Wishes for Daughters in Darkness, at Dawn.

May affection be a simple enterprise for you. May you never know entanglements with men who disengage quickly while you thrash about like a swan in the rings of a six-pack. I wish you friendships with discreet women; relatives whose opinions of you are not forged by the opinions of others; gentlemen callers who do not condescend. I wish you emotional slip knots, the limber stealth of escape artists, the willingness to remain tethered at the right times.

(Indulge me; I am your mother. My wishes are potent.)

May your heart never become such that it is only contented by playing the Nightingale. Do not be too tender, neither too eager to heal. May you never learn to use your own ribs as splints; do not break any bit of yourself to reset the men who are broken. May you laugh at the idea of women like your mother, who seek only the feral and the numb, then romanticize bringing them home. Do not wait by the shore for anyone’s return but your own — better, may you never know this pining. May you never set yourself adrift to become more present for others. Know the sound of yourself, listen for the whisper of your God, hear the hiss behind the lips of the man who cannot love you.

If anyone is able to indict you, may it be for the bluntness of your honesty, not the dullness of your deprecation. May your chest never be a bat-filled belfry. Love is crazy-making; may its loss leave you mercifully sane.

And when you grow, child, when you grow: may you never apologize for it. When you feel yourself unfurling as a tree, may you never withhold your figs. No one is owed your origin story. Give it only to those whom you trust and only when there is something to be gained.

Do not long for those who’ve made themselves isles. There is water between you now, but someday the plates may shift. You must be able to breathe regardless; may you never deprive yourself air. Never dive into seas for those already wielding life preservers; when the time comes, they will not share. May you never believe yourself a rescuer where you are regarded as little more than a spectacle.

And when you go, child, when you go: carry all these many wishes with you. May they never feel as weighty as a burden. May they ever be airy as embers. May they aid you in bearing quite little resemblance to me.

Wishes for Daughters in Darkness, at Dawn.

Respectability Is a Burden.

1.

I was not meant to be corseted. What is truly feral should never be made to feel trapped. But beloved, I have spent interminable years binding myself so tightly the skin ’round my ribs was raw and the heart their cage protected thrashed wildly against its constraints. This, I mused, was womanhood: a submission to cords and strictures, a wriggling rawness, an escape artist’s act.

Once an adult, I went into the world with shuffling steps, with halted breath and a scandalous, reveling circuit of hopes scrawled in the tiniest of fonts, in the most clandestine of diaries.

A woman who shuffles takes twice as long to find her footing. She is the late-blooming crocus. She is not taught to run with her breasts unbound through meadows where it makes more sense to be shoeless than shod. When she runs, if she runs, the air itself becomes admonition: Your heels will turn black and no one will think you were raised.

But oh, how painstakingly I was raised, told to lead and not to follow, yet also taught that the house where I lived belonged to a man bound by matrimony not blood, a man who did not know what it meant to love us. Tread lightly, always. It is his house, not ours. But you will always be welcome, my mother would whisper, wherever I live.

We were no Grandma Moses women, not particularly brave, neither freedom-seeking. We could’ve left him, before he left us. But it is the one who is left, and rarely the one who leaves, who gets to be viewed as “respectable.”

At the time — and we were 12 years younger then — we needed edicts, needed pushing, someone’s approval — certainly each other’s, if no one else’s. Even now, we seem locked in a prism, demanding each other’s light. My mother has forgotten the feel of her corset; she has lived in it so long, born that pain that yields traditional beauty for too many years to be rid of it. But she is braver now, stronger, even as she asks: Am I doing this well? Can I do this well? Is wellness still attainable?

Always, always, beneath any question, I hear: do you believe in me more than I believe in myself? (Is this not what daughters are for?)

My own questions cool on my lips. A mother’s belief in her child should be beyond investigation. Bound women owe their mothers silence. Or perhaps we are simply too short of breath to trust our lungs and tongues as couriers.

(But does she believe in me, more than I believe in myself?)

(Should she?)

(Is this not what mothers are for?)

2.

