Brazen Hope

“Hold onto hope if you got it / Don’t let it go for nobody / And they say that dreaming is free / But I wouldn’t care what it costs me”

                                                                                             -Paramore’s “26”

 

I think this whole post can be summed up in a few words: the struggle to find hope in all directions.

Through loss, I discovered the work that scars can do if we let them; how reassuring and kind they may be after we allow them to shape-shift into something new and useful amidst all the hurting. How they will carry us until every last one of them loses their legs and cannot sustain our weight. How we will be grateful that, among everything else, we were carried by something that defined us a bit this year. I think I’m still on that ride—making meaning out of things that are out of my control in order to allow them a safer passage through my brain.

There were many moments of radical courage and love, both of which give me so much damn hope, even in a year where it felt like I had none. There were weddings and tattoos, bright adventures to new places, so much coffee and writing, and smiles, too, along the way. But with the most courage I can muster, I have to say what is the most genuine with my heart: regardless of all that brought me learning and growth, what follows me is an incessant longing for the kind of hope that is impervious. Unbothered by external circumstances. Unabashed.

There’s only so many times I can write about something before it feels like a broken record, like a skipping beat on endless loop; a coming and a going but always more going going going.

It constantly feels like I haven’t reflected enough. Haven’t written enough. Haven’t explored those depths in such a way that allows me to move yet. The moving on, despite all of this going, feels stuck in an endless rain, endless mud that is just as much familiar as it is foreign to me.

I’ve been more intentional with my joy, and keeping close all the things that matter to me, that which doesn’t simultaneously bruise me over and over again. In that process, it’s felt like I’ve stopped doing things for other people just for the sake of making them happy. All of that left with very little for myself and I’m only just now, upon reflection of the last 365 days, recognizing as such. When we stop doing things for others just for the sake of doing things for them, we realize just how much we were doing, how far we were going, how deep the water is that we tread to show up for others before ourselves. Maybe that’s why it’s felt few and far between; I am born over and over again every time I cannot find the light at the end of this unnamed tunnel I’m traveling through. With that birth, I am seeing my whole life on slow-motion replay; every excruciating detail laid side by side to one another so as to introduce two family members who haven’t met yet.

I can’t quite put my fingers on the exact moments of lacking hope. I’ve always been able to do that—moments of pure heartbreak or draining or lackluster bravery. This time, not so much. It’s an overall air settling on what my life has been this year.


With my age has come a hardening to the world. I’ve allowed this lack of hope to seep into me and dictate the manner in which I am able to open up to others. Always encouraging them to open but the moment it’s turned back to me, I’m quiet. I don’t know the exact moment when I realized this was happening but I can tell you that I’ve missed out on some of the very best opportunities to know others and be known by others as a result.

I say all of this to come clean to anyone who saw me as something different. I know I’ve let some people down, and for that, I’m (endlessly saying) sorry. For those who saw me as someone stronger than what I am or what I’ve been, I won’t cover it up any longer. I’m trying to feel warm in a world that sometimes feels like there aren’t enough covers to go around.

There were fleeting moments that enveloped me. Moments of unassured respite, ready to walk out the door at any moment. In many of these moments, it felt as if I was going to be choosing to leave them. Like it was all my own undoing, my own coiling. “I did this to myself,” I’d whisper aloud many times this year. “You’d think it’s what I wanted.”


Some things I’ve learned this year:

(I know this feels list-y. Stick with me for a second. This felt like the most simple way to put it.)

1- Everyone will have an opinion of what you do, and (sometimes wrongly) by extension, who you are. One of the easiest things for observers of our lives to do is make conclusions about who we are because of the mistakes we’ve made. For the most part, they’ll be wrong.

2- Writing has always been my avenue out of it all. Every problem, every heartbreak, every bruise I accumulate—writing is the most healing practice. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not. But creating sets of bones, of skin—flesh coming alive—is what builds the road of healing. Every time.

3- Showing up for one another will be the most radical thing we can do. For my students, for my family, for those I love the most, it’ll be what people need the most.

4- Storytelling is sacred. Follow it.

5- In the moments when we feel the most alone or when we’re going through something that is isolating, know that leaning into it will be what gives us permission to come undone and sew ourselves back up. It’s always going to hurt. But it must hurt before it heals.

