Elegy for the Larger-than-Life. 

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When you go, we are — often unexpectedly — gutted, having grossly underestimated how tightly the gold thread you spun was woven into the fabric of our own quotidian lives. We absorbed you, your work a pulsing undercurrent in so much we consume and enjoy. And we sensed you near, though for the vast majority of us, you were entirely unknowable. With stars, we expect to be kept locked outside. In fact, we prefer it, so pleased by the idea — and the perceived proof — that talent can change the density of lives; it can fill every day to bursting with elements so many of us rarely encounter: wealth, acclaim, a kind of fun and daring only wealth and acclaim would allow (or excuse), secrecy, a sort of omnipresence. You are never among us and yet, you are always among us.

So when you die — and so many of you are dying — there is always a disbelieving beat, a sharp breath of denial. It’s as though, quite without realizing it, we had assumed that you lived somewhere between mortality and eternity, never belonging entirely to neither plane.

This isn’t true of all stars. There are some we understand as fragile, teetering and barely hanging on to this world and wholly unprepared to face a next — the ones whose addictions are constantly threatening to wrest them away, the ones whose sadness is palpable, even when they’re pratfalling, their tongues lapping the pie from their beaming faces. Fans can be discerning. Though it saddens us, there are some we simply expect to mourn.

But you are the kind who fool us. You kick your coke habits. You stop just short of pickling yourself in booze. You fold into the love of a formidable partner. You disappear from public view so long we forget that you live in a body at all — until that body, with its fickle organs, its long memory of bygone abuse — betrays you.

Because you have survived what has destroyed others, we imagine you are hardier somehow than we who are certainly finite. Because we can hear you or watch you at whim — from any device, prompted by any of our tangential, deeply personal memories, because we danced to you at our weddings, or rang in holidays watching you viefor a good woman’s love, because you played in the background of other loved one’s repasts, we thought you’d outlast us all.

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For someone, you were always understood as mortal. Your skin slackened under their hand, their lips felt the slide of jowls over your angular cheekbones. They slowed the clip of their gait when it became hard for you to keep up. They lifted the ice chips to your tongue when food became too difficult to eat. The scent of your vomit lingers in their nostrils and on their hardest days without you, they will long to be able to wipe it from your chin, just once more. For them, your dying marks a permanent departure. It means accepting that millions of after-midnights, all the whispered laughter and all the hushed bickering they contained, will never be reenacted.

For us, you were never really here, not in the same way the rest of are: anchored to cubicles and school conferences and coffee shops, our footprints measurable in any loam we’ve tread. We cannot backtrack through our physical spaces and find you, cannot retrace our own steps for evidence that you existed. Where is our physical proof that you shimmied in glittered chinchilla across Madison Square Garden, that you grinned or winked at the few who made it backstage? The photos? Ephemera. The autograph? That could be anyone’s, couldn’t it? Our stories? We embellish them a bit more in every retelling. Before long, it is impossible to discern how much of what remains is true. It is impossible to know if it was you. And it wasn’t, was it? It was your avatar: persona, not person. As fans, if we encountered you at all, it was as icons, not intimates.

When you die we look for your footprints in the places we are sure we will find them, in the recollections that never fail us: the lyrics and lines that will not change, the melodies we know by rote, the very nanosecond you furrowed your brow in a film. We crank you up until you fill our cars or our living rooms. We sing and quote along, this time because we know you no longer can. Not here, anyway, in the realm where we still live, and where we still suspect you could always come and go as you pleased.

Did you hear Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City today?

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Last month, I wrote a post about my new job as an independent radio producer on “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” a new half-hour audio documentary funded by AIR with additional support from the Corporation for Public Broadcast as part of Localore: Finding America, a 15-city hyper-local storytelling project.

Today, our first episode premiered on WEAA 88.9 FM. You can hear it here: http://weaa.org/post/episode-one-keep-shaking-and-baking.

I’m relieved to have gotten one episode done (there will be 12 total), excited by the stories we can tell in the radio medium — and how creative we can be about telling them — and I’m also just really exhausted. lol

I want to share some of the anecdotes about the show, audio clips that didn’t make it to air, and stories about learning how to read narration and writing/editing it on the fly. But I really feel like I’m about to doze off writing this. So all I’m going to say here is: when I went to New Have for Thread at Yale last summer (thank you again to everyone who helped me fund that through Indiegogo), Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment advised us that if we wanted to break into podcasting, having never done it before and with no tech experience, the best advice was: “Surround yourself with geniuses.”

I’ve definitely done that. I’ve got Ali Post, a field producer who’s a quick thinker, a troubleshooter, a fire extinguisher, an astute story collaborator, and a sounding board. I’ve got Mawish Raza, who exudes calm under ridiculous deadlines, makes magic out of photographs and video footage, and has already lost sleep ensuring that we had our show packaged for today’s 11:30am start time. And I have Marsha Jews, who knows Baltimore’s black history and exactly who we need to talk to about it, who is a voice of reason when I’m quietly freaking out, and who gets things done. Period. Fast.

