Saturday, November 15, 2014

*looks up, around and over both shoulders at the prematurely published blog design*

So THAT's what that button does....

Monday, August 18, 2014

For Rent

I'm gonna start selling rental slots in my hammock. At fifty cents a minute, guests can suspend themselves above the ground and their worries. By design, a hammock orients your attitude, forehead and toes toward the sky. Facing the curve of the world, my guests might wonder if the membrane between our world and "space" is hard like a robin's egg or viscous like the snotty plasma of a cell. Or maybe they will search the stratosphere for contrails, imagining the itineraries and distances of the soaring passengers. Or maybe their thoughts will tumble like clouds over meeting confirmations or back-to-school sales or speaker wire or taboo flesh or roasted zucchini or blood.

In 10-minute blocks, my hammock guests can lull the jabbering narrative of their day to a dull hum. The hard angles of power lines and rooftops etch into a view sometimes mottled with the cotton candy dissolve of clouds and, sometimes, scattered with the white embers of stars. Always, always the hammock dislodges ideas and memories. Always, always, the sky accepts what we must release.

If guests opt to sway in the hammock, tree tops will playfully peek into their ken. I once offered myself to a man who challenged me to describe the trees along our rehearsal-romantic stroll. He'd read somewhere that describing a tree was the mark of a truly great writer. I'd wanted to love him so badly. The two of us, I knew, would've been great together (and by "knew," I mean "vividly imagined"). He liked me too, just not enough to return my messages in a timely manner or follow through on his promised visits. I thought about him during a recent hammock session, eyeing the tapestry edges of leaves. I should call him. Thank him for being a good dude and decidedly not gobbling my eager heart whole.

I've got my own good dude now. One year and counting toward a lifetime. The universe held him in reserve and only released him into my path when both of us were ready.  He loves the hammock, too. And me. Maybe my hammock guests will hover above the pieces of themselves, too. Hook their roaming thoughts to a backyard breeze and sway back and forth like a pendulum spell. Cradled in an amniotic zero gravity, I hope my guests will allow their bones and spirit and past aches to still and rest.

No matter how my guests choose to invest their time, my brochures, website and prime time commercials will invite one and all to recline in my backyard, peer beyond their skyline of toes and experience how, in a hammock, heaven is actually closer than it appears.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stupid is...

“I’m stupid,” she said, a question mark wilting at the end of her sentence.

She looked down to her hands. She had long, elegant fingers. I looked down to the baby in my lap. He was 30 pounds of dimples and cooing and intent on surrendering my fingertips into his little gobbler mouth. Still looking down at her hands, she was surrendering to the first slide of tears.

She showed up at 9am on Wednesday, just as she said she would. The same invitation had been extended a year ago, at her request, but she hadn't come. We’d had, let’s say, a “defining moment” when she pressed beyond my polite silence to ask what I really thought of her boyfriend. Now, she stood in my living room countering a son and a car seat with one hip. I walked over to her, lifted the diaper bag from her shoulder, and led her to the basement.

“You tried to tell me,” she said on the stairs. “You tried to tell me.”

I learned that everyone she knew shared my opinion of him, including his mother and immediate family, and we all had expressed concern about his recklessness and disrespect. I don't know what defense she offered them, but she told me about their connection. About how he revealed warmer parts of his character when they were alone. How freely he would talk and how easily they could laugh. She told me how she'd called bullshit on his gamesmanship at the very beginning and how he'd softened her with an exotic bouquet of access and earnestness. He'd opened himself to her like bait meat.  

Her connection to him forged powerfully and deeply with his shared tender patches. She described a sync between them too strong and authentic to be denied or destroyed. His palette of other women couldn't ruin their love. His public and gleeful disgracing of her name couldn't weaken their bond. His inglorious embodiment of unreliable parent could not shake them. Even after he defected to a new city and a new woman’s household, their special union could persist.

