Saturday, May 29, 2021

Of safety and welcome

One hundred years ago on Memorial Day weekend, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the city's Greenwood District, an area known as Black Wall Street, prosperous Black families who had made a thriving community for themselves, went about their daily affairs. They had built elegant houses, a Black hotel considered one of the best in the world, banks, law firms, and flourishing businesses and schools, until on May 31 and June 1, one hundred years ago, their district was bombed from the air and incinerated from the ground as whites in Tulsa set fire to the entire kit and kaboodle, whole neighborhoods of families burned in their homes, with many who tried to flee shot and killed, and those who did manage to escape left homeless and penniless, concentrated in camps, their generational wealth in real estate and careful financial investments stolen in broad daylight, with no one ever held to account.

I'm ashamed to say I was a grown woman before I discovered what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the end of May 1921. I can still feel my naive and chilling disbelief that an entire community, thirty-five city blocks, had been razed to the ground in two days. Afterward, they put a highway through Greenwood so its residents could not rebuild. Many Americans still know nothing of the Tulsa race massacre. Some only learned of these events when they watched the opening sequence of the HBO series Watchmen, and were so astonished by the scenes of white mobs firebombing Greenwood, murdering its residents, mercilessly plundering their wealth, that they asked again and again, Did this horror really happen? Could this possibly be true? It did happen. The horror is true. 

What happened in Greenwood didn't appear in any history books from which our children were taught. And this week, the governor of Oklahoma signed a bill that bans the teaching of history that makes people feel uncomfortable, or that might make them feel any sense of responsibility, sorrow, or shame for past events. In other words, he banned the teaching of any and all the racial atrocities that are so woven with the history of this country. Look it up. The bill is so wrong as to be absurd. As someone said on a TV news program this morning, we have to start getting a little more comfortable with discomfort or nothing will ever change. Granted, nothing ever changing is the dearly held hope of many.

The fact is, the burning of Black Wall Street was not an isolated event. Across the South, and in the North, too, booming Black communities that sprang up in the aftermath of slavery were burned to the ground, their residents killed or run out of town, their hard-earned wealth destroyed to stolen, until at last Black folks clustered in concrete inner cities, seeking safety in numbers, starting again from scratch, their future generations mired in poverty and lack of opportunity, their freedom to travel where the wind might take them a wanderlust that could get them killed.

A month ago, a friend, the mother of a boy who went to school with my daughter in New York City, told us of her son driving cross country just for the lark of it, and how he stopped for a few weeks in a small town in Utah and loved it so much he decided to move there. This young man is white of course. A young man of color would not have dared to stop in white rural Utah, and perhaps would not have considered a drive cross country to be a lark, knowing the rural stretches of Trump America he might have to pass through, small towns where his humanity might be despised to the bone. No one talks much about this aspect of racism here, the way it clips the wings of our young, limits the geographic range of their dreams. I was happy for my friend's son, that he had found a place that spoke to his soul, but I couldn't speak for a few moments as the truth assailed me of how curtailed my own children's movements will always be in this country, if they hope to be safe, that is.

Not entirely incongruous to the musings of this post, the photograph here was taken by my niece Arrianne—morning light somewhere in Jamaica. Having migrated to this country forty six years ago, recently I find myself wondering what my life might have been like if I had just stayed in my first home. I realize that to some, no matter how long I live and work and pay taxes here, I will never belong. It is useless to ponder this, my husband says. We met in New York City. Our children were born here. They are American. Perhaps I might not have met and married this beautiful pragmatic man if I had not chosen to live here. Perhaps we are simply meant to be here, the evidence for that being the fact that we are here. 

Still, I yearn so hard of late for the spiritual safety and welcome of my first home, the green and blue island of my birth, it sometimes makes my vision blur.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Summer is here

The man and I went to dinner in a Harlem beer garden last Friday, so that was fun. Date night outdoors, a lovely break in the proceedings. I have become much too acclimatized to life indoors, and lack imagination of the joys waiting to be experienced beyond my front door. It doesn't help that I have never been particularly gifted in this regard.

