Five thoughts, one question:
1) I’m in pain. Physically, I mean. For a little over a week now, I’ve been dealing with a health issue that has me confined to my bed when I’m not going back and forth to the doctor’s office. I’ve never felt so useless in my life. I can hardly do anything for myself, or for anybody else, for that matter. It goes very much against my nature – my care-taking nature and my busy nature
. I hate
2) Physical pain isn’t far removed from emotional pain. I’ve been noticing similarities between my current state of being and depression – listlessness, hopelessness, difficulty accomplishing much of anything. The longer this goes on, the less clear I am about whether it’s my body or my mind that’s having trouble.
3) Personal pain isn’t far removed from communal pain. When I heard on Saturday that George Zimmerman was acquitted
of all charges after shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, I first tried to shrug it off, almost, as in, “Well, I knew this was coming.” As in, “I can’t possibly process all of the feelings I have about this, so I just need it to go away.” As in, “I’m speechless. There’s so much to say. Too much. So it just feels like there’s nothing to say.” But then the tears came. Hot, angry, frustrated, sorrowful tears. I couldn’t stop them.
4) There’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing I can do about it. No, really – there’s nothing I can do about it. The criminal justice system has declared that it’s legal
for a man to follow a boy he deems suspicious, and to shoot and kill that boy. I am in my bed, face down. I can’t even get myself a drink of water. I certainly can’t bring Trayvon back. And I can’t protect others like him. There’s nothing I can do.
5) I’m not ending this blog post with a message of resilience or hope or happiness. In this moment, I’m sitting with my helplessness. This is culturally, legally sanctioned helplessness. We can’t rely on our justice system to take away the pain. So now’s the time to really figure it out for ourselves: what can we do
? This is not despair. Roxane Gay wrote
, “If we despair, we are surrendering to injustice.” So this is not despair. This is a question.
What will we do?
Me & my shiny new degree
School's out! One week ago, I graduated with my MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. It's hard to believe that my first residency there was already two years ago
, and now, my turn to walk across the stage as a graduate has already come and gone. Tonight, I'm showing off what I learned at Oakland's Beast Crawl, not by reading poems from my MFA thesis, but
by reading brand new work, all about vengeful sex. What can I say? I guess I needed some kind of release. If you can, come hear me read during leg 3 of Beast Crawl at Anger Management & Revenge: Dirty Trixxx
.I do have plenty of reflections about what my new degree means for my life and writing moving forward, though. I'll have lots more time now for sharing about this life here on the blog, but for now I'll leave you with
this – a version of the graduate presentation I gave at my last MFA residency. It's edited to remove the poems I included (gotta keep those to myself for now, in case of publication), and it doesn't quite carry the full effect of me delivering all this truth-telling in a little chapel hall full of people, of all places, but you'll get the idea of my journey through all of the learnings of the last couple of years. Click below to read more.
Mr. Invisible Doesn't Like Rain
by Candace Fowler
I'm realizing I spend a lot of time trying to shake off the good things that come my way. I dismiss compliments to my work as exaggerations of my talent, shaking my head rather than letting the words stick. If I read the poem and the audience applauds, I try to let the sound fly off me like a dog shimmying water off its coat, instead of letting the praise sink in. And recently, upon reading a particularly glowing review of my poetry, I seriously considered the possibility that the reviewer was uncharacteristically drunk when she read my work. But I guess that's not likely.
Can anybody relate? Why do we do this? I guess I can see why people of color, or women, or queer people get used to the idea that we're not good enough, not deserving of good things, so it's easier to attribute our successes to other sources than to believe that we're really the ones who created something of value. After surviving abuse and oppression, I can understand why someone like me would have a hard time accepting that she's worthy of praise.
Today's practice is not one in humility. Today, I'm practicing saying something new - "I deserve this."
Recently, I've read my work as part of some truly magnificent events
, and poems of mine have been published in some compelling journals. It feels both humbling and empowering to share my work among such talent, and instead of asking, "What the hell am I
doing here?" I'm taking a breath and sitting with the feeling. And I'm saying, "I deserve this."
Try it out when good things come your way. Let me know how it goes.
And for one of those compelling journals in which I'm honored to have my work published, check out last December's issue of Blackberry: A Magazine.
