If I Were to Lie to You

If I were to lie to you I’d tell you that I was a quiet person. I’d say that nothing in politics bothered me and that I didn’t ever vote because they’re all charlatans, it just doesn’t matter because it’s all a game. I would say that I was highly disciplined and singular minded. I’m a peaceful individual and I’d say poetry is a waste of time, that disclosing intimate parts of a person accomplishes nothing, and that intellectual pursuits leads to massive frustration with no real guide to effective action.

I could go on but I’ve already promised to reveal myself here through these pieces, these essays are to reflect my personal story in the many facets of my being. That, plus the fact that I rarely have any effective censor between mind and mouth so I’ve learned that lying is way too much work.

Telling the truth means I never have to remember what I’ve said.

It does seem somewhat like self aggrandizement, or worse, self flagellation at times, to continue in this vein but I’ve committed to it and while I doubt that there’s enough material to last all year I do know that I have plenty to talk about in terms of what affects me and mine. Over the last four decades I have tried my best to follow Einstein’s admonishment to ‘widen my circle of compassion’. Admittedly I still have an ego-centric, pleasure seeking core. But I’ve done the hard work to live up to my mother’s praise to me shortly before she died, “Chuck, you are a good man.”

A good man.

Yesterday I had a nice long phone conversation with the college kid. Aside from my giving him some advice about his self confidence and listening to him talk about the beautiful coeds he’d like to talk to he told me that he thought I was ‘level headed’ and that he was exceedingly lucky to have my wife and me as his parents.

Level headed…

I’d have thought if I were to ever use that as a self descriptor I’d be lying my ass off. But given that my son is a scholar (he’s a Marquis Scholar at Lafayette College in Easton, PA) I guess I have to accept it. Even though I don’t feel level headed at the moment. I feel just as angry as I did when Richard Nixon was elected president back in 1968. In fact I feel just as angry as I did that whole damn year…maybe even a bit more.

And worse, along with my anger is my dismay. This has been a long fucking slog through racist and supremacist shit for me in my life time. Basically, forgive my harping on this theme, since the weeks in late summer and early fall in 1955 when it seemed every damn elder in my family made sure I saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s battered and disfigured body I have been dealing with white folks bullshit.

No. Fuck no. I am NOT level headed when it comes to that…

More so, after sixty-fucking years of being a person who truly fights for the rights and freedoms this country supposedly provides (members of American armed forces fight for America’s national interests, NOT for our rights and freedoms. Seriously, take that nationalistic bullshit and shove it somewhere!) I am appalled that the country I would bequeath to my children, grandchildren, and great grandchild still reeks of the negative crap that permeates the air in 2017.

I’d be lying to you if I said otherwise…I’m about to channel my inner Shaka-Fucking-Zulu up in here!

I’m a peaceful warrior at heart. My college kid once marveled that I treat everyone nice. He noted that I spoke with the same respect to ‘big shots’ and janitors, that I called every man sir and every woman ma’am. What he didn’t know was that I give every person a fair shot to prove themselves decent human beings or assholes..Yeah, I’m just that binary when it comes to people.

But experience has proven that each person is capable of the highest aspirations in their actions as well as the banal evil we see every day…which is one reason I do, at least outwardly, treat every person with respect. My issue now is that there are so many people…scores of millions of my countrymen and women, who voted for an openly unqualified, loud mouth, bigoted, xenophobic…oh hell, the list is endless.

By their actions I have now divided all people into, “He/she voted for Trump”, or This person didn’t vote for Trump”.

Today, a guy who acted like he owned the fucking aisle at the store where I grocery shop was instantly placed into the former category. As I waited for him to move his cart out of the way he glared at me with that early fifty-something, “I’m a white man, Master-Of-This-Aisle and the Known World, with his three thousand dollar suit and five hundred dollar shoes, I smiled and hit him with my “Hey, how are ya?” smile and said, “I’m in no hurry.” He continued to glare but after a moment the hard look in his face was undercut with a ‘What the fuck do I say to this huge man of color who’s being so sarcastically nice to me?

I reached over, moved his cart out of my way and wished him a nice day…didn’t give a flying fuck what he felt or thought after that. But I suppressed an urge to turn around and ask him who the hell he thought he was to glare at me like that.

I’ve become a damn stereotype…

Well, except in a way, I balanced my rage with calm, albeit sarcastic, action.

Fuck.

I guess the college kid is correct.

Level headed…

I ain’t lying.

