Four years later

To Yia Yia,

I keep a small jar, once strawberry preserves and now keepsake container full of lost buttons, on my desk that sat in your sewing machine drawer for years. If you were still around, I’m sure you wouldn’t even have noticed that they were gone. You’d find them one day amidst my mess of a space and ask me where I got them, memories of each button coming back to you one by one. This one, you’d say, was in between couch cushions. This one, behind the dresser. This one from a dress that no longer fit and this one from my uncle’s outgrown flannel. You kept them as souvenirs of what things used to be before they came undone. It’s one small reminder in a sea of reminders of who you are and how much of me was made by you. Everything has a place even when lost all they find themselves to be. Everything is still usable if we make them out to be. Still worthy of hanging onto. Like buttons.

Most days, I, too, feel lost. A part of me left when you did four years ago. In the months following your passing, I blamed myself for not coming to visit you. I’ve written about it a few dozen times but I can’t remember the last time we spoke. I can’t remember the last thing you said to me or whether or not you cried after I left. I can’t remember if you offered me a mint or asked me about my work. Can’t remember if you told me you wished I’d come home more often in the months before you died but somehow, it’s the only thing I thought of for months. One thing I do remember is when you asked me where my Army uniform was. At the cleaners, I’d say to you, knowing full well I’ve never been in the Army and have never worn a uniform. It was towards the end in the middle of your memory betraying you. I think it’s why I was afraid to come see you again. Didn’t want to be someone else to you other than your grandson. Didn’t want to lie to you about who I was, or where, or why. A part of me knows that I can’t change all the small decisions I made when I was afraid. I can only live with them as lessons I needed to learn, however hard they may be. Other parts of me have yet to forgive myself for every mistake I’ve made ever since 2017.

What I wish I could tell you now is that I am healed by the loss I feel every day. I’m not. I’m convinced I might not be in this decade or the next. Grief makes my bones feel honey-soaked, somehow cold and warm at the same time; everything sticks to me now. Every letter and every word becomes something resembling a tiny world pressing against my ribcage. Every verse from thousands of songs written years ago meet my ears for the first time and feel like they were written for me. The truth is that the hole I feel in my heart never closed. I just started filling it with beautiful things instead: lovers who tried their hardest to love me well, friends that remind me how loved I am, tattoos of here, there, you, them, and me scrawling stories across my skin so I no longer have to carry them inside. To this day, people ask me about the soundwave on my arm. “It’s my grandmother telling me that she loves me. I get to carry her love with me everywhere I go now.” They get to see it, too. I smile knowing tattoos were never really your thing but you would support me through it as you showed up for my wisdom.

What I didn’t know then–the day my mother called me to tell me you were gone–that I know now is that every bruise I get is proof that I tried to live a life you would’ve been proud of. It’s evidence that we can get knocked down by something that feels so overwhelming, so devastatingly difficult, but that it’s only ever losing if we don’t get back up. And if we don’t get up right away, that’s okay. It may not have been our time yet. But there will come a day when it will be. We need not miss our chance at something that will make us feel everything in this life. And when we do, the only option is trying again.

I don’t want to get to the end of my life having never lived or taken a chance on myself. I don’t want to get out unscathed. I don’t want to miss an opportunity at becoming your wildest dream of me. Someone who is as in love with life as you were. Someone who wasn’t afraid (even when secretly, I might be). Someone who knew when to let go of the railing even before learning to fly, knowing full well that there will be people who love you fiercely on the other side, beckoning you to begin again.

Maybe most of all, I don’t want to ever forget you. But I know it doesn’t work that way. At some point, my memory will fail me, too. All I might remember are bits and pieces of a life I used to live, swaths of colorful ribbons draped over all my best moments, some of the worst, too, and the moment I last remember you telling me “I love you.”

And I love you too, Yia Yia. I love you too.

Love,
Robbie

Thirty.

I’ve been thinking about the last decade of my life. On the verge of thirty and I don’t fully know who I am or where I’m supposed to be going or what I’m supposed to be doing. When I was on the verge of my twenties, I was filled to the brim with ideas of possibility on how the decade would shape up. I thought for sure I’d be married with the love of my life, have a house, have a family started, and living out my passion, whatever it may be. Thought I might be able to make a difference and do good in the world. Thought that I wanted to grow up still and become a man still and be my wisest friend’s wisest friend. I wish I knew then a fraction of what I know now.

I’ve fallen in love several times and out of it, too. Most of who I thought I might be by now hasn’t happened yet. I’m thirty tomorrow and I have a cat. I live in a residence hall still (because my job requires it). I still think about things I said six and a half years ago. Still think about who I was when I didn’t think I knew who I was. Still wonder if I made the right decision way back when. Any of them, really. The questions I asked these last ten years have shaped me. Like how do I know someone is the one? Or when is the best time to let things go? Or does this person have my best interest in mind? I think about how I’ve waded in the water waiting for people to love me back. Waiting for someone to find me. Treading along in this thing we all call life and letting it come to me. Trying to make it through in the ways I know how to.

I wrote countless letters to myself in hopes that I’d know how to love the person I was becoming. The truth is I haven’t loved me in my own love language my whole life. I haven’t been put back together when I’m out of order since I was 22, drunk on the idea of growth through unknowing, so deeply in love with someone who I didn’t have to explain myself to. But I had a hard time explaining me to myself and as a result, that relationship crumbled. The same at 25. 26. 27. 29. I’ve spent much of my time living trying to convince myself that I’m worthy of all the good things that someone else might give me. Worthy of all the good things I could give to myself. I’ve talked myself out of beautiful things because I’ve been afraid of how I might be able to sustain a life where joy exists so abundantly.

I’ve come to learn that a soulmate doesn’t have to be romantic. Every person I call a friend is a soulmate in a way; somehow, someway, we’ve made our way into each other’s lives, challenging and changing each other for the better. Messing up and trying again with each other. I’ve also learned that some friends won’t make it to the next chapter. They don’t need to. And I don’t need to try to convince them to stay. The world will keep spinning. There may be a void. It will fill again. Sometimes the space someone is taking up can’t be noticed until they’re not there anymore. Once they do, no matter the reason, there’s more room for someone who is going to love you well.

