Tradition

Christmas day. For years I longed for tradition. Perhaps we had them at one time. Traditions not necessarily identified as such; but, nonetheless, there were ceremonies and rituals my family followed. Ma played Santa until my younger sister Kim and I were old enough to know better. We did the same for our baby brother Chris when he came along ten years after me. In our cramped apartments Ma sang and there was a decorated tree each Christmas. Ornaments put up year after year—some handmade by myself and later Kim and Chris. There were the Santa Claus mugs with hot cocoa and mini marshmallows. I loved those mugs which only came out for this season. Christmas mornings we checked the plate for the cookies with a bite taken out.

We saw the Nutcracker one year. Ma annoyed when I dozed off during the long ballet. What a sacrifice it must have been to provide us with that experience. We scored standing room only tickets in 1975 to The Wiz. I don’t know if we saw it on Broadway or at the Majestic theater. I remember my legs tired and the usher eventually allowed me to sit on the aisle steps. I loved Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and Mabel King as Evillene. Just as enthralling were annual trips to Macys to see the displays and Rockefeller Center to gaze at the big tree and watch the ice skaters.

There were gatherings with aunts, uncles, and cousins. I loved Aunt Naomi’s fruit cake. Kitchen surfaces laden with ham, turkey, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, and sweet potato pie (never heard of pumpkin pie until I came to the Midwest). Rooms cloudy with cigarette smoke, relatives slapping cards on the table, alcohol flowing, laughter, and music filling empty space are my memories.

We didn’t have much; yet, rarely did I think we lacked. Okay, maybe the year Ma dressed up our old beat up dolls in new clothes and put them under the tree. The red velveteen dress and beret on my white Susie doll fooled me only until I lifted the dress and discovered the missing battery cover. Susie had long ceased squawking, “Mama. Mama.” and “I want another drink of water.” I looked at Ma, the disappointment in my eyes accompanied by my loud, “HEY! These are old dolls!” I still remember her face. Guilt? Sadness? Something that made me —even at five or six years old—realize that she wished she could have done more. It was the beginning of learning to let go.

When I married James in 1990 I believed we would one day establish traditions. Our wedding held in the Clinton Correctional facility in Dannemora, NY only required Job-like faith in God. During the previous eight years that I was following God’s plan for my life in Minnesota, James’ home was Rikers Island and later New York prisons. Our love story not at all unusual in our native Brooklyn neighborhoods. February 1, 1990 I flew in and stayed in a motel not far from the prison. Two days later we were married. The next day, clutching the beautiful bouquet my “adopted” Swedish mom had made for me but the guards would not allow into the prison, I sobbed so hard on the Minnesota bound plane the flight attendant tried to comfort me. Of course, I could not explain to this young, white woman why I could not be consoled.

Weddings were never my dream; still, I hoped when James was released we could have a true ceremony. I imagined the years yet to come. The children we would have. For five more long years I imagined. In dreams, I combined what I remembered from my childhood with memories James shared. Our future children would have comfort, security, and strength. Tradition would unite and heal. Tradition would be a lifeline of past, present, and future Godbolts, Sheppards, and Morgans. I didn’t imagine James and I would only have that one Christmas in 1995. I didn’t imagine I’d be a widow by spring 1996. I didn’t imagine God’s promise of a future and a hope would become my hardest letting go lesson.

Ma died March 2005. Her last few Christmases marked by disfigurement, suffering from a rare cancer that consumed her literally head to toe. We came together as family—Kim and her husband, their precocious little one, Chris, and I. We took care of Ma and as best we could each other. Tradition. Letting go.

As I often do, I look back. Grief has become my tradition. I have my rituals, remembrances, memorials. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. I refuse to manipulate my grief into some story of resilience. I refuse to let others comfort themselves with a feel-good hero’s journey. I am not sad. I am not lonely. What was sad were the times I adopted other families, became the invited single, shared in others’ traditions which mostly exacerbated my losses (and yes, I welcome the invites even though I politely decline).

