The Man YOU Made–To Dad on His Birthday

pop

Dear Dad,

Happy birthday!

Man, when God made you, the mold was definitely broken. All I can say is that I am glad to know that I am a part of that mold. So, here’s the strange part,  despite the fact that I talk to you several times a day, every day, I hardly know where to begin without sounding commercial, forced or trite, so I will just start by saying, thank you.   I know you always tell me that I don’t have to give you thanks, but you do understand where I’m coming from and why I am coming from that direction. You know that through the years I have seen boys and men who have had no father to thank. So, I, Joey Bean-Head, with immeasurable appreciation, am thanking you.

I want to thank you for what some may see as common, expected, or the responsibility of a father. I don’t know what that means: common, expected, or the responsibility of a father.  You fulfilled our expectations and nothing about you is or has ever been common, but everything about you is father. In my eyes, for all of my life, you have been more: a superhero, a disciple, a Giant! from the expanse of your chest, your confident gait, or the unselfish giving of your heart. Oh Captain, my Captain! You are what no other man could ever be, and what many fathers never took time to become. I am working on becoming ….

You were young when I was born, barely out of childhood yourself, yet in the eyes of an infant, you were monumental. You gave me your name. I honor that and carry our name proudly. I remember how safe I felt, how I knew, regardless of what the world projected, that no harm would fall upon me, that no demon dared set foot or claw in our den. I hold memories of those days, memories that perhaps should have been forgotten by a child of three or four, but for reasons that I cannot explain, they remain, vividly. I remember growing with you, maturing as you further matured, in awed by your strength and your passion for the unseen, later evidenced by what you accomplished. You said it and it appeared. You promised it and it became.  I remember being taught how to cut grass (“follow the lines made by the wheel!”), prune trees, plant flowers, build fences (or try) and make BIG ASS fires in metal trash cans.

Through the years (I call them my war years) I grew more complex, feeling at one point that I didn’t even know myself. I wanted for nothing, yet here I was. I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, my heart betrayed me as my forever love said love wasn’t forever, at least not hers. I thought myself smart, talented, athletic, a trifecta that would be irresistible, but that wasn’t, at that time, supposed to be, at least not with her.

I came home from school that day, broken, after wandering through the streets enshrouded in an impenetrable fog. It was warm. The sun was bright. The scent of Jasmine perfumed the air. Birds sang so beautifully that the Angels hushed to listen. To the rest of the world, life was joyous, but for me, my universe was in shambles. I remember little about what happened when I got home. For reasons forever mysterious, I was drawn to the bathroom. When I entered I collapsed on the floor and trembled, curled in a fetal position, tears streaming down my face and neck, wails calling out to God. The door was closed but as I lay there, confessing that life was no longer worth living, contemplating how I’d end this excruciating pain, you entered, still dressed in your uniform. I don’t remember what you said, or if you said anything at all, but I do remember feeling your warmth, as you lowered yourself in a tiny clearing next to me on that floor of Tremble, and embraced me until the chill waned. I thought I heard you whisper:

Now if you feel that you can’t go on (can’t go on)
Because all of your hope is gone (all your hope is gone)
And your life is filled with much confusion (much confusion)
Until happiness is just an illusion (happiness is just an illusion)
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’…

(Reach out) Reach out for me…

I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through…

You gave me a part of your soul that day. No one was ever to know and we never spoke of it again and life went on. And I knew on that day I was given undeniable confirmation that you were more than just my dad.

There were many similar stories as the years progressed. You accepted my sensitivities, made me accept my failures, encouraged my passions, and fed me with the fuel of brilliance. You let me know that there will always be people who wouldn’t understand my drive, try to discourage my dreams, hope to break my spirit, and project their self-hatred in my direction. You spoke of naysayers spitting fire in your path, but how the water on your soles kept the fires extinguished. I, too, now have well-earned soles of water extinguishing their fires.