Summer is entering it's oppressive phase, the sun so bright through the window it blinds with its glare, the trees so fully leafed they hide the world, the daylight lasting so late into the night that sleep wont come till past midnight. In the summer, I wish I lived in a house with a deck and a backyard, rather than in a fifth floor New York City apartment. I wish I could step out my door barefoot, and feel the earth underfoot, the silky grass, the pebbles and sharp rocks. We don't go outdoors barefoot in New York. Such pleasures are saved for vacations in other places, and though I am yearning for such a trip, I seem devoid of the commitment and decision-making skills to plan one. I just go along from day to day, dropping down inside myself to check how I'm feeling, melancholy today, climbing the walls yesterday, longing to escape myself tomorrow. 

I can't watch the news anymore, all those dead children in Palestine, all those traumatized still living babies wondering if the next detonation will leave them homeless or worse, the father and his brother who each gave the other one of their children, so that if one of their houses were bombed, their line would live on. Closer to home, the mass shootings again, now that people have emerged from quarantine. What is wrong with us that we can't seem to regulate guns, can't seem to break the thrall of those who refused to be vaccinated because they're not afraid, yet need assault weapons to protect themselves. Who are we kidding? It's not to protect themselves, but rather to intimidate and spread fear, and far too often, to spray bullets and murder. I can't keep track of the names of the dead. Every day someone new. Dead by a cop's reckless gun. Dead by a gun owner's need to play with his toys. Sometimes, it is all I can do to make my world small, pretend man's inhumanity to man isn't destroying us.

What, I ask myself, am I supposed to do with this life? How can I make this day purposeful? And then night at long last creeps down through the trees, but brings no answers.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The very air

Some fears should never be spoken, are not worthy of being powered by the vibration of sound. But how do we exorcise those fears, so that they cease to live inside us, making knees weak, breath ragged? They have such power, these figments of the mind, these imaginings that will hopefully never come to pass, and even if they did, what would I do then but keep on? All this to say I am a mess of unspoken fears this afternoon, and saying that here is my attempt to set them aside, to remind myself that the things I fear have not destroyed me, though I'm definitely a bit dinged. As I spiral in inner space, here are two photos of American Ballet Theater's Misty Copeland, goddess of the dance, because in my next life, I'm going to have that tensile muscle and grace, that mastery over the very air.

From @mistyonpointe

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Slow roll

It was the weirdest thing, I wrote and published that last post and then that night, after some comments had come it, it just vanished. Oddly, the comments were still in my queue, but attached now to a ghost post, and I had no idea what had happened. Then, the next morning, the post mysteriously reappeared, but as a draft now, and I wondered if there was anything in it that my guardian god fairies didn't think I should be putting out into the world, because I do think like that sometimes, but in the end I pressed publish again, and there you go. 

I'm in a slow cycle, nothing feeling too pressured yet on my currently active projects. I'm mostly just editing stories for the magazine this week and losing myself in reading books, which for so long I had been unable to do, as my attention was too scattershot. I wonder if it was the effect of perpetual exhausting outrage over the orange ectoplasm, mercifully relieved now by the delightfully boring good intentions of the current president. The kickoff meeting for my new book project is later this week, so I'll need to get busy again on that soon, but for the time being, I'm enjoying the sense of being able to meander a bit. The only downside is there's so little to do in New York beyond park activities and sidewalk dining right now, although that is likely to change soon, as more of the city gets vaccinated. 

My daughter and her love rented an apartment in Brooklyn for June and July, and I'll be so stoked to have them back in the city. My girl continues to do her job remotely, and he got a summer internship with a New York City finance firm. Even though his job is also remote, he figured it would be good to go into the office occasionally for some face time. Nothing like an in-person connection, especially now that offices are starting to open back up. My niece and her husband in Dallas will be coming to visit at some point, too, so the gang will be together again. My husband confessed that the thing he missed most in quarantine was regular get togethers with our young uns and their significant others. Well it seems the party's back on, though it may be moving to Brooklyn.

