Conversation

pexels-photo-326055.jpeg

I am not sure whether I have been having a conversation with life or with death of late. Perhaps it’s the same conversation and it doesn’t matter as the two are so intricately intertwined. We can’t know one without eventually experiencing the other.

I took a walk through a local cemetery a few days ago. This might sound maudlin, but it wasn’t that type of experience for me at all. This particular cemetery is a beautifully laid out park in which many have been laid to rest. There are paved as well as gravel lined paths and wide roads on which to walk. There is also a pond and several live fountains. I also found a veterans memorial sculpture that had been erected and etched within the past decade.  In this green space one can find local history laid out through the names on headstones, section names and the annual tulip show, winter holiday light show and other displays. There are runners, dog walkers, nannies with strollers and in the completely green lawns; one person was stretched out in the sun. On the steps of one of the mausoleums, one person was using his laptop while sitting in partial sunlight.

My mom’s transition was the most recent; my dad died a little over 15 years ago. I felt as if something had been wrenched from my guts when he died. It was an unexpected reaction as we’d struggled and disagreed with each other about many things for years. And yet, there were periods of no struggle at all. As a friend once pointed out, we were two generations apart. My father was 42 when I was born and I was his first child. He had been born in 1911 in Alabama. That statement and the truth it reveals holds much weight. When I was able to hear my friend and look at the disagreements from an inter-generational perspective, it made sense that our ways of seeing the world and especially the roles of women in the world were so different and filled with tension. That didn’t make me stop disagreeing with him, but it did provide me with eventual understanding and a softening toward myself and toward my father. Neither one of us could see things very differently because the world that had shaped our development had changed in some ways while I now think it had stood still in other ways, ways that had to do with race and gender. I wonder what my father would say now about the world, or at least this country that we both have called home. Damn.

What happens to one when one has crossed a threshold with the knowledge that there is no turning back even if the desire arises? I am not the same person I was one year ago or two, or more. And at the same time my values have not changed greatly.

When I look in the mirror, I see someone I want to spend time with. And as a writer who has been in it for the long haul, that is a good thing. I know who I am and I like her lots. I don’t want to turn back.

Today is Easter, April Fool’s Day and the first day of National Poetry Month. What a convergence. Should I write a trick poem? Or invoke the Easter Bunny? Or write about the the Phoenix who burned to death and later rose from her ashes? I’m thinking of trying the poem a day for 30 days challenge this month, just for myself, since poetry unearths deep roots for me. I feel the need to reconnect with deep roots these days. And the quiet within the poetry well welcomes me to those roots.

These are some of the tidbits I’ve been gathering on paper and in my head of late. I’m not planning on tying everything together in an essay form. I’m just going to plant seeds and share some of them. This gives me the freedom to write essays or poems or genre-bending thingies as they arise. Good luck to me (smile).

And thank you very much to author Leslieann Hobayan for the inspiration to break free. Her “Deep Thoughts” have helped me to not hold back with my snippets for this week and to get back into the mix. I’m glad to be back.

 

Publication News

 

pexels-photo-415071.jpeg

I’m happy to share that my poem “Return” has been published in the current issue of WORDPEACE

Here is the link: https://wordpeace.co/issue-2-2-winter-spring-2018/poetry/joyce-young/

And Nomadic Press is publishing my chapbook “How it Happens” this coming Fall.

Gratitude to WORDPEACE  https://wordpeace.co/

and to Nomadic Press https://www.nomadicpress.org/

Follow me on Twitter @joypoet and Instagram @joypoetry for updates

 

 

The Gauntlet

images

I wear a short Afro and have my hair cut several times a year. I love my hair with its thickness and mix of salt and pepper. There is more salt shaking these days but the salt has an orderly plan for framing my face, while the pepper fills most of the sides, back and top of my head. I usually go to see my stylist on Saturday afternoons when my schedule is more relaxed. I like the area the shop is located in – across the street from Peet’s Coffee, down the block from Arizmendi’s and a few blocks from one of the best farmer’s markets. It’s busy with all shades of people, kids in strollers, folks eating, shopping, clutching coffee cups, talking, and being with one another.

