The first class was last week Saturday. My students are attentive and hypersensitive to speaking English. Their English is better than the Spanish, Italian and French studies I’ve done in all my years put together. One student asked, “How do you master a language?” I thought, “Is that what you think I’ve done?” Distinction, I’ve studied, not mastered. And I barely speak these languages. My friend V speaks 4 languages. When he is talking to a native speaker in a specific language he still says he doesn’t identify as being fluent, although he has been actively studying and speaking for 30+ years. What I call fluent he calls proficient [at best]. My response to the student: I haven’t mastered anything, but if I want to get better I have to push through and talk, read, absorb, risk-take and talk some more.
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Higher Learning has a way of playing mind-tricks. We use terms like “Expert, Scholar, Genius” after one has amassed a certain amount of degrees and a bit of experimental research. I believe there are some experts, scholars and geniuses but those words play games of worthiness in and out of the academy. And for those who are self-taught, for those who were not allowed to attend school for lawful/lawless reasons, for those who do not have access, for those who do not participate in the privilege circle, for those and them and that kind, this type, thereof/therefore, there and their beyond…to whom do they belong?
My students belong to each other. They belong to a culture. They belong to a country. They belong to their phones, their families, their tests and scores. They belong to themselves...in ownership, possession and mental/physical confinement...sometimes they belong to Liberation.
I visited a small Confucius Temple the other day in Harbin. I watched people light very tall thick incense sticks, then kneel on a square wooden bench, nod a specific amount of times in front of the Confucius statue and then walk forward and place the incense sticks in a big pot filled with earth (dirt/sand). Honor. I believe they belonged both to the moment and to Confucius, who seemed to be present every time someone lit an incense stick and bowed.
I met another foreign teacher named Di. Di looks Chinese, speaks Chinese, is Chinese…but not. He is from the United States and China, but not. He belongs to the Midwest...yet and still, he does not.
He belongs to politics and trump dialogues that combat erasure and mass gatherings of people identified as illegal or alien or unlawful.
He belongs to learning like learning belongs to baby birds taking their first flight.
He belongs to prestige and un-conformist ways of thinking and conforming ways of being.
He belongs to electrical skateboards on massive campus grounds that make you do your 500 steps daily, if you want a campus meal.
He belongs to Atari and Star Wars (80’s style).
He definitely belongs to WeChat-it-up and pay-by-phone and online purchasing.
He belongs to philosophizing about why men don’t get therapy…why Asians don’t get therapy…why Black folk don’t get therapy…what in the hell is therapy?
He belongs to relationships and relational dialogues that end in a cognac nightcap and heavy bantering.
He belongs in spaces that feed him well…a preponderance of the truth…push the envelope…that sweetened pot of gold…happiness and joy…lovemaking to procreating.
He belongs to careful conversations…critical thinking…pontificating over class divisions.
He belongs to swirling synergies…no time for complaining…stop complaining…stop bitching for one solid moment.
He belongs to the greatest of possibilities.
There is a belonging we seek as humans. My twin asked me the other day, “What and where is home for you?” Often my answer has been connected to wherever my parents are, but is that true? My parents often say, “Take flight.” If that is the case, then home may be the idea of carrying people wherever I go. Yesterday, when we had dinner in Di’s apartment, it was home for a moment. I had watched this scene before but I hadn’t been in the scene until yesterday. I had watched people of a particular age and of a particular persuasion, in a particular field, spend their late evenings clinking glasses with a fingerful of brandy and 2 ice cubes, jargoning over politics and purpose. I watched them on tv and they all looked like professors who professed a whole bunch of…
And last night I became the television show (slight variations, of course). It was gooood. It was homey. It was comfortable. It is what we do when we risk-take, talk and let go.
I woke up this morning with India Arie’s Hour of Love on my mind.
I walked around the apartment – bright white walls, white marble floors, white doors, white drawers, white couch with dark brown trimming, white kitchen/living room table tops, white kitchen counter, white desk, white iron heater, white headboard with dark brown wooden border and white & dark brown bedroom closet doors with 4 silver handles. The bed sheets are sea blue background covered with green leaves, red-pink flowers and hot pink flamingos. Also, the 4 chairs around the kitchen table are grey.
