I wish I was a photograph
tucked into the corners of your wallet
I wish I was a photograph
you carried like a future in your back pocket
I wish I was that face you show to strangers
when they ask you where you come from
I wish I was that someone that you come from
every time you get there
And when you get there
I wish I was that someone who got phone calls
And postcards saying
Wish you were here
I wish you were here
Autumn is the hardest season
The leaves are all falling
And they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground
And the trees are naked and lonely
I keep trying to tell them
New leaves will come around in the spring
But you can’t tell trees those things
They’re like me they just stand there
And don’t listen
I wish you were here
I’ve been missing you like crazy
I’ve been hazy eyed
Staring at the bottom of my glass again
Thinking of that time when it was so full
It was like we were tapping the moon for moonshine
Or sticking straws into the center of the sun
And sipping like icarus would forever kiss
The bullets from our guns
I never meant to fire you know
I know you never meant to fire lover
I know we never meant to hurt each other
Now the sky clicks from black to blue
And dusk looks like a bruise
I’ve been wrapping one night stands
Around my body like wedding bands
But none of them fit in the morning
They just slip off my fingers and slip out the door
And all that lingers is the scent of you
I once swore if I threw that scent into a wishing well
All the wishes in the world would come true
Do you remember
Do you remember the night I told you
I’ve never seen anything more perfect than
Than snow falling in the glow of a street light
Electricity bowing to nature
Mind bowing to heartbeat
This is gonna hurt bowing to I love you
I still love you like moons love the planets they circle around
Like children love recess bells
I still hear the sound of you
And think of playgrounds
Where outcasts who stutter
Beneath braces and bruises and acne
Finally learning that their rich handsome bullies
Are never gonna grow up to be happy
I think of happy when I think of you
So wherever you are I hope you’re happy
I really do
I hope the stars are kissing your cheeks tonight
I hope you finally found a way to quit smoking
I hope your lungs are open and breathing this life
I hope there’s a kite in your hand
That’s flying all the way up to orion
And you still got a thousand yards of string to let out
I hope you’re smiling
Like God is pulling at the corners of your mouth
‘Cause I might be naked and lonely
Shaking branches for bones
But I’m still time zones away
From who I was the day before we met
You were the first mile
Where my heart broke a sweat
And I wish you were here
I wish you’d never left
But mostly I wish you well
I wish you my very very best
My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;
when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.
Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;
they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,
and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—
when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,
because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.
I am always moving towards you.
On my bad days, I say to myself: “then you”.
Sure, this now. But then you.
I will keep tossing myself life lines.
I will keep writing myself afloat
until I don’t have to write a poem for every mile marker
from here to California.
You and I together is the most foolish thing
I’ve ever hoped for. You and I apart is more foolish.
When I can’t sleep at night, I dream up
conversations with you. I never call. I never push.
I try not to whine. I just write it all down.
Sometimes I want to apologize for wanting you out loud,
like too many people know the reasons
I am going to have laugh lines.
Sometimes instead of distanced pillow talk,
I want to curl up with the phone
and read you poetry.
Instead, we just talk about it.
You say, “honey, how was your day?”
And I say, “today I wrote another poem
about your coffee cup mouth
and all the ways you still keep me up at night.”
I hear a sigh in your smile.
You make a sound that reminds me of
fighting with my bags at the airport;
but you’re still too far away.
Part of me has always wanted to believe there’s an alternate universe where poetry is the universal language. Everyone speaks it to varying degrees. Writing is taught in couplets and tercets. We live in stanzas. Free form is the new novel. Sonnets are the only way to give people a reason to believe in life after death. There is an eternal repetition of people shouting from street corners how to exist. Can you imagine?
Can you imagine a world where poetry helps us understand where we have been? Where we are going? The space in-between the two are the margins–the blank spaces on the page where invisibility exists and becomes universal, too. We become something different when the text is on the inside and we are not.
Can you imagine a world where poetry is mostly what we use to understand ourselves and others? It’s a tool that is used to wrestle with our disagreements; a wrench for the tight bolts, a needle and a thread for what needs stitching afterwards, a shield for the protection we are looking for every time we meet someone new.
Can you imagine that you are as you are right now without changing at all? Thoughts and skin and abilities all the same. Habits and writing unequivocally unchanging. We change not; we move for the sake of moving as we always have, we adopt nothing for the sake of changing nothing. Can you imagine?
Late last year, Rainn Wilson (most notably, Dwight from the TV show The Office) tweeted this:
We live in an age without poetry.
— RainnWilson (@rainnwilson) December 23, 2016
Considering it was almost Christmas, I felt it necessary to give him something that he doesn’t know is there. That hadn’t manifested itself until now.
National Poetry Month comes around every April. This month, I’ll give you some of my favorites. I hope you can get something from this art–some written, some spoken, all touching and heartbreaking and capable of making you, too, start to see something that you hadn’t known was there all along.
