of things unknown but longed for still (Maya Angelou, 1928–2014)

For Brian, who will forever miss his shopping companion at the Winston-Salem Trader Joe’s. May you always look at frozen black beans in a new light.

“And there she was—this iconic legend posted up in the frozen vegetable aisle studying the back of the black beans bag like it held the answers to oppression and racial equality instead of just nutritional content. I always dreamed that if I met one of my idols I’d have some profound question to present them and they, in turn, would bestow upon me one of these riveting quotes that I could repeat over and over in my head until I got to a computer and was able to slap it on a picture of them and post it on the internet. I’d live by that wisdom, you know. But instead, I just passed right by her in her wheel chair and said, ‘I recommend the pinto, ma’am. They’re much more flavorful.’”—my brother, Brian, on shopping at the same Trader Joe’s as Maya Angelou.

“Still I Rise”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my hautiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

—Maya Angelou, 1928–2014

 

i believe every lie that i ever told paid for every heart that i ever stole

My grandmother called me a feminist while we sat at the dinner table at her country club when I was 21 years old. It wasn’t a compliment. She said it in the same tone she used when she told me her neighbor, Mr. Hughes, was a Democrat. She said it after I showed up five minutes late with my hair in a ponytail and asked the waiter to bring me a beer instead of the wine list or a scotch, neat. This was feminism, apparently.

I loved my grandmother with an unfathomable passion—from the three strands of pearls around her neck to the tassels on her driving loafers. This was the woman who made me take piano lessons and attend etiquette school every Monday night. Who turned her nose up at being called Nana or Granny or any variation and insisted we think of a unique title that wouldn’t annoy her—Annie. Who made me promise when I was eight years old that I’d name my first yacht after her. I’d honor that promise to this day—if I could find someone to buy me a yacht. She was also the woman who helped elect every Democratic governor in the state of Kentucky, cursed like a sailor when she watched a Kentucky basketball game, and who never admitted to a single person that she couldn’t stand the taste of sweet tea. A walking contradiction.

She lived through the Depression, more than a few wars,  hard times, better times, women’s rights, civil rights, a new millennium, a black president, and on and on. She used to talk to me about what the world would one day expect from me.

“Be smart, be kind, be calm and accepting,” she would say. “There will be times when you’re tempted to take, but you shouldn’t. You should always give. Give advice, give knowledge, give second chances, give opportunities and forgiveness.  And for heaven’s sake, give compliments but don’t ever, ever ask for one. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Annie taught me self respect, discipline, and manners. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.

In many ways, my father’s mother is Annie’s complete opposite. Granny cooked omelets in cast iron skillets with cheese she bought at the commissary, taught me how to make sun tea on summer afternoons, pushed me out the door every sunny morning and wouldn’t let me back in the house until the crickets came out. She measured things in bales and shitloads, called every boy “Junior” and every girl “Honey Boo.” And that was before the famous one. Where Granny and Pa lived, there were a million Honey Boo Boos. I played with many Honey Boo Boos in the summers I spent on my grandparents’ tobacco farm, except instead of spouting adorable sayings, they mostly just ate push pops until their whole faces were orange and threw rocks at animals.

Granny was one of nine children. In her day, people produced off spring for the sole purpose of gaining an extra hand on the farm. She began picking cotton not long after she learned to walk. The hulls of the cotton plant were hard, sharp, and rough. Much like she turned out to be. Granny taught me to work hard, to stand up to people, to have thick skin. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.

As different as my grandmothers were from one another (one preferred Billie Holiday, the other Johnny Cash hymns), their foundations were the same. At Annie’s and at Granny’s house, respect for elders was the most important thing ever. Talking back to an adult or not calling someone “sir” or “ma’am” was a one-way ticket to being punished into another generation. If you couldn’t respect a grown up, you must have no home training, my grandmothers believed, and life was going to be a struggle for you. To this day, even as an adult, I struggle to call other adults by their first names. I’ll likely default to Mr. and Ms. until I’m dead out of force of habit. And honestly, I’m probably a better person for it.

