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.

 

 


 

 

To Charlotte: Part One

The person, not the city. To be read when you’re ready, which I recognize you won’t know until you know. This is part one of the X amount of letters I’ll write you between now and forever.


Spreading ashes like memories

across a lifetime of lifting heavy things
so Charlotte has a well-lit path
to laugh lines spanning years

 

I hope this world gives you everything you’ll ever want, but not without feeling things deeply. Good and bad things, wonderful and scary and nerve-wracking things. And of course I don’t want those bad things for you, but there will be things that I won’t be able to stop; feelings that I won’t be able to build a wall high enough to keep from seeping into your bones. But my hope is that you’ll learn to feel these things regardless because you’ll know you’ll be better off than to not feel at all.

Here are some things that I hope will bring you guidance and a sense of withness that you’ll carry with you through all of the living that is yet to come:

People will be wrong about you. They’ll get it all wrong–who you are, what you do, how you love, and the way you live this life. They’ll be wrong. And when they are, it’s okay to sometimes let them be wrong. They were not all meant to know your full truth. Not right away. Not in this moment. You are not seen in the same light by everyone around you. Expecting everyone to see and understand the greatest things in you without seeing you go through the mud first is not always going to work.

When those who don’t get you come around, let them dissolve themselves. Pay them no mind. Your time of day is not something owed to them, it’s owed to you. Showing up is one of the most radical and important things you can do for yourself. If you learn this the hard way, know that I will be here to remind you of all the loveliness in your bones.

Some people will get you. They’ll be slow to comprehend who you are fully. It’ll be on purpose; they’ll want to take their time in knowing everything about you: how your voice trembles when you’re scared, how anxious you’ll feel when the spotlight is on you because all you want in that moment is to be hidden in your bed, how excited you’ll be when you finally reach the tip of competence with something you really love.

Creating a space for those people in your life will be healing in ways you can’t imagine at first, but will show themselves with time. And with said mud. And heart-to-heart talks about what you’re struggling with in this life. They’ll show up for you when you don’t necessarily know how to show up for yourself, and they’ll sometimes fail you, but they’ll know, then, just how important it is to get it right the next time. Your importance to them will become clear and you’ll find what it means to forgive.

There’s a great big world with which you’ll be tasked with living in. I’ll be honest: it’s completely terrifying to not know who you are and what you want to do. I hope you’ll sit with that feeling a little bit, allow it to take hold of you, and feel buoyed in a direction that you’re uncomfortable with at first, but that you’ll later be so grateful for.

People will love you. And people will say that they love you but won’t really know what it means to love people.

Learning to question e v e r y t h i n g will be one quick way to learn about who you are and what you believe your purpose is. It will hurt, too, to know that some things you’ve been taught in this life are not as they seem. What I mean is this: be curious about all the things that don’t sit right with you. Everything that makes you scratch your head or brings discomfort to your heart will be things that you don’t yet know and haven’t come to understand. Yet. You’ll wrestle with the “yet” but please. End your sentences of all the things you don’t understand with -yet-. Things will find their way into your heart and this simple word will give you the tools to find understanding.

All of the soured relationships are not worth being right. Even if you’re right. Even if you’re the rightest of rights. Even if you’re wrong. Even if you’re the wrongest of wrongs and don’t even know it. People will be more important than your need to have the last laugh. You don’t have to be everyone’s teacher all the time. Sometimes they’ll need you to sidestep backwards in a stagger you’re not familiar with. Let them learn on their own.

On that note, I hope you never feel like you’re a walking apology for everyone who will listen. You do not need to apologize for existing, for wanting to make the world feel again. For being incredibly, genuinely, unapologetically yourself. It’s okay to be wrong and own it. It’s okay to not understand what being wrong looks like. It’s not okay to be wrong and hurt all of the people around you because of it.

What I’m trying to say, Charlie, is that I love you. Like I’ve never loved something or someone. I’m doing what I know to be true in my heart. I’m creating as much as I can so that this world has a manual you can survive with. I don’t know all of the answers, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t give them to you. The sheltered life isn’t a life you deserve. You do, however, deserve a life you can examine from 10,000 feet above all of your wildest dreams, all of your biggest worries, and away from everyone so you can think straight. So you can feel deep everything that comes your way.

