Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 9

A version of this essay was adapted for my podcast, Hope Chest. You can listen to the audio version here.

Esperanza Spalding with Aaron Burnett at the Park Avenue Armory

On occasion, as an artist, you are called away, into a space where creatives make covenant to triage the wounds that the wider world inflicts and, by God, on each occasion, we bend a wormhole of communion, often in the whitest of spaces. We wake on idyllic farms, walk through refurbished armories, attend informal creative courses on the terraces of Moroccan hotels in Montparnasse.

We call out across the evening orientations, the communal lunches and dinners, the divining day’s-ends at the fire pits, and we find the face that could be our face: brown, framed in curls or faded, full-nosed, cleft-chinned, big-lipped, tight-fro’d, familiar.

Sometimes, as was the case this weekend, at the Black Artists Retreat on the upper east side of Manhattan, every face might as well be our own, every body may as well be our familiar. When we are this together, we are cocooning ourselves in each other’s silk, regenerating limbs we’ve lost, performing allegorical angioplasties on all of our ailing hearts.

The work, though no less rigorous, is easier then. We are moving with, rather than against, the convening’s current.

But then, other times, there may only be two of us. (Lord, please let there be at least two of us, striking our tuning forks till they find the reverberation of culture we have in common. Lord please let there be at least two of us, steadfast in our determination to ignore whatever aggressions may intrude.
(Aggressions almost always intrude.)

In those moments, when the convening is not designed to accommodate the full spectrum of our spectacular blackness, when the white husband of our writing instructor tells the four black participants in our five-person cohort, gathered along the Seine for a group photo, that we look too dark through the viewfinder, when he then later stage-whispers as we wait on line at the Musée D’Orsay that the Black woman. approaching us, fluent in French, is panhandling, rather than inquiring about the black models exhibit only we are excited to see…

When we look at each other and mutter under-breath: he got one more time and I ain’t gon’ be too many more ‘too darks…’

We understand that we are away from wherever we feel safest. We are swimming upstream, to the other shore, together, before it is time to return to the rude realities from which we sought this respite.
Either way, at the all-Black retreat or the historically, predominantly white one, we are supposed to be healing, or at least to be refreshing the dressings on each other wounds. And, either way, for a while, it is working — it has to be working, if only for the sacrifice, effort, and considerable endowment, involved in knitting us one to another over a number of transcendent days.

We are forgetting what sent us running here, the particulars of our stress, receding with each mindful breath and deep listening exercise. A day or so in, and our anxieties are finally beginning to quiet.
But then the knell.

That unmistakable clang that calls for us to mourn.

It sunders the silk we’ve wrapped ‘round one another. It lets fresh loss flow through.

Rarely has there been a retreat or residency where I have not heard it.

Kalief Browder died by suicide during the weekend I spent at Yale.

Just weeks before the week I when I drove my family down to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Diamond Reynolds produced a living document of her lover Philando Castile’s killing.

A week before the Black Artists Retreat, I wrote of Joshua Brown, shot in the mouth and chest, after testifying on behalf of his neighbor Botham Jean, who died less than two months after our family residency on Ryder Farm.

I had not even begun to replenish what writing about Joshua wrung out of me, when I woke on the last morning I spent in Manhattan and read of another black neighbor, in a valiant attempt at communal care, called a non-emergency number, asking Dallas police to check on the young woman whose house, at 2 a.m., had peculiarly still-open doors. He cared, but the cop who shot her through her window in the third watch of night did not.

On Sunday morning, I carry Atatiana Jefferson’s name into the high halls of our Park Avenue Armory retreat and wonder who-all had heard it, who was healed enough from being here, to help me carry its weight.

Crying is an act of creation. Wailing in ways we never have before is an improvisational practice.
It is the work we can make by rote, the work none of us want to make but all of us have had to.
Every day someone new rephrased an old question: what could we, as Black artists, create if we never felt bound?

What would we make if we always felt free?

What would be possible if our creative process were never rooted in pain?

I willed my thoughts away, sent them forward toward a future too remote for me to access where I stood, even in this space that so readily offered that sort of portal.

I’ve a wayfaring imagination. But it kept quite close to home.

It took me toward the sound of 16-bits, echoing through a warm Black house, where a young Black auntie went to turn her own key and to set aside her worries, an eight-year-old’s sort of sanctuary where a young Black nephew could bend bedtime toward his whim, where, in a radical show of trust, a daring subconscious sense of safety, the locks were momentarily forgotten, the double doors left open as auntie and nephew noshed snacks and laughed hard and trash-talked, till they couldn’t tell whose win or loss would come.

Till they couldn’t sense how near an end they were.

Till their sound was more powerful than a policeman’s.

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

Like a Good Neighbor.

 

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Joshua Brown served as a key witness in the trial for the murder of his neighbor, Botham Jean.

Apartment dwelling culture cannot be easily explained to the uninitiated. There is, after all, more than one reason we call apartment buildings and the units within them a complex.

A complex does not begin as a community; that must be cultivated by tenants who intend to stay awhile. Those who do not speak, who wait until their hallway sounds empty before opening their door cannot quite be considered your neighbors. Those who greet you in the common areas are closer to earning that distinction. They have acknowledged, at least, that you exist. But in apartments, there are other, higher levels one must reach to be called a neighbor.

Neighboring requires intention. It’s knocking to ask the person down the hall if they knew they’d left their keys dangling from the deadbolt. It’s letting them sit in your living room to wait for the super when they lock themselves out. It’s giving them a jump when their car battery stalls. Or keeping an eye and an ear out for their kids, whether they’re home alone or being followed home.