I’ve learned that thirty is “old” for younger folks but “young” for older folks. I’ve found that showing up is truly half the battle and that the greatest leaders I know are marked by their ability to have difficult conversations, not because they have to, but rather because they’re willing to. I’ve learned that people will try to change me into a version of who I am that is digestible for them. I’ve also learned that those people are committed to misunderstanding me. We are merely acquaintances. And that’s okay.

I’ve learned, particularly in the last four years, that the ability to think critically about the world and how we show up in it is a characteristic about other humans I appreciate more and more every day. I am constantly changed by friends all across the world who want to expand their capacity to think, feel, and answer tough questions. Inspired, even, by the folks who are able to change their minds after spending so much time being closed off. The words people use have consequences. If you need a reminder, turn to local leaders. What are they saying? How is it impacting your life and the lives of others? So many are quick to say that words are just words. But I’ve known words to be bridges or canisters of gasoline. They can obliterate someone or inspire them. And that they count. All of them. What we say to others, what we say to ourselves, it all counts.

I’ve learned that the universe will write people together and write them apart, but it’s the writing that matters most sometimes, and that’s the only thing that has saved my life every year since I picked up a pen. Tenderness towards myself is a gift I’ve failed at over and over again but sitting down to write with a blank page reminds me sometimes: creating can be the most healing part of this life. Building something can change everything. Even if it’s just a place where everything inside of me can come out without judgement and I can sort through what needs sorting today. Put the rest back for tomorrow. Not everything needs to be figured out right away.

I’ve learned that there’s so much more to learn. So much more about the ways we all live that fascinates me. So much to study and dig deep into. I’m cautiously hopeful that there’s a world we can keep building together. On the page. On the canvas. On the screen. In our churches, schools, workplaces, and homes. There’s so much more to each of us than we will ever let others know. There won’t be enough time to know everything. But we can always want to know more. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift I’ll take with me to a new decade.

A friend told me what he remembers in turning 30 is all of the “holy shit” moments of his life. How he survived all of that. How he decided to set some of it down and leave it in his twenties. Permission to let go. “Whatever it is,” he says, “it will live in your twenties. You leave it behind only in the sense that you’re making room for new things for your thirties.”

What a gift. The idea that I’ve gone through an immeasurable amount of things, publicly and privately, that I didn’t think I’d make it through: heartbreak, grief, insurmountable sadness, failure after failure after failure. So many mistakes, wrong turns, and otherwise mishaps that led me to this moment. I made it through all of it. There was joy, too. I don’t have to hold onto it anymore. I can set it down and breathe again knowing that I’ve been changed by it, for better or worse, and have the opportunity to turn to tomorrow again.

Tomorrow again, my friends. There will be darkness and light. I want to know both of them like old friends, welcome them in for a meal with every hope that there are better days ahead despite every bad day. Writing all the while.

Here and Now

Sometimes a moment changes everything.

At the end of March when so much of this ever-spinning world felt unknown and out of order, before the disruption of everything we used to know, I put together a virtual poetry night. There was a note posted about when and where, and if people wanted to come listen or share, there was a space for both. Poems were spoken into a universe that was wounding us, and we were all made anew despite all that wanted us to give in.

That was before we knew what we know now. Before we recognized the collective effort it would take to exist in a pandemic. Before marches and protests. Before many of us were woken from a bad sleep disoriented. Before our Instagrams went dark for a day and back to the regularly scheduled programming the next. Before the fire last time and this time, before some folks hit the snooze button and re-awoke to an alarm crashing in, before it all happened. At one point there wasn’t a pandemic, and the next day, there it was, not caring what plans were already made, which loved ones we had lined up to hug in the coming months, or which events we wanted to attend.

We come to this story in medias res. Poetry poured out into the lives of the 20 or so folks who attended. Some listened, some took notes, some snapped when they heard poems they’d never heard before. In the middle of things, we found time and space to let poetry consume us, even if only for an hour. We shared emotion that felt too big for one of us to carry alone. Perhaps this is what withness is.

Thinking about that moment now, after everything that has happened and right before everything else that is yet to come, I find myself in a hard moment that could change everything in front of me. A moment that feels like a crossroad of standing firmly planted to weather the storm or to uproot before the hurricane visits. I am in higher education and students are coming back to campus. This is the most scared for everyone’s lives that I’ve been since March when nobody knew what this thing was. When we rushed everyone off campuses across the world. And now, we rush them back. New policies in place. New procedures of mask-wearing, social distancing, and zero tolerance when it comes to gatherings. Perhaps too much hoping and not enough common sense. Scared is an understatement.

There is a poem by Sarah Kay called “Here and Now.” I read it to start this poetry night as a way of telling folks that this is all I have right now. When we don’t know what’s happening, we pile things into our hands, our arms, on our shoulders because we don’t yet know that which will save us. Today—on the precipice of all that is coming, so much we still do not know—I am coming back to this poem.

No copyright infringement intended. This is a screenshot of Sarah Kay’s poem.

Here and now, I have only these hands, / this mouth, this skin as wide as a shoreline, / this beehive between my ears, this buzz, this buzz. / You are the best thing I never planned. / This is the widest I can stretch my arms without / dropping things. This is the first time I don’t care / if I drop things. This is what dropping / things feels like. This is what happens when / the flowers wake up one morning and decide to / smell human: it confuses us, makes us / reach backwards into places that are sharp, / feel around for what we’ve dropped. I have / forgotten what I was looking for. It doesn’t / seem important. You brought me flowers. / You made the bed. This is the widest I can / stretch my arms. This is all I have right now.