6- There is nothing in this world that can replace the love that a really good friend offers. A love that is timeless and priceless and unbothered by who the president is or what pants you’re wearing or how many times you’ve made a mistake. The folks that stick around despite your moments (weeks, months) of waning, those are the folks that you want to be around. Those that will advocate for you when you’re not in the room, the ones that will dig their heels into the ground, those are the ones. Cherish the hell out of their magnificence. Encourage their hearts. Root for them. They’ll be doing the same for you.

7- There will be moments in time when you’ll be seen by others and you won’t really know what to do with them. You’ll go into every interaction with every intention of holding yourself together, and before you know it, all of your seams have unraveled. Just save yourself the trouble and let them see you. However brief of a moment it is, it’ll be a moment you both remember. Whether it’s an old friend or new, being seen widens your capacity to live and feel and most of all, love.


Who really knows what 2018 will bring? I’ll sit in a coffeeshop somewhere near home in a year’s time and wonder how I got so lucky, why I made that decision, how I let that person come into my life, or subsequently, how I let them leave. I’ll wonder how I got through that week and I’ll scrape hope from the bottom of my favorite moments. I’ll probably write more poetry and send it off to startup literary magazines. Maybe I won’t write poetry at all? Maybe I won’t buy blankets warm enough? Maybe I won’t know what to do with all the blankets I do have?

Endless questions and endless possibilities. I’ll surprise myself with what I do and don’t do. I hope that I find every reason to love, every reason to show up for people when they least expect it, and every reason to write what scares me the most. More than anything: brazen hope.

Litany of Fractures

One.

If the sound of your voice was the only thing that the people you love the most would hear for the rest of their life, what would you want it to sound like? What would you say? What words would persist no matter the wreckage?

There are distinct moments when my mind focuses on the voice with which I’m thinking in. There are several versions of the voice I’m most comfortable others receiving and several more I haven’t yet figured out. When I present in front of a room full of colleagues, my voice shakes. When I’m talking with someone close to me, my voice waits. It sees an open window and thinks three times before going through it so as to include contemplation in the way it moves. Both are important and valuable to observe if you want to know me.

 


 

Two.

When I think about what hurts, I’m almost never ready for the vulnerability it brings. I’m almost never ready for the heartache I’ve harbored, always looking for a safe landing, even if it’s lined with bricks I can’t see. There are mountains of dirt under the living room carpet that I’ve continued to sweep into a semi-neat pile. “Nobody will see this but me,” I tell myself.

Every morning, I make a pot of coffee. I brew enough to fill a to-go mug and exactly one cup of coffee to drink before I leave my apartment. There are small moments when I’m sipping that I wander around my apartment in contemplation of the day, the week, what is yet to come and what has already had time to be. I scan the books on my shelf and think about all the stories I have waiting for me when I come home. I pick one of them up—Catcher in the Rye, one I haven’t read in a whileand think about the first time I held it in my hands. I was an 11th grade mess trying to figure out why I had to take the ACT, never really considering the full weight that a book carries, never really making an effort to balance it in my hands. I remember seeing myself in the main character, Holden Caulfield, and feeling like I wasn’t so alone, even through some turmoil and angst.

Now, a 26-year-old writer, I hold the same book and feel a different heaviness. How changed I was after reading it for the first time and the last. How I’ve allowed it to be a story I’ve kept in my back pocket for the times when it’ll be useful to me or those around me. Something is different about all these stories I keep so neatly piled next to one another. I think about how many of them I’ve read multiple times, finding the ending only to turn it back over and start again, eager to find something I hadn’t seen the first time. There’s something new and old in these spines I’ve arranged, something I don’t always consider each day, particularly when I’m struggling to straighten my own spine.

I finish my cup of coffee and set it in the sink. For a moment, I stand lost in thought. There are photographs lining my refrigerator of all the people I’ve learned to love well—still learning to love well, I should add, to varying degrees—all these years. There’s a collage of folks neatly parallel to one another, careful to not let the pictures touch too much so they don’t steal each other’s magic. It’s representative of how much I’ve regarded their individual magic and not how, collectively, the magic bleeds into the frame and down my wall.

I only just recently put some of these on display. It’s not that I wasn’t proud of the picture of my mom embracing me when I graduated from grad school, or that I didn’t value the picture of me cradling my niece in my arms for the first time. It’s just that I’m not always good at showing the world what matters the most to me. I’ve thought myself out of joy more often than I’ve allowed myself into the heart of it. These photographs are reminders of some of the most intimate moments of joy I’ve experienced in the years leading up to this day. It wasn’t until I sprawled them across that which protects me that I realized how much they’ve left a permanent imprint.

