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Archive for the category “The Stories I Tell”

That moment…

when you drop your niece off at her friend’s party at that seedy skating rink in the sketchy part of town. You hang out as she swaps her shoes for ones with little wheels, you clutch your purse and hold onto the sweater she carried in case she got cold. You stand awkwardly in the corner as she greets her friends with wide smiles and wild hugs, laughs big and forgets you’re even in the same space. You follow her as she clings to the half-wall barriers between the tiled floor and the smooth concrete one, occasionally letting go to hold a random hand or fall on a friend’s shoulder. You remember the phone with its camera in your handbag and you take it out to try and capture her clumsiness or an awkward stance that you can both laugh at later. Instead, though, you capture THIS:And in one still frame, you realize, for the first time, how much she’s grown, and that her aging has been fleeting. You realize that the tumultuous first part of her life when she attended as many schools as the number of years she’s lived and probably moved around the country or a city just as much, has largely ended. You notice how socially lithe she is these days and how, with all growing teens, she has likely started prioritizing friendships over familial relationships. You step away from the barrier and out of the black lights over the large rink. You marvel at what security and consistency provides for a young life that you love. You briefly wish you could have offered it to others in your life before forgiving yourself quickly, beckoning your niece over for a kiss on her cheek, and letting her know that you will be right there whenever she is ready to leave. You hope she understands how loaded your valediction is. 

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Dancing for Dollars

I just left a crowded trolley platform at City Hall. Everyone waiting for everything: the #34 for University City; the #11 going towards Upper Darby; the #36 to Eastwick. I was waiting for the #10 to take me to West Philly.

When I came up from the subway, I immediately noticed other waiting passengers watching some sort of spectacle. When I got around the bend to see what had mesmerized the people, there were two men with two young boys and a toddler around a large square piece of cardboard on the ground– all of them, in turns, breakdancing to a barely audible radio playing hip-hop (the good shit) from a nearby bench.

All five of them as dirty and gray and brown as the floor of the platform, but as energetic and lively as a preacher in a pulpit on Sunday morning. They were jumping around, dancing in-sync, passing hats for head spins and hi-fiving each other in between body moves. The performance was priceless– it’s the stuff you stay in big cities for– and I wanted to dump the contents of my purse in their hands.

The boys, between the ages of 3-6 years old, moved with ease, mimicked the men, mouthed the lyrics of the 80’s rap songs and took the dollars from the old ladies who refused to drop the greenbacks in the bucket for fear that the performers would miss acknowledging their generosity.

I smiled too much over a span of ten minutes and groaned when the #10 trolley showed up. I thought about taking pictures, but I didn’t want to embarrass the pack, working in their grunge, making dollars to maybe make a meal later or to buy tokens to get around or pay bills to keep lights on. Instead, I took snapshots in my mind, dropped my dollars in the orange bucket and waved at them as I stepped on the trolley and headed West.

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” —Rumi

Blue Line Black Men: I am not afraid

There were black men yelling on the Market Frankford El today.  We all got on the train at the same time, but separately, at 69th Street, the end/beginning of the line.  The first guy, who sat across the aisle from me, was on his cell phone.

“Did you hear about the Sixers?… They tradin’ Hawes!… That’s a bad move, man!”

Other guys pile into the car, in uniforms and work boots, bundled in puffer coats or in hoodies covering their heads.  They take empty seats or stand near the poles at the double doors, some of them with their friends and in their own conversations.  But the man on the phone is loud and the other passengers are forced to eavesdrop.  A murmur begins among the strangers.

“Naw, that’s good!”

“That’s a good move for the Sixers, dawg!”

“That’s what they need!”

The man on the phone hangs up with the caller as the train begins to leave the station.  Before hitting the button to close the call, he is responding to the other passengers. The men all become passionate about the subject. There are hand gestures and scrunched up faces, “naw dawg’s” and “C’mon man’s.” The oldhead tucked in the corner of the car offers up a comment and they all pause to hear him before they all chime in at once again.