And of course, it must be said: none of us would be able to do any of this important work without our grant from AIR. Funding makes all the difference in the scope of the narrative work you can do. So many people are already telling Baltimore’s important stories in various media on next to no budget. We’re honored to join their ranks — and very fortunate to be doing it with some financial backing.

Strong team, strong show. Well, wait. We’ll let you be the judge of its strength, listeners. Let me know what you think after you’ve heard it!

In the meantime, here’s our video trailer for Episode 1, which I didn’t get to share here in advance of the show, because: mile-long to-do list.

I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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This post is titled after a Laura Mvula song of the same name, because she’s my current musical obsession (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But it’s also apt because the year’s end is nigh and, though I am starting every day bursting with anticipation and ending each day, full — of anxiety or accomplishment or some amalgam of the two — I really don’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t scare me in the way it did for most of this year because, now, I am always certain that something is coming. As a freelance writer, things were typically more precarious and largely left to my sense of ambition on any given day. The weight and panic of trying to secure work left completely immobile some days.

Now, at least over the next seven months, I have a long-term project to execute. No day is fruitless. I’m never frozen. It’s refreshing, but shifting professional gears again is frightening, too.

Producing an audio program is different than the work I’ve done as a freelancer for print/written media. As a writer and a borderline agoraphobic, I’ve tended to write things that required the least amount of interaction with others. I didn’t leave home when I didn’t have to. And I was loath to consider myself a reporter of any kind. With Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, the radio show/podcast I’m developing with AIR and WEAA, I have to go out — a lot — and when I’m not actually going out, I have to be making plans to go out. Not only do I have to talk to people, but I have to learn something I’ve spent years — decades, really — avoiding: leadership.

There’s no place to hide, especially not in towers of lofty ideas or behind hanging tapestries of language. As a radio producer, there are always directives to create and to give — and even when every instinct inside me signals that I should defer to someone else or to take instruction rather than to give it (I still do this whenever I can; you can ask my collaborators about that), I have to force myself to the fore (and then challenge myself to stay there).

I have help with that. We’ve built a small production team that includes two civic-minded young women I hired with audio and video documentary experience and one radio vet and organizer with a passion for the city of Baltimore. The general manager at the radio station has been supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for or imagined, despite how busy she is. And whenever I work in their offices, everyone seems excited about our project.

My production team is a mix of assertiveness, confidence, knowledge and emerging skills. Where I’m timid, someone else is not. When I have a firm idea/show concept, someone does whatever they can to help me execute (and improve upon) it. When I’m unsure about how to proceed, someone offers a ton of great leads.

It’s a good time to be starting at square one on something. I’ve been 36 for one month. It’s the first year I’m spending on the backside of my 30s; I’m officially closer to 40 now — and there are so many underdeveloped social and professional skills I still need to strengthen. This project will help. At its end, I hope to know how to record and edit my own segments, to be able to better gauge which direction an interview needs to take (in the moment I’m conducting it rather than in retrospect), and to develop a project management style that’s at once collaborative and confident. I also just want to overcome my anxieties about meeting new people, being around a lot of people at once, and asking any number of those people a lot of probing questions.

I’m hopeful.

Our ideas are only as good as our ability to execute them. Our execution is only as good as our ability to pivot, adapt, accept feedback, delegate, and recognize our own limitations and our collaborators’ strengths.

Last Thursday night, three members of our team went out on our first big night of recording for the show’s first episode (about the history and future of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center), slated to air in mid-January. I was scared going in and my heart raced the whole way home, but it was worth it to hear people talk about things they cherish: their faith, their childhood hobbies, their memories of Baltimore’s thriving black businesses and safe, open communities up until the late ’60s, their $400 skates, their ability to teach their children or grandchildren to skate, just as they learned to as kids. There’s something magical about good memories and how they animate a face, how recounting them makes the years that have etched themselves into forehead and cheek fall away. I get to watch that happen nearly every week for for the next seven months.

I’ll probably be as surprised as any listener will about how each episode turns out. That’s part of the thrill of it: the discovery, the surprise, the trial and the error, the vanquishing of fear. But I can’t wait to make it all come together. I can’t wait to remind myself that my abilities aren’t as narrow as I’ve defined them for myself and that my potential can still press beyond its long-set perimeter.

I’m also hoping to approach writing differently in the new year. It’s already nice not to have to rely on essay-writing as primary income. And it’s refreshing to be able to call myself something else for awhile. Being a “professional” writer is a realized dream and the goals I had for a career in writing and/or editing have needed adjusting for awhile now. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to make those adjustments now.

For those keeping track, I’m still a weekly contributor at Washington Post’s Act Four blog. I’m no longer a weekly contributor at New Republic (though I do still hope to write there from time to time in the future; it’s a very cool publication, both in print and online). And though I don’t anticipate pitching much in the first half of 2016, while the radio show is in production, I’m always open to it.

In the meantime, the upcoming launch of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City was written up in Baltimore magazine. It was the first time I’d had a professional photo taken to run with an article.