It means not only notifying the people next door of your upcoming party but accepting that they may overhear exactly what goes on in it, and trusting them not to breach the courtesy of advance notice by calling the police for one night’s excessive after-hours noise.

A single apartment building may house two families or twelve or twenty-four, each living beneath separate ceilings, but all living under the same roof. The more we interact with the people who move among us, the longer we live with only our thin walls and flimsy flooring between us, the more accountable we tend to feel to one another.

It should be no wonder, then, that people who share apartment buildings are hesitant to go all-in as neighbors. It could mean anything from experiencing the occasional inconvenience to discovering a week-old corpse.

I’ve been reminded of this in the past two weeks, as the murder of Botham Jean has made its way back into the news cycle. I was unnerved when it first happened, in the way that neighborhood murders always unnerve me. Like when Trayvon Martin was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend in their townhome complex and found himself in a fatal scuffle with someone purporting himself to be neighborhood patrol. Or when Jonathan Ferrell stopped in an innocuous-looking neighborhood for help after a car accident and found himself bleeding out on the lawn of the home where he’d knocked for help. Or when Renisha McBride, another person asking for help in a nice neighborhood, was killed with a gunshot through a door the owner wouldn’t even open to her. Or when, not too far from where I live in Baltimore County, police killed Korryn Gaines, a young mother and injured her five-year-old son, when she refused to open her door to them, because they wouldn’t state the reason for their visit.

In every one of those cases, some small reported detail is often what moves me. The detail is what moves us all: the Skittles, the hole in the door, the presence of a baby.

With Botham Jean, the details come second to the setting. That it happened in his apartment, at the hands of a woman who called herself his neighbor, is what haunts me most this time.

I was born to an apartment, which is to say that my mother brought me home to the one where she was living with her mother. I was raised in a series of Baltimore apartment buildings. We didn’t live in a house until my senior year of high school when my mother and her husband bought a townhome. Even then, we were attached to the young white couple in the unit beside us. For the first time, I was living in a home had three floors, including a finished basement, but we could still hear that couple playing “Rapper’s Delight” at their housewarming, through the wall that adjoined us.

Homes so connected lend themselves to reluctant intimacy. In a neighborhood of standalone homes, for instance, you may know the husband next door quarreled with his wife. In an apartment, you know what they argued about, know it well enough, in fact, to take a side.

I have seen affairs carried on in apartments, have watched a lovestruck teen sneak a grown man in and out of her home before her parents were due back from work at 6 o’clock, have fielded accusations after she was caught and, in her panic, used me, the girl up on the third floor, as her alibi. I’ve overheard a mother beating her four-year-old, the accompanying lecture suggesting to me that the punishment was wildly disproportionate to the kindergarten crime.

I have spent years in apartments wondering what is and is not my business.

But I have never seen a woman enter the wrong apartment and shoot the rightful tenant eating ice cream in his living room. As identical as our front doors often look, I’ve rarely known a neighbor to mistake someone else’s for theirs. Whether drunk or high or delirious with third-shift exhaustion, no one has demanded entry to a home on the wrong floor. If they had, no one would’ve been granted it, either, And if we’ve lived together in a building for longer than a month, I have never mistaken anyone or been mistaken by them for an intruder.

Apartments are for those just starting off or starting over, those saving up for a house or recovering from a foreclosure. They’re for college students and retirees and people who may never own home but value the independence of living away from wherever they were raised. No matter the circumstance, in apartments, everyone’s eyes are on their own page. Everyone’s preoccupied with their own paths, their own bills, their own lease dates. It’s rare that anyone seeks out more trouble than they’re already fielding.

When Amber Guyger broke into Botham Jean’s apartment and stole what was left of his life, she imperiled everything we thought we knew about apartment living. Forced intimacies and polite detachment—all of it’s bullshit when the woman who lived in your building and shot you for no coherent reason is a cop. None of it matters anymore; all civility is undone. Because even after it takes months to charge her for murder, even after a year awaiting her testimony, even when a prosecutor proves that testimony to be full of half-truths and whole lies, even after she’s convicted of ten years and everyone seems eager to hug her, stroke her hair, and tell her she’s forgiven, days later, we will hear news of another neighbor. Another young black man, who heard too much and grew fond of the sounds, simply because they were familiar.

Joshua Brown lived next to Botham. In an extreme act of good neighboring, he testified for the prosecution in Amber Guyger’s trial. On the stand, he described hearing Botham sing every morning. He heard it, he told the judge and jury, as he was locking his own door on his way out to start his days.

He has probably heard it many days since, the phantom song of a next-door neighbor, suddenly, brutally departed.

Now Joshua is dead, as well, gunned down under mysterious circumstances, not even one week since Amber Guyger’s sentencing.

We are connected not only by how we live, but where, our fates entangled the tightest,
close to home. There is nothing much else to say when death connects neighbors the way adjoining walls do, when judgment falls on one hand and fresh injustice weighs on the other.

I can only pray that Joshua Brown had good neighbors, neighbors who believe that his death is their business. And that in honor of Joshua’s memory, and of Botham Jean’s, we all resolve to intervene on behalf of the people we hear beyond our walls.

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hope chest, Writing Craft

Go with the guilt. Go with the fear. Go anyway.

Some of us are fearless. I am not fearless. I’ve never been fearless. My mother knew this when I was a young girl. She’d ask me to recite 2 Timothy 1:7 aloud to her, in the morning before school or at night, just before bed:

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I said it often enough to memorize it. I said, but my heart still stuttered in the dark. I said it but still trembled at unexpected sounds. It helped me through my fear of monsters and demons and all many of imagined or invisible perils when I was a kid. But I didn’t repeat it as often when I grew up. And it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve always had to bite back the palpable terror I feel over any success I perceive as undeserved or any failure I think is inevitable.