The train stops at Millbourne, 63rd and 60th Streets, gaining and losing passengers, both pushing traffic through the loud, good-natured discussion.  It’s all gibberish to me. I know nothing about the 76er’s and could care less about basketball.  But I enjoyed being caught up in that moment with them—black men yelling, unafraid for those moments, interacting with each other, passionate about a thing.

I am used to black men yelling: my father is a Pentecostal preacher, my grandfather was a bit of a pimp, my brothers get pretty riled up when telling stories, my Uncle Joe sits on my grandmother’s couch quoting Farrakhan from behind an open Final Call.  I am not intimidated.  I am not shaken. I am not moved.  As a matter of fact, I feel right at home when it gets loud and rowdy—whether it’s on a Septa train, in a family room back home, or when walking past a neighborhood basketball court.

More importantly, though, I am used to black men.

I am reminded of this when I enter the classroom of Philadelphia FIGHT each week to teach my writing workshop, “Making Each Word Matter.”  When collaborating with FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice and their weekly creative writing class, I am in a classroom with black men, 20-30 of them, ages ranging from early 20’s to late 60’s, all of them armed with pens and paper, spilling ink and creativity.  And I tell you, it is only here, in this room full of black men, first loud with their ideas, then quietly writing their words, then patiently waiting to share what they’ve written while patiently listening to others… it is here in this room, full of stagnant stale air, yet vibrant with fresh art, that I become afraid.

I am afraid that no one will hear their stories or know their worth.  No one will hear the rhyme, the rhythm, the cadence of their poetry.  No one will hear the questions, the answers, and the brilliance of their tales.

I am afraid that whether black men are yelling on the El or yelling on the page, the only ones who will listen are those of us who are not intimidated, shaken, or moved—those of us who are used to black men yelling. Or more importantly, used to black men.

The others, too busy blinded by the darkness and deafened by the noise, will continue to keep black men silenced and make up their own stories.

And I am afraid that that will not be enough.

It’s raining sunshine

I am soaked down to the bone

My skin is my proof

—- John Tolbert, haiku from “Making Each Word Matter”

In Thinking About My Mortality: My Top 5 “Regrets”

“I’m less interested in why we’re here.  I’m wholly devoted to while we’re here.” Erika Harris

I am in my backyard sneaking a cigarette.  I am NOT a smoker, but, lately, I will bum one, light it up and suck it in deeply.  It is cold tonight, only days after this week’s snowstorm which left ten inches of white stuff above our rocky grounds.  Jaxon is running around me, paw-deep in the hardened ice, excited that I am outside with him while he plays.  It is after 1am and I have been home for less than a couple minutes, enough time to put my purse down and coax my pet out of my housemate’s room and drag him to the yard to help mask my dirty, smoky secret.  The cold bears down on me after a few drags and I start to feel the tingle in my fingertips and the flare-up from my toes.  I inhale some more, looking up at the sky. It is clouded white and the silhouette of the bare tree branches are black beside it.  Suddenly, I feel alive.

This morning, a friend called me to see if I would be interested in going out to see WAR.  His lady-friend had to work at the last minute and, of course, he thought of me.  It was perfect timing, I told him.  I was feeling really low, staving off depression and suffering from cabin fever. I needed to dance. He did too: His father recently stopped chemo and has maybe a few weeks.  I gasped.  It’s okay—tonight, we will dance, he assured me.

And we did! Lonnie Jordan and his crew got into it and by the end, I swore I would order myself a harmonica from Amazon.com!  The concert ended promptly at ten and we decided to get a beer and some burgers before we called it a night.  We got back to our side of town and stopped at a neighborhood tavern near his dad’s house—a place they all frequented as a family.  It was busy, but there were two seats at the bar waiting for us.  We talked about the concert, his lady-friend, my recent love and the highs and lows of our lives over the last ten years we’ve known each other. And then I asked about his father. Having lost my granny less than two years ago, I still feel the ache of her absence.  He had been spending a significant amount of time with his dad since his diagnosis a couple of years ago, and I know there would be no guilt about that, but I wanted to know that my friend was okay.