The minute I sat down in my stylist’s chair, I landed in the middle of a lively discussion about Jennifer Hudson, her partner and their son. One of the 30 something male stylists seemed to have done a lot of research on Jennifer’s business. According to him, Jennifer was taking legal action against her partner because she wanted custody of their son. Jennifer had been touring and she had been leaving her son behind with her partner, who had been doing the job of raising and caring for him. And now ungrateful Jennifer, who wasn’t carrying her weight as a mother, wanted to use legal means to get custody of the boy.

Since I wasn’t up on this story or the rest of Jennifer’s business, I was intrigued about the scoop and the commentary. My stylist, Sam (not his real name), is a man, too and it seemed as if both men were taking sides. The decision for both of them was that Jennifer was wrong. She was a bad woman and she was (and has been) doing her man and her son wrong.

I have to admit that I don’t know Jennifer Hudson. I am only acquainted with her performance as Effie in the most recent film version of Dream Girls. I really can’t take sides on something or someone I don’t know a good deal about. This does not mean that I have never engaged in such behavior before. Of course I have.

The discussion about Jennifer became even more interesting when it somehow veered toward Black women who say, “there are no good Black men.” I don’t remember whether Sam, a 70-year-old Black man, mimicked the phrase or whether he led into it with “And they say there are no good Black men.” Meaning that Jennifer’s man is good and she of course is bad. No matter, I am old enough to know that at that point in the conversation the gauntlet had been thrown down.

I declined to pick the gauntlet up and continued to listen to the two men talk. What followed was an indignant, “Well, white women are finding them!” and that was followed by a “Yeah.” Again, Sam spoke this. Again, I remained silent and chose not to pick up the gauntlet. I knew I was being baited. Sam was waiting for me to either say that I couldn’t find a good Black man (and was guilty of saying or thinking this) or rail against white women and blame them for my sorry predicament. I did neither of these things because I am neither sorry or in a predicament.

As if on cue, a gorgeous brown woman walked into the shop with a Black man, who she called “honey” as she asked him to take her jacket and she sat down in the stylist’s chair, which was opposite mine. She was tall and curvy, with great cheekbones, and wavy black hair. She might have been Asian, Latinx, Native or Multiracial. After all, we were in Oakland, and everyone lives and loves here; the ethnic possibilities are endless. We smiled at each other when Sam turned my chair in her direction. I wanted to stand up, look Sam in the eye and say “Ha!” but I also wanted a really good haircut, so I restrained myself.

The truth is that, like Jennifer Hudson, in the past I have been cast as a bad woman. I’ve been called bad for telling the truth, and bad for being independent. A friend’s husband once asked me why I didn’t call on him for advice when I bought my first car. The truth was that was confident in my evaluation and negotiation abilities to do what I needed to do to buy the car. I had a mechanic look it over. I negotiated a fair price. I bought the car. That was that. The fact that I didn’t ask him for advice wasn’t personal. However, this man was not implying that I was a bad woman. I had recently moved to California to attend graduate school and I needed to buy my first car. I was from New York City and had only borrowed cars for shopping trips to New Jersey or rented cars when I had needed them for road trips. My friend just wanted to be helpful and make sure that I would get a good deal.

On the other hand, the bad woman shaming I have experienced usually occurs through comparison. One of my ex boyfriends was a master at bad woman shaming. He once stated “Why don’t you cook for me when I visit you? A woman cooks for her man when he visits her.” His reasoning was that I did not cook for him, so I was a bad woman, bad girlfriend. I was not moved to change my ways.

This same ex boyfriend also compared my spending time with him to my watching a sunset by myself. I’d asked him if he’d wanted to come with me to one of my favorite places during a summer evening right before sunset, but he had said no. Later that evening when he saw me, he presented the comparison in the form of a question. Did I like spending time with the setting sun better than spending time with him? I told him that the question was silly. How could one compare the two things? My real answer, unstated, was the sun, definitely the sun.