I will present you with an opportunity to engage with pieces written by writers who are doing the same thing that we’ve all been trying to do. To live–exist, perhaps–in a space that values our right to do so. To breathe. To hope. Feel, although faint at times, a sense of belonging in world that doesn’t seem to always be the softest.
Though I’ll have much to say, I’ll leave that to the voice inside your head.
“Hey, are you not doing your monthly blog post anymore?”
I’ve gotten this question a handful of times and I’m unsure how to answer. On one hand, it was only meant to be a year-long adventure; it seemed sustainable (and in all reality, it is sustainable) but moving into 2017 with such uncertainty towards to state of things, I didn’t know how to make that commitment again. On the other hand, I learned more about myself in 2016 through the writing. How could I not continue on?
As writers do, I backed myself into a corner and resolved to not write at all. Bits and pieces of writing came out at times but nothing coherent. I wouldn’t label it “writer’s block” as much as I would label it purposeful lack of practice.
I thought maybe it would be good to not write. Maybe it would make sense, instead, to explore different things: human emotion, what we do when nobody is looking, art in times of chaos, and so on. These things that everybody experiences but nobody wants to talk about.
See, the truth is that everyone expects writers to have it all together. How could they not? How could we not? We carefully craft words in such an arrangement that makes people nod their heads and clutch their cups of coffee tighter. We string together sentences that make people feel things. To some, us writers have it all figured out.
There are days when the writing doesn’t come. When quiet takes over. When silence is louder than the taptaptapping of my keys.
There are times when the writing is pouring out of me, most of the time it’s a jumbled mess, and there are times when I’ve become inspired to explore wonder. Any given moment, I’m transitioning between feelings–from thought to a held feeling–and it’s typically something I’m trying to make more sense of. I compartmentalize different thoughts or emotions, placing them in neatly-organized boxes on this shelf of my mind so as to bookmark my place in each of them and come back later.
I laugh when I’m not supposed to. I cry when people are watching. I fidget when I don’t know what to say and I appreciate the silence that others give me when they are struggling to find words.
“I really enjoy your monthly articles. They give me hope.”
I’ve been struggling with what this means.
In a time when this world is shifting so quickly into a place where hope cannot easily live, how do we become hopeful? How do we commit to making things better if we cannot fathom tomorrow being filled with hope and wonder?
With my writing, I’m often practicing my existence. I’m exploring areas of myself or my world that have come into focus in one way or another. These are usually things that I’ve felt deeply about but can’t always make meaning out of. More often than not, these are things that scare the shit out of me. And they should.
I’m not trying to live my life clutching tightly to the railings. I’m intending to fall a number of times, to fail, to disappoint people so that I can learn how to get back up again. Feeling deeply will likely always be a part of me and I intend to embrace that.
At the end of any given day, you can find me collapsing exhaustedly into my messily-made bed, pulling the covers up to my chin, checking my alarm, and clutching a book. Some days I don’t actually open the book. It’s there to motivate me to read a bit before bed but on the toughest days, just holding the book is enough. I’m holding a world in my hands. A story. The lives of characters, of people, of lives already lived that are trying to teach us something. I wake in the middle of the night and the book is usually beside me. The bookmark is nowhere to be found. I’ve lost my place.
“Are you writing at all?”
I can make a case that I’m always writing. It just doesn’t always show up on the page or the screen. We all are writing. Every day, it’s something new, even if it’s not. It’s a new chapter or a new place to start, even if it’s the same place you always start in.
I have a place to keep fragmented thoughts or sentences. More often than not these fragments are poems. It’s just how my mind works; how can I tell a story or narrative using fewer words? How can I tell you all about a thing without mentioning that particular thing? It’s not that I want to do less work, it’s that my mind has been trained as a creative writer to evoke thought or emotion via enjambed lines, couplets of information, and rules thrown out the window.
To answer the questions, yes. I’m writing. It’s not a monthly post, but it’s writing. It’s not published routinely or on a schedule, but it’s writing. It jumbled and mixed up, but it’s writing. It doesn’t flow well or seems out of order, but it’s writing. It’s not published on a big platform or with strong following, it’s not the featured opinion piece, it’s not a string of researched-based thought.
But it’s writing.
When I tell folks that I’m from Flint, Michigan, their heads turn sideways much like a dog’s head does at the sound of a high pitch. Eyes widen. This is what I’m used to, especially since moving out of Michigan in 2014 when I started my graduate work in Ohio. I try to imagine what it’s like to meet someone from somewhere I’ve never been–maybe a place that’s always in the news–and what my initial thoughts are. This typically helps me understand where people are coming from, although I will say that many have struggled to hide their reactions to the words “Flint” and “Michigan” coming from my voice.
