Empowerment through Language...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

12 Years to Discover a House Is a Home

January 2000, it had been frigid cold. One Saturday morning, the last of the month, ice was thick on the iron stairs to my attic apartment where I had lived for 10 years. A line of friends stretched to the ground helping lug the chaos in boxes and bags to their trucks and vans, then to load into my new home just two blocks away. Nothing changed but my street name: same house number, zip code, phone number, same community. I was 48 and I had purchased my first home. In my adult life, I had moved 23 times, and the decade spent in my aerie was the longest I had ever lived in one place.

I woke on Sunday morning alone surrounded by a bunker of boxes throughout the house. I did not know the sounds yet. My cats were freaked out and one took to the basement for a month. I thought, at one point, that perhaps she had died down there.

This home has been my miracle over and over again. In the first 6 years of living here, I took in roommates to meet the mortgage. I have had several changes of career over the years I moved in. I have lived alone for the second half of my residence. For the past 2 years, I haven't even had pets, other than the fish but they don't talk much. 

Many people have come to stay, for a night, a weekend, and now I have guests for a few months while they get on their feet and prep for a new baby. They have brought their dog, who is getting used to me.

Some have come here to heal. Some have come to party or to write. For some, I am a relief and a good night's sleep in the middle of a road trip. Others stop by for coffee or tea. My home is meant to be shared with others but still be a haven for myself when I need it. 

I have become a gardener while living here. My grandfather, Cleveland McConnell, advised me as a young writer that, if I wanted to be a poet, in my lifetime I had to accomplish two things: live in the country and grow a garden. I have experienced both. Now my gardens are permanent and ever-changing. The first September that I harvested herbs from the raised bed at the edge of my deck, I cried. These are the herbs I would harvest when I grow old.

In the 1980s, I shared an apartment around the corner from this house and I often sat on the back porch with my electric typewriter working on poems. I could see the big deck on the back of this house and I mused, "I would love to have a house with a deck like that someday." I realized that I had managed that dream very literally the first time I sat on my deck with a cup of hot coffee. 

I have watched the children of the neighborhood grow up; we lost one to  a bullet in his 19th year. His younger brothers and I planted a lilac sapling in the corner of their yard; only to discover it cut down by the landlord's lawn maintenance crew. I replanted it with a new next-door neighbor several years later. In a couple more years, it will bloom to mark the anniversary of his passing. There is also a Jackmani clematis in back that bursts with purple blossoms every June to acknowledge the loss of my beloved brother Alex.

Many neighbors I love have moved from the block, more have moved it. One of the elders has passed away and we have lost many trees on the block and in my yard. I have expressed my politics openly. I made jam for the church mothers across the street and sent a summer bouquet for their altar.

I felt like I was playing dress-up for a long time but no longer. This is the home I intend to occupy for the remainder of my life. It is the definition of roots and stability to me and now I have lived here longer than any other residence in my entire life. When and if the time comes that I can no longer climb the stairs, I will add a walk-in shower to the half bath on the first floor and convert my library to my bedroom. This is the house that poetry gave me. This is my respite but the door is open to those who will benefit and my gardens bloom to delight eyes. And hopefully, a long time yet, I will retire to my pillows, breathe deeply, fall into a gentle long sleep and have a very peaceful passing. We all hope for such a transition, I think. But until then, I have squirrels in the attic, mice trying to winter in the kitchen, and a ton of work to do on my many professional projects! Now to get back to it...blessed be to you all. Stop by sometime. I will put the pot on for a sip together.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

ODS Nominated for NAACP Image Award!

The NAACP Image Award nominations were announced in Los Angeles at 9:00 a.m. PST on Thursday, January 19, 2012. I am honored to share that my coauthor, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I were nominated for our book, Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community, in the category of Instructional Literature. What a thrill this is to be considered in this significant arena of recognition.

The Howard University literary journal, Amistad, republished an excerpt including the foreword by the esteemed educator, Dr. Carol D. Lee, and the prologue. The link above will take you to the site, and the reprint starts on page 99.

