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.

To you, my friends

We’ve reached the end—again—and I still don’t fully know how to handle the first few weeks without students on campus. The buildings slowly empty and, one by one, then all at once, the lights turn off. The music stops. The hustle simmers and bustle slows. I stand in the lobby of the 500-person building wishing that everyone was back here for a photo, something to remember this time that we’ve spent stretching each other’s hearts. Each floor becomes the home of all the sweetest memories that we hold close, each room a set of walls observing us be who we are, and each person, a tiny miracle that we wished we’d gotten and now we did. I put my hands in my pockets and take a deep breath. Another year down. Gratitude fills me.

The truth is, no matter how many days we’d wished away, hoping it would be the end sooner than it did, we were never really ready for the finality. We weren’t ready to go on our last round or attend our last meeting. As much as we might have wished for it to come, we sat amongst each other in the last staff meeting wishing there was just one more. At some point along the way, we didn’t come to terms with the fact that we were doing some of our last things together in the last six weeks of the semester. The last sleeps and the last conversation with that one resident that you wish you’d gotten to know earlier. The last trip for coffee with each other. The last program you planned with a peer and the last time you called for backup. The last time you got to spend with one another and the final set of laughs shared way too late into the night. It’s a reminder that good things do, indeed, come to an end, even when we try to run from it. Still, we got to do so much together. That’s something that makes me smile today.

For many of this, this was a hard year. We can never really imagine in August how we’ll turn out in May, how heartbreak might come at a time we least expect it to, how we might find joy in spaces that we hadn’t thought would be full, and how we’ll be changed forever because of it. Every first day of school, I think about how, in just a few months, we’ll all leave again and I’m reminded of how critical it can be to take that moment in, to breath deeply and exhale, and to find resolve in the steps I’m (we’re) about to take. Time is non-renewable; we get to spend it with each other for such a short period, and so it becomes precious in an instant. Thinking back to that day this past fall, I’m reminded once again that no matter how much I try to plan and prepare, there will be twists and turns, life unexpectedly startling me into the next tomorrow. But every time, I got to do it with you.

I wish I could write each of you a poem. Something you can take with you to new buildings and teams, new cities and jobs, new supervisors and friends. I wish I could be the folded photograph in your wallet that comes tumbling out when you least expect it; a reminder of how things used to be, of all the ways we grew this past year. I’ll settle as a memory you carry instead, something vivid and encouraging. Hopefully something that evokes light. I wasn’t perfect but I certainly tried to be. I knew on day one just as I know now: you are worth the time. You are worth the space. You are worth the hours and the miles we traveled. You are worth it every single time. Here’s a letter to remind you:

This letter is for you, my friends.

For every time you didn’t believe in yourself but finally did, a whole world cracking open, something new and uncharted. For every moment you cussed in the lobby and quickly apologized, receiving the “Robbie face,” and resolving to be better. For the times we shared tears and the times we swapped stories, life lessons, or music preferences. For every walking one-on-one and every Starbucks trip (I’m convinced we are made of caffeine). For every time you thought you couldn’t, but you tried anyway. Every staff trip and moments you thought I was mad at you (I wasn’t (except for the back door)), every early morning or late night staff meeting, every message sent to see if you overslept for a gathering. For every program and every conversation that changed me. For every person you changed, too. For all the hours you spent crafting and rounding, every moment you wished would end and every moment you wished wouldn’t. Every mistake and triumph. I have a heart full of gratitude.

We made it.

Thanks for making this place a home for so many and for committing yourself to the folks living here. It wasn’t that long ago that we all sat in the first meetings, wide-eyed and hopeful, wishing for a year of building. My goodness, did you build.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Next year will be different for each you. My hope is that you put your best foot forward, especially on your worst days. There will be more days like that in your future—the kind where everything seems to be going wrong and you’re late, feeling heavy with disappointment in yourself. My hope is that you take a step anyways. And that you rest when you get the chance. I know many of you don’t know what that word means and that’s okay. You will soon enough.

I hope you take every chance to adventure and you forgive yourself when you mess up. We are built to make mistakes. We are a bunch of imperfect cells just trying to make it through. If we never messed up, life might be pretty boring and definitely bereft meaning. I hope you know that you never have to go through darkness alone and that you know I’m in your corner just as I’ve always been. Many of you will span the globe in the coming months—new states, territories unbound from routines and favorite places—and I hope you take advantage of all the clean slates in your future. My mother tells me that we don’t get many in this life and that we should make the most of it every time we find ourselves with something blank to shapeshift. I hope you make the most of it.

Do not forget each other. No matter how many trials and tribulations you faced, you mattered to each other in some small way this year. That’s important. Doing anything less than remembering every moment of laughter and sadness, of joy and frustration, would not be meaningful.

