Are Those My CDs?

I went to a used bookstore the other day, and the strangest thing happened. Before I could even cross the threshold into that paradise, I was lured by the CD sale on the sidewalk in front of the store.

Nowadays, I stream everything (for better or worse), but I still keep a small collection of CDs in my car for those long drives when I just want to listen to favorite album and turn my phone off.

So, I started perusing the cart, my head cocked to the side, my eyes scanning the titles a few at a time the same way my eyes scan crowds of people in an airport looking for one I recognize.

Lots of ’90s R&B. I picked up 2 or three. Picked up some classic rap albums.

So many of the CDs I touched were CDs I had once owned. The last time I saw them, the discs and liner notes were neatly organized in a hefty, black zippered case (the kind that felt like leather). Their plastic cases were stacked up somewhere in my room.

At first, I recognized about one in every 12 or 15 CDs on the cart. Then when I got to the second cart, it seemed like every other CD was one I had owned. I stopped scanning and stepped away from the cart…

Are these mine?

Did my parents finally get rid of the things left behind? The things they kept when they kicked me out.

When I had stood on the front porch of my parents’ house and said to my mom through the cracked door, “I have some stuff in my room,” she had responded with, “We packed everything.” It wasn’t true. They hadn’t packed my journals, my keyboard, my djembe, my nice TV, my books, my favorite shoes…and they hadn’t packed my CDs.

And here they were. Six years later. All of these familiar, beloved CDs selling for $2 apiece on the sidewalk in the hot Georgia sun. Were these mine?

I walked inside the bookstore with three CDs in hand. I picked up books about poetry, Taoism, parenting, economics. I would tuck the CDs into my armpit while I read the back covers and thumbed through the pages.

They had not packed everything. But somehow, I have had everything I’ve needed. I put the CDs down on a shelf in the self-help section and left the store empty-handed.

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Getting and Not Getting What I Want

I have observed a peculiar phenomenon in my life. The things I really want seem to come to me long after the height of my desire for them. Truthfully, it is frustrating. It is hard to savor the flavor of something that tastes nearly expired. But I’m learning something about these “late” wishes fulfilled.

When a desire goes unfulfilled for a while, I start to work through the substance of that desire, the things under the things, the message my soul is sending me. And as I work through the unfulfillment, I become less attached to the original desire and more expansive as a person.

Then the ironic twist.

My non-attachment turns out to be a much more gracious invitation for that original thing than my white-knuckled insistence ever was. The things feel welcomed, safe, relaxed. And so they come to me when I am able to receive them without damaging them or demanding too much from them.

The unfulfillment leads me down a path to the clearing where the things-desired wish to land. And I arrive with more gratitude, more ease, more gentleness.

I mean, on the real, though… I don’t always get what I want. And sometimes it ain’t that deep! Other times, I get what I want right away. But the most interesting experience is to get what I wanted after I wanted it. And through this experience, I become ready for and worthy of the thing I wanted.

It is not a test. It is not a punishment. It is the curriculum.

My Dresses are Almost Gone Now

It’s Spring.
I’m moving (to a smaller apartment) soon.

These are both great reasons to reconsider my possessions. Why do I have what I have? What can I let go of?

I started in my closet. I started in my bedroom closet. I have yet to address my office closet which also has clothing in it. *cough* Yikes.

So, anyway, I started in my bedroom closet. I pulled a bunch of clothes out and started separating them into three piles–keep, don’t keep, and maybe.
Keep=my staples, my favorites, stuff I wear a lot
Don’t keep=stuff that doesn’t fit or stuff I don’t like anymore
Maybe=stuff that fits but I rarely wear

I had some questions about that maybe pile. Why don’t I wear these things more often? Well, most of those items were dressy, and I just don’t dress up that often anymore. A few times a year, maybe? Most of those items were also quite a bit more feminine than I feel lately. And the femininity I do feel, I express in different ways now.  Interestingly, most of my dresses are in my office closet, the closet I use less. On the one hand, it made sense to put them there; I access them less frequently, so they shouldn’t take up real estate in my bedroom. On the other hand, what kind of psychological distance was I subconsciously creating by putting most of my dresses out of sight and out of mind?

