May 10, 2020

She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.

Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston

"There are years that ask questions and years that answer."
(p. 21)
this is a year that answers, for me.

"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them."
(p. 72)

"She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop."
(p. 76)

"Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she'd better look. She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there."
(p. 87)

May 09, 2020

She was seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers.

photo of my library copy

Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston

the language and imagery >>>>

"It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the backyard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she had heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
After a while she got up from where she was and went over the little garden field entire. She was seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers. A personal answer for all other creations except herself. She felt an answer seeking her, but where? When? How? She found herself at the kitchen door and stumbled inside. In the air of the room were flies tumbling and singing, marrying and giving in marriage. When she reached the narrow hallway she was reminded that her grandmother was home with a sick headache. She was lying across the bed asleep so Janie tipped on out of the front door. Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in grandma's house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience.
Waiting for the world to be made.
(pp. 10-11)

May 03, 2020

When I think 'bout dat time I try not to cry no mo'. My eyes dey stop crying' but de tears runnee down inside me all de time.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
By Zora Neale Hurston

"When I see de king dead, I try to 'scape from de soldiers. I try to make it to de bush, but all soldiers overtake me beef' I git dere. O Lor', Lor'! When I think 'bout dat time I try not to cry no mo'. My eyes dey stop crying' but de tears runnee down inside me all de time. When de men pull me wit dem I call my mama name. I doan know where she is. I no see none my family. I doan know where day is. I beg de men to let me go findee my folks. De soldiers say hey got no ears for crying'. De king of Dahomey come to hunt slave to sell. So dey tie me in de line wid de rest."
(p. 47)

"Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke. His agony was so acute that he became inarticulate. He never noticed my preparation to leave him. 
So I slipped away as quietly as possible and left him with his smoke pictures."
(p. 49)

"It was on a hot Saturday afternoon that I came to photograph Kossula.
"I'm glad you takee my picture. I want see how I look. Once long time ago somebody come take my picture but they never give me one. You give me one."
I agreed. He went inside to dress for the picture. When he came out I saw that he had put on his best suit but removed his shoes. "I want to look lak I in Affica, 'cause dat where I want to be," he explained.
He also asked to be photographed in the cemetery among the graves of his family."
(p. 89)

May 02, 2020

Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
By Zora Neale Hurston

Cudjo (Kossula) Lewis has been seared into memory. His homesickness: unforgettable.

Barracoon is the first of four assigned reads in a Zora Neale Hurston reading group I joined earlier this year. (Hosted by the Center for Fiction.) The first of hers for me, ever. We met to discuss it just before the pandemic forced us to quarantine, and I walked away enriched by the honest and open conversation between our group of nine.

Cudjo's retelling of his experience is painful, enlightened, soft, deep. 

My understanding of African history, American history and the transatlantic slave trade has widened. My sense of origin has shifted too, his account serving as a tiny window into the experience of that of my ancestors. 

I've wanted to write about this book since February, and that I can't wholly describe its import and impact has held me back. Alice Walker says it beautifully.

From Alice Walker's Foreword "Those Who Love Us Never Leave Us Alone With Our Grief"
"And then, the story of Cudjo Lewis's life after Emancipation. His happiness with "freedom," helping to create a community, a church, building his own house. His tender love for his wife, Seely, and their children. The horrible deaths that follow. We see a man so lonely for Africa, so lonely for his family, we are struck with the realization that he is naming something we ourselves work hard to avoid: how lonely we are too in this still foreign land: lonely for our true culture, our people, our singular connection to a specific understanding of the Universe. And that what we long for, as in Cudjo Lewis's case, is gone forever. But we see something else: the nobility of a soul that has suffered to the point almost of erasure, and still it struggles to be whole, present, giving. Growing in love, deepening in understanding. Cudjo's wisdom becomes so apparent, toward the end of his life, that neighbors ask him to speak to them in parables. Which he does. Offering peace.
Here is the medicine:
That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going.
It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it.
Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go.
Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears."

April 29, 2020

Action is hope.

This weekend, yesterday, today, I returned to center.

Continuing on the thread of rethinking the doomsday machine we've built, I've begun thinking about the ways to transform the negative emotions and pains that have resurfaced during quarantine. Keeping self and selflessness balanced is a delicate task, and right now the seesaw is motioning from one side to the other. How can I best serve this new world?

My friend Greg shared this interview excerpt on Instagram a few days ago. For the record, I generally do believe in optimism. Nevertheless, this sparked new energy in me.