I used to be better at this — or it seems that way with the benefit of hindsight. I used to find it slightly easier to brave the unknown, to court an unconventional life, to find opportunities that suited my “How are you going to get a good job with that?” degrees. Oh, I felt fear chasing dreams when I was younger and childfree. But not guilt.  I felt conflicted about wanting extravagant experiences when there are so many people out here struggling to afford basic needs — when I’m often struggling to afford basic needs, precisely because my dreams are extravagant — but I never reached a point, in my teens and 20s, when I felt like it was inherently selfish to want big, personally-enriching things, before I’d mastered small, workaday obligations.

In my 30s, which will be ending later this year, fear has marked most of my experiences. I had my daughter about four months before turning 31 and this entire decade, I’ve been making decisions I thought were safe. Decisions I’d hope would result in better income or more stability or, at the very least, less panic or bewilderment or debt. But as it turns out, my idea of safe is small and dispiriting. As it turns out, my idea of safe doesn’t result in greater stability, just a different kind of debt, a different kind of discomfort. And though my decisions have, thus far, managed to result in a safe and nurturing home life for her, they haven’t taught her much about how to go hard after what fills you with enough joy and peace to provide joy and peace to others.  Though I’ve navigated all the heartache I felt, over failed love or under-realized potential and whatever else, without it spilling too much into her experience of childhood, I haven’t modeled for her often enough what it is to want and to chase the things you can’t see, instead of running away from them.

I haven’t completely cowered. I’ve accomplished a lot in our first 9 years together (She’ll be 9 in August, which astounds me), and I’ve been able to take her with me for some of it. She’s seen me studying, trying to grow professionally, teaching college courses, reading, writing, recording, field-producing, participating in an entrepreneurial accelerator. She’s seen me seeking.

But rarely has she seen me unafraid. Rarely has she known the woman I was before I became responsible for her and convinced myself that my desires should become incremental, that they shouldn’t disrupt whatever chrysalis I could weave her, that they needed to be an under-earning woman’s desires, that they should strive to transform themselves into more reasonable wants. She doesn’t know me at the height of my power, guided by my most courageous love, governed by a total soundness of mind.

She’s old enough now to have lapped me, when it comes to courage. I’ve watched her navigate her own fears and push past the soft, but firm boundaries those fears imposed on her. While I was making my body and mind and aspirations a kind of sentient bubble-wrap, trying to insulate her from everything I or anyone else might do that would cause her distress, she finally grew exasperated enough with me to begin asserting herself as the independent person she’d be even closer to becoming if the weight of my worry weren’t slowing her down.

I’ve been fighting myself so fiercely in the past two years. I’ve been shoving myself aside to clear my way. It’s a battle that’s made me far less available to others. I haven’t advocated or assisted or been nearly as present for anyone as I’ve wanted to. If you’ve ever had to do that work, if you’ve ever woken up and realized you’re still so much further from who you know you could be than you are, then you know how difficult a fight it is, how noisy and all-encompassing.

If you’ve ever been here, you know there’s nowhere to go — after you’ve tried everywhere except where you believe you’re meant to be — but toward your dreams. You know you have to let the guilt come with you, if it must, but you can’t let it anchor you. You know how tiring it is, talking yourself out of the life you really want.

I’m trying for a big thing again. I’ve been accepted to a summer writing program in Paris (Longtime readers of this blog or, perhaps, listeners to my podcast Hope Chest know how I feel about Paris). I’m afraid of trying to go back, because I’ve tried before. Quite a few times. And they all fell through. I couldn’t muster enough courage to risk the travel. Maybe it’s easier this time, because I have a concrete purpose for going. There’s something waiting for me, something that may make me a better writer, a more expansive woman, a dreamier parent. Maybe it’s just easier because more than a few people told me I should try this time; it wasn’t just me trying to talk over myself.

As always, everyone I’ve asked to help, all those people I was scared I’d be inconveniencing or annoying or disappointing, have been gracious and encouraging and, as far as I can tell, utterly nonjudgmental.

It’s an affirmation. It’s a reminder. Go with guilt. Go with fear and trepidation. Just go. Go with faith. Go, amplifying the voices that wish you well. Raise their volume above the sound of your own reasons-why-not. Those reasons will be ever with you. But opportunities won’t. Opportunities come and they go and the ones that you deeply desire and don’t at least try to attain will absolutely haunt you.

Soooo many thanks to all the friends, both known and unknown, who always come to my aid when I’m adrift and wandering and doubtful that I should want what I want. Thank you for your patience with me and for your generosity. My family is better for it. I’m better for it. Know that no matter how quiet it is here — how quiet I am –I am wishing you an overabundance of what you’ve given me, tenfold the bravery, one-hundred-fold the dream-realization.

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Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting, Pop Culture, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 8

Hope Chest is a collection of deeply personal audio-essays written mother-to-daughter. Listen to every episode at Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

Below is the text for Episode 8: As for Me and This House (And Senate). Listen along here.

Courtesy of the US National Archives

In nearly every election held since you were born, I’ve brought you into the voting booth with me. This election was the first in which you seemed even marginally engaged with where we were and what we might be doing there. 
Even a few months ago, when we walked into this same space to vote in the midterm primaries, you followed me wordlessly, more interested in the interior design of a real live middle school than in the political process playing out in its cafeteria.

I understand this wholeheartedly. My experience of 1980s childhood and ‘90s adolescence was working-class but suburban, insular and naive in ironic and dangerous ways. Though it was only true for a faction of us, there was a contingent of Black kids living in predominantly Black cities in this country, who believed our parents had weathered the worst of white supremacy, that we were approaching something akin to equity, a Huxtablication of our educational and professional ideals.