I love you. And I will be there. When I can’t anymore, carry me with you.

A letter to my father

In the span of five months, a friend of mine passed away at 27 and my grandmother passed away at 93. Ever since then I’ve faced this sort of undeniable truth that we all will turn to dust at some point. All living things don’t live forever–some live longer than others, some sooner than most–and yet this reality doesn’t quite hit you until someone’s presence erases itself in a matter of moments. In the front of my brain, I’ve left some space for this truth to sit. I’ve invited it to take up space. I’ve allowed it to invest in my emotional state.

Do you want some tea? I’d say on the Tuesday morning after death.

Can I get you anything? I’d say a few short weeks later–Christmas Eve–when it showed up again. Do you have the rent money? I’d ask hurriedly a few days before my birthday in mid-January.

Will you ever go away?

This truth and I sit together sometimes without saying a word. I find them staring at me during the times when I least want to talk. Most of the time I’m running away from it; I like to give them just enough distance to see if, like my shadow, they find their way back to me.

I’ve humanized it; forgiven it for taking up too much space; spat angry words at it early in the morning when I’ve felt a small twinge in my chest. Are you trying to take me too? Is this my time?

I imagine talking to them in this way hasn’t given me enough clarity to accept it yet. So here I am speaking our relationship into existence, hoping that I can paraphrase it in just enough words to make sense for you.

I tell this story because it’s what gave me every reason to write you.

My mom has always reiterated to me how I never want to have any regrets with anyone. She talks about how forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give to those who have wronged us, hurt us, or taken something away from us. You never know when the person next to you will be gone tomorrow she says. I know that this is a subtle way of her telling me to talk to you. I know she’s right–she’s my mom and she knows me better than I give her credit for.

I think of you because, if I’m being honest, I would regret not saying something to you if something were to happen. There needn’t be a reason for something to happen, that’s just the way things happen sometimes. We all make plans for later this week but later this week isn’t guaranteed. And I know writing to you as a response to death isn’t ideal, but it’s honest. It’s what I have right now. It’s what I can offer, what I can freely give to you without letting the hurt manifest itself.

I’ve gotten every text you’ve sent me since January of 2015.

“Happy birthday, Robbie! 24 already. Wow. Hope you are having a beautiful day!”

I’m sorry I never responded. I guess I just didn’t know what to say that would be strong enough to move the animosity out of the way long enough to be genuine. Since you left the second time (when I was in college), I haven’t had the strength to understand fully what forgiveness looks like between you and I.

One of my favorite poets says that forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. I’ve thought about all of the realities in my life where that’s true. Maybe I’m wishing too hard for the ability to rewrite our history. No matter how hard I try to hang onto hope that it can be done, I face the reality that there’s no story that I can write about you staying. You were meant to leave. I was meant to learn something from that. I was meant to be shaped by that void. What’s done is done and that needs to be accepted better than what I’ve been willing to.


I tell people that you’re my biological father. Every time you’ve called and started a conversation with “Hi Robbie, it’s Dad,” I’ve never believed that to be true. I didn’t realize until a good friend indirectly pointed out how I’ve never called you Dad that he was right: I don’t regard you as my dad. Being a dad is different. It’s staying. It’s struggling together and learning together. It’s hurting together and teaching together. It’s not always having the answers but it’s being in my corner when I need it most. It’s reassuring this awkward, lanky, curious, and intensely shy young boy that he is okay to be who he is in his own skin.

Being a father is biological. I will never be able to change the DNA inside of me. I am a Williford through and through. This is what you have given me that cannot be denied. It’s a part of my identity–it’s what everyone around me sees. A father is one half of what makes a child.

But my dad is someone different. He’s someone who walked into my life and saw something in me that I was never going to see in myself. He’s someone who taught me how to throw a football and how to make peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He’s the man that would stay up with me and play video games until 4:00AM. He’s the man who hasn’t been perfect either, but has always resolved to showing up when I least expect it and when I need it most. He’s the man who gave me a chance–this scrawny, pale, second-guesser of a little boy who would always folded into himself when things hurt too much.

This man is not you and has not been you. For years you have been my father. I’ve reduced you to a distance that was far enough away for me to understand but not comprehend. I’ve been comfortable with that for so long, and yet, writing this letter hasn’t been easy. I’ve said I was going to write this letter months ago. Years, even. But each time, I’ve ran away when the anger rises to the top of me. The journey of the retreat has been in my bones for years. Every time it shows its face, I follow every off-ramp and every exit sign that my eyes can spot.

