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“We’re All Mad Here” – New Doors, Black Rabbits

mindlabyrinth

 

Writing fiction is a new hobby of mine. I love doing the journal type stuff, but over the past year, I’ve been doing short stories and flash pieces, and they’ve been fun to write. Using only my imagination to create something, and not being afraid to journey to the dark parts of my mind has been a bit of an adrenaline rush. They could use some outside editing of course, but I think they’re pretty good for what they are. Once I feel like I kind of know what I’m doing (does that ever come?) I’ve been thinking about collecting them and making a book or something. Kiini Ibura Salaam’s Ancient, Ancient was a big inspiration for that idea. Loved that book.

But I’m realizing that as much as I like bringing my own imagination to print, I’m more interested in getting into other people’s heads. I’m naturally curious and observant (what others might call “nosy,” but whatever), and I’m sure it has something to do with being a psychology major. This was, of course, after I majored in early education, and before I was an English, Undecided, and then Pan-African Studies major. Like I said, curious.

Copy editing, reading and writing book reviews have allowed me to feed that curiosity, to get into the minds of other writers, see what makes them tick, and sometimes find reflections of myself. It’s also a bit of an escape from the labyrinth of my own brain. Sometimes it gets a little too weird in there. Like Guillermo Del Toro weird.  Did I tell y’all I once had a dream that I was inside a house that was made of images from his mind? CUH-RAY-ZEE. I loved it.

So anyway, I recently got to add to my method of the exploration and unearthing of the creative mind. Elixher magazine, for which I’d written book reviews in the past, contacted me and asked me to interview two authors whose books were soon to be released. I was intimidated at first. I’d never done author interviews. Hell, I’d only done a few work-related search committee interviews, and I didn’t enjoy those at all. But I was up for the challenge, because fuck it: it was an opportunity to have a new adventure, and I’m always down for that. It also gave me a chance to read something that wasn’t on my radar, so I agreed.

The first book was a collection of poetry. Now, I’m not the biggest poetry/spoken word fan, so I wasn’t excited … until I started reading. Humanity Maintained, by Shanell Bklyn is a beautiful piece of art. Heartbreaking, redemptive, powerful. I saw myself all up in it. I felt like we were soul sisters. Like, I wanted to travel to New York and continue our conversation over red wine and pizza, and … so maybe I developed a bit of a crush. But good writing will do that to you (And she’s gorgeous to boot.. You know how us Leos do). But more importantly, I discovered that I do like poetry (or spoken word. maybe both, I still don’t know the difference). But like anything else that matters, it has to speak directly to me – it can’t just be something highly touted by the world because it’s written by someone I’m supposed to like. Aint nobody got time for that.

In my 2cent opinion, a good book – whether YA, Romance, John Clancy or Omar Tyree (what up Flyy Girls!) - helps you find yourself. It takes you on new adventures and sparks new questions, thoughts, beliefs, and ways of maneuvering in this world. Seeing myself in other people, and being able to see other people in me, has helped me become a better friend, mother and lover. And much of that has come through reading. As a copy editor, I get to see creative work that is raw, unfinished and imperfect. Being given this access is humbling. Writing book reviews helps me give other readers an introduction into new worlds.  And bonus, it helps me remember what I’ve read, so that I carry it in my soul and act accordingly. And now, with author interviews, I get to go right to the source, and hopefully ask some questions that challenge the author to journey into the shadows of their mind to find forgotten, whispering pieces of themselves. Liberation through literature.

You can read my interview with Shanell Bklyn here, and hopefully, you’ll learn something new about yourself.  Go ahead and get lost in a new jungle. “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” That was from Burt Reynolds, so you know it’s true. Deliverance was a crazy ass movie. People are weird.

Loved the caterpillar. He threw much shade. "Who ARE you?"

Loved the caterpillar. He threw much shade.

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Simple Signs

I woke up in a really bad mood today.

angry lioness

 

 

I’m trying to become a morning person, so I’ve been setting my alarm clock to 6:00am. I think I finally gave the snooze button a break around 6:50. I really just wanted to stay in bed and listen to the rain. When I went to my closet and reached for my jeans, I knew the struggle was real. Even in the winter, I’ll put on a sweater dress and some boots. But today it was my solitary pair of jeans, a T-shirt and some black combat boots, the look says, “I give absolutely no fucks. About anything today. And probably not tomorrow either.”

 

Surprisingly enough, my bad mood didn’t extend to the kid. I was more patient than usual as she agonized for 10 minutes over what to wear and what shoes would look best. I picked out her clothes yesterday and she still hadn’t forgiven me for making her look like an Eliot boy, whatever that means.

Oh, so apparently, this is Eliot Kid. Um, okay, I kind of see it….

 

When we stepped outside, the ground was wet. This was a problem, of course, because when I woke her up for school, I told her it was raining. “And it’s not raining so you lied to me mommy,” thus sabotaging her outfit choice and crushing her creativity. “Lying” and its various conjugations are her new words for the week, and I don’t know what it is about that word that gets people so riled up (we teach our kids to say “fib” or “telling a story”), but hearing her accuse me of being a liar raised the hairs on the back of my neck. But I ignored it, took a deep breath and ushered her down the broken cemented path to the garage. Somebody somewhere was looking out for my child this morning, cause . . .

On my way out of her preschool, I nearly walked face first into the wall. I wasn’t on my phone or anything; I was looking straight ahead, walking a path I’ve walked almost every day for the past 18 months. But my depth perception was off and right as I turned the corner, the wall decided to move and jump out at me. I stopped in time, saving myself from embarrassment in front of the other parents and teachers. And of course the children who would take great pleasure in the slapstick comedy that is my life.

It was obvious by now that I was in serious need of an espresso and a syringe. I made a beeline for Starbucks for my dirty chai (soy hazelnut with a shot of espresso) and perfect oatmeal. There was a new guy. And something told me to repeat my order to him and have him repeat it back to me, but I didn’t listen to myself. I was too tired to listen. When I got to the office, I realized that my chai wasn’t dirty, and my perfect oatmeal tasted perfectly like crap. The saving grace was that the office was quiet and my coworkers know not to speak until I give them the sign. I wasn’t sure if they’d get it at all today.

yup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So let’s back up a bit. Yesterday, a woman came into my office, to set up an appointment to speak with me about a project I’ll be handing over to her. I wasn’t aware that I was handing the project over to her, but I wasn’t trippin, because I didn’t really want to deal with it anyway. So I told her to come by anytime the next day (today). She said she’d come by in the morning. In my world, “morning” means between 9am and 11:59am.

At 8:27am, I looked up from my disappointing breakfast and saw the short, coffee brown woman who wore her cinnamon sisterlocks twisted into a crown. Her eyebrows were snatched for the gawds, and she had a warm, patient smile. She looked like she was about 55, so she was probably 75. You know how we do. I have a natural reverence for elder Black women. Knowing what they’ve seen and been through, I can’t help but give them the respect they deserve. So even though I was still in my morning funk, I tried to smile through it. But I knew she could see it on my face. “I’ll let you finish your breakfast and I’ll come back a bit later.”

About 45 minutes later, my mood was pretty much the same. I had given up on my breakfast and I drank my chai out of obligation. She walked back into my office with that same smile, and when she came around to sit next to me, a soft exhale escaped from my lips. There was something about her . . . She was calm and soft-spoken, and she wasn’t internalizing any of my bad mood; she was countering it with her positivity, without shoving it down my throat. I also noticed that the more I looked at her, the more I realized she resembled what I imagine my mother would look like at her age, without the effect of the years of drugs and abuse to her body.

After we finished discussing the specifics of the project she was to take over, she asked me about the pictures of my daughters pinned to my cubicle wall. We started to talk about my life: what my kids were like, where I grew up, how I liked Atlanta. From there we began to establish the connection I needed to get me through the day.

I mentioned my desire to leave the U.S., and she encouraged me to do so. Traveling the world is one of the best educations you can receive, and the feeling of finally finding a place to call home is like none other. She told me she was born and raised on the West Coast (the Best Coast!), but she never felt at home in the U.S. After graduating, she traveled around the world, finally marrying and spending time in Sweden and then moving to Liberia, West Africa. When the Liberian Civil War broke out, she evacuated back to the States via Bermuda. She talked of the West’s involvement in the war, survivors’ guilt, and the pain of privilege: being American-born allowed her to leave her war-stricken home with ease, yet she was leaving behind people she had come to love and consider family. She has considered going back, but she knows it will not be the same as it was before she left.

geography-of-liberia0

 

 

 

 

 

 

We chatted about the state of the world today, how crazy people have gotten and how our education system is failing us. She believed integration to be one of the worst things to happen to the Black community, because we’ve lost our sense of connection and belonging to one another. She told me that one of the biggest lies we tell our children is that we’re all equal, and all you have to do is work hard and you can do and be anything that you want. She told me to be careful, because living in America as a Black woman makes me a prime target; my life can change in any second, due to no other reason than my existence. The prison industrial system has changed and there has been an explosion of Black women prisoners over the last decade and a half, so I have to know my rights, and stay aware.

We talked about my children, and she reminded me that I cannot mold and shape them into who I want them to be. They are their own forces of nature, and it is simply my job to guide them. They were sent to me because I have something specific that they need from me, but it is not me who makes them who they are.

We talked more about moving, living abroad and exploring the world with my girls. I wanted her to stay and talk to me forever, but she promised to keep in touch. Before she left, she looked at me and said, “Your babies deserve a mother who is completely at peace and full of happiness, so whatever you need to do to get to that point, do it.”

When she rose out of her chair to leave, she reached to shake my hand. I stretched out my arms and gave her a hug. I wanted to cry, and maybe if I was stronger, I would have. Her presence touched me. It was everything I needed today, and she came at exactly the right time. I’m still sleepy, I’m still feeling oppressed and constricted by these tight ass jeans, but there is some sunshine and a little bit more peace in my heart and spirit today. I’m re-energized to keep pressing toward my goals, as simple and few as they may be.

It’s funny how the ancestors work. It’s like they said, “Here. You need this today to get your mind right.”  As I was walking into work, a mourning dove flew right over my head and landed next to me. I watched it as it jerked its head toward me and walk in the opposite direction. Taking another moment to breathe before I walked into the building, I made a silent note to pay more attention to my natural surroundings and receive the messages that the Universe is sending me. Because I knew that would help me get out of my funk. It is said that mourning doves are a symbol of renewal and peace that come into your life to remind you to stop and breathe. Find stillness within the chaos, find peace by appreciating the simple things in life. Simple things like an unexpected morning conversation with an elder who looks like your mother.

Mourning_Dove_b13-32-033_l_1 (2)

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Today, and Every Day

write.

write.

write something.

write something of importance.

write something of importance that speaks to your heart. something that pulls at your soul.

write to heal. write to get to the core of your insecurities and work that shit out.

because you are better than all the lies you’ve been told about yourself. all the lies you’ve been harboring, for fear that they are your foundation. knock them down. obliterate them bitches and stand on your truths.

truths created for you, by you.

you’re better than the impact of all the people who failed to see your light. or who saw it and tried to stomp it out. or who saw it and ran from it, and left you vulnerable and alone.

Starstuff lady, you are an entire universe. you have the power to create and destroy any thing at will.

bad ass mutha fucka. you the baddest disney villain. maleficent learned from you.

you are the darkness of a black hole. reflect nothing, just be. consume all who dare to come near. leave the masses wondering, intrigued and afraid.

all the mysteries and unknowns are waiting for you to drop those insignificant distractions of your life and explore the galaxy of your mind. your heart. your soul.

be a hyper nova. destroy and create everything in your path, and those that stand light years away will be paralyzed with awe at the effect you have on them. and even if they’re not, you still are.

so get to work. we are waiting on you.

crab_nebula_supernova_explosion

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Blue in Green

container-1_74747_600x450Standing in an open, colorless field, I looked out onto the horizon and saw 4 skinny funnel clouds dip down from the grey sky. They danced around, taunting the few people who were scattered about, trying to avoid Oya’s path. A fourth funnel – a brown dust devil – touched ground and took on the shape of a stocky, turbulent man in a bowler hat, and as he floated toward me, I peered into his winds and bright, bursting stars turned black, swallowing all light. He glided past me as I ran into the entrance of a building just ahead.

 
Color was restored to the world as I crossed the threshold. I walked down the dark hall, following the sound of whimpering dog. Inside a sanitarium-white room, a naked man lie freezing, trapped under a blue shipping container, his ear stuck to the frozen ground. He saw me and his whimpering turned to sobs. He attempted to raise his head, and I heard the flesh rip from the side of his face. “Please help me! I’m a musician, I can’t lose my ear!”

 
I didn’t know what to do, if I could help him, if I should even trust him. I walked toward him and a scream filled with anger and revenge exploded from the pit of his stomach. I fell back and as I picked myself up, I turned to see a middle-aged, red-haired woman in the corner of the room, smiling peacefully at him. She looked at me, the corners of her mouth turned down in disgust, and I found myself inside the shipping container. The man’s screams stopped, and I looked up through the open space to see the outside sky. The woman’s voice rained down from the clouds: “Just as I’d hoped.” Her gruff, raspy voice dragged along my eardrum like nails on a chalkboard.

 
The shipping container began to fall through the floor. I kept my eyes on the retreating clouds, and stretched my arms and legs wide, bracing myself against the walls of the container. My body slammed against one of the walls as I crashed onto a frozen pond. The ice began to crack and I reached through the open slit and grabbed a black bar that appeared out of nowhere. I pulled myself through the slit, my skin tearing on the opening. I swung from the bar and landed in a lush green field, just as the icy abyss swallowed the box whole. The field overflowed with light and dark green broccoli, the bunched mini trees covered in enough blood to satisfy a nest of starved baby vampires. I ran back into the building, and found the naked man standing at the entrance. Fully dressed in an unbuttoned white shirt, slate grey pants and a matching vest, he was exquisite. Appetizing. A diamond earring shone in his once-threatened ear. Smiling, he reached his hand out to me. As I placed my hand in his, I turned back and looked at the field, longing for something I could not name…

 

blueingreen

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Getting Free

I am a warrior, and I will fight for my inner peace to the death.

"Don't Take No Shyt" by markusprime http://web.stagram.com/p/680673533356920377_431039082

“Don’t Take No Shyt” by markusprime
http://web.stagram.com/p/680673533356920377_431039082

My battle with depression as an adult – thankfully – is not the same as it was when I was 14. 20 years ago (sheesh, 20 years?) I felt I had absolutely nothing to live for.  I’d tried cutting my wrists, but my tolerance for pain at the time was very low (it’s amazing, the changes pregnancy and childbirth bring). So I wrote a suicide note to my dad and stepmom and downed a bottle of cold medicine. I thought it’d do the job – instead, it made me sleep all day and gave me a horrible case of diarrhea. When it wore off, my parents drove me to a mental recovery center where I spent the next two weeks trying to understand the source of my depression and looking for ways to cope with it. After another month of weekly visits to a therapist, I felt cured.

Seven years later, I was making a night run to the store while my two year old daughter spent the weekend with her father. As I sat on the train tracks waiting for the light to change, I thought about not moving. I wanted to stay there until the train came along and swept both me and my car into an unrecognizable mass of metal and flesh. I stared at the red light, listening for the whistle, stilling myself to feel the vibration of the train’s wheels against the tracks. The light turned green, and I saw my daughter’s face. Heard hear laugh. I thought about the effect my death would have on my baby girl. My mother became a drug addict and abandoned me when I was eight. The unanswered questions it left me with, the anger, guilt and confusion that I dealt with – still deal with – I saw myself passing that on to my daughter. I eased my foot onto the gas pedal. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I was going to break that cycle. On that night, my daughter saved my life. And on that night, I learned that depression cannot be cured.

I no longer have suicidal thoughts. That night was the last night. But I still battle with depression on a regular basis. I still deal with hopelessness and a complete lack of motivation – the craziness of this world will make you question what it’s all for. But for me, the questions are the answers. The confusion of life is simultaneously the beauty of life. Curiosity, awareness and the experience of living is what it’s all for.  Today, I only go as far as the overwhelming desire to leave all my responsibilities behind and run away. Even then, my children keep me in check; I’d never abandon them.  Lord knows having me as a mother is going to give them enough reason to see a therapist.

My oldest daughter (Peachy) is now 15 and battles depression and social anxiety. And sometimes I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault. I understand that depression is genetic. Both my mother and father have it. But they’re both still here. We’re survivors; we find ways. Yet because my parents never discussed their depression with me, I realize it’s up to me to break tradition. I try to do that with Peachy, just let her know that I understand on a real level, what it’s like to be in that space and that you can come out of that space, and use it to heal. She said she’s been meditating, and it’s been helping in her fight to save herself. It brought me so much joy to hear that. Mostly because she’s finally listened to something I said. I didn’t know teenagers did that. I sure didn’t.

But I’m still learning how to be honest with her about my experience when I’m in the thick of my depression. What do I tell her about how I deal with it now? Because lately I haven’t been practicing what I preach.

What I’m going through now, I wouldn’t say is depression. It’s more a very light, sometimey blues. But the thing with depression is that it can down-spiral at any moment. And that’s what you have to be aware of. That’s when you have to armor up. But I’ve noticed myself allowing the enemy to sneak into my camp (sorry, I’ve been binge-watching GoT). I distract myself with television. I stop writing. I haven’t meditated in over a month. I haven’t exercised in almost the same amount of time. I spend all day scrolling my Twitter timeline and cyber window-shopping. This only makes things worse, because I’m focusing too much on needless things.

Aside: I’ve been really distracted by trying to “perfect” my appearance, the image I want to project, with clothing. And it’s really overwhelming, not to mention financially draining. Lately I’ve desired an “all black” wardrobe. I think it’s due to a combination of factors: working around architects all day. That’s ALL they wear. It’s actually kind of sexy though. Black has the ability to make you both stand out and fade into the background. And there’s also the fact that I really want to be a witch. Thank you American Horror Story: Coven for reawakening that dream.

Anyway, I slowly feel myself coming out of it. I’m making minor attempts to get back to me. I’m counting down the days until my trip to Miami where I’ll get to sit on the beach and commune with La Siren for the first time in six years. And I’m taking steps to eating healthy again. I’ve given up chocolate (pray for me yall! Light a candle or something), and sodas, and I’m trying to incorporate more fruits and veggies into my diet. I lose myself in a book. It helps to read others’ lives, other people’s internal and external battles. It makes me feel connected, even if the characters are products of someone’s imagination. For the purposes of my healing, they’re real. These are the things that I know work for me.

My relationship with writing both contributes to and treats my depression. When I’m depressed, I avoid it, even though I know it’ll help. Just a paragraph of a journal entry can make me feel better. But when I write something to submit and it gets rejected, I feel lost. I doubt myself. And I stop writing for a while, and that cycles back into depression, which makes me not want to write. But I always come back to it. So I’m learning that writing for me, and not for public consumption, is where my peace comes from. Thus, I’ve committed myself to writing a little bit every day, and only sharing when and where I feel comfortable.

Listening to my soul’s calling and really paying attention to the things that bring me joy, the things that bring me peace, are my way of fighting. They’re my way of taking care of me and my girls. Because that’s all that I really want for my life: joy, peace of mind, happy kids and the ability to travel. All these other distractions are not for me. Not on a spiritual level, anyway. Saving the world, the simultaneous act of trying to run towards and shy away from a spotlight, feeling accomplished and successful (by whose standards?), it’s all ego. And the more I feed the ego, the more my spirit starves. And that’s where my depression kicks in.

If you’re not careful, this world will deprive you of your sanity, and it’ll take great pleasure in it. It will make you believe that you’re weak because you’re not like the rest of them. Right now, there’s so much focus on the superficial, and not enough respect for or push towards emotional intelligence or spiritual growth. It’s intentional. We live in an ego-driven society. And if you’re not with the program, the world will threaten to leave you behind. But the truth of the matter is, the more you work on your soul’s calling, the more attention you give your intuition, the more awareness of your higher self, the farther ahead you are.

My survival, and the wellness of my children depends on my ability to filter the constant messages the world sends me, and use that which feeds my soul and keeps the ego in check.

Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

I am a warrior raising warriors. And we will fight to the death.

Maybe that’s what I should tell Peachy. Apparently, she listens…

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Hear, Here…

Shattered_Mirror_2_by_wolfrain319

The voice woke her up in the middle of the night.

“It’s time.”

“Okay, sure,” she said groggily. She looked over at her clock – 2:28am. Of course.

She didn’t know where she was headed, and she didn’t care. Over the last few days, she came to understand that the voice was not to be ignored. Ignoring it – her – resulted in consequences. People got hurt. She needed less of that in her life, so quickly, she learned to listen. The more she listened, the more she obeyed, the freer she felt.

The moon hung in the cloudless sky, shining a spotlight through her window. Its glow reminded her of the first night the voice spoke to her. As she stepped into her black leggings, she recalled the pain of the spider bite waking her up in the middle of the night. 2:28am. She pulled back the sheets and hobbled to the bathroom, rubbing her leg, and cursing herself for leaving the window open.

She turned on the light to inspect her leg. Where once caramel-brown, shea buttered skin had been was a shimmering, silver thigh. Still soft to the touch, it was as if someone snuck into her room and painted it as she slept. Rubbing her leg, she closed and opened her eyes. Again. This had to be a dream. She couldn’t tell if the pain was gone, or if shock had taken its place. She stepped in front of the sink, thinking somehow she could wash the paint off. She reached for the faucet and a voice came from behind the shower curtain.

“Billie. Listen to me.”

Silent tears ran down Billie’s face as she stared at the curtain through the medicine cabinet mirror. The voice she heard unmistakably belonged to her great grandmother, for whom she had been named, and who died when she was 12. Her parents didn’t let her go to the funeral. They didn’t think she could handle it; they had been so close. As she listened to the voice, she figured her folks might have been right.

“Billie Listen to me,” the voice repeated. Something else – someone else – was there. With her GiGi Willemena was someone, something darker, older, from another place and time. It flowed in and out with the old lady’s disembodied voice and settled deep into Billie’s bones. She trembled as each word bounced off her eardrum.

“You’re going to die, Billie,” the voice said. Billie noticed a hint of pleasure in the tone. If the voice had had a face, she was sure it’d be smiling. “In ten days you’re going to die. That spider that bit you tonight…”

Billie looked down at her forgotten silver limb. The site of the bite throbbed, not with pain, but with life. It jumped, spasmed. The muscles underneath her skin undulated, reminding her of her last vacation to Miami. She’d slept on the beach her last night there, and had nightmares of being pulled under the waves, to the bottom of the Atlantic. Standing in her bathroom, listening to her demon-infused foremother, the floor of the Atlantic was a welcome, peaceful thought.

“The spider that bit you tonight has decided to take your life,” it continued. “We need you on this side. There are some issues that must be attended to.”

Billie’s tears had dried, and her trembling was stilled by long, deep breaths, but her heart clamored against her rib cage, threatening to break loose and leave her standing there. Defenseless. She held on to the sink for support and looked down into the drain.

“Don’t go to work tomorrow.” Her great gran was gone. The only voice she heard now was a deep, gravelly rumbling tone, filled with knowledge that only comes from witnessing the passing of thousands of years. “Do not leave your house. You have ten days to handle your affairs, but tomorrow will not be one of them. Do you understand?” The voice spoke slowly, but firmly, being sure that Billie took in everything that was said.

“This is fucking crazy,” Billie heard herself whisper. She looked up into the mirror, just in time to see a coal-black hand reach out from behind her, and throw her head first into the medicine cabinet mirror. As she blacked out, she heard the shards of glass spill into the sink and onto the grey and blue tiled floor.

The incessant blare of the alarm pulled Billie from the darkness of her slumber. She bolted up, and snatched the cord out of the wall. Mornings were her arch enemy. She always thought they were better suited for sleeping or having sex, not getting up for work, no matter how much she loved her job. She slid from underneath the covers, walked across the cold living room floor and into the kitchen. Gotta get an area rug, she thought to herself as she tiptoed across the threshold. She reached into the cabinet and pulled out her favorite coffee mug. The paint was wearing off after years of use. It was the only memento she kept to remind her of her father. World’s Greatest Dad! She’d gotten it for him in the second grade at her school’s Santa Shop. He drank tea out of it every morning. 30 years later, when she returned to his home six months after he died, she found it sitting in the sink, a brown ring of ginger tea staining the bottom. The tears that refused to fall at his funeral, or upon hearing the news of his death, washed over her and into the chrome sink, clinking one by one into the stained mug.

As she placed it under the coffee machine, she made a mental note to buy herself a new one so as not to use this one up, though she knew she’d never follow through with her intent.

Billie completed her morning routine, opening her plush red curtains to let in the morning light as she dressed. She was glad that the sun was rising before her these days. It had been a long, harsh winter, and she was contemplating moving closer to the equator. She was in good spirits this morning though, thankful for the night’s deep sleep. She turned on her radio and swayed her hips to the bathroom as Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon begged her to dance La Murga. The end of her twirl placed her in front of the shower curtain and she stopped cold. As she stared at the geometric grey and white pattern, the whisper of a voice grazed her ear. Ten days. Images of mercury and broken glass flashed in her head, which was beginning to ache at the temples. She closed her eyes, and focused on the music coming from her bedroom. She moved in rhythm with the maracas, humming along with the dark, brassy call of the trombone. As the music restored her peace, she sighed heavily, opened her eyes and turned around to face the sink. The cold water on her face made her think of her father’s words: “Cold water on your face, and room temp water in your body. Every morning when you wake. You’ll thank me later.”

Her reflection upon looking into the mirror was so clear, the mirror so clean, that for an instant she reached out to herself, almost sure that the cold glass would be replaced with the warm familiar flesh of her parallel self. She chuckled at the thought, turned the water off and walked back out of the bathroom, finally ready to start her day.

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Work was mundane. Routine. Filing, assuring clients that their events would be greater than their expectations. Double and triple-checking that the caterers had their orders correct and would arrive 15 minutes before their expected time of delivery. She had two galas to get through this week, and then she could relax. Pressing send on a final review email, she considered booking a weekend flight to Puerto Rico. Her daydreams of beach-bumming with mermaids and seagulls were interrupted as her favorite coworker walked up to her desk, plantain chips and aloe water in hand.

“Ugh, you know I love you, right T?”

Terra smiled and handed over the goods. “Then you should go out for drinks with me.”  Terra had an androgynous look and slight air of cockiness that drove Billie crazy. She walked the line between masculine and feminine like a Cirque du Soleil performer and it made it hard for Billie to remain professional. She blushed and cleared her throat.

“I don’t drink. But….” She hesitated, then decided to go for it. “We can do lunch. Next Thursday? After these two events are over and have been reviewed. I’ll treat. To thank you for my aloe water and chips – you know I couldn’t make it through the day without them.”

Terra smiled again, triumphant. “Sounds good. I’ll let you get back to work. Don’t let em stress you out, okay?” She winked at Billie and continued down the hall, with that half switch, half saunter that put Billie in a trance. She tried to sneak glances as Terra walked away, but as Terra turned the corner, she looked back, winking before she disappeared into her office. Billie’s face turned crimson and she laughed at herself, remembering her best friend’s warning not to eat where she shits. But damn if the entrée wasn’t so tantalizing.