Because a few more of our peers had college-educated and advance-degree-holding parents than in generations past, it was easy for an inkling of entitlement to creep in. We were children being raised 20 years after desegregation, living in decent, if nondescript, neighborhoods that were clean, safe, affordable, and Black. We presumed that our dreams—even the wildest ones—were attainable at only moderate cost. We might’ve been well aware that other Black neighborhoods were suffering, neighborhoods to which we all had the close connections of cousins, co-parents, friends, or church affiliations. It was the height of the crack era, after all, followed by zero-tolerance legislation that kept robbing us of people we cared about. Still we toggled between the ignorance that our own families were fewer than four paychecks from similar fates and the idealistic belief that any success we attained as grownups would eventually be able to eradicate generational poverty.

I am not sure how I came to belong to this faction of dreamy-eyed Black kids. I was raised an apartment-dweller, born to a single-parent household. Little beyond my mom’s biweekly pay and her acquired adeptness at making payment arrangements on our bills stood between us and a series of shut-off notices or an eviction. In the event that I would grow up to graduate from a four-year college, I’d be the first in our immediate family to do so. I do not quite know where I got all my optimism. But I think it was because we did well enough without homeownership or college degrees for me not to realize them as the markers of generational stability they were.
For 30 years, my grandmother worked as a stenographer in Baltimore City Circuit Court. My mother worked in medical billing, sensible, if unfulfilling, jobs that kept situational poverty at bay. I took their holding that wall for granted, believing the rhetoric of the day about how endless opportunity had become for kids growing up Black and not-quite-broke in America. Neither of my nana nor my mom dissuaded me from becoming an artist. They might’ve believed, as I did, that the sacrifices of their pragmatism had given me the wiggle room of whimsy so many white kids accept as their birthright.

I also watched a lot of TV, during a time when depictions of suburban Black family life shared enough cultural similarity with my own home experience to convince me that no social harm could befall me that would be too great for me to overcome.

I fear that I am raising you with an inherited insularity. But I will not have you perpetuating all my childhood delusions.

I was taught that voting held particular import for Black Americans, because the right to do so had been withheld from us for so long. My mother, born in 1960, is five years older than the Voting Rights Act. My grandmother, who would not have been of legal voting age until my mother was one year old, could not cast a ballot when she turned 18.

In the 1980s, our rhetoric around voting was not only about honoring the bloody sacrifices of our long-departed ancestors. Voting was still new enough to us then that the novelty had yet to wear off.

Even during those Reagan years, optimism about our country’s collective racial future felt easier than it is nearly 40 years later. We had not elected a Black president then. We had not witnessed the depth to which the country could backslide after clearing what then seemed an improbable zenith. We had grown hesitant to believe, with so many newly-minted anti-discrimination laws in place, laws it had taken the country centuries to implement, that they could be ignored, rescinded and violated with such staggering impunity. 
Voting seemed less a matter of survival than ceremony. As a kid, the idea of it felt the same to me as observing Martin Luther King Day—probably because I failed to realize that I was older than Martin Luther King Day, that it existed because of a bill it taken many people years to bring to the ballot, a bill enough white Americans opposed that it could have been ousted with far more ease than it was passed.

I voted on ceremony for many years, straight-ticket Democratic for most, though I was registered as an independent. And I did so cynically, because the popular vote does not determine all. And it’s disheartening when, despite a larger share of layperson support, the electoral college appoints the candidate a majority of voters opposes. For a time, in my early 20s, it didn’t matter much to me who was in office. They were all white and thereby largely disinterested in my community’s specific interests.

I didn’t canvas for anyone until 2008, when I walked residential neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, armed with clipboards and pamphlets, making sure people were registered and that they intended to support Obama. But even that was a detached engagement. I felt confident he would win, for one, and secondly, I was not yet your mother. We knew relative political peace for the first six years of your life. You were born in a midterm year, 2010. You were two when Obama was re-elected. You are 8 now that his legacy feels distant, 8 while our future as a republic feels indeterminate, 8 as new test for the first time in recent history the sturdiness of the most fundamental components of our constitution. I can tell you now what no one had a precedent for telling me when I was your age: if America elects someone who has no intention of being president and every intention of establishing a dictatorship, voting is less a coronation scepter than a prison shiv, the sticker we receive afterward less a corsage than a bandoleer. If America elects someone who intends to obstruct justice, the hard-won tool of justice that is the vote, this tool Black families like ours have only been able to hold for some 60+ years, provides us too little protection. But it is one of our only protections. So we must wield it as ferociously as we can.

In 2018, there is evidence of this everywhere. Despite broken ballot scanners, vote-switching, hours-long lines, stacks of unprocessed voter registration forms, races declared prematurely, and other forms of suppression too insidious to know, the Democratic Party reclaimed the House of Representatives, and the recklessness of this president’s first two years will at least be met with former opposition. Because he is an avowed racist and misogynist, a record number of women, particularly women of color, campaigned and won seats in that House, powered by the votes of women like me, interested in guarding the futures of girls like you.

I’ll be honest: I am still afraid. I do not believe this election has done enough to protect the country from collapse before the next one. I am not confident that we’ll gain enough momentum to oust our current president from his post in 2020. That wariness is warranted. When the time comes, I encourage you to wield a bit of it yourself at the ballot box. But there are braver women than I in office now. And you will be raised with the scores of them as pillars of reference. Though it remains to be seen what will come of their efforts, I will match their work with my own. I finally understand why I must.

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Audio, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting

Hope Chest: Ep. 7

Hope Chest is a personal essay podcast written mother-to-daughter. Listen to every episode at Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

Below is the text for Episode 7: Something Borrowed, Overdue. Listen along here.

