Monday, November 10, 2014

Reflection of Residency

Gratitude is a character trait we emphasis at the Metanoia Leadership Academy in North Charleston, South Carolina.  I serve as director for elementary development, and one of my recently added roles is designing the curriculum for all age groups.  In the past, we have celebrated gratitude in May to take advantage of the opportunity to review all the blessings we received during the school year.   Lorraine Harrell, founder of Heart of A Woman (HOAW), invited me to share my gratitude for being awarded residency in the African-American Emerging Writers Over 40 program at the Africa House in Gallatin, Tennessee.   As November is the traditional month to give thanks, this is a timely request and quite fitting in my roles as a leader, a single mother, and a child of God who is growing, stumbling, and getting back up to try again day after day.

First, I have to thank my professional coach, Eileen Rossler.  She is an intuitive listener and also one who intentionally challenges those around her.  First, she challenged me to claim a title that I had been reticent to add to my list of roles, as it had been almost four years since I had been acting the part:  emerging writer.   During one of my coaching sessions she asked me if I had been writing.  I answered with two of the most common excuses for not doing what one loves: no time, no energy.  More succinctly, I was creatively drained.   Eileen did not accept my excuses. Not long after this session Eileen sent me an e-mail: “Two weeks in a mansion in the country with every need provided and nothing to do but write!! I think you can, I think you can, I think you can....what do you think?”  What could I say?

Yes, I said.  I can.  Preparing my submission cracked open the hardening shell of atrophy around my desire.  The passion throbbed in anticipation, beating hope through my veins.  Then the announcement came: “Congratulations – " and I gave my second round of thanks to the Almighty and to the readers, including Lorraine, who judged my words worthy of accolades.

Next, I had to coordinate child care.  My daughter’s grandmother, Rhoda Briggs, volunteered to take the first week.  My cousin took week two.  Without these two women offering their time and energy, love and loyalty, and most importantly, their belief in me as a writer, I would not have been able to afford the worry-free time away. I cannot thank them enough.

Upon arrival at the Nashville airport, our host Dr. Nii Saban Quao seemed convinced that his Mercedes Benz could contain four women and their suitcases, swollen to capacity with what we each required for our two week journey.  I looked at my slim comrades. “They will fit fine,” I said, then pointed to my full figure.  “But there is no way we’re getting these hips stuffed into that back seat with them,” I joked, but in my head I was quite serious.  As a woman, I am hyper-aware of my plus size and often make unhealthy comparisons that pummel my self-esteem.  This was not one of those moments.  This was simply my acknowledgement of a mathematical impossibility.  The good doctor respectfully disagreed and proved me wrong with quiet pride and dignity.  He packed us all in, my hips included, along with all our baggage.  Thank you, Dr. Saban for the ideal icebreaker.

Forty minutes later, we rolled up the hill to Africa House, the gravel driveway crackling under the heavy weight of the fully loaded vehicle.  I had seen pictures of the house on the HOAW website, but it did not prepare me for the reality. Now, as I think of that first sight of the golden lights shining from the plantation house, I recall a verse: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden…. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”  (Matthew 5:14-16.) 

To God be the glory for the light shining in Dr. Arikana Chihombori, the most gracious hostess of the Africa House.   Her generous spirit welcomed us into her royal kingdom.  She shared the story of how she acquired the mansion, bringing laughter and delight to those present and to the spirits of our ancestors who worked the land centuries before our arrival.  Her purchase granted me the freedom to breathe unadulterated country air.  She dressed me in a purple silken gown so I could stroll down graceful stairways and lounge about lazily on cotton white porch swings, sipping her spring green martinis.  For unlimited access to the perfect setting where this emerging writer could finally stretch and explore her imagination, Dr. Arikana, I thank you.

I thank the murmuration of the starlings, thousands of black birds swarming across the fields, in and out of harvest tinted trees, their dance of communion recalling the thousands of southern souls now flying free from the tethers of slavery.  I thank the stars that became mine every night as I looked up from the doorsteps of my bedroom.  To the fog that rolled in many mornings, taking me home to the Oregon coast, comforting me. Thank you for knowing me.

I am grateful for the acceptance of my fellow writers.  I did not feel like an outsider with these women.  As the youngest one, I was allowed to be a five-year-old ballet dancer.  I was left alone to pace, stop and stare into space, pace again, and then return to my room without needing to explain what I was doing.  And nobody judged me when feeding horses and donkeys became my daily devotion.  Thank you, Lydia,  for your keen insight,  honest and constructive criticism, and that gentle touch on my hand as you said “Not your circus,  not your monkeys” in your big sister voice; Terri, for tickling my taste buds, showing me that there is more to salad than spring mix.  This hippy hippie child is ready to get back to her earthy Oregon roots of eating; Sweet Sandra, giving care comes so naturally for you.  Your spirit exudes gratitude, overtly viewed in your joyful presence and twinkling smile, both contagious. 