The world feels upside down, and still, there’s a quiet hum getting louder every day. Something like a small chorus inside of darkness vibrating towards hope. Maybe it’s in my bones where I’m learning to create with tools I can’t see. There’s a horizon for every soul I’m carrying. There’s going to be some things I inevitably drop, slipping between my fingers as I clutch tighter, trying with all my energy to save it. This is the widest I can stretch my arms. This is all I have right now.

On friendship (p. ii)

There are some things that I inevitably have to learn the hard way. Friendship is a tired door always moving and I am the hinges which is to say I am always at a point opening and closing. Too prideful to move, too stubborn to accept anything less than extraordinary, transformative, move-me-to-tears kind of friendship. Zora Neale Hurston said “there are years that ask questions and years that answer.” I suppose if there’s anything 2020 is teaching me, it’s that there are never enough questions, never enough answers, never enough belonging in the lives of people who have meant the most to me for so many years. I’m tired, y’all. Perhaps we all are. Always waking before our alarms and traipsing our way through our days, going through the motions. Through this, the one thing I’ve wanted to rely on has been in question: friendship. True, authentic, inspiring, hopeful friendship. The get-on-a-plane kind of friendship. The friendship that we never questioned. The friendship we always did.

I’m hoping to stay open long enough for you to see my heart in all of this. The other thing 2020 is teaching me is that life is too short, too precious, too easily altered in a second’s time to not be surrounded by people who are excited to see you, to hear from you. Too short to not want to talk about big things with the people who are supposed to be folks that you can talk about anything with. Too precious to not sit on the floor and cry tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of wonder with. Too short to wear a (figurative) mask around people who are willing to show up for us, letting them bare it all without ever giving them an inch.

Life is too short to sit inside of longing for friendships that will never be what you want them to be. Too short to dwell in that discord for so long that it takes you away from others. I asked someone I trust recently if I have high standards when it comes to the relationships of my life. Without hesitation, they said that it isn’t too high of a standard to want the people you love to love you back, to at least attempt to mirror the effort in their own way. I suppose this is what love looks like to me.

There’s no manual on any of this. No real way to mourn the friendships that I’ve outgrown without feeling it all. No easy way to tell someone that they aren’t showing up for you in the ways you need them to.

I once wrote about friendship–true, authentic, unconditional friendship–in a way that described each person as one of the loves of my life. What I meant was that there are people that we will meet who feel familiar, like a soul’s warm bath. We see them, and they, us, in new light each time we come together. What I meant was that our friends are those that we are connected to despite hope, despite despair, and we are undoubtedly meant for one each other, even if only for a little while.

What I meant was that these are people who rise to the occasion, meeting you where you’re at, even if that’s a thousand miles away. These are the people who are going to be relentless in the pursuit of your heart because they know how much that matters in a fragile, heartbreaking world. They are the people who make you feel beautiful when you feel the farthest from it, to help you as you grieve the loss of all the versions of yourself that you wished were still here.

That is to say: we change. Sometimes that change is without others. Sometimes that’s a necessary part of this life. Not everyone was meant to stay. Some come as questions, some as answers.

This is an open letter of me letting go of the people who are no longer willing to meet me where I’m at. I don’t want to take steps in a world where I’m surrounded by people who are committed to misunderstanding me. I no longer wish to keep the company of people who aren’t willing to be a soft place to land. No longer hoping to hustle for people who never reach out. No longer subjecting myself to lazy friendship.

It’s worth noting: I am imperfect in my pursuit of joy in every corner. I fail to show up. I miss the mark I set for myself time and time again for the friendships that matter. I will fall short for every love of my life. The difference, though, is that good friends know how to get back up, to keep fighting for the hearts involved, to insist on ways to be better for others. When that’s lost, so, too, is the essential part of thriving.

This is the part of life nobody ever tells you about. Letting go the people who you love deeply. It hurts like hell. But I’ll take all that hurt and carry peace knowing that I’m staying as true to myself as I can be, and I’ll rest—finally—by laying down this mask of mine, opening up, letting the flowers bloom again.

To (me &) my white colleagues and friends

The words shared here reflect the thoughts, values, emotions, and opinions of me and only me.

A year ago, I began sifting through feedback on a class I was teaching called Stories of the Oppressed: Narratives of Marginalized Humans in Higher Education. I wanted to get real, honest, critical feedback so I could make it better for the fall semester. Teaching this class to 15 students every semester not only challenged me, it changed the way I approached education, and I was so excited to make the class better for the next group. As I solicited feedback, something one student wrote has stuck with me: “You do a great job of engaging us in this class, but what we need more of are strategies on how to have these conversations outside of this classroom with folks that we don’t agree with. We need to know about how to be both the mess and the broom that cleans the mess up”

The bottom fell out.

I changed the whole curriculum after that. Read article after article about how to empower, how to dissent, how to stand rooted in what you know to be true, how to listen, how to be wrong, how to change your mind, how to unlearn, and how to take steps.

What I’ve realized: we don’t like messes in higher education. We don’t like messes in our personal lives either. We create systems and processes to ensure that messes don’t thrive. We try to contain every moment of chaos and we paint a picture like everything is hunky-dory. We encourage folks to do their own research, but we wouldn’t dare take a stand on issues that would “rock the boat” or “ruffle the feathers” of others. Our disdain for messes runs so deep that we show up as moderately as we can. We don’t take sides. We don’t engage students in issues that matter. Radio silence when a Black person is killed by police. No statement. No action. No real conversations. Nothing.

We don’t like messes, but the reality is that doing work inside of social justice is messy. It’s messy because it involves change. It involves recognizing all the ways that our processes, procedures, and systems we created (yes, that process you’re thinking about right now was created by a human, not a robot or computer system. Think about that for a second.) to minimize the mess have exacerbated the problem. It involves headwork and heartwork. It involves recognizing all the times we should have spoken up but didn’t. All the times we should have said something but were too afraid to. All the times we could have done better but rested comfortably on our policies and processed. All the times we didn’t show up in the ways we should have because we would receive pushback or we would likely be silenced. It’s important to acknowledge that as a white person, you’ve benefitted from systems. Even more important to push back when folks want to maintain the status quo instead of changing to more equitable practices.