I’m not alone. For over a decade I’ve shared Christmas and felt most at ease with people experiencing homelessness. People who live loss daily. I’ve collected and saved the postcards of the annual Homeless Memorial March and Service. At this year’s 33rd march and vigil 169 homeless and formerly homeless and 11 advocates who died this year were honored and celebrated. Tradition.

My affinity with those perched on Life’s edge is a pained gift. In their eyes my own losses are reflected. As someone recently said to me, loss is loss. The empty spaces only momentarily filled by the holiday meal, gift bag, clean socks, hand warmers, tokens. When all is said and done our loss—homes, family, independence, health—still exists. There isn’t anything merry or bright about that.

Tradition is remembrance. Tradition is raw honesty. Tradition makes space for the less traditional. It morphs and bends. It opens and embraces. It accepts quiet reflection, tears, stories, whatever the heart is willing to yield.

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Never Mind

A little girl exits the back seat on the passenger side.
A police officer scoops her up.
The world bears witness.
No justice! No peace!
As this child grows up we will brand her resilient.

Never mind the nightmares and daymares that now blur.

Now, sitting behind her mommy, elevated in her carseat with the pink swirls, nothing protects her view. Bullets rip through her Philando. Too fast to count. The blasts shake the car. She, sits still. Eyes wide. In tune to her mommy’s level voice. Yes sir. I will keep my hands where you can see them, sir. Mommy reasoning with the shouting policeman pointing his gun. Mommy live-streaming on her cell phone. Mommy.

She makes herself small.

Never mind her Philando’s groans or his splattered blood or his head falling toward her lap.
Never mind her Mommy’s plea: Please, don’t tell me you just killed my boyfriend.
Never mind these horrific minutes, ingrained during her formative years, will impact her for a lifetime and then some.

We will brand her resilient as we seek to comfort ourselves.
We will brand her resilient as we cocoon ourselves in a silver-lined fantasy that mandates a four year old become our hero.
We will brand her resilient as we pull bloodied threads of hope from her personal tragedy.

We will brand her resilient. Mommy handcuffed in the squad car. Breaks. Wails.

“It’s okay, Mommy.
“It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
“I will protect you.”

We need mother and daughter to be resilient.
They are our hope.
Never mind the cost.

We are anything but resilient, so we ascribe this burden to a four year old Black baby.
We insist she bear what we cannot.
We know there is no justice.
We know there is no peace.
We know nothing has really changed in over 200 years.
We cover our guilt, our anguish, our hopelessness as
We lament…there are no words.
Cowards that we are, hiding behind a traumatized little girl, who witnessed the brutal murder of her Philando by those sworn to protect and to serve.

Never mind.

Weather Forecast

Let the storms come while I sleep. The scrape of snowplows are my alarm clock. Roads cleared of snow and ice my only prayer. Subzero temperatures are a given in Minnesota. Winter comes faithfully; still, we forget. We forget until cars slide into guardrails, skid through red lights, careen over dividers, pile up on highways. We lament. We moan. We bitch and we boast. We obsess about the weather. Day after freezing day.

Come March the wear is evident. SAD. Seasonal Affect Disorder or just plain ole sad. We’ve grown weary of snow forts, ice sculptures, thermal underwear, and boots. We manipulate time, springing ahead one hour as if this somehow saves daylight. We celebrate delayed sunsets and collectively deceive ourselves that spring has come.

March toys with us. Howling wind and thick clouds followed by more of the same. Then for no reason that makes any sense the sun breaks through. Temps soar into the low forties. We shed layers and populate parks, lakes, and bike trails. Temps hit the sixties. Jubilee! We practically worship the sun and it’s life-affirming warmth. And then suddenly…snow.

Oh how cruel March, how cruel. How gullible are we? After all of our years in this state have we not learned? We cycle back into bitching and moaning and lamenting and damning this state. Why oh why do any of us live here?

April brings hope. Dare we? Could it be? Is it true? Rain. More rain. We need the rain. Just look, how brown and lifeless our land. Barren trees. No green. No flowers. We need the rain. We need the rain becomes our comforting mantra.