1.

It is not that I believe it would be easier if I were the one preparing to marry. On the contrary. It would not be easier — not for me and especially not for you. If I had prioritized romantic partnership with the intent to move a man into the idea of home I’ve spent the first eight years of your life defining, I would have also needed to become a tightrope walker, an artful mediator, a sentient balance beam. It would not just have been a negotiation of new love, but also an implosion of the family dynamic it has taken us all this time to build and an intricate assembly of a life unlike any you’ve known.

I know this because I’ve been through it. My mother married for the first time when I was 10, just two years older than you are now. Because I was always with her, because even if she would’ve preferred to share custody with my father, she couldn’t have, distance and a lack of either parent’s deep desire to do so being significant barriers, I was, by necessity, a part of my mother’s courtship process.

This was only true if the relationship was serious. I spent most summers away from her, bouncing between family homes a few hundred miles north of where we lived in Baltimore. She did her casual dating during those dog days. By the time I returned for school, all evidence of any men had usually been cleared.

But the man she would eventually marry was someone I saw twice a week, school-year-round. He was at Wednesday night bible study and Sunday morning service. Sometimes he arrived in uniform, fresh off a patrol shift. The other kids in children’s church thought his squad car was cool. The boys paid particular attention to his holstered pistol. I hadn’t registered any of those details about him. Before he started dating my mother, he was just one of the many men who ushered or preached or otherwise served at our church. I suppose I distinguished him best by his heavy Jamaican accent; I didn’t know anyone else from Jamaica then, and they way he spoke, so distinct at times from the way I did, always tended to catch my attention.

Then they became an item and during the mere six months they dated, I accompanied them on the occasional outing. They’d buy me ice cream and I tagged along on their nighttime strolls. I’d fall asleep across the backseat of his car as they took drives along winding suburban roads. I didn’t mind it at all. I was 10 with limited experience interacting with husbands or fathers; I would not have known enough about them to mind. I just wanted my mother to be happy and, from what I’d observed and overheard, I assumed that if she married, she would be.

I had no way of knowing how drastically the cadences of my home life would shift when she did.

Any parent’s marriage to someone new marks an era of change for the child. But it is the custodial parent’s marriage that has more immediate implications. Overnight, my mother’s home had been infiltrated, the House of Brown — one woman, one girl — became the House of Brown-Higgins, headed up by a man who expected both women and girls to submit to his supposedly superior leadership. I was suddenly the resident of a home where at least one room was always off-limits, where I could no longer walk around in varying states of undress, where a pistol was now kept in a closet, where rules that were never well-explained to begin with were swiftly enforced, where the environment was a bit too restrictive for comfort.

That the shift felt so drastic to me was not entirely his fault. A mother and child left to their own devices long enough forge bonds that are nearly impenetrable, even for a biological father. How much harder, then, must it be for a stepfather, especially if no one involved in the family has the emotional toolkit necessary to be intentional about including him?

I wasn’t always miserable while my mother was married. My stepfather wasn’t cruel to me. He wasn’t even often unkind. He was just a foreign entity infringing on my friendship with my mother, forcing her to declare her allegiance during any conflict, and accusing us of conspiring to exclude or usurp him, if she ever took what he considered to be my side. He remained that way for the 11 years that he lived with us.

When he left he did so after months of failure to pay the mortgage. Eight weeks after I graduated from college, my mother received the first letter of foreclosure.

The only marriage I’ve ever inhabited was theirs. As a member of their household, I saw and overheard and internalized the entire arc of their union. And it was, by far, the most bewildering experience of my childhood. Their relationship dissolved the year I turned 21. I have been in no hurry to replicate or to attempt to improve upon it in any partnership of my own. Even now, a full 18 years later, finding a husband holds no particular appeal to me.

It can all shift too fast.

My mother lived with a man for 11 years but it took fewer than 11 months for the life she’d built as his wife to unravel. I was as entangled in the rapidly loosening threads as I’d been in the ties that bound. This is the nature of being an only daughter, and it can be as difficult to negotiate as being anyone’s mother, though few people ever admit it.

I am telling you this because it remains to be seen whether you will be a wife or a mother, but you were born a daughter. It is the role you are likely to embody the longest. I would not have you ignorant of its obligations.

I got to know your father amid the dissolution of my mother’s marriage. We’d been dating nearly three months when the foreclosure notice arrived. Six months later, my mother and I were one night away from eviction, with a half-packed house around us and no home ahead, awaiting us.

You cannot determine compatibility in crisis. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. This may sound counterintuitive, for it would seem that it is only through hardship that you learn who will stand alongside you and help you stay your course. But that is only true if you have also experienced joy. It is only true if you’ve found at least your early love unfettered. Otherwise, you can never be certain if your relationship is built on romance or rescue, on dates or on desperation.

I’d known your father less than a year when he carried my family’s mattresses on his back. I was embarrassed about their stains. He helped us pack. I was ashamed that he had to. Under the cover of night, we hauled, wholesale, the contents of closets and cabinets and corners to curbs in other families’ housing complexes. I cried and he pretended not to notice, pretended that racing the clock to beat the county sheriff to morning was normal.

I think that was the night I first allowed myself to consider him a partner. I think that’s when I knew I would yield a long stretch of years to loving him — too long a stretch, on the strength of this one selfless gesture. But whenever I felt unsteady after that, whenever I doubted the viability of our relationship, the memory of that night resuscitated it.

There are only so many times you can revive what it would be more merciful to euthanize. This is what always scared me about marriage — that it would mean a lifetime of clapping the paddles together and willing what’s left of my energy into a partner whose heart has stopped pounding for me.