When you were born, your shoulders twisted and you launched yourself free well before I was prepared for a final push. I had been naked for hours by then, under an inadequate and starchy gown. Everything I’d been taught to keep under lock and key for all these years — in order to appear “respectable” — was being pilfered and prodded, tugged taut with needles and stitches. A different kind of corseting, and yet: an untold freedom.

Pregnancy is the great liberator. One looks at a woman’s filling womb and understands just how many things about herself she will not and cannot reveal. Somewhere, perhaps in a room lit with laughter or darkened with apologies, someone has likely known her in ways that you won’t, though he also may never quite know her at all.

If he is not her husband, she is secretly considered — by some — to be salacious. And if she is unapologetic, she’s informed that she deserves to be brought low. Respectable folks then levy what they believe is their greatest of barbs: you have lost your virtue and, if we’re honest, our respect.

But a child shifts a bound woman’s gravity. No longer able to shuffle, she must widen her stance. If that child is to survive her, she cannot remain in bonds. Before long, it becomes quite clear how little the earth will move if she bares her body or soul.

Do you understand what I’m telling you, child? Respectability is a burden, bigger than any one woman should bear. And poor impulse control is not only acting on every desire; it is also believing you must never succumb to any at all. It is subscribing to the belief that the only men worth having are the ones who care too much about how many men you’ve had. It is being deceived about God Himself and how He looks at women who govern themselves as though they do not know when to say when. It is this idea that education and career make you respectable, but only if both yield you enough income never to need the kind of help that requires deep humility.

Poor impulse control is your mother, writing: always confiding to so many strangers and still, still, struggling to look her intimates in the eye. (And even myself in the mirror, child, even my own reflection…) I am not sure I have ever made an unapologetic decision in my life.

And some days, I am stiff, both muscle and mind still uncertain of just how far they are able to stretch without a respectable exoskeleton ever tightening around them.

3.

This is what mothers are for: rawness and rules to be read, to be broken. We are no more meant to be fully understood than our daughters. But here is our upperhand: you — your life, its freedoms, its unmarked skin, its unimprinted ribs — are the parts of ourselves we’ve gnawed loose.

You, walking outside of us, are the evidence: we can both be free of these traps.

Respectability Is a Burden.

How Deep the Mother’s Love for You?

I think that, now, you may love me more. It is possible that the older you get, the more you understand our relationship, and how it’s predicated on the faith you seem, at times, to know far better than I do.

I have watched you at church, where I didn’t regularly take you until you were well over 18 months old. When you raise and wave your hands and your face is awash in beatific reverence, I know that you’re mimicking nothing, that whatever gestures of worship you extend are yours, untaught and unrehearsed. To your guileless toddler mind, I will never leave you or forsake you is less a stray line of dialogue in a holy narrative and more an earnest incantation, a promise, a governing tenet, a truth.

With every day that you open your eyes and find me here, inches away in a bed we share, your confidence grows. I can be your dim earthly reflection of God. Ours can be a fixed and unquestioned bond. Your mother can be immovable.

This confidence has been slow, gradual, earned, but the affection that now attends it is unabashed. I have waited for you to comprehend the fathoms of what I feel for you. Every embrace is an echosounder; every kiss is understood as another nautical mile. But I suspect it will be years yet before you discover the truth of this mystery.

How deep the mother’s love for you? Like the Father’s (and your father’s), it is floorless.

In just over a month, you will be two. But if anyone were to ask me, you’d be 200, a Highlander, a water sprite, a warrior, iridescent and timeless. You have been with me a kind of forever. This is the thing so few really know about children. You presage yourselves, whirling around in the twisters of DNA and dust that compose us. And we know, long before we know, that you might someday be and also that you may never exist as more than the cells that encase the nuclei of promise we could never live long enough to see fulfilled. In this way, when we are aware of ourselves and invested in you, we will always know more of you than you know of yourselves.