“I worked so hard not to be this," her arm carved a graceful game show arc in the space between us three. She finished the gesture with a disdainful tug at her worn and faded tee shirt. She talked more about her foolhardy attraction. She talked about the confrontations. About the screaming and the court dates. She talked about the disconnect from her own family and friends. She talked about crossroads and rocky bottoms. Dire straits and necessary next steps. 

I’d been gazing at their son’s face, inventorying which features came from whom. My hands were hooked under the boy's arms, holding him upright and balancing his wobbly feet on my knee. I’d been wishing more of her genes had won. I listened to her like an echo across all the humans I’ve ever known. All of us eventually pouring our grit into someone else’s unsuitable container and surviving varying degrees of corrosion. I handed her the baby. With one hand she settled him into the bowl of her lap, with the other she wiped at her slick and salted face. I took the hand wet with tears and held it.

 “You tried loving somebody who was undeserving. Having a heart like that didn't make any of us stupid,” I said. “'Stupid’ depends on what you let happen next.” 

That might have been harsh, but it was the truth as clean as I could offer it. I laid in front of her the same stark bones I’ve had to lay out to myself when Reality was staring down my most inspired and hopeless imaginings. “So, stop this,” I'd said to myself, simply and sternly, to bring myself back to the safer side of absurdity. 

"So, stop this," I said to her. "You don't have to figure out how. Right now, you only have to decide to stop."

We talked more about stubborn pride, ferocious love, calculated risks and freedom. We talked a lot about freedom. The baby had fallen asleep. She kept talking until it was time to pick up my daughter from camp. 

I hugged her tight at the door and reminded her to keep her head up so she could see everything in front of her. She nodded, smiled and pledged to sit down again soon. It’s okay if she doesn’t. It’s okay if she takes yet another ride on his crazy carnival. The capacity for that kind of devotion isn’t foolish; discernment is what complicates the gift. 

From the screen door I watched her strap in the baby’s car seat. She stood and waved before ducking into the drivers’ side and I imagined the future, resilient version of her. I pictured the future her starting the engine of her future car with a smile. She'll have stopped by to share all the updates of her new and glittering world and we'll have celebrated how today's turning point will have shrunk to a post script passage in her life.

I closed the door as she drove away. Both of us will have to wait and see.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Riding Shotgun

Of the hundreds of teens my arts program has reached in the past 12 years, fewer than 20 have sat shotgun in my car.  Many were bashfully grateful for the ride, murmuring turn-by-turn directions to their front door.  Some were intimidated by my banter; others were uncomfortable with any silence.  All of them left behind bits of their story, perhaps as fare, and I would wait for them to wave back at my car before disappearing into an open screen door. I would drive away, counting the coins of their hard and glimmering truths.

Nakila made me rich.  She filled every minute of our rides with her observations, dilemmas, musings and questions. So many questions, with that one.  In the early years, she asked about poems and slam and her team and how our program started and how I started and where was I from and why did I write and what did I believe in and how would she know that she’d found her voice too.

In a recent interview, artist Dario Robleto said, “I didn’t know what an epiphany was until I had one.” The statement made me think of the tender and defining years of my students, of their gallery of “aha moments,” of their inevitable blossoming, of Nakila. From that passenger seat, I watched her flights of questions manifest into poems and performances, into leadership, into a four-year college scholarship, into ride-or-die friendships, into a love affair with the boy she would love into manhood and heartily, I’m sure, beyond the day she died.  She evolved from sequestering herself away from life’s uncertainties to unapologetically baring the insides of her skin to the world. Nakila wore her uncertainties as boldly as her absolutes, which made her endearing and enchanting to anyone who met her.

“Dasha Kelly, I have questions for you." This was less than a month ago. She wasn’t in my car this time. She was sitting on a cafĂ© stool in my kitchen, peppering me as I put away my groceries with queries about adult slams and self-publishing and writing residencies and her first post-graduate full-time job at a youth center.