I’m not here to highlight all the ways we have been inadequate educators or people. I’m here to show you that although it’s messy, silence and conformity are not acceptable alternatives. You’re hurt? Tired? Upset? Outraged? Good. Now what? What are you going to do about it?

The least we can do:

  • Donate. Here are some great places to start:
  • Check in. If you have people in your lives that are impacted by things in the news, show up for them. Note that not everyone is going to be excited that you reached out and it’s not personal. Don’t ask folks how they’re feeling. Just let them know that you see them, you hear them, and you will fight for them.
  • Talk to your supervisor or your supervisor’s supervisor about white supremacy in higher education. Talk to your friends and family about white privilege. How does it impact your daily work/life? How does it impact the approach you have to the work you’re doing? How has it shaped policies and procedures in place? For a second, just use your imagination to see what you come up with in terms of alternative policies and procedures.
  • Commit to antiracist work. Saying that you’re “not racist” is not enough. Actively speak out against racism. Actively work against it. Actively show up in spaces and use all the tools you have to undo and prevent racism from thriving. Every space.
  • Dissent. Disagree. Talk through it. When you feel like shutting down and walking away, take a deep breath and keep trying. Agreeing to disagree doesn’t serve anyone. Ask yourself what it’s going to take to call folks out that say racist things. Avoiding that conversation only hurts folks that have already been hurting for so long. Feelings aren’t facts, and they’re valid but sometimes, they’re not true. Feelings do, however, tell you something about yourself.
  • When you feel hopeless, imagine how Black and Brown folks feel every single day defending their humanity. Keep going. Don’t wait for someone to educate you about their experiences in the world. Embrace that hopelessness and find small ways you can be better (see resources below)
  • (Excuse my language but) Fucking read. It’s not glamorous or pretty. It’s messy and uncomfortable. I mean this in the most sincere and honest way: you do not get better at something by avoiding it. “I don’t like reading” is not an excuse to not educate yourself if you have the ability and the means to do so. (If you need help finding resources, let’s talk about it.) Listen to podcasts. Watch youtube videos. If you’re uncomfortable, ask yourself why that’s the case. Dig through it. Write about it. Explore it. Re-read if you have to.
  • Things you could research: the origins of American policing; characteristics of white supremacy culture; white privilege and how it prevails in everyday life; the 1619 project through the NYT; history of racial oppression in America; these are but a few things. There is so much more.

Yes, we are in the middle of a pandemic and there’s so much out there to be concerned about. We are trying to get back to “normal”. But if your “normal” doesn’t include the messy work that social justice is about, take more steps. Push back. If you’re not going to do it, who will? Why are you in education at all if you’re not willing to do the work? We keep saying that we have to be better, but if your better is all about comfortably resisting or not taking a stand against those that want to maintain the status quo, are you expecting anything to change?

Posting about it is good. Silence is inaction. But do more than post about it. Do it when nobody is looking. Do it without wanting the credit for doing it. Do it without wanting a pat on the back and an applause. Do it knowing you’re going to mess up at points, and then keep going. Mess up and commit to not messing up in that way again.

Quite literally people’s lives depend on us unlearning white supremacist beliefs and habits. Don’t stay in your lane and wait for it to impact you directly before you start taking action. Don’t wait for a Black of Brown person to come along and tell you what to do. It’s not their job to educate us, white folks. We created this mess. It’s our job to work through it and make change.

A few resources to sift through to give you some ideas on how you can get started:

Lastly, if you agree or you don’t, I welcome feedback. I welcome all conversations about any of this or more. I welcome dissent. Tweet at me, message me, DM me, call me, FaceTime me, reach out to me. @rfwilliford on most platforms.

P.S. If you’re apathetic about most things, recognize what a privilege is must be to be able to say “eh, nah, I’m good” when it comes to speaking out against injustice. What a privilege it is to sit comfortably and decide that something doesn’t matter enough for you to say something about it. I can’t make you care more about others, but I certainly will challenge you in that belief. Reach out to me. I’m ready to talk about it.

Show up

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”
-Azar Nafisi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

The beginning.

Today feels like hot coffee and Frank Sinatra’s cover of the song Moon River. Something like laying on the floor after the long-awaited party ends, deep into the night, softly weeping at the end of something and the inevitable beginning that follows. How something that you’ve anticipated for years stops in a whisper, everyone having already gone their separate ways weeks before, and no proper goodbye. In a hurried mess, we come undone knowing that there are people that we will not get to hug again. People we did not get to tell that they mean the most to us. Much of my time at Ball State has felt like this. Goodbyes that I wasn’t ready to say. Goodbyes I hadn’t prepared for; there’s no amount of time that we’ll get to spend with one another that will feel like enough. No amount of hugs or time spent working through our collective hurting that will help us heal ourselves. I say this through tears in my eyes: there are people reading this that I’ve already said goodbye to. People that meant so much to me without a word from me telling them so. People that aren’t reading this, too, who may have scrolled past it on their screen, never knowing how much of my heart they’ve impacted. What I mean to say is this: I will never be able to tell everyone how much they mean to me. Some folks are already gone. That’s a grief I’ve carried for years. And now, I’ll carry this one.

Perhaps this is the year of stutter steps all the way home and alternate endings we’ve long been writing. The one where everything is cut short. The one where many of you will have already turned the page before I was ready. One where we were never on the same page to begin with, but each day was another chance to find our way, and perhaps we might’ve indeed found our way. The one where everything stopped working, everything ceased to matter, the bulletin boards and door decs, the knocking on doors, the family dinners, time spent with one another in small ways, laughing all the while.

The one where we had routines and schedules, all upended, and meetings that would have shown us the progress we might’ve been making. The one where we were going to tell each other just how much others meant to each of us, where we wouldn’t have to guess anymore.

The middle.

