Madiba and the Souls of Black Elders.


Verlia “Verlie” Brown in the last years of her life.

By the time Grandma Verlie turned 90, she was skin over softened bone. Thick raised veins routed through her hands like cables. The moles on her face, marking time with their slow, steady growth, were both reddish and brown. Her back held a seahorsish spine that has spent years curling, calcifying to carry 10 children’s burdens. By 90 she had heard too much, seen things that made younger people shudder, lost all manner of loves. She was girding herself to leave; living gets tiresome. At 20, I’d matured enough to pay some attention.

We would have her for five more years. Like Madiba, she would die at 95 and we would not quite know what to do with ourselves.

At cookouts, at Christmas, at other people’s funerals, my massive family would warn itself that she wouldn’t be with us forever. Hadn’t her husband, my great-grandfather, preceded her in death by a decade? And hadn’t the loss of him left a hungry, pulling hole where the heart of our family had been? He’d only lived to be 87. He was large and lumbering and we’d been losing him incrementally for years: four fingers to a machine in the Goodyear Tire factory that once employed him; countless hours in commutes to and from Jackson and Adrian as an itinerant minister; artery after artery as he ate meats and breads brushed with lard; hints here and there of a mild dementia.


Grandpa (left, background) and Grandma in Dec. 1979

This was not so with his wife. We had no danger of losing Grandma Verlie residually. She was unquestionably present, especially after Grandpa’s passing, leaning in to better catch the details of a whispered conflict between mother and daughter, listening to our secrets so intently, so silently, we wondered if she heard them at all, and until she turned 90, cooking three full meals a day with such vigor and care you could taste the pains she’d taken to evenly coat the chicken, to fold the biscuit dough. You could taste every year of her life, years she had offered at who knew what cost, years we had all eaten up.

She died in the only home where I’d ever seen her live, the hospital bed set up in her room flanked on every side with family. I was not there, but I knew before we got the call.

Something shifts in the world when the very old depart it. It doesn’t seem to matter much who they were; it is their peculiar property of hardiness, their survival of the same histories that claimed their spouses, their siblings, friends, rivals and, in the most tragic cases, their children, that makes their passage into eternity remarkable.

I have to believe that a soul expands the longer it remains in the body. It does not change shape but gains density: trauma upon trauma, joy upon joy, sorrow upon sorrow. We souls begin weightless inside our infant shells — and then we live. The eldest souls among us live till they’re nearly leaden, so that when they unanchor from Earth, those nearest them can feel it.



We did not need to be close to Madiba to feel gravity recalibrate when he died, did not have to be his grandchildren or even his countrymen to feel disoriented in his absence. His was a soul that afforded us sure footing. Such was its steadiness. Upon exit, it extracted so much diplomacy, so broad a capacity to forgive, such willingness to be flawed and revered and opposed, that in the days following Madiba’s death we feel inklings of doubt with each step. Will the ground still bear us up? Is it still as safe a place to stand?

Grandma has been gone for nine years. Our secrets are in less secure hands now. We turn in toward our immediate families, each one its own enclave. We struggle to remember at which addresses our most distant relations can be reached. There is too little land left: no longer can we call a single house “the family home.” Too many of our children have never met.

This is the aftershock.

Our generation has not been raised to succeed this caliber of elder, whose scars traced back to eras long before the freedoms we’ve come not only to know but to abuse. We have not needed their mettle; our souls have not endured what made theirs so heavy. In the absence of their anchoring, we feel tremors.

Only great hubris would make anyone rush toward the hole Madiba has left in his homeland. Dare come too close to where his spirit uprooted itself and took wing; there will be nothing to do but fall. Best stand aloft and take the adjacent earth in your hand. Roll it between finger and thumb. You may find, as my own family often has, the tiny, viable seeds shaken free and left scattered behind.

Instructions for Falling Out of Love.