There exists a part of me—the 15%—that I’ve dead-bolted to this body, burrowed deep in the marrow of who I’ve come to be. It’s unseen and unseeable. It has grown from the beginning as a part of my body held close, immovable, and only accessed by me. To open it and share with the world is to forklift heavy things from my soft spots to whatever landing areas others have made available; I am comprised of blood and water, harboring trauma and love simultaneously, and I don’t always know what to do with the fringes. They go into this box that I compartmentalize, stacked neatly next to joy and heartbreak and other things we’ve learned to wrestle with daily.

Sharing the 15% means cutting into seams I’ve woven tightly together to keep out the dark parts this world continues to dead heave into my bones. It’s in these parts that I’ve mined meaning out of, molded into the most distinct parts of my compiled identities, and handed away in quiet moments.

Sharing the pictures on my wall is to share the small fraction of me that doesn’t contain a self-defense mechanism naturally. It’s to open the window on each side of this chapter and shine light in its corners. Still a whole life ahead of me, I know that I’ll learn to use these fringes to transform my body, my headspace, and the love I have to give.

So it goes.

 


 

Three. 

Growing older means grieving that which has always felt like a gift. Love. Something that was once a rush, an anticipation, a sense of weightless living that is now heavy and infinitely more deliberate. And then it grows legs and walks out the door. What’s left is misery and healing, the two often being mistaken for each other. To feel something so deeply—something with which you believe you can reach inside of yourself and massage with your fingertips until the hurt you’ve come to know has softened—is a gift. The real work begins when that pain is given a seat at the table of your heart; invited in, given space to be heard, given a platform to make a case, bargained with, and eventually, albeit slowly and lacking grace, invited to leave. This sort of stubborn debating is a result of what mountains you’ve promised yourself that you’d move but only seem to exist on really old to-do lists. It’s a culmination of everything you’ve ever felt and nothing you’ve ever conquered.

Once it’s gone, the healing happens. Stitch after stitch, we are put back together. Never as we were, always as we are supposed to be. Broken and bruised but always getting better. It’s not the time that does the stitching. It’s the willingness, despite the cold and bitterness that exists outside, to get up. To layer yourself. To fight. To take a deep breath in and tell yourself you should go outside despite the grayness.

What is true about heartbreak is that you will always hold onto it and always know what it feels like once you’ve felt it for the first time. In everything that you do, you will carry it with you. People around you will come to know how it shows up in your life every single day and shapes you slowly each day. They’ll learn to catch the parts of you that you have forgotten about—eating right, sleeping, writing writing writing—and they’ll grow weary but never fed up of who it is that you are now becoming post-destruction.

They’ll carry the weight that you’re too afraid to carry and the heartbreak will eventually cease.

And then there’s the writer’s heart. It’s never really finished going through what it’s going through; always reimagining a beginning, middle, and end to everything. It will learn to put it through the spin cycle every single day. Much like a favorite album or movie, it will replay over and over and over again until the speakers break. Until the record skips. Until the silence comes.

It will go over the small details in an effort to convince itself that what happened was real (is still real) and that it happened the way the heart remembers it. That, if it could go back in time and change things, it would know exactly what to do from that point forward so as to never (always) feel this deeply again.

There’s a certain way to sort through the waves of heartbreak. I suppose I’m writing this to tell you that the litany of fractures are bruises and aches that we’ll learn to live with. We’ll write about them. They’ll matter. We’ll matter. And when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky and the moon spins circles around Earth, we’ll do the only thing we know best: keep moving forward.

 


 

Four.

There are reveries I’ve climbed out of where some of the deepest parts of me have lived unexamined. I stay there a while to make sense of them, moving slowly to observe as much as I can, and finally slipping into unconsciousness. Awake again.



Five.