Bad woman shaming can wear on a person. For the one being shamed it can mean suffocation, doubt, holding back. It can mean being miserable, but it only means these things if she believes what the speaker or the passive aggressive parent, boyfriend or relative says, for these beliefs really belong to the ones who voice them. Once the person they are trying to shame stops believing these things, even for a few minutes, she can breathe again. And that is why my time with the shaming boyfriend lasted only 6 months. Shaming is just not sustainable in a relationship with anyone. I’ve very happily been a “Shamers need not apply for friend, acquaintance or boyfriend status” woman for many years now. And I can breathe.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t personally know Jennifer Hudson, but I do know about the gauntlet that is often thrown when men are discussing gender roles and women are within hearing distance. I could have picked up the gauntlet, but I don’t think that the best time for me to share my thoughts on gender roles and shaming is when a man is cutting my hair. After all, I want to walk out of the salon looking good.

Director of Talent for the Electorate

images

 

 

Since last week’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony the question of whether Oprah is going to run and/or is qualified to run for and become president has been tossed around, and around. And today, the Washington Post has an in depth article with her photo and the headline “Our Next President?”

I am not sure whether Oprah wants to sacrifice her life to run for office or endure the accelerated aging that happens to every person who takes that office. Have you noticed the way that the weight of the job begins to appear on all of our former presidents’ faces? It seems that one cannot really take the job lightly if one has a true understanding of its depth and heft. It is indeed a big job.

This is not a comparison of presidencies. It is also not an endorsement of Oprah for a presidential campaign. And it is not an opinion piece on whether I think she should run for office.

After Oprah’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. de Mille award, last week at the Golden Globes and the reaction the power of that speech has evoked in so many people, I have been thinking about what I know of Oprah, through her former network television show, her acting roles, her film television producing, her philanthropy, her interviews, and her documented conversations with others.

Oprah could bring a multitude of experience to the presidency if she did indeed decide to run a campaign for and become the next commander in chief. It’s important to expand on the “We don’t need another celebrity” that I’ve been seeing and hearing in the media and on social media. For me that phrase indicates shallow thinking and a habit of making women one dimensional and therefore invisible. The irony of that is not wasted on me.

Although I’m not Oprah’s close personal friend and I have never worked directly with her, I can see that there is a lot more to her than just “a celebrity.” And I would go so far as to say that many who contributed to social media discussions and others who saw Oprah’s speech on the Golden Globe Awards last week were blown away by the power of her delivery and of her words but they can’t consciously articulate what that being blown away has evoked in them. Waking up to something one has been blind to isn’t always easy.

So, I’m going to take on the role of “Director of Talent for the Electorate” and share some of what I see as being Oprah’s qualifications for a job that requires intelligence, good judgment, a high degree of interpersonal skills, the ability to interact and communicate extremely well with people across cultures, experience dwelling in the public eye, which includes media scrutiny, interest in and work toward the common good, and more.

Here are just a few of Oprah’s qualifications:

Oprah’s interpersonal skills are not only top-notch; she has honed them and held multiple positions that have allowed her to further develop them since the mid 1970’s. These positions have been: news anchor, actress, talk show host, producer, media conglomerate owner, philanthropist, and boarding school founder.

She is highly intelligent and thinks outside of the box.

She can deliver focused, clear speeches that contain an explicit main point and sub points.

She is well connected across many demographics, nationally and internationally

She has experience interacting with people from all walks of life from interviewing them as a talk show host, building and hiring staff for her school in South Africa, mentoring young people, hiring and managing staff of her company and its many projects.

She is patriotic, as she is on board with what America could be if it lived up to the ideals and values espoused in its constitution, its amendments and enacted laws.

She has maturity on her side as she’s been around the block a few times professionally and personally, and she is about to turn 64. Although age is a protected category in most hiring situations, when one is applying for the position of POTUS, the age of a candidate is public information.

She is a woman. It’s clear that we need more female leadership in our local, state and federal governments. Women tend to think of the future, of children and of legacies that will be left to their children and to children in general. Women tend to consider these things whether they are parents or not.