Every day, mothering you takes fresh meaning, issues new instruction. Consider, for instance, the meals and how we divide the portions. We eat in genial silence, exchange smiles around our chews. But when our allotments dwindle, you do not entirely trust that I will leave you with more than you need. You stuff all that remains into your tiny mouth, so that you become, for a moment, a puffin. Your eyes grow wide and unsure. You wonder if I will be angry, if I will mistake your self-interest for greed. You needn’t fear; it’s my job to know that you are not selfish, but hungry. It’s my mission to feed that which quickly hollows, a longing that is not meant for food.

At this age, you are insatiable, acquiring time, numbers, language, love and hoarding them for a future you’ve no way to know. I am beginning to understand that more than anything, my role is to reassure you:

I am not here to take but to give. 

How Deep the Mother’s Love for You?

Reconsidering Mary, Mother of Jesus.

My mind can finally fathom Mary. Not her bypassed virginity nor the angel that quelled her fear, not her courage, her confidence in God’s peerless, perfect will nor the charm it must’ve taken to cajole her husband into journeys and mystery and a cessation of questioning.

It is in but one way that I can access her—finally, after all these years of believing her to be beyond my grasp—and this way seems the most significant of all.

I know her by her surrogacy, by the way it feels to give birth to a child to whom she believes she can never stake full claim. I recognize the oddness of feeling a strangulating sense of impermanence, even as I bathe her, feed her, infuse her language with manners, even as she becomes a warm somersault in her sleep, her tiny hard-heeled feet using my body as her gymnast’s mat. Even then, in her sleep, when she feels closest, if only by proximity, I never settle into an impression that she is entirely mine.

Instead, there’s a strangeness, an isolation, in loving a small, breathing parcel who feels so unfamiliar, so separate, so intended for a purpose that sits apart my own, so certainly on loan, and so expected to grow impatient with my heart as her holding pattern, as a velvet-lined cage with a door that will surely stick.

I cannot imagine raising Jesus. This is where Mary seems preternatural. This is our point of departure, for I know that even with a husband who loved me enough to completely overlook that his firstborn is a changeling whose presence is owing to a God he’s never actually seen, and even with the other, more normal children I could pin to the ho-hum, incontestable work of biology, I would not have known how to behave like a mother to him. I wouldn’t have known how to chastise him, wouldn’t have believed I needed to, him understanding God and thus understanding His expectations far more fluently than I. I wouldn’t have known how to love him with reckless abandon.

This is difficult enough with my daughter, who came to me in the most undramatic of ways. No tangible angel preceded her. No voice from heaven boomed. She is not the Son (or Daughter, as it were) of Man and so I can’t possibly feel the pressure Mary must’ve felt to get raising her “right.”

But I feel pressure just the same, not to smother her or to grow too dependent on her company or to make myself her barnacle. She is happy and well-loved; of this I make certain. And she cannot know how motherhood feels, not like an all-encompassing state, not like an eclipse of the light that shone before it, but at times, like only a sliver, like a condition that constantly moves so that it is difficult to pin down, to apprehend, to treat.

And so, I suspect that I do what Mary must’ve done. As often as I can, I abandon the morrow and ignore, for now, the woman I see in the eyes of the girl. I listen to her, noting the cadence and questions that lift at the ends of her prattle. I listen, so that I might know her and, in knowing her, earn her lifelong confidence. When she is ready to flit off into a life I cannot imagine, I believe I will understand why. This is far more important than feeling like she is a wind that I can possess.

I invest, for even my shortcomings have something to teach her. I warn her of the world that awaits beyond my arms and our door. And more than a daughter, I interpret her as an ally–for this is a relation that can remain unwavering. This is a kinship we are never meant to outgrow.

Reconsidering Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Twelve Makes One, Part 1.

183999_10150257329053527_1320848_n

Story became a one-year-old on August 1. I wanted to commemorate the occasion by writing a series of micro-essays, one for each month she’s been with me. Like the memoir I’m writing about the months she spent within me, this work will become part of a literary keepsake box I’ll spend her whole childhood constructing. 

Here are the first four short essays. Two additional increments are forthcoming.

1.