These three very unique and distinct personalities flavored an organic fresh mix of womanhood, and I was blessed to be a part of the full serving of creative abundance, a diasporic delectable sowed and culled by Lorraine Harrell.  She saw the vision, dared to share the seed, tirelessly struggled against all obstacles to dig, nurture, pull, and finally feed the need for writers like us to just – write!  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

One of the requirements for applying to this residency was an artist statement.  In writing the statement, I realized that words cannot express the feeling of wholeness I get when writing.  I tried to define this feeling in the statement:

write \'rīt\ v

1 : an act of keeping myself sane.  One hundred pounds of paper on which I have written is testimony to how crazy I might have been. Blue notebook lines straighten out twisted thoughts and confine dark moments to the space between, white like the straight jacket I might have worn had I not been able to write. I have three Rubbermaid boxes of writings kept in decorated journals and three-ring binders, stream-of-conscious thoughts scribbled down on hotel notepads, bar napkins.  Writing is my way out of emotional and mental collapse. It’s what I do when I’m sick with dizziness from the circles of worries that run round me singing “Here We Go Loopty Loo.” 

When I write, each word slows the chase. I can catch my breath.   I enter into an ocean of endless time and space.  Once in the zone, I am complete.  The madness ends, and God begins. I know when the Lord has entered because my handwriting shifts. The writing ignores the lines on the paper, disregards grammatical rules.  The pronouns change from “I” to “You.”  What is written is simple, consolidating whatever complex issue I’m trying to work through.  Here, I’m not sure whether to leave a man who has hurt me yet again?  The answer, “Let him go.”  There, I’m worrying about my second car repossession. “You are greater than your circumstance.  Circumstances are temporary.  You are eternal.” That answer alone could easily apply to the total weight of my writings. 

2 :  I’m beginning to resent my writings; they take up too much space in my closet and they’re a pain in the ass to load up every time I move.  But I can’t throw them out.  Like the shelved books I’ve never read, I find the written word somewhat sacred.  What I have written is hardly holy, but it does serve as proof that I existed, easing a nagging fear that all the marijuana I use to smoke will kick start the family history of Alzheimer’s ahead of schedule.  I’ll want to recall my life; the joy of my children, my adventures to new places, the insight into old issues.  Though if I were reading the latter without memory, my response might be harsh - “What’s wrong with this woman?  Is she stupid on purpose?”  That may be another reason why I keep what I’ve written, as a record of how much I’ve grown.  Documentation that proves progress is possible; slowly insome cases, but it is made nonetheless.

3 : There is one major concern with holding on to a written history.  Once something is written down, whether fact or fiction, it becomes permanent.  Centuries later, future generations may use my writings as a reference.  In all my life, short as it’s been, there is much I’d rather forget.  I do not want my great, great grandchildren to uncover my writings and come to know what I once did, for even if I have changed and grown wiser, on paper my mistakes remain fixed.  So I find myself torn: keep my writings and through them preserve the memory of my existence, or let go of what has past and make room for this present.  When I’m this indecisive, I compromise:  bind the best, and burn the rest.  I’ll dig through piles of shit to discover the gems, lessons that can be polished and set. What remains will make for a wonderful winter bonfire.  I will perform a ritual of sorts, loose pages of bound burdens – guilt, shame, self-pity, blame – red flames blacken blue lines to gray ashes, writings of wrongdoings undone, stubborn sin and foolishness forgiven, released in the four directions to match the pattern of movement in this life I have come to know and love.

This residency, my first ever, renewed my love for writing.  Not wanting to lose that connection, I talked with Lydia about how to continue communion with my love.  She helped me make a plan, setting out a buoy that would mark the space for my return.  While driving home from Tennessee, I tethered my heart to the float and dropped anchor.

Now I am holding on with a firm, almost desperate grip; the tie can so easily slip in the waves of living. I am pushing myself to honor the talent God gave me, carving out time and saving energy to nurture my writing. Because Grandma Rhoda is still here with me, I was able to steal away an hour on Saturday to attend a festival for young adults and middle grade readers.  I attended a panel that informed how I might publish the book I started writing during the residency. Sunday, while Josiah was napping and Rio was in her room absorbed in her second viewing of a Strawberry Shortcake movie, I finished the edits on chapters one through five.  This morning before work, I began chapter six. 

I think I can do this. Yes, I can.  I will.

I pray for the character traits I will need: diligence, commitment, divinely inspired creativity.  And always gratitude for the time and energy to be free.

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