White white white grey
White white white blue-hot pink
White white white dark brown
White white white white white…
I am particular about the space I live in. I like space. Less furniture offers a clutter-free environment. My preferences: Colorful handmade pillows; hard wood floor; mobile carpets that can possibly take flight if necessary; a wall of books or built in bookshelves; artwork on the wall; definitely fresh flowers (whatever is in season); a ceramic bowl of snacks; and candles for thunderstorm effect or creating a mood (whatever the occasion calls for). I am not opposed to a walk-in closet (although I don’t have many wearables for such a space), a deep-seated tub to climb into and an area for instruments. Music is important in the space. I sing. Not quite like my girl, La Shaun Phoenix who offers raw nature to the space when she opens her mouth every single time. I sing personal lullabies. I make them up. They are offerings to the space. I sing to very few people. Very few. And that’s because they create what India describes as a Sacred Space for note-reaching moments. They allow music to be meditation, prayer and healing. Or actually, they just allow me to nina.simone my way through vulnerable times.
Today’s adventure – Central Street, Campus Exploring, Foreign Exuberance. So today I was taking photos of everything – fried grasshoppers and centipedes, signs of McDonalds, lots of stacked sausages, human size Garfield dolls in a mall that has all the stores I see in the U.S. - H&M was the first I noticed. A long walkway of canopied trees, greenery…lots of greenery. Stoned walkways and puddles of water everywhere (rainy day). Amaaazing. Or as my friend would say, “AmazeBall!”
While we were touring Central Street and photographing our surroundings, someone took a photo of the other English Immersion Program teacher…because she is “foreign.” The word foreign is common here.
“You are foreign teacher right?”
“You are foreign here?”
“You are foreign, from where?”
Yes, we are foreign [from the U.S.] and additionally we look nothing alike. She’s taller, thicker, long dark hair, white skin tone, Hawaiian facial features. She is ready for the photographic world because she enjoys taking photos of herself in this environment and sharing them with family. Simple enough. Apparently, some of the Chinese people here co-sign some of her photographic sentiments. Hours later, in the campus store she was going about her business picking up basic household items. To clarify, I only got stares and whispers on Central Street, and I recall a little boy pointing at me, but no one approached me. In the campus store though, she was approached. And then I was approached. And then…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
The cell phone camera came out and I was asked or told or asked or [I don’t know] to be in the picture. I thought the person (a female economic student from Harbin) wanted me to take the photo, so I explained I would do that. No no no. I misunderstood. She was so excited about our foreignness. She asked questions, smiled a lot and wanted this Kodak moment really baaaaddd. For those who know me [or not], would you like to guess how I responded? I should just end the blog here and let you ponder. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll come back another time and tell you what happened.
Ni hao Harbin, China!
The sun rises in the early morn while people are entering their REM sleep. You appear - blowing through my cracked undraped bedroom window at 4:00AM. Wow - quite unexpected! I’m not complaining. I’m just noting, you start pretty early, pretty hazy, pretty lit in your morning guise. By the way, please tell me about the rooster I hear off in a distance. Either I have super sonic hearing [being on the 27th floor] or that rooster is extremely loud.
No complaints. I am glorying in this moment, knowing that I don’t see or hear this in the states.
With that being said, I acknowledge your statement about my appearance. I know I’m a Wolverine look alike - thick locked sideburns, hair sticking straight up, a kempt stubble, and languid eyes (still adjusting to the time difference). I’ve been feeling myself lose weight because I keep my apartment stocked with ginger tea and sardines. I’m still adjusting to when/what/where to eat and how to honor my body as an energy system. My routine looks like early-to-rise, ginger-turmeric tea in a small silver bowl and lots of Vitamin D peering through the apartment windows. 2 meals a day and raw cashews or other nuts in between meals.
*Noteworthy moment, every classroom should have windows so children can look outside. No, it’s not a distraction. It’s a teachable moment. Children should learn about outdoor gazing (i.e. daydreaming) and in the process, get some good ol’ fashion Vitamin D.
Again, Thank You, Harbin, for my early morning greetings and intermittent napping experiences. So, this is what I’ve learned thus far in this space:
i believe in touch. i believe in your touch. i believe in the power of hands on hands. the entangling and intertwining of skins meshing together, so as to remind the self that hue +man come in tangible fingerprinted Psalm mantras like ~ I will praise thee in thy works of creation...marvelous...audacious… something of air, earth, fire, water and magic. And we are touched.
