love. Even in 1847. She decides that she will be the one to love herself, support herself, understand herself; she will be her rock and she will go on. 

Sniffle, sniffle, sniffle. 

Thankfully, Charlotte ties up this story with a happy ending that I sobbed through for about an hour. I woke up this morning thinking I had pink eye. I wonder if I would have cried in 1995.  I think I cried harder last night, because June is not here, but she wanted me to know all of this, so she put the book in my path. Because others have also died.  Because more stories, and cities and people, and more of my own departures and returns and hand wringing and certainties have been survived, seen, felt, lost.  Now all those stories and memories and regrets find their way into this book. Into lonely Mr. Rochester sitting blind before the fire. Into Jane at her aunt’s deathbed, able to forgive. 

It didn’t move me tears, and it’s only on the next day’s reflection that I see it, but when Jane refuses to stay with her beloved, when she quits his home before the sun rises to quietly merge into the world penniless and alone, that’s sometimes what it looks like to follow a path with heart. That’s trust: there is more character to build, more life to be lived and listen to that voice she did. That was the beginning of her love, realized.  I sobbed at the story’s end, when she is reunited with Mr. Rochester.  So often that’s what we remember, that’s what cuts the heart.  So much easier it is to forget the sleepless nights, the decisions made against all else, the times we dug in our heels, the times we left everything behind. To keep going on.