Dear Younger Me

Today I want to tell you that the sometimes confused state of mind you have, those self doubts, those times of indecision are not going away. I’m sixty-nine now and they are still with me. And, frankly, I think that’s a good thing because it tells me I’m still in tune with life around me, I’m still in touch with a vast amount of energy flowing around. Especially the energy flowing within me!

The trick, and yes, it is a trick that can be learned but sometimes easily forgotten, is to find the wave of energy that most resonates with your spirit and ride the fuck out of it. Ah, I can hear your question, how do I know what ‘resonates’ really means with all the stuff that feels so enticing?

Sit still and don’t attach to any particular thought or feeling, you know, like when you go down to the river steps and watch the water flow past you on its way to Center city and the Delaware river. In a few more decades you’ll learn that you’ve been practicing something called mindfulness and it will help you even more in your work with people.

Oh, and that’s another thing. You know how people have been telling you that your answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”, isn’t specific or good enough? Forget them, you’ll have a fantastic career/life doing exactly that in every thing you do over the next fifty plus years. Yeah, even that three week stint cleaning bathrooms in the Forrestal Building on Independence avenue in Washington…trust me on that!

You will touch people’s lives deeply and help more than a few develop hope and meaning when they are beaten down and have given up on just about everything. Let me tell you a story that I hope you forget soon after reading it here so it can impact you fully when it happens…

In your late forties you will be working with welfare recipients in Washington DC. The program you’ll be teaching is helping develop employability skills; how to write resumes, interview, behave in a workplace, basic stuff that might sound easy to you but because of the anti-poverty work you will have done nationally and in the DC area in the years before that you have an appreciation of the deep cultural and personal work it entails for your clients.

One of your clients, who shows a ton of potential, just can’t keep it together for a variety of reasons and even though you cut her tons of slack you finally have to ‘fire’ her from the program. Your boss tells you that one reason you’re so sad about it is because you care a little too much and maybe now realize you can’t put that much energy into a single person for any reason.

Skip ahead about a year and a half. The program has changed and you are doing a ton of administrative duties because you’ve been promoted. One day you’re in your office and a young lady walks in wearing a security guard’s uniform with corporal stripes on her sleeves…Yup, it’s her!

She’ll say that when she got the job she wanted to tell you, but she knew you’d say, “You’ve still got to prove yourself to yourself first before you prove it to others!” So she waited until she got her first stripe and still decided she wanted to prove herself even more. So she waited again, and now she’ll have proven it to herself three times over and all she really wants, aside from showing her children how to do the work, is to show you that she now knows what you had given her…

Hope for herself and the will to achieve for herself.

So, there are so many more stories you’ll create for others, people whose lives are going to be better because of who you are and how you live your life. And so much of it comes from that energy swirling around in your head and your heart. I want you to remember that getting in touch with your spirit is kinda easy Chuck. It’s who you are, it’s how you feel, it’s the dreams you have, both the ones at night and the ones you have walking around with your eyes wide open.

Love the journey you’re on, yeah, even those dark times you’ve faced and will face. Those other kids calling you names and giving you a hard time will teach you to fight for yourself. Keep paying attention to the world and this country and know that all white people aren’t hateful bigots and that that guy sitting next to you at Saint Bridget’s will one day be one of your all time best friends because you’ll teach him how strong, brave, and good you are. I know, you are still having those quiet little boxing matches with him each time the nun turns around. But your left hand will become blazing fast son…

Oh, and next year, when you turn eleven, you’ll discover jazz!

I love you with all my heart. Stay brave, keep fighting, and most of all, always believe in yourself.

Yours forever,

Older Chuck

Exactly The Time To Write

This is when it usually falls apart for me, when things in my life are fucked up on so many levels and I’d rather stay high on my green or rum, holed up in The Man Cave listening to my music or hitting my congas until my arms feel like they’ll fall off and my hands bleed. Or riding the hell out of my bike. Or just sleeping my depression away.

*

This past week I buried one of my best friends from college, a despicable man of the highest order assumed the presidency of the country, and my son, who survived a massive cardiac arrest a year ago that week, home for winter break, went back to his life at college.

Yeah, this is where it usually falls apart for me.

I’m happy that there are no constraints to write now, I’ve given myself permission to really write drunk and not give that much of a fuck about the sober editing process. If I’m pulling layers off to get to my authentic voice why edit/censor myself anymore than checking that proper nouns are spelled correctly, sentence syntax is clear, and there’s cogency. I mean I don’t want too many worries wandering around in my head and heart aimlessly. There are enough voices in there already.

