Episode 4 of my new, indie podcastHope Chest is available for streaming and downloading now. I’ve decided to suspend the practice of posting the whole text of an audio essay here, because I’m trying very hard to shape up an essay collection for publication and it just makes sense to hold the written content in reserve. But here’s a little backstory on the piece in advance of listening: in December of last year, I was hit with this sort of double-slap romantic reality check.
It’s a long story. Like, a dates-back-16-years-to-when-I-was-21 long. But I’ll try to keep this relatively brief, because the whole point here is for me to compel you to listen, not to bog you down with a long read.
Suffice it to say, there’s “alone” and there’s alone. “Alone” is being unattached, noncommittal, and by yourself, romantically, but with partners — or the idea of partners — that you’re secretly (and perhaps it’s even a secret to you) holding in mental and emotional reserve. In my case? There were two. In-case-of-emergency-men. I’ll-call-you-when-I-need-you men. You-may-not-answer-the-call men. I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world men. Car-advice men. Comfortable-silence men. Uncomfortable-silence men. This-will-never-be-what-I-want-or-need-it-to-be-but-it’s-still-chill men.
One was my co-parent. The other was a friend I dated for a blink-and-you-missed-it few months a few years ago. In December, I had to give them both up — like, for real, for real, cold turkey — simultaneously. I don’t yet know how to describe what that felt like. They both already felt so distant; I’d thought I’d already seared all the edges off of any romantic notions for one of them long ago, and I’d been going through an interminable, years-long process of doing the same with the other. Imagine the shock I felt, then, when I felt an inverse of the emotions I assumed I would about both of them, whenever I used to envision “letting go.” It was… a lot messier than I’d presumed. A flash of heat for the guy for whom my heart had gone cold. An ambivalence about the other, who had long set me aflame. No one was more startled than I.
I’m still fairly inarticulate about how emotionally scattered I felt for the first three months of this year. I was breadcrumbs in the woods. I was swallowing myself. There was no path.
That probably won’t be what you get from this essay at all, actually, but that was the motivation for it. It’s about women taking the very necessary time to understand themselves. Our selves are constantly changing. Here’s the thing. I may have been languishing in the same stale feelings for far too long, but I didn’t recognize it, because my circumstances kept changing. What would make me store in-case-of-emergency company as a younger, childless woman and what would compel me to do the same at 37 with a school-aged kid was dissimilar enough to fool me.
I had taken for granted that I was being honest with myself about my feelings (or lack thereof), “checking in with myself” and repeating mantras (and outright lies) to train myself out of negative emotions or pretending not to have positive ones, if I thought they’d be a burden to whomever I might express them to. But all the while, despite all the years I’ve spent single, despite all the time I spend literally at a physical remove from my exes, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was still viewing myself and processing the events of my life, through some prism that considered them and their feelings their potential reactions and all the hypothetical ways I might process them moving on with their lives.
When the time came for all of us to actually move on with our emotional lives, with some sense of finality, I didn’t do anything I thought I would. I spent the first quarter of 2017 like an amnesiac, looking at the simplest things and wondering what I thought of them. Eating foods and surprising myself at my enthusiasm about its flavor. (Turns out I’m really partial to biscotti with anise seeds baked into it and falafel makes me smile really widely. I am not as into curry as I thought I was.) And then there were all the selfies. A crazy number of selfies. Because I needed to figure out again what makes me feel attractive or interesting or mysterious or desirable and I’d finally, finally decided not to gauge that against what I perceived as other people’s interests and preferences.
I’m still sorting it.
These months contained a thorough undoing. But they (and it) were quiet. I guess “Woman to (Will-Be) Woman” is part of what I continue to take away from how I’ve spent them.
I do not have many romantic stories to tell you. Even the yarn about how your father and I managed to spend four days traipsing the cobblestoned arrondissements of Paris is an unsentimental one. I do not suppose that you’ll swoon. But, because we did not remain a couple after you were born, because you will likely grow up knowing our relationship simply as an amicable one, this is, perhaps, a tale worth telling you.