The apartment my daughter and her boyfriend rented is in a beautiful building with breathtaking rooftop amenities, and even a pet spa for heaven's sake. My daughter was thrilled at having found it. My son scolded his sister that she'll be spending twice as much on rent as he does every month, to which she replied, "Why can't you just be happy for me?" "I want to be happy for your bank account, too," my frugal son shot back. Without missing a beat my girl responded, "If you want to be happy for my bank account you're welcome to start making monthly cash infusions." He had the grace to laugh. I understand him, though. He is saving for a wedding, after all. 

I had a birthday by the way. My husband went down to the flower district the day before and picked up birds of paradise and ginger lilies and made me that beautiful arrangement, and brought home a new orchid, too. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Life, liberty, happiness

How quickly the writing habit evaporates. Here's a picture. My news? The proposal I wrote has been sold to a publisher, and so now I have to write the book, but first I have to interview my subject again, in even greater depth, which means I have to catch her when she isn't on a plane to somewhere, she is always on a plane to somewhere. 

In the meanwhile I have had three work-related lunches in two weeks, two in my neighborhood and one in a tony town in a neighboring state, where people who are wealthy beyond imagining live. I worried about what to wear, and then I thought, just be yourself, if just being yourself doesn't cut it, then it's not a project for you. It may not be for me regardless, I don't know yet. I do love the agent on the project. She's one of those dark-humored yet deeply humane people with whom even an angsty soul can feel fully at ease. The prospect of working with her is a huge attraction, but I know what I do well, and what I might not be as well suited for, so I'm here, assessing. 

My son drove me the hour north to the lunch meeting in another state, and hung out with a friend of his who lives nearby until I called him to say I was ready, at which point he came and collected me from the restaurant and drove me back home. Such a lucky mother I am. Turns out I didn't need to worry about what I wore as my luncheon companion arrived at the waterside restaurant overlooking rich men's yachts with Crocs on her feet and she was completely and delightfully herself.

Things do seem to be bubbling. I had lunch two days ago with the woman who was my boss back in the early nineties, when I worked as senior editor for a travel book imprint at a publishing house. It was the only job I ever had that combined my college double major, English: writing concentration and Geography: cartography concentration. I've always loved maps; my first job in high school was handwriting the names of places on newly drafted maps, which my geography teacher recommended me for because my script looked like machined type. I digress. Back when I got hired at the publishing house, I was newly in my thirties and my boss, a prodigy in her late twenties, was already a publisher. When she offered me the job she said, "Oh Rosemarie, I have been searching for you for so long!" which made me preemptively forgive her for every difficulty she might ever cause me. 

She wasn't necessarily an easy boss, she was a stickler, a perfectionist, but it turns out I work well with such people, because they're very clear and straightforward about what they want. She left that job before I did, and a year later, she tapped me to be the co-writer with historian Madeleine Burnside on the very first book I ever had published, Spirits of the Passage, an illustrated coffee table reconstructed history of the earliest slave ship ever recovered, the wreck of the Henrietta Marie. 

We lost touch after the book's elegant launch party in an East Side art gallery thirty three years ago, until out of the blue she reached out two weeks ago and suggested we meet for lunch. I loved seeing her. We still knew each other so well, it was comfortable and warm as we caught each other up on the intervening years, talked about our twenty-something children, and reflected on how young we were back then. I learned that she'd married, moved to the Bay Area, raised her daughter there, got amicably divorced, and moved back to the city two years ago. She'd run her own literary agency for all of those years ("How did you start it?" I asked her. "Oh, I just found some clients," she shrugged), and now she had a project to pitch to me, a rather exciting one, and it just might play better to my strengths, I don't know, I have to do my research, figure out where to turn next, but it's a happy problem, this deciding.

The photo here is of a wonderful mural on East Third Street. It was taken by my friend Maryam, whose book I've just had the privilege of editing. Her novel is a sweeping global saga about motherhood and belonging, an epic work, and now it is with her agent and I pray and pray that it sells to a worthy publisher and you all will have a chance to read it, as you will not come away unmoved, and the world will be richer for receiving it. Amen.