This week’s installment is not quite what I’d call an essay, more like a list poem, more like a compilation of those things that I’m forced to recall to ward off the dark clouds of my friend’s funeral and the dark dive my country’s politics started this week. My intent here is to reclaim a title a coaching colleague and mentor, and great friend gave me. To her and a group of fellow class participants I was known as “the Minister of Joy”.

I am reclaiming that title.

*

So, reflecting on the loss of my friend, I told someone the other day that I don’t have a lot of guy friends. The ones I do have managed to crack through my shell over the years. My college friend Cliff took me into his orbit instantaneously and, to an extent, helped smooth my rough edges. Even then, my frat name was “Wild Thing” and I can’t say I didn’t deserve it. We roomed together our second year and he helped me understand that although I was a quick learner and processed information very quickly I could be a better student if I worked more judiciously. If I allowed my nerd side to be more front and center than my wild side I might actually accomplish something solid.

So I knuckled down and over the next two years I was a Dean’s List student, the president of the History Club, the English Club, and the Pan Hellenic council, a member of the Student Life committee, and a founding member of the Black Awareness Movement. (Oh, and for some strange reason I was elected chaplain of my fraternity chapter too. Ah, the sixties…) What’s interesting though, even now when I talk to any of my chapter brothers from those years I’m still “Wild Thing”!

All of that to say that Cliff was a major influence on me. And the sad part, other than him dying at 70 years of age and leaving his mother (Aunt Lil is 95!!!), wife, daughter, and grand daughter, is that while we kept in contact over the years I only spent time with him once in real life after graduation. Those “Chuck, that’s bullshit” conversations can’t take place any more, except in my imagination.

But that’s the joy part. I can hear him talk shit to me in my imagination. I’ve heard that having voices in your head means you’re either insane or a writer, certainly it means you’re never bored, right? Sitting here putting words down, feeling hurt, happy, perplexed, grieving, thoughtful…remembering the warm voice of a friend.

*

Okay, my kid Robert. I’ve recounted his journey from near death to full recovery this past year. You want to catch up start here , but let’s just talk about how fast children grow up and move from under your roof. One minute you’re reaching down to hold their hand while you walk around the neighborhood, telling stories about crows going to bed and the next minute you’re helping him pack his compact utility vehicle and watching him pulling out your driveway, driving up the street, turning the corner to the rest of his life.

You hope the internship he gets next summer is in Philadelphia or Boston because that way you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least a little of him before he starts his junior year. You miss his “don’t tell mom” conversations, you know, those first man to man talks fathers have with their teenage sons. You miss those long bike rides with him, and how much he loves some of the same things you love…fuck it, it’s getting hard to type…you don’t feel at all ashamed at the tears you cry from just missing his company watching the chick flicks you both love and him calling you ‘cry-baby’ while he wipes his own cheeks at some emotional scene.

robertriding

While he has been here for the last month or so I’ve been entertained by listening to him tell his stories, his versions of living here with us, with his friends that have come over to visit him, and us. We always wanted to be the house where kids felt they could come and hang out. We got our wish. Listening to him talk is one of my great joys. Reminiscing about life with him is bittersweet, but ain’t that what parenthood is all about. Another one chalked up to “joy”!

And for him, this sentiment,

“I hope you go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

*

So I sit here in my Man Cave and recount what my week has been. I’m finding a lot to think about in it. There’s a ton of joy in that for me and it holds me from tipping over into breakdown. And the writing: Not caring so much for being perfect, that usually present feeling of having each word be in the right place. Or worse, not writing anything I’d want anyone else to see, just relieving whatever depressing or angry thoughts I might have. It is what it is and I can’t care that much about it and be happy, joyful about seeing stuff getting written in a place other than my journal.

*

After my friend’s funeral I met with someone I want to work with, someone who will help me slow down and watch the thoughts that cross my mind. He’s someone who went out of his way to meet me, to sit and talk with me, share his life stories with me.

A new friend, how joyful indeed!

On Becoming An Elder

It was one of those Busboys and Poets nights, I can’t remember which one now, but I do remember this. The young poet walked up the stairs to the stage and approached the mic, looked out across the audience and asked this question,

“Do I have permission to speak from the elders?”

There was quiet at first, I was thinking that his query was a part of his performance. It well might have been but he repeated,

“May I speak? Do I have permission from the elders?