We can write so many alternate endings to mirror all the things we wished would have happened in March and April of 2020. Yes, you got an A on that test you studied hours for. Yes, yes, you got that text back that gave you closure. You bought the dog you always wanted, her name is Mitzi because you’ve always loved that name. Yes, you read several books for fun, all of them making you feel something again. You gave a phenomenal performance at that show you worked hard rehearsing for. You started that journal you had always talked about, and you’re finally starting to feel everything in your life. You found love. So much love.

The point is, my friends, no matter the ending, we were always going to spend this time feeling things that we hadn’t expected. We were going to surprise ourselves. Perhaps that’s what this whole year has been. Constant surprise at all that you’ve become, even with mistakes sprinkled in, and the courage you never thought you had in you. I couldn’t have imagined all the transformation that happened in each of you. That feels like something to be proud of, doesn’t it?

I’m honored to have played a small part in this chapter of your life. Even if you were determined to turn several pages ahead, I hope you took the time to go back after all of this and remember everything that mattered. I hope you gave yourself a chance to show up, to be present with each other and yourselves, to feel it all. I hope you know you can always look up at the sky—the same sky we all share—and feel, even if only for one small moment, that we are connected more than we think.

I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but one thing I do know is that I’m in your corner with every step. And that’s truly what it’s going to be: a step at a time. There will be heartbreak and mountains of joy, confusion and hurting, love lost and found, healing and growth. There will be moments you’ll never forget, no matter how often you try to push them out of your brain, and people, too, that you’ll never forget. There will be moments that carve out a space in your heart that you never knew you needed. Spaces you will create for others when they need it most. Spaces that can only happen when you show up.

Thank you for making this year one that I will not soon forget. I can’t wait to see you through it all; standing at the finish line with open arms, helping you find your home, wherever that may be.

The end.

In other words

It’s been almost a year, and I have not been myself since. The things I didn’t say to him. The things I’ll never get to say to him. Things I’ll never get to do with him, like spend a meal across from each other, somewhere in between where our lives are, sharing stories and photographs and everything that we’ve missed. It’s almost been a year and I still haven’t found a way to carry him with me. Everything is heavy and moving. So fast. Faster than I thought it might, and I am rendered lost inside every emotion for a little while before the next day comes.

I spent months searching photos for some clue of him telling me he loved me. Sorted through piles of old polaroids, stacks of memories of everyone else and not one where it was just he and I spending time. I searched for his signature on documents. I looked for letters and held everything up to the light. Wanted to see if we made our J’s with the same swoop, our S’s with the same curves, our R’s with the same top-heavy turns. There had to be something I could hold onto and feel understood. It’s important for you to know that I wish I would have told him about what I was going through. I wish I would have reached out to him, even amidst anger, to let him know how I was feeling. What I was thinking. There were a million reasons to call him and share joy or heartache with one another. I spent far too many moments sitting with my hurting heart and not giving him one single chance to change it. A part of me believes he might have done everything he could have to take that pain away from me. A part of me is still lost.

It’s also important to know that his memory is tender in me. I’ve forgiven him and myself for so many things. But I’m still working through wishing for a better past with him. I’m noting the moments I feel as if I’m losing myself in wondering about what life could have looked like if I had answered his phone calls. There are things I know I cannot change, and because of this fact, I have to move forward with forgiveness in every step. The world is still spinning, I am still here, and nothing is waiting for me.


I spend much of my time wishing I had spent more time in this and less time in that, more space for myself to come undone and think about the ways I’m still learning how to live this life on my own terms. In many ways, I won’t ever be done. I am appalled and finding myself inside of Kaveh Akbar’s words, “The boat I am building / will never be done.” Still looking for more time for building. Still needing more wood, more nails, more plaster for the inevitable holes that will surely find their way to the bottom, right in the crevices where all the water can get in, and I might need a bigger boat soon, too. I might need more space for all the people in my life who help me come alive.

The days will keep going. Time will not stop for anyone, not me or you, not God and their endless barrage of loving and hurting. Time is moving and so are we. And so are we. So are we.


I’m writing to my father a letter that helps me see clearly what a void does to me. I surely won’t be able to give them to him. He won’t be able to read my words or feel them. Won’t be able to respond. There is power in the words we give to others. Power in the words we give to ourselves. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to do: find power in the ways that my heart finds its way to my throat, speaking his name and the stories I wish I could share with him.

He came to me in a dream with a stack of letters bundled neatly, all addressed to him from me. He handed them back and told me they were a gift. He spotted the exit sign and found his way out, the only home he’s ever been able to find in his years alive. All of this building comes to a point of complete. In some inevitable moment, the sails have to be released; we have to trust the wind. On this boat, I am hoping to stack all the words I have for him, some surely falling out the sides. The water will drift them all to the edges of Earth and somehow, perhaps some way, he is standing there, arms open wide, waiting to be found again, waiting, waiting–

In review

“I’ll tell you this and I haven’t told many people,” I said to a good friend hours before the close of 2018. “I don’t know if I have any resolutions, but my word to live by for 2019 is bloom.”

“That’s beautiful,” they said. Then silence.

What followed was a beautiful space to live deeply this year.

I did not yet know all the ways that the months would pile on top of one another, or how many bruises I’d have collected by the end of it. There were so many things that unexpectedly took my breath away. Some good and some heartbreaking. I am, perhaps, most grateful for all the ways I kept going despite there being no rain. Despite there being no end to the rain in sight.

A birthday dinner showed me how to count all the ways friends can become soulmates. A plant or two barely surviving the year can show me how to tend to soft and beautiful things and how to talk to things that might not talk back. Cup after cup of coffee shared between old friends and new can show me how to believe in connection again. Zero poems written this year can show me all the ways that my words will still matter once all the days in the year have run their course. I, too, am still running my course, still writing these chapters and editing when I can, still believing that words will matter today and every tomorrow after.