Photo credit: Christopher Myers
Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Back to Laura Mvula: she’s incredible and I can’t believe I just found her albums two weeks ago. But I immediately started making up for lost time by learning and Acapella-ing her songs. This is probably the best of my efforts, taken from the chorus of “Diamonds“:


Runner-up, this from “Father, Father“:

For fun, here’s a longer attempt at that one, with a cameo from my daughter, who really doesn’t respect singing-with-bathroom-acoustics alone time.

Stacia at BinderCon NYC 2015: Journalism and Social Justice.


Last Sunday, November 8, I was on a panel at Out of the Binders’ second annual BinderCon, a two-day conference for women and gender noncomforming writers and media professionals. This is the video. I had a fantastic time, and I was so incredibly honored to be part of this group of speakers, in particular, which included journalists from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and ProPublica. They were gracious and brilliant and, close to a week later, I still can’t believe I was up there with them. Lots of important points were raised, as each of us discussed at least one piece we’d written that subsequently advanced a social justice cause (whether that was our express purpose for writing or not — and in most cases, it wasn’t).

Here are links to some of the pieces discussed:

Sarah Maslin Nir’s “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Before the Law (or “Three Years on Rikers Without Trial.”)

Ginger Thompson’s “Reaping What Was Sown on the Old Plantation.”

Mine: “Dispatch from Baltimore” and “The Luxury of Hope.”

Many thanks to our moderator, a brilliant, accomplished journalist in her own right, Alizah Salario. Shout-outs to people I follow on Twitter and had the great joy of meeting in person during the weekend, Eva KL Miller and Nyasha Junior (author of the new book, Introduction to Biblical Womanism). Big love to the perpetually fabulous, ethereal Melissa Febos, my friend from grad school, whose panel on personal writing with political themes was amazing (I’m not sure if it’ll be available online but if it ever is, I’ll update with a link). And a warm hug goes out to Aya de Leon, whose children’s book, Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity, I spotted on a bookstore table as I was rushing out to catch my bus back to Baltimore, then bumped into immediately after purchasing and got autographed for Story. She was beautiful and gracious and I’m so glad I got to meet her before I had to hustle out of there. Love out to my Saturday lunch buddies, Jenn Baker, whose Minorities in Publishing podcast you should definitely check out, Monica Odom who was so kind and encouraging about book-writing, and Ashley Lauren Rogers, who was warm and witty. So glad to have met and re-connected with so many wonderful people.

I also had a lot of time to myself, which helped me break some idea-ground for my new radio/podcast project. Overall, it was a great experience.

This is just one of Cooper Union’s buildings, but isn’t it impressive?

#EveryBlackGirlMatters and We All Need Our One.

This post is in support of Black Lives Matter’s #EveryBlackGirlMatters open letter to Spring Valley High School students Niya Kenny and Shakara. You can add your signature as a show of support for both girls, as they deal with legal, medical, academic, and emotional fallout from last month’s assault.

When I pick you up from school now, you are either crouching teary-eyed with your back to the other coat-bundled, backpack-saddled children or you are standing next to your favorite teacher’s aide — the one who looks like the all the other women in your life: brown, full-grown, fierce when need be — your tiny hand gift-wrapped in her long fingers and protective palm. You aren’t looking at the door for me anymore, distraught when I don’t arrive before you do when your class is dismissed. But the process still seems to rattle you. All the people, all the noise, the hectic urgency of teachers pulling single-file links of handholding kids toward all the buses that await them outside. The buses have curious names: Lemon, Tangerine, Pineapple. You hear them shouted by teachers. You hear them crackling through intercom speakers. You have never ridden the school bus; all the names mean to you is that children you just played with in your Pre-K classroom are being pulled off in all different directions, taken to places unknown.

I wonder what that’s like for you, as an only child. You’re only with children two hours a day and at the end of those hours, you watch them wrested away. Is learning alongside them the warmest, most thrilling part of your day? Is it lonely to leave? Or are you relieved to be coming home, where you know that, no matter how you express yourself, you will be understood?

When I ask you about your friends, calling each of their names and hoping for something specific and anecdotal, you disclose very little. You were placed in this class with the expectation that you would become a student leader. You’re older than the others and have taken a year of pre-k before. For you, the material and the routines have long been rote. But I wonder if you do lead there. I wonder how often you assert yourself and what you do when you feel disoriented or teased or rushed (if these things happen at all).

There’s so little I can guess about this sliver of life you already live away from me. I have a conference with your teacher this week and I’ll visit your classroom next Wednesday. But I know from our two previous years of experience that those are just wisps of observation, that your interior life and your impressions of your surroundings are largely unknowable.

Right now, it’s just the language. You’re five and everyday, you’re articulating more, but your communication skills are still slow-emerging. Later, in adolescent, the parts of your life you wall off will be intentionally decided. Language won’t be the barrier; your great teenage need for privacy will.

Then, as now, I will need for us to find a way to be an impenetrable team. Too many forces seek to erode black girls’ confidence and school is breeding ground for many of them.

