Black (Brown) History Month is a sad time for me. I watch as people post a mere inch of who we are as brown people on Earth, leaving out the many miles of our existence. I read endlessly on my feed about our colonized moments in time, the sad and annoying inch, interrupting our ability to see all of who we are and were, see our complexity, diversity, ingenuity, creativity, our vast and rich existence upon this globe. I don’t mind seeing Rosa Parks and Malcom X, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. We can talk about Phillis Wheatley and Scott Joplin, Marcus Garvey and Ethel Waters. But I also want to talk about Timbuktu, ancient city of Mali that flourished beginning in the 12th century. Tell me about the university in Timbuktu, one of the oldest universities on Earth, housing ancient documents I may never have the opportunity to read. I want to learn about the people of Tasmania, who were nearly annihilated by colonizers. Tell me about the vastness of the Zulu nation that once comprised nearly 3/4 of the continent; what was their life like? What is left of them and the people they once were? Teach me about the Twa (misnamed Pygmy) and their vast history that has extended for as long as they can remember. Show me how to speak Xhosa, a language formed including clicks as part of the phonetics. Expose me to the nine dialects. Let’s speculate on the Walls of Benin and what the creators imagined it to be when they started it around 800 AD. My brown brothers of North America, many once blacker than the blackest African, enslaved and raped of their land, our land, what was a teepee made of? Let’s honor “The Ritual of the Little Black People” of Taiwan, who after being slaughtered into virtual extinction, are now celebrated yearly by the Saisiyat tribe. Let’s talk about the lost matriarchies of nearly every brown culture on Earth. Who were the Dahomey Amazon women? The Oyo Empire? How did the Yorubas unfold culturally? Let’s gather up our history like lost children and speak them into remembrance. “We are not a people of yesterday,” Ayi Kwei Armah wrote in his novel, Two Thousand Seasons. Our people have witnessed hundreds of thousands of seasons on Earth. Speak our seasons into remembrance. This inch we now claim and celebrate is not all that we are. We are many seasons and miles of story and life, song and dance. Tell it all. Remember.
When I expire, lungs emptied of air, heart still and unmoved, do not say I died or transitioned or passed away. Tell them that I left. I walked away from here. I packed light and went a travelin’, tiny knapsack stuffed round and ready for a one-way journey into the tamed uncharted wilderness. Tell them I went on a vision quest, far from the soil of my ancestors, the soil of my mothers and fathers. My walking stick carved by my hands pulled me toward the stars, across galaxies and nebulas. Tell them it was time for me to embark on my journey, leaving behind the machinations of the here and now, to find peace and quiet and love and song, find dog stars and distant suns, aurora borealis in technicolor. Tell them I walked long and far from here with intention, purpose and desire. Tell them I leave this land to my daughters, brothers, sisters and friends. And my lineage who will never know my name because centuries will wall between us until they cannot see even the memories of my stories. The memories will turn to dust, yes, those words we said and thought were immortal. They too will leave, walking away from the here, words blowing into the ocean to give breath to the sea; walking on water into their destiny. No, don’t tell them I died. Tell them I left you here, my coordinates tight in the palm of your hand so you will find me when you decide to leave. Tell them I was happy to go. Tell them I am waiting for them next to an unnamed star, stretched out near a dusty road in a field of daisies, underneath a weeping willow tree, cradling a tall glass of lemonade.
She spin dark brown clay, forming body and mind into soul
She spin her child into bird and lion and dolphin and mermaid
She then place clay inside her womb and fire it into human,
mixed with everything Earth and sky,
gift wrapped in gold and silver glittered orange box
and purple satin ribbons
She fire arms and legs, limbs strong and supple,
eyes wide and dark, mind sharp and ready
She fire child until colors vibrant and set,
a female child she dreamed of, dreamed day and night,
until the clay find its way into her hands
Then she spin and spin until something form
something for Earth to remember
Until she feel her womb igniting furnace heat,
heat to fire clay, fire night, fire light, fire life
She fire her child into existence, from wanting, from love,
a new creature now landed on Earth
from spaces inside a body fired to create life,
fired to let there be life,
and there was.