For a certain kind of Black American, several generations U.S.-born, but without many relatives who have left this country of their own volition, rather than because of an obligatory military deployment, international travel can be a vague, lofty, often elusive, ideal. We want to go. These days, far more of us do. But leisure travel abroad can require an intentionality, a precision of thought and planning that can prove somewhat prohibitive.
For the barely middle-class among us, it is a desire close enough to fathom attaining. If corners are cut or we have sudden financial windfalls or we fashion ourselves into spendthrifts, seeing the world becomes quite possible. This does not, however, mean the attainment will be easy.
I have only left the country once. It took me 28 years. And even after such an interminable wait, I could only afford four days and nights abroad. I chose Paris, but given the circumstances, I could just as easily have chosen Milan or Accra or Dubai. I chose it because of a sudden flight deal that, as serendipity would have it, coincided with the delivery of my tax refund, which combined with my post-graduate, crashing-on-my-aunt-and-uncle’s couch as an adjunct savings, to create a bit of a travel budget. I also chose it because I had recently read about a series of walking tours that traced the Black American experience in the early- to mid-20th century through the streets of present-day Paris.
For reasons both obvious and ineffable, this seemed a trek worth taking.
Sometimes I feel pinned to the contiguous United States by forces far beyond my control, forces that far predate me. I have never felt alone in this. It is the kind of tethering one feels when she knows for certain that at some point in her not-so-distant lineage, members of her family were chained to this land and forbidden from leaving it, first by centuries of enslavement and then by generations of bureaucratic policies extensive and dense and obtuse enough to feel all but unnavigable for a people who have had to fight through reams of red tape and a bottomless pit of administrative fees just to be able to vote or uphold even a pretense of property ownership.
In truth, if you have the means and an unbesmirched public record, the passport process is relatively easy. Because I left the country in haste, the way one does when she isn’t sure how long she’ll still be able to afford to, I paid the expedited fee and was able to feel the gold embossed navy blue vinyl beneath my fingertips in just three weeks.
I did not initially plan to include your father. I thought instead that I might go with my aunt and, failing that, I might just go alone. I may have planned the journey hastily but it could not have been more important to me. It was a milestone so many of us Black U.S.-born descendants of slaves do not reach. It was an opportunity I may never have seen again. I knew just one year removed from graduate school that I had chosen a discipline and career that would never render me financially solvent, let alone flush enough for frequent globetrotting. And, in fact, 10 years later, that remains true.
Your father, then a fellow non-corporate artist (meaning: intermittently broke, like me), had always longed for Paris. It was not a whim for him and I will have to let him tell you why. I don’t remember. What I recall is that it seemed to pain him to hear about the trip without being included it in it.
So we went together. And it nearly broke us up.
With just four days to spend, I wanted to rush through everything: museums and tours and cafes and monuments, wanted to lay eyes on as much as my mind could store. He was, as he often is, unhurried. He wanted to meander, to spend literal hours looking for small-cut European clothing and shoes that would fit his 6’5” frame. He wanted to talk to people, many of whom pretended not to speak English, even though between the two of us, we knew only ten phrases of French. By the third day, our second-to-last full day, as I waited for him to exit several stores in a mall that looked exactly like one we could find in his city of residence — Los Angeles — or mine, Grand Rapids, MI, I began to wish I had come alone, wished I were wandering the Louvre (where we never did find time to go) or returning to that cafe in the 14th with the incredible pain de chocolat and the bitter but perfectly foamed cappuccino.
I was as I have often, unfairly, been with him: resentful. We had finally escaped the confines of our own country. But I still felt confined by him. This is, perhaps, the moral of the story: you do not arrive at freedom. It is not a travel destination. You do not find it in the companionship of fellow meanderers. Freedom, if you are ever able to feel it, must be worked out within. Freedom, when you believe you have found it, must be taken with you.
My devotion to the country is an uneasy one, and perhaps as dotted with scorn as any ill-fated love affair. Even as long as we’ve been together — America and I — I remain unconvinced that what matters to me matters to it or that my needs, regardless of how clearly or loudly I voice them, will ever be met.
I am never sure how much I owe for citizenship. My citizenship and the supposed range of benefits attendant to it have never felt full.
To wit, I told you that the process of obtaining a passport was an easy one. But when the time came for a Parisian official to stamp it, I felt just as nervous as I do at the entrances of stores in every American mall. I know full well that I haven’t stolen anything but I still worry that the theft alarm will sound as I cross the threshold. That is to say, the first and only time that I traveled abroad, I did not entirely trust my American passport to protect me. I did not trust your father’s to protect him, either. We are Black. We traveled from entirely different origin airports, he from LAX and I from Gerald R. Ford. We are Black. His connection was in Germany, while my flight was direct to Paris. We are Black.
At Charles de Gaulle, it took us hours to find each other. We did not know that we had landed in separate buildings. We did not know we would have had to make special arrangements with our cell phone carriers for our phones to have functioned overseas. We did not speak the language.
And in those intervening hours, I did wonder if he had been detained. I wondered what I would do if he were. Keep going? Wander out into the unfamiliar city without him? Turn back? Try to pin down his whereabouts, wait for his safe release from wherever he was being held, for whatever reason?
It’s been nearly ten years since that trip. It was as uncomplicated an excursion as it possibly could’ve been, for both of us. But it could just as easily have been a nightmare. Our skin makes all the world potentially transgressive terrain. We carry that awareness with us as surely as we do our shoulder bags.
We did not know it then, not with our walking tour stories about Black American expatriates who remained fond enough of Paris to live out their remaining days and be buried there, not with every gift shop’s J’adore Barack and Michelle souvenirs, but France is neither safer nor more welcoming of black and brown women and men than America is. White men proposition and assault Black women walking alone in metro terminals and on sidewalks. And, as in America, police in Paris disproportionately brutalize black men.
I remember, at the end of our four-day excursion, feeling ready to abandon my own country and to live in the clichéd France I’d fashioned in such a short time, one of baguettes and fromage, a river of wine. I was sure that I would miss America no more than it would miss me.
There is an expression for this: no love lost. And there may truly have been none. But I cannot imagine that French discrimination would’ve felt any finer for its foreignness. I do not believe that, over time, that country’s reception of me would have been very different than my own’s.
There are worse things to lose than love.
Your father flew back into L.A. and I returned to Michigan. For days afterward, I felt the phantom taste of clementines and Leffe Blonde, of tart cheeses and cheap red wine and the Newports he’d ducked into a half-dozen corner shops to find (and for which he had to pay an astounding 8 francs). I felt closer to him and infinitely farther. I felt a roof raised and lifted, adjusting my worldview.
I also felt relief. It was nice to be alone. I would never again be a woman who knew nothing of the land that lay beyond the borders of home. Neither would I travel so far from home again, unless I could be sure that I would feel free upon arrival.
These days, it is much harder to reassure myself of that possibility. Our home has chosen a new patriarch — and he is not a liberating type. In fewer than 50 days in office, he has tried to render VISAs as meaningless as freedom papers were in the woods and wilds of 19th-century slave states. He has alienated several of our international allies, stoked hostilities between nations that had barely been concealing their contempt for this one, and shown little respect for the processes that have, for generations, enabled us to cross into new countries and welcomed those desirous of entry into ours to make their way in, undeterred.
Paris may well be my only parable. I do not believe it will be yours. I am willing you a far more wayfaring life. I am instilling in you the belief that, in the end, you are your own nation. Your freedom will not be outwardly governed; your Blackness will not render you the same reticence as mine. When I am gone and I bequeath to you this home, I hope it will no longer be broken. I hope you will not be treated like a squatter, but that you will instead feel the full weight of its keys — and that, for as long as you are able, you will open its doors to whomever will come.