I was sullen and silent and an only child, too. Bright but not necessarily in ways that a public school assessment system could adequately measure. I didn’t exude enough coolness to be emulated or enough confidence to be insulated from bullying or enough aggression to be feared. I relied most on low visibility. If I could blend into a crowd of brown students, I could observe or immerse without being targeted. I could survive.

But nothing is ever failsafe. Back then, student resource officers were just being placed in middle and high schools. Now, they are a mainstay. Back then, I assumed they were there to protect us from outside intrusion. Now, it’s apparent, they’re policing children who look like you, whose parents earn too little to send them elsewhere (like me). Now, black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls. Now, black girls in public schools report experiencing disproportionately high instances of interpersonal violence. And every single day, national news confirms that abuse committed against black women, injustices committed against black women, and assault committed against black women are of little public interest — constant reminders that after you are raised, you are not being released into a world where kindness will be offered easily.

But womanhood is still a star in the middle distance. I have years to prepare you for it, years to deliver you to it. They are years for which we should be prepared. You will need to tell me when something’s wrong. You will need to speak up in class. You will need to defend yourself. You will need me to defend you when that fails. I will need someone more powerful to join us. We will need women. We will need black women. We will need lots of black women.

But in the moment when I am not beside you and you will like war is rushing toward you and no cavalry is coming, you may only need one.

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In South Carolina at Spring Valley High, Shakara had Niya. Not her black male teacher. Not any of the other tremulous scared-silent students. When Officer Ben Fields attacked her, one girl cried out on her behalf, a voice raised when Shakara’s own wind had been knocked from her.

When we are fortunate, there is one. May you always have a Niya. May you always have access to a single empathetic staff member. When I can’t be near, may another black woman be my emissary. Look up into the faces of onlookers and find someone willing to flip a table for you. She will probably be black. She will want to keep you safe and see you win.

But for her brave defense of you, she will also face a battle. Niya was manhandled, arrested, and charged with disturbing schools alongside Shakara. We take great risks when we stand between our sisters and the terrors that stalk them. We take those risks, even as we face terrors of our own. Solidarity may be the right choice, but it is never a simple one.

Every black girl deserves to have someone make it. Every black girl who makes it deserves a hedge of support and defense when she does.

You are still so young, but in your own class, you have met your first one. A little girl a bit smaller than yourself with a big, clear voice. She calls out to you from beside her dad, when they’re walking behind us toward the school in the morning. She waits patiently for your timid wave in response. When you are crouching with your back to everyone, she tells you when I’ve come to get you. Yo mommy here! When you’ve had a hard day, she walks up, cranes her neck up the full four feet from her own height to my face. She looks into my eyes to make sure I’m paying attention. Story was sleepy today, she reports. 

I thank her. And that night, I tuck you in an hour earlier.

Seeking Inner Harmony.

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1.

I wonder what I'd choose, given the choice/between silence and noise, words or a voice. -- "Beyond the Sun," Aaron Espe and Claire Guerreso

I may have mentioned this here before — in fact, I’m almost certain I have — but I sing to keep calm. It’s one of the only things I do that pushes my overactive thoughts (and anxieties) to the periphery. Ironically, singing quiets me. Much like fiction-writing, it requires a good deal of my creative focus, especially if I’m harmonizing. I have to be able to hear myself, and in that way, I’m granted the fleeting luxury of ignoring everything else. Everyone should adopt a hobby that affords them that privilege, something that inwardly soothes but has the potential offer something distinct — and free — to the world outside. Historically, writing has satisfied those aims for me, but for the past three years or so, it’s been far more stressful than calming — in no small part because I’ve increasingly relied on it for income, and also because bigger reading audiences mean heightened self-consciousness. Sitting down to a blank screen meant approaching it with a sense of post-writing strategy: How (if at all) would I defend myself in the face of critique? How would I help the publication market the piece so that it had maximum reach within its first 48 hours? How much would I have to make myself available to converse about whatever I’d report or disclose? How fast could I finish it, so that I could quickly invoice it, and after the invoice, would the payment arrive before Bill X was due, if I really rushed the copy?

The lines between silence and noise seem to disappear for writers of certain types of new media content. And on my most cynical days, it becomes hard to determine whether I’ve just written a required number of words, inanimate, flat uninspired, or infused those dry bones of vocabulary with true voice and with life.

I’m hoping that my new professional direction will recalibrate my relationship to writing as something I simply want to do for myself and others, rather than something I have to do to feed my family and help my employees with their bottom line. Joyfulness during the practice of writing is rare. It’s important to protect and reclaim it if and when you can.

2.

I know you're down. When you gon' get up? -- "Get Up," Amel Larrieux

Amel Larrieux’s first solo album, Infinite Possibilities, dropped when I was a junior in college and since then, this song has always been able to straighten my spine and set my feet due north after a period of aimlessness. (This just occurred to me, but this song is simply a much more beautiful way of delivering the exact same message this guy does in that old, classic for-profit college ad. “Get Up” is just as urgent but absent the comical disgust.)

