I don’t know

Don’t need to know. Don’t need to be so consumed with information that I forget to tell you I love you. Life is short, they say, and they’re right. In the grand scheme of things, our time here is brief. Time here is made up of passing days thinking about what we should have done all those years ago, what we wished we had taken more time to do, what we hope doesn’t happen tomorrow, all this worrying. It’s exhausting. It’s guarding, in a way, that which we hold dearest. Many of us, it’s true, don’t want to get to our last days with regrets that engulf us. I am no different. Don’t want to know what it means to reach my last birthday without knowing it’s my last. Knowing is comforting. Knowing is comfortable. Knowing, too, takes the magnitude of life’s biggest moments and boils them down, grinds them into a fine powder, giving us permission to put them neatly into a shaker that we can pull out of the cupboard and sprinkle whenever we want. To know, truly, in every sense of the word, means I can predict a future.

The only thing I want to know at the end of my time here is that I told them all I loved them my whole life. Even when I did not know. Even when they were but a stranger, our spheres having not yet collided. I want the writer in me to have thought up a thousand different ways to show my dad that, despite the roadblocks stopping us from reaching each other, I have shown up in the ways I know how, hands shaking but arms open. I want this saxophone heart drawing rhythm outside the lines; there will be a hundred notes behind me, a thousand more to go, no end in sight. I want the artist in me to have painted every person I’ve fallen in love with in the softest colors. There are no villains in these stories. Just people. Kissing between epiphanies. Letting go when it’s time.

If we haven’t talked in a while, I want the silence between us to be a warm blanket rather than a cold, jagged cliff. There may be miles between us but I have loved you before and I will love you after we get over this, after we move from known to unknown; we have lived a lifetime of heartbreak and swelling and despite all of that, I have loved you. I will love you.

I don’t really know. Not definitively. Not what forever means nor the bounds of imagination that can put us back together again. Knowing steals the depth of every emotion that I have spent a couple of decades reaching for, expanding, stretching with my hands their capacity each time they show up unannounced. I want to name every flower I can without being able to name them all. I want to still have discoveries ahead. I want wonder as a friend. I want to be friends. I want the air in my lungs to excite me. I want to be excited.

I want loving every person in my life to surprise me. I want to love and be surprised in how I can think up every small way to show them. I want to reach the end of this life still gasping at all the ways loving you has bloomed all around me something like joy. Yes, you, dear reader. You. I want to stumble upon every stitched story we haven’t said, not in years or perhaps at all. Fireflies lighting the way. Tiny wings flying us all around each other, to and fro, swashbuckling on infinity, until my very last day.

fun little snap

inspired by a tweet

Like most people who have Twitter, I find myself scrolling quite aimlessly sometimes, thumbs moving from the bottom of my screen to the top and back to the bottom again, only diverting this rhythm to tap the heart or cycle icon. Most of the time (at least this year), there’s a(n) (un)healthy amount of doom scrolling: COVID and capitalism and climate change and leaders being complacent and and and [fill it in, you know?]. It’s enough to numb the nerves as we move from day to day, week to week, month to month, and the end of a year.

Every once in a while, there’s a tweet that will catch me at exactly the right time. A cycle in my brain changes as I fixate on each word, reading it over and over again until I feel myself wake out of a slumber that mindlessly scrolling can turn into. This time, the tweet is by @brownroundboi and it reads:

“I’m not interested in 2021 accomplishments: Let me know how you need care. Tell me the ways your heart fell & still beats. Share how naps exhilarated you. Praise on how you said No & felt it in your marrow. Rejoice texts you left unread. How you slept in. Love, how did you rest?”

These words struck me in the gut. I felt everything. And so to end the year, I wanted to expand it and write my own.

I’m not interested in 2021 accomplishments. Purely making it through another year amidst so much death and dying, grief and despair, sadness everywhere, even with so many people not making it, will be labeled as an accomplishment. Simply making it to a point in the year where you have the opportunity to reflect on what a year it may have been is a privilege that so many don’t have. To accomplish is to be in competition with others or the self, to complete a set of tasks or a list of things that you’d set out to do. It’s a product of productivity, most of which I’ve been working to reframe: what if our lives weren’t defined by a list of things we got done? What if productivity didn’t equal worth or value of someone or something? What if work wasn’t framed this way? Don’t get me wrong: being proud of the things you’ve built, the life you’ve written, the things you did to get to the point where you feel like the best version of yourself, that’s okay. Encouraged, in fact. Own it. Name it and feel it all the way through. Celebrate it. My only hope is that it’s not to the detriment of your life and the people you love. It is not the basis of how deserving you are of every good thing.

Let me know how you need care. Let me know what care even means to you. Is it showing up, announced or otherwise, on your doorstep with Thai food? Is it being in the same room without speaking a word at all? Or is it reading something you wrote and highlighting my favorite lines? Is it writing you a letter to show you that the universe is listening? Knowing how you need to be cared for and communicating those needs to people who want to show up for you builds connections that you can’t see before taking the leap.