I’m sitting across from a dear friend—someone who has grown to know much of the 15%—and I’m realizing this time next year, I won’t be sitting across from him. We won’t be able to drive to a coffeeshop to write and talk and laugh as we’ve done for nearly two years. He’ll be leaving soon—onto grander adventures than that which Indiana can offer for the chapters ahead. There are tidal waves smaller than the grief I’m already holding close for his departure. Funny how the body reacts in a visceral way when we anticipate loss, temporary and permanent, though we cannot know which will be true until it’s already happened. Things change. No two years are ever the same. Neither are we. And yet, amidst our treacherous fight to stay afloat, to find joy, to thrive, we find commonalities that will break ground in a part of us that someone hasn’t before. It’s the truest form of connection; to find a small group of people that you regard with the highest amount of withness, love, and respect, and to show up for them time and time again. I’ll miss this friend. Not in the kind of way that circles the idea that he’ll be gone from my life completely, but in a way that knows truly how we will see each other again. Time and time again. A friendship immediately renewed when one of us gets out of a plane or into a car in the direction of the other.



Six.

There are zip codes and timezones between some of the most important parts of me. Everything and everyone that has given me life is on a fast track stretching every direction away from where I’m standing. Though there are timely reminders from folks who love me deeply,  affirmations are not always my strong suit. Quality time—in person, flesh and blood, in-the-moment kind of presence—is what I’m gravitating towards. There are only so many miles I can run myself before my bones are tired from all this moving, all this evolving, the commotion of a life spent on roads, always showing up and always leaving. My veins haven’t felt this stormy since I came into the world; boiling and bleeding myself into existence. I’ve always wanted to be a love song to every ear that cranes itself in my direction.



Seven.

There are languages that we discard when the only person we share it with winds up leaving. Our own departures can be measured by the way the void left behind is internalized by the people closest to us. What leaving looks like is often a well-lit pathway with no traffic signs, nowhere to be and everywhere to go, and still no fuel for the moving. We will all be coming and going to someone else, intentionally or not. I imagine this is how Latin became a language considered dead, but always longed for by those who remember how it came to be. How many languages are born from one another, taking some of the best (and sometimes the worst) parts of each along the way to create something new. Something transfigured; adorned by something prettier than what used to be, still, but with a foundation of histories welded together.



Eight.

“And so it goes / one foot after the other / ‘Til black and white begin to color in / and I know / that holding us in place is simply fear / of what’s already changed”

–Sara Bareilles, “Manhattan”

I can’t decide what angle to take this. What reason? How do we write simply about the life of things that aren’t simple? How do we boil down—whittle away, create an outline for, summarize—the parts of life that are dense, layered, and, at times, not processed easily or quickly?


 

Nine.

A candle doesn’t lose its flame when it lights another candle.



Ten.

I’m piling up streets to give to you—every trail or parkway or avenue that has meant something to the both of us, together, in kindness and through laughter, with tears or hurt or healing. I don’t always know how heavy this will all be. But I do know that it’s what you’ve deserved. It’s what we’ve given to each other along the way: a conditional love that doesn’t feel like enough. We never feel like enough. So we keep giving and giving and giving into one another until there’s a better way out of all this or no way at all.



Eleven.

I don’t normally cry often. Usually there’s a build-up of hurt or misdirected emotions that become this conglomerate set of unkept benches that won’t dissolve until the tears come. When Joel passed, I didn’t cry deeply. I didn’t yet know what it meant to take on the loss, to feel it throughout my weather veins. I contemplated and felt many things, but eventually, I went about my life and didn’t think twice about the void building in me. When my grandmother passed, it only hit me when I received handwritten postcards sending good thoughts–among them, one with the lyrics of the Sleeping At Last song Saturn scribbled on it.

I fell apart. Tears streaming down, I laid my head down on the lap of my partner and felt that hurt throughout my entire body. She was here one day, gone the next, never breathing from then on. Still, this realization levels me. How fragile the human body is. How healthy we can be today and end the week with bruised lungs and a litany of fractures that our body absorbs.

With the fragility of this life, I reach out to my father and feel the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt with him, pouring myself into question marks around who he is to me and who we are for one another. Through all of the hate that I carried for him, I loved him. It resides in a place I don’t really know—a darkness that light can’t always penetrate.

And then more hurt. This whole life sometimes feels like scene after scene of bruising as a result of the things we do to one another. Each moment, a reflection of who we are that day. Each act, a collection of deep things. The gaps between one another that we didn’t see before. The fighting we continue to do—every day, every week—and the space we pretend to give one another. All this hurting. Never enough breath for me to understand how we got to this place, how we’ve ignored the way we both require to be loved, how we point fingers and are set on being right. How far away we’ve moved from one another and how the distance transformed the way we allowed ourselves to be loved by one another. But still, here we are. In this place. Feeling these things with depth. Not always understanding and not giving grace permission to stretch out very well.