Still, you are a part of me.

I don’t know how many years I’ve hated you for that. Throughout my younger years, I wanted you to show up the way my dad always had. I often wondered how my existence couldn’t be worth much to you, how I could never been worth the time or the miles. There were moments that we did spend with one another: Thanksgiving in your tiny Bay City apartment when mom filled her car with canned goods and non-perishables so that we would have enough to eat; going to work with you in 2003 and us realizing that we got to spend 01-02-03 together; staying with you a few weekends in the summer when you moved into a trailer near my mom; borrowing your Jeep when you moved into mom’s basement because I was a senior in high school and everyone else was driving cars; seeing you come to a baseball game of mine when I wasn’t playing; emailing back and forth when I finally learned how to compose a message. These moments are small in my mind, but they stick out as times when it was evident to me I wasn’t going to mean much to you. It was always when it was convenient for you to be a parent. Right place, right time.

I remember how helpless I felt in those moments. I didn’t have enough of an understanding to know that you couldn’t really afford for us to be there with you. I wanted you to love me in a way that a Dad should love a son. I wanted to be given a chance to love you back. As I got older, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be our story.

My mom would tell me that you didn’t have the greatest childhood. She would tell me how the 14-year-old version of you would have to go into the local bar and drag your mom home. How you were never her favorite and how your brothers would beat up on you. How your dad wasn’t really around and the profound effect that had on you. But how you still managed to go to school and get a law degree, passing the BAR exam in multiple states.

I suppose I never realized until writing this that I couldn’t have realistically expected you to stick around when you never had a healthy example of your own growing up.

Still, here we are.

I know that you’re not going to be my Dad. I’m 26. My adult life has been well underway for a few years now. I’ve graduated college with an English and Creative Writing degree and I’ve sweat my way through a Masters degree in Higher Education. I’ve paid my own bills for years–carefully researching the best retirement to invest in, deciding what benefits package to choose, figuring out budgeting 101 for my life. I’ve carved out a life of substance and I’m steadily moving towards growth in my stubborn steps. Even without you, I’ve been given opportunities to make a name for myself. I suppose I’ve always valued relationships with others because I know how easy it is to not have people around when I need it most.

I didn’t really know how this letter was going to look or what I was going to write until I gave myself the time and space to actually sit down and write it. I apologize if it’s jumbled or lacking any sort of flow to it. This is just kind of who I am right now and I’m okay with that. I hope you are, too.

One thing that I’ve wrestled with, too, was that I made the choice to not make you an active member of my life. You weren’t around and it was easier to keep it that way when you were ready to come back. I stopped having hope that you would take the space I was giving you to exist in my life. I’ve written you off and dismissed any chance for us to have a relationship. I still don’t know what that looks like right now and I don’t know when I will.

I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not forgiving you sooner. I’m sorry for not loving you enough, for not agreeing to give you any sort of chance the last few years, and for not visiting you. When I lived in Akron, I always had it in my head that I would stop by unannounced. You weren’t far from me. I never made that trip and I’m sorry.

I don’t really know what I mean to you or who I am when we exist in the same space. I imagine that we won’t know that any time soon. I’m sorry for that. It’s just that much of my identity is wrapped up in this idea that you don’t exist to me right now. I’ve carefully cut you out of every picture in my head with dull scissors; you haven’t gone easily. A part of me has always believed that you would come back, that you would tell me that you’ve loved me all along and that you’re sorry for leaving me. That part of me has minimized itself and I haven’t done anything to stop it.

I know you’re sorry, too. I forgive you. For leaving, for not calling, for having to ask other family members what my birthday is, I forgive you. It’s not a complete story of forgiveness but what I’ve learned at this point in my life is that if I don’t give forgiveness in increments, I won’t give any at all. Not with this. Not with you.

If I don’t give you grace despite history giving me every reason not to, I’ll never know you at all. And I want to. I just don’t know when. Or how. Or why, really. But I do want to.

This anger that I’ve carried with me everywhere I go was secondary. It was anger because anger is easy. What isn’t easy is feeling hurt. Feeling hurt is hard to come to terms with. But this is me finally learning how to let the anger go so I can explore the hurt and to find ways to heal.