2.

It is your father who is preparing to marry. In many ways, this is easier. In a few key ways, it is not.

When this was all still hypothetical, before you were born and then in the years afterward when your father and I were still single, I had a clear vision of how I wanted our coparenting dynamic to expand, whenever new partners would need to be folded into it.

Try as I might — and I did try, though not urgently or with ardor; your father did, too, though not very compellingly — I could not imagine the two of us marrying. This was true before you. It remained so after. We only get along well when we are not responsible for one another. And marriage is nothing if not the assumption of responsibility for lives other than your own.

It always stood to reason that one or both of us would bring someone new into your family. I used to imagine that when day came, we would approach the prospect communally, the lot of us frolicking in some incense soaked fusion of familial bliss — symbiosis of the type that can only be attained when hurt is forgotten and grace reigns supreme. I modeled that fantasy on the only family I know of who seems to have mastered it: the Kravitz-Bonet-Momoas.

When I was your age, there was a real live pixie who played a role on a popular television show, one of the few in the 1980s with an all-Black cast. Here name was Lisa Bonet, and a host of little Black girls thought she was impossibly cool, too cool to be entirely human. She must’ve been, in addition to Jewish and Black, part-faerie, half-elf, and entirely ethereal. Everything about her was both eccentric and accessible. Her hair and her clothes and the languid, wistful way her words rolled out of her in a cadence akin to song: it all felt experimental and otherworldly. But her choices, both onscreen and off, were what tethered her to earth. Choices like marrying a rock star, bearing his child, shirking the shackles of stardom in the wake of it, and divorcing him all in a matter of a few years. The legend of Lenny and Lisa appealed to me so as an adolescent. I devoured all interviews I could find about how they shared custody, rebuilt their relationship as friends, and parents after their breakup, and willed themselves beyond the halting awkwardness of moving on. They learned the dance, apart, together.

Years later, when Lisa Bonet remarried and bore two more children with another inordinately gorgeous celebrity, Jason Momoa, Lisa, Lenny, and their daughter Zoe simply widened the family circle and left it unbroken. Both Lisa and Jason had been raised by single mothers. Zoe had been raised by intermittently single parents. They’d all found, in this careful configuration of modern family, a recipe for remaining whole.

This is is the life I have wanted for you: an unconventional closeness born of trial and error; parents who are constantly forgiving themselves and each other; a life beyond the quotidian.

We will not become like the Kravitz-Bonet-Momoas. As parents, our temperaments don’t lend themselves to it. If it is up to me alone to reach for this, I am not sure we will grasp it. Though I can support what your father is doing, because we were once something to each other that seemed predicated not as much on love as on on survival, and you must always root for the person who emerges from trauma, less haunted, I still have the hardest time admitting to myself that I want to spend my life with anyone other than you. It is hard because I am not sure I really do want that. It scares me. You cannot commune with a couple who’s mustered the courage to love anew when you are still contending with your cowardice.

The part of myself that allows for romantic love is the part I have least developed. It’s the only area of my life where I have not been fully committed to growth. To the extent that marriage is one of my desires, it is not one I am willing to give voice. I am too proud to set my intentions on anything I am not certain I can have, anything I do not trust myself to handle. But in the small of heart, in the hollows, there is at least a tiny curiosity about what kind of wife I would be and what kind of husband I might someday attract. Would we survive each other? Would the family dynamic already evolving then simply expand to include him? Would the lot of us leave the country together? Would we toast on the ship deck at dusk then retreat to our cabins, trading off caretaking of all of our kids on alternating nights? What would it mean to open our separate silos and let all the love we’ve pile high inside them pour out in the clearing?

These questions are not kept in a roomy place. They remain in the hollows. Perhaps I will explore them for you later, when I have grown slightly braver. Until then, I am mostly content to remain alone, at least for now. I have known enough of togetherness, of forcing forward a failing concept of family, to know that I find it more exhausting than exhilarating. I only want the love the rises. I have only known the love that causes me to fall.

I do not believe you will inherit such aversion to marriage. I do not believe you will know so intimately the kind of love pulls you under. I am hopeful you will have your father and his fiancee to thank for that.

4.

I do not know how I will spend the day that your father gets married. It is not a day to which I’ve devoted much imagination. Now that it is imminent, I suppose I should. He says that he will pick you up the night before, so I imagine that you will be part of the full experience. I imagine that you will be happy. The woman you have come to know as a caring, encouraging friend will now become your stepmother. You have had ample time to adjust to this and, for you, this has been my only wish: a seamless transition from having a single, dating father to having a married one. I have done work around supporting this transition: the work, mostly, of conversation.

We have talked so much about what stepparenting means. We have whispered about what to expect of a wedding. I have fielded a forest of whys. To do so, I had to refocus my gaze, away from the trees.

Until recently, I still possessed a slip of bark your father had given me on our first Valentine’s Day together. I’d asked him to carve our names into a tree. And when the day arrived, he brought me the actual tree: a sawed bit of branch about four inches wide and one inch thick. On the flat of its surface, he’d soldered our names, a small plus sign between them.

In those early years, he tried hardest on holidays. It was as though the gift, if properly chosen and presented with the right sort of flair, would carry the work of relationship-building we’d failed at the rest of the year.

I do not remember much of anything I ever gave him. They were boring, forgettable gifts: clothing, electronics, store credits. He was far better at gifts than I. I tried to be thoughtful in other ways. I tried to be honest.

When you are with someone for several years and live as transient a life as I, there is always some vestige of a past left to unearth. It crops up in your grandmother’s spare room closet; the side pocket of a bag in your rented storage unit; the dustier, unopened boxes, kept behind the ones out of which you live, the ones left neglected until you finally find time to rifle through and discover there is nothing there you need to salvage.