In the summer of 1986 I joined the United States Army Reserve. I was 19 years old and had no inkling of the nature of my upcoming journey. I was young and naive with high expectations and childlike dreams.
I required money for college; that was my primary reason for joining. I wanted to become a lawyer. Serving my country was an afterthought. The GI Bill was my road to higher education and a better future. I had initially walked into the Air Force recruiters’ office, college and jets on my mind. My scores were insufficient, so I could not join to become a pilot. I had to choose from jobs within my test range. Dejected, I ambled down the hall to the Army recruiters and officially joined the Army Reserve as 71L (Administrative Specialist), my MOS (Military Occupational Specialties). I don’t fully recall why I wanted to change, but felt compelled to do so.
Basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) were at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. At the time, Fort Jackson was said to be one of the most grueling basic training forts in the United States. I was unable to confirm this at the time, but it certainly felt like the truth. AIT was not as challenging, but still intense and demanding.
I left Fort Jackson and headed back to the North Bronx, now officially a private and reservist. My monthly duty station was Fort Totten in Queens, built in 1862 (named Fort at Willets Point) and renamed Fort Totten in 1898. Each month I made the long trip to Queens to spend two days conducting military business. It was unimpressive and uneventful. Once per year we went away for two weeks, with my first two week trip landing me in Colorado, knee deep in sidewinders and what felt like twin suns.
After nearly two years and incessant indecisiveness regarding what I wanted to study in college, I decided to join the Army full time. Becoming a lawyer no longer felt like a fit. I imagined defending the guilty and immediately became disinterested. I then decided to become a computer programmer and began learning C, C++, FORTRAN, COBOL and Pascal. While I enjoyed learning the many programming languages, I didn’t envision myself programming day in and day out at a corporation. Pre-lawyer dreams of becoming a singer, model and actress had long been dashed to the wind due to lack of support. I needed to get away. The Army was my escape. Silly, I know this now.
My first duty station as a full-time soldier was West Germany, Deutschland, winter 1988, Christmas week. I learned to stick shift in Deutschland and drove on the Autobahn (Bundesautobahn), speed limits be damned, within two days of learning manual transmission. I rode on the U-Bahn, the railway system with no booth clerk at many stops. A small ticket machine stole their jobs and left the honor system as a replacement. Some days I purchased my ticket, other days I took a chance, hoping a conductor wouldn’t float through to check tickets and give tickets to the dishonorable. I was caught once without a ticket, but that did not deter me from periodically rolling the dice like some Germans. My adventures in Deutschland are extensive and will find their way in other stories on another day. Of all the stories, however, there is one more I will share here. I was there when the Wall came down and many East Germans left what some would consider their prison and others would call their home. Small cars I called shoes, all piled high with luggage sometimes twice the height of the tiny cars, moved along narrow streets in West Germany. Droves of East Germans, excited to reunited with Westside family members, flowed like a stream over unfamiliar asphalt. The influx, although expected, was still a shock to the system in the West. I witnessed it. Got a piece of the wall and a cut of the original fence that remained before the wall went up. It was surreal to be there, a witness to transformative history.
I gave birth to my first daughter in Frankfurt, West Germany, October 1990, then decided it was time to extricate myself from an environment I had slowly realized was not conducive to the life I wanted for my child. After a bit of research, I found a loophole that allowed me to leave the military. I was tempted to remain in Germany given that I had fallen in love with the land and the people. But youth and inexperience planted fear in me, so I left.
I learned many valuable lessons while in the military. It is an experience I cherish. I am not a “patriot” like many of my veteran friends. The military did, however, provide me with opportunities. I have been asked many times over the years if I would do it over, would I join again? No, never again. I would definitely not do it again. I believe the universe repeatedly attempts to provide us with lessons. If we avoid a lesson one way, we are given the lesson another way. I believe I would have received whatever lessons I learned in the military through some other means or method.