How do we keep doing this to each other? This heartache dance, this room-with-no-corners approach to fixing one another?

How do we heal? What does ‘going on from here’ look like? How do we give ourselves the space to, instead of looking for an immediate resolution with urgency, look for the reason why the hurt is happening in the first place?

Pulling at roots that have taken to this ground we’ve built so much on. I cry because the grief is heavy. And I feel alone. And sometimes, all that’s left is to rest.



Twelve.

It’s still miraculous that, even after all this falling, the trees forgive themselves every year and find the courage to soon grow again.



Thirteen.

Love me Don’t / walk away.

These are letters I never thought I’d write. I’ve labored over them to give you the most honest responses that you require to be on your way. And you’re on your way. I’m on mine, too. There’s nothing we can do to stop the way gravity pulls things down–smack-landing, sweet symphony of electricity we used to feel when it didn’t hurt as much. I’m leaking things so the universe can do the rest. There’s a state between you and me; we don’t know how to minimize all these miles and miles of highways we’ve once traveled to shrink the distance. Even a few miles can make a difference. I remember coming to you and feeling lighter when I entered your orbit. Never too far out and off that we couldn’t find a way. Now there’s no way to find, no signal strong enough to split our distance in half.



Fourteen.

When I think of peace, I think of how simple of a life I want to live. It’s waking up on a Tuesday morning and feeling like it’s a Saturday. It’s a lack of something pulling me in different directions outside of myself. It’s being surrounded by stories and books and articles that I’ve discovered myself in and that will inspire me to continue to uncover parts of myself. It’s coffee and quiet. Nobody around, nobody questioning my whereabouts, nobody interrupting the soul searching that I yearn for each day.

It’s time and space unbound to think and feel and discover what a soul is and what it’s meant to be, what the world needs more or less of. It’s a mountain to climb but no timeframe with which it needs to be scaled. It’s a lack of noise crowding me and the space to create. Write. Breathe deeply and explore each passing thought until I’m at the bottom of them. To interrogate the ways I’ve hurt others, observe it, and let it go. To understand the person I was, the person I am, and the person I have yet to be.



Fifteen.

“What if, sitting there just then, I found myself truly caught up in belief? How would it feel inside a future like that?”

–Tracy K. Smith, “Ordinary Light”

I am reminded of my journey, how many interruptions to the soul’s work can pile on top of one another before it’s too much, too heavy, too alive to bury. There are days at a time when there is no true north with which I’m traveling towards, just that I’m traveling and that it should be enough. That I’m enough right now even if I’m not in the corners of my mind.

There are bruises we’ve saved for one another. Over and over again, we create soft spots for what we believe each other needs, for small moments that we’ve longed for since the beginning of it all.



Sixteen.

“We teach boys that in order to become men, they have to kill off their emotional selves. My masculinity is a well-hung portrait in a hallway of a crumbling house. And every time the wind blows, it’s the only thing I think to grab. Nowadays, I’m afraid it’s all I’ll have to hand down to my children.”Javon Johnson

When the young boy who I wrote about a year ago—the one who I found in the bathroom crying, hurting, changed by the words of a poet that vibrated within him—walked into the same coffeeshop I’m sitting in, I’m reminded of how such a grief can take us over. It’s something we embody without knowing it’s visible to the naked eye. I’m reminded of what it means to be a young boy in a world that requires manhood so early; we, as boys, are asked to fit into a box of broken things in an unbroken and unbending way. Crying is seen as useless and lacking any purpose at all. The humanness in such a vulnerable act isn’t valued. Instead, we are asked to stand tall, posture commanding presence, and be the strongest one in the room. Bold. Immovable and full of conviction for what it means to be a man.

I’m reminded of how imperfect it can be to embody that structure given to men. I resolve, instead, to support what manhood looks like in each of us, how different that can be, and with what heaviness we may carry, I decide how brave it can be to be anything at all. How courage can seep into us and out from all directions and how humans who identify as men can be who they choose to be or who they choose not to be.

Being a man comes with its many privileges that are sometimes too many to count. But when one man teaches a boy the toxic ways that men are “supposed” to be, further down this rabbit hole we go. Further we travel into the idea that to be a man is to be fragile most of the time, but it must be a secret well-kept. Further we venture into a reality where men do not share, do not grow emotionally in a healthy way, and continue to harm everything in their path because they’re told that they must. This, until breaking is all they come to know. Until broken is a life the have no choice but to live with.