1. Stop expecting. Fields of expectation yield harvests of heartache. 2. Curb your craving. This is fairly easy: for every pang in the hollow of the chest, tighten the cocoon you’ve made of a favored blanket; for every pinch at the lips where his kisses once lingered, taste a comfort food — or healthier: belt a loud, offkey song. 3. Stalk. (And this is a critical, oft-concealed step.) Find out how quickly he’s moving on and how. This will have no bearing on your own pace; it just satisfies a maddening curiosity. Make peace with the fact that she’s pretty (and witty and brilliant. He has good taste, after all; he chose you). Do not call; preserve the fourth wall. But allow yourself your petty voyeurism. It will pass when you’ve seen enough (but first — and perhaps longest, it will sting). 4. Remind yourself that rescinding this romance means an end of self-censoring, a recalibration of filters: let more in, let more out. You will not feel so accountable; you will feel much less beholden. 5. Fully realize the self rejection teaches you you can be: steely, unapologetic, affirming. Combative, if necessary. 6. Say aloud and often you are better off friends, not just because it’s true, but because there should be walls, low and easy to clear, but resolutely erected: piled, pebbled markers on an otherwise boundless affection; a redistricting of wide-open spaces you once claimed as your territory: Time, Enthusiasm, Mouth, Conversation. Accept that it is all shared domain. Accept that there are moments when he is not open to the public. Understand that you are now the public. Mercifully, this cuts both ways: you are also your own again. These days, you are greeting yourself in mirrors as you would a long-lost friend. 7. Resist blame, especially if you’re prone to blaming yourself. It doesn’t work this way. There is no sense in believing you’re broken. You will approach every new suitor with inordinate deference, with a palpable, discomfiting desire to be fixed. 8. Admire him and raise a glass. You don’t know how he does it. 9. If you ever see each other again, be mindful of how you hold yourself. Your every appendage speaks a language, but you are no longer on safe terrain for the utterance of old dialects. When you recall this, when you remember all the sentiments left unsaid, you may find that the need to touch him overwhelms. Dead languages are too beautiful not to be whispered. They were meant to be murmured in understanding ears, meant to be conveyed with a too-long embrace. If this is your case, wrap your arms around your breasts; press your fingers into your back. Become your own strait jacket. 10. You are not out of love at all; you are in the eye of it, watching it whip around, carting off heavy things, antiquities you once held dear. Your meager walls, your feeble resolve: collateral damage. But this is the clarion purview. Be your absolute stillest. Feel and look and listen. Soon it will crash in; it will carry you off. This love that once felt close as breath will fling you far way.

I’m writing a monthly column for Vitae.


Vitae, a new social media/interactive extension The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently launched, and it’s starting out strong with fantastic columns by professors, higher ed staff, and students. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be one of them!

Here’s my first piece, “The Greatest Mixtape Ever Made.” Exciting!

If you’re a college instructor/prof, a grad student, or an alumnus/a who just likes to keep up with other academics and academic musings, I encourage you to start a profile there and add friends to your circles. It’s fun!

Resisting Motherhood.

It doesn’t feel as permanent as it should. I still linger at the window; I am still expectant (though of what, I do not know. Relief? Permission?). I’ve barely shaken the sense that someone left her here, some unduly trusting soul, trying to teach me something. On occasion, I anticipate that this someone will reemerge to reclaim her. The prospect doesn’t sadden me. We have never been apart long enough for me to miss her; in her absence, I feel raw obligation to return. And I do. I rush.

It is unromantic.

When this someone comes, to determine if her trust has been ill-placed, an inspection will occur, making clear just how many of my duties I perform not with particular joy but by rote. I mother because I must, not because I am given to throes of euphoria while doing so. This, I suppose, is common. But there is something else, equally obvious: I had been waiting.

I am glad that someone has come.

*  *  *

You need to make her be quiet. The neighbors downstairs will hear her jumping and laughing at this hour, and they’ll call DHS. DHS loves to take black children.

*  *  *

It has been 40 months. No one has come. It is possible, now, that no one will.

I fill the hours with embraces and photographs, kitchen karaoke and dining room dance parties. Frequent I love you’s. So many kisses. The aphorisms hold: being present, relishing the moment, slowing, rather than marking time — it all helps. But inside, a second skin is twisting against rope. Tightly bound, it is burning.

*  *  *

They are going to tell you medicate her, if you can’t learn to make her keep still.