Feel what you feel. It will make you a better human to be able to walk through each emotion from beginning to end than to run from it. Some of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve done a lot of it this semester. There is no finality to any feeling; you will get tired of running and it will all catch up to you. Feel it. Lean into it. Sit with it and explore it if you can. And in every moment in between, be gentle with yourself.

The future cannot happen if you don’t find a way to love people deeply. So, at the end of each day, I hope you think about how you love people well, including yourself. You are worthy of every good thing coming to you.

Thanks for making this year beautiful and for giving other people hope. Without you, goodbyes would be easy. I’m grateful that you’ve made them difficult for me. I’ll miss you more than you know. You are always welcome back into any space of mine. I have so much love in my heart for you.

Your friend,
-RFW

Holdfast

“We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.”

-Robin Beth Schaer

When I think of the man I was two years ago, I think of fog. How it shades and contorts what may or may not be in front of you. How it can cloud around the shape of you, clarity hindered. I think of how traveling through it can sometimes only yield more fog. Something endless. That’s what grief is to me. I’ve been digging. Trying to make sense of something that I won’t soon understand. I knew, two years ago, my grandmother was hurting and hoping I’d come home to see her for what would have been the very last time. I knew it to be possible that she was doing everything she could to hang on for just a little while longer. I knew I prioritized work over the miles it’d take for me to see her again and still, I’m working through that, a certain kind of fog that makes me feel bad for leaving and feel bad for staying. Unshakeable in more than a few ways. Two years later, I’m sitting in this coffeeshop wondering how it could be that I’ve let two years pass without fully writing about it.

She was a woman of steel with a soft center. Truly the matriarch of this family. A wonder of the world. I am convinced today just as I was two years ago today: everything that matters most to me grows three times its size once I no longer have access to it.

I’ve gotten a tattoo in her honor; I look at it every day—in the shower as the water hits it, in meetings when I roll up my sleeves, in small moments where the black ink is a heavy contrast against my pale skin—and I am reminded of her words. “I love you.” Some of the strongest words ever said simply to me. Some of the only that I’ve both understood and felt completely in the fog about. Still traveling, still making my way towards some sort of muffled light, and I am starting to think that perhaps this is what life is like once you lose someone you love deeply.

I believe there is a story in all things. It’s why I’ve taught a class about storytelling for the past two semesters. It’s why I’ve worked with students to help them see the value in their own stories and the stories surrounding them every single day. There are no small moments that do not have the opportunity to be of golden value. Everything has the potential to matter. The ways things came to be, how they’re existing, and the hopes folks have for them continuing are all stories and they’re worth telling. I’m not yet convinced that everything happens for a reason, or if these two concepts are related, but even when (especially when) things don’t make sense to us, they grow bones in mattering. That’s that.

I have several stories swimming around of my grandmother: going to the park down the street from the house that she and my grandfather built; her having a stroke across from me at a restaurant, her eyes meeting mine, face pale-white; her tripping and falling over a protruding water pipe in the sidewalk, blood rushing down her face but her insisting that she was fine; her living next to my father in a trailer park; me and a friend getting in trouble at a local store and her having to come and pick us up; going into the woods that she told us not to go into and building forts; moving in with her for a year during high school while my family could get on their feet; her crying every time I would leave home and asking when I’m coming back; and so many more. So many more.

The last two years have been difficult and I still have so much unpacking to do. Every good, bad, and indifferent memory I have deserves a safe space to come undone inside of me. My grandmother was, is, and always will be a strong part of my identity. The love she exuded is not lost on me. It’s in the work that I do every day. It shows up in the relationships I’m constantly working to build, even when I fail. It’s a central part of who I am as a person. It’s on my skin; despite shedding, it’s always there.

Every morning, I wake up a see a message I wrote to myself that I got from a StoryPeople print: “There is no future without love.” Although I live alone, I say it quietly to myself every morning as if it is a prayer—something holy that gives me strength, something spiritual that is bigger than I am. When I sit up, feet reaching the ground, arms stretching, I’m hoping the universe is listening. I’m hoping that somehow, the moon and the trees are listening. I’m hoping there will be others can find this message in their everyday lives and believe it. That we can see each other and understand each other, all the soft parts in us are worthy of acceptance, of light.

There will come a time when everything around me is gone. People will pass. Time will pass. The music will stop. Work will cease and the world will be determined to keep spinning the same old, reliable way. I will be left with myself. Healing will not be linear and it will not come easy. I have to come to terms with that fact—sooner rather than later—and know in my bones that, no matter how much I try, I cannot outrun my hurt. I cannot trick all that haunts me into being my friend. I have to face it. And the love that grows through all the breaking will make it worth it. So worth it.

So it goes.