3.

You'd say this is all there is/and every time you blink you'd miss/another piece of this wondrous world. -- "Good Goodbye," Lianne de Havas

I hate letting go of people I love before I’ve made peace with it. I want every relationship that has to end to do so with mutual, bittersweet resignation and resolve. I want the fanfare of a poignant farewell. But how often are any of us granted that (and even when we are, it’s still emptier than we’d hoped, isn’t it?). Sometimes I just have to force myself forward, when I really want to be like Atreyu was with Artax in the Swamp of Sadness:

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I’m not sure what Lianne La Havas wants us to take from her gorgeous song, “Good Goodbye,” but what I get from it is validation of how hard it is to accept when people are truly gone, when what you’ve wanted most was for them not to be.

Edited to add a fourth Acapella with zero context:


 

(How dope is Acapella, though? Really. Even though it’s trendy and millennial and the clever teens and twentysomethings using it will move onto something else by the end of the year, this app, which I just found out about three days ago, is my Patronus and probably will be a long, long while.)

Stacia the Radio Producer (or the Cumulative, Collaborative Nature of Success).

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I’ve been waiting awhile to be able to announce this, but today I get to let you all know that for the next nine months (and hopefully beyond!), I’m going to be producing a radio show/podcast with Morgan State University’s radio station, WEAA FM 88.9, as part of AIR/Localore’s Finding America project.

Here’s how that happened, long version:

This month marks one year since I left my last full-time contract job and began to work as a freelance writer. A year was my self-imposed deadline. I knew freelance writing life, and I didn’t want that work to be my primary source of income any longer than was necessary. So I spent the entire year applying to full-time work, fellowships, residencies — anything I felt capable of doing well, anything that might lead to job security (such as that still exists). I went on a lot of interviews — mostly for editing and writing positions — and I enjoyed a great deal of learning opportunity this year. But nothing had resulted in full-time work. As I frequently disclose in my writing, as a parent, having full-time income is paramount — but so is being present for my daughter. I was pressuring myself to get an office job, because I thought that was the only way to feel financially secure and less panicked about the future, but I was also wary about the prospect, as I knew I’d be away from home far more than I wanted to be. I’ve been writing a lot for some incredible publications. But over the course of this gap year, no full-time employment had materialized.

As an artist, as someone who excels at just one art form/medium, making a living can be complex. It’s a lifelong riddle, really. I’m an English major with an MFA in creative writing who has been an online newsletter editor, a freelance writer, a weekly columnist, an adjunct instructor at four colleges, a community engagement fellow, an online community founder, a writing coach, a test curriculum writer, and a few other odds-and-ends position-fillers I can’t quite recall at the moment. I’ve always thought that I was my best self as a writer — and I still think that’s true. For every job I’ve ever done, I’ve drawn on my ability, experience, and intuition as a writer. It’s the only thing that all my positions have in common. I remind myself of this when I feel like a bit of a flake, transitioning from career to career and never finding solid enough footing. The desire either to create narratives or help others create them permeates everything I pursue — and, as through-lines go, I believe that’s a good one.

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In June, I applied for AIR’s Localore/Finding America project with that in mind. I had just returned from Thread at Yale, where I’d learned a lot about how to approach precisely this kind of storytelling. One of our lecturers there was Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment. Another was Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth. And my roommate during the conference, by fate, serendipity, and/or unearthly grace, was Nicole Taylor, creator of her own long-running podcast, Hot Grease. At the time, I was awestruck by all the audio storytellers’ origin stories (this kind of work lends itself well to mid-career transition), and Nicole had encouraged me to consider getting into podcasting. But it felt sort of beyond me, even as my interest in it spiked.

About three weeks after Thread, when I got an email encouraging me to apply for Localore/Finding America, it felt fairly auspicious. 2015 has been a year of big leaps for me, so taking one more seemed like a no-brainer.

When I apply for lofty, dreamlike opportunities, I do so without expectation. I tell myself, “I probably won’t get this,” and if/when I do, I worry about how to make it happen afterward. It’s the only way I can bring myself to go after gargantuan things, things that make my heart rate quicken and my knees buckle.

This is one of those things.

I found out I was a finalist in August. I found out I was part of one of the 13 teams selected in September. And now I get to tell you all about it.

Our project is called “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” and it’ll be a biweekly half-hour radio show/podcast, airing on WEAA and available for online download. It’s an intergenerational project: one elder and one young person, or one family with generations steeped in a single Baltimore City neighborhood. We’ll ask them about places they’ve been and things they’ve experienced in this city, in order to draw connections between life in Baltimore decades ago and life here now. Baltimore is a city with a history of rising from ashes. With this show, we want to explore what that looks like on a personal level. And it’s also a place with innumerable charms, often secreted away or lost amid media coverage of its harrowing challenges. The nickname “Charm City” was coined in 1975 by ad execs and creative directors, under the hire of then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, who wanted to rehab Baltimore’s public image. There have been other nicknames and campaigns, The City That Reads and Baltimore: Believe among them. But Charm City is due for a real revival — and the biggest charms Baltimore has to offer are in the stories and personal histories of and relationships between its people.

