Courage: (from the Latin: coeur) Tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
Boneshaker Books (2002 23rd Ave S, corner of Franklin and 23rd, Minneapolis, MN) and
Cracked Walnut Literary Fest host a reading of
local talented writers speaking through creative prose and poetry on the nature of war and strife.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Aundria Sheppard Morgan
A few days late but I’m giving up fear for Lent. 40 days. Come what may.
A series of events in the last two years awakened a dormant fear—reminding me it is always present. My personal safety and my health are not a concern. I exist on borrowed time. Life has taken more than it has given and I’ve no desire to journey into old age. 50 is not the new 40. 50 is 50. So, I’m good.
Fear censors and restrains me. Fear, like a bit in my mouth and a reign in someone else’s hands, has steered me onto a well-worn path of mediocrity. A path hindered by detours, potholes, and debris. It is a path endlessly under construction with no sound destination save survival. Survival doesn’t cut it for me. Never has. Never will. I want more.
Fear says, accept less. It whispers: Look at your history. For you, Aundria Sheppard Morgan, scraps are better than nothing. Fear slips into my vocabulary, entwining itself around my dreams, smothering possibility. Fear is so common, so insidious I don’t feel it wrapping around my chest and throat. All I know is that it hurts to breathe. But that’s just life, right?
So let’s see what happens when I slip out of fear’s embrace. Let’s see what happens when I remove the bit and harness and run free—uncensored, unrestrained, and with nothing to lose.
Work with me on this journey; or if not, step out of my way.
Windchill 40-50 below zero and actual air temperature at minus 25. Frostbite within 10 minutes on unprotected skin. Short attention spans. Shorter memories. Overcoming a polar vortex, overcoming adversity in 10 minutes or less. Go.
December 2013. Minneapolis, MN. Arctic blasts. January 2014. Snow falls and falls and… Drifts. February: temps plummet. Flights cancelled. Blizzard warnings and snow emergencies. Cars towed. Roads closed. Schools closed—again, wail parents. Icy roads. Multiple car pileups on 35W, I94, 280 oh, just pick a highway, freeway, interstate. Watch those off ramps. BLACK ICE! Treacherous roads tear up cars. MNDOT says temps too cold for chemicals to make life smooth as we trek from home to school to work to grocery stores to football games to emergency rooms to car repair shops to…just stay home, dammit!
But life goes on.
62 consecutive hours below zero. Car parked. No treacherous drives for me. Huddled in bus shelters and bundled in layers, a group squints up Nicollet Avenue for the #18 bus. Late. My fingers tingle. My toes become numb. Breathing hurts so only shallow breaths as wind bites my skin and all turn the calendar toward hope.
March will give way to spring—eventually (although last year, I noted from my hospital bed, snow still falling at the end of April). The longed-for thaw will reveal the damage left behind. Streets riddled with potholes and, yes, even sinkholes to swallow us whole. Some will soon forget the Polar Vortex; others won’t have that luxury. Come spring, allergy sufferers will wheeze, cough, and sneeze as their puffy eyes run. Gas prices will rise. Roofs will need repairs. People will struggle to pay off car repair bills, medical bills, funeral costs.
Suicides are highest in spring.
I’ll remember this Polar Vortex as the season a Minneapolis father lost 5 babies in a house fire and a coworker fell over the edge taking us with him. Layoffs. Budget cuts. Program cuts. All of this means friends who have worked long and hard helping others are now in need of help that does not exist. I’ll shudder at the absurdity of building a multimillion dollar sports stadium while homeless youth, men, and women curled up in dumpsters and froze to death. I’ll lament disappointment in leaders at my work who breached trust and undermined my dignity forcing me to fight battles civil rights advocates have already fought. I’ll look back, then look down at the scars I bear and wonder how many more seasons I’ll hold on.
Brave? Did Berni just call me brave? Our phone conversation had drifted from neighborhood news to weather to my latest ‘constellation of health issues’ as my primary physician had named them. I want to swap topics. Instead of delving into the mysterious realm of things beyond my control let’s talk more about writing. Despite the setbacks, I’m still on track for completing Smiling Is Not Resilience by year’s end. I’m looking forward to doing a book reading at Intermedia Arts in December. I’m grateful for the writing grant that brings me a step closer to completing this eight year work-in-progress.
Berni presses on though, inquiring if physicians at University of Minnesota Clinics know more than the endless stream of rheumatologists, dermatologists, cardiovascular specialists, renal specialists, pulmonary specialists, and hematologists at Allina Hospitals and Clinics. I take a deep breath and give a matter-of-fact recount of the upheaval my nonspecific and undiagnosed autoimmune disease has added to the months past and days ahead. I tell of invasive medical tests, medication trials and their harrowing side effects, frustrations coordinating care and getting to appointments, swimming to lessen my ever faithful companion pain, wonderful but limited support from family and friends, and my DO NOT RESUSCITATE status as I struggle through full time work that daily brings me face to face with hurting people with more challenges and less resources than I have.