I’m not looking for you to say anything. I guess this writing has been more of a catharsis than I thought. In retrospect, every piece of writing is. I never know what’s going to come out until it actually comes out. I only have time to marvel at whatever that is for so long before I close again. Mine as well do that now.

I owe you a thank you. For giving me the opportunity to feel such a contradictory set of feelings at the same time. Most of my closest friends would tell you that I love them pretty deeply. I never want anyone in my life to question the love that I have for them so sometimes I give a little (a lot) too much love to them in hopes that they’ll always have enough. When hearts break around me, I feel them deeply. I shoulder as much as I can while I balance my own heartbreaks. I’m determined to show people how much they mean to me, how–together–we can go pretty far.

I want you to know that I love you, too. Even when you’ve felt pretty far away from me, I’ve loved you deeply.

If something were to ever happen to you, I’d have such a hard time expressing how regretful I am that I let so many months pass before I mustered the courage to face one of the hardest shadows in my life. I know I’ll beat myself up for it, even if we find common ground moving forward.

I want you to know that this is me taking a small step. I won’t know what that means until I’m ready to take another, so please bear with me. I’m trying to show you what loving you looks like to me. I hope we can examine this tree from the deepest root to the top-most branch so we can explore who we are to one another.

I don’t know how to end this letter. There’s still so much for us to say to one another, so much to catch up on, so much to discuss. I hope you’ll write me back. I promise I’ll read it. I promise I’ll listen.

Until then,

Robbie

Craft practice

Every April, the literary world turns their collective eyes to poetry in an effort to observe National Poetry Month. I, too, find myself paying extra attention to poetry during these days, even more than I usually do. Every day is another opportunity to find the words in my bones that I’ve hidden for safekeeping. It sort of feels like coming out of hibernation; the Earth spins itself a web of sleep and I wake up feeling the words filling the brim of my heart.

I discovered poetry almost 10 years ago. I was a junior in high school and I half-heartedly decided to take a Creative Writing course. The teacher (Mrs. Fields, Flint Southwestern Academy) was well known and I’d never taken a class with her. I wanted to see what all the hype was about.

Ten weeks later, I had a new-found appreciation for words, their uses, and the powers associated with them. The teacher created the space for each student to see and feel the words, to pick them up and understand the weight of them, to excavate them from our bodies in a way we surely had never experienced before. It was the first time I’d felt understood by my peers, the first time I’d felt understood by my own self. Leaving that elective course made my heart hurt because I knew that there wasn’t going to be another teacher like Mrs. Fields. Still, I vowed to write, even if only for myself.

Each year since then, I’ve practiced this craft and I’ve discovered some of the best writers this world has to offer. Each year felt like a new discovery of writing; a rabbit hole that I’ve fallen down, climbed back up, and fallen down again and again, except each time, with more enthusiasm than the last.

This year was different. This year didn’t feel new. I felt challenged to write more, to be honest, to face what scares me most about my own writing and the poems that I feel deep connections to both in myself and others. This year I wanted to share my favorite pieces with the world. I set out to read, research, discover, and listen to poetry written by some of the most talented, poignant, and honest writers in the world, past and present alike.

About a month ago, I completed the 30-day journey. If you want to see each post, you can start here.

This is what I learned.



The world isn’t paying attention.
 Not really. Not honestly and truly. Many people believe that poetry is dead. Rainn Wilson (creator of Soul Pancake and actor from the TV show The Office) recently tweeted poetry’s demise:

 

 

Not to mention, we live in a world spinning too brightly and boldly to stop for a second and breathe. This is what poetry is: an observation of the breath, the way it bends, the tips of each tongue saying something new and different. It seems that in such a world, people are not paying attention to the words that the world’s artists have to offer.

There’s a large amount of talented writers/poets/artists that are unknown to the person sitting next to you. Of course I don’t know that for certain. Chances are high, at least. In 30 days of reading and reflection, many Google searches, and scouring various Internet archives of poetry, I came across poets who have been long unknown but are incredibly talented writers: Jamela Dabuet, Andrea Gibson, Anis Mojgani, Buddy Wakefield, Danez Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Yesenia Montilla, and many more. These folks have turned the pages (pun intended) on what it means to be an artist in times of trouble, happiness, mourning, and everything in between. But why don’t people know them?

