My ancestors taught me how to rub two nickels to make a dollar.
My ancestors taught me how to move my hips unselfconsciously to music.
My ancestors taught me to listen to birdsong.
My ancestors taught me to love profoundly.
My ancestors taught me to appreciate babies.
My ancestors taught me to eat with gusto.
My ancestors taught me to read for joy.
My ancestors taught me to adorn myself.
My ancestors taught me to groove with sensuous pleasures.
My ancestors taught me to stand barefoot on the ground.
My ancestors taught me to feel sunshine.
My ancestors taught me to forgive.
My ancestors taught me to be fierce.
My ancestors taught me resilience.
My ancestors taught me to evolve.
My ancestors taught me movement.
My ancestors taught me tenacity.
My ancestors taught me levity.
My ancestors taught me to look through eyes to see souls.
My ancestors taught me to speak.
My ancestors taught me our history.
My ancestors taught me water is powerful.
My ancestors taught me to see beauty.
My ancestors taught me to worship.
My ancestors taught me faith.
My ancestors taught me to discern.
My ancestors taught me to question.
My ancestors taught me to love the land.
My ancestors taught me to be an explorer.
My ancestors taught me how to create memories.
My ancestors taught me through stories.
My ancestors taught me to write my own stories.
My ancestors taught me how to rub two nickels to make a dollar.
I went to a conference on Racial Equity sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation and Isabel Wilkerson was the guest speaker. I wrote this down in my notebook:
The last frontier is the human heart.
And this is what I’ve learned in 57 years around the sun. The road always leads to a place where the heart opens or hardens. We have to be intentional and proceed with love to keep our heart open. While pain and hurt could enter an open heart, joy and love never enter a closed heart.
If you have to choose?
The news is horrid. The world is on fire. How can anyone heal when there are new wounds daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, lifetimes?
Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
Ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.
This month marks five years since I started my own company, Greenlight Global Research. When I started GGR, I had little idea of what I wanted to do because I had fallen into what I loved doing 18 years earlier. Much like falling in love with a partner, you go about your life then slam out of nowhere this lover is in front of you and consuming you. That’s how my career(s) had unfolded.
I remember early on, after leaving my job, I had an idea for an advertisement. I had been covering Global Media trends for almost two decades, and thought I knew a little about commercials and so here was my idea: I’d be the star of a mini video about my Ford F150. It would be an autobiographical short film about one woman post-2005 Federal Flood in New Orleans, focusing on self-empowerment (I bought by truck because the contractor on my house was ripping me off and I wanted to haul my own debris back and forth to the dump). I also got the truck because it reminded me of the scene in Cast Away where Tom Hanks arrives at the crossroads that is his life and the artist drives up in the pick-up truck. I romantically wanted to be her, and realistically I was her, became her, am her.
I seem to have a knack for envisioning or dreaming up how my life will be from a starting place – a romantic dream and this was one of those times where my truck became the linchpin for that romantic vision turned reality.
I was reminded of my idea for a Ford commercial while in Boston when a friend took me to the Sarah Silverman show. One of Silverman’s jokes was about her mother insisting she had a great jingle for Progresso soups. I was also reminded that a media source had told me in 2011 that he could help me contact the right people who might be able to help me with the commercial. Years later, when he visited New Orleans and I met him in person for the first time, he told me I had sounded so desperate back then, he had cringed.
Wow – I cringed.
I want to be kind to who I’ve been in the past as well as who I am now. I take some pride in being a round peg in a square hole. I also want to surround myself with people who are kind to me as well as to themselves. Understanding who I am is the rewarding part of aging. I know that I have a stubbornness that either acts as a ballast or a noose. I don’t think I was desperate, I think I had an idea and he had the connections and he offered them and I wanted them. What he read as desperate was his knowing my situation and placing my actions in a context he understood. Yes, I had lost my livelihood, but the company I had worked for was no longer the same, it was corporate and stagnate and dreary. Was he projecting? Maybe. He had been my source through many of his job changes, and throughout them all he had a partner supporting him and had now separated. Hmmmm.
Under GGR, I started another company called Transracial Parenting, because after meeting my son, I wanted to take on the work of helping parents raise culturally competent children. Although TP absorbs more of my mindshare than my original company, I invest my creative energy there intentionally.
This week, I have returned from New York where I had the good fortune to participate in a roundtable discussion about policing and communities with people interested in the work I do with racial justice. Yes, legacy work still puts my food on our table, but I’m working slowly to turn the spokes of my wheelhouse round and round so that my purse aligns with my spirit. My motto has become I’m gonna follow my spirit not my plans.
Is it mad? Indeed, it is, but I’m the creator of my life and where I’ve stumbled or wallowed in languishing regret, it has only been through the failure of my imagination.
[Thank you Florentina for this concept you shared about your own experience working alone for racial justice.]
All of these things sort of collided into one another and actually started making sense. At Jazz Fest, I stopped at a friend’s party and another friend was there explaining to a handful of people what feathers mean. Feathers are messages from the spirit world. She’s a Candomblé priestess. I listened to her story intently because I’d been out at the Fairgrounds and was soaking wet, which gave me this otherworldly feeling as I sat in the living room wearing my friend’s dry clothes.
Coincidentally, other friends from New York surprised me with a gift of feather earrings that were made believe it or not from recycled plastic water bottles. They had come in for the Fest as usual and were staying at an Air BnB run by an artist.