“You’re so brave.” Berni says again. I tense up, bite my tongue. I want to chastise her for leaning on that patronizing language where being alive is brave, human kindness heroic, any non fatality—no matter how damaging—a miracle.
Brave. I’m not brave. If talking makes me brave, then nights when I lay crying and moaning and wishing for death makes me a coward.
I’m neither a coward nor am I brave. I’m…just…here.
Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Crispus Attucks, Lucretia Mott, Sapphire, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Tupac Shakur. These names rise. They inspire me. The ones so dissatisfied. I share a kinship with women like Marion Donovan who invented the disposable diaper along with inventors Josephine Cochran, Marie Curie, and Gertrude Elion who were unwilling to accept the world as it was, raised their expectations, and did something about it.
I share this kinship with those I work with, live with, and call neighbor. People who everyday challenge what we are otherwise conditioned to accept. Moms advocating for childhood cancer research, women providing low cost auto repair and education to those surviving below poverty level, men and women striving to end homelessness through dignity, respect, and system change. Neighbors reaching out to neighbors in times of need.
My life would be dismal today if abolitionists, civil rights leaders, artists, my ancestors, and others had been content to simply wake up and face another day.
Yes, give me more who are discontent. Give me more who will go against the grain, challenge the norms, question WHY? Fill my world not with whiners and passiveness but those possessed with an insane drive that demands social change.
Stand by me, but know that my goal is to turn this fucking world upside down.
Despite my objections, Life goes on.
A late afternoon thunderstorm darkens the sky and pours tubs of refreshing rain. Now in the cool of evening I sit in my Minneapolis apartment without AC or fan. Days of 95 degrees plus wringing humidity help me appreciate the soothing powers of a summer storm.
Likewise, I cling to this calm spell in my life, a time when my own storms have abated, allowing me to breathe. Comfortable. My sleep, for the most part, is restful. No anxiety-ridden moments before drifting off, none upon waking—at least not since leaving California and New York. I’m not totally without worry. I still glance over my shoulder. I still watch where I place my feet, so wary of hidden potholes with my name on them. Paranoia? No. Experience. History. It’s hard to trust this Life.
The one bedroom, third floor apartment at the northeast end of the hall has not yet become home. My voice echoes in the semi-furnished rooms. Starting over—again. Alone this time. I’ve never been more…content? No more tiptoeing around others’ idiosyncrasies and hidden agendas. No more night time speeding along Pacific Coast Highway or aimless rides on New York City subways until the tears stopped and I could put the required cheeriness back in my voice. No more painted smiles for the sake of preserving household dynamics and enduring the after-all-we’ve-done-for-her whispers. No more sleeping with strangers just to be touched. No more pretending. My own four walls—bare though they are—my small, coveted space to grieve, rant, celebrate, and heal in my time, my way. In between, silence resonates. In these quiet spaces I am lost in thought. I plan what I need to do, think about words to put on paper, give myself pep talks, chase away ghosts.
I chase away ghosts, but still my mother haunts me. I see her face drawn in pain. I hear her moans and cries. Whiffs of decaying flesh intrude upon my thoughts. I touch my skin and remember hers—the shedding, swelling, tearing. Sometimes I look in the mirror and her face is there. The dying face. The suffering face. I chase her away, not ready yet to grieve as I need to for her suffering. It frightens me to relive it knowing what grief can and has done to me before. But like James, Ma will trouble me until I put her life into words. I may be content but not at peace. So not writing isn’t an option.
Ma haunts me. To ignore that truth, to do nothing, corrupts an integral part of myself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Of course, my words also test, strain, and in some cases end relationships even as they bridge new bonds. So I wrestle with my need to relive through writing what my brother and sister may need to forget. My mother was a private woman. I learned more from what she kept within than what she said aloud, for actions give a private woman away. Her distancing mandated I learn her subtle cues. I honed in on the changes in her voice—from low and intense to strident—the pupil dilation, the nervous chewing of the lower lip, or worse the lips pressed tight. The air in our cramped apartment was charged with her energy. To enter a room and sense a good day or one much worse dictated my own days and nights as a child, teenager, and young adult. I shrank inside myself knowing that my existence flustered her.
I should tell you that she is dead.