I resolve to support human connection—body to body, mind to mind—in such a way that allows for all vulnerable things to rise to the surface, not judged, but welcomed.

When I see this young man in this coffeeshop, I am reminded of what strength is. How being vulnerable is not weakness, but a sign of healing, of confidence in the courage we carry, the energy we give, and the love we’ve blossomed in our hearts. This is something to teach our boys.



Seventeen.

And we, remaining honest to goodness, have felt what it means to be pulled, two ships no longer in the harbor, passing one another, anchors up, by the tide that once drew us together, away once more.

 

The house builder

 

 

“I love you.”

Her words to me—some of her last to anybody before she fell into an alive sleep, then stuttering and side-stepping into passing. She held on until she couldn’t anymore. Even though I wasn’t with her when she left, I will carry these words with me to remind myself that love is one of the most powerful things in the world. Capable of changing people’s universe. Making hope possible. And despite darkness, there is always a light. This is my living and breathing way to walk into every room like I have good news. And there is good news.

It’s love.

 


A letter written to my grandmother on her birthday, October 24.

 

Dear Yia Yia,

Today would have been your 94th birthday. I miss you more every day—deeply and unapologetically. I’m learning to be okay with the grief that sticks to my bones when I realize you’re not here anymore. I’m embracing the space that you no longer physically occupy in this world. What I’ve learned from you in the 26 years that I got to spend with you in this life is this: love with such a depth, such a fierce softness. Be able to to show up for people, to create a space for them, to value them despite whatever story the past tells about them.

You always loved people well, sometimes more than they deserved, and I’ve held that close to me as a reminder of what bright days look like despite the darkness. ‘Because there will be darkness’, you’d say. There will be rain. There will be moments where we don’t feel like ourselves, where we feel like we’re too much. There will be times when we feel unlovable. But you always reminded people that there’s a light, no matter how small.

I remember the way you loved your family. You never minced words when it came to this. No matter where we were at in the world or how many miles away we were  from one another, you always reminded us about what’s important: family, people, the way we navigate the world and what we carry with us, and love love love.

I want you to know that I will always carry you with me.

Happy birthday, Yia Yia.

I love you, too.

-Robbie

 

 

And isn’t it convenient /

to never get it right / speaking different languages and never learning / our own / well enough to learn someone else’s / I am enthralled / truly in love with / the way you say you love me / without knowing my love / without knowing / without me loving you too / and isn’t it convenient / I said there that day we were giving the moon our best / sending our regards / chances to be full / I am lost in the spin / of ceiling fans that also shake / so as to say, wobbling is in / my bones, they shake / and we are here shaking together / never getting this right.

On Being a Writer.

In an interview with Studs Terkel in December of 1961, James Baldwin is quoted saying “… education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. You have to teach some people to think; and in order to teach some people to think, you have to teach them to think about everything. There mustn’t be something they cannot think about. If there is one thing they cannot think about, very shortly they can’t think about anything.”

It’s in these lines that my mind brightens and reflects.

It feels entirely clear, achingly so, that I am a writer. It’s not that I want to be a writer. It’s just that I am. I have been constantly coming into my skin in this craft; always questioning, repeatedly thinking, reviewing the world several times over to find wonder and possibility. In a world where some things go unquestioned, I am constantly asking “why?” or “so what?”

I’ve always felt called to write. It’s an exploration of the world and how I fit into it, how we all fit into it, both regarding and disregarding rules and models and theories, and using the map of the territory that those before us drew so we can learn how to draw our own maps.

I knew I had to write when I was in the 11th grade. We had to take elective courses that rotated every 10 weeks or so. I mindlessly signed up for Creative Writing with Mrs. Fields during the second rotation; there weren’t any spots left in aviation and there are only so many gym courses I can take in the span of a year.

On the first day, we watched Def Poetry Jam with Mos Def. (See here or here or here for good examples.) I was immediately mesmerized by the way in which words could be used, how language could be bent and twisted to tell stories, how brevity says more than every single detail of a story sometimes, but also how prose can paint the most vivid picture of who and what and how. By the second week, I knew I had to write. I didn’t want to, I had to.

