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Archive for the tag “Philadelphia”

Coming Home (an update)

“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” –Rumi

During the holiday season, I decided that I would make a move back home to St. Louis.  By early March, the project I had been working on concluded and I was packing up the life I had made in Philadelphia for nearly thirteen years and getting ready to start all the way over in the Midwest.  It took little more than a week to organize my things, fill up boxes and, when that was all done, say a few goodbyes and quietly exit the state of Pennsylvania for Missouri.

But not without its thickets and snares: along the trek, Jaxon (my 100lb pet) and I got a flat tire on the expressway after leaving the PA Turnpike.  At close to midnight and on a poorly lit part of the road, it was a pretty scary 45-minute wait for the tow truck that arrived to load us up and drive us to a safe spot to change the damaged tire to a spare.  With a handicapped car and very few options for lodging (especially with a dog), Jaxon and I found a parking lot to rest in overnight until Walmart opened the next morning.  At 6:30am, we started our Sunday looking to get the tire changed and rotated so we could continue our trip.  However, it wasn’t until after three Walmarts and two auto stores that we finally found a PepBoys thirty miles off-route that had the tire I needed and was able to change it out so we could get back on the road.

By 6am on Monday, I arrived at my mom’s house where she was waiting to hug my weary, 2-day un-showered body and help me unload my car.  When we finally settled in, Jaxon nestled himself on a couch my mom gave him when he spent some weeks with her last year and I curled up in the bed of my sister-turned-nephew-turned-my-temporary-room for some sleep.

That was almost a month ago.  Since then I’ve gained 10 pounds from eating with my mom and grandma, had a million false starts with working out and dieting; I’m being Auntie to the little squad of my pregnant-with-triplets best friend; I’ve been on five interviews and scheduled to start two new part-time positions this month and grad school this fall; I’ve stopped watching the news and started looking into organizations I’d like to get involved with to help mentor youth and/or ramp up voter education. I have unpacked a few things, hung up my dresses and jackets and tucked away my winter items in a couple of plastic bins to make way for a warm and balmy Midwestern spring.

Although writing has been slow, sleep has been erratic, and a feeding and exercise schedule has been all over the place for Jaxon, it has, overall, been pretty good thus far and I have yet to miss my makeshift life in Philly (although I am missing my partner and friends tremendously).  While trying to get comfortable in my old city once again, I have been intentional about taking my time to reach out to friends, both here and back East, as I find it hard to say late goodbyes and long-lost hellos when life still feels a bit unsettled.

So, here it is: a little blog post to share with you via a small window of my life to let you know that times for me are a’changin’. I’m changing… evolving… turning into a butterfly in this cocoon called “home.”

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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”

Selected Writers for 2013 Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop

I am extremely honored to be counted among these amazing writers and to be learning under the tutelage of Chimamanda Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina and our other esteemed teachers. These are the moments when you are affirmed in the work that you do and the choices that you make to pursue your craft. I won’t get to preaching here, will save it for another day. But I am feeling really blessed.

Farafina Books

Chimamanda Adichie

In April, Farafina Trust called for entries for the 2013 Farafina Trust creative writing workshop, inviting writers from all over the world to submit their short pieces. From the numerous applicants, twenty-five outstanding writers have been selected to participate in the workshop this year, which will be taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eghosa Imasuen, Binyavanga Wainaina and other writers of note.

The selected writers this year are:

1. Zenique Gardner (USA)
2. Maryam  Shuaib (Minna)
3. Tolu Agunbiade (Ketu)
4. Timendu Aghahowa (Ikeja)
5. Abdulrashid Muhammad (Abuja)
6. Uchenna Ude (Lagos)
7. Udoh Charles Rapulu (Onitsha)
8. Gbolahan Adeola (USA)
9. Lilian Izuorah (Minna)
10. Suleiman Agbonkhianmen ( Lagos)
11. Nicholas Ochiel (Kenya)
12. Yakubu Damilola Daniel (Kwara)
13. Kelechi Njoku (Abuja)
14. Lesley Nneka Arimah (USA)
15. Tajudeen Sagaya (Lagos)
16. Adaora Nwankwo (Onitsha)
17. Chidinma Nnamani (Enugu)
18. Arinze Daniel Ifeakandu (Kano)
19. Okpanachi Eyo Michael (Zaria)
20. Okechukwu Otukwu…

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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.

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.”

The (Online) Diary of a Mad Black Mzungu

For those of you who don’t know, my title is a spin off of the Tyler Perry movie, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”  I’m not really “mad”.

Today is the first day of my Indiegogo campaign, The Black American Mzungu Literary Project, to raise funds for my trip to East Africa and to reopen a school for Ugandan girls with special needs in Mukono.  Ironically, this is also my first entry on this blog page which I started five years ago while studying in Uganda the first time.  Because of the campaign and because my time away is solely about writing, I thought it would be a great idea to give myself a weekly assignment of keeping an online diary where I can keep folks informed on what’s happening with me as well as make a personal writing commitment where I am somewhat held accountable by others.

Blogging has always been a little daunting for me– especially when you are considering submitting work to be published widely.  How does one decide which thoughts or moments are fit for an online rant versus a real story that could be later developed into something substantial and meaningful?   Does blogging imply that you think so highly of your thoughts and writing that you want it on the web for everyone to see? Will I feel like a loser if my only followers are my parents and siblings who wouldn’t necessarily read my rants, but have to follow me just because it’s the right thing to do?

Truth is, it’s hard for me to write so openly, so regularly.  I do, however, frequently journal (is that a verb? If not, you know what I mean)– it has helped me sort out my thoughts and frustrations over the years and has also been a great reference when writing about my time in Africa.  I find that keeping a journal (the old-school leather -bound books of lined paper– I faithfully use Moleskines, btw) is one of the most stress-relieving exercises one can commit to.  I believe it so much, in fact, that I recently inquired about leading an extracurricular journal writing workshop with the incoming students of the Uganda Studies Program later this fall for which I was approved.

But to blog on the internet, whether it is an open or private forum, means to be vulnerable with both friends and strangers about what I feel.  It means I have to decide if I will censor my thoughts or be candid about my views, and with whatever I decide, be okay with the feedback that comes along with it. IF, that is, there is any feedback at all.  What if no one cares about what I have to say? Will that be the ego-bruising moment for me? To log on and see that there is no one following, no one reading, no one commenting?

I’ve been contributing to 215mag.com, a digital magazine in Philadelphia, for over a year now and a few things I’ve learned are 1. write your best 2. proofread your work 3. build an audience 4. be ready for scrutiny.   I am still working on the 3 & 4, but these days I think I am ready to strut my stuff online– whether my audience is 1 or 1000.  I think I can handle readers’ comments– whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent.  I’m not sure what my theme will be yet, but I think it’s cool to figure that out along the way.

So here it goes– from journaling in Moleskines to blogging online, my life is really about to be an open book.

 

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