Posts Tagged ‘belonging’

My friend and I met as if on cue at the convergence of the taco trucks. He attends Fridays at the Oakland Museum regularly on his way home from work and agreed to meet when I told him about the poetry reading. We made a brief lap through the modest community of neighbors here at evening’s picnic, on the city’s first cool Friday night. I told him finally, “I went through therapy recently. And the doctor pointed out to me I have social anxiety.”

My unsurprised friend: Well, yeah. I see that totally. You don’t mingle. He said. His mention of the word mingle chilled me. I barely looked up at the tiered residents of Oakland munching on international food while hip hop played from the DJ booth and people danced with children.

He wanted to eat and I couldn’t. I wanted to read first and get it over with. We walked around again but nothing screamed out to either of us. The ice cream taco truck was doing zero business and looked dark. Then, we ran into Tongo, the main feature for the night, walking up the street carrying books to sell: “Have you heard the good news,” he said. My friend knew his name very well by then and was there to hear him do his thing live. We all walked towards the amphitheater, a small stage loaded with a drum set and mics. We greeted the producer for the evening and met the third poet, a woman neither of us knew who was performing with us. She came armed with a cadre of friends who stood in a circle across the courtyard.

It relived me to be asked to go first. Being first is a kind of thankless warm up — a luring of the audience away from the music and conversation and asking them for a different mindset. Didn’t the producer say this was a kind of experiment, a first time of using poetry here and doing so in association with a forthcoming exhibit? Most audiences click in with attention by the second speaker. I mounted the stage.

The exhibit we were loosely connected to was Question Bridge, and I thought to bring poems written from meaningful, personal questions and their hard answers. No matter what, the 10 minute collection of poems I chose, were the only poems that felt right and I wanted to do them. They were poems about and around my father. They were personal.

And reading them in that space made me feel unexpectedly raw and exposed. At first, the concrete courtyard at the foot of the stage was busy with dancers, mostly guardians and their children. When the music stopped, some of the children remained, looking confused from the sudden stop or to just stare at the activity and people. Somehow, I couldn’t look past the kids into the audience, tiered stairs full of people sitting, eating, dating, and — staring at me. I felt as if I were interrupting something. I felt self-conscious as all the people here had been asked to cease what they were doing and listen.

And what did I give them? A poem about racism and rights. Conversations about my dead father… Whom I suddenly began missing what with the children at my feet and women with babies tethered to their backs. Mid-reading, I fell into a deep, sticky loneliness. I looked up at the woman who was reading second, standing with her friends, watching me solemnly. I gazed quickly up at the audience, mostly seeing bright white containers. I relaxed and read the poems. Get to the end, I thought.

But from stage I felt nervous as if I’d resurrected my father through language. I felt awkward: I shouldn’t have read such serious work while people are here having a good time. I was embarrassed as if I’d just opened my shirt and flashed my heart, to blank faces staring back. I ended, climbed down from the stage, and left quickly. The friend I met, I ghosted, leaving him behind somewhere in the audience. I couldn’t say goodbye. He was going to stay for the remainder of the show, I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to see me. I wanted to turn invisible. I disappeared, climbing the backstairs and exiting at the farthest end of the museum towards the last taco trucks. I kept my head down and almost got away until strangers stopped me. Three people, including a woman swaddling a baby. They asked if I was just on stage. I said yes, guiltily. They thanked me, I acknowledged the baby, smiled, then ran to the bus stop.

The previous public reading before this, in similar circumstances, was one I looked forward to. White Noise – Black Masks was an exhibit at the UC Berkeley Museum, curated by a longtime friend, Marvin White. Five poets read standing in a circle of speakers on the floor emitting a white noise that, during the reading, gets progressively louder drowning out or erasing the poets work and voice while asking the audience to grasp meaning for themselves.

The weirdness of that reading — the tension between artist, voice, and audience, was invigorating in ways I’m still processing. A new intimacy emerged with my effort to be heard over the white noise and the audiences efforts to hear me or let it go. One poet ended the evening in a way whose memory I will take to my grave. How she demanded to be heard! –physically– while tugging emotionally at the audience… During the Question/Answer segment, the white noise continued so questions were partially obliterated and their answers may not have matched.

The event made me consider all my years as a poet: Where was my voice in the midst of the white noise in my head and what was it trying to tell me? It was okay for me to lose my voice in context of that night, in practice of art. It was a gamesman-like challenge. There is always with poetry a desire to cut through the noise in the minds of the audience, or reader. Poetry aims to gently, lovingly, offer a unique perspective or understanding of life and experience. It is the flower that sprouts from the ground at a crime scene. It aims to underscore what beauty gets lost in our regular failure to pay attention to the world.