I remember all that I’ve gained. I also realize all that I’ve lost by joining. In the end, it balances out. I suppose. It is what it is. I had an experience. It was valuable. It is over. I honor it and would never wish to do it again. I do not believe anything but bullying is solved by war. Death always follows. For a moment in time, I was a part of that as I out-processed soldiers for the Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield. The hands of time cannot be reversed. And that is ok. I am here and I know something I did not know yesterday.
Remembering Her Through Streams of Words
I’ve always felt that I, human, am frighteningly small and whatever this is that we exist within is big, bigger than anything I could describe with human words. Not even numbers, math, arithmetic can illustrate what this is in ways we can fathom. Or even believe. Yet, we are in it. We are swallowed up by it. It ingests us and digests us as we move through it, trying to find our way to the other side of it. If there is another side. If there is only one side.
We are the grain of sand upon the beach of these galaxies, all swimming inside a mass of multiverses. We are floating through space, circling things we cannot see, and being encircled by things we may never see.
I bend inquisitive words to my will, hoping to breathe life into the mouths of their newly fleshed selves, hoping these words will help me to feel big inside this nameless ancient thing. I wonder about this hope I carry and whether it is authentic. Do I truly want to feel big? Do I want to know what this is? Or do I want to feel a greater sense of what I am in all this? Maybe I am terrified of the realization that I am sand. Or the molecule that sits upon the sand. Or the molecules that make up the sand. Maybe this is what frightens me, to realize how seemingly insignificant I am in all this. I am absent the ability to understand it. We all are. So there is no one I can turn to for answers, because we are all the many molecules moving around inside the form that is sand. Trapped by invisible limitations that won’t allow us to be anything other than sand; anything other than human. We cannot escape, we can only be.
I’m lost. I wake each day, sun warming my skin, and find myself yet again trapped inside this mysterious flesh that won’t set me free. Each sunrise renders me small and ever shrinking. I am acutely aware of this aging body I inhabit that will one day stop. I will be motionless, still, ceasing to realize the smallness of everything I’ve ever known. Becoming smaller as the abyss takes hold. Ultimately, ceasing to realize the bigness of all that I will never see or hear or smell or touch. Will there be something else once I leave this prison? Or should I count this as a mysterious gift I cannot decipher? Will there be the chance to explore that which is bigger than me, and smaller than I could ever imagine? Does that which is smaller than me contemplate its existence in the way that I contemplate mine? In similar ways? Maybe we are the only beings that contemplate existence. Will I enter the light or the darkness, or a peculiar amalgam of both? Will I go into permanent unconsciousness or permanent existence and sentience? Will I BE; or not be?
…I bake words in hot ovens so they may rise. I fry them in cast iron pots, black and seasoned over the years to add flavor to everything that touches them. I take words into my hands and toss them in a buttered pan, so they can flavor my existence and find the truths I cannot see. The words seek out the roads less traveled, the paths to uncharted places only the stars have seen. I want to go there, to the uncharted places. I want to become big; then small enough and wise enough to commune with the ones who know what it is like to feel small. They live and love and look up and out, wondering what else there is…who else there is. I sauté words, preparing them for my still growing imagination. I imagine big, trying to offset my feelings of smallness. I have trouble seeing the power of smallness in this moment, even though I know there is power in the small. I know it. I do.
If we let it, realization of our pending death could open portals into other worlds (and words). Maybe only into the worlds in our mind, but maybe into tangible worlds waiting for us to find them. If we fearfully attempt to pretend death isn’t coming, we could deny ourselves a magical journey.
My stepmother died Friday, April 20, 2018. She was kind.
Her journey thrust me into deep meditation. I went to the hospital. Saw her lifeless body. Her mouth was agape due to rigor mortis, so it could not be closed. It was surreal. She’d only been dead for two hours when I arrived. Her body was still warm.
No movement. No breath. No heart beat. Lifeless. But warm. Warmth is life.
It was life.
I kissed her forehead and my lips warmed. I spoke to her, feeling that she was still traveling and would hear my words. I wanted my imagining to be true, for her traveling soul to smile as I spoke.