*

This past Wednesday I got word that one of my main men, college room mate, one of the best people I’ve ever known had died. I don’t know if I can adequately find the words to describe the meaning of our relationship beyond trite and banal expressions like, ‘even if we hadn’t communicated in years there was always a connection as if it had only been a short time since last we spoke’. Or, ‘you know how you never really loose touch with people you’ve bonded with, it’s like that’.

We were both northern kids at a southern HBCU, me from Philly, Cliff from Red Bank, New Jersey. With another guy from Jersey, Kwame Mark Freeman we formed The Tres Club, pledging to support one another and hang tough regardless. Our first Christmas break we grabbed seats on a regional airline and flew north, dropping Freeman off in his home town of Atlantic City. Cliff and I flew to Newark, met his dad at the airport and drove to their house where I proceeded to wipe out Mrs. Green’s store of New York strip steaks.

A blizzard hit the East Coast that first night and I couldn’t go home for a week. The Greens adopted me. Well, they did for that week anyway.

*

There wasn’t much that happened over the four years Cliff and I were in college where it wasn’t shared between us. I’m sure here were some things we didn’t speak about then, and certainly over the years, decades, after leaving college communication was intermittent at best.

But always personal and heartfelt.

Kwame and I have had two long phone conversations since hearing of Cliff’s passing. He cannot attend the service in Red Bank because of a recent knee operation. We both noted that each of us has had three really good friends pass. For each of us Cliff is the third friend who’s gone.

I took this picture on the day Cliff, Kwame, and I graduated. Bob Haney is the third person in the picture. The four of us were the Tres Club (It was something you’d have had to be a member of to understand why there were four of us in a club named for three!).  Bob and Cliff are two of the three friends of mine who are gone. A friend named Len is my other deceased walk man.

haney-freeman-and-green-1

*

The poet continued to ask for permission from the elders, finally looking right at me. I felt a poke, looked over at the other elder in the room and saw an unspoken, “He’s talking about us, Chuck.” look in her eyes.

I fully cloaked myself into my elder hood…

“Speak on it.”

 

 

 

The Thing The Nun Taught Me.

Sixty years later and I still want to punch John Cashman in his fucking face.

Yeah, that’s a statement from someone attempting to practice non-violence, engaging in Nichiren Buddhist chants twice daily, and wishing all the guns in the world would be melted down into peace monuments in every country. I still have a huge chip on my shoulder from being the only Black boy in my Catholic elementary school.

I freely admitted this to a friend last night.

“But you wouldn’t really do that, would you?”

“Even if he were in a damn wheel chair!”

*

College years were spent at a HBCU. After my Catholic school experience at Saint Bridget’s, then at The Roman Catholic High School For Boys I knew I had a very skewed perspective on what it meant for me to be Black. So, I managed to get myself to Princess Anne, the county seat of Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Maryland State College (Now the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore) was perfect, not just because it was a Black school but also because there was enough of a distance from Philly but it was still somewhat familiar. I was the fourth member of my family to enroll there and I had my Aunt Marion (Cuyjet) who was on the faculty.

Those weekends I ventured home I had a guaranteed ride back to campus every Sunday evening. Five hours or so of one-on-one with one of the pioneers of Black dance in America. Someone who had negotiated her way through the bigotry of downtown, Center City Philadelphia land lords in establishing rehearsal space for a premier dance program for students of color.

Marion was a force of nature. Since my parents had separated when I was about five and we lived with my dad, she had become my mother figure. Her house in West Philly was our gathering spot every Sunday. The coolest thing about Marion was that almost every time she opened her mouth there was something to be learned from whatever she said.

School seemed to be on a straight line from Philly. The highway once you get past Dover was desolate, green pines on either side, hardly any lights. No radio, only knowledge being dropped. Lessons were had on dealing with ego and arrogance, lessons on being a man, lessons on being a proud Black man in the front seat of a huge black sedan rolling south down US-13. Lessons on the pride of being a Cuyjet and what that name meant. The high standards, the coolness in the face of adversity, things I knew I needed to attend to if I were to measure up to being a Cuyjet.

I never mentioned how angry I was. She just knew.

*

I can’t hear “nigger”, or any variation, even now, without a deep, reflexive clench all over my body and an instinctual urge to punch someone or something. I once did a spoken word piece where I used the term in my effort to reclaim the word for myself. After I sat down a friend had to interrupt the host of the open mic to quell the Black folks in the room by telling them that I was probably the only person there who had ever been called nigger in anger. I was new to the spot and very few knew I was Black.