So it seems to me that there is a lot more to Oprah than the title “celebrity” suggests. I haven’t even mentioned the social issues her work has uncovered and made part of the global conversation. Her talk show and the issues that it focused on did have a majority female studio and broadcast audience and my guess is that her work on OWN is currently followed mostly by women (and probably a smaller male audience). That speaks volumes as I see it, because the issues and problems that we face as a world can and will only be addressed through the awareness and work of fully conscious women and their male allies.

We currently have and we will have a lot to clean up and make right for many decades to come. Anyone who is still indulging in staring at her or his navel need not apply to the work of turning things in this country and in the world toward a more humane direction.

That is, if any of us are still around to do the work.

 

 

 

Thank You and Happy New Year

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A very Happy New Year, to all of you who so graciously read my intermittent musings on this blog. I hope to post more regular musings this year although I’m not sure right now what “more regular” will mean. I’m up to the challenge, though.

As I was writing these words, I remembered Anne Lamott’s chapter titled “Short Assignments” in her book Bird by Bird. Lamott describes how she redirects herself when her mind spins into overwhelm about writing:

“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being…. I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange”

The one step at a time approach can help to allay the impact of the spinning mind that can so easily whip up panic, fear, dread, desire to give up as all is lost, etc. Thank goodness for the breath and the patience we can develop to work with it.

I plan to also continue writing nonfiction essays this year, thanks to the brilliant Vanessa Mártir and the #52essays2017 challenge. I look forward to what is to come in this genre for me. I found treasure in carving out time to write prose reflections on life, love, the world around me and so many things. Bless you, Vanessa for you are truly a gem.

You can learn more about Vanessa, read her work and find out about the classes she will be teaching this year at https://vanessamartir.blog/

And on we go…

The Break up

cableheader2.jpg

You have a favorite television show, a show you’ve been watching religiously for almost two seasons. But lately something has changed and it doesn’t seem to be a change for the better. So you begin to question the events and the characters against reality, and it becomes difficult for you to suspend disbelief.
All of the frenzied action and jump cuts don’t mean that the writers have improved the narrative. It does mean that there is a frantic grasping for your attention in progress. All of this activity can be compared to frantic break-up prevention tactics that arise even though it’s been clear to both parties for months that the relationship really isn’t in good shape and may not last much longer. More plot twists don’t necessarily make the narrative stronger in this situation, either.

When you tune in this evening, you begin to feel dizzy. You can’t keep up. What is happening with these people? Why is Wanda all of a sudden at the airport waiting for a plane to Sioux Falls? Who goes to Sioux Falls, anyway? What happened to James? Why isn’t he with her? He was in a car accident on the way to the airport? His ex, Jeanine, is one of the EMT’s whose ambulance, with suspicious synchronicity arrives at the scene of the accident? What?

You begin to dislike Wanda for going to Sioux Falls and of course James for not being with her. You don’t find their erratic behavior compelling. And those other characters aren’t looking like they’re doing such a great job of being foils to Wanda and James, either.

You wonder why Jeanine is wearing a nearly sheer low cut blouse instead of her EMT uniform and why her hemline seems so high. After all, she has just jumped out of an ambulance and sprung into action. Why is she wearing a skirt, anyway? She’s an EMT and who cares if the skirt is dark blue and the blouse compliments her skin tone. Something is very wrong with this picture.

What did you see in James in the first place and why did you think he was so fine? What did Wanda see in him? And when you think about it, they really don’t look that good together. You begin to question what you saw in them as a couple.

You wonder what you saw in this show in the first place and think you may have been wasting too many of your evenings watching it. After all, you could have been reading a book, watching that film you’d been meaning to see, the one that your friends keep telling you is so good; or writing your own damn screenplay.

Hell, you can write better than these drama-addicted writers who expect you to be addicted to drama too. After all, you really do hate to waste your time and these writers and their writing have begun to waste your time. So you turn off the television, open your notebook, grab your pen, and write.