I wanted her to have a soul.
So I spoke to her, not knowing if what I conjured in my mind was true. As I sat staring at her, I no longer knew what was true. In truth, I never did. I’ve always tossed our existence around in my mind, never landing on anything I could say I know for sure. We make claims about faith and hope and utter knowings we cannot prove to anyone but our dream-selves. Our fear of not knowing gives rise to claims of “personal journeys” only we can experience. There it is. No proof required. Convenient methods we use to allay our fears. We are creative beings. We are.
She seemed small on that hospital bed; small, vulnerable and helpless. Not even the doctors could bring her back. In that moment, they were helpless demi-gods who once dreamed of omnipotence. They left the room, dragging their words behind them, littering the floor with their helplessness. She was a prisoner inside a body that was warm, but motionless. And she was leaving this place, never to return. She was inside a cage-less, warden-less, fence-less prison that would hold her for a time we can never number. We often ponder how long we could or might live, but we rarely ponder how long we will be dead. If we care for this body, we could be here for 90 years, maybe more. When that time expires, we will be dead for millions, billions, trillions of years…if this is all there is, this moment, this body and these words I leave for you to read. No soul-spirit, just words that will one day ash and find the wind. If this is all there is. If.
I realize now that the small places are not much different from the big places. Just as a thing can be so small we cannot see it, a thing can be so big we cannot see it. That is the way of galaxies. We are here, in this big thing, but cannot see it or its neighboring galaxies with our naked eyes. Everything is big and small all at once.
This was my stepmother on the hospital bed, big and small all at once. She reminds me to be humble and live well. Because there is a journey up ahead that nothing in this life can prepare us for. This journey could be magical or tragic. But it will be.
Come, let me recycle your soul. I will rinse it clean, sanitize it, then send it back to Earth. The sanitization process often erases all traces of memories. For some, however, a few latent memories of time spent here are retained, fully realized through spirit-work The un-sanitized memories are like leftover germs, each one carrying pieces of a past you can barely recall. They are a flash of light in a dark tunnel. There is something there, but you cannot make out the whole. You stretch yourself into the past, feeling in the dark, hoping to unearth what you’ve forgotten. It rarely comes, at least not fully. Shards of memory fall. I gather up the pieces for the recycling, rinsing them of a world that doesn’t need to be remembered. If anything remains, let it be the joy, beauty and laughter of a life well lived, infecting the new soul like an incurable virus.
she was dying
not from disease
it was much more
invasive than that
there is no vaccine for pain
no vaccine for the insecurity
he bred inside her
turning her into a genetic modification
of her former self
her soul is now broken ribs
from steel-toe boots
no vaccine for immortal memories
she wished would expire
memories as long as those
remembered by ancient gods
who watch as their creations die
centuries old rubble
fade to dust with each sunset
her memories are canned goods
created for disasters
made to last until the can is opened
unnaturally preserved life oozing
from the cut metal
she was dying by the inch
from the fist that blackened
her eye five years ago
just after he proposed to her
from the lover who told her
her tits were too small
from memories of the child
who slipped from her womb
unmoved by life’s promises
from the canned love
preserved in salt and bitterness
there is no vaccine for betrayal
no vaccine to heal the cut wrists
she sees the sun rise tomorrow
but life is only memories in a can
preserved for the dying soul
she waited for herself at twilight
under the baobab tree
black skirt raised above knees
red and gold painted bare feet on haunted ground
spirit rising through ancient soil
seeking lost self and awaiting life
the agape dance
gyrating for the coming moon
gyrating for her lost self
smelling sea water on moonbeams
night skirt tugged high
copper skin against cloaking darkness
she is her own lover
she made love
under the baobab tree
there is a forgotten life inside this aging skin
fragmented memories of an ancient epoch
ancestral reinventions laced in lost stories
our flesh matters less than the words we leave behind
the lyrics endure; a griot’s invocation
the deluge of stories return to our waiting tongue
words become anthropomorphic things
with breath and soul; with dance and song
inhaling and exhaling for us
onto paper, onto stone, inside clouds that form ideas
and rain; i am re-fleshing the dusty bones of forgotten worlds
with words; forgotten words
remembered sound inside this aging skin
needing words; needing lost yesterdays
i am more than the words i speak or write. more than what you see. i am the unseen and unheard ends of the spectrum. i am the invisible that exists, not needing eyes or ears to simply be. i too require instruments to detect my presence in this space. i too can only be seen by that which was made to see me.
I want to tell you a story about a short stout woman who lived on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. She fished barefoot next to her shadow just before the sun found her copper face and presented her to the world. By the culture’s warped standards, she was not pretty. But she was a clever moonlight witch with a cauldron for each day of the week, including a special Sunday cauldron meant specifically to raise something dead. She knew that at the rate the world was going, she’d spend many Sundays searching for the left tooth of a hippopotamus and the right hind leg of a field mouse, the primary ingredients needed to raise the dead. Then there was the distilled water that could not be purchased in plastic gallon bottles from a supermarket shelf. Those were tainted. They’d been sitting too long and around far too many fearful souls who believed in too many gods. The energy was all wrong; so she, Alda, had to distill the water herself, a process that took several days and a large beacon handblown by a sad naked virgin with butterfly tattoos covering most of her body. Alda had watched the process many times before and sometimes joined the virgin, her clothes tossed over chairs and tables in solidarity.
(to be continued)
I had not been home to Jamaica in over a decade. In August 2015 I took a trip, and while there, visited Marcus Garvey’s house, which still stands atop a small hill, with the same ginep tree that was there when he was a child. I ate from that ginep tree and imagined Garvey climbing high to reach the sweetest ones.
Photo: Taken by me in front of Garvey’s house
There are days like today when the living ain’t easy. I sit in the back of the store—breakroom slash stockroom—waiting for things I cannot name. Boxes stacked to the ceiling containing gadgets to keep us entertained. Fluorescent lights hum. The clock ticks away each second of my life for minimum wage. I won’t be dishonest, a dollar more than minimum. I am still a slave without chains. The mental and spiritual shackles are hard and cold, holding me firm to an invisible wall deep inside invisible catacombs. There is no cask here. I am bricked in by this culture. It is wild and oppressive and no longer free. I want to melt coins, burn Franklins and Washingtons to ash, mix them to create magic wands to cast out demons and cast spells to bind the future of capitalism; forever.
The bulbs continue to buzz, the microwave hums, warming food for the one invading my space. She is tall and pencil thin, hair dyed Smurf-blue, voice like Rosie Perez. She doesn’t know that I want to save her from this place, this back room, cold and lonely, not fit for life. We are here because the melting and burning has not yet begun. Instead of a war cry to usher in the next revolution, she waits for a beep, so her radiated meal can soothe her. She eats away her minimum wage, unconcerned with the reality that she may live and die in a stockroom, somewhere on this continent, making less than the patriarchy that owns her life and lives well off her lack. Her Smurf-blue hair will have turned gray and white, her back low and knees pained; but she can’t stop because cat food is expensive these days and she needs to eat.
The light dims and flickers. A toilet flushes in the distance. Footsteps trace their way back to the front to greet an uneventful life, bloodied with microwave dinners, worn shoes, unpaid light bills and a life-dance without music.
Your whispers reach me across time. They find me standing on the edge of awakening. My dreams leave, then your dreams ask to enter the space of love that eases our pain. We go together, warriors of love, into the fields of Elysium. And there we plant ourselves in eternity, seeded and ready to incarnate once again, once again, once again, here. But the place we must wait is distant, taking us across vast barren land. We make love on the dry soil and our cries of ecstasy fertilize what was once dead. We water the land with our love-waters. Green things grow as our orgasms grow. We green the Earth with every drop of us. And life grows, inside and out. Elysium waits for us, again, somewhere off in the distance. It waits for everything we are; and the offering we brought forth from our love.