We hope to capture both concepts: the resilience and the charm.

Our first episode will air in January 2016, so I’ll be promoting it more here and via social media and an as-yet-launched website/blog before the end of the year. Localore/Finding America ends in July, and we should produce 12 episodes between January and then. But “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City” isn’t just about producing a radio show. It’s also about building stronger relationships between the people of Baltimore and the institutions that exist because of them. WEAA’s slogan is, “The Voice of the Community,” and we want this project to reinforce that in as many creative way as possible. So we’ll be visiting community meeting spaces to tell people all about this program and to and to encourage them to interact with us by answering fun storytelling prompts, Vine/Instagram videoing themselves for our website and following us on social media. We’ll also have a few larger-scale live events during the project’s duration.

So that’s the project.

I’m very excited about it, for myriad personal reasons. Chief among them: I’m developing an entirely new skill set. By the end of this, I’ll be able to do something that requires much more of me than a lot of my previous work has, especially in terms of performing introversion and being present for others. But I’ve been building toward it. Brick by brick, but unbeknown, I’ve been becoming someone capable of this.

This project allows me to marry my desire to serve, my ability to write, and my passion for compelling people to give something of themselves to the world through their own stories. In order for it to thrive, I have to expand the borders I’ve set for myself — only so much of me goes out, and only for a set time, and only under specific conditions — and become something… more. I’ll need to believe I’m capable of doing that (and I cannot begin to explain how difficult that will be for me). And I’ll need to accept that this life — one where work isn’t always stable, but art is — is my life. It doesn’t look like other thirtysomethings’ lives. It’s a little (or very, depending on which one of my loved ones is assessing it) unconventional, but I’m so fortunate to be living it, just this way, with so much support from so many people.

There’s nothing that can replace people believing in you and your ability to excel at things you’ve never tried — things that genuinely terrify you. And when we announced this project at noon today, I received so, so many messages of excitement, affirmation and expectation that I feel both pressure to succeed and confidence that I can. I am a person who draws on a great cloud of witnesses for that kind of motivation. If you’ve tweeted, emailed, texted, or messaged me at any point during my professional life, you can claim part of this and my previous successes. You really can, and I cannot thank you all enough.

With great humility and gratitude, we proceed.

Toward a Life Worthy of its Art Direction.

On Monday, Medium’s Working Parents series published my essay on juggling the demands of parenting and freelance writing. It’s risky to write with candor about things like this when your employment prospects are constantly in flux. I’m never sure, when I’m at my most publicly honest, how it’ll affect any future hiring — and I’m not naive enough to believe that it won’t. But I also don’t know how to bottle anything up without it seeping its way into writing (ask my family or my exes). Whenever I feel especially alienated in a relationship or isolated in a situation, every word at my disposal grows a tentacle. I gather them and push them out toward anyone onto whom they might latch. And when I hear back from someone who says, “Yes, this has also been my experience,” or, “Now I understand your experience of our interaction,” every tensed nerve relaxes. The tentacles retract and words, at least in those moments of peace, simply become words again.

I also just think it benefits people to know what they’re getting when they get you. Sometimes I write to announce myself to strangers. In daily interaction, we don’t reveal even a fraction of what we’re thinking, feeling, fearing, or hoping. And we probably shouldn’t. But I’ve always felt that, when or if anyone ever wishes to know, there should be a manual for them, some shorter way to troubleshoot than the interminable, unaided process of trial and error.

I’ve heard back from several mothers this week about that piece and I’ve appreciated every exchange. We could all stand to have less pressure to hide essential parts of who we are. I’ve also gotten some very thoughtful leads from readers for flex work, remote work, and part-time work, and that’s been very touching. Every lead like that feels like encouragement to keeping finding ways to spend time with my little girl and, in a culture where I’ve seen unmarried black mothers harshly lambasted — and criminalized — for making these kinds of choices at the expense of their highest earning potential, I’m exceedingly grateful for that form of support.

Regardless of what happens, whether I take a full-time office job or continue working from home, I won’t forget those of you who validated my decision to freelance in my daughter’s first five years.

Every week has its own anatomy for the work-from-home single parent. Monday was chill and Tueday started out the same way, until I got an email offering me a labor-intensive project with a quick turnaround that I’m slated to begin this weekend. Wednesday and Thursday also brought new work responsibilities. I’m glad, then, that while my daughter was at school Tuesday morning, I decided to take these photos. I’m glad that when she got home from school, she joined me.

In the Working Parents essay, I focused on how difficult it is to juggle work and mothering. I centered the demands. But I didn’t talk about the lulls, the gaps between assignments, the ways in which the unexpectedly long waits for overdue checks can confine you to home (because you’re afraid to spend the money you have left and every time leaving home, it seems, involves an expenditure), and the ways you have to get inventive to avoid being listless or afraid or frustrated.