Now, it’s not as if feathers haven’t enchanted me before now. At the late stages of grief over much loss in my life, I stumbled across three white feathers from an egret (I had guessed) that were on the bayou where I was walking and meditating. I brought them home where they have remained despite every child’s who comes through here attempt to snatch them.
So it all started around Jazz Fest as far as I can remember, and maybe that is because the Fest is around my birthday each year, and perhaps it was because this birthday seemed to come and go with little fanfare. I received one birthday card from my friend in San Francisco. I had no cake and candles even though for 56 other years I have insisted on them. Truthfully, I’m not complaining because it was all fine and good the way my birthday was uneventful.
See there is a storm brewing again. The 2005 Federal Flood, the ten year anniversary that sent me into a depression, the thinking I had rounded the corner, moved up a wrung or two, all of it wasn’t the end – in the background, the teleprompter was saying, but wait, there’s more.
These clouds that are gathering portend darkness. A brief concrete example, I had taken up managing my friend’s property in Mexico as a way to earn extra income, then my friend took ill and is now selling the property.
Tatjana’s status is stable, but it is cancer, the almighty fuckshit of diagnosis, and it is all so uncertain and disconcerting.
Although, I’m working on a different version of my book (my fourth rewrite), I have lost interest in its publication. It’s almost as if I’d rather just run away to a cabin and write, without the result being the gilded lily of a book that I expected it would be.
I went away to Bay St. Louis and was able to jump right on writing as if days haven’t gone by with me anywhere near my work. Long walks on the beach calmed my nerves. Being alone made me joyful.
I drove to Atlanta with Tin and I felt my family’s love rise up like a feather bed.
I flew to Nantucket and saw my gal pals for one of the more restorative of my trips there. And there, a friend gave me the gift of a reading. JoAnn, the reader from the big boat, told me the next two years are going to suck. There was no mention of career, love interest, fun adventures – no, she said, dark clouds are gathering and you need to take long walks on the beach, meditate, and provide yourself with self-care. Radical self-care. She also told me that this life – if you believe in past lives – for me is all about relationships. Where do I begin and where do I end?
Two years, maybe even two and a half, she said, are not looking too good. Brace yourself. Go deep into your faith. There will be an ending. A definitive one, not a is it over? ending, but an it’s over ending. I will struggle with a male presence – Tin (who else?).
And so I’ve taken to listening to the messages that the spirit world is sending me with this deluge of feathers I’m getting – today there were four small and one large geese feathers on my walk around the bayou. Later in Metairie, taking Tin to the Russians for his gymnastics, there were again four connected feathers – more of the pigeon variety – the lesser spirits.
And so I am listening.
I got out of the truck today to buy dog food and almost had an out of body experience, where here I was plodding through my mundane tasks, and my mind’s eye could see that stratus clouds were forming, which portend nimbostratus clouds to follow, and I was present in the moment.
Isn’t that what it truly means to live?
If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.
In all those years of walking through the double wide school doors, released from the tedium of institutional learning, to my mother’s car where loud radio music awaited me – I’ll never forget what she always said, “Chile, I don’t know where you get that confident swagger from.”
Last year, when I thought I had truly had enough of what I could handle as a human being, I grappled with my faith. Ellen has asked me to define faith and I had to tell her I meant truly faith in myself, my own divine ability to get up and do it again.
The more the hurdles come, the more my faith soars, and so though I’m but a small part of this vast universe, I feel enormous. Yesterday, a mysterious young man found dead on the road was revealed to be the son of a friend. Another friend with cancer married her partner. Still another friend’s cousin was found dead in the shower. And yet one more time, we were able to fall asleep in the comfort of our own beds with the dogs calm around us and stars up in the sky.
Mom, I whispered to the spirit world, I don’t know where I got this confidence either, because (insert laugh) every day I’m tested and every day I pass.
My life has me once again tossing around like a dinghy in troubled waters. Too much time is spent on work with the project either offering money or meaning, and hardly ever blending the two according to my desires.
Tatjana’s diagnosis of terminal cancer has my whole system on lock down while she handles this news better than me. Another friend’s diagnosis of cancer pounds my already aching heart. And yet there is joy and love in these moments before – before we don’t know what happens next.
My book has been parked while I work on the memoir that everyone wants my book to be. I’ve just returned from a writer’s retreat that I put on my calendar months ago and everyone and everything kept rising up to prevent it, but I stuck like glue and found a place. I stayed at my friend Tommy’s beach house in Bay St. Louis and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Two essays – check. A blog post on Transracial Parenting – check. And the beginnings of another chapter in the memoir/book.
And I also chilled out.
Not one day did I wear lipstick.
Two nights of lounging in a deep bubble bath.
I spent some time mentally rounding up recent persons of interest – one got married to a woman he’s been seeing the last two years (what?). Another puzzle was summed up by a reliable source as flakey and as someone who has always lived pillar to post. Another just had his 60th birthday and remembered mine but the distance is a good thing.
I’ve written down all of my fears in the world, and I keep experiencing them one after another as if some cosmic decision was made a decade ago to plunge me into the whirling blades and watch the bloodletting. Who am I to seek an easier path? This one I’m on now is so profoundly real that I can’t even get to fantasy.
Each morning, I walked the shore from Bay St. Louis to Waveland and dragged my feet through the brownish water of the Gulf. I collected three shells, a feather, one photo, and lots of solitude and meditation along the way. I saw this creature in motion by the waves to the shoreline, and his bulging eyes begged me to look again.
The story always begins with an ending.
The Art of Disappearing
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
Naomi Shihab Nye