Something that means something to me won’t mean the same thing to you, if at all. It became evident that there were poems that mean a whole lot to me; words that got me through heartbreak, words the gave me permission to be myself and to feel openly, words that allowed me to heal. These same words may mean nothing to the next person. That’s a truth of life that my parents didn’t explicitly say, but always inferred. At the same time, this fact makes room for the possibilities of deep human connection. If I can learn to listen to your lived experiences and keep my mind open to feel out your interpretations of poems, I’m committing myself to knowing you. It’s not easy but it is worth it.

Building something isn’t only brick and mortar. Sometimes it’s lines and lines of the honest parts of ourselves that have been long ignored until they were put onto the page. Ink draws reality; when the universe has access to it outside of our heads, it becomes real to us and the world. This is what it means to construct a life: to begin the ultimate project of focusing less on topics and more on voices. We have a world to build. Those before us built, too, and we have an obligation to observe it, modify it, sometimes even starting anew if we see a way to make things more clear and deeply beneficial to our collective wellbeing.

The old adage, “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.” is true. New information opens windows to rooms we didn’t know existed. If there’s one thing that this month-long adventure brought me, it’s that poetry brings a perspective on something/someone/someplace/someidea that I hadn’t considered before. In some direct ways, I was challenged in my opinions on what it means to live a life. In some subtle ways, I found that I have much more exploring and unpacking to do in order to understand some things. Although frustrating at times, I know this experience was imperative in my learning what this world is, how to make a better life, and how to be a better person.

The human experience is enhanced when we start paying attention to what moves us. There are many poems and poets that can manipulate words into meanings that I hadn’t understood before. This sometimes looks like a cry for help or a whisper of madness (or a little of both). Regardless, when we pay attention to the tender parts of ourselves that we have been afraid of giving focus to, it’s going to sting. But it’s the path of healing. All soft spots can be preserved while still scraping the undersides of the most important moments that have shaped us. We do not have to let the world harden us in the process. Softness is not weakness, it’s a sign that even though the hurt met us, we can still find ways to love.

“Words and ideas can change the world.” -John Keating (Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society)In college I had this quote written on a piece of paper and taped to my door in an effort to encourage others to not be afraid to use their words. This has become more evident in the time of 45. We are living in a time of moral erasure and the defense of a man (see: many people) who must be the center of attention. But the words that are brought into this world by writers and artists are continuing to shine a light in the otherwise dark corners of this country and world. I’ve spoken with people who think words are just words. But this, I have come to realize, is often spoken by folks who cannot fully comprehend the weight of words, the meaning behind inflection and tone, or language that drives a community.

In the same breath, we are together and alone. Poetry exposes that which is central to the human experience: our togetherness, our aloneness, and our in-betweenness. These writers have given us all a gift if only we recognize it as such, and for that, we must not cry wolf. We must not claim nobody tried for us. We must not say the world is devoid of saving devices; each poem, a step; each world examined, a world discovered with a little more light than last time. How long have you known poetry’s power? they would say. Since forever, I only just discovered it inside of me in every small moment that deserved a second glance (which is every moment). We will be together and alone in crowded rooms and in quiet mountains. This will not change. But we will. That’s an important note.

Each poem is an exploration of identity. That’s what this month was for me in a broad sense. There were writers who expanded the world’s collection of perspectives on what it means to be black, trans, female-identified, male-identified, able-bodied and not, privileged and not, marginalized and not, grieving and not, in-between and not, loved and unloved, hurting and healing, and so on. There’s more to this world than we know. There’s more to all of us. We can never truly describe who we are in one breath just like we can’t in one sentence. Sure enough, we say something (write something) and the next day we are different. Each day is a new chance to interview ourselves and describe the transformations in real-time. Identity–what makes us who we are and who we want to be–has been fluid for centuries, which is to say, we have been fluid for centuries. That’s embraced by poetry in such a manner that isn’t in everyday discourse.

Every person–dead or alive–has fragments of stories that we’ve never heard before. Even if something sounds exactly like another story, it’s not. There’s something different about it: setting, environment, space, the heart within, the mind without, the way in which memory is recounted, or the eyes with which we’ve observed it. This is what poetry does in every line. There’s an extraction happening and we have a front row seat to a world we haven’t seen before.