To be clear, “Not everyone is allowed to touch.”
She: From Nairobi?
Me: No, I’m coming fr…(didn’t get to finish my statement)
Me: No (as I grab my airplane tickets from my pocket)
She: Not Nairobi? Bangladesh? Where?
Nairobi and Bangladesh, along with other places in the world are listed on the board. But she finally realized [according to my ticket] that I’m coming from the states. She kindly directed me to a security checkpoint line. I was humored by her insistence that I should be coming from Nairobi. I think I should’ve just said YES and see where that would’ve taken me. Maybe, back to Nairobi.
And so, the adventure continues. I am leaning in, with a wink and a slight nod.
I’m at the airport and my head is hurting. It’s a tension headache that says, “You have 5 hours + 13 hours + 4 hours of flight time.” And this does not include the layover in the other two airports.
I travel. I came out of the womb traveling. I have traveled to different continents and back. I have crossed the Atlantic with my parents, before I even entered the earth realm. I am a traveler. I travel through time, space and energies. I travel and travel and travel some more. [By the way, this paragraph is my traveling mantra – my way of saying ALL IS WELL WITH THE WORLD AND ME IN IT].
Before leaving for the airport I was watching the CBS news program Sunday Morning. The segment focused on Gloria Gayner. This Grammy Award winner didn’t just sing, she saaang this 1978 timeless hit I Will Survive.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong, and I learned how to get along
And so you're back from outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I had known for just one second you'd be back to bother me
The lyrics are actually funny. Outer space, changing locks, pain in the anus…YES! Some of us can relate to those two stanzas. But I am moved by the first two lines in the first stanza, because there is a thickness hovering over my chest right now – anxious, sickly jitters traveling to my frontal lobe and causing a nagging ache.
“Yep, I am petrified to fly across continents today…but then I thought of you.” I have mentally moved from my mantra [above] to thinking about people who offer me warmth and a bit of humor during turbulent anxious moments. I believe we can train our thoughts, and in turn train our bodies. [I did not say I have mastered this. I am simply saying, I believe this to be true.]
FREEZE – I am being asked a question by a man sitting next to me in the airport.
Lapse in time…lapse lapse lapse…and I am now on the plane [in the air].
I met a man named Daniel [who evidently was watching me type the first half of this blog]. He is with his family, and they are on their way to Madrid Spain. He turned to me and asked, “What are you writing?” I went blank. His question appeared so utterly difficult to answer. It’s an interview question, “What is your 10-year vision for the department and how do you propose to manifest this vision?” Do I respond honestly, “I’m typing a blog”??? The 4 words seem insufficient, but I told myself that this blog is part of my truth-telling experience.
I responded, “a blog”
At this point I feel like I owe this stranger an explanation, although he didn’t push for one. I found myself covering my mouth again. Damn it Celie, do not regress! (for those who have read the previous blog)
And then I said, “A teaching blog.” It’s not quite that, but that’s what stumbled out of my mouth. He asked, “What do you teach?”
And I started to share, "Public speaking…China…immersion program...students…barely know mandarin…my life is a mess…what was I thinking…I am having a midlife crisis” (don’t worry, I didn’t say all of those things). Daniel alluded to my uncertainty though. He asked if I have taught before. With great certainty I said, “20 years.”
“Well then you got this.” And the conversation opened up.
Engagement is a seasoning. And with any seasoning, it offers flavoring to the food we eat. I remember this phrase from my new curious friend (no longer stranger) who every so often turned to his curly-haired daughter who was holding a purple ‘my little pony’ [Side note: I had a ‘my little pony’ when I was a child. It was also purple]. Daniel said, “There is a strong correlation between humility and humiliation.” Suddenly he transformed into my brother Len (again, referencing previous blog).
Daniel: “You can either lean in and be humbled by the experience or you can fight it every step of the way and walk in humiliation.”
Lean into love
Lean lean lean – body yourself forward, cock your head to an angle, perk your ears and lean into the experience. He humbly engaged.