The rain proves true.

Spring comes faithfully. Facebook timelines fill with shots of budding trees, first flowers, blades of grass.

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah!

In 2017 we celebrate spring as the Mother of All Bombs is dropped on Afghanistan; North Korea tests its missiles; Russia throws shade on the United States. Our #Resist mimicking the seasons. Millions marched in January; yet, how many will vote in local and mid term elections?

We tweet, post, comment, scream expletives across the aisle. No one hears because no one is listening. We obsess about our politics.

We are one nation.

We collectively deceive ourselves.

After all of our years, our history, have we not learned? We cycle back into bitching and moaning and lamenting and damning one another. Why oh why?

The storms come and I cannot sleep.

In Dreams

In dreams the dead visit.
I welcome their arrival—at times even courting them.
See you in my dreams, I whisper, trusting they will acquiesce.

They slip in quietly,
foisting themselves between
less memorable sleep shows.
Scenes change.
And they are with me.

James rarely speaks.
Aloof.
I chase after him without running or
quickening my step.
I hover.
He continues simply being;
As if I am the ghost in his dreams.

Ma dies repeatedly.
Oblivious to her mortality
she frets,
argues,
roams.
She refuses my tending,
dismisses my tears.

Awake as in dreams
The dead are with me.
I cherish their haunting
For it is all I have left.

A Lifetime of Trauma

I can’t sleep.
Again.
My jaw hurts.
The eye tic replaced with clenching my teeth—
Even in sleep.

Images.
Flashing lights,
Police in military gear
In formation on I94.
A swelling crowd
Whose anger, pain palpable on screen.

Flashback:
1960’s Civil Rights Movement
Flashback:
L.A Riots
Flashback. Flashback. Flashback. Flashback.
Last year
Last month
Yesterday
This election season

How much more can we take?

All those Facebook posts
Swirling in my head:
I am devastated
I want to DO SOMETHING…but I don’t know how
I don’t know what to say
I don’t know how to help
Someone tell me what I need to do to help make this stop…

 
I will answer.
I will lay out the steps.
I will follow the example my ancestors laid down with their battered lives
I will echo what has been eloquently written, powerfully spoken, consistently shown
for generations
I will say it with a new twist and in less words for our short attention span.
I will…

But first I must unclench my jaw,
Acknowledge my rage
on this never-ending journey
of compressing
a lifetime of trauma
into capsules of resilience
that
are
easy
to
swallow.

UNTITLED: July 7, 2016

I wake up fighting.
The sun shines. I don’t know why.
Life is one continuous battle.

I leave the tv off. No news. Quiet. My parakeets, Safari and Faren, chirp in the background. I wonder: Are caged birds ever really happy?

My mind revs as I try and fail to locate that Zen state.

My thoughts swirl. Trauma Informed Care. I looked it up before bed last night. Bad move. In my sleep I began composing an email to make work better for those we serve and those who do the serving. Who isn’t traumatized?

I read the latest issue of The New Yorker. “Empathy for the Devil,” Emily Nussbaum’s take on Orange is the New Black (a show I’ve not seen), captures me. I underscore lines like: Poussey was educated, world-travelled, and middle-class, but she died as any black inmate might, as a cipher crushed by a racist system. And: Yet the fourth season is most provocative when it refuses to resolve its emotional contradictions, by showing how insufficient an apology can be, how despair can be as reasonable a response as faith.

…How despair can be as reasonable a response as faith. A perfect truth for the query letter for my memoir Smiling Is Not Resilience. The last publisher declined saying, “you are an excellent writer, and your story is so well told and heartbreaking and relatable on some level with so many. However, we felt that the manuscript didn’t give closure. We were left feeling somewhat adrift, without the sense of moving forward, or moving in a new direction…” And my response to them: Thank you for your consideration and feedback. The intent of the manuscript is to not leave the traditional and expected“closure.” The goal is to encourage us to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. This for many is the hero’s journey ignored.