I had gotten rid of almost everything: old diaries we’d co-written our tiny handwriting inked on adjacent pages, photo strips produced behind the curtains of booths at any number of malls, crescent moon earrings whittled of wood. Whenever I’ve come across anything from the period of years your father and I spent as a couple, I purge it. The tree bark was harder to part with. But even it has been misplaced now.

Even sentimental value should depreciate, in situations like ours.

This seems the most appropriate wedding gift: to long for nothing, to let go of everything.

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Nonfiction, Parenting, Resisting Motherhood

Your Mothering Mileage May Vary.

1.

Suppose every year is a pearl. We add the year to the slowly unspooling thread that is our lives. The strand looks like nothing you’d find under glass, nothing worthy of sale or display. The strand has no uniformity and little discernible beauty. Most of the pearls are pebbled or bulbous, gritty or oddly marbled, misshapen, under-formed. Cracked.

Then you live a pristine year, one in which you do not experience unimaginable loss or a betrayal deep enough to stagger you, one mercifully devoid of grief and plentiful in unanticipated joy. You receive an opportunity much greater than the one you pined for during the pebble year, and you stumble upon the love you prayed for during the year you cracked. None of the tears that milked up the marbled year appear during this one. And before long, 12 delicious months have passed. They yield you a pearl that emerges spectacularly whole. It is spherical and opaline, as pearls are intended to be. And you cannot help but twirl it endlessly between your fingers until you can feel the heat that such methodical friction generates. This pearl could cause momentum, other pristine years to follow. Whatever you did right could become a replicable formula. You could be entering an entire decade of such faultless years, uniformly gorgeous enough to display under glass, worthy of protecting with lock and key.

Or you could find yourself flailing mere months into the formation of the next pearl. You could feel every necessary irritant acutely. You will empathize with the oyster and finally understand the world. You’ve been holding it all this time, after all, cradling it in your palm, piercing and prying and wresting free what it holds for you each year. The world has opened itself to you so achingly and you have taken from it, hungrily, since you were born. Now that you can comprehend the pain you must inflict, and not only endure, to add every year to your life, the oyster itself is much harder to hold.

The world is a writhing thing. It is harder to handle.

I have learned a lot in the past 18 months. 2016 was the year of the pristine pearl. 2017 and 2018, at least till now, have been harder to hold. Both have contained moments at which my grasp of the world came close to slipping. I have learned more in this fidgety discomfort than I did in the year of plenty. But the toll that learning has exacted is silence.

The page, expecting as always to be filled with lovely sentiments about the rewards of mothering, even under inopportune circumstances — and perhaps, especially because of them — must remain blank for awhile.

* * * *

For the last year and a half, after seven years of insisting that I was fine parenting a child without much hands-on help from her dad, pretending that I was fine with the contribution he did make, because, perhaps, it was the best he could do, I finally confessed the con. I was never okay; I’d just had a lot to prove. He’d walked away from our relationship on the same day we found out I was carrying his child then decided that he wanted to “co-parent,” first from 3,000 miles away and a few years later, once a week (or so) from an hour away. It seemed important for me to do everything he was opting not to do, competently enough to make him feel like he wasn’t missed. It didn’t occur to me that he’d respond to that by starting a different family with someone else. I thought he’d respond by making himself indispensable.

It was temporarily unfathomable that he’d be capable of buying a home, proposing marriage, and family-planning with someone else, when getting him to tell me when he’s about to pick our kid up, in further advance than two hours of arrival seemed too taxing a request. But it wasn’t just possible. It was easy.

In the end, I think that’s what drove me to confess that I had never entirely given up on him. Though too few of our years had been happy ones, there were 16 of them in all. We’d met at 21, had a child at 30. We were 37 then. It was too long a time to let pass as though none of it had mattered. It had all mattered, and I’d been too proud to admit it.

You do not, after all, admit to someone who abandoned you that you should’ve accepted his apologies earlier. You do not say to the person who does too little parenting that you would rather him do too little with you than watch him do more, with someone else. You do not admit how much it kills you that there are now several people in this world whose only frame of reference for your daughter’s family are him and a woman you have only seen once.

I now know firsthand how humiliating all of that is to say, even if it must be said, even when it changes nothing.

Love is not what you profess in the interest of self-preservation. Love is not what settles at the bottom of desperation.

Love is letting go. More specifically: Love is letting go of everything that he was not, for you, so that he can be everything he has become, with someone else, for your daughter.

Do not be fooled, however: as obvious and inevitable as that may sound: the process of achieving it is artless.

2.

It has taken me longer than other women to let go of who I was before becoming a parent. Some impulse knitted deep within stubbornly twists against what motherhood demands. There is much that I’ve grown to love, but I have never fully settled into the sacrifice of it. Though more radical moms than I will tell you that you do not need to sacrifice too much of yourself to mother, I have, unfortunately, not found that to be so. The truth of that assertion would depend on how adaptable you are to begin with — wouldn’t it? — on how easily you could fold family into who you already were or how thoroughly it would upend your former sense of yourself?

Your mothering mileage may vary.

More than boogers and bowels and homework battles and public tantrums, more than sleeplessness or clinginess, more than random emissions of gas or liquid, more than eight years of daily tears over trifles for which she rarely offers timely explanation, more than fears about an adolescent future spent contentiously, it’s the idea that I have to relinquish my right to rage, quiet my recurring resentment, and pretend that my innate impulsiveness simply ceased to exist when I became a parent that bothers me most of all.