Over the course of the semester, we learned the different forms of creative writing. From fiction to poetry to memoir to creative nonfiction, we learned to cultivate in ourselves a sense of expression of the things we’ve always carried with us. We weaved quickly, methodically, and defiantly through the work of creative writers—old to new, new to ourselves, back to old again—and we wrote all the while. We kept journals and talked widely about how this writing changed us, how it made us feel.

One of the final assignments was to write a monologue that would be read at an assembly in front of the rest of class and other guests. On stage. 

Just at the thought of writing something and speaking it out loud in front of others brought me a particular kind of fear. I was young and so hyper-aware of what everyone else thought about me that I couldn’t fathom others actually spending some of their time and energy with me in that space.

The days leading up to the assembly, I flip-flopped on what I wanted to write about. I wasn’t confident in topics. Asking for further clarity on the assignment, Mrs. Fields said,

“Whatever you write, it must be true to you. Nobody else but you.”

Not knowing how to respond, I thanked her and walked away feeling defeated. I thought Mrs. Fields didn’t get me; she didn’t understand how shy or painfully unconfident I was in my own abilities. I was sure of it.

I sat at home and opened up to a blank page in my composition notebook. Still not knowing what to say, what to write, what to think, I felt as if writing was an enemy that I’ll never catch; always elusive, always running, never my own.

What I came to realize in the years following this assignment was that I was so afraid what people would think of me because I knew that if I wrote it down, it meant it was real in a way. It cemented my words in the minds of others as “This is Robbie. This is who he is.” Even more, it meant that people would begin to see me—the real me, the one I’d kept covered all the years leading up to the 11th grade.

The day came for us to speak our words into existence. The night before, I sat in front of a blank page and nothing came out. I stared at the lines, felt their neatness, labored over their impossibilities so much so that I slammed my notebook shut. Frustrated, I took a deep breath. I thought about the assignment. “It must be true to you. Nobody else but you.”

I opened my notebook and poured myself into the pages. Line after line, page after page, I wrote what I knew to be true. That I was awkward and lanky; that I didn’t know how to fit into my body; that I often felt broken and as if I didn’t fit in; that I was unlovable and uninspired and lacking conviction; that I was just a boy who didn’t know how to become a man; that I felt too much, too deeply, too often; that I’ve struggled with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to be; and so on and so on and so on.

I closed my notebook, put my pencil down, and rubbed my eyes. I don’t think I got an hour of sleep that night.

 


I considered not going to school at all the next morning. I don’t need a grade. I’ll just take a zero for the assignment and I’ll move on. It won’t matter the next week, it’s only an elective class. Who cares about elective classes? Not me. But still, I went.

The time came. Our class collectively walked to the auditorium and sat in silence as we awaited further instruction from Mrs. Fields. I clutched my notebook close. I hadn’t reread any of the night before’s words, let alone any editing. A couple of my classmates went first. There was a stage with a couch in the middle in case we wanted to sit.

A few of my classmates went first. They spoke of great big things like what inspires them, their life stories, the way they overcame obstacles, and who was most important to them. They spoke about the lives they were going to live, the people they wanted to impact, how much they wanted to give back to the city of Flint that we all called home.

My name was called. Feeling numb, I stumbled my way up to the stage, notebook in hand. I tapped the microphone and looked into the crowd. It felt out-of-body to stand there, all eyes on me, hands shaking. My skin crawled away from me in ways I hadn’t known before. Just before I opened my notebook, I vowed to never read anything in front of anyone ever again.

But then I performed. My voice shook. I was unsteady, afraid. One line after another, the words tumbled off of my tongue. I was jagged and zig-zagging, my words knew no bounds. I held onto momentum as I reminded myself “This will all be over soon. This will all be over soon. This will all be over soon.”

And then came the last line.

Tremble.

Silence. 

Then applause. Unsure of why or how, I walked quickly back to my seat, face red from exhaustion and exhilaration and embarrassment.

Slowly creeping into me was a sense of achievement. It was the first time I felt like I belonged to a community of people. The first time I felt as if my words mattered. The first time I felt heard. It’s a feeling not easily captured all these years after, though I can still feel the fire inside of me from that day.

I often think of Mrs. Fields and what she said to me. I think of how, in hindsight, she did the very best thing a teacher could do: she led me back to myself again. Gave me a reason to look within. Gave me a reason. A reason.

This marked the first thought of a much longer journey in understanding that writing is something I was never going to be able to run from. Nine years later, I’m finally able to put a period at the end of that journey and start a new one.