But I stop underlining Kelefa Sanneh’s “There Goes the Neighborhood: Is it really a problem when poor areas get richer?” in the same New Yorker magazine. Referring to Mitchell Duneir’s “Ghetto” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) Sanneh writes: But for him that sting shows us just how much inequality we still tolerate, even as attitudes have changed.

Mingled and interrelated are conversations—ad nauseam—on equity, inclusion, equality. And as one wise twenty-something,white coworker lamented, “Equity and inclusion are not profitable; however, TALKING about equity and inclusion is.” He stated this as one of the reasons he is moving on. And I had to admit not much has changed.

And so still, pre-Zen, I open up Facebook.
There’s a video.
There’s a video.
There’s a video.
I read some of the comments.

I hit play.
I hit play.
I hit play.

The sun shines. I don’t know why.
I watch a woman in a car. I witness a man bleed to death. I hear a child in the background.
No worries the woman says to the cop who has killed her boyfriend.
I watch a woman in a car. I witness a man bleed to death. I hear a child in the background.
No worries.
No worries.
No worries.

My tears flow.
For the first time I’m glad my James is already dead.
I’m so thankful I don’t have children to lose.

My tears flow.
My heart…my soul…my…resilience breaks—again.

I feel no closure. I am left feeling somewhat adrift, without the sense of moving forward, or moving in a new direction….

Observation #2: We Mourn. We Celebrate.

We mourn. Oh, how we mourn.

Our disappointment riots forth…flagging hope.
We mourn a country that cries “he does not represent us” a thousand times over.
We mourn hate’s new wardrobe—adorned in talk of equity and tolerance,
Quietly accepted and blessed by God.
We mourn. Oh, how we mourn.

And yes, we mourn lives sliced short—
By our bullets, our young, our own.
Memorials, t-shirts, marches.
Our victories so incomplete.

In the same breath that we mourn, we celebrate.
Life commands us to celebrate.

Yes?

No.

We
are
not
done
mourning…

Michael Britt Photo

Michael Britt Photo

Observation #1: We are here

Then.

Necessity taught me invisibility. Listen. Remember, because I’m only going to tell you once. Follow the rules. Unfair. Eyes bored into mine. Strident tone. Not enough gentle touches. I swallowed my tears.

My questions questioned. Lips pressed tight. Nourished on half-truths…still…I grew.

I discovered new worlds. Choices. Role models. My questions, but few answers, found in books.

Now.

I seek the invisible. Listen. Remember, because some may only confide once. Rules change. I meet their eyes. Soften my tone. A gentle touch is sometimes okay. My tears flow.

I write so that you know we are here.images

For Lois S.

Night.
I can’t sleep.
I recount losses.
I’m never as upbeat as I appear.

You, my fragile lifeline;
My pain so unpredictable.
Your long-distance presence kept me,
from slipping over the edge.

Just breathe, I sobbed.
Just breathe, you said,
Embracing my bereavement.
No platitudes…just honesty.
No one else has done that for me.
No one.

Night.
You no longer endure.
Each breath letting go.
No more brave fronts.
We keep vigil.

I brace for your death,
Rehearsed for four years.
We don’t always have to talk, you told me.
I replied, And for God’s sake don’t apologize.

Cracked Walnut Literary Festival 2015

Voices We Ignore

The Underground Music Cafe

1579 Hamline Avenue N

Falcon Heights, MN 55108

TUESDAY MAY 12, 2015

7:00 PM

Featuring

Aundria Sheppard Morgan
Deborah Keenan
Jennifer Bowen Hicks
Louis Murphy
Ethna Mckiernan
Michael Kiesow Moore

This is the 9th reading of 29 that Cracked Walnut is hosting in the months of May and June for the 2015 Cracked Walnut Literary Festival. Each reading has a unique title, features a different cadre of writers, and is happening in a different space in the Twin Cities. Reading are free and open to the public. Donations are appreciated and merchandise including chapbooks and author books will be available. Cash is preferred tender for authors

https://www.facebook.com/events/741673249263724/

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund

http://www.crackedwalnut.com