From The Bradbury Chronicles By Sam Weller:

"I don't believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That's a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don't know—you haven't done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes. I learned a lesson years ago. I had some wonderful Swedish meatballs at my mother's table with my dad and my brother and when I finished I pushed back from the table and said, God! That was beautiful. And my brother said, No, it was good. See the difference?
Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you've done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I'll be damned, I did this today. It doesn't matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you'll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I'll be damned, it's been a good year."

April 26, 2020

And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.

Where to even begin. I've spent a lot of time trying to process this moment in my journal(s), but I don't know that I have any words of value to offer the world. As of today, I am safe. I am healthy. The same can be said of my family and friends. The people I know of who have been or are sick are still OK in that they are able to recover from their homes. (::knock on wood::) The weekends have felt safer—with the quiet and solace found in comforting activities—but the weeks are hard. Dissonance with working at what feels like 2x the pace, three hours longer per day on average, and feeling so disconnected, exhausted and overcome with grief, confusion, uncertainty.

The American Exception Zadie Smith/The New Yorker
"Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everybody can see it."

'I Become a Person of Suspicion' The Daily
Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker reflects on being an Asian American in this country. It was really affecting—she speaks of her experiences and memories so eloquently and thoughtfully, even when they're painful.

6 Lives Stolen On New York City's 2 Deadliest Days Somini Sengupta & Andrea Salcedo/NY Times
So much care was given to this beautifully written tribute. They honored lives that may have otherwise been overlooked and they have my infinite respect for that.

The pandemic is a portal Arundhati Roy/The Financial Times
"What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

February 29, 2020

I also realize that I was a long way, still, from finding my voice.

By Michelle Obama

I read and listened to Becoming over Thanksgiving weekend in fall 2018. It was the first Thanksgiving I spent alone (and did so willingly). I had just returned from Peru, Houston and I was craving the alone time, plus I'd spend the long Christmas break with my family in a few weeks.

It was strange times because I'd also felt a lump in my breast that week and spent much of that weekend imagining the worst, so I fluctuated between feeling panic about that and comfort from Michelle's tales. (A week later, doctors confirmed it was a benign cyst.)

I alternated between listening (and loved hearing it in Michelle's voice) and reading, unintentionally deciding to read the more poignant parts: her emotional tribute to her late friend Suzanne, describing her father's love—felt a pang in my heart, meeting Barack Obama for the first time. I sat in silence with those stories and felt their impact more profoundly.

Here are my notes sitting in drafts of best observations/takeaways/lessons:
  • vulnerability is everything; & I appreciated that she shared hers
  • the power of telling your own story & 
  • recalling all of the sights and sounds of your life—she was so good at this
  • learn your self-worth & hold onto it
  • know yourself before partnership
  • children are so valuable and so is making them feel seen
  • therapy works and is necessary! especially with a partner
  • forget checking all of your boxes in life
I've felt quiet since the beginning of the year, struggling to use my voice in a meaningful way. I've a lot going on. I recognize when I'm less confident because words escape my mouth like whispers and my sentences taper off. I'm grappling with how to express what's inside while often feeling like an outsider. I feel this extra after a trip to the Dominican Republic where I experienced more discomfort and disconnection (and growth?) than I expected. This rings true:

"Everyone seemed to fit in, except for me. I look back on the discomfort of that moment now and recognize the more universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go. I also realize that I was a long way, still, from finding my voice."(p. 41)

At the same time, I know the feeling is fleeting and, one day, like Michelle, I'll reflect on this time with similar wisdom.

Here I'd also like to show love to two memoirs I read recently. I don't have excerpts but they are wonderful.

Malala Yousafzai's I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot
  • I expected to read Malala's life story and be impressed. What I didn't expect:
    • To learn her father was the intrinsic piece; her devotion to education came from his example—& his bravery in educating children, including girls in face of the Taliban; he is a hero & his love for her is enduring and likely was her saving grace.
    • Her homesickness to affect me so deeply. It's the primary thing I remember from her memoir. She wants desperately to return to her beautiful home and can't.
Trevor Noah's Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
  • I was in awe of his ability to reflect on all of his experiences—big, small, traumatic, enlightening—growing up in post-apartheid South Africa with humor, wisdom, forgiveness, and acceptance. At the young age of 36!
  • I listened to this via Audible the whole way through and, swoon. Love his voice.