“Are you really from Flint?”
“The same Flint that has the water problem?”
“What’s that like?”
Most people I’ve met haven’t been to Flint before. They’ve seen things in news articles and on some of the same screens that you’re probably reading this article now. Most people don’t know what they don’t know. I smile and politely answer their questions.
“Is your family affected?”
“Why do you tell people that’s where you’re from?”
“By Flint, do you mean a suburb?”
Some questions are honest. People are trying to understand where I come from. I’m more than happy to illuminate the dark spots for people’s understanding of what’s really happening in the city I hold close to my heart.
It’s hard to understand what a home is to people. A place where people are born, a place where much of one’s identity is shaped, where bonds are created and destroyed, memories of better days behind us–these intersect and create a definition unique to each of us. We are the culmination of everything we’ve been, how it has impacted us, and what we choose to see through the tall grass.
Some questions aren’t actually questions, but poor-intended jokes. Jaw-clenching. Unnerving. A number of encounters begin with the pursing of lips to hold back what they’re actually thinking in favor of a more respectful response. Some go like this:
“How’s the water?”
*Laughs at own joke*
*Turns to see if others are laughing*
*See me not laughing*
Think back 500 days ago.
Since then, how many times have you turned on your faucet and clean water came out? How many times have you filled a cup with water to drink after a run or before bed? How many times have you bathed? Watered the plants? Made coffee? Brushed your teeth?
Now double the days.
How many times have you done all of that in the last 1000 days?
Now imagine having to do that with just bottled water.
Now imagine still getting a water bill–imagine having to pay for water that is unusable. Filled with lead that can cause serious harm to your bodies.
Flint residents have lived this reality since April of 2014. Young bodies and old alike have been exposed to a reality that they didn’t want, and they’re paying for what they don’t deserve.
Officials have estimated that bottled water will be the way of life for Flint families until at least 2020. A thousand (+) more days of unbelievable hell. An unfathomable reality to those who don’t have the think twice; something these people are forced to live with on a daily basis.
If you can’t imagine this as a reality, I invite you to live the next 10 days without using the faucets in your home. 10 days. That’s it; a small sample of time for something to become normalized.
Buy bottled water. Use it for everything. Everything.
Visit Flint, Michigan. Talk with residents. Educate yourself on their experiences. Live in their shoes for a little while.
And when someone tells you they’re from Flint, let it serve as a reminder that a hometown is more than what you see in the news. Real people like you with honest stories like yours inhabit that space. And they’re fighting for a reality that’s different.
Though the focal point has shifted, know that there are still ways you can help make a difference. For more information on how you can help, visit www.helpforflint.com.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Tomorrow, Donald Trump will become the President of the United States.
Let that sink in for a moment.
For 2921 days, Barack Obama has served this nation’s people to the best of his ability. He has given his energy and expertise to the people looking to heal, to fight for what’s right, and to be better than who they were yesterday.
And tomorrow, that chapter ends. Dog-ears from saved pages unfolded, that book will be neatly closed and placed on a shelf of stories that have only been memories to us.
I don’t know where exactly to go from here, but what I can tell you is this: one foot forward, one step at a time, one stubborn staircase after another as we stumble for strength. Forward is the way of hope.
“Change only happens when ordinary people come together to demand it.”
Barack Obama taught me that behind policy decisions and speeches given at important dinners, behind debates and addresses at states of the union, behind politics and partisan leans, there exists a profoundly evident truth that no matter the spotlight or wreckage, the character of a person is greater than decisions made. The integrity of the love someone has for others is deeper than fear. The drive for excellence is rooted in being genuinely good.
He is proof of this.
With every step, he moved with such an awareness of human dignity. More than anything else, he embodied what we all look for at some point or another: the spirit of hope. The idea that we matter, that we’re important, that the work we do is important. The idea that our identities are valid and real and transforming. The idea that we can be the light for others without taking their shine away; we can be the flame to ignite others to think and do better, to take stubborn steps into love every day.
Many will remember him as someone who accomplished very little. If you are one of those people, I implore you to reconsider. I encourage you to extend yourself outside of party lines and think bigger. Dig a little deeper. Get uncomfortable with the fact that it’s possible to not staunchly disagree with every little thing that came out of Obama’s lungs.
To those who are losing hope with each passing day, I echo Obama in his farewell speech: “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
It’s not enough to sit idle and wish things were different. It’s not enough to fill the world with a pessimistic view that things will not get better. Use Obama’s legacy as a blueprint to creating your own framework. Find progress to build on top of the progress so many have already built.
Read often. Soak the words from the page into your mind’s eye and allow them to change you. Listen intently and with sincere curiosity. Allow yourself the gift of changing your mind sometimes. Allow yourself the humility to admit when you’re wrong, or to agree with people who are different from you. Write yourself into an existence that the world has no option but to smile at. Because at the end of the day, there is a beacon of hope in the distance that we are all begging lighthouses to find.