*  *  *

Motherhood is an overlay, sheer and clinging. It obfuscates appearance, makes pre-child passions opaque, but it does not alter what lies beneath. What I cherish about my daughter is what I would’ve cherished, had I never become her mother: her boldness; her mercurial heights and depths; the scent of her freshly bathed skin; my nose in her parted hair.

I am still me underneath.

But motherhood cannot be peeled away. It wraps around, becomes a top-lying dermis and, over time, we are meant to forget its artifice. At times, the urge to lift it away from the skin begins to pressurize. There is too little air; there are too few opportunities for new breath.

Here is the truth that helps, that slices through this whaleskin and lets in a slip of light: children are not so life-changing. They are like many other things and persons adults acquire and decide they cannot live well without. Their needs are not so different: tenderness and tending. They are complicated bliss. They are blessing and barnacle.

But they are not all we are.

*  *  *

Maybe you, and your missed days of prenatal vitamin intake, lie at the root of this behavior, this delay. Maybe you need to be reminded, during your every resting, writing moment, of what you need to do.

*  *  *

It is best to pretend that I do not need silence, that nothing essential is eroding inside me without it. I smile in pinched ways that I hope my child and others understand. I am here. I find this enjoyable. No, there is nothing behind my eyes that is stricken with panic and wanting to run. If you see this, you are imagining it.

The first two parts are not lies. I am here. I do find this enjoyable. But I am also acting. This is a Method performance: I am always in character, always awaiting the time when it will be apropos to step out.

There are reasons: my only-childhood and its resulting inexperience with children; my summer transience, three months of each year spent hundreds of miles apart from home; the far-reaching tentacles of too much free and isolated time. And I am also too accustomed to things ending, especially the things someone I love has insisted never would.

*  *  *

You need to learn to do more. This — working, bathing, clothing, preparing foods, feeding, reading, entertaining, coming straight home, rarely asking for non-work time to yourself — is not enough.

*  *  *

A lifetime spent holding a part of yourself in reserve does not resolve with the birth of a child. We mothers are still entitled to unknowable parts, if we want them. We protect them by snatching time. Demanding it. Allowing ourselves to love someone other than our children — with ardor, not apology. Reading books that are not written on boards or filled with crude drawings of talking cows. Letting something extracurricular lapse. Listening to ourselves — and making sure that what we are saying isn’t always about mothering. Everyone is talking to us about being a mother; the irony is: we only get great at it by holding onto what we loved about ourselves before becoming one.

Mothering isn’t selfless. Quite the opposite.

*  *  *

I did everything myself, so no one had the right to criticize my parenting.

*  *  *

If you are an introvert, you will be reluctant to go out and away; you are happiest at home. But what you need now is counter-intuitive. Instinct says to envelop the child, make her as essential to your happiness as being alone has always been. This is a flawed approach. If you must be incrementally alone to feel whole, then you must find ways to be alone.

It does not matter if you will be harshly criticized; that is all the more reason to leave. Aloneness allows you to quiet even the cruelest critics. In silence, you must take hold of yourself, unbind the ropes and tend to the burning skin, the ancient skin, that which was with you before you were born. You cannot let it fester; it will bleed into your mothering. Something will always be pulling apart.

Mother, you must protect yourself. It was you that you watched for at the window. You are the only Cavalry coming.

I was on MSNBC — and I feel loved.


My friend, Aulelei, sent this screenshot after watching live yesterday. Thanks to everyone who took snapshots and DVR’d. I was more touched and humbled by this than I can adequately express.

There are few greater feelings in all the world than being certain that someone is happy for you. Because I know well what that feels like, I try to impart that feeling to others as often as I can. Fortunately for me, I know a lot of people who are near-constantly celebrating something wonderful: a publication, a new gig, a marriage. And in expressing unabashed joy for them, I feel joy myself. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow call this Shine Theory, and it’s awesome.

To be real, though — and I talk to my friend Joshunda about this fairly often — sometimes being happy for others is concurrent with working through more complicated feels. She and I don’t pretend we don’t experience twinges, pangs, and on occasion, even full tides of jealousy.