Over the next few weeks –her final few weeks-- I watched Nakila coach and mentor a new branch of
writers on our ever-expanding family tree. Traded text messages about the absurdity of the large outing of white children evacuating the swimming pool when her large outing of black children arrived. I listened to her long-time love make casual references to lifelong plans, wedding songs and kids’ games. I watched her beloved friends coo and vibrate at the news of her upcoming performance. I clicked ”like” on the show photos.  I clicked “like” on the memorial photos people posted after she’d gone, too.

I’m convinced that Nakila has merely converted into energy. She was too full of fierce electricity and love to simply transcend and leave nothing of herself behind. Our community family collapsed with her death and clung tightly to help one another back to our collective feet. As we gathered and laughed and wept and celebrated and held ourselves open to one another in my backyard, I felt Nakila turning to wave at me, letting me know it’s safe for us all to drive on.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Kissing Jimi's Sky

I was born in 1969. Around the time I was finally sleeping through the night, Jimi Hendrix was resigning to a darkness of his own. He died the following fall at the age of 27, when I was one month shy of turning one. Had I been an older girl, wide-eyed with the turbulence and fireworks of the times, I might have easily joined the pilgrimage of women yearning to stretch themselves and their lives naked beneath his musician’s trance.

By the universe’s exquisite design, I was not yet capable of rolling onto my back.

I’ve held barely a thumbprint of Jimi Hendrix’s story until recently (another reason why we should vote for Netflix in 2016). I was enthralled by his lifelong romance with music, to learn he was never ever without his guitar, by the enormous chunks of obsessed practice hours and simmering stock of chitlin circuit years that brewed the ingredients of his genius, by the divine precision of daring to reach up and seize his star just as one was whizzing above his head.

Even without the prequel, Jimi has long held court in the pantheon of culture icons. Jimi. Nat. James. Marilyn. Knowable only through archives, their two-dimensional allure still arresting. Their images imbued with the elusive tease of "mystique," their names delicious with "legend." Our courtships with today's stars are far less satisfying. Most leave nothing to chance in affixing themselves to our clouds. Too many leave us without wonderment, distract us with transparent engineering instead of blowing our minds with the rawness of their signature ingenuity.

I appreciated hearing Jimi's narrative told without the standard emphasis on his foils and subsequent demise. His life has always been encapsulated in my consciousness with posters, news reels and graphic tees. I devour his story with TMZ-inspired ravenousness. 

Had I discovered such a colorful and sumptuous bird as Jimi against that technicolor landscape of sameness and change, I might've found myself gasping for the rarefied, counter-culture air that filled his narrow chest. I could’ve allowed my ambitions for this world to be seduced by the perfect storm of his single-minded genius, by the salvation that was his guitar, by his sensual reverence for music.  Scenes from the rock opera Tommy come to mind as I watch the documentary footage and picture myself as one of Jimi's willing concubines, determined to stoke his comforts, protect the gentle spirit encased by his fame, eager for Jimi to play his scales.

Had I been of hitchhiking age, I would've found my way to him. At least … I think so.  I mean, I can only go by the black-and-white snapshots of the fresh faced girls draped languidly across his limelight. Their bodies lithe, lids heavy and eyes glistening, but all of them grinning at Jimi. In their interviews now, as seasoned women, I can hear the gentle gurgle of time smoothing the jagged stones of frenetic nights, stark and lonely afternoons, and the ripping ache of negotiated affections. Still, Jimi glowed worthy, transforming their efficient dismissal to martyred devotion.

Jimi Hendrix was destined long before he was due. For at least half a dozen reasons, I needed to hear the other half of his tale right now. Celebrate his journey right now.  I lay myself, shamelessly naked, at his feet right. now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home Alone

I spend a lot of time
in my bathroom mirror these days
It’s enormous
I painted and mounted it myself
Hired a handyman to install the vanity lights
I am willing to engage experts
Somehow, this does not feel the same as asking for help

Black Woman
is my mother wielding grace, guerilla tactics and fairy
godmother good will all in the same afternoon
Black Woman
is my grandmother exacting her own resurrections and
revenge in the form of success and
Black Woman
is stubborn love extending, again and again, their well-bitten hands