Hope chest (n.) : a young woman’s accumulation of clothes and domestic furnishings (as silver and linen) kept in anticipation of her marriage; also : a chest for such an accumulation, Merriam-Webster.com
My mother first told me what a hope chest was when I was a teenager. She said women who wanted to marry sometimes stored things in a footlocker or some smaller treasure-chest like storage box. Lingerie and sachets, needlepoint embroidery, scrapes of lace that could later be fashioned into some accent meant to make a house homier, and for the more romantic among the future wives, love letters sealed and bound together for future presentation to an as-yet-unknown spouse.
I’ve never much wanted to marry — or perhaps more accurately, I’ve never been confident that it was a possibility for me. But I’ve always liked the idea of storing up dreams, visions, goals, and love to be shared with a trusted someone, when the time has come. It’s something I’ve been doing for my daughter since I was expecting her and I’ll probably continue that trend until she’s old enough to start reading the work and to tell me whether or not she wants to continue receiving more of it.
When I fell in love with audio production last year, I knew about halfway through the first season of The Rise of Charm City that I’d also want to start an indie podcast that adapted blog posts here. The sort of prose-poetry style of writing I do here lends itself fairly well to audio adaptation, and I wanted to challenge myself to produce a project all on my own. I’ve been learning audio editing in Audition since Summer 2016; it’s what WEAA, where The Rise of Charm City airs, uses. But it wasn’t until spending nearly a week at The Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC last August, that I ever produced a draft all on my own, start-to-finish). That piece, “Prince, Philando, and Futures Untold,” which later aired as part of John Biewen and CDC’s gorgeous podcast, “Scene on Radio ” (some John did some additional mixing and polishing in Hindenburg), was the first audio adapted from one of my blog posts. As soon as I finished it, I knew I’d want to make more pieces like it.
Hope Chest is the podcast I’ve created for that purpose. It’s a place for me to store scraps of music and interviews and found sound and singing, woven together with lovingly-penned prose, to be shared with whomever wants to listen. If I were more business-minded and/or marketing-savvy, I would’ve had a more strategic roll-out. But here it is. I’d love it if you subscribed and/or gave the first two episodes a listen. I’m aiming for at least one new episode per month, so be on the lookout. Please rate and review it, if you’re subscribing via iTunes, and if you enjoy it, let me know either here or via some social media space where we follow each other. Thanks!
There still so many things I do not know. I am still teaching myself radio/audio lingo, still smiling and nodding, willing my eyes not to glaze over when veterans strike up conversations with me about equipment, technique, format, reach. And I haven’t quite figured out the stubborn resistance I feel to immersing myself in this culture.
A year in, I still feel content in the wading pool; I may never deep-dive.
I attended this year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, in part to test that reticence and to challenge it. It was my attempt at immersion therapy: go, engage, become.
Third Coast was my last of five audio/public media conference/festival visits this year, but it was the first I attended as an off-duty participant. The others I was invited to by AIR as a panelist or presenter. I could tell that the vast majority of the crowd had long wanted to be there, felt affirmed by their presence among peers who wanted, largely, what they did. I quite enjoyed proximity to them, but I never felt like one of them, not fully.
When you enter a professional field because you have won a competition, the experience of learning about that field is different than if you discover it of your own meandering accord. It is the difference between being set up on a blind date and meeting the love of your life spontaneously in the aisles of the bookstore or supermarket. The blind date may be a forever-match but there is often an element of doubt, borne simply of the particular circumstance. You are here because your presence was suggested and now it is up to you to decide if you are wanted or welcome. And it is also up to you to decide if you are desirous and welcoming.
That takes time.
When I was making the first season of The Rise of Charm City, I was rapturous about the possibilities of public radio and podcasts. I was thoroughly enamored and this oblivious to the culture’s many flaws and challenges. I thought I knew them, anyway; public radio shares a boundary with print media — and I know its limitations well.