Sometimes, you’ll see someone’s sudden great news in a social media feed and something plummets. It’s a hasty, involuntary reaction and, if you’re not careful, it can take root, bearing shriveled, bitter fruit.

Everyone handles jealousy differently. I’ve gotten fairly practiced at it (Like I said: I know some amazing people). I’ve a formula that’s become almost fail-proof: suppress, interrogate, eradicate. That’s another post for another day.

I’ve taken this long digression to say: you can’t fully enjoy a success if you haven’t developed healthy responses to other people’s success. If you haven’t done that work, your every achievement is comparative. You’re stuck in a miserable loop of: This is good, but it’s not as good as X’s. I’m thrilled but it would be even better if it was more like Y’s. I feel like I’m getting somewhere but not as quickly as Z.

This is me being as real as I can. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that I don’t wish for experiences similar to the ones that people I love and admire have had. It doesn’t do any good to be a writer of autobiographical content and edit out the baser, uglier parts of myself.

Ultimately, what’s important — at the moment of a friend’s highest achievement or deepest bliss — is that she understands your happiness for her, not your internal conflict. That’s something for you to work through privately and, while you do, your friend shouldn’t have to wait for you to feel ready to celebrate.

I don’t know if this is common or if it’s just me. I’ve talked to people who insist that they’re always happy for others in uncomplicated ways; that they never want what anyone else has; that they have mastery over envy or covetousness; that what God has for them, it is for them (and they’re cool with not getting anything they’ve wanted — and equally cool with watching someone else attain and enjoy that thing — because they’re secure in that affirmation). Let me tell you: I find that to be amazing. I am jealous of that.

Yesterday, I had a big moment. I’ve had a lot of big moments this year. I’m learning a lot about those, too, and about how fleeting they are. I’m learning that it’s important to absorb the success on the day of, because in the days that follow, the world moves quickly on. You will either have other big moments or you won’t; but once one has passed, it’s beyond others’ memory. You cannot pitch a tent there. The caravan has carried on.

This makes the celebration all the more significant. The people who decide to join it — and it’s very much a decision — are to be cherished. You do not know what, if anything, they’ve had to work through to be so present and happy for you.

As someone who routinely downplays big moments, so as not to feel like I’m “bragging,” it means a lot to be lauded without reservation. We all need that, but we’re told we should behave as though we don’t.

I’m rambling. The point is: I really felt loved yesterday. I feel loved every day. But yesterday, when I found out I’d be making a television appearance for the first time, and I tweeted about it and posted a status on Facebook, I felt especially loved. Announcing good news has always seemed like a calculated risk for me. You hope it will be received in the non-braggadocious way you intended. But it may not be. You hope it’ll be greeted with the same confetti-swirling, pom-pom-shaking ebullience you try to give to others. But there are no guarantees.

Yesterday’s risk paid off. You were all awesome. There was no tension, no complaint, no side-eyes, no backhanded compliments, no measured or grudging kudos. Everyone I love and everyone I celebrate loved and celebrated me — and that’s exponentially more exciting than being on TV.

That was my day. Today or tomorrow will be yours. And trust: I’ll be losing my voice in the stadium, cheering for you.


If you missed News Nation with Tamron Hall and want to watch the segment on which I appeared, it’s here. If you want to read the essay that got me on air, it’s here. If you need to know more about Avonte Oquendo’s disappearance, read Amy Davidson’s piece in The New Yorker. And if you want to know how you can support the parents of children with autism, visit Autism Speaks. 

How I Learned to Read My Daughter’s Mind.


She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.

She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.

We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?

Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.

This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.

When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)

Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.

This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.

“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”

I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”

They lean forward in anticipation.

But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.

A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.

I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.

“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.

I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.

Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.

“So I Googled it,” I tell the women at the table. “And I found the lyrics and a YouTube video. I’ve learned it, and we sing it all the time.”

The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.

What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.

I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.

It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?