Like so many others, I've spent the last few days trying to make sense of Friday's horrific school shooting
. But there is no easy way to make sense of it. Like so many deeply heartbreaking things, it's complicated.
Maybe it's self-centered, the way we try to find personal connections to tragedies that have nothing to do with us. But maybe it's just natural. Even necessary.
Here's my connection: I might've had a child. Instead I had a miscarriage
, but this is one of many moments that has me thinking, "What if...?" What if my baby had survived? I'd have a young child today, a kindergartner. Not quite the same age as the first graders who were killed, but close enough that I'd be imagining their parents' grief, disturbed by the thought of losing my own child. I'd be holding my child close, so close, afraid to let them out of my sight, even for school.
Is it okay to say that I'm glad I don't have to explain this tragedy to a kindergartner? Does that mean that I'm glad for my miscarriage? Glad I didn't bring a child into a world in which nightmarish violence takes place? Not exactly.
Here's my connection: Mental illness. In my communities, in my family, in myself. One of my closest family members has been struggling lately, has been what you might call "troubled," a word that comes up in the media profiles of the people involved in incidents like this one. I have a picture of the two of us sitting on my bookshelf, bleeding. I printed it out on ordinary paper and the sun has taken its toll, running the colors together so that someone else might be unsure of what they're seeing. But I know what's there. I'm not comparing him to the school shooter, no, because mental illness doesn't automatically equate to violent behavior. But the mental health connection is enough for me to think about the consequences of stigma and the limits of how we treat mental illness. I'm also thinking of how our conversation might be different if the shooter were of a different race, or from a different place. I'm thinking about many different sides of the issue. It's complicated.
Here's my connection: This was an act of horrendous violence, and I work at an anti-violence organization. It makes me feel like I should have the answers, like I should be the expert understanding and explaining the whys and the hows, offering instructions on how to prevent this from ever happening again. I should be adding my expert opinion to the chorus of conversations about gun control, mental health, and the influence of the media. But what do I know? What do any of us know, when it means finding words for such unfathomable pain? I know only what I find when I search for my own connection.
It's complicated. Here's my connection: I loved my child. I once held my child. It sounds crazy, I know, but I believe it's true. When I was pregnant, I had a dream in which I held my baby. I don't remember much else about the dream, but that part felt so real, so incredibly real
that after the baby was gone, I believed that dream had been my chance to hold my child. The end of my pregnancy brought loss, grief, sorrow. But before all that, there was love. I know this much is true. There will always be love.
We joke about it sometimes – writing as a mental affliction. Experiencing life from a different viewpoint than non-writers would. Three writers witness something horrific – The poet sees only a new metaphor. The fiction writer gets an idea for a story. The non-fiction writer thinks, Hey, this’ll be great for my memoir.
From an early age I took on the role of the observer, which became the role of the writer. Sometimes, I think it’s helped me survive, building my creative capacity to hold traumatic events as poems and stories, rather than crumbling beneath the frightening truth that those moments are part of my reality. It can also be a way to learn from life, always seeking to express how even the most dreadful or mundane or bizarre experiences can teach us something that we can share with others.
And sometimes, I think being a writer just means I’m crazy. Take now, for instance. At the moment, both of my grandmothers are in hospital beds, fighting for their lives. I can’t do anything about it, except sit around and wait for updates. Maybe I should be crying or talking about it or something, but all I can do is write.
It sort of feels like I’m writing to avoid facing my fear of losing these two woman warriors in my life. But I have a feeling the reality will catch up to me eventually. For now, I write. It’s my own crazy way of telling myself I can get through this and remain whole.
Writing can be a way to re-live the past. And that can be a hard to do, depending on which part of the past you're exploring. For me, it can mean re-living my mistakes, gathering all of my regrets together in one convenient place so that I can set it all ablaze with self-blame and watch it burn with guilt. Today, I'm trying something new. Something that seems sort of crazy to me. I'm trying to forgive myself. Just by coincidence (or perhaps not so much), I've been coming across pieces that address forgiveness and regret. In a Forgiveness column of his newsletter Just One Thing, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson wrote,
"Forgiveness is not about shutting down your feelings; opening to the experience in a big space of mindful awareness is an aid to forgiveness." And in "Lessons Learned: Moving on from Regret"
on For Harriet, Deidre Gadsden tells me, "You are exactly where you are supposed to be, mistakes and all."