These were all traits I could keep in check as an only child. There had always been room to express them; I could do so in moderation. But a mother who is always in the presence of her child does not have room to rage; it sets too poor an example. It alienates the child. A mother who receives anything from the father of her child cannot admit frustration with the many things she does not receive; it appears too ungrateful. It alienates the father of the child. A mother cannot extemporaneously purchase a single plane ticket to an international destination — because she can only afford one and it’s too good a flash deal to pass up. There is no one who will watch her child when she is away and she should not expect anyone to do so.

I am not an unselfish person. That is what being unable to write anything decent in the past year and a half has taught me. I am mean when I feel most creatively unfulfilled. I turn feral when I feel abandoned. And under either circumstance, spending time in my company is ill-advised.

My daughter does not seem to mind this. I am quick to apologize to most people, but I reconcile with her fastest of all. When I can help it, I do not create cause for such reconciliation. I attune myself to a frequency where annoyances rarely find purchase. I seem most patient with all of it, then. I seem like the picture of calm.

Because none of this actually matters, does it? Not if we’re honest with ourselves. Not really.

* * * *

My aunt, the clinical therapist, tells me quite often that parents need only be adequate. A child does not need nearly as much to thrive as we insist children do. And some will not fare well, no matter how much effort their parents exert. Anguish is baked into all existence; everyone bears their share and the distribution of shares isn’t fair.

As true as I imagine this must be, a mother must already feel adequate to be comforted by it. I only feel adequate on the odd days, and even on some of those, I am skeptical.

My daughter does not seem to mind this, either, though she has reached a stage, at nearly 8, when she confuses my getting upset with her with me disliking her as a person.

“I thought you liked me,” she’ll say. Or worse, when she’s teary, “I thought you loved me.”

“You were happy this morning,” she’ll accuse. “You hugged me then.”

“I’ll hug you now,” I might respond. “But you still need to do what I’ve asked.”

She knows that I love her. It’s obvious. But she knows that I’m ill-tempered, too. Mercurial and silent and sad. And she does not yet understand how many things we are allowed to feel at once. Her eight little pearls are like baby teeth, all small and white, all falling, so far, onto her life’s strand, just as they should be.

Still, she wants touchstones of affirmation: Of course, I love you. I’m not mad at you; I just need you to stop interrupting me and raising your voice when I’m telling you something. There is no one I like more than you. But please get off of me now. I need a little space to breathe.

I knew I would not be the type of mother for whom sacrifice would be easy. I would never have confessed it before my daughter was born — I am not sure I even realized it then — but I have always been my own favorite person. Before I became a parent, I could let anyone go, if I needed to; I had me. Motherhood rendered me unrecognizable to myself for awhile. It was a long performance for which the curtain never went down and there was always a need both for improvisation and improvement.

I’ve been thrown a few curves I could not account for, in the past year and a half. It forced me to cancel the show. The curtain wasn’t just down; for awhile it was a shroud. I am no longer someone who wants to prove anything to anyone else, not in parenting or any other area of my life. I am simply committed to better understanding who I have become. I do not want to offer her to anyone else, not as a writer or a woman or a mother, until I have a better handle on who she is. I am more unsteady on my feet these days. And because unlike my daughter, I did not grow up believing I could ask the people around me, “Do you like me?” without fearing or disbelieving the answer, I understand why she so often needs to hear it these days. She needn’t worry. Now, she’s my favorite person.

Do I like me? is the more challenging question.

3.

I wrote all of this because I was worried.

One week from today, my daughter and I will be at a writing residency in Putnam County, NY. I need to warm up in advance of the journey. As much as I’ve longed for and dreamed about having a full week to write without feeling any guilt over leaving my daughter behind in order to attain it, I’m nervous about how productive I’ll be. I’ve been trying not to put much pressure on output, but I want to maximize the time (especially since a number of people contributed to my last-minute crowdfunding campaign to make it easier for us to get there. I want to be a worthy investment).

It has not been the most emotionally healthy time in my post-parenting life and by extension, it’s been the least creatively productive time in my post-parenting life. I’ve found it difficult to muster the will to write or the belief that anyone wants to read about this (or anything else on which I have an opinion. I’ve also found it difficult to develop cogent opinions, as in case you haven’t noticed, the country is in more intense shambles than usual). I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time now, and living it is even less interesting than writing about it. Fortunately, I’ll be working on a novel draft and Hope Chest stuff while I’m there.

I’m not presumptuous enough to expect that anything I post anywhere will resonate with anyone else. But I am always hopeful that something will, with someone. Life is hard. No matter how difficult yours is, no one else’s is enviable. Protect your own pearls. They’re priceless.

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Current Events, Poetry

In the absence of justice, a scent.

(for Robert Godwin, Sr.)

The scent of an old Black man is

aftershave
the dry flaking skin of an undergreased scalp
maybe, when the weather is warm,
the must of an armpit, slightly overripe
and sometimes liquor, hard candy, a poor
breath-mask of stale mints and sometimes
tobacco in the form of mentholated
cigarettes or flimsy cigars, those
slivers of soap left after the bar
is worn down and cracked, the thin crescents
of motor oil embedded in cuticles,
grim black grins under every nail

warm

so visceral it still wafts out to you
from the fond photographs his family
is forced to disseminate after
some younger man shoots him dead without
reason, remorse, or warning.

May that scent assail his assailant,
as he draws his last breath.
May he understand the breadth
of the life he’s stolen.
May an aged air swell in his nostrils
and rush through the walls of his mouth
so that he forgets the very taste
of his own tongue, forgets even
the odor guilt emits through the epithelia.
All that should be left is an aroma of absence.
Would that it would thicken till
it tends, at times, to block the throat.
Should he live to be an old man,
may it cling to him still, a inescapable cask
fermenting all the years between his last and yours.

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