Just as they were about to begin, Billie’s second round of daydreams for the early afternoon were interrupted by her boss, Charelle. “Billie, can I see you in my office for a sec?”

Shit. “Uh, sure Boss lady. What’s up?”

When Charelle failed to respond, Billie did a quick mental inventory of all the things she might have screwed up. Coming up empty, she shrugged her shoulders and walked the ten steps down the hall to Charelle’s office.

“Please close the door behind you.” Billie complied, and sat across from the mahogany desk that was too big for Charelle’s windowless office, but the perfect size for her ego.  As Billie shifted in the hard tangerine chair, Charelle sat behind her desk silent, her face expressionless. Finally: “How’d you sleep last night, Billie?”

“Uh…fine? And you?” What the hell is this? Billie was now confident that she crossed all her Ts for these events. Not just for her own sense of pride, but to avoid having to come into Charelle’s office to explain her fuck-ups. She waited impatiently, wiping invisible lint off her skirt and reminding herself that she only had two more years before she ventured out to start her own event planning company. As if she could hear her thoughts, a slow, knowing smile crept up on Charelle’s face, hiding more than it revealed. She rolled her eyes at Billie and looked over at the blue abstract painting that hung on the wall behind Billie’s head. She sat motionless, staring at – through – the painting for what seemed like an eternity.

“Is…is there a problem with one of the clients?” Billie asked, unable to hide the irritability in her voice. Obviously, this woman didn’t get enough sleep last night, Billie thought. Or she needed some – 

 “You always were a hard-headed chile, nuh?” Billie looked up from her watch and into her boss’s face. The Caribbean accent taken on by this Missouri-born woman made Billie’s armpits itch. Familiar whispers of long summers with her gran caused her heart to quicken.

“Charelle?” Charelle – the woman across from Billie – didn’t answer. She continued to look above Billie’s head, beyond the wall, beyond the office, past the buildings and into another world. “Charelle,” Billie spoke again, louder. Then: “GiGi Willie?”

Finally the woman looked at her. Charelle was beautiful, a young Grace Jones with a head full of tight black curls that stretched to the heavens from all sides. Always red-lipped, her minimalist sense of style was impeccable, and save for the pretentiousness, Billie admired her. Sometimes she desired her. But in this moment, she looked into her boss’s eyes and saw someone else. In this moment, she was frightened by her.

Sensing her fear, Charelle lazily rose from her desk and sat on top of it. She crossed her right leg over her left and swung it seductively, nearly kicking Billie in the shin. Placing her hands at her sides, she leaned closer. “I told you not to come to work today, did I not?”

Billie shook her head, blinked in response. Her pulse began to race, and she rubbed her sweaty palms through her closely-cropped burgundy hair.

“I specifically remember telling you not to leave your house,” Charelle continued. The accent was gone again, but Billie thought she’d heard something else. The low, rumble of the Other. The One who shattered the mirror with Billie’s face last night. It wasn’t a dream. “And you indicated that you understood. I’m disappointed in you.” The Other barely spoke above a whisper, but its voice filled the space of the office. Billie trembled.

“Unh-uh!” Billie snapped. She jumped up from the chair and walked toward the door. “What the hell is this? This shit ain’t funny Charelle,” she spat over her shoulder as she placed her hand on the doorknob. She turned the knob, but the door refused to open. A force on the other side kept Billie in the office. Struggling. Trapped.

“Sit down,” the Other commanded. Billie stood facing the door, and reached out to the doorknob to try again when she felt a tightening around her neck. She was pulled backwards into the middle of the office, and thrown into the orange chair. She strained against the invisible leash around her neck, and hot tears ran down her face as she struggled to breathe. Charelle sat patiently on top of the desk, her hands folded in her lap. Billie tried to slow her breath as she looked up at her boss’s face and into the sunken black holes where her coffee brown eyes had once been.

Charelle pushed herself off the desk and onto her knees in front of Billie. She placed her hands on Billie’s thighs. She could smell the intoxicating sandalwood oil that Charelle always wore. In different circumstances, being this close to her boss would have made Billie’s panties wet. Instead she shuddered with fear, but made no move to run again.

“You don’t run shit,” the voice hissed. “You have nine and a half days. Go home and do not leave until you are told otherwise.”  This time it didn’t wait for a confirmation of understanding. Charelle rose from her place in front of Billie, walked around to her side of the desk that now seemed a miniature replica of the one Billie had seen almost daily for three years. Charelle reached into a drawer and pulled out an engraved letter opener. She raised the blade and it glistened, reflecting light through a window that Billie couldn’t see.