Tell me the ways your heart fell and still beats. Tell me how you might have had your heart broken by something reckless, someone who can’t see or hear or love you well. Tell me what it means to have a broken heart and what it might be teaching you. Tell me how you learned to open up wide despite everyone telling you not to or how you found a path you’re excited about when it comes to matters of the heart. Tell me everything I need to hear to know who you have been this year, who you might be today, or who you are hoping to be tomorrow. Tell me how you hope.

Share how naps exhilarated you. How sleeping and dreaming gave you life. How it helped you climb out of a hole you’ve found yourself in most days this year. Share what it means to be exhilarated by something so simple, so powerful. Give me your thoughts on a society that will try to sell you a self-care regimen that might not even work. Share something fiery and debilitating and honest. Share.

Praise on how you said No & felt it in your marrow. Praise on how “no” crawling out of your mouth to an unsuspecting set of ears made you somersault your way to feeling liberated. Show me how, inside of your bones, your inner child rejoices after having been told no for so long, it felt like a miracle when a yes came along. Show me how you broke a cycle of making yourself small to comfort the feelings of others, even though deep in your heart, a fire rages on. Praise all the ways you said no to things that are causing harm and said yes to things that help you heal, that help those around you heal.

Rejoice texts you left unread. Rejoice the ways your attention has been pulled in a thousand different directions and you chose peace. Rejoice with comrades in all the ways you stopped giving your attention to those who do not value you, who do not care enough to know what it means to love you well, and who do not see you as more than existing. You are fucking brilliant, my friend, and so so lovable. Rejoice.

How you slept in. Love, how did you rest? For good measure, show me all the ways you rested this year. Whether it be sleeping in or singing a slew of songs. Whether it be soaking in a tub with your eyes closed or writing a novel about all the people someone has loved. How did you rest? How did you redefine that word and let it manifest in your life? Love, how did you rest?

Inspired by @brownroundboi’s tweet, I have one of my own.

“I’m not interested in what you got done in 2021: show me what you read that changed your life. Tell me of the ways you changed your mind. Sing of the ways you wrote your way out of whatever it is that you’re going through and onto a page you might love. Show me your favorite songs and how you slipped into a rhythm dancing to them. Share how you managed a grief you once thought you might never make it through. Share how you made it through, how you still do, how you plan to. Share how you mourned a past life, a passed loved one, a self you no longer feel right inside of and how you want to change. Give me the reference lists of everything that has sat heavy on your shoulders and how you learned to let go, even when it hurt (especially when it hurt). How did you grow flowers? How did you give them to people who are still here? How did you come up short and try again? How did you love people well? How will you?”


Love, Robbie

A short letter to every relationship, romantic or otherwise, that ended as I was trying to forgive myself.

To you:

This house we built with all of its gardens and cobwebs we no longer knew how to tend to is haunted. The shutters we painted are dry and cracking under the incessant sun. The flowers we grew together died thirsty. I wish I knew how to lay among them and finally know peace. Wish I learned how to give life to who we once were because maybe then I wouldn’t be writing this memoir of a letter. Wish I taught myself balance and got up on a ladder to clear out the gutters. Wish I hadn’t relied on you for happiness without relying on myself first and wish I hadn’t closed the window on us much sooner than you had out of protection. Wish I hadn’t been so selfish in the same way I wish you hadn’t been, too. There’s so much I seem to wish for, none more so than wishing you knew how much you meant to me and how hard it is for me to let you go. Wish I wasn’t wishing so much but here we are.

In a couple years time, amidst the longest rainstorm of the decade, I’ll go for a walk down that same avenue we used to call home and I’ll stop in front of the red door with fresh eyes. I’ll remember how I once woke up one morning and texted my best friend, asking them if they’ve ever just knew in their bones how sure they were of something like love. I’ll remember their response and carry it in my gut. I’ll scale the tough exterior of us one last time before I move on, knocking on the window knowing full well that nobody is on the other side to answer. I’ll lift myself through the opening of us, curtains wide open so as to let the rain in, and give myself permission to remember. Even haunted houses still stand no matter how cursed. I’ll lay one last time and hold my own hand. Cover my own heart. Take some deep breaths. And not let it be lost on me that a place we once shared is empty now. Rain pitter-pattering the floorboards beneath me, I’ll stay up as late as I can to watch the world go dark.

I will dream about that song that plays in every movie I love just before the storyline breaks towards resolution. It’s the culmination of the entire plot coming to a standstill, suspended in the air, first a low hum and then growing deeper and louder, similar to the ways love grew in our front yard. I’ll be reminded of how my fever for you broke in the night, just before dawn, and how, just like that, I knew I wouldn’t regret loving anyone, perhaps especially if the story doesn’t end the way we hoped it might. We do not have to be each other’s person to recognize some stories aren’t meant for us.

When I wake in the morning, I’ll rise, ignoring the pool I step into and finally let go of who you are to me, who you used to be, and who I wished so hard for you to become. I’ll apologize one last time for every bit of heartache I caused and will turn off all the lights, forgiving you in the same breath. In the silence, I will whisper, “you were the sweetest thing. I’ll never forget.” I’ll put on my jacket and take it all in: there was a before you and there will be an after. And I’ll love you just the same as we become strangers again, closing the door behind me one last time before I go.


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.



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–