 


 

Wanting to write and being a writer are two distinctly different things. I write because I am called to do so by something greater than myself—the world, maybe, and all of what I see from where I’m standing. I may never know by what I’m being called, only that it is true that I’m being called.

I’m constantly reminded of Baldwin’s words these days. Education, as he would say, creates a sense of independence of mind. Writing, too, does this. In the same way that nobody can think my thoughts but me, writing allows the writer to dare to be bold and original, reinventing the stale and creating anew on top of the boulders built by those before us. A professor of mine once said “We don’t know everything, but we want to know more.”

A writer doesn’t know everything. But a writer does want to know more. There are existences that each writer gets to write themselves into, whether that be inward or outward (or both).

For me, I write to remember. To have a better understanding of what it means to carve out spaces where we can show others who we are. To learn how to ask better questions. To breathe a little deeper, steep myself into the idea that we can learn to love people better every day. To be a better storyteller. To create maps—informed by maps that came before—and fall into a rhythm that only I can know, but that I can learn to show others.

I don’t yet know the story that I’m writing. Just that I’m writing something and it will be a tragedy of sorts—all other genres mixed in, but, at the end of the day, we are all tragedies waiting to happen. We are born and constructed for every moment of struggle, rich or poor, sickness and health, married to the experience of becoming. This is part of our fabric of being no matter how much we don’t want to admit it, no matter how far we try to run from it.

What I do know about this story is that, with every step, I’m lost in thought. Never knowing everything but always wanting to know more. Always folding things over and stretching them to their capacities, always shaking and shifting things to see them differently, bound by the idea that seeing something requires more than resting my eyes on it.

This is why I must write. I must explore and figure. I must learn and read and rap on every closed door I come across. I must worry and wonder. I must use my voice and change. I must edit and rewrite. This isn’t a matter of recreation or hobby, this is a matter of continuing my existence.

The day I stop writing is the day I’ve stopped thinking about everything. It’s the day I’ve stopped living. Among the vast majority of things I don’t know and will not know, this is what I know to be true.

 

the year of undoing.

the year of learning how to forget / how to be and only be / whoever it is / i’ve been / trying to be / even with all of this undoing. there are mountains of grace waiting / for me / at the bottom of my heart / waiting to be given out / handed over / relinquished to the worst days / i’ve still yet to live.

i am threaded into the eye of a needle / every time i get this right. / i don’t always / get this right. / it’s true, in fact, that getting this right / has never been my forte. / i / still put my scars to the light / so i can see them better, / never wishing away the / long road that healing creates. / all of this stitching on top of flesh / reminds me of / every time I chose to / stay. / fight. / live. live. live

with all of the moments i watched / everyone else’s highlight reel / and never my own.

the year of stopping in my tracks and giving every moment—every tender part of me—a chance at life. the year of believing that i have more to give. even when i’m empty from all of this showing up i do for everyone else, still choosing to show up for me.

the year of stubbornness extracted from my bones so i can see the sun in a different light. so i can believe through the marrow that each day is not given and i am not guaranteed and we are not promised anything today or tomorrow or any day after that.

the year of showing up of undoing
all the rules of liking myself so
i can love myself

falling in love with every smile
i see around me including
my own.

 

This mind

its tactful complexities come to the surface to see how much sunlight it can gather. Taking root, it convinces me that every plane I get on will only touch down in pieces, scattered across plains where nobody exists. It reminds me of how human I am when death takes someone away from their lives and into the Earth. These receptors, they rush for a safe landing even when my heart doesn’t brace itself. It tells all of my muscles to squeeze–hold, hold, hold, then let go. It’s alright, everything is okay it tells itself. You will learn to allow your heart to take up such a space that you come home to yourself every night. This heart, it tracks throughout this body–backstroke, breaststroke, butterflying into every tomorrow I’ve seen, reminding me how much of a gift life can be. These cracks, they’ve always managed to heal themselves before cutting open again. This blood continues to want, tumbles itself into itself every second, every third, every fourth. I’ll never know a heartache I haven’t craved since the beginning; ever since each person left me alone long enough for the anxiousness of a young heart to make a joke out of everything (me). This body, it feels too much. It’s never enough. It’s a reminder that broken things stay broken, time doesn’t heal all wounds, we just learn how to deal with the broken pieces a little better every day. All this heavy lifting and never strong muscles, only carbon copies of who I’ve been before now.