We are nuanced. It’s not black and white, yes or no, inside or out. It’s the many possibilities that occur in between each structure; a spectrum that is wide-ranging and not always inclusive. This world we have created is not the best version of itself. I’d even venture to say we don’t know what a world that is 100% loving, compassionate, or curious looks like. Only pieces of each melted together based on what has come before or what has not come before. The point is that there are ideologies, theories, organizational systems, ways of knowing, processes of decision-making, and modes of thought that are not all-encompassing. Each step in this life is a culmination of history and wonder with differing degrees of awareness, understanding, and chance. Our moments are composed of equal parts possibility and things unknown. There are feelings still unfelt and occurrences yet to happen. Subscribing to one train of thinking (and only one) is to take out all possibility for curiosity to work well. It’s a shrinking of human growth and knowing when we say, “No, it’s done THIS way and ONLY THIS way.”

What’s comfortable and safe is not always what’s honest and right, and vice versa. What’s a poem if not something meant to disturb the parts of ourselves that we place neatly into a locked box that only we can see? What I mean by that is that poets have a unique way of exploring what we’re all afraid of in a short amount of time. Unlike essays or fiction, poetry can say much more with using much less. It is a normal practice for poets to uncover what we feel safe in (see: masculinity, bigotry, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, heteronormative behaviors, etc.) and depict the world in a different light.

Poetry can’t fit into one month. There are people that I wasn’t able to highlight, not because they aren’t good but because I only highlighted one written poem and one spoken poem each day. That’s 60 total poems with a couple of poets repeated. The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of writers who deserve the spotlight, hundreds more who deserve to be known universally within communities not only composed of enthusiasts. Much like other month-long observations (Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, etc.), this stuff is important to observe every month.

What’s in a poem? Fragments of who we are. In the most simple way to describe something not-so-simple, every poem written (good, bad, ugly) has slivers of honest and raw emotion. Some poems will contain one very important line hiding amidst lines that set it up and tear it down. Other poems are short, to the point, and are meant to resonate quickly without the reader noticing it happens when it happens. It is meant to set the reader up for processing and internal conflict.

This is what poetry is for. To pull each seam away from your body and give you space to examine it on your own, in your own way. To send you spiraling. To punch you square in the throat right before kicking you in the gut. To take your breath away and allow you to find it again. To give you a bridge to walk on, no matter how broken or unsteady, so we can find each other again. To fracture the “best” parts of ourselves so we can find the best parts of ourselves. To heal and bring warmth. To make notice of obvious, subtle things that we aren’t paying attention to. To give us the currency with which understanding can happen. To show you and me and everyone else that there are things worth fighting for; the small moments, the impactful embraces, the love, love, love that we have coursing through us.


April 2017 brought me courage and strength, even if nobody was engaging with my posts. It brought me a sense of community with people throughout the world who are feeling some of the same things as I am. It brought perspective and challenge, hurting and healing. I cried, I laughed, I dug deeper for understanding and critique. I listened and felt a range of emotions. Most of all, it gave me permission to write again. It allowed me to believe in my own words again. It inspired me to forget hiding the rough parts so that I can show the world what I’m made of, whoever I am in this current form, whatever shape I’m taking today. It enabled me to feel deeper, to reach higher, to stay here longer. I’m better than the person I was before I started the journey. At the end of the day, that’s all I ever could have asked for.

 

-RFW

 

3:01 PM

Over the course of the last couple of months, my mother has grown weary from worry. My grandmother wasn’t doing well; she wasn’t eating and found herself in the hospital. She had some okay days, but mostly it felt like she was holding on for the sake of holding on.

“You might want to come home while you can. I don’t know how much longer she has.”

I can’t imagine what a body failing feels like. Thoughts, one by one, erasing themselves, memories running out of space. At some point in our lives, getting out of bed feels like an ache we can’t remedy, and so we learn to live with it. Each month, something new reveals itself in us and we learn an ultimate reality of humans: we live and then we die, everything in between those moments are tiny miracles. The body wrinkles and our muscles contract in such a way. We become clenched fists that lose their grip over time.