Daniel mentioned that he taught college students for one quarter – web design. I made a comment about the one quarter, and then he said he ended up marrying one of his students. He mentioned there was a 2-year difference in age and then he cracked a joke, “Never put a 26 year old in a classroom…” And 15 years later, 2 children and a wife who successfully works in web design.
Lean in. Lean into the experience. He told me, “You seem to be off to a great start.” His statement co-signs what my twin text me, before I mounted the plane, “Fill the space with your presence, Sis. China is in for a treat.”
Back to Gloria Gayner - Gloria, whose name is rooted in Glory, which is rooted in a number of praise worthy meanings like splendor of God, praise offering, magnificence.
So, I am allowed to be anxious for a few minutes. Then I think of my covering, my loved ones, my mantras, my new friend Daniel who was there to remind me to lean in…lean all the way in and take up space, magnify and glory in this moment. I’m not here to survive. I’m here to thrive in this leaning in journey.
One of my brothers, Len, talks about the importance of love as an offering. He says, “As an offering we lean into the moment, the person, the cause. We do not lean on. We lean in. If I am leaning in, then I am observing you as you are.” Not as you wish to be, not as you hope to be, not as you used to be. I am loving you right here and right now…no extra toppings or additives…no future predictions or desires or expectations. You are who you are. Present tense.
The Celie Syndrome
I love Celie.
Celie is purple. Filled with glory and royal blood, unknowingly.
Celie looks down.
Celie keeps her eyes to the ground. [not ‘on’ but ‘to’...the ground]
Celie shu’ is uuuugly.
Celie covers her smile.
Celie contorts in her dark+ness. She is pushed into place. She moves in and out of spaces in silence.
Celie is and forever shall be…until she is not anymore.
Celie can’t talk to nobody but God ‘bout her life…her 14 year old ravage-bodied life.
Celie has been impregnated by…
And she “gon’ do what her mammy won’t do” cuz Celie is without
Celie is only 14. And she is the color purple.
And that’s just the first page of Walker’s book.
I love Celie. I love her dearly. She looks like a few of the girls I see in school. Ominous and without. She reminds me of me, sometimes. I covered my smile for the longest time until someone said, “Stop.” How odd that we wait for permission to change our narrative.
I have a bestie who performs Nettie-and-Celie scenes with me. We see each other after years and we run towards each other and play the hand game. We speak the language of these two sisters and become Celie and Nettie interchangeably. That same bestie explained that she is Celie as much as she is Nettie. We are a bit of both, although I never thought much of pretty Nettie. Pretty dark chocolate Nettie whom Celie protected. She told her baby sister Nettie to ruuuuuuun. Sometimes we protect others by telling them to run like the dickens. “Don’t turn back! Just RUN!” And how many of us have told others to run, knowing that we couldn’t run with them?
I happen to believe that people aren’t ready to love who Celie truly is. She is a syndrome. She is the inexplicable expectation to be and do [synonymously] as she has been told because that is the lot she has been given in life.
Eureka! That’s the narrative you’ve been told, and now you own that ‘woe is me’ tale. And every so often, you warn others not to live that life. RUN! And don’t look back. RUN!
I thought I was going to give birth to a baby girl. I don’t know what her name would’ve been, but I know she would have my features the way I have my mom’s features. She would have crystal brown in her eyes; thick untainted curls that you could barely comb because she has 4C textured hair. She would be knock kneed like her mom. She also might have to wear special shoes like her mom did as a child. She would enter the world a full 8 lbs., a very thick skinned jiggly round sun-brown baby. As she grew, she would thin out. She would eat kale all the time because that’s what her mom would feed her. Kale and potato chips. Kale and brownies. Kale and her grandfather’s oxtail. Kale and her grandmother’s cornmeal dumplings. She would even turn a smidge green on rainy days (the after effects of a kale induced diet). She would be her mother’s child the way I am my mother’s child forever. She would also call on her other mothers the way I call on other maternal womyn.
There was a moment…a moment in the air where I thought I saw my daughter. I saw a glimpse of her. I may have been standing in the mirror, fully extended round belly, carrying conversations underneath layers of skin. Or maybe I was walking and felt her touch my face on a cold autumn day, for she would be an air sign as well [like her mother]. Maybe she appeared in my dreams late at night.