My birthday is rapidly approaching and with it, another year of experience? maturity? life experience? knowledge? or just age. One thing is for certain, I’m definitely another year of expectations older.

Of my four grandparents, only my cotton-picking grandmother is still alive. I’ll never really know if I’m that feminist Annie accused me of being (or what feminism truly is, other than differentiating yourself from a doormat or a prostitute). I won’t know if she considers me disciplined, respectful and polite, determined or successful like she wanted me to be. After all, I still don’t have that yacht. In her old age, Granny rarely talks to me about hard work anymore, but I often wonder if she things I’m lazy compared to the life she had already lived at my age.

I suppose I’m officially a full-blown adult these days, though I don’t like to think about that too much. It’s been a long time since Annie tsked me for pulling at the collars of my dresses or Granny hollered at me for throwing rocks out of the gravel driveway, but their lessons live on.

From birth, parents and grandparents worry about what the world may do to their children. But few stop and think about what they might do to them. Or for them. Hopefully for them.

 

 

 

i’d always thought the world was a wish-granting factory

My mom once told me that God rewarded those people who were good. I don’t remember the context—it could’ve been a warning to behave in church, or a reason to get me to stop fighting with my brother. In fact, I haven’t thought about those words of hovering warning in many years, but today, sitting in a new doctor’s office with my ever-resilient mother flipping noncommittally through a magazine next to me, those words were the first to come to me. “God rewards those who are good.”

Hours later, we’re sitting in Mom’s living room, the soft glow of a single lamp lights her tired features as she recounts the doctor’s diagnosis to her childhood friend. I bite the inside of my cheek and watch my mother for signs of distress. Outwardly, there are non. But subtle things—the tightness around her eyes, the purse of her lips, the worrying of her fingers on the frayed edge of the quilt draped across her lap—give away her unease. Perhaps, her agitation. Mom excuses herself a few minutes later and her old friend turns her attention to me.

“Have you been praying, Blair?” she wants to know. “Have you been asking for help and guidance and daily forgiveness?” Immediately I hear my mom’s words from so many years ago—God rewards those who are good.

I’ve never known anyone as inherently good as my mother. Kind and giving, unable to wish bad upon others, no matter how much they deserve it. My brother and I give her a hard time about it often. Shouldn’t you swear a little more, drink a little more, hold a grudge a little longer? Not Mom. She is far too good for that. So where is her reward?

“Well young lady?” her friend presses. “Have you been asking God to get you all through this?”

I don’t know how to answer her so I simply sit in silence, watching rain drops pelt the window. One question slithers its way in and out of my consciousness, taunting me and daring me to acknowledge what has been lingering in the back of my mind for months: Is all of this my fault?

If I had prayed more, questioned faith less, if I could take back every fib that ever left my mouth, every insult I let slip, if I actually made it to church more Sunday mornings than Easter, if I didn’t decide to live with my fiance before I married him, if I didn’t always drink one glass of wine too many, if I was good … Could I have kept this from happening?

Mom’s old friend won’t settle for my silence—she’s known me too long to buy it or tolerate it—so I finally turn to her and offer the only truth I can come up with. “I don’t know what I’m asking for or who I’m asking it of.”

It isn’t the answer she wants and its written all over her face. A little while later when she’s wishing us goodnight and giving my mother he love, she pulls me tight to her chest and says, “Everything happens for a reason, Blair. There is something to be learned from every experience. You just have to discover what it is.”

Mom and I watch the Olympics alone on the couch tonight. She tries to push me out the door, telling me to go home to my husband, but I won’t budge. Maybe it is a sense of obligation, maybe it is guilt. Maybe I just need my mom tonight.

“You don’t love me less because you live more, you know,” she says. And my chest aches with the certainty and conviction in her voice.