She was paralyzed with fear as Charelle stood over her. She looked down into Billie’s face and smiled a large toothy grin. Charelle jammed the pointed end into her neck and blood spilled from the opening, splattering against Billie’s sheer cream shirt and matching pencil skirt. Billie screamed and the office door flew open. Terra ran inside and yelled Charelle’s name just as her body slumped to the floor. “Billie!” Billie, what happened?” Covered in blood, Billie stared down at the floor in shock, hearing nothing. When Terra grabbed her shoulder, she jumped and screamed again.

“It’s okay, it’s just me. My god, what happened?! Are you okay? Oh god. Come on baby, let’s go. Someone call 911!” Terra barked orders as a crowd began to gather around the door. Billie looked back at Charelle’s lifeless body as Terra guided her away. She stopped when she saw Charelle’s head turn toward her and red lips fall open. “You really should learn to listen, my heart.” Her GiGi’s disappointment rang through as she spoke the pet name she had given Billie as a toddler. Billie fell to her knees, sobbing – for her GiGi, for Charelle, for so many reasons -  as Terra gently lifted her off the ground and out of the office.

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Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

“You ain’t strong like she is. You got a soul that cain’t be still. Your mama did too at one time, but she wrestled it down. Yours look like it’s running you.”

"The Cradle" by John Thomas Biggers, 1950

“The Cradle” by John Thomas Biggers, 1950

Ayana Mathis’ debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, is a collection of short stories that speak life to the complexities of Black motherhood, healing and the loss of and search for peace. Threaded by the intersecting lives of the children of Hattie Shepherd, The Twelve Tribes tenderly, yet honestly examines issues of Black social mobility, sexual identity, disillusionment with religion, and mental health.

Hattie is a prideful, sacrificing mother disappointed by the way her life has turned out after migrating from Georgia to Philadelphia. Loss surrounds Hattie from a young age. After the murder of her father forces her family to move North in the middle of the night, she meets her husband August and gives birth to twins Philadelphia and Jubilee, named for the hope of a new life for them all. After her babies die of pneumonia just seven months later, 17 year old Hattie mothers nine more children, yet a part of her dies with the twins. She closes herself off to the people she loves, lest life snatch them from her grasp as well. The stories that follow portray the effects of Hattie’s mothering on her surviving children and one grandchild.

Called The General by her children, and described as a “lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known,” Hattie approaches motherhood in a way that is familiar to many Black parents and children – from a place of protection and preparation for the cold world that awaits them. Love is shown as food, clothing, shelter and discipline, and there is no time for affection, vulnerability or the dangers that love brings. Hattie admits not knowing how to care for her children’s spirits, and her “tenderness […] was always hard,” but she kept them alive, safe, healthy and ready to meet a world that would bring them new disappointments and challenges.

The novel is heavily character-driven and Mathis does an excellent job of digging deep into their psyches and breathing life into them. The members of the Shepherd family are authentic, every day people that readers will find themselves easily connected to. The layers of their lives, circumstances and personalities are familiar; it is easy to see yourself in one or more of them as they attempt to cope with, heal from or even escape their past. The stories told are the stories of our family members. The Shepherds are our uncles, brothers, mothers and grandmothers.

Mathis’ writing is graceful and descriptive; the dialogue intimate and natural as it changes not only with the characters, but also with the time. Over a period of 55 years, the stories take place primarily in Philadelphia and the Deep South (mostly Georgia and Alabama). In that time she weaves in glimpses of the socio-political world that surrounds them, through run-ins with a would-be lynch mob, the Vietnam War, and references to the sit-ins. Mathis doesn’t focus on those issues – to do so would make the book about those issues, I think – but she makes them a part of the characters’ everyday lives.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is captivating – it reads like an (fictionalized) historical narrative from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, an incredible, extensive historical study of the Great Migration. Mathis has justifiably been likened to Toni Morrison, through her rich and moving writing voice, but also in the way she portrays the realities of Black motherhood. It also brings to mind Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood in its depiction of the hardships of mothering, maternal sacrifice, and culture and community expectations of such. The portrayal of love, both distorted and clear, recalls bell hooks’ Salvation: Black People and Love, in which she discusses how racism, sexism and economic inequality color our expressions of love as children, parents and partners.

The lives of the Shepherds are hard and full of struggle. There are definitely more downs than ups, but the story doesn’t dwell in darkness. It’s not morbidly sad or emotionally overwhelming; it is authentic. The uplifting twist at the end mirrors life’s unexpected minor, yet significant changes.

Its raw honestly plays a significant role in the healing element that comes through reading these stories and coming to understand these characters – both in the book and in our lives.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will reach tired, honest and understanding mothers – and their children everywhere.

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