So many things were close together; joy and grief showing up at the same time and in the same space. Perhaps this is what it means to be alive and feel it all. I spent the most perfect weekend in New York City with a soulmate, and the day after getting back, my father passed away. I’ve carried the shame of his passing with me every single day. It doesn’t get easier. There’s still so many unanswered questions, so many things I wish I would have said over the years of silence that preceded his death, and so much love that I didn’t get to give to him. I’ll carry that with me for a long while and write many letters to him that he will never read. Scribbling on postcards all the things I wish I’d said, all the things I wish he could see in me, even if he’ll never see them.

On that same trip, I got a tattoo of something that meant much to me. A man opening his chest to reveal flowers pouring out. It was the pinnacle of the year when it comes to joy. I am reminded every day that despite everything that was meant to keep me down, I kept growing, kept blooming in the ways that the flowers might be. There’s a poem in there somewhere that I haven’t yet written. Perhaps 2020 will bring me closer to words that make sense. There are languages I haven’t learned yet that will tell this story one day. Until then, I will marvel. And mourn.

I saw Dear Evan Hansen three times and each time, I left feeling the wind knocked out of me. I saw Ben Platt perform and Sara Bareilles sing to the whole world. I traveled to see people and they traveled to see me. I talked about hard things and, at times, avoided them. I experienced many heartbreaks when I sat with students and watched them grieve a hundred losses, knowing full well that there’s nothing I can do to make it better except hold space. I stopped meditating and began again. I stopped working out and began again. I changed my diet to be plant-based and haven’t looked back much. I stopped explaining myself to myself. Stopped justifying every move I make to the rest of the world and just let my head rest. I let “no” be the end of it and “yes” be the beginning of so many things. I got to work on opportunities that I didn’t think I was ready for and have been supported by some of the very best people. I received cards of encouragement and withness when I least expected them. I thought much about love, old and new, for people and places and things. Spent some time thinking about how much my life might change in the coming year.

Not everything is romance, nor is it void of love. There’s so much that the world offers when the darkness creeps in. I spent plenty of days sitting with myself until I could navigate it meaningfully. Spent some time regretting and dreaming out loud. It might be cool to be a father. Might be cool to

Not everything will be a poem. But everything could be, I suppose, and that’s a pretty revolutionary realization. How words might form. How something could mean so much. How breath plays a role in everything.

I stopped accepting everything that everyone else labeled me and decided, more often than not, that I have something to bring to the table. I have words that matter. I have people that matter. People who won’t fit me into a box because of my talents or passions. People who will let me just be.

I had the opportunity to be an educator and guide students through difficult, challenging, eye-opening conversations. I was a witness to change and learned so many names, so many stories. Perhaps that’s the best part of it all: stories. How beautiful that we all carry so many with us? How tragic that we only share a few, that we only open up when we feel strong enough, and that many of us never feel strong enough?

I hope that 2020 helps us all feel strong enough. To carry to weight of grief and joy at the same time. To come undone. To finally cry, despite all the years that the tears never came. To write the hard thing and give it to the person we used to love. To write the easy thing and give it to the people we love today. To write all of our dreams down and surprise ourselves. To love despite everything that tells us not to.

As for me? I’ll keep asking the same questions in reverse order. I’ll keep blooming, even if I don’t pick any resolutions. Will keep grieving everything I’ve lost with the same intensity, the same passion as I’m used to. Will keep finding joy on every day that I can. Will keep questioning God or Gods, will keep wondering out loud, will keep standing up for what I believe in and will let myself change my mind when the time calls for it. Will still drink my coffee black and will start projects that have no ending. Will keep finding songs that make me think about that one time when my heart was broken. Will keep thinking about my childhood home and every place I used to hide. Will keep finding reasons not to hide, and will, time and again, step into the sun one more time.


P.S. Here are some songs that got me through 2019. Enjoy, my friends. And, as always, love and light to you and yours.


Coffee black

I didn’t start drinking my coffee black until after my father died. Turns out that’s the way he liked his coffee each morning, rain or shine, to start his day. It happened almost unconsciously. I gathered the materials to grind my own beans, pouring them into the hopper of my manual grinder, turning the metal crank over and over and over again to get the beans to crack against the plastic grooves. The coarse grounds drop to the bottom. I pour them into the coffeemaker that I’ve had all these years, a common $20 drip coffeemaker that I’ve grown to love, helping me to center myself on the days I feel like my worst.

I skip the refrigerator altogether, deciding at some point that I no longer need cream to change my cup. No longer need milk. “It’s an acquired taste,” my parents would tell me when I was a young boy. “You won’t like it until you do.”

My father likely make the same cup of coffee each morning. Same beans, same pot, some sort of routine to create some sort of order in his life. Something to get him started, seeing where the day goes, maybe another cup or two into the late morning if he didn’t sleep well, and I can’t blame him. Coffee is my first leap of faith. I rely on it in such a way, like the sun coming up each morning, and I never said it was the best habit. Just that it was necessary sometimes for me to feel like myself.

He would turn on the TV and listen to yesterday’s news, today’s, and something coming next, perhaps over and over again that he was never really listening at all. Never really registering what he was hearing, just that it was something that brought some sort of comfort, no matter the content. Our first real arguments were political, his and mine. I am product of a mother who loves hard and carries compassion for everyone she comes in contact with. Growing up, I simply couldn’t believe that George W. Bush was his politician of choice. As a young teenager, I was willing to fight any fight without fully knowing the gravity of what I was fighting for, only that there lies a certain regard for human experiences that his candidates of choice were callous to. We would go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until one of us grew weary and we agreed to disagree.

My father was a quiet man. A hurting man. A man who was always grappling with something, a character trait he likely carried until he closed his eyes the very last time. I have wondered often these last few months if his last sleep was peaceful, if he woke like very few mornings before with a sense of calm, letting the sunlight pour over his face, warming his body into aliveness. I wonder if that’s something he got to experience before he passed. It’s in this wondering that I find myself drawing comparisons to him more and more, which is something I would have never done in the 10 years before this very moment. I very much wanted to break away from the idea that my father needed to be in my life for me to live well. Miles of running later, I’m exhausted from my own unwillingness to reconcile, to mend, to heal. Mom tells me I’ve always had a big heart. There are spaces there that were meant for him. In his absence, I wonder how this could be true, how I could get it wrong so for long, and how it might feel like it’s too late.

