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.