Yes, yes—I’m fine, he says. Listen, my dad’s so brave. You know, they say people sometimes have so many regrets when facing death.  But my dad, in all his years, he says he only has one: that he waited to have kids when he did and now he won’t be around to see his granddaughters marry.

I stared at him.  My heart heavy—for my friend and his father, of course, but also for myself.  How many regrets would I have if, at this moment or even years from now, I was looking at my imminent inexistence?

Somewhere between exiting his car at my door and the last couple of puffs on the cancer stick, I thought of what could be my top five regrets should the curtain close on me before these things are accomplished.  Even at the risk of being a bit morbid, I would like to share this short list. So, with no further ado, here it is:

5. Never carrying and birthing a baby.  I have a plan to adopt within the next couple of years if I have no partner to create a child with, but I have always wanted to have life growing inside of me and I feel like I would be forever unfulfilled if I am unable to experience that.

4. Never having owned a house.  These days, I truly believe that I am a city girl.  However, I do have a strong desire for a country home where I can write and spend summers on a swing porch reading and sipping lemonade.  My dream has always been to build a little cabin on our land in Somerville, Tennessee near our little summer house that was once my great-grandmother’s home.

3. Never having published a book.  Although I am currently working on my first novel and a memoir that I envision as a short story, I think all writers suffer from anxiety that something will happen to their computer and backup and all of their writing and longsuffering will be lost somewhere in cyberspace, no matter how many drives it’s saved on.

2. Having a strained and somewhat non-communicative relationship with my younger sister.  My brother recently confronted me about how little my sister and I interact with each other and I was so embarrassed that our lack of engagement with each other was so obvious.  We live on opposite coasts, she is married with a family, I am busy with my ambitions— none of these reasons justify why we haven’t spoken on the phone with each other in over a year and haven’t seen each other in more than two.  I should be more proactive—I have this conversation with myself daily.

1. Not loving who I want to love and to the best of my ability.  I was recently in the relationship of a lifetime with someone I thought the world would not approve of.  It ended just as I was coming to terms with the fact that I only get this one life and I should spend it with who I want. At once, I realized that I wasn’t living for my parents, for my friends, or for those who I love in other countries—I am living this life for me.

There is a great quote from the movie, Braveheart, which says:

“Every man dies; [but] not every man really lives.”

Make no mistake about this blog post, I have no plans of dying anytime soon. I do believe, however, that in thinking about death, we are inspired to live our best lives.

No Makeups for BFF Breakups?

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known. Love is…something that we nurture and grow.  Shame, blame, disrespect [and] betrayal…damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.  –Brene’ Brown

In high school, like most teens, I had a best friend. We were both dark-skinned, pretty and popular. She was my ace. But one day at school, after we spent the weekend together at my house, I heard a rumor that my BFF was talking smack about my little sister. Although it was merely high school hearsay, I was still upset with this and went to confront her. Emotions ran high, we said things we didn’t mean and, in an instant, our glorious friendship disintegrated. For months thereafter, everybody (and I do mean everybody) asked what happened to me and my friend and no response given was enough to satisfy the interviewer. The feedback was almost always the same: “Yo, y’all need to squash that.”

But we never did.

Over the years, I often thought about my friend, asked about her when I ran into my former classmates, and frequently replayed the events in my head, wondering what I could have, should have done differently to resolve the situation. Our “break-up” never seemed right in my spirit. It wasn’t until many years later– 2009, to be exact– when we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s 30th birthday party that we acknowledged each other with hugs and catch-ups and then partied the rest of the night as if we’d never missed a beat. We left things unsaid, and that was okay because it seemed as if time had healed the wounds.  However, when I look back over the time we lost, I wish I would have reconciled earlier instead of suffering that loss while waiting for her to make the first move.