This closet purge is turning out to be just as much about downsizing as it is about responding to and respecting the shift in my gender expression.

I still hear my mom’s voice in my head, routinely criticizing me for looking like a boy. I have to speak tenderly to myself about what’s in my closet. And I’mma let all these dresses go! (I’mma keep like 3 though, just in case, ya know.)

In Praise of Pocket Notebooks

The syllabus for my creative writing class had two items on our “required supplies” list:

  1. A spiral notebook
  2. A pocket-sized notebook

The professor instructed us to carry the pocket notebook everywhere and write down anything interesting that we saw. I jotted notes about the unicycle covered in blue Cookie Monster fur parked at the bike rack. I wrote down the number of squirrels I saw eating human food in one day. I wrote down a description of a girl I saw leaving a guy’s dorm room early in the morning.

Over time, I began to notice things that were much more mundane and subtle: the dirt on the frayed ends of a classmate’s woven bracelet, the number of holes in a leaf I watched fall from a tree, the occasional grazing of shoulders between two young men walking together.

I think the assignment achieved what it set out to achieve. We were creating a repository of interesting details which would give us material for our creative writing and train us to notice and use the kind of specificity that makes creative writing levitate off the page.

Perhaps a latent effect was my increased sensitivity to the sublimity of so many things around me. To notice and document is its own kind of reverence for a thing.

This practice has stayed with me over the years. I still collect and carry (and also create now!) pocket notebooks, so that I can capture as much of the poetry around me as I can.

No, it won’t sync across my devices, but what an eccentric archive I will have created!

What Un(der)employment Does to My Soul

Three days after my birthday, my boss called me into a virtual meeting with the HR person. They laid me off. My last day would be 2 weeks later.

I managed to snag a temporary, 10-hour/week gig shortly thereafter, but I am, more or less, unemployed. It is a social death from which I resurrect and re-die frequently.

Every time I meet someone new and they ask what I do.
Every time I listen to someone complain about work and cannot commiserate.
Every time someone asks what me what I’d like to be doing and I flounder and fumble my way to a respectable answer, carefully sidestepping my fantasy of being a barber and a poet and owning a mobile book truck.
Every time I sleep late and am subsequently gripped with self-criticism for not doing more.
Every time I accompany my accomplished partner to some elite academic event and have to navigate the self-esteem minefield known as small talk.

That sudden layoff made me feel disposable and worthless. (Not to mention how reminiscent it was of my family’s sudden and traumatic rejection and ejection of me when I came out to them…I mean…just, wow. Trigger city central.)

I was supposed to be spending this forced sabbatical searching my soul, re-aligining my work with my calling and commitments. I’ve done some of that. Mostly, though, I’ve been doing mental math to calculate how many more days I can last with the money I have. Mostly, I have been imagining all the possible scenarios:

I get a great job locally and everything is fine.
I get a great job somewhere else and have to uproot my life.
I get a shitty job locally and live with a subsequent low-grade depression.
I don’t get any job and everything unravels.
I cobble together several little gigs that pay the bills and live my life as an artist.
I move in with one of my best friends in a city with more opportunity and hope for the best.

The possibilities are endless, no?

This isn’t my first rodeo.

When I graduated from college,  I moved home and was unemployed for a whole year. I watched my friends land their first jobs while I plucked rejection letters out of myself like a thousand cactus spines. (When I was 7, I crashed my bike into a cactus tree and my dad spent an hour pulling cactus spines out of my skin. It was like that.)

Then I went to graduate school. I graduated, had a temporary, full-time lecturer position, and then was back where I started.  I moved home again. I worked but I was underemployed for almost 2 years.