This picture makes me
wanna hug myself, too
I admit this is the kind of stuff I might read just to murmur "hmm, that's nice," and return to my cycle of self-blame. But like I said, I'm trying something new, so I'm seeing what it's like to actually sit with what forgiving myself might mean for me.
There's a prompt for the day. To use art to revisit a mistake, and forgive yourself for it.
Lianne La Havas has a song,"No Room for Doubt," that's been helping me try.
This morning I tuned my radio to KPOO
, a local station I love because of the way it lifts up the power of the people, moving away from the usual misrepresentation in the mainstream media to address complex issues. My reasons for listening today were quite simple, though - KPOO was playing the blues. And I sure am grateful for music that moves with the hard times. I'm thinking about that old saying, when it rains, it pours, because that's kind of how my life feels at the moment. Only in San Francisco, the rain is different. Sometimes, like this morning, when it rains, it mists. The water doesn't fall to the ground, but lingers in tiny droplets around you. You're not sure if you can really call it rain, and sometimes you start to wonder if it's raining at all or if it's just in your head. That is, until you get inside, to someplace warm and dry, and you realize your clothes are all wet and your skin is slick with something that's not your sweat. That works a little better as an analogy for my life right now. It feels like things have been trickling in, little by little, and I didn't really notice how much it was all building up until I felt soaked in my skin.
And now, I believe I'm slipping into a bit of a funk. Last Monday was The Siwe Project's No Shame Day,
aimed to encourage folks to talk about mental illness and break through some of the stigma
that often holds black folks back from seeking mental health treatment. Poet and Siwe Project founder Bassey Ikpi said, “We’re encouraging people to tend to their mental health that day without shame."So that's one of the reasons I'm trying to keep writing, without being ashamed of how I feel. Usually, a funk affects my writing in one of two ways. I might feel paralyzed, unable to create, and then I hate myself for it, sinking deeper into that bluesy feeling. Or I use the funk as fuel, writing my way through it. I'm trying my best to do the latter this time, to tend to my wellness by honoring how I'm feeling.
My hope is that someone else can get some wellness out of it, too. It works that way for me as a reader, at least. Just like I sometimes need to hear the blues, at times I need to read about how others are struggling. I can find hope in happy resources like the Happy Black Woman blog
, but personally, I wouldn't feel honest if I wrote about my healing
without also acknowledging the hard things I'm struggling to heal from. So I hope I can add to those stories, like the ones from No Shame Day
, which help us to feel not so alone. Writing keeps me grounded. It weaves some invisible thread through me and back to the earth. I can write to get perspective on the bigger picture. I can write to feel like somebody else cares, even if it's only my notebook listening. Without writing, I don't know what I'd do. I might just tune into the blues and out of the world, taking flight like a bird and forgetting that there are reasons to come back down. Here's one of my all-time favorite blues singers, Bessie Smith, singing "Backwater Blues."
She was one fierce artist, known as "Empress of the Blues,"
who certainly had no shame in her struggles.
I remember when I read poet Bassey Ikpi's article in The Root
last summer. The one in which she tells the world about Siwe Monsanto, the bright black teenager, daughter of Ikpi's close friend. The girl who wrote beyond her years, and also danced, and also cut herself, and also committed suicide at the age of 15. I remember thinking, how brave and generous of Ikpi, to share her grief with us, to tell Siwe's story without shame or fear that this isn't what we're supposed to be talking about. See, Siwe's more than a number to add to statistics of the increasing rates of black teens losing their lives to suicide.
All of those who have lost their lives are. But without sharing their stories, we bury them in the silence so many communities of color hold around the subject of mental health. Stigmas against
seeking out mental health treatment or even admitting you're struggling
only hurt us, and oftentimes, those who hurt the most are our most vulnerable, the youngest among us. And it's not just a certain type of dialogue that allows these stigmas to continue. It's also a lack of dialogue. That dangerously still silence.
So now, Siwe's story is not just words, but action. Ikpi's launched The Siwe Project
, an organization that believes in the power of storytelling for individual healing, as well as community transformation. The project aims to help build "a world in which people of African descent can openly share their experiences with mental health challenges and feel supported in seeking treatment without shame." Visit the website
for more details, and check out poet Bassey Ikpi
in this touching video created for The Siwe Project. And also? Tell your stories.