In almost 20 years, I’ve either been responsible enough to not allow such heartbreaking losses or I haven’t cared so much that I’ve felt that pain. Then, this past fall, I had a major disagreement with a close friend and, just like before, I allowed my pride to cripple me from reaching out to her after the irons cooled.  Again, it wasn’t right—I could feel it in my heart and I had to conscientiously numb myself to avoid grieving the loss of this once great friendship.

Then one day, after months of agony, I just contacted my friend and asked to have a heart to heart conversation about what happened between us. She agreed and we made plans to get together.

Leading up to our meeting, though, I felt like the weaker person because I initiated contact. But, I also later thought about some of the unhealthy intimate relationships I’d been in and how easy it was to be the first to wave the white flag (sometimes over and over again) after an argument, disagreement, and/or breakup.  But with this best friend—a person who 1.) has had my back when all the other relationships have faltered 2.) has supported me in my personal endeavors 3.) has showed up for every high and low moment in my life— and one major argument, I found it hard to be the one brandishing the olive branch.

When we finally met, we had a difficult talk about our relationship. I cried. She cried. We blamed each other. We apologized. And afterwards, we hugged each other and made plans to move forward and actively work on our reconciliation.

I believe we all experience great discomfort when we know there is something profoundly wrong with a BFF breakup.  If you have to work at being angry, revisiting the argument to fuel your resentment, but at your core, you really want to share your exciting news or funny stories or some juicy gossip with your friend, you probably need to makeup.

If you see your friend around your town, in your mutual circles, or at your favorite hangouts and you give him mean looks when you really want to hug his neck, you probably need to makeup.

If you run into old friends who ask how ya’ll been and you run across pictures that make you smile, have memories that make you laugh, and reminisce on moments that make you cry, maybe it’s time you, too, be the first to throw in the towel, pick up the phone or compose an email and say, “Yo, we need to squash this.”

Before Living Where the Yellow Wallpaper Is

Day 8.  Reflections while People watching. Journal entry. Circa 2013

She stood at the corner of 18th and Sansom talking to herself– poised in business attire with an oversized wool coat and a pair of shabby brown boots, likely all digs found in a thrift store or taken from a soup kitchen. Her head was shorn and what grew on top had been dyed blonde and already pushed out by new black growth. She stood there all theatrical with a full face of makeup– mostly hues of pink and much too light for her skin tone– and lamented about what went wrong between “them”. This wasn’t a monologue, it was a dialogue. She saw her companion before her and pleaded for understanding, “You just don’t see what has happened with us, do you? I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m torn and you don’t even see it.”  There was a shrill in her voice, but the words came out proper and perfect– so perfect she would be accused of sounding “white” in the most urban parts of the city. A couple of young girls passed her and took a second look back and chuckled loudly with confusion at the woman. I took in an eyeful of her as I passed and dared not laughed or even smirk at her position– tall but hunkered over with desperation in her eyes. My brain rattled with how close I have come to losing myself in hurt and in love– never seeing myself on corners cursing or sobbing or begging, but coming pretty damn close.

Grave

Day 7. For Granny. November 2012

Yesterday I learned
That death is cold and gray.
Facing stone
Kneeling on new grass
Arms outstretched
And splayed fingers
Reaching for what my soul
Had lost.
I brought no gifts
I performed no ancient rituals
Nor did I recite religious rants
For the lost.
I only sat
Sinking into broken earth
the wind washing over me
Offering my tears
For all that is no more.

Sister Girlfriends

Day 6. Excerpt from “Same-Sex Spirituality” an essay from the “Faith and Bullshit” collection. Circa 2011.