I’ve managed to be steadily and gainfully employed for the past 5 years.  So, you know, I’ve got my shit somewhat together. I live with the residue though. Of precarity. Of rejection. Of disposability. The fatigue of swimming upstream, exhausting your vocational muscles trying to get from point A to point B.

The things I thought were true of myself are pureed by every episode of un(der)employment; they are still true but have taken a different form, an unrecognizable mush of something good but not solid.

I have certainly been more fortunate than many. And I also see and validate my own experience, the pain and frustration of it. I have discovered that unemployment is hard work. Working to make ends meet. Working to get another job. Working to feel whole and useful. Working to keep your soul intact.

 

 

In Bushwick, They Speak Spanish to Me

I stopped into a bodega to get some chips. And as I stood in line, waiting for my turn, an elderly woman turned to me and said, “E’ todo que va a comer?” Once I realized she was talking to me, it was my turn to pay, and I lost the window of time that I needed to translate what she said and respond. (I’m not quick on my feet in Spanish!)

But two things struck me:
1) A stranger was concerned about what I was eating. (Sweet or judgmental? Ha.)
2) The woman spoke to me in Spanish.

The next day, I was strolling through the neighborhood, and an elderly man was walking on the sidewalk ahead of me. As I got close to him, I stepped aside and passed him on the side, so as not to disrupt his slow, calculated walk. And as I passed, he said, “Oh, disculpame.” I turned and smiled and he said, “Que lindas morenitas” to my friend and me.

I have never been anywhere in the U.S. where people talked to me in Spanish in such a mundane, presumptive way. How disarming and delightful.

It was an interesting experience in my black body. The thing about Bushwick is that my blackness did not preclude the possibility of being Spanish-speaking. This is, of course, a function of the (very apparent) racial diversity of Latinos in New York. (Perhaps also a function of being light-skinned with hair that seems uncertain about its texture.)

This is a markedly different experience from being in Texas, where to be black and speak Spanish is to be suspicious or even offensive. I recall a time when I observed a young man openly and persistently hitting on a woman in the front row of a class I was teaching. I sensed the woman getting increasingly uncomfortable with the interactions, which happened entirely in Spanish. So, after several minutes of feigning incomprehension, I stepped between them and said, “Hey! Comprendo todo. Déjala en paz, compa.” He turned beet red and others in the room gasped, laughed, and erupted with curiosity!
“How you know Spanish, miss? You Dominican?” (Because…of course.)
“Oh dang! Why you didn’t tell us you speak Spanish?”
(The truth is my Spanish is just okay. But I knew enough to understand the conversation and use my power to buffer the woman from his uncomfortable advances.)
They were shocked and shook.

Mmkay, so like…none of this is new or groundbreaking, really. But I think it’s important to revisit the “shapeshifting” of blackness in different contexts. (I’m reminded of what my blackness meant/felt in Kenya and in Barbados–I should write about that.) This is a reminder of our diasporic connections and the possibilities for solidarity. It also motivates me to continue my language development so that I might better connect with Spanish-speaking folks who look like me. This is an important piece of my Afro-Caribbean identity and kinship with the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

In Bushwick, to be black is to be a possibility. Possibly an immigrant. Possibly Afro-American. Possibly Latina. Possibly a native New Yorker. Possibly not. Possibly any number of things.

To be black anywhere is to be a possibility. Actually.

 

 

Why Losing Your Plastics is a Good Sign

The other day I was looking for the perfect size plastic food container to store some leftover black beans in the refrigerator. I couldn’t find the one I was looking for. Then I remembered that I had sent it, full of soup, home with a friend the week prior.