We are meant for more. I say this as the space around us closes, as the flat, raw-fibered carpet roughens your knees and I have no unoccupied corner, let alone a room of my own in which to write for you. I confess this, declare it with certainty, even as I enter a fourth unemployed month and await either a two-course fall assignment from the college that employed me last semester or a phone call from the netherworld of the human resources offices harboring my online applications. I say it as I type this into a Blackberry with a grossly past due balance. I say it, as I spend money we no longer have on a birthday party that celebrates our first of many years together. I say it as I scale back on amenities you deeply enjoy, like the basic cable that airs your favorite children’s shows.

This is temporary. This smallish life will swell. These minor woes will recede.

I know this, because I have been here before. Years ago, I wrote the glyphs on the walls your tiny fingers now trail. Let us trace them together and remember that where we have been is rarely where we remain.

2.

Mince your plans. Make them no longer than fingertips. Saute them in an extract distilled from the last of your money. Brown until unrecognizable as the fruits of your former labor. Fold in layoffs. Sprinkle a pinch of social services. Account for the unexpected loss of said services.

Possessions will evaporate. Pride will caramelize.

For best results, taste frequently to avoid bitterness. Braise each thought until there are no reddish traces of negativity at their centers. Mix two parts tri-color frustration—professional, financial, romantic—with one part frothy imagination.

Brine the ingredients with tears. Sweeten them with laughter. There will always be a hint of tartness. There is no avoiding that. But there is also a balancing sweetness.

Slice away shame and inhibition. Leave only the cores of your values. Do not toss in hard, small breasts of lust; let lust plump and ripen into love before use.

If you have no love on hand, you must discard your prep work and postpone the completion of this recipe.

With aged love, pour the mixture into a pressure-cooker. Seal it off from the well-meaning hands of other chefs. Simmer stress. Slow-cook everything until only a humble porridge of gratitude remains.

3.

You do not strike me as a girl who will be easily manipulated. At age one, you laugh at the words “no” or “stop” and run against the wind that carries your name, rather than toward me, as I speak it. You buck convention. I am almost afraid of what that could mean if I fail at my job as a mother; black women who do not respect authority have not fared well, historically, and yet authority has not meted out kindness to the black woman. So you must always be attentive to the steps of the delicate dance I have begun choreographing for you: do as you’re told, but only by those who fiercely love you—and even then, do not make your obedience so absolute that it becomes a foregone conclusion. It is okay to question why, but know when to take, “Because I said so,” as an answer. Weigh all advice against the motive, even mine. If I ever tell you not to fly toward an apex you know you’re meant to reach, gently defy me. Never step toward danger because you’ll feel ostracized if you don’t. Always listen, if only for lies and loopholes. Scotchguard your psyche against schoolgirls who mean you harm. Their antagonism is rooted in pain, and their pain is not your responsibility.

The life of a young girl is a recital, to be structured and practiced and governed, so that when she is a woman alone in the world she knows how to dance her way through it.

4.

Your father calls me in traffic, on his way to the sets of movies and television shows, and we talk about you. We talk about how to afford you, as we’re certain you’ll have exquisite, expensive taste. We talk about, but never compete over, how much we love you. I describe you to him, calling on the best of my creative abilities, but I still cannot quite do you justice. You are what I named you: a breathing narrative, an ever-transforming Story. You evolve hourly; there is no way I can paint a picture vivid enough to capture the excitement in your smile when you wake up in the morning, clapping and cheering, or the way you approach finger foods with a surgeon’s precision. I see in you a fraction of what you’ll become and I am only afforded that fraction because of our daily togetherness. I do not envy your father his absence; I know he laments it. He tells me so. The rest of what he must feel is his own story to tell. I will not appropriate it, the way some of my writing has done in the past.will no longer presume to know the depth of his capacity for love. Remember this; it is the most significant of the many lessons I learned from your father: a man’s measure of love for you is not necessarily his measure of love. A man’s measure of love for his child is the true gauge to which you can set the needle of his moral compass.

Twelve Makes One, Part 1.