The Air at the Top: On Fear of Exposure

What they do not tell you is that the air at the top is all but unbreathable; this is why, when you get there, you are most likely alone. Neither intimidated by the height nor so awed by the view that you believe yourself unworthy of it, you are a coil of stamina, your body, with its raised and rounded scars, a rosary of wounds. Sometimes, you can feel the fingers of God grazing each one like a sanguine bead. He knows what still hurts. Faith is the height of reason here; there is no one left to contest you. At the top, where even breath is begrudging, it is clear how little mankind controls.

You understand that you are not just blessed but also someone who will always be earning her air. This is your rightful place; soon you’ll stop apologizing for it. Success is not what sets you a-tremble. Planting the conquering flag does not frighten you. No, you are apprehensive of the attention its waving will attract.

Leaving your writing in the crevices of caves, in the craters of wailing walls, is one thing. It is simple to be entirely honest with only the ether as audience. On the side of a mountain there is anonymity; to remain unknown is to be left to oneself. This is tempting, but it does not gratify.

Still, what will you do about these new encampments, these people who are looking up from the bases of boulders and watching to see how conquerors comport themselves? What of the voyeurs and the vultures? Now, someone will always be circling.

Accept the evidence that you’d always prepared yourself to be here today. You pined for it, placing so many pieces of yourself in corners and creeks so that someday, enough of them were bound to be found. Piece together the leafs and there is the book you have always been destined to write, collect the watery daguerrotypes embedded in ditches and there is your photonarrative. There was enough of you here for a retrospective, even if the climb killed you, there may have been some posthumous acclaim.

You pretended to others it wouldn’t matter; climbing is its own recompense, the work its own reward. But this was a mere insulation. You’ve always wanted to be known. Recognition holds the same rush as rappelling and readership is the same as a rope: you cannot reach the top without it.

Your fear is to be poorly received, to become known not for the beautiful boom of your voice from the top of a great height, but for the tinny emptiness it may echo when it reaches the ground.

In the past, you have protected yourself from chilly reception by behaving as though you shouldn’t be where you are at all, that your presence at one pinnacle or the next is all but miraculous, that talent is a mere sleight of hand.

You understand, now that you can see the true distance of a descent, how unwise it is to pretend your own unworthiness for so long. You will convince yourself of it, and even now, from time to time, you are still beguiled by the idea of flinging yourself down.

From this height, you can see other far off climbers, standing atop higher peaks, dancing, so deep-breathed and darling, their beckoning calls a kind of dare to those still below.

There is room for us all, they are calling. But we never really know if this is true. We do not know who will tug at our harnesses and tethers, endangering us to leverage themselves. We remain unsure who comes not to build but to topple. It can make you uneasy, being watched and clambered toward, a bastion to expectation. You do not have your own advice to offer down the mountain — not really — but you give some anyway, as often as you’re asked, and you hope it works. You hope you work. With every rising sun, you tamp down your deprecation and reacclimate yourself to this air.

Mother and Daughter Defy the Time-Space Continuum.

She is in a cloche hat and chunk heels, one strap across each ankle, her calf-length dress all lavender fringes and lace. Defly, she waggles her legs in ways that make the guests all laugh until they forget how hard it is here, to be black and act citified. The flat has gone hazy with smoke; its wood floors scuff and rumble under those who’ve chosen to dance.

A quarter earned everyone their entrance, but contraband is fifty cent a cup. When the air grows warm and dense with corn-liquored breath, she counts the contents of her can. There is rent enough for three months.

You do not worry, in 1926, whether she’ll make it. You needn’t wonder what she’s working toward. Wit and resourcefulness go far here, and here, her sand-and-copper hair, glittery eyes, and throaty laugh can insulate her. White benefactors have not yet taken to flinging themselves from the rooftops of neighborhood Savings and Loans.

Ten years later, though, she would be uniformed, her smock itchy with starch and the color of storm clouds. At seventeen, she’d be languishing as a maid, lamenting that the renaissance she’d hoped to age into had waned without much warning. Even the white folks were hungry — and the ones who employed her were keeping their crusts. She would be six feet tall and underweight, a dancer but only when everyone else was away from the rooming house where she could barely afford her fees. Her landlady would knock nightly, demanding the two weeks rent she’s owed. Somehow the girl, weary-voiced and hair rollered, is able to charm her with solemn promises, down payments, conspiratorial grins. Her resourcefulness is still intact; her wit is a bit worn. Here, in the 1930s, she has to hide more of who she is.