I live in a small town with limited options for dining out and a sense of hypervisibility whenever one socializes in public places. So, much of my social life happens in homes now.  And with that has come this interesting phenomenon of nomadic plastic containers. The plastic food containers currently in my cabinet are a mix of mine and not mine. Here’s why I think this may be a good sign:

  1. People are cooking. It didn’t take me long to realize that cooking would have to be a much bigger part of my life than it had been in the foodie heaven that is Austin, TX. I was glad for this. I wanted to improve my cooking skills, eat healthier, and save money. Let’s be real. When you have guests over, no one puts delivery pizza into a plastic container to take home with them. We put food that we’ve cooked and enjoyed in plastic containers.
  2. People are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing to share what you have, to circulate, to connect with others through food, one of the oldest currencies for social cohesion. It’s not just about about eating, it’s about bonding and forming a sense of community.
  3. People are trusting. It’s tempting to feel like you’ve lost something when your plastics go out the door in someone else’s hands (especially if you have the high quality ones). But eventually, a sense of trust sets in. You trust that, on another day, you will leave someone’s house with their plastics and it will all even out. You trust that there will be enough–enough food, enough reciprocity, enough generosity.

Seems silly. But I think if your food containers are going missing, it’s probably a good sign of community-building in process. Celebrate what you gain every time you lose.

Play

The kids don’t know what to do with CDs

Six of us crammed into this tiny room, walled in by a massive CD collection. We had just completed round one of our radio show training. The DJ handed each of us a small stack of CDs to review and bring back to this quirky studio housed in the lower level of a campus building. As he passed out  CDs, a hush fell over the room. Finally, it was broken by a student, “Um…so…I don’t have a CD player.”
The others chimed in.

“Yeah, me neither.”

“I guess I have one in my car.”

I laughed.

She turned to me, “Do you have a CD player?”

“Of course!”

I instantly regretted my response. It probably felt condescending. And it’s very likely that I responded that way out of my own discomfort of being at least 10 years older than all the other people in this matchbox room, where we are standing close enough together for them to spot my gray hairs. I had taken notes (in a notebook with a pen!). I didn’t know all the music artists they had named as their “summer favorites”. I felt my age and my distance and my resentment. And I felt my oddity as a “community member”. That’s what they call people here who are neither students, faculty, nor staff (but somehow are in this town).

The community member with no radio show

My hopes of being a campus radio DJ were dashed by my knee injury and all the craziness that ensued.

I still have the CDs. I need to listen to them and return them. I will listen to them in my new DVD player. After 10 or so years, my DVD player finally died. The new DVD players are so small. Like the size of a composition book.

No radio show. But  you know what? I was willing. I was willing to go out of my comfort zone. I was willing to try it. I was willing to be trained. I was willing to be the awkward “townie” who never explains her presence.

Playing in the lab

I recently renamed my home office “The Lab”. I want it to be a place of experimentation.  I often lament my lack of mastery in something. I am sort of mediocre at lots of things and not really good at any one thing, which I find dispiriting and uninspiring. But The Lab is inviting me to understand myself differently. As it turns out, I am quite good at playing.

I own several instruments that I have been teaching myself how to play over the last 12 years. I know only very basic music theory. I have all kinds of art supplies, some natural ability, and very little understanding of technique for any medium. I have stacks of empty journals waiting for some words. All of these are “tools of the trade”, and that trade is fuckin around. Tinkering. Trying. Autodidacticism. Playing.

Play is changing my strange, mediocre life

It’s a winding road from YouTube tutorials on rhythym patterns for bongos to articles about androgyny to online courses for writing SQL queries. I can’t explain how it happens. It just seems that everything I touch and tinker with ignites my curiosity about 10 other things. And then I am in a labyrinth of whimsical questions. I certainly chase the answers. And all of the answers boomerang me back to the chase.
Pursuit, curiosity, thirst.
Invitations for extraordinary moments. However ordinary and mediocre my life may be, play has created opportunities for the extraordinary tucked inside the mundane, hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps most interestingly, play configures me into a posture of learning and receptivity.

I believe that curiosity and receptivity, these outcomes of play, are opening my heart, mind, and power.