Living in Washington I’ve been greeted in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew…Yeah, I’m that guy with the international look.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with that word because the piece I performed that night was about isolation, bigotry, racism, and white supremacy as a psychological killer of Black men.

At Saint Bridget’s School it got so that I thought my middle name was nigger. There were twenty-two of us in my high school’s graduating class of 308. One of them had breakfast with me a couple of years ago in North Carolina and confessed that he had thought I was Puerto Rican.

Yeah, a somewhat complicated relationship…

*

I fought a lot in grade school. After we left a relatively integrated middle class neighborhood in North Philadelphia we moved into a housing project in the East Falls section of the city. East Falls was then mostly unknown, even to people in Philly. Grace Kelly was its most famous export. (Interestingly enough, I had the same nun in eighth grade that Princess Grace had, Sister Helen Marie. I remember her because to her my name was “Charles, you bold, brazen article, you!”) Prior to that the only notable aspect it could claim was that the mills there had produced most of the uniforms the Union army wore during the Civil War. It had been a mill town, divided by the Reading Railroad tracks. Most of the working class people lived closest to the river. The richer folks, like the Kelly’s, lived up the hill. The mills operated when there were actually falls on the Schyulkill River there. Years later the buildings in the projects were imploded and the video made national news on CNN. When I lived there they were called “Sin City”.

We moved in the summer, there was a huge field where we played baseball. It was 1955 and that was every kid’s dream, to spend a day playing ball and pretending to be Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, whoever. It was all about the game. We were who we said we were and color didn’t seem to matter. Even some of the Irish and Italian kids from our side of the tracks would come over and play.

Then school started and my sister and I were the only “colored” children at Saint Bridget’s. Grades one through eight had been lily white until that September, and there were people very upset about it. And did it ever show with those kids. But it seemed that at least until fifth grade the nuns kept order in the classrooms. Recess and after school was a gauntlet of epithets and fists.

*

My girlfriend freshman year in college was another kid from Philly. She was unapologetically Black, one of the first women I’d met to go natural and she was a dancer and, I suspect, was drawn to me because of my last name. It was a fun relationship and we became really good friends after breaking up.

The summer between our sophomore and junior years she entered the first Miss Black America contest.

She won.

My sophomore year I pledged Omega Psi Phi because it was a tough frat to get into, at least that was the word. Pledging was, at that time, the Blackest thing I had ever done. Of course after the Mexico City Olympics, raising my fist at the playing of the national anthem became the Blackest thing I did…

Sophomore year also became the year we started getting more white kids at school. One of them became a triple threat in football, basketball, and baseball in our conference. I remember being on the field after he scored a touchdown and he ran over and covered me with the muddiest hug ever. Not the blackest thing, but it stands out in my memory because I came to love that kid because he helped me rediscover some of the friendships I had with some of those white kids back in East Falls.

*

Fifth grade, I wasn’t one of the tallest boys so I wasn’t sitting all the way at the back of the room. There were two boys behind me. A couple of days into the year and the nun had to leave the room for awhile, she gave us an assignment and like the good nerd I was I jumped into it with my full attention.

Next thing I knew I heard a hissed whispered “Fucking nigger!” and as I turned my head to see what was going on John Cashman’s fist struck my cheek and chin.

I jumped up and spun him around to hit him back just as I saw the door open and the nun came back into the room. Cashman ducked my blow and I hit the blackboard. The sound caused the nun to look up and she saw me standing there. She asked me why I was there and what was I doing. I told her what happened as she angrily approached me.

She put her hands on my shoulders and squared my back against the blackboard as I was talking. She slid one hand along the side of my face and head and with the other hand she swung from behind her back and struck the other side of my face.

First and only time I’d seen stars in broad daylight. She walked back to the front of the room and proceeded to act as if nothing had happened and went on with a review of the assignment.

A girl from the other side of the room, without raising her hand, stood up and spoke out about what had happened. The nun told her to sit down and kept on with the lesson. She never said anything to Cashman, and she never apologized to me.

I was starting to understand how complicated the race thing was for other people. My relationship with the people that wore black and professed to be messengers of Christ changed. I found out later that the Catholic church in urban areas had begun to ‘recruit’  Negroes as whites had been moving to the suburbs. Some of the records of those efforts have been made public and church officials recorded some of the most paternalistic and racist things I’d ever read. Those words confirmed my self righteous enmity.

I wanted to punch that nun right in her self righteous face then too. The clerics clearly didn’t have the Word either. Hell, they were just as bad as those little assholes in the playground and on the streets on my walk home. The chip on my shoulder got bigger and my anger got hotter.