She had a lot to drink at the party and it has become pretty typical for her to get into some type of funk once the music stops and she has to move from dim-lit dance floors to concrete sidewalks to the carpet in her bedroom, a new mood unveiling itself along the way.  But tonight she is more contemplative than usual.  She and her partner of four years recently ended their stint and it’s obvious that the idea of her ex-girlfriend dating men and moving on makes her feel empty.

We arrive at her house, sloppily climb the stairs and fall on the bed.  Any other night, she is rambling off obscenities and spewing slurred lyrics that make us both laugh until sleep overtakes us.  But not now.  We lay in bed fully clothed.  Close.  The sole light source comes from beyond the windows and the quiet is interrupted only by the swoosh-swoosh of cars on Broad Street and the low hum of the miniature heater that we turned on to knock out the 2am March morning chill that hovered in the room.

I am fading to sleep.  I turn over first to make sure she is already dozing before allowing myself to slip into slumber.  She is staring up at the ceiling.  In the darkness, I see her lashes move with each blink, but otherwise her eyes are wide open.  I turn my body towards hers and move closer, resting my chin on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong, Pumkin?” I ask her through her dreadlocks which are splayed across the pillow.

“I’m sad, Nique.” The sniffles begin and the tears follow. “I miss her.  And I hate this dating shit.  And I don’t feel like I can talk to anybody about how I feel,” she managed between heaves.

“Awww, Pumkin,” I kiss her wet cheek and taste the salt on my lips. “You can always talk to me.  I’m here.”

I wrap my arm snugly around her. She tilts her head to rest on my forehead and continues to cry.  She doesn’t acknowledge my offer tonight and we say nothing more before going to sleep.

Cigarettes and Oil

Day 5. Circa 2010.

He holds the cigarette in his hand, a stream of smoke ascending from the lit tip.  It’s halfway done, even though he has only taken two draws from it.   It burns between his fingers more than it burns between his lips and, at this moment, I wish I smoked so I could take a few hits on it to both taste the wetness he leaves on the paper and to ease my angst about the wastefulness of the thing.

Why do I care? I think to myself.  After all, no one wants anyone to smoke these days with ubiquitous posters and billboards screaming:  “YOUR CIGARETTE KILLS THE AIR AND UNBORN BABIES!” Perhaps I too should preach about the atrocities of burning up an American Spirit and blowing its smoke out your mouth.   That’s not my thing, though—I leave that for the environment freaks and fault-finding Christians.

I inhale the secondhand smoke that mingles with the scent of his body which smells of sandalwood or patchouli, likely a fragrance oil that he purchased from some Muslim guy who sells them on a North Philly street or in an underground subway car.

Who can resist an aromatic roll of scented oil from the strange hand extended to you on your commute from City Hall to Cecil B. Moore?  You know this guy in the long robe and short pants makes a living from these miniature vials and if you have a five dollar bill, you hand it to him—still crumpled from your pants pocket—and watch a smile appear somewhere between the bushy beard on his chin and the knit kufi pulled over his brow.  With this, he uses both hands to place the small bottles in your palm, gives a hearty thanks and then glides over to the other passengers, occasionally bidding “Salaam-ailakum” to the burka-covered woman or other bearded brother dressed just like him.      

I am thankful for those pious palm-holding, vial-selling, subway peddlers when I am in his presence.  I am even thankful for menthol Newports, Marlboro soft packs, and Camel Lights when he’s around.  If he ever asks if the smoke bothers me, I would tell him how hopeful I am that the scent of his cigarette stays with me until I arrive home and get in bed—just let the smell of smoke ascend above my head and form a halo around me as I sleep. 

Or I would just say to him, “No, it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Confession in a Parked Car

Day 4. a poetry class journal entry. Circa 2009

 

There is only stale air and failed words

Between us

There has been no truth for days

Now silence

Endless deliberation

Be honest or tell lies?

Lies

That have fallen flat for days

And widened the chasm

Between us

He sits up straight

Separated

only by the inches

Between us

Steering wheel in hand,

His head low,

He confessed.

I cried.

Four months apart

Had been too long.

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