Remembering depends on what we saw from where we stood. These days, I’m closing my eyes tight so that every memory of him can paint itself in the most vibrant colors. I’m re-writing a long-held narrative that he was never going to love me well and that he didn’t know me at all. So many of the things I’ve been telling myself about him was born out of hurt. Even if he was sitting across from me right now, I wouldn’t have the right words, the right questions, the right level of compassion to tell him what he means to me.

I’m hanging onto everything black coffee stood for in my father’s life: some sort of aliveness, of routine, of reality. I wonder what he would say if he could read these words. I ask myself what healing might look like these days. I hold onto my cup, sip lightly, and set it down. I am not my father’s son.

And yet.


On grief and blooming

I.

I’ve spent so many years of my life wishing things were different: where I’m from, my body, being so damn shy, exploring my emotions as a man, and wishing I was a better brother/uncle/son. Much of that time trying to change to fit into other people’s vision for who I am meant I wasn’t being being present with myself. I was looking past everything that made me, me. At the end of the day, right before bed, I’d look in the mirror and not recognize the person I was trying to be. So I made a deal with myself for this year: bloom.

These last few years, I’ve been recognizing my commitment to people who have not served my heart well. People who are not showing up for my wisdom and joy in the ways that I might have hoped without really communicating. People who might not match my level of commitment to them. Sometimes, working to be a better friend for others is a lonely business. Lots of time spent on islands of thought, expectations, or understanding. I’ve thought about this extensively before; the idea that, even if I’m willing to go to the ends of the city to be with this specific person, they aren’t loving me well or showing up for me when I am expecting them to. Part of that is setting a really high expectation for them and part of it is also me not accepting their current capacities to love me in the ways that I need. That’s on me to re-examine and re-determine for what’s next. Some people will stick around when I least expect it and they always show me their cards. Some people will leave because they’ll need to. They’ll require it for their own hearts, and honestly, as much as that may hurt, I find it to be noble and brave. I, too, will have to leave.

I am constantly pouring into others. I see this mostly in my work life and I’m actively working through the thought that my job is thankless. So many folks are quick to write millennials and generation Z off as lazy, unmotivated, or needing constant affirmation. I don’t buy it. Of course the folks that say these things “know better” because they’re older, wiser, and more experienced. Perhaps it’d be better to compare this generation with generations of the past at the same chapter. It does nobody any good if we constantly compare differing chapters. This becomes the wedge between us, the hill many die on, widening until we can’t speak to one another without constantly misunderstanding each other. It doesn’t have to be this way, I tell myself. If I can just break the cycle and change the narrative, maybe things would be different. As a result, we are all burning out and I’m left wondering how we can change systems to fit the needs of today, not yesterday. Institutions should change with the transforming landscape of human experience. We make up these systems and uphold their rules, spoken or not, until we decide to change them. It’s not easy, of course, and merely writing these words down doesn’t make things different. If anything, it adds to the urgency that we must be willing to dismantle deeply-rooted and generational understanding of how humans get to exist in the spaces we create. The pouring has to be daily. I don’t need thanks for doing my job. But I can tell you that if you encourage me, give me critical feedback, and commit to loving me well in the process, I will work harder. 

Still, this pouring comes at a cost. Spending so much of my time giving giving giving to people, I have to do what is necessary for me to show up as myself, not the person others want me to be. Investing in what makes me who I am is necessary. I have to observe that which works against me, the forces seen or unseen that strive to cut me down, fit me into a box, or make me someone I’m not.

The people I interact with on a daily basis will sometimes need me in a limited way, and then they’re gone. What’s true about this model is that, if you’re like me, seeing the fruits of your labor make it worth it. The catch is that I may never see it. Manifesting might be months from now, long after they’ve moved to bigger cities, brighter lights, better opportunities to love and be loved. Could be years. Because of this, I have to keep moving and have hope that the work I’m doing will prove to be worth it. In small, unspoken moments, I have to move on.

Nobody teaches you how though. It’s a skill that you have to do first in order to learn. How to pack up a life, taking down the messily adorned walls of all your favorite moments, standing in an empty room, finally turning the lights off and closing the door behind you with a deep sigh. It’s saying goodbye even when you don’t want to. We never really know when we’re going to see each other again, so I believe in wishing someone warmly ahead despite everything that is up in the air. Their path might surely bring forth something difficult. I hope they give themselves grace. I hope they see what I can see in them, all the growing that is yet to come and the path already traveled, all the worthiness inside their being. I hope I can see it in myself, too.

I am only just now grasping this idea that I am worthy and deserving of that which I continue to give to others. I am deserving of the capacity stretching that I’m working to help others do. I’m worthy, and that’s enough to shift my energy inwards sometimes. I want to find all that blooms inside of me and continue to share it with the world. To be tender towards all that is hurting and healing, and mining myself for ways that I can continue to love people well. To be fierce and accepting of every moment where I come up short with myself, with others. To find beautiful fragments on the floor every morning and find the courage every day to piece things back together. To heal—everything I do, I hope to find gratitude and joy inside of, wisdom and bravery, and amidst the darkness, an indelible, unwavering light that can guide me. And to do so surrounded by all the people that light a fire inside of me. My best friends: the New Yorkers and the North Carolinians, the Michiganders and the Ohioans, the Californians and everyone in between, the people who have traveled so far to find a life that brings them meaning and purpose. My family: those who have passed and those who, no matter the amount of time in between visits, I never get enough time with. My mother who gives and gives and gives. My big sister who is writing her own story of becoming; a mother and a sister and a friend. My little brother who is bigger and faster and stronger than me now but will always be the little guy who brought so much joy to our family. My beautiful niece and sweet nephew who I am in a constant state of awe of; two humans who are smart and funny, working to become people with so many stories to tell. My dad who teaches me things every day without even knowing it, and yes, my father, too, who I am finding myself a soft spot for, even after all this hurting.