When I ‘confessed’ this anger (one of the seven deadly sins, mind you) the following Saturday I accepted my penance. I dutifully went through the process of Confirmation, where I became a Soldier of Christ and a full member of the Church Militant. I tried my best to live the belief that these Irish and Italian American kids were my brothers in Christ.

I believed it each and every time I threw fists any time one of them had gotten to the second ‘g’ in nigger. After awhile I realized I didn’t care to believe it. The lesson sank in when in high school my guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material. I probably had a higher IQ than that priest because his job seemed to be psychologically slapping any Black or Puerto Rican kid back down into our place. (Pride is a deadly sin too, isn’t it?)

That priest was just like my fifth grade nun.

John Cashman never said that word around me after that. I know he constantly used the term, my friends would tell me. I figured I had enough of a lone superhero’s battle trying to fuck up those idiot little racist kids that felt brave enough to gather in groups of four, five, and six for one of them to issue the nigger challenge. He faded around me, the coward. He had to steal me to hit me. There were days I plotted revenge on him, but, like I said, I had enemies right in front of me to deal with each and every day.

My heart hurts remembering how my younger self felt he had to deal with that idiocy.

*

Thom Lord is the name of that college football player. He’s an artist in Ocean City, Maryland now. We’re Facebook friends and I can’t wait to share a beer with him. Joel Elder is my high school classmate who said I ‘was the fly in the buttermilk at St. Bridget’s school, the Puerto Rican kid’ over breakfast. He’s number 24 in the picture of our freshman basketball team below. In case you need to know, that wide eyed kid with the big ears wearing number 27 is yours truly. The Irish looking kid kneeling just below the #2 on my jersey, fourth from the left, was one of my tormentors from Saint Bridget’s. He became one of my best friends in high school and, along with Roberto Clemente and a man who’s one of my best friends today, is why my son’s name is Robert. In a long since dormant blog I wrote about him here.

Wrapping this semi-rant up with this thought.

That nun, I’ve long since forgotten her name, taught me that you can never assume that the words someone uses indicates what kind of person they are. Their actions do. The racist kids taught me that not all of them are victims of their parents’ racism, some of them believed that snake oil bullshit because it made them feel superior. They were still being little klan members well into their twenties as I remember them. I’d left Philly for good by the time I was in my early twenties.

But here’s the best lesson I learned from East Falls, the projects, Roman Catholic HS, college, and my adult years. I’ve always had soul mates and the Quest I’ve been on in my life is gilded with these precious souls. My soul mates, those people that share their hearts, minds, and inner light with me, remind me of this: The Quest not only begins in the heart but also ends there…I don’t really know if I’d punch Cashman in his face if I were to ever see him, I just know I want to. But the girl that stood up for me helped show me that I had people…No Quest can ever be completed without your people. And it doesn’t matter who they are, what color they are, or where they’re from. They self identify themselves by their actions.

rchsfreshman-bb

Epilogue: A friend reminded me that on our class’s 25th reunion one of my white classmates followed me around most of the night. Little short guy, even at that point, must have been tiny in school. Even though we all had name badges on with our graduation pictures I didn’t recognize him. As we sat down to dinner he called me on it.

“Chuck, you don’t remember me do you?”

“No, I can’t say I do, sorry…”

“It’s okay, I just wanted to thank you…” (And he went on with this story. First day freshman year he and I had lunch period together. Two upperclassmen were messing with him, roughing him up in the cafeteria. I walked over and threw one of them on the ground and jacked the other one up against the wall by his jacket lapels. I said, “You fuck with him, you fuck with me.” Went to him, picked him up and walked back to my table.)

My wife said, “That’s so you, the cop of the world.”

The guy… “Chuck, nobody bothered me for four years!”

Step By Step, Little By Little

Years ago one of my teachers told our memoir class that the answer to almost every question we might have about writing was, “Write, write, write, write, write…”

I think you get the idea. Writers write. It’s what they do, they get it. I did, at least to the extent that since then I’ve filled several moleskins and other journals with thoughts, ideas, challenges, poems, and to-do lists. I’ve sporadically posted in my blog, over the last year a lot of the more worthy reads centered on my son’s health crisis and our family’s journey with him to recovery.

Some of the journal entries of that year strike me more than others for they were more about my own fears and doubts about my own mortality. Here’s a peek…

When you die and we hover over your body asking that you wake, to stop giving us the dread of never hearing your smile or seeing the reasons we are so proud of the boy we raised. That’s when hope is needed. Hope that any of the spirit teachings might mean anything real.

To believe any of the myths, to wander into tabernacle earth seeking light in the darkness that has gripped your heart and squeezed dreams we ever had out of you. When you die and come back to us and tell us there was no light, no god, no angels, no Charon on the ferryboat, no Elegua on your road to ‘where’ exactly. So what are we to believe of this thing called an after life?

A short time later I had written to myself to be more concerned about writing ‘towards the light’ and ‘against the fear’ without noting anything as to the why I had made those notes. Who’s light? Who’s fear?

As if the answers weren’t clearly obvious to me. But honestly, they weren’t.

But this is why we have friends. Two in particular who’ve known me for almost fifty years reminded me of the strength, light, and creativity in me. But even in the face of that I wasn’t feeling ready to start again, I wasn’t really seeing my way to getting to the core of any of the stories in me, or any that I could construct. Joining the effort of writing an essay each week of 2017 seems perfect because just the thought of exploring ‘me’, digging into the who, why, and what I am means dealing with fear.

The other night in my meditation an image came to me. It was the hallway to the bedrooms in the apartment I grew up in. What I felt standing at the end of the hallway was the fear and despair I felt constantly as a child. Afraid of what volcano of anger and abuse my father was going to be that night and the despair of my helplessness to defend myself and my sister from either of those things. And deeper, the fear that I would become anything of what my father was.

Along the way I plan to show the steps I’ve taken to walk that hallway and to open those doors. I’ll show you the man I’ve become, the dreams I’ve had and realized, the ones that have died along the way. More importantly, I’ll expose the dreams that still flower in my imagination. I’ll show you the person my mother said was ‘a good man’ not too much before she transitioned. And no doubt you’ll meet my shadow as well. The anger, pride, and fear that reside there have certainly helped me survive.

This first essay is purposefully short, it serves as an introduction. My government name is Charles Jerome Cuyjet, Jr. Friends call me Chuck, poetry people know me as New Haiku. Wayne, Robert, and Esther call me dad. Kayla, Noah, Hayden, and Joe call me grandfather. My great grandson is entirely too young to call anyone anything.

Me? I’m calling myself a writer.

#52essays2017

fearisaliar

When I’m Stuck

I had a wild office crew when I worked at a major telecommunications outfit back in the heady 80’s. People, including the bosses, basically let the tech and management development training staffs handle business like a college frat house (with the small number of females on staff being equal to, or better than, us in the prank department.

My second day there I walked into a dismantlement of our director’s office, looked at the two pranksters and immediately joined in, not even thinking of potential consequences.

Somewhere there’s a video of that staff producing one of the best satirical shows ever. I remember being the ‘host’ doing my best straight man routine with one of our admins dressed to kill beside me grooming me and flirting HARD with me while I tried to run my lines. I think we ended up on the floor…

That’s just to give you a little taste because this is really about being blocked…

No, not that kind of blocked, writer’s block silly!

One of the pranksters put one of those “Stuck Chuck” stickers on my name plate just outside my cube. You might remember the series of goofy faced critters with all sorts of stupid names if you’re old and silly enough yourself. Frankly I balance my serious side with a healthy dose of silly (or gross as my fifteen year old daughter puts it most times) because I’d be committed by now if I didn’t.

So just a little while ago I committed to writing an essay a week this coming year and I’d been alternating between staring at this empty page on my computer and combing between the two journals I always carry on trips for ideas and none of them were at all enticing to me.

Then for some reason I remembered Stuck Chuck’s silly ass face and started laughing. “Why”, I asked myself, “does it have to be something serious? Why not just write about being stuck and laughing at yourself?”

Another admin in that office, after reading some of my handwritten notes for a class I was designing, came running into my cube all excited and said, “You write just like you talk Chuck!” I didn’t type at all in those days which is why I’d asked her to transcribe my work. I’d never thought that much about style, just wanted to make sure that what I’d put down made sense, gave enough intellectual heft to the exercises I’d be leading in classes, and would garner at least good, if not great, evaluations. (BTW, I killed those evaluations. Even better, my work in that business unit was chosen to be ‘best practices’ for the development of management and leadership development in the newly forming company that we were being merged into.) Okay, that not so humble brag was the impetus for me to start typing with the Stuck Chuck prompt roaring at me in my head.

Good enough. But what I realized was that I don’t have to impress anyone. When I write what I write can take on a life of its own (thanks Vanessa) and I become a conduit for those words to gain presence on the page. Surrendering to the process is what it takes. While I haven’t been putting stuff out and while I’ve been very self indulgent with (exceedingly) bad writing in my journals I have been engaged in the process.

So, serious or silly, #52essays2017

Maybe I’ll remember how to write like I talk again!

More soon…oh, yeah, next week!

Edit: And this is important…(Written by my friend, VONA sister, writer extraordinaire, Vanessa Martir, who published an essay a week in 2016)

What are the rules?

This isn’t about producing a polished essay. This is about surrendering to process. This is for you, no one else.
There is no word limit. It can be as short or as long as you like. Just try to dig into the stories. Why is this coming up? What is it you’re not saying? What is it you want to say? Why? Dig!
You have to post an essay a week, which isn’t easy. I have missed a week here or there but posted it later, usually not past the following Monday. If you miss a week, okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Just try. Push. Write. Then post it.
Tag your essay with the hashtag: #52essays2017.

Writing

I finally gave voice to my state of mind.

I’m depressed. And I really don’t feel like writing, but I’m depressed.

Reason: I have to live through the fucking 1950’s all over again. Only now it’s not just me being called names and threatened with bodily harm. It’s a whole lot of people, a ton of them not POC, but other marginalized folks as well. I’m massively, thoroughly exhausted.

This is the underbelly of my country. And it IS my country. And while I can get next to the words of “Still I Rise” it feels like a fuck-ton of work and my body is already tired from hauling around the shit my country heaps on Black bodies.

Eight years ago white conservatives were repelled by Rev. Wright’s ‘God damn America’ sermon. I wonder how many of them feel about our America doing a 180 on its foundational aspirations, you know, like the ones found in the national anthem? Guess they really couldn’t stand the heat of the truth Jeremiah Wright laid down.

While they are so concerned about ‘liberty’ I think their actions say so much about their disregard for ‘justice’. If they have any concern at all about their God’s vision of how they are operating I wonder how they absolve themselves of how they treat the ‘others’ in their version of our country.

I’m visualizing a shit-ton of red, white, and blue in hell…

Meanwhile I am journaling a lot. My latest exploration is the concept of ‘Grace’. More soon.

Before I Forget

I wonder how petty politics will get this year?
As if there’s never room at the bottom of the pit
some of our leaders come from. I keep getting
that old man feel that I’ve seen this before,
over and over again like a bad movie I can’t
stop watching because there’s blood and sex
in it, a face of fear that somehow reminds me of
the beast I had to be to survive to this age.

Does my smile fool you when I say hello
with the “I fucking dare you” glare in my eyes?
That’s the Philly boy in me, the one who took two
city buses to school, only going backward
to catch an Express, avoiding those neighborhoods
that sometimes randomly act like why your ‘decent’
aunts warned you to stay away. Wasn’t that the adventure
you craved? Right there on those forbidden streets…

I talk to anyone. Shit, I’ve been in the same room with
Presidents and I’m supposed to be in awe of you? Why?
I’m looking for that something that only you can teach me,
it will amaze me, because everyone knows something
I don’t. I have your payment for your knowledge: my attention,
my questions, my open heart, and my love. Isn’t that more than enough?
Isn’t that what you are looking for?

I want to tell you this before I forget.
That love is indeed greater than fear.
That the places they told you never to go to contain
treasure and golden souls and diamond minds that
hold your answers. And one of those places, maybe more
if you keep looking, holds your soul mates, your spirit
family. Look around. Go adventure with your daring mates,
come back decorated with the awards and medals they give for
courage and loving entirely too foolishly.

April’s Dream/Reality

We marched off to claim our rights
under the orange glow of burning crosses
and fell under batons and hatred,
bloodied and tired of the spit and venom
and only rose to our knees,
praying
for a better land,
still heads taller than the red faced
men calling us commies and niggers
telling us to crawl back into the hell from
which we came…

Where did we come from?

A land of lies and nightmares
an aspirational illusion saluting
a dream weaved into stars and stripes
where you killed our heroes
Medger
Malcolm
Martin…
Shit, if you wanna fight the power don’t have a first
name that starts with ”M” I guess

Some dream, huh?

What? Was I supposed to just wake up
and say, “Okay, you elected a darky for president
and it’s all better now cause klan ain’t lynching us these days,

Right?”

Been woke since Emmett Till in ’55
Big sleep will be the only thing stopping
me from calling out America’s bullshit.
You can kill one dreamer, but there are
entirely too many of us left. And we still believe it can be so much

Better…

 

#staywoke