Your hopes are higher when you find her in the ‘40s. It’s wartime and, because she’s used to working, because domesticity has always been a gig rather than her life’s goal, because she believes that our men have been forced into under-employment and marrying one would be akin to taking a second mortgage when she hardly qualifies for a first, she joins the war effort, paints fighter jets, develops a fixation on flight, flits to Paris for a pilot’s license. But there, she meets a dapper soldier whose elegance and acumen for aviation rivals only her own, and she marries him, because the man who disproves what you believe about men is a flight all his own.

She would begin the ’60s bouffanted, sneaking into the main floors of movie theaters for better glimpses at Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Danger would feel like something to court; she barely trembles at risk, barely flinches at the baring of billy clubs. On the theater’s first level, she is, of course, not wild enough to actually sit, but she is wily enough to become a shadow puppet. Her own silhouette flashing on the walls like she’s part of the moving pictures. Your daughter enjoys small subversions. She understands the keenest of all her injustices as balconies banishments and missing-paged schoolbooks. She is always reading, always watching. She knows when a law is worth breaking.

In the ’70s, she wouldn’t go in for white women’s feminism. She would be wary of connecting her politics to her underthings, her level of liberation to her libido. Free love cost black women too much, and she has always been a conservative spender. But she would write down dirges that render men and women rail straight in seats. Her hair is a perfectly rounded arc, meant to draw the eye to her face. Audiences would find many things there, but most all an otherworldliness. Pinned as they’d be to the melodies, they would miss what is true about artists: we are not after equity so much as immortality.

In the ’80s, her first car is a Delorean. Her first “I’m grown” haircut is asymmetrical. She does not sweat the technique, survives Reaganomics, mourns the death of Optimus Prime, shares your love of the film adaptation of Annie. There is little political about her, though she does sense the danger — new drugs and old policies — skulking just outside her periphery. As a black girl in a black town, where black people are not just allowed but expected to be middle class, her world — and her possibilities — feel open. Everyone around her is intent on becoming a Cosby.

The ’90s are the last decade you can bring yourself to imagine her. They were the last years you yourself felt safe. It was a false safety, you know this now, but she wouldn’t have known it then, not with her gele and her incense and her glove compartment full of De La and Tribe Called Quest CDs. Her college quad still would’ve felt like sacred ground whenever she walked it, and earning her degree — likely in fine or liberal arts — would not yet have felt like a toil in futility. You do not want to think of her after 1996, finding her first, real love in a chat rooms, entering the aughts importing all the wonders of breathable, tangible analog life into the slender flip phone in her palm, and finding herself, by 2009, constantly wondering if there is anything truly left to say, any new terrain to discover.

You certainly do not want her here, in the last quarter of 2013, where no one seems to value old Nigerian poets till they are gunned down in malls and everyone clings to the inevitability of mass shootings, when with empathy and openness, advocacy, medication, and legislative reform, so many of these tragedies could, in fact, be prevented. You do not want her watching her government give up on its citizens, in part to spite the black president whose election they still deeply resent. Were it up to you, you would will her to other times, before we knew what was to come for post-segregation black America. You would teleport her to an era where our fantasies of a free future were a clean and powerful fuel.

We are cynical now in ways that we can only be because we have reached an end. This is an “Are you happy now?” era of blackness, where even some of our own believe we’ve already overcome, where when we continue to fight, we are considered delusional: shadow boxers on crowded and bustling streets, hollerers in an online echo chamber. And I would rather you lived in a time before this technological revolution, before its bells and its whistles had built us a callus against the suffering beyond our shores (and the much of the heartache within our own borders) by reducing it all to banner ads and think pieces we can simply click away and forget.

I am afraid for us and our melting glaciers and the crumbling cliff’s edge toward which everyone is being pushed, the pit at its bottom rapidly filling with impoverished, unemployable bodies. We are becoming a nation that records and airs its citizens, burning their bodies and bursting through government barricades, begging for treatment and shelter and mental health care as its Congress bloats on self-interest, glories in its myopia, surfeits on its uninterrupted salaries, lifts food from the mouths of babies.