I hear the cadence of their steps when I’m out in the world
Patent leather, peep-toe wedges, galoshes, sneakers and fuzzy slippers
I don’t move within the soundtrack of “legacy”
but the arc and lilt of their melody play on a loop
Like them, my skin is imbued with pride, satisfaction,
fulfillment and exhaustion
Is that what Black Woman means? Being exhausted?
I might be willing to be half as Black if I could be half as weary

“You come from a long line of women who get shit done”
I said this to my oldest daughter when she was 13
Same age as I when the dots connected
They didn’t arrange themselves before me into a path
They widened my ken of possibilities
I didn’t have such language then, but understood that I had choices
Life is dealing yourself good choices
Black Woman
is bending the bad ones into charm jewelry

I spend a lot of time
in my bathroom mirror these days
experimenting with natural skin care
Honey. Egg whites. Avocado. Coconut. Oatmeal.
Even Milk of Magnesia
“When you know better, you do better”
I try to do better every day
Sometimes, trying is a feat all its own with
so much “better” stacked in piles around me
Better eating. Better income. Better dreaming. Better staying in touch with friends.
This season, I am only committed to better ingredients

When I’m alone, I give myself permission to stare into mirrors
The one in my bathroom has the best light
I bask in my me-ness, celebrate my journey to this reflection
I don’t mind the approaching promise of crinkles
around my smiling eyes
I loved the way my grandmother’s face folded and unfolded when she laughed
The backs of my hands are corded with the patterns of mother’s veins
They are elegant and strong, like hers
I think I always knew this woman in this mirror,
jostled and chipped, was swelling inside me
I think I always feared the hemorrhaging and
splitting of skin required to get her here
I marvel at how smoothly the scars are fading

When I’m alone, I admire my curves and bulges and
blemishes and grey strands and the soft shadows
settling under the contours of my face
My face, that is three generations young
I like to say
When I’m alone, I do not mistake my appreciation
for surety or arrogance or completion or luck
When I’m alone, I do not mistake my existence at all
Out in the world, I’m careful to insulate my admiring gaze or
my speech or my curiosities or my fist pumps or my weeping

When I’m alone, in my mirror, I make myself promises
I promise more movies, fewer emails, longer baths, new words
I promise to keep my heart in my left hand, so it can be free
but I can still keep watch, such a rambunctious thing
Some of these are promises in progress
I make them all in good faith
I am good faith when I’m alone
I am peace when I’m alone
I am beautiful
I am wise
I am gentle
I am quiet
So surprisingly quiet
I am listening to the murmur, moaning and meandering of my thoughts
I am floating when I’m alone
I am smearing foodstuffs on my face and in my hair
I am flossing and exfoliating
Peering into the eyes of the anxious preteen who refuses to leave me
I am welcoming a new face that is mine, but not really

I spend a lot of time in the mirror, these days

An exercise that feels exactly like prayer 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

When You Call Yourself Names

At 19, I was gone
I ran
Left my country
and a mother who was mostly silent
Escaped a father who was a brute
I got the best of his worst, being the oldest son

Expected to enter law or real estate
Placed in boarding school at the age of nine
I despised it
It was the most expensive school in my country
Though the public school had creative, imaginative teachers
Those kids received a better education
We had pretentiousness, networking and "proper" old school marms
all the way from England
My aunt -who shouldn't have- paid for it all
My father -who shouldn't have- wanted my profound gratitude

I haven't attended any reunions
I did make friends for life
Our bonds are more akin to having survived prison together
When I took my son to visit the school
you could still smell oppression in the wood
I showed him where they made us kneel
Sam Neill, the actor, graduated two years ahead of me
Once a celebrated alumnus, they asked him to return
He refused to come back, ever, unless the caning stopped

I would've been one of those kids on Ritalin
had they been diagnosing such things in my day
I just needed to organize things differently
Always been a copious reader
Always a self-educated learner
I left.
Traveled to Australia. London.
Eventually passed my boards
Took less than six months once I started
Earned a scholarship to art school
My father hadn't allowed me to carry art books or
consider such pursuits but I've always kind of known
Always kind of known