Sojourner Songs: A Mommy-Daughter Mixtape.

In just over two months, you will be one year old. You are what I imagine you will be: preternaturally strong, exploratory (insomuch that you have made every square inch of our apartment your personal safari), and formidable (insomuch that I’m almost intimidated by the way you lean forward, stare me down, and growl at me when I scold you).

To celebrate your upcoming voyage into newly broken ground, I am packing you a satchel full of things you’ll need to know and of things I hope you’ll come to love.

I have written it before and I’ll repeat myself often: growing up a blackgirl in our country is a singular experience. It is, at times, an iridescent wonder; at other times, it’s an odyssey more treacherous than treasured.

But thank our God that you were born to this lot; it is a lovely one. And in the event that a tempest tosses you off-course and you forget how magnificent our syndicate of sisters truly is, pull back the flap of leather that preserves these mementos of self-worth and remember, my love.

Remember who you are.

1. Lena Horne Sings the ABCs

Lena Horne is our royalty, our Glinda. Benevolent and achingly beautiful even dressed down in denim. She is the embodiment of elegance, and I like to believe we are all born with a measure of what was given to her in abundance. Tap in.

2. India.Arie Sings the ABCs

You already love this. Perhaps when you’re a bit older, you will tell me what value you’ve found in it. I’ve found my own. We’ll compare notes then.

3. Patti LaBelle Sings the ABCs

I’m not a big Patti LaBelle fan, but even I can’t deny how far she dug her foot into this little ditty. For your part, when you heard this for the first time, you leaned in as you are wont to do when things are important to you, and you watched the Muppets shake gospel tambourines to what is, arguably, one of the most important songs you’ll ever learn. You always absorb the alphabet. Though you can’t yet recite it, you understand its potency, that from it, all the words of our everyday world are formed. And what better way to hear it than with flat-footed soul?

4. Paul Simon Sings “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” (with a little blackgirl accompanist)

Paul Simon is an incredible musician, but note how he’s nearly upstaged by the little girl beside him. This is the bold and expressive spirit I wish for you, the shoulder-shaking, full-lunged timbred, quick hand-clapping confidence of a girl who, at the young age of eight, has already found her space in the world.

5. Savion Glover Raps and Taps

Okay, Mommy admits this doesn’t entirely belong here, on a playlist of beautiful colored women. But Savion is always a good idea. You’ll see.

6. “Freedom is Coming” – Sarafina soundtrack

Leleti Khumalo is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever watched flit across a screen. As Sarafina, she is equal parts graceful rhythm and open defiance. Her performance is a cautionary tale about how close a young woman can come to losing her humanity in her fight for independence from injustice. Take note of this lesson and heed the position of the needle that guides your moral compass; it will serve you well.

7. “Mundeke” – Afrigo Band

We’ve danced to this. It is a Ugandan love song and you must be able to sense how much I love it, because you’re always quiet for its entire run. It’s almost as if you understand the language. Perhaps, in your way, you do.

8. “Kwazibani” – Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms

This song was written in honor of the singer’s mother, who passed away when she was 12, one of millions of victims of the AIDS pandemic slowly ebbing away so many of the world’s black women. May a reversal of this devastation reach our world within your lifetime.

9. “A Lovely Night” – Brandy, Cinderella

I can’t watch any part of Brandy’s Cinderella with you without crying. It reminds me of how miraculous it is to have a daughter, to whom I can impart all the wonders of my girlhood, with whom I can finally share all the pixie dust I sprinkled alone as an only child.

Listen closely.

Repeat all.

Sojourner Songs: A Mommy-Daughter Mixtape.

Self-Portraiture.

i've been taking self-portraits since my 27th birthday, when i got my first digital camera.

they're confidence builders.
sometimes, i forget who all i am. photographs provide evidence that the you you suspect is buried within actually exists.

 

Story seems very conscious of the placement of cameras.

 

unlike me, she isn't a ham in front of them.

 

she doesn't rely on the camera to show her who she is.

 

she is already well aware.

 

 

Self-Portraiture.