Monday, December 30, 2013

Mildest Words

I woke up thinking about a little folk singer’s broken open letter; about righteousness, accountability, privilege and compassion; about slave songs and multi-million dollar renovations; about “glory days,” ghosts and how the wind done gone; about how people call what happened on plantations pain and suffering, the mildest words for torture.

I’m also thinking about how unsustainable pedestals are; about how brilliant, progressive artists will often double as flawed human beings. And of course. 

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how anger can be useful but, ultimately, my questions mean more to me than my rage. I’m an artist. I love creative retreats. I love Southern Louisiana. But financially and emotionally, I could not afford the Righteous Retreat. Even if bell hooks and Pema Chödrön were on site to help us process it all, I’d never register for such a thing. I'm sensitive. I doubt I could get a good night’s rest in a slave captor’s fancy old bedroom. I doubt I could sip sweet tea on the Big House porch without barfing on the white rocking chairs. My urge to trash the joint would be too strong. 

When I went to the event website and read the invitation to get “suntans in the light of each other’s company,” I knew the organizers were not imagining my body, mind or heart in that “captivating setting.” 

I’d probably write an excellent poem or song there. Because lotus flowers can grow out of the mud. But we’ve got to call it mud, Sun. Even freshly painted and manicured, it has always been mud. 

I’m trying to imagine the perfect retreat cancellation statement. Maybe “I didn’t think this through” would have been enough? Maybe the artist’s best words are in all those lyrics we love. 

May we do the best we can with what we believe and know. May we call each other higher as we call each other out.

(A version of this post first appeared on Facebook.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Be Free. Hop In.

My first marriage proposal came from "Sage, the Chariot Man." That’s what he called himself. He was six feet tall with dreadlocks, a messy nest of blond beard and the most muscular legs I had ever seen, live. He was a hippie wizard-looking dude in frayed shorts, layers of indigo linen and hemp, a turquoise pendant on a hairy chest, a paddy hat pointing up to the Sun. Sage was kind and wild and magnetic. His direct gaze was cushioned by crow’s feet. His smile could clear clouds. His knuckles were blushed, chapped and peeling. He blew on a horn.  

I knew him for fifteen minutes but I’m not going to lie: I sort of fell in love with him. The way you fall in love with a good mountain view.

It was my second semester at Ithaca College and Bea (that's what I'll call her) was visiting from San Francisco. I took her to Buttermilk Falls, my cherished place, and watched her strip down to her underwear. That's the way she prayed. 

“Oh my Goddess, this water’s amazing!” She called out, reaching to me, as she baptized herself. I stood still, shy, too modest. I thought Jesus wanted me to be modest. Back then, I only prayed on my knees. I gestured toward the “no skinny dipping” sign but Bea splashed and insisted, “Sister, you have to come in here!” 

Before I could say no again, she slipped on the wet, black rocks. It was scary and I gasped but she recovered, as usual, quickly. We cackled to cover the bruises. I watched her with my right hand over my throat. She convinced me to take off my shoes. The water was cool, like forgiveness. She took pictures of our electric blue toenails, the deep emerald pools of the gorge, the neon moss growing on everything. It was Spring. Of course, it was Spring.

After our hike, we caught a bus to the Ithaca Commons. Bea soaked the seats. Holding hands, we talked nonstop about boys. I wore my favorite T-shirt, stiff and cream, with the word WHATEVER printed above my breasts. We reached our stop and spent our last quarters on organic popsicles from Oasis, the health food store. 

Sage turned the corner, like an athletic Jesus or Gandalf’s great grandson or a vagabond Zeus. Clutching a lever covered in batik, he hauled the most colorful rickshaw behind him. It was built out of dreamcatchers, stuffed with sitting pillows, as wide as an adolescent elephant. 

Emboldened by Bea, I walked right up to him and asked twenty questions. I even pulled out my little journal to take notes. He was from nowhere, he told me, just passing through. He fell in love with human-powered transportation in the early 1990s. This was not a hobby, this was his calling. He roamed the United States, chasing warm weather and accepting passengers. The little caravan also served as his handmade bed, his only closet, his greatest passion, his meditative practice and his sole source of income. He offered us a two dollar ride but we didn’t have cash. He shrugged and showed his teeth. 

“Be free,” he said, “Hop in.” 

With grace and ease, the Chariot Man pulled us both around town. It was an alternate world inside the rickshaw. A safe, sacred space of owl feathers, twine and glass beads. We snuggled in Sage’s spider web, we sighed, we shouted with glee:

“Oh my Goddess, this is magic!

“It’s so comfortable in here! Wow!” 

“It’s like being inside a rainbow!” 

“This is the smoothest ride ever!”

“You are so fast! You are so strong!”

Sage jogged, steadily. Every minute or so, he’d lean on the lever, using our weight for balance, to float or spin or take a ten foot leap. He pedaled the air and tooted something medieval on his horn. We ooohed and aaahed at his every breath, step and explanation. It was a blissful ride. Ten minutes? He didn’t even sweat. 

I de-boarded, reluctantly. Bea started taking pictures so we'd never forget it. I thanked Sage, shaking his hands. He nodded like he was a hundred years old. He opened his arms for a hug. This relieved me. I was pleased to discover that he smelled like patchouli, not neglect. We leaned back, locking eyes, quietly bridging our differences and that’s when he asked, really hummed:

“Will you be my wife? For the night?”

Somehow I wasn’t offended. Would you have been offended? It was the most serene request for sex of all time. I exhaled and considered his invitation. How could this crazy story start? I lost my virginity (better yet, found an orgasm) in some guy’s giant dreamcatcher.

But I was the type of girl who wouldn’t even skinny-dip with a friend. No way was I going to get naked with a roving stranger. “Nah, Sage. Nah, brother. No.” I said. “I’ll take it as a compliment, though.”

He nodded. Sagely. 

He pressed his palms together to offer a namaskar. I echoed the gesture then watched his eyes blossom with a new idea. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a chunk of amethyst. He placed it in my palm. It was warm, jagged, glinting, heavy. “My birthstone!” I shouted. I was nineteen. My whole life was an exclamation point. 

“I went into a cave and dug this out myself.” He boasted, gently. “It’s a piece of my heart. Have it.” This time, it wasn’t a pick up line. This time, it was a peace out line. Exuding good vibes, he watched me study and stroke the sharp edges of the purple rock. We were quiet and bonded and beautiful. We would never see each other again. 

Bea made us pose for a final photo. I’m looking at it right now. I’m smiling just as big as what was captured. All those years ago.

Friday, December 06, 2013

break build bloom boom

Technically, I haven't been "a slam poet" for over a decade. I write poems, I perform some of them and, willing, I'll continue this practice. For decades more.

But I only compete with myself now. The only scores I track are musical.

Slam taught me so much. Like how to be honest in public. Like how to love on strangers with timed stories. Like how to hold an entire room with my eyes, arms, two cents, and best intentions. Like how the mouth needs the ears to breathe. Like how three minutes can change your whole life...

Slam taught me more than I can tell you.

So did Euripides. So did Dutty Boukman. So did Ella Fitzgerald and Meredith Monk. So did James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill and Judith Jamison. So did Michael Jackson and MC Lyte.

If you're reading this, you teach me, too. If you're reading this, I hope you'll hear me, live, someday.

Long live the words that connect us. Written, edited and embodied. Including gibberish.

Long live poets who project their voices. We did so before and during the popularity of the term "spoken word" and, willing, we will continue.

Long live the universal language, the act and impact of self-naming, and the willingness to gather for sound.

Long live the lines that break and build and bloom and boom for love.