Be that light for others. Let others be that light for you.
This is what Obama is talking about when he talks about hope. Soon, we will hear less from Obama. Maybe not at all. So take this moment, breathe it in deeply. Close your eyes and look into yourself. If you’re looking for a reason to have hope, this is it.
Now let’s get to work.
I’ll never forget the day that I met you. Fall of 2009, freshman year. 7th floor of West Vandenberg Hall at Oakland University. Room 766. Derek and I had our door open as we usually did. You walked past our propped door, came back, walked right into our room, and introduced yourself to me. You had a class with Derek; he sat in the front, you in the back.
“Hi, I’m Joel!”
I had no idea why you walked in without knocking, and to be honest, I was annoyed that some stranger took it upon himself to walk in uninvited.
That’s what I get for keeping my door open, I thought.
“I’m Robbie. Nice to meet you.”
Seven years later, our first encounter replays through my memory like a skipping CD. Over and over again, your warm demeanor and loud personality would walk uninvited into a space that you would frequent in the weeks after. Had you not been the Joel that everyone knows you to be, maybe you would have kept walking past that door. Maybe we would have never met.
Over the course of the next few years, I would come to know you in an entirely different way. Here’s this incredibly shy and introverted kid who loves poetry and reading, and this other guy who carries a good energy with him wherever he went. We became the unlikeliest of friends.
We spent many nights throughout college watching football or playing video games, talking about the Illuminati (‘it’s real,’ you would say. ‘I’m skeptical,’ I would respond), or finding new places to eat around town. You eventually moved away from campus and that gave us a place to go when we wanted to get away.
We didn’t always see eye to eye. I can remember when we would get into debates about politics or sports, always on seemingly opposite ends but willing to hear each other out. Even when we frustrated one another, we found a way to not let it come between our friendship. At the end of each conversation, we resolved to love each other the best way we knew how.
As I graduated from OU and moved to Akron for grad school, you always talked about coming to visit me. And again when I moved to Muncie for my first professional job, you talked about making the trip out. You wanted to see how I was living, what my life was like, who I was surrounding myself with. You had a way about showing people that you cared about them even from hundred of miles away. I never had to wonder if you loved me.
The last time we saw each other was at Lauren and Billy’s wedding in August of 2016. As Derek and I were part of the wedding party, I can remember standing around waiting to be directed towards the ceremony and I was looking for you. I knew you were there; we had just seen you a couple hours prior at our hotel room but I wanted to make sure you were there. You were a familiar face amidst a sea of faces that I didn’t recognize. You were a friend that I looked up to.
We all danced that night. None of us had rhythm but we didn’t let that stop us from embracing the moment. We shuffled around the dance floor, we laughed, we sang, and in the end, we exhausted ourselves from our practice in withness–being present together and taking in every moment.
When we got back to the hotel, we dove right into talking about life. Everything from sports to politics to love, nothing was off limits. I can remember looking at the clock as it read 2:00am and wanting nothing more than to be asleep, but I stayed up talking with you anyways because who knew when we would see each other again? We go so many months between visits, how could I pass this moment up?
Who knew that would be the last time we would have a conversation?
I sat at your funeral in disbelief. It didn’t feel real, even after seeing you lay asleep–peaceful and in a better place. Your body was there but that wasn’t you. It couldn’t be, I thought. As so many people mourned the loss of your life, I sat shocked out of any words to comprehend the moment. There’s a reason why I’ve always avoided funerals. I don’t handle loss of life well.
Even now, I think about how you’re gone too soon. How you’re not taking any more breaths. How you aren’t experiencing joy or excitement or heartache, and how extraordinarily grateful I am that you were able to feel those things for the 27 years you were alive.
Amidst the hurting and healing that will inevitably come from this, your legacy remains. I resolve to live my life as myself unapologetically. I will not mutter the words “I’m sorry” for simply existing within a space. I will love deeply just as you would if you were here. Just as you would want me to.
“What are you going to do to keep on living?”
A friend muttered these words to me when she was telling me her story of loss, of hurt, of healing. And so I’ll resolve to hold these words close and allow them to guide me in my life each day.
Because isn’t it such a precious gift to be alive? Aren’t we all fragile miracles in our own sense? Isn’t it wonderful to realize the gallons of blood in our bodies that are in a constant state of motion just so that we can take more breaths?
Joel, I think about you every single day. Each time I write about you, I remember something new–something I often overlooked about you–and I come to a better understanding of the person that you were in this world. I know that you would want us all to be happy, and so that’s what I’ll continue to set out to do.
As I keep living, I’ll hold you dear to me and live a life that you would be proud of.
I love you, buddy. Sweet dreams forever.