My daughter did not enter this world though. I believe she met Celie along the way and decided to choose another path. There are moments when I think she, my daughter, is watching over me giving me the okay to be a mother anyway. She is reminding me that giving birth happens in so many different forms.
So during this school year, when I walked into the Pre-Kindergarten room and met a beautiful brown small PreK girl who runs up to me whenever I come through the door, I thought my daughter was somewhere in that space watching. This little girl is quiet, homely and becomes sad for no particular reason. She does not clean up her playing space when it is time for the children to clean unless I ask her to. She plays with herself (and possibly an imaginary friend). She stares into the air and looks like she is leaning into something that can’t be seen or heard with eyes and ears. When I enter the space she asks me over and over again to play with her. She won’t stop until I give in and say, “Yes.” She is my little Celie-TC. She is my unborn child for an hour and a half Monday through Thursday.
In Maya Angelou’s “Letter to My Daughter” she reminds her daughter(s) that she may not control all the things that happen to her in life but she does not have to shrink or be reduced by them.
I’m not a mother, but I am. I am an offering of love. I get to be an offering, in the same way I get to be Celie and watch a whole bunch of Celies around me. Somewhere along the way, I had to change the narrative though. A syndrome is a syndrome if you keep using the word syndrome, get me? So today, I’m purple. I am glory and royal and I shu’ is pretttttty. Pretty brown Celie with a lot of daughters to love.
When I was in my 20’s (years ago) I remember working for a summer camp in Harlem, NY. The day’s activities included being at an outdoor park. I can’t recall much else besides the 10-year old boy who called me a bitch because I told him he couldn’t do something. And no, I don’t remember what I told him he couldn’t do. Back then I was mild-mannered and a bit nervous. The boy could read that energy on me. He read it well. So very well.
Recently, I had a 3rd grader say to me, “Hey Dog, can I…” I can’t recall what he was asking me. I think I blanked everything else out, because all I focused on was “Hey Dog.” I began having a dialogue in my head on how to read him carefully without yanking him up the way my father would…[which would only get me arrested]. I yanked no one up that day. I did read him, along with other students who did nothing wrong. It was simply a warning.
I’m a small woman. Petite. Brown woman. Hairy. It seems important to note the hairiness that comes with being in this body, especially since it was recently a discussion among my male students who felt that women should not have hairy legs, hairy arms, hairy underarms and wherever else you choose to imagine hair grows. It’s not worth revisiting the dialogue we had in the middle of the hallway while teachers and staff walked by every so often. However, I will note that one of the 3rd grade males asked me if I had hair on my chest. My response? Please return to the 2nd paragraph in this blog.
This year I spent my days with youth. I thought I was teaching drama. I wasn’t. I was being taught drama. I was a student [with a teacher’s title]. I was a rebellious student. A student with Calm at the helm until waters rumbled. I learned this year that I know how to scream, holler, borderline cuss people out without using ‘the language.’ I learned how to think slow and fast. I learned that my intelligence is emotive and emotional and courageously spirited by intuition that comes “after the fact” but not during a situation that is spiraling out of control. I learned that humans don’t always have control externally even when we think we do. I learned to ‘Let Go.’ I learned to love my students at the crossroads.
I have spent days lying on the big red carpet in the school’s drama room, asking every ancestor to come forth and whisk me away…I did a lot of God-talk. I have siblings, although I was brought up the only child in my adolescent years. So I know what it’s like to have imaginary friends – full blown conversations with beings, Creator and alien forces – both while my mouth is and is not moving. I’m past the age of feeling like being weird is awful. I embrace weird. That shit is more normal than normal. And I suspect, teaching our students that weird is ok, might be the route I am more interested in, especially after this year. Caveat: as a libra (balancing scales) and a shapeshifter, I know how to fit in. Some of us call it code switching. I used to think that this skill belonged to namely brown bodies on U.S. soil, but I’ve learned that other folk do it to fit in as well. Funny (but not really).
I leave for China in 1 week. And I will teach again. And I will write. And I will explore. I will poetry myself for 5 weeks. I will use verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs, just because I am giving myself permission to do so. I will Audre Lorde this experience…and possibly be a Sister Outsider. Or maybe not. Regardless, I will Be.
Lesson: The power of language is to simply USE IT. How else will we ever know if our message of communication is being received?