We take photos together and separately for countless reasons: to kill time, to bond, to giggle, to record this rare era — one that will draw to a close, for better or worse, before other of us is ready to let it go. Our self-portraits are also another way to shift our narrative. We create our story, add glamour in the places bleakness is poised to fester, add cheer when we’re feeling sort of down, add purpose to a day that is light on duty.

Most parents and their children do this. We fill our cell phones with moments. My family’s are intentionally artsy because we have time to make them that way. If these moments are merely our highlight reels, as so many have observed about what makes its way to social media or blogs, then what we choose to share says everything about who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and how we hope others perceive us.

I hope I’m perceived as thoughtful. Creative. Dramatic. Daring. Whimsical. Optimistic. Protective of my daughter’s wonder. Protective of my own. I hope I appear to be aiming toward an elsewhere, while relishing life right where I stand. 

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Emmys and Cosmo.

I feel like I’m still very new to winning. I would imagine there are many people who’d disagree with me, but that’s because they’re observing from the other side of the glass. “Winning” is relative; everything is. And, of course, only we can determine the units by which we measure it.

I rarely feel like I’m winning when I’m expecting to reap a material benefit as a result. The rate of pay is never high enough, the terms of a contract never secure enough. And it rarely feels like a legitimate win just to accomplish a new feat. Sure, I was published somewhere. But how prestigious is the publication? Is it digital or print? How difficult is it to be published there? Am I proud of the work that made to print? Did I take pains with the wording or rush it through? Would the publication have taken an essay from anyone who could turn one around, just because they needed quick copy? It’s still not a book. It’s still not The New Yorker. It’s still not a full-time job.

It’s not whatever smoke or mirror I’ve convinced myself I should be chasing.

It’s hard for me to maintain a healthy perspective, is what I’m saying. While I was watching the Emmys Sunday night, I saw a few shining examples of health, examples of women — black women — clearly embracing their wins. And I had no idea how desperately I needed to see that until I was bearing witness to it.

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I’ve been watching Regina King on screens since 1985, when I was six and she first appeared on 227. Exactly 30 years later, she’s nominated for and winning her very first Emmy, despite having put in masterful performance after masterful performance for decades. It was never about an Emmy for Regina King. She just worked. From age 14 until now, in her mid-forties, she’s just worked. She’s acted, directed, raised a son post-divorce, kept a pristine reputation among her peers. She’s been winning. So when she accepted the Emmy, it was with pleasant surprise, deep gratitude, and admirable groundedness. She leaned right into that mic and told us all that it was particularly special because her homegirl and colleague, Taraji, presented it to her. She told us it meant more because her son, who escorted her to the awards, was present to witness it. And it was easy to believe her, easy to understand that the Emmy itself was mere icing. She’d long held all the ingredients she’d needed for personal fulfillment.

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And then I saw Uzo Aduba hear her name called as a winner. It wasn’t her first time, but she was as shocked and thrilled as if it were. She did not rush to the podium; she didn’t need to. She understood what it meant for her to win. For her, it meant leaning over to her sister, talking to her for a moment, ignoring the audience and the camera and the expectation that she hurry. That bond, that moment of privacy in the one of the most public possible venues in all of Hollywood: that was winning. “I love you mostly because you let me be me,” she said to her professional team during her speech. Maintaining your core identity in a profession where everyone’s job is to change you — role to role, set to set, carpet to carpet — is the truest success of all.

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Of course there was Viola, whose relationship with winning has always been public and candid and complex. Viola, who wears her insecurities on her sleeve, who gives voice to every ancient feeling of inadequacy she’s managed to silence, who trusts us all enough somehow to confide that there are still uncertainties she has yet to vanquish. Viola is always winning, because, with every Hollywood validation, she deepens her advocacy for the women who’ve been cast aside, passed over, and ignored. Viola is always winning because a lifetime of feeling loss has taught her to consume accomplishment without an aftertaste of bitterness.

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But it was Taraji who exemplified winning best of all last night, Taraji who took home nothing but her joy (and a lead role of one of the hottest series on television these days). It’s one thing to know how to remain fully present in the midst of a win, to understand its magnitude before the moment passes, rather than growing to appreciate it in retrospect. It’s quite another not to win, in the conventional sense, and to fully commit to celebrate everyone else who does, anyway. I’ve been there. And each time, I like to believe I’ve been genuine in my celebration of others. But I don’t think I’ve ever managed to fete someone quite as unabashedly for receiving something I really wanted as Taraji managed to do last night.

This moment was everything: crowd applause died down long before Regina made it to the microphone. Taraji yelled out a "Yay!" and hyped them back up, literally from the shadows of the a spotlight.
This moment was everything: crowd applause died down long before Regina made it to the microphone. Taraji yelled out a “Yay!” and hyped them back up, literally from the shadows of a spotlight.

There was no shortage of inspiration during these awards, and days later, I’m still thinking of how long it can take to experience a moment, how many years of dues-paying could be necessary before you get your due. I’m still thinking of everyone’s tenderness, of how intrinsic that is to the experience of winning. Kindness, uncomplicated delight for someone else, groundedness,  pride in oneself, gratitude, an ability to feel happiness unsurpassed for someone other than yourself: those are the surest gauges of success and contentment.