I can’t picture what it means to fall mute, to forget how to communicate in a natural and terrifying way. Only being able to hear, to fill a space in our minds that we have no control over, and to wither is the natural part of this life.

Coming to terms with death feels obtuse. It’s unparalleled.

“I know I’ve called you a few times, call me back. Your grandmother isn’t doing well,” my mother would say to my voicemail.

As much as I feel the need to lean into the discomfort that vulnerability brings, this wasn’t something I was ready to sit with. So I worked. Found myself busy with things–people, places, my daily routine–without giving myself the space to process, to face it, to explore it and feel it deeply.

Over the past few years, I would come home and she would forget. I think about how the mind can sometimes forget what it does not see every day. Out of sight, out of mind. Going away to college, then again for grad school, then one more time for my first full-time job began to take a toll on how I was remembered by her. There was a point when I was first a soldier in the Army, then her son (my uncle), then, finally, Robbie. And I know this wasn’t her doing. Life’s natural way of making people and things disappear in front of us had started well before my own realization. Still, I felt close to her in a way that the rest of our family was not. I’ve always carried that with me.


Days passed. I thought about how my grandmother was surely getting better. She was 93 and didn’t know how to give up. Surely this time wouldn’t be any different.

“She’s doing better today. Came home from the hospital and she’s eating better. I’m so happy that today is a good day for her.”

My mother would talk about how much my grandmother wanted to give up. How she wanted to see her mom again. How she felt like a burden to this family. She was always doing something with her hands, so much so that we could all see the arthritis in her bones when she moved. I remember when I saw her hands lock the first time and finally knowing what fear looks like in someone’s eyes.

The helplessness. The pain. The thought of being unworthy of living because she can’t do things with her hands.

I can’t imagine a mind harboring such a storm that nobody else can see. Do you think the brain knows its own expiration date? Knows its own milestones of forgetting? Knows each moment it mistook itself for a light so fleeting?

My grandmother’s name was Helen. From the moment I could talk, I let the world know that she was my Yia Yia. This Greek woman who knew what it meant to work, to struggle, to love; this woman was the light of my life during a time when I questioned myself. When I would fold into myself, she would teach me how to unfurl one limb at a time.

The second-youngest of five (all brothers), this woman knew what it meant to live a life. She was born in a different world than the one we live in today. 1923 was a long time ago. Growing up meant using her hands. Today, he callouses would run rampant. The friction of life was evident in the way she coiled into a small smile.

“I don’t know how much longer she has. You should come home.”

I called. Mom answered. “Put Yia Yia on the phone.”

Mom gets up, walks to another room, “It’s your grandson, Robbie.”

Static, then silence.

Then she was there. Listening. Hearing. Wondering who I am. Her breath barely audible in the receiver, she would pant.

“Hi, Yia Yia. How are you?”

“Oh dear, is that you, Robbie? I’m okay. When are you coming to see us?”

A quarter-sized dollar forms in my throat where breath used to be. I swallow. “Soon, Yia Yia. Really soon.”

 



“She’s really not doing well today. Her body is shutting down. I don’t know how much longer she’s going to be here. We miss you.”

I resolve to make a trip home. Saturday will be the day. Will this be the last time? I mentally prepare myself for what that looks like, what life is like without her.

Thursday, my phone buzzes. A text from my mom that reads, “Call me when you get off work.”

My heart shifts. I call immediately, hoping that a voicemail never comes. On the first ring, my mother answers. Even hundreds of miles away, I will always know what my mother’s voice sounds like when her heart is breaking.

“She passed away at 3:01 PM.”

Then nothing.


I don’t know a world that exists without my grandmother in it. I don’t know what her last thoughts were or how heavy she felt or what holding on must have felt like.

People keep telling me that she lives in me. She’s gone from this world, yes, but her love lives through me. And I want to believe that but I don’t right now. Right now is reserved for remembering to mourn. Right now is for retreating, for feeling deeply, for allowing that grief to sit with me. Right now is for remembering even when she couldn’t, even though she can’t and never will again. Right now is for allowing myself to be tender, to understand that I don’t have to minimize myself. Right now is for crying, for the catharsis of grief, for all of the things that exit me when I think of something she taught me.

Right now is for every moment I can muster enough courage to take all of my masks off and set them neatly on the shelf. Right now is for closing the door on not forgiving myself for not going to see her when I had the chance to. Right now is for letting go of all the heavy feelings I have when I think about how I could have sat with her longer when I did visit. Right now is for learning to love deeper, for giving more grace to myself. Right now is for holding my family closer. One less  person does not mean less love.

Right now is for time. Space. A grief that will create an unforgiving void in my heart. This is what my world will look like.


When Yia Yia was ready to go, my mother told her that it was okay, that we would be okay, that we would miss her but that it’s okay to not hold on any longer. My grandmother’s eyes closed for maybe the last time. Her heart fluttered–an old motor that spits and sputters but always beat for someone else’s drum–and finally beat for herself for the last time.

And then she let go.

Even now, she is teaching me what it means to not hold on. To be okay in losing my grip. To curl into myself and be heavy with all that courses through me. She is teaching me to let go.

One day I will observe how I am transformed by this grief. Today is not that day. But I’m finally stepping into it, exploring it, allowing myself to be changed by it, and I’m moving forward in the only way that I know how.

One day this will get easier. One day I will understand.

Saying Goodbye

Each year is an adventure of learning to say goodbye in a new way. At least for those of us who work in a profession that is predicated on pushing people to their own finish line and into the next phase of their life.

Students graduate or move off-campus, peers accept jobs and leave, people uproot the lives they used to know for something greater, something grander, something full of wonder and inspiration.

Some are ready to go, some go quietly, some with a bang, and some feel it in their bones. This time around, I’m feeling some of each. The last ten months have been quite a journey. Each day, a new challenge. Each week, more growth surrounding me. There were definitely times when I wore my heart on my sleeve. Times when I struggled in my own skin. Times when the smile on my face felt as genuine as it has ever been.

Retrospect provides opportunities to see ourselves in new ways. As closing week drew closer, I began to think about the people who were a part of my first year as a full-time professional. Gratitude is an understatement. The students I had the opportunity to work with challenged me and changed me. This is what makes goodbyes so hard: even when the natural calendar of things requires people to move, to shift, to leave, and even though I see the end coming every time, I learn to accept their presence and decide how much they mean to me. I know there’s no stopping the leaving. Staying would mean complacency, comfort, and routine. Plans are made and life changes shape as the anticipation of being gone creeps up.

And then they leave. The physical presence ceases. A void grows and I’m left alone trying to figure out the best way to love them from farther away.

This is for the 14 Resident Assistants, the Academic Peer Mentor, the Administrative Assistant, and the Graduate Student of DeHority Complex this year.

This is for their hard work, their patience with my growth, and their willingness to allow me to challenge them.

This is for all the moments you wanted to let go and I convinced you to hang on for a little while longer. All the moments that I asked something of you and you had faith in me. All the happy or sad or stressed tears we may have shared together. All of the moments when there was a click at the office doors, footsteps towards my office, and a smile greeting me. All of the moments where I probably frustrated you beyond belief with processes, procedures, and to-do list items.

This is for my team, for my people, for the relationships I’ve built with each of you individually, for the small chapter I may have been in the book that each of you are writing, for each tough conversation we had over the months, each vent session, each lightbulb moment.

This is for you.

I hope that you chase the sun every single day.

I hope you find every reason to believe that you can reach the dreams you once thought were never attainable.

I hope you let love grow in every part of your life and that you never betray your heart.

I hope you surprise yourself every single day and that you build time for wonder instead of worry.

I hope you recognize how important you are, how beautiful you are, how much potential you harbor in your bones.

When we first met, I told you how invested in you I am. That won’t change. It may look different now that you’re writing a different story for your life. But I’ll still be around. I’ll still be here. I’ll still remind you to take time for yourself, to stop saying “Sorry” for existing, to keep living a life you’re proud of. I’ll still challenge you. I’ll still encourage you to do something worthwhile, to dig deeper, to love harder. I’ll still believe in you as I always believed in you.

Thank you. I love you. I miss you. I’m excited for you, for your journey, for the adventures that you’re about to have. I’m grateful for the time we’ve shared. Some of you will still be around next year and I can’t wait to see what new things you do. Some of you will be far, far away and I can’t wait to be able to see how you impact this world in your own ways.

I could keep writing but we all know this open letter has to come to an end. So this is goodbye (for now). Thanks for letting me love you.

Until next time,
Robbie