You can order ODS from the major on-line sources: Powell's, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

But most of all, you can vote for us for the NAACP Image Awards: Your advocacy and support are appreciated. The Awards will be broadcast live on NBC on Friday, February 17th, at 8 p.m. EST. Wouldn't it be marvelous to give an acceptance speech?! Ha!


Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Power of Knowing Oneself

I believe that there are two ways of moving through the world: to trust all whom we meet until they prove that we cannot, or to trust no one until they prove that we can. I am of the first ilk.

Today I had an uncomfortable experience that now, a couple of hours later, I am looking at much differently than I did in the moment. I was at lunch with a couple of colleagues and, towards the end of the discussion, one of them lodged what I perceive as a very heated, even vicious attack on me. It seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since I have considered this individual as a friend and certainly to be likeminded. But hey, it happens and I am not always the best judge of others. I take people at face value and assume that they are trustworthy until they prove otherwise, as I stated above.

One of the challenges that was slung at me like hot tar was that of my "qualifications." What were my qualifications that allowed me to make judgments of others' work, etc., to make my assertions of what I believe and know of poetry? This individual pressed on: "You only have your Associates degree, right?!" I replied, "No..." "You have a B.A.?!" Again, "No." "You don't have any degree?! Well, you have no have no rights to sit on your mountaintop and proclaim you know anything at all..."

If only this had been the sum of the slurs and hurtful accusations. I will forgo the remainder. But this one of the predominant of those many hurdles I have struggled to top for a long, long time. What is even more hurtful is that this individual knows that I do not have any academic degrees and also knows that it has been a considerable sore point for me, a source of insecurity and self-doubt for as long as I can remember. It has also been an insecurity that I have been healing because I have to look at the 7-page CV with honest eyes and see what I have done, in spite of no college diploma.

What gives me the "right" to teach poetry, to guide others, and to make aesthetic determinations of others' work? I can start with this: 40 years of immersion in poetry with an eagerness to learn, grow, apply what I glean, and learn more. I have one chapbook, two full-length collections of poetry, and a textbook for educators to my name. I have published many individual poems, and I have written numerous critical essays over the years. I have been teaching at some level for nearly 20 years now, now to the tune of 2000+ students of all ages annually, and I have been an editor for more than 15 years.

I read poems, essays, novels, memoirs, blogs, articles, and loll about in the world of language. I push myself a great deal and I teach what I want to learn. It is in the teaching where I most have to validate my own aesthetic, sometimes to someone who is in their 60s, sometimes to a 3rd grader, but always have to give an authentic and informed reason to substantiate my statements in an effort to support that other person in their pursuit of language, expression, and craft.

I am not a person who has ulterior motives. There are those who have attempted to accuse me of such over the years. I have to remember that they can only accuse me of such only because they are capable of it themselves. These people are often bullies. This afternoon, I dined with a bully; a bully who also chose to attack and insult in a public place, which is also an act of cowardice.

I don't have a diploma on my wall. But I intend to by the time I turn 60, 2 years from now. I will be completing my degree because it has become such an important symbol to our society of what we know and how much we can be trusted. Somehow, someone young enough to be my son or daughter could have achieved his or her MFA and have more respect than the many years of self-study and practical application I have completed in my 40 years of adulthood. It is curious that a peer would froth so much at the mouth over such a thing.

What I know about myself is that I do what I can and as much as I can to support my friends, my peers, and my students, in fact, my community, both locally and at large. I am not perfect. I miss deadlines sometimes. I do not follow through sometimes, mostly because it has always been hard for me to say no to a request for help when I think I have something to offer. But I have never found a perfect human either. It is antithetical to the definition.

I also know that I am an accomplished artist who has persevered in spite of many obstacles, some of which were self-fashioned. I know I am persistent and resilient. I know that I am pure in my intention. And I know that I will always have the opportunity to grow and learn more, which I hope to express in quality writing and in effective teaching.

That is enough for me. If others want to see me in a light that is merely a projection of their own fears and flaws, so be it. In the sage words of some book I have never read but think of often, "It is none of my business what you think of me." I was angry and frustrated in the moment but I know what my qualifications are: a life well lived, an honest heart, a giving intention, and a whole lot of poems committed to the page. That will just have to suffice.