To win is to understand when to silence your questions and simply  accept every good thing that you attract. If we are only in competition with ourselves and not with our peers, if our goal is only to top our last highest peak, we still need to know when to rest and to bask and to cherish. Every good thing must be good enough, even as we look ahead and work toward something more. It could all end here and we would find ourselves the opposite of empty-handed: heavy-laden with moments, relationships, accomplishments, and triumphs over our more despondent, disappointed natures. Each in our own way, we are constantly winning.

I got my first byline at Cosmopolitan.com yesterday. My mission is simply to be pleased with that today.

Three in a Day (and Other Feats).

I managed to catch this before the story rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on the homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.
I managed to catch this before it rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on a homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.

I’ve had a busy week, juggling multiple deadlines, and as fortune would have it, everything I wrote was published today: the latest of my weekly columns at New Republic and Washington Post Act Four, as well as a quick piece for Rolling Stone.

Here are links to those:

The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” – New Republic

The Perfect Guy and the Drawbacks of Colorblind Filmmaking” – Act Four

10 Things We Learned from Cosby: The Women Speak Special” – Rolling Stone

I honestly don’t know I managed to put out these three pieces this week. Some weeks are just “How I Got Over” weeks; from the other side, you see the chasm between fixed points and marvel that you made it. In addition to those three pieces of writing, I had a few other deadlines, meetings, obligations, trips. And the requisite duties of full-time caregiving for a daughter who’s becoming increasingly expectant of my time and attention, because we’re together roughly 21 hours a day every weekday (and 24 hours a day most weekends). She used to care less whether I was nearby when she was younger; now any distance we have from one another seems to overwhelm her. That makes conducting phone interviews, trying to write coherent sentences in momentary emptiness of the next room, fielding work calls hard, or just finding an uninterrupted stretch of minutes to compose a single, complete, and purely adult thought very challenging.

I don’t know if I’m a good enough writer to convey just how challenging it can be, so I won’t belabor it. Just know that this week, in particular, it all got the best of me. It’s important to admit that — and if there’s anyone around to help when you reach that breaking point, that critical mass of responsibility, tell them immediately and be very specific about what they can do to assist you.

A few days ago, I was looking at Twitter like I do compulsively every day and decided quite extemporaneously to stop tweeting. I took about five days off before I tweeted out my articles today and thanked some folks for sharing them (Thank you, if I didn’t tweet you directly; I saw it and I appreciate it). It was a good decision.

I’m not a cold turkey person; I don’t handle sudden and total abstinence well. It’s just hard for me to make drastic changes and stick to them. So I’ve still been reading my feed, but I’ve been refraining from active participation. My life has gotten really noisy, and I’ve been looking for ways to quiet it. This has proven to be an effective way to do that, at least in the short-term.

That said, there are a few things I just can’t resist sharing:

  1. This local news clip I cannot stop watching, because it’s amazing from start to finish:

  2. This really endearing story about a boy deciding to forgo the use of his prosthetic eye, because of Fetty Wap — and Fetty Wap’s nuanced, self-aware response, which thanks the boy’s mom for being “a fan of him as a person” (if not a fan of his music, because… yeah) and thanks the boy for being a fan of Fetty Wap, the artist: 

  3. I definitely would’ve tweeted yesterday about how I spent a few hours traveling by car to an all-Bilal soundtrack. I would’ve shared these two versions of “When Will You Call,” the raw, “She just left me, and I’ve forgotten the purpose of soap and water” original version and the “I’ve had some distance and I can be a bit more mature from a reasonable remove” Terrence Blanchard version. I would’ve noted that this song chronicles a textbook case of ghosting, which didn’t have a name back in 2001 when the track was released. I would’ve mentioned that I used to feel as anguished as he sounded when I listened to this as a 21-year-old. But when I listened yesterday, I wondered what he did that made her decide not just to leave but not to let him know why she was doing it. Age and experience can drastically alter the way we listen to songs. Early Bilal reminds me of when I was a senior in college (His first album dropped that year, and I’d never heard anything like it). In retrospect, he just sounds so impossibly young and petty and angsty — like we all were at that age and still are on occasion, if we’re being honest. I’ve connected with a lot of his later music (and I listened to a ton of it yesterday), but there’s something so nostalgic about First Born Second. Certain albums and artists make you feel like you can reclaim time; as long as you can revisit their past works, your own past — however naive or fraught– is never entirely lost.
  4. This was so good, I just went ahead and tweeted it, break-be-damned: 

    Please read that. It’s so important.

  5. Lastly, I *might* have shared this clip from early yesterday evening. It was around dusk and at that time, I was fielding second-round essay edits, stressing over a proposal, considering quitting professional writing, starving myself. So I thought it would be a great time to dance. My daughter, who was dealing with some toddler-level stress of her own, did not agree: