Nonfiction, Parenting

Crushes and Sundry: Advice in Advance of Your Second Birthday.

Beloved, as easily as if we were following a template of icing and gingerbread, we’ve erected an affectionate home. Lips brush skin here, as if it were canvas. I feel the daily tug of your arms ’round my neck. On occasion, out of nowhere, you place your palms on either side of my face and force my head forward so that we are eye to eye. You stare like a clairvoyant, hold my skull like a crystal ball, and kiss me square on the lips for as long as you see fit. Mmmwah! you exclaim afterward, wearing an expression that suggests you’ve just confirmed something for yourself.

It is not that you are loved; this needs no mouth-to-mouth reiteration. You feel love when I stroke your hair near the long, even part your granny has made. You feel it in the careful cornrows she weaves of your cottony tresses at night, hear it in our clicking, meticulous searches through a barrette tin for the perfect, color-matching clips to fasten to your ends. You are certain of it when you march up with urgent eyes and our hands stop, mid-motion, to direct food into your mouth rather than our own. And you listen with contentment to the melody of Ls, collect the uttered loves, stringing them ’round your neck like a strand of singing birds. You wrangle what’s left into a cage: love as a raging aviary. When that is overcrowded, the excess curls and crawls above our toes, wraps our wrists and stains our fingers: love as an intricate mendhi.

No, you needn’t kiss my lips to confirm my love–but you do it often, smiling secretly, knowingly, a punchline tucked behind your pucker. Perhaps you really are a seer; you understand that lips are to be read. In the blink of time between the buss and sound effect, you’ve ascertained a future.

Mine are the first in a line of lips you’ll kiss. A mother’s is merely the first of the many loves you’ll feel.

I will tell you this: crushes are the stones that skip seven times before sinking. They are never too heavy; they linger on a beautifully rippling surface. And when they leave your sight, any sadness you feel fades quickly.

Consider the older boy you met last week in Old Navy. He was four and alarmingly free, having broken away from his beleaguered parents and flirted his way through the children’s section, favoring brown girls with wrangled clouds of hair. I noted how close he got to the girl nearer his age, how he circled her, eager to impress, and how reticent her banter seemed by comparison.

When he lost her to the checkout line, he set his sights on you, bounding toward us with intense eyes and a delirious smile. This, you will find, is a tactic of boys at all ages.

Hi! he cried. Hi! you chirped back. He asked your name, asked your age, asked if you wanted to play. Hi, you said again, adding the string of nonsensical chatter you always employ back home. There was a pause when you’d exhausted your vernacular, and it was rapidly filling with the helpless disappointment that attends all language barriers.

Mmmwah! you declared, leaning toward him.

This wasn’t your first time attempting befriend an unfamiliar child with a kiss. You’d tried it on a tiny girl at the library and I’d pulled you gently back as horrified confusion rushed to her face.

This time, you tried something more intercontinental, opting for the cosmopolitan air kiss so popular in parts of Europe. This boy was similarly bewildered (but definitely not horrified), as I rushed you toward the flip-flop section.

When you’re older, I’ll assure you that it isn’t an error to make the first move but in the rare case when you do, it’s imperative you do not make the second.

The four-year-old we’d left behind caught up to us. He only looked away from you for a moment, and that was to turn his adorable face up toward me to ask in a tone both accusing and curious, “Where you going?”

I started talking to him like I would someone my own age. (I’ll admit having you hasn’t made my interactions with other children any less awkward.) But as I launched into a lengthy explanation about all the areas in the store we hadn’t hit yet, he was inching closer and closer to you. Before I knew what was happening, faster than I could react, he’d kissed your cheek.

Technically, it was your first non-family kiss. Technically, you and the four-year-old boy in Old Navy had just gone through an entire arc of courtship rituals in less than three minutes.

When you’re twelve, you will think I’m crazy, but this was a major McFly moment. In a flash, the future was now.

You will know your wiles early, will wield them with coyness, not cruelty. Men won’t be the mystery to you that they are to your mother. But seeing your own beauty as clearly as I do will not come as easily. It is simple for me: you are startling, the same as your father was. One minute, you’ve the stock cuteness all children hold. The next, at an angle, with a twinkle of eye or a baring of teeth, you are gorgeous in ways that will keep me up nights well into your thirties.

I am telling you this, my wondrous girl, because you’ll need to know it. In nine days, you’ll be two, and in what will feel like the space between sunrise and nightfall, you’ll be twenty. The rules do not change:

Be equal parts open and aloof. Do not falter in following your agenda; when you are valued, you are always followed forward. If an action is objectionable, protest then and there, but never pretend offense where there is none (you didn’t yelp at the kiss and because of that, neither did I). Mind your mother; more often than not, she knows of what she speaks. But above all, pay attention. Part ways when the time seems right, and do not think to tarry. 

The fact is that the time and the person will come from which you will never wish to part.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Psalm 37:25.

I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.