As your mother, it my job to imagine an improved elsewhere. I am supposed to chart a course that prepares you to survive even the bleakest of fates. But I have never myself imagined that I was see, so early as 33, as bleak a state as this. Perhaps we will recover; we have before. But it has become, for the first time in my experience here, quite possible that we won’t. This, dear child, is not hyperbole.
If you are alive on the other side, if we can regenerate everything we’ve destroyed, remember. Mankind may be meant to squander all its chances, every generation becoming more adept at readying itself to die off. But while we yet remain, we must live with an intent to leave the best of ourselves behind. We do this so that when future mothers begin to wonder when the most auspicious moments would’ve been for their children to be born, our now can belong to their narrative. We are knots for them to hold, touchstones on a seemingly endless stretch toward eternity. And that will always mean making the best of what is bleakest, believing that the idea of better will never be a thing of the past.

In Baltimore, Someone is Always Dancing — Even If Only on Graves.

photo 1

In Mount Vernon Place, we were once kept as slaves and not meant to meander in admiration of the grandeur around us. Being here conjures a blood memory, perhaps because so much of its historic loveliness has been preserved. I can almost hear the clomping of horse hooves, the transport of jangling chains. This weekend, I pushed the umbrella stroller you’re quickly outgrowing across an uneven cobblestone circle at the top of a concrete hill. We did this many times, while white tents surrounded us. Under each sat a writer or bibliophile, wearing the pained, but hopeful expression universal to sellers of wares.

I am bad about rejection, whether I am gently administering it or bearing its brunt, so it’s best for me not to make eye contact with anyone whose books I don’t intend to buy. I take too long to recover, spending months remembering the crestfallen, the maskers of disappointment, the overly cheery, “Thanks anyway”s. There is an art to letting people down easy, but I am more adept at pretending they’re invisible or prostrating myself to break their fall.

When the time comes, I expect that you’ll be more direct.

Look at them all, smile with empathy, let your gaze express how well you understand what it means to slice thin pounds of flesh and press them, fresh and bleeding, onto pages for public consumption. When you speak, do it in a voice that conveys how acutely you know that peddling their novels and research and sacrificed years at three-day festivals wasn’t part of their recurring writerly dream. And then, if you so choose, purchase or politely decline.

But, please — if you remember nothing else — swiftly move on.

*  *  *

Down the children’s lane, near a fountain encircled in green metal benches, a balloon sculptor attracts a small crowd. With his handheld air pump and a half-smock filled with limp, multicolored oblongs, he looks down toward the stones as he narrates each of his creations. He tells us, this ragtag half-circle of parents and small children, that he’s good at what he does, that his balloons are high-quality, that he can make over 150 animals and objects.

I can tell that no one else will retain this. No one else will wonder what he does when festival season is over, whether he makes his winter living booking birthday parties or takes special orders for wacky couples who want 150 different balloon centerpieces for their wedding receptions. I wonder how his craggy personality would translate at a Chuck E. Cheese or in the sprawling backyard of a pampered and petulant Roland Park child.

The balloon man, with his nondescript grey t-shirt and oversized pants, cannot seem to hold real conversations. He talks nonstop as his hands twist each balloon into something briefly magical, but his words aren’t meant for us; they’re marking time. He has not set a price. He is taking donations.

On Saturday, he bends you an elephant. On Sunday, he folds you a flower. You are still holding tight to the elephant on Sunday. He doesn’t let me finish explaining how fond you’ve grown of it overnight before he stammers that he’s flattered.

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I want you to be thoughtful, like your father and I are thoughtful, to seek the eyes of the people who can’t seem to meet yours. But do not expect to find anything there. Sometimes, an artist’s gaze is empty. Her eyes are not the windows to her soul. Soul is in the words or on the canvas or inside the balloons. You are taking it, bit by bit, whenever you read a poem or you purchase a talisman, whenever you listen to someone carefully consider a thing before he speaks.

Often, eyes are inscrutable, and souls are not windowed structures. They are not structures at all.