She laughs as I throw peanuts at the television and critique the ice dancers. She smiles when our 12-year-old, arthritic Collie makes an effort to get up from her bed just to chase down the stray peanuts laying around the floor. She giggles when I catch her flipping channels to The Bachelor when I duck out of the room for less than a breath. Love and joy are not just things reserved for the well.

Maybe there isn’t anything to learn from this experience. Maybe I’m only meant to love my mother more, to hold our time together more dear. Sick people don’t exist so that healthy people can learn lessons. And I can’t stand to believe that any god would punish a mother for the sins of a child. Especially not my mother. Because God rewards those who are good.

It must be true—my mother told me so.

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wake somebody else up so that they can feel this way too

A friend recently texted me from a local beauty salon where she waited in the lobby for her turn in the chair. She was there for a haircut and color, but found herself browsing the shelves of products stacked artfully among pictures of beautiful women hanging on the walls.

“I feel like this is one of the most oppressive places in the world,” she told me.

Seriously?, I thought. In the whole wide world?

So now I’m standing here in the middle of the beauty aisle at my local corner pharmacy chain, and I think I agree with her.

Words have power. In fact, people often forget just how powerful words can be. The words on display in this aisle have a particularly deep power.

Brilliant strength

Infallible

Age defying

Naked

Flawless finish

A little girl sits on the floor a few concealer displays down from her mother who is browsing the 42 varieties of mascara. At maybe 6 years old, she is fascinated by the vibrant wall of nail polishes and with more care than I’d expect from a child, is reverently stroking the tiny glass bottles of color. I don’t have a daughter. But I do have a handful of friends with very fragile self-esteems and while I see them as strong, bold women, forces to be reckoned with, souls on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man, I’m starting to realize that most people don’t see them—or me—that way. We’re objectified . We’re seen as pretty faces and bodies to enjoy. And we’re told that we have to look a certain way to have any worth or influence. Just take this beauty aisle as an example.

My heart aches for my friend who felt so small standing in that salon, who felt so intimidated by images and products of physical attractiveness plastered all over the walls that she couldn’t see through the institutionalized shame to find the deep, unbreakable sense of her own worthiness and beauty.

But words are powerful, I remind myself. So let me redefine those beauty aisle words for the women in my life, with the small hope that if they change how they see themselves, so will the world.

Brilliant strength. Not strength in your fingernails, but strength in your heart. May you discover and love who you are, and then fearfully but tenaciously live it out in the world.

Infallible. May you be constantly, infallibly aware that infallibility doesn’t exist. In anything or anyone. If you must seek perfection, may it be in an infallible grace—for yourself and for everyone around you.

Age defying. Your skin will wrinkle and your youth will fade, but your soul is ageless. It will always know how to play and how to enjoy and how to revel in this one-chance life. May you always defiantly resist the aging of your spirit.

Naked. The world wants you to take your clothes off. Please keep them on. But take your gloves off. Pull no punches. Say what you want. Be vulnerable. Embrace risk. Love a world that barely knows what it means to love itself. Do so nakedly. Openly. With abandon.

Flawless finish. Your finish has nothing to do with how your face looks today and everything to do with how your life looks on your last day. May your years be preparation for that day.

I used to watch my mother getting ready for an evening with my father or with her friends. I loved seeing her pick out a dress and jewelry to match. I sat on the counter facing her as she brushed blush onto her cheeks, sculpted curls in her long blonde hair, and spread lipstick effortlessly across her mouth. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

After she was all dolled up and spritzing her sweet perfume on her wrists, I’d ask her if I was ever going to be as beautiful as she was.

“You’ll be even more beautiful,” she’d say. “But you’ll always remember where you are the most beautiful, won’t you?”

And I’d obediently nod and repeat the three words that she made me repeat each day. The three words that help shaped the self image of a grown woman. The three words so bright no concealer could cover them.

“On the inside.”

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