On occasion, I imagine myself as a woman of wisdom and means. I am 56 or 64 or 73 and several ebony strands still assert themselves in my cirrocumulous hair. During my nightly constitutional, I pretend I live near the Ganges. I imagine myself standing open-palmed under Victoria Falls. I let my mind drift to places eternities away from where I’ve settled. Gauzy, hand-dyed fabrics drape my body; the wind whips through them and I feel at peace with a fast-approaching future wherein I, too, will exist as little more than wind, whipping though another woman’s sails.

In my pockets, there are many keys.

I live without regret, save for a mild but persistent pining for days long past. Youth, as is often said, is useless to the young. I do not wish to see this foregone squandering in you.

When you visit, we curl into the hammock on my screened porch, tittering like sandbox girls as we teeter. I allow you this levity, this feathery love that daughters so seldom get to feel with their worried mothers. Then, I pull you close, two thin and veiny fingers ’round your wrist, like a cuff, like the strong arm of law, meant to warn you: This is serious. I look at you, curled and soft as a mollusk—at 27 or 35 or 44—and your face has made strides toward solace, awareness and confidence that mine did not, until I was much older. But there is still the residue of self-questioning there, an uncertainty skulking along the brow, a sadness in the sanguine rim of the eye.

These are unfortunate inheritances.

I tell you first that I wish you had taken the part of me that is feral. I wish that after all these years it no longer made sense to hide the wildness inside us, that our culture had come to terms with the ferocity women must hold onto in order to survive. I wish it were freeing, rather than ignominious to lay oneself bare in the open. I wish that, for us, there were no triple consciousness, no necessary switching of codes for white, for black, for patriarchy.

But this will never be so. There are too many men who siphon power by depleting ours. It is too tempting to spend scarce and precious time convincing them that, though society often seems a soundproof room, we have voices. They echoing in corners, through caverns: We deserve… We deserve… We deserve…

But stalactites have no ears, and we winnow centuries at this war.

The hour is late. And the light of your youth has grown dim. Have you listened to the men, to your father, to me, to everyone who’s admonished you to, “Be a good girl?” Oh, how I wish you hadn’t, I lament, lifting your chin.

We always expect more for our daughters than for ourselves.

I tell you to dive and note the beauty of the bottom. I urge you to annually step into the baskets of hot air balloons and remind yourself how small it all seems when you’re soaring. I implore you to marry the man who compels you, whose interests swim in synchrony with your own, who hears you, understands you are not a caged thing. Tell him, “This lioness has no need for taming.” Tell him, “If I am to answer to you, then we are to answer to each other.”

For the sake of your God and your country, do not accept the hand of the man who prefers you porcelain and pirouetting in a music box of his making. You will find yourself pining for days long past, imagining the Ganges, the Falls.

When I am gone, I whisper, I will leave you all the keys in my pockets. I will leave you the possibilities beyond each door.

You whisper, In the meantime, just use them. Mother, you were meant for much more.

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Nonfiction

Twelve Makes One, Part 1.

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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.

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Nonfiction

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Fill her with wonder. Convince her that the feeling is less the flitting of butterflies and more the plumping of caterpillars: fuzz filling her insides and, at the first blush of reciprocation, it is the spinning of a chrysalis, the building of a silken borough that may open at the flutter of a first kiss or the airy bliss of barely touching hands.

This is what she needs to know of love.

It is tender missives full of youth’s hyperbole. In an amoebic form, it can begin in the sandbox. The boy who pastes his sloppy lips to the peachy round of her cheek may mean it.

He is not always a mimic.

This will be important for her to carry later. Tell her to pocket your promise: men do not always mimic.

They are not crude facsimiles of the fathers who failed their mothers. They are not the statistical likelihoods our cynical culture will claim. Not always.

There are some who are not conquistadors; they will not treat you as a creature to be branded or broken.

There are some who do not view you as an isle of escape; their gaze will not turn scornful upon learning than you are more than a port toward which they can sail.

Love is more than a welcome distraction. It is everything Paul’s first letter to Corinth suggests. But it does not always manifest itself as patient. It does not always know what it means to be selfless. It is rarely aware of how susceptible it makes us to hurt.

We must be careful with it and pray that it is careful with us.

Love is minutia, but it is also the momentous. Do not let your sentiment shortchange you. Never believe that it is only holding one another or whispering hopes under moonlight. It is the sharing of considerable assets. It is the saving to jet off to Greece. It is the dowry he stored for a marital house and the decision that you should be its cohabitant.

Love is an insulation from the shrapnel of the outside world’s criticism. It is a conduit for longing.

It looks like this when it has no able recipient** (ff to 5:16):

It feels like this, when under-explored:

Do not tell her that when it goes bad, it bulldozes. Don’t tell her it lays waste to what you were.

There are some things she should learn of her accord. Her love will lead her through a labyrinth quite different than your own.

Just pray that at its end, she finds a mirror. Hope that when she peers at the woman inside it, she still recognizes her as herself.

 

* Shout-out to Raymond Carver for the title of this post.

** The embedded clips here are from Richard Linklater’s 2004 sequel, Before Sunset. If you haven’t seen it or its predecessor, Before Sunrise, get yet to Netflix, post-haste. Add a baby and some melanin to Celine in that first clip and she is me.

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