In the few months since our first season wrapped, the rosiness of my new world has wilted a bit. This isn’t due to any artistic love lost. If I could, I’d devote copious time to producing and learning to produce deeply personal, high-concept projects. I’d do it to the neglect of other art/work-related things (and I have done a bit of that, if I’m being honest).
My unmoored feelings have more to do with all that I still do not know and will have to teach myself and/or spend a great deal of money being taught, if I am to keep ambling down this professional path. And speaking of financial responsibility, I’ve had time to realize how closely an indie career in audio production resembles my experiences with freelance writing and adjuncting. Together, the three fields form a lovely fishtail braid but, depending on the month, they may not be able to feed me.
Production is creative and inspiring and when I am among audio producers and employees at all levels of public media, I always get the sense that I am with people who wholeheartedly believe in the power of their work to guide the course of our culture. They are doing the arts work many public school districts have defunded. They are educating adults whose curiosity about life experiences other than their own is insatiable. I deeply admire that kind of social largesse. I contribute to it as much as I can. I am also always looking for ways for my daughter and I to live beyond the imminent possibility of personal financial collapse.
So there’s a tension here. It always exists when I enter spaces of relative privilege. I rarely feel unwelcome — quite the opposite — but I do often feel that my presence — as a Black woman, deeply financially indebted to institutions of similar privilege, for the degrees they conferred, which grant me access to spaces like Third Coast in the first place — is fraught. I can’t seem to just go and abide and relish. I always feel like I’m in white professional spaces in response to something, to solve something, to contextualize something. I am there for all the people who can’t be, there to learn what I will now have an imperative to teach. And that — the constant awareness of it — is draining.
What I know is that 700 people attended this conference this year and I didn’t have to search the room for people of color; they were all around me. I know that some of them — myself included — were there precisely because white people in positions of hiring and grant-funding power intentionally sought to bring them into the profession. And I know others were there without any institutional invitation; they are the door-kickers and the builders of their own infrastructures, solving representation problems without waiting for big media companies to even identify mis- and under-representation as problems.
Public media is moving its needle. Third Coast, by extension seems to be working hard at a greater level of inclusivity. That should be acknowledged and appreciated. It is also still exclusive of a lot of the people it should include and we can’t stop pointing that out, either.
Last year, I was tasked with creating a public media project that would reach audiences that public media does not typically reach. A year later, it’s difficult to measure how successful I’ve been at that. I am more confident that I produced work that represented that audience fairly and sought to avoid treating them merely as subjects on whom I’d report and to whom I’d never return. For me, that is just as important. And I can’t help but wonder if it would be, if I weren’t Black or a woman or a mother or someone who lives near, if not in, the communities I cover.
As far as I can tell, public media still struggles with hovering over rather than drilling down. And there are many reasons for that, none of which are uncomplicated. (For more context on what I mean here, see the tweets below.) Podcasts, liberated as they are from some of the journalistic constraints of other public media outlets, can go a long way toward addressing that gap. If people of color can afford to produce them. If public media works both to invite and retain them. And if people like me are willing to leave the wading pool, willing to give the arranged date a real shot, rather than succumbing to the same disillusionment that prices and pushes us out of other fields of work and study.
White pub media has covered communities of color forever and they way they do it, even if well-intentioned, is not the same as we'd do it.
An addendum: I was about two paragraphs from finishing this when news of Gwen Ifill’s passing broke. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: black women have always been willing to pioneer these fraught spaces, to absorb the first wave, to stand firm while their white colleagues try and fail and try again to become truly inclusive, truly validating of our experience and what it brings to our reporting. I wouldn’t be able to have my angst-filled, lofty musings about my really expensive trip to an audio conference and what it means (or doesn’t mean for my professional future) without Gwen Ifill and all the women like her taking their rightful place in institutions that don’t always or immediately acknowledge that rightfulness at all. Love to her and hers — and safe passage. May we ever honor her invaluable contributions.
Here is Gwen Ifill calling out hate speech, again to a table full of men who all try to speak over her. pic.twitter.com/NKAtFaXVtS