Bullet Journal Anxiety

08-bullet-journal.w710.h473.2x

My feeling anxious today arose out of my experiment with the bullet journal I started creating a few weeks ago. I have had the journal itself for about a month and have been more seriously considering starting one for the past 6 months. What drew me to the concept and practice was that it is analog and all of my “to do’s” “maybe do’s” “done’s” “future possibilities” and other stuff could be written and later found in one place and indexed for easy finding. Wow, I thought, this would really get rid of all of the To Do lists I create and leave in strategic places around the house, like the kitchen table, on my desk between layers of stacked paper, next to my track pad, on the bedside table, on the mini white board on the fridge, in folders, in random pages of books, in my jacket pockets, in tote bags, in my computer case. Consolidation sounded like the possibility of reaching nirvana in this lifetime.

What I didn’t bargain for was my perfectionism showing up and almost derailing my efforts. All of those beautiful, artistic, colorful photos of bullet journals on Pinterest and Instagram and on the bullet journal web page, plus my writer friend’s beautiful journals invited me to the process. But once I opened my journal-to-be and began to sit with blank pages, those same photos and examples shamed me. It would be more honest of me to say that I shamed myself with those examples. I worried about my handwriting and what it looks like on the page. My writing is big and the dots on the page suggested space for smaller letters. I am not a visual artist and the thought of pages filled with words and no graphic images had me worried. I worried about messing up the index by making mistakes and not being able to erase them as they were written in ink and not pencil. And I began to feel like all I was doing was making a lot of “To Do” lists in a book that could look a lot prettier and creative. The lists were making me feel as if I was unable to get anything done and that more and more things were being added each day to make longer and longer lists.

These thoughts swirled around with the images of what looked like perfect bullet journals and I felt insecure and unskilled in creating a journal that was actually designed to be flexible. There is a basic framework that includes a few sections, and symbols that one can use to track entries, but beyond that and even within that, what the journal looks like is up to the owner-creator. The reference guide even suggests leaving extra pages for the basic sections one creates, because one can’t know how much room one needs for a given day, month, gratitude page, list of ideas, or submission log.

And then I gave myself permission to not hide my mistakes. I wrote the wrong page number in the index, and instead of looking for White Out I crossed it out. I decided to change the title of the page I created to track my writing submissions, from “Submission Goals,” to “Submission Log.” That meant that I had to cross out the word “Goals” and write the word “Log” beneath it because there was no more room on the page. The fact that I changed my mind is written in ink and there it will stay in the form of a crossed out word at the top of the page.

I thought that creating a bullet journal would help me to gather the parts of my life that I juggle and move them from post-its and scratch paper to a book in which I could write them with the colored pens and pencils that I enjoy using. That is a work in progress and I have noticed that there are very few scraps of paper sitting around on my desk and kitchen table these days. I only use those scraps when there is something that really needs my attention immediately and I write the words in a really bright color. Those scraps get recycled pretty quickly, within a day or so, once the task has been handled. What the “bujo” is really helping me to do is to be more flexible with myself and not worry so much that I am making mistakes and that they are showing. I’m beginning to see opportunities for different types of pages (or “collections,” as they’re called in bullet journalese) that will take some of what is going on my daily logs and place them elsewhere, like “submissions” or “ideas” or “tech stuff” or things I haven’t come up with yet. That might help with the lists that are making me feel weighed down and like I’ll never get through the demands of my life. We’ll see.

I’m beginning to feel less anxiety and ease a little more into crossing things out and solving the challenge of allowing myself enough space to make the journal mine. And I’m giving myself permission to treat this as an exploration, an experiment to see whether this bullet journal system or framework can turn out to be something that will truly work for me. If it turns out that it isn’t for me, I can let go of it. I can cross it out and try something else that will truly work for me.

For more information about the Bullet Journal http://bulletjournal.com/

 

 

 

 

 

Gatekeepers

images

There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.

 

Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.

 

Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.

 

If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,

 

What do they see when they look at me?

A dark, amorphous predator?

My pocketed hand grasping a gun?

 

My breasts want to walk

from block to block,

Iris to Eucalyptus,

welcome to rest my thoughts,

in a garden, on a corner.

 

At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.

 

I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.

 

I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.

 

I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.

 

Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.