But what of my own personal noise and issues? In sharing poetry there is a giving of the artists self that applause does not always compensate or satiate. For whatever I once expected, I was fine with just being heard. It was good therapy for me to be present and observant and to write through my experience, however dispiriting it was. But there remains the hole or wound from which any work was originally excavated. The trick is to not confuse your self with the wound or not comfortably identify as a victim. Victimhood is seductive and deadly. You are not your story but rather the vessel through which stories fall and are collected. Draw from those stories to create work and then ruthlessly let them go or risk being drowned by the weight.

(SPOILER: I have not let everything go. I still carry residual weight. I flounder, splash water, but am still afloat)

Thus all I want is to be heard. So much of my life feels meaningless– having no family, no place to call home or have my emotional battery recharged. There is no place, beyond my quiet apartment, where I feel safe and wanted. I emerge to share poems with the world and all I want is to be held in attention. If no arms are available, then I wish to be held with eyes and hearts. Its difficult in some instances to truly feel connection with a room– the distraction of a noisy bar, the competition of the outdoors. My body stands reading the work, while my mind wishes I were at a table with a lover, happily ignoring the background noise and navel gazing cries of poets.

But its not the rooms responsibility to connect, its mine. Its my responsibility to befriend the entire space, even and especially as every square inch of my body wants to run and hide. That conflict, that push pull, is agony. It feels counter-intuitive to push through fear and find love. Love is all I’ve wanted and fear is all I’ve had.

For example, Saturday night, after ghosting the museum, I was to appear on Pirate Radio in San Francisco with a couple of other artists. But there was a huge misunderstanding I won’t untangle here. Just to say: the event was cancelled and the main feature invited us to the bar across the street and consolation beers since we were kicked out of the radio station due to scheduling problems.

I sat in a circle of a dozen people in a comfortable bar. After apologies, drinks were passed out, mostly beers and tonic waters. And we settled into a sharing circle, gathering closer to hear over the room noise, the echoing conversations and jukebox.

The people, mostly women, were beautiful, kind, warm, accepting. I was desperate to be out of there. Since I didn’t have to ‘work’, behind the anonymity of the mic, then I felt like I was wasting my time. I was in a hurry to get back to my aloneness. I didn’t want to read poems in the bar, even as it offered a guaranteed audience that wanted them. I wasn’t very sociable, either. I could barely hear and physically seemed to dissolve into the couch. This should have been the entire point of being a poet– to stop everything and present my heart on a table in a bar to be examined by strangers. To be in a bar! To be in supportive community! To make a reading happen when another was cancelled! I should have felt love and encouragement, I should have felt that this audience of young women is the entire purpose of the evening, a gift offered by the universe. The radio was never meant to play a part of the evening– THIS was the evening, THIS was the gathering to be part of.

But I felt so alone in that circle. So uncomfortable and elsewhere. Despite the crowd, there was just me and the explosive white noise in my head, drowning out my own prayers for change, for love, for acceptance, for a different paradigm. A white noise so loud, I couldn’t hear or see what surrounded me and smiled: Love bursts in great abundance all around. Once you stop gazing at your pain, you can see it.

The Stranger

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,


In the last poem I wrote about my mother, in which I tell a story about one of my last hospital visits with her, there briefly appears a woman named Theresa. Theresa was my mom’s closest friend in the last decade or so of her life. Theresa’s oldest daughter and I are Facebook friends. And when she posted on her timeline that her mom had died and that the service would be that following Friday– well, I had to go. Even as I’d sworn off attending any more funerals, there was no question about paying respects to her.

I wore a shirt and tie, looking better than I would for work and scored random Hello’s from white women(!) on the street, as well a Hard Cheese this female security guard gave me, strolling past the bank parking lot.

The church was one I’d passed for years, blocks away from where I once attended Jr high school. I arrived early enough, among people steadily climbing the steps. I signed the guest book and had to sneak up on an Usher who was busy talking to grab a huge, full color program.

I hadn’t seen Theresa in years and my heart sunk, seeing photographs and reading her obituary and remembering her laugh and Oh yeah; I played catch with one son and tried showing him Akira when he was way too young to see it. (He made me turn it off) And I remembered another son when he was all Afro and freckles, and the oldest daughter getting her hair pressed in my kitchen.