What I know of Ma wouldn’t fill a postcard. Her life is gaps, white space and blanks. I must face now what in some ways is easier to let lie. I am left with an empty inheritance. Questions unanswered. I am an orphan who knows less about her birth parents, her history than some adopted children. As such, I flounder about in this life trying to lay roots in soil that won’t hold. I dig deeper and deeper but never reach that solid place. So I float. Unattached. Unanchored. Neither secured nor harnessed to this world. With each breath, letting go, letting go, letting go.
My greatest fear is that I have lived too long.
So know that I cannot give you the assurance that I will be okay, an “AHA” moment ringed with hope, or a warm fuzzy feeling when you reach the last page. I cannot promise that you will like me, or trust me, or empathize with me. I cannot put enough years between my past and present to be appropriately objective and produce the hero’s story. I simply cannot. Consider the reader; I am reminded again and again even though I am also the reader. Understand that this is first, my truth with some names and places changed for privacy sake. It is what I remember as best and honestly as I can remember it. Second, this is the story that only I can tell, that I need to tell—the one I relive with each rewrite, re-reading, memory. Last, it is a story that I hear daily from friends suffering from chronic pain, intense loneliness, homelessness, or lives unfulfilled. Not word for word but in a hand placed on mine, a voice heavy with emotion, a deep sigh that signals what so many others wish you would hear as we invent then laud our heroes while others fall down.
excerpt from Smiling Is Not Resilience (work in progress)
I asked a coworker how he was doing one morning. He responded, “Any day that I wake up is a good day.” I told him, “You really need to raise your expectations.”
My first remembered thought as a child was: How do I get the hell out of this city? The map that made me crisscrossed above Brooklyn’s gray streets—Coney Island, Brighton Beach, BedStuy— then dipped into downtown Brooklyn’s bowels. Crushed against more than 8 million daily commuters, several hundred street performers, and the thousands of homeless who used my subway map for toilet paper, I prayed. We’d emerge briefly, sunlight flashing between steel cables as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge. In that short space spirits lifted then fell as we descended into the underbelly of Canal Street through mid Manhattan. I prayed, but found no exits.
Recurring dreams had me stuck in those tunnels waiting for the B train, F train, IRT locals and shuttles. I’d wander into packed cars, empty cars, derailed cars that careened through blackness, spitting me out at unmarked stations where I’d climb stairs with those (you know) heavy-laden, dream-legs only to be chased by gun-totting mobs, wild dogs, and in one dream a demented clown danced seductively along the third rail as I struggled to wake— heart pounding and sweat drenched—to a life as frightful as the dreams. My God, how I prayed.
It was on the N Train, at 19 years old, that I met my first and only love. James. His smile lit up the dark places and belied his living nightmares as we raced underground. Infatuation grew to love and love always brings hope. I thanked God. But too soon, hope and love and tragedy collided as often happens in my part of town and I joined the parade of women visiting their men: girlfriends, wives, grandmothers who learn to navigate the public transit system leading to Riker’s Island, Sing Sing, Attica. In essence squeezing me into the small, stifling space the larger maps insisted were destined for me.
Still young, I eventually chose to brave those larger maps, crossing state lines, economic, racial, and cultural divides to prove I could, even though so unsure of my destination. I prayed, but nothing could have prepared me for the losses that awaited me. I fell apart, came together, fell apart—losing James to a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart, so many on 9/11, my mother to cancer. My greatest fear is that I have lived too long.
Years, and years more, and I’m still in awe of majestic trails and breathtaking vistas even as I navigate the potholes, detours, roads under construction, with absolutely no proven short cuts.
So don’t be surprised if you find me on the side of the road, on the outskirts of some place or the other studying the crumpled, stained map confused by the keys and legends, seeking and asking for directions. Simply acknowledge that I am here, weary from wandering so long, but still here in this spot on the map.
Reading March 16, 2013 Barrie Jean Borich’s Book Launch for Body Geographic
It begins with the New Year. I drop things. I forget why I have come into a room, or why I have left. Lids on jars, scenes from television shows, slow checkout lines, shoes that don’t match my pants bring tears. It continues as I flip the calendar. I begin to remember. February is our wedding anniversary. Twenty-three years. Twenty-third Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. And yet I do. My sleep, when it comes, bring dreams filled with want. I awake to an edginess that I cannot name. James. Sunshine makes it worse. I skim through days, endure nights into March. Spring cloaks me with a sadness belied by my smile. The nights are violent. The triggers too many to count. I look in the mirror. Ma. I see my mother’s face. Her dying face. I weep. I barely have time to dry my eyes when April comes. April when James shot himself in the heart on his thirty-seventh birthday. I sort through the piled losses stuffed in corners of memory. James has been dead seventeen endless years; Ma eight. In between cousins, aunts, uncles, best friends, co workers, have eased or been ripped from my world leaving me here with my goddamned season of anniversaries.