This is a happy place (that needs to be vacuumed)

I am laying on the floor as I write this. My dog is sleeping in her favorite spot behind me on the 5′ x 3′ rug with the geometric pattern. My sketchbook and a pile of magazines are stacked on top of my art set. My sketchbook is opened to the page where I was trying to figure out how to use watercolor pencils. A long cord stretches from my USB port to the back of my Casio keyboard. Today I figured out how to set up my keyboard as a MIDI controller and record tracks into my computer. On the other side of my computer, those 3 CDs.

I need to listen to them, write the reviews, and take them back. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. But, you know, I am sort of glad the radio show didn’t work out. I don’t think I wanted the commitment. I just wanted to discover and share things with people. Turns out, The Lab is a perfectly suitable place to do exactly that.

The Pressure to Make Political Art

One of the most compelling things about art is the way it reflects and/or comments on society. Art often illuminates and confronts the shadow sides–the injustice and inhumanity that make everyday life difficult, dangerous, or painful for certain people in certain bodies.

There is another compelling aspect of art: the disclcosure of one’s interior landscape. Art is often a deeply personal (even if veiled) revelation of thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams, and questions. It is an offering of self.

As a queerblackleftistwoman, I feel a lot of pressure to make art that is intentionally and explicitly political. Where does this pressure come from? After all, no one is in my Lab (also known as my home office) telling me what kind of poems I should write, what kinds paintings I should paint. However, I think that when you inhabit multiple identities that are so politically valenced, there is a sort of tacit expectation that you will speak from and to that experience, if you choose to make art. Any other type of art is frivolous, given the sociopolitical conditions of these times.

Am I projecting? Possibly. Maybe, deep down, I am judging myself for giving time and energy to things that don’t advance the struggle.

Several months ago, I was at a gathering where everyone shares creative works. I shared some poems. They fell flat. The response was tepid. There was very little feedback or engagement (atypical for this gathering). It could have been because the poems weren’t that good (I do indeed write a lot of poems that aren’t that good), but I don’t think that was the case. Other folks followed with their contributions, which were no more (or less) interesting, lovely, or thought-provoking, yet those contributions generated a lot of lively conversation. I think it was because of the political overtones of what they shared.

I typically write poems that are delicate, observant, contemplative, and whimsical. Not the kind of poetry that will get snaps and a “Yasssss!”  It’s just not that. And somewhow I feel like readers/listeners are surprised and disappointed by that.

Maybe there is something subversive about the kind of art I make, to the extent that it departs from what is expected of me, given my social location. But, mostly, I think it’s just unfortunate that art about my interiority, art about my everyday life and the regular shit around me will not be as enthusiastically received as the political art I could  make.

Many days I have to persuade myself to keep making, even if other people don’t get it, don’t love it, or don’t get excited about it. Make what I want to make. Ironically, that kind of self-possession is quite political.

Is Taoism Incompatible with Revolutionary Politics?

I have had two major personal developments in recent years.

Politically, I shifted from the progressive left to the radical left.
Spiritually, I have pursued Taoist philosophy to guide my life.

Both  of these developments have been really important to me. That political move is sharpening my analysis of the conditions we live in, clarifying my vision of what kind of world I wish to live in, and identifying some of the strategies I think necessary to get there. The spiritual move is increasing my self-awareness, creating inner peace, and equipping me to understand and face life’s challenges.

Yet, the more these paths unfold, the more they seem to diverge. And I am beginning to wrestle with the (in)compatibility of my spiritual and political convictions.

The thing about a radical political position is that it calls for revolutionary change of fundamental social systems. The way to deal with the root cause is to uproot the social structure.

The thing about Taoism is that you move with the current. You bend. You flex. You lean into what is. You accept reality as it is and cultivate moderation in all things.

My politics demand radical change. My spirituality demands radical acceptance. This is my dilemma.

I recognize that I am oversimplifying. All of this is more complex. But I do feel a very real tension inside of me concerning how I orient myself to the world. I suspect that as I continue to develop, the  resolution of that tension will make itself known to me. But for now, I’m just sort of wondering how to fully be both of these things.