But those memories were antiques. I didn’t look at them often enough. And I didn’t know anybody any longer. Which one was the one I played catch with? Who had the freckles and afro?? And my facebook friend… um, is THAT her?? The room stood as the family marched in. Two sheriff’s deputies stood against the back wall. The row of women ushers at the door… I couldn’t directly look at them without thinking of/missing my mom.

The mocha colored casket sat closed beneath an awning of flowers. A line of 10 people assembled to share memories of Theresa or be encouraging to the family. I thought of doing the same, but my mind was so quiet. I couldn’t remember a story. For a moment, I didn’t think I could be encouraging and positive– no one had been encouraging to me. I didn’t know what that was.

The people who spoke were all brief. An older woman and church member since the 1970’s who considered herself everyone’s mother. A man told a story that made the room laugh (Theresa, he said to many Amens, should have been a comedianne).

One of those to speak was a member of Theresa’s daughter’s sorority. The woman, in red, asked the members of her group to stand. They did, all huddled together in matching colors as if they were a choir. The woman on the mic spoke soft, but was grounded and sounded used to having people Obey her. She turned to the family and said if you need anything, we are here. They stood like gorgeous soldiers, and I knew at that moment they would do anything for the family. Anything. Without question.

I couldn’t help think: Did anyone ever offered that to me? Looking around at the rows of family Theresa left behind, the sons and daughters and grandkids… It occured to me how alone I was. How when my mom died, there wasn’t anyone who had my back. No one stood with me. Ealier this year, when my friend from back east came to cremate his mom, he arrived with his girlfriend and while sitting on my sofa, squeezed her hand and said how she kept him on track, how he couldn’t imagine getting through this without her. I sat quietly listening and wondered how exactly I made it, having no one offer me much of anything. What happened?

I was adopted. After my mom died, I was laid off from family. I still feel that way. The day before the memorial, I called my aunt in los angeles, my mom’s only sister, to tell her about Theresa whom she knew, but there was no answer.

At the end of the service, there was no viewing. The family marched out, the casket was removed and we quietly walked out to the street. A pool of people swirled. I stood against the church gate.

My mom was the end of family as I knew it. And since then, I’ve been and felt less than anything. Standing there amidst all these people, I wanted to be here, but had no reason. I didn’t know anyone. Well– turns out there was one person, a mutual family friend, whom I knew and we hugged. But besides her, I’d been away too long… I didn’t know anybody any more. Even those I remembered, I didn’t remember. I stopped myself from getting in line to hug anybody. And just stood there, watching. Slowly, people wandered off to their cars and one of the members of the family began rallying people to move on to the cemetery. I had no car and was meeting others later that afternoon. I stop here. But something else within me had apparently stopped years before…

I felt clumsy and dumb. I’d forgotten what it meant to be in church, forgotten what it meant to be part of a family. I’d mourned so much and for so long, I nearly felt out of sympathy for others. Unseen, I tore myself away from the church gate, navigated through the crowd and was gone.

Less an hour later, downtown, I bought my second cup of coffee. I sat on a bench, thinking about the service and how much support my Facebook friend had gotten. I bought no flowers or card. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just showed up with love and broken memories and still felt I’d done something wrong. Like I hadn’t done a chunk of homework I didn’t even know was due. I took out my phone and sent her a message:

I wanted to extend my love to you and your family. I loved and honored your mother especially because of the friendship and love she extended to my mom. What I’ve learned in the years since my own mom was laid to rest, is that family is everything. I pray for love to heal and keep you guys together and may your faith sustain you. You will never get over the loss. But may her memory and the knowledge that she has touched so many lives in such a positive and beautiful way sustain you. My heart extends to you now and always..Lovingly, James

She wrote back, sooner than expected, thankful and brief. Yes, we had great mothers. She remembered how her mother adored mine. She promised to exchange prayers.

That night I cleared my head in the company of friends whom I’ll be with for Thanksgiving. We snuck gourmet sandwiches in the theater to see Thor. Me still in a shirt and tie. Him in a Mustang t-shirt. “Job interview?” He asked. “Funeral,” I said.

Days later, I’d get a text message that another older person in my life had died. I deleted it. The memorial was scheduled exactly seven days after Theresa’s. I couldn’t cash out two bereavement requests off work, both within a week of each other. Its true, even as it sounds suspicious. And besides: what is there left for me to pour out? How empty can any thing get… and still exist?