Most of all, I want every day to feel like something new. I want to stack hope in ways I didn’t know I could. I want every day full of doubts to bring clarity, too. What I’ve learned these past three years is that if I don’t try, I may never know. If I resist my heart instead of traveling deeper into it, I may never realize a life that is authentic and true. I want to find all the transformation in my bones, to love people and hold them, even my best friends who I’ve learned are the loves of my life, each and every one of them. To give the soft places in their heart a soft place to land.

I want to bloom inside of everything tomorrow and today; to look back, years from now, and see every horizon in my heart as a sign that all of everything has been worth it. Every closed door that led to heartache. Every open door giving me wonder. Every eve, every rainstorm, every moment passed where I decided that today was going to be the day. The day that I was going to be the only Robbie I can be today. The day, after years of building, that I finally walk through the door of blooming, today and tomorrow and everything that comes next.



* * *

 

Written in fragments between January and May of 2019. Finally pieced together in June, just before Father’s Day.

 


II.

I want to establish myself as someone independent from the opinions of those that do not love me well. And right now, that’s just not a possibility. I’m working through it, whatever that means, and I’m hoping things will change at some point. Hoping I’ll have the foresight to notice the change and to observe it as anything that doesn’t resemble trauma. The heart stretches not without aching for rest. I am hoping there will be better days. That I can find what’s bright in the sky on the days when I should have brimming gratitude. But the honest-to-universe truth is that the lights don’t always stay on. And there is not always a switch. And the grief is a circle, running with no corners to sleep, spinning wobbly into tomorrow and the next without care for sensible direction. I cannot help but be tender with myself, allowing the grief to take hold when it decides it’s time, shaking me away from what’s in front of me. It is a ball inside of a limited box with a big pain button on every wall, bouncing around, smashing into the hurting parts. The ball might get smaller over time but it never really dissolves. Some days are hurricanes with no end. 

A co-worker once told me that grief is like a leaky faucet, dripping at its own expense with no resolve. I know that to be true for the way it shows up in my life. The world will always spin without noticing me. Perhaps grief is swimming upstream against a current; there was always a before and after. Before you were told upstream is the only option. Before you got so tired. Before there was ever a pain you had to sit with, a gravity holding you in place. After the first breakdown. After something uncontrollable existing on your chest. After the calls and texts and notes, sweet words of solace amidst a lack of light. Before meant something different not long ago. After did, too. How different life can be in just a few hours and a phone call.

I can’t say with certainty who this writing is for. I just know that I have to write it to breathe again. I am usually okay with uncertainty—most of life is this way, isn’t it? I’ve been uncertain with myself for a long time, but I’ve taken steps before without seeing what’s next. This feels different. Like everything is moving forward and all I can do is watch. I know that, in time, all of this will make more sense. I will understand life in a new way. Time works that magic. That fact doesn’t answer my right-now questions, like what was his last thought? Did it hurt? Was there panic? Peace? Did he think of me? Was he mad at me for not responding to him quick enough? For not answering his calls or texts? For insisting on emails as the sole form of communication? Did he have regrets? Do I?

I don’t always know what it means to regret. But if I could go back, I might change a few things. I’d learn forgiveness much earlier. Buddy Wakefield says forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. Mom says it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. She talked to my father almost every day for nine months after his brother passed away in September of 2018. I don’t always know if I believe in a God or a series of Gods or the universe, but I imagine he wanted to spend more time in the place up high with his brother. I’m sure he thought of him daily after his own grief manifested. I imagine he had regrets.

Mom also says that you don’t become a true adult until one of your parents dies. It is then that you become last-in-line, the guardian of the family, a role that she’s done masterfully, gracefully for years now. It is then that you learn what it means to be alone, kids or not. Siblings or not. Your own demons or not. There is nobody you looked up to for years that will help you sort the socks or cut the coupons, nobody to make the salad for dinner, nobody to take to appointments for an ailing body, nobody but yourself. It is then that you realize that love, while it is a spectrum, is remembered best when you give it all you’ve got and give it away.

After 28 years, I have finally claimed the title of adult. And perhaps I do not carry grief well. But I hope, even after all of this, that deep in his heart, he was proud to be my father. I hope he knows that I loved him even if I never told him. I hope he found all the seasons in his days. It is windy today. Like wind, I hope his pain was fleeting, now gone except in memory and heart. Especially in heart.

I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day.



* * *



Written in June of 2019 almost a month after finding out my father passed away. I wrote him a letter in 2017 after years of hating him. It was right after a good friend of mine and my grandmother passed in a matter of four months and my mother told me to reach out to him. “Something could happen tomorrow and you don’t want to regret never talking to him again,” she said. I began communicating with him via email. It felt like it was all I could do. Texting and calling felt too close and I didn’t feel ready to let him in again. Dozens of emails later, we went back and forth about life—small updates and big, happy birthdays, Merry Christmas’s, plenty of ‘how are you?’s, and lots of questions. So many questions. We had plans of meeting halfway between Muncie and Wickliffe this summer to have a meal, catch up. To try to see each other. Even with all the anxiousness that brought me, I felt hope for the first time in a long time with him. He passed before that could happen and I’m left with so many questions that I may never get the answers to, hands full of things I wish I could change. I don’t have any pictures with him, just a few good memories that I will cherish. Stories I will tell my children one day. I can no longer wish for a better past or try to change it. Can no longer wish for a better tomorrow with him. All I know right now is that nobody will tell me how to grieve or when, and I deserve tenderness despite all the wreckage. My boat is always being built and I will never be done.

Blooming. Joy amidst a deep sadness. Answers that will surely come and peace for those that won’t. Mostly, just love in every corner, every turn.