*  *  *

I have again grown weary of this city; Baltimore is as wrong for me as the first man I deeply loved, just as beautiful and as damaged. When I was younger, I would’ve stayed because I thought I had infinite time and because, once I have deeply loved, I do not know when to let go. But I am older and we’ve only returned because we’ve had to. There are things I have needed to reclaim. Baltimore has become a box of post-breakup belongings.

We are not supposed to be here. I cannot explain why except to say that this is another way that cities are like men: you know when you have nestled into the wrong one’s arms.

*  *  *

In Baltimore, when you fall in love, every cathedral comes alive; every rowhome raises its brow in wonder. No county or township forgets. And long after the love itself has waned, riding through the roads where it first rose and shone regenerates its memory. You may say this is true of any city. But it is only in the desperate and dirty ones, in the ones that are eroding, either under the wear of bloodshed or the veneer of gentrification, that this accessibility matters.

You understand with surety the power of love’s pull when it can still be felt in an undercurrent of carnage or unwelcome reinvention.

*  *  *

I looked too long at two women standing in a pink-plastered tent and purchased two books I did not want. Later, I bought two books for eight bucks each; the next day, they were reduced to five. This is all a gamble, isn’t it? Perhaps the old men on heroin, pop-locking in front of the soundstage, understand this best. Within 72 hours of this festival, our federal government will shut down. Our president’s authority will yet again be undermined. Thousands of employees right here in town will be in flux. But in Baltimore, someone is always dancing — even if only on graves.

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Baltimore, with its impenetrable neighborhoods and nonchalant homicides and its leaning addicts, is also full of flowering trees and trickling fountains and mansions, of men who have soaked themselves in what they believe is bliss while the rest of us bemoan the price of books and the obstinance of governing bodies. This has always been a city of unsettling lessons.

You seem happy enough in your stroller, wielding your balloons. This is not a weekend you’ll likely remember. I expect we will have left before you’re old enough to come here on your own. But before long, you will begin to sense what this city does to your mother, how it buoys and buffets and baffles her, why she always wants to beg it off. Maybe my life life here before you will become your own blood memory, beckoning from beyond future festival tents, when you can’t figure out why you feel so deeply compelled to dance.

Against ‘Other Fish’ Theory.

Words are the last to wane. Outliving feeling, they cling: barnacles on the underside of our long-capsized boat. I have written them to grip; they are meant to make promises, meant to melt ambivalence, perhaps even meant to sting, if stinging means they’ve touched you. These words want to plug the hole, want to right us. These words want to float oars out to us; they want to write us rudders. If they reach you, will you help me row? Only that. Will help me row?

Here is a bottle full of unaddressed issues. Here is what I say when I’m certain you want to hear nothing. When whispered aloud, these words are their own sea, a beacon: illumination, after you’ve stopped looking. You are lost on a part of the sea where land is a mere suggestion. For you, this is not loss; this is laughable: a scattered rain. (For me, it is a nor’easter.) You don’t want to be set sailing again, not by words — or at least, not by mine. You want salt, the sun on a thousand ripples; things within which you will find a greater portion of yourself. You want the life you can see on the face of the water, the song — just the song — of the siren who writhes at the bottom. You want the same grappling of the crabs in the cage you’ve crafted of broken boat parts. There is something in the tightness, in camaraderie with clawing things, that calms you.

But here, you are freer than you’ve been. When procured like this, freedom is simply a different confinement.

It will be, as it’s always been, your own ideas that ease you. May they ever be more useful to you than these watery words. Of course you can sustain yourself more easily alone. You’ll subsist on the reminder of the many friends who bring you laughter and wisdom rather than this surfeit of bottled sadness.

I am told there are other men in the sea, that they are slick as fish, but when their pulse finds itself under the right warm fingers, they will not long to wriggle free. I am often possessed of the stillness and patience it takes to grasp what intends to elude. I would be fine with hands held underwater for hours, for days, for decades.

But these words wish to wait, and they are wearying. They wish to urge you toward a day when love is an immediate shore and not eventual flotsam we must fashion into rafts. They do not want slick men like fish. They want the man who only prefers the sea because he has forgotten the feel of land.