At 24, I called myself an artist
At 24, my life began

Monday, February 24, 2014

They Will Come

I'm finally reading my magazines. Maybe I should book a flight every month, just for the captured sit-still time that flying affords. I only subscribe to three magazines, four if you count Newsweek, which used to be my favorite until they defected to a digital-only format. Mental Floss is my new favorite.  It's witty, whimsical, well-written and wickedly nerd-tastic. While soaring the skies, my eyes scan the lines of text left to right, left to right, left, left, left ... I keep my face pointed toward the magazine pages, but my eyes pull to the left and over the rim of my eyeglasses to steal a look at the woman seated beside me.

She's reading my new book.

When our flight was still grounded, I had to unseat her and her husband in order to wedge myself into my window assignment. She offered to hold my coffee after watching me try and stuff my computer bag beneath the seat in front of me. I fastened my seat belt and thanked her for keeping me from scalding myself before takeoff. We laugh and settle back into our seats. We engage in the where-why-how-long-are-you-traveling exchange after a mutual hesitation. Perhaps she didn't want to divulge too much. Or maybe, like me, she didn't want to inadvertently commit herself to an extended, flight-long banter. I had my magazines waiting, after all.

I described my work as an artist-in-residence. She explained that their vacation club had recently opened a resort in Granada. We mused over the peculiarity of Granada as a vacation destination, as both of us connected the island to a vague and distant war.

She circled back to my writing, asking what-where-how-long.  I gave her my elevator pitch about the poems. The columns. The fiction.  For two heartbeats, I deliberated whether to give her a copy of Call It Forth. Presumptuous? Off putting? Wasteful? I rationalized that the short stack wouldn't have been in my carry-on bag if hadn't needed the relief for my checked luggage to clear its weight limit. This had to be a sign from the gods of self-promotion.

"Closed mouths don't get fed. Promotion-wary authors won't get read."

She was clearly surprised to receive the gift, maybe because the book is beautiful or, maybe, because I'd turned out to be a tale-spinner who'd been telling the truth. She thanked me and opened to the very last page, my bio. I was oddly relieved for her to begin there, to begin with a footing that this stranger on  her plane has proven her words to be worthy.

She flips to the first page and I quickly turn my attention like a school girl who vanishes after delivering a love note to the cutest boy in school. I dig into my bag and dive into my magazine. In my periphery I can see that she's reading the poems first. A good sign, me thinks.

I read an article about microbial fashion; apparently, "vegetable leather" is coming our way. I learn the history of the legendary Body Farm at the University of Tennessee and how its researchers are now developing technology to discover mass burial grounds hidden in war torn nations. A new lineup of wiz kids includes a three-year-old boy with membership into Mensa and an 18-year-old who built a nuclear fusion reactor in his parents' garage.

She's still reading.

I sink into stories about underground hotels, cubicle weaponry made from office supplies, the growing use of dandelion sap as a latex replacement in rubber.

The book is closed, folded across her lap. I'm pleased by the attention she'd given so far.

I chuckle at stories about Bill Murray's odd ball pranks, that Carl Sagan's series The Cosmos will return to the airwaves with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, and how pineapples are actually a cluster of berries!  I didn't even notice when she started reading again. I begin to move through the magazine pages of Poets & Writers.

The pilot announces our descent just I finish consuming my last magazine. My seat mate turns to say, "I enjoy the way you write. It makes me smile."

She agrees to share her email address and I agree to autograph the book. We thanked one another and, once on the tarmac, disconnected as abruptly as we'd been linked: me to a distress phone call from home and her to a connection in another terminal.

Our interaction served as an unplanned beta test for me.  As I grow more and more excited about this book project --and my life as a dedicated writer--  I'm fueled by such serendipitous built-it-and-they-will-come endorsements from the universe.

Thank you, Mrs. 17E.  I hope you and my book are having a wonderful vacation...