Dad, I, in this letter, am trying to recall everything that you provided to ensure that I would live a life of satisfaction. I am hoping to remember so I can share those memories in several hundred more pages, with my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and people who approach me with curiosity, but even that would prove insufficient.  A million words would only touch the surface of who you are and what you are. But I do see that look from my child; that same look that I used to give you when I was her age; the look of amazement and awe, love and assurance. I never thought I could walk in your footsteps, but I realized that you never wanted me to. You instead encouraged that I create my own, and when I ventured into a world I didn’t know, surrounded by people whose language I did not speak, I knew I was making you proud.

So, here I am, humming your favorite tune, looking in the mirror at a facsimile of your face, enamored by the thought that your DNA is in two generations and that each time I sign my name I also sign yours. Today I pay great tribute to you on the day you broke the mold. I will continue your journey because I know that next to your giant footsteps, perhaps a bit smaller, and not as sure, are mine.

Love you Dad! Happy Birthday.

HUNGER: A Review

 

Author: Roxane Gay

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Harper (June 13, 2017)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0062362593

ISBN-13: 978-0062362599

Embarrassingly, it was a couple-three years ago when I first learned about Roxane Gay. My initial impression was, “I’d love to meet her. We’d definitely be friends!” I hadn’t read any of her work, but based on her pictures, the stoic presence, and eyes that looked as if they knew something I didn’t,  I was enamored by the thought of hour long debates over endless cups of strongly brewed coffee. Then, in a magazine I have since forgotten,  I read her thoughts and the world opened. She had written on subjects that made the main stream quiver: rape, weight, and feminism, politics, life, death, and love. I liked that. But I must admit, besides those few articles, a couple of short stories,  and a half dozen YouTube interviews, I had never read her books, even as Bad Feminist became the must read among friends and critics. It didn’t take long before I knew I was missing something magical. I started from the end to prepare my beginning. I started with Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I wasn’t ready!

Gay’s Hunger reads like a diary, journaling beyond the mechanical lyrics often found in innumerable memoirs which simply seek an audience or make a personal point to confess how deleterious one’s life had been. Yes, Hunger does this, too, but I was not absorbed into or by the sorrow, just the many paths along Gay’s trek. It exposes, a few pages within, the bottomless cavity of the heart and confessions of the soul. Gay lets the reader in; allows them to absorb the emotions (read “secrets”) that she had kept at bay for years. She forces her audience to rest the book on their lap, look at their reflection and say, “someone really understands.”

“Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth. This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided,” she writes.

She opens to the world her personal Pandora’s box, releasing the demons she had grappled with since she became the teenaged victim of a heinous and irreversible violation,  revealing that Hunger is a double entendre, revealing that the violation eventually becomes self-imposed. To find solace, security and, perhaps, meaning in that horrendous crimes perpetrated against her — she turned to food. This form of comfort or discomfort is real; a place where temporary pleasure eventually and inevitably becomes a far greater and more painful boulder lodged in one’s soul. The other thing Gay does is explain why– why food became her shield.  She states:

“Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I begin eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away.” 

This reveals a sad reality enveloping and consuming Gay. To be dehumanized so deeply that she wanted to morph into something she felt would be viewed as vile and grotesque is the essence of that sad, honest reality. Gay has the reader realize how little society knows of (or willfully acknowledges) the tribulations and horrific endeavors that led (or lead) to people, deemed obese, feeling that hiding within themselves is their only form of solace;  how that thick unattractive ‘cover’ is the only sure answer. For years she wandered as if searching for something, falling into empty arms, ulterior motives, and unkept promises. She lost herself in southwest towns and a literal northern wilderness where she eventually (it is casually implied) finds her stronger self. I soon understood, that sympathetic thoughts or words, or the benefit of a brief but comforting exchange, empathizing with what envelops these men and women whose bodies are morphed into unfair but equally awe-inspiring monuments was not forthcoming. But with each page, I was hoping, perhaps against hope,  for a complete resolution. There was none. She hadn’t lost the battle, but resolution remains a work in progress.   Gay writes:

I am as healed as I am ever going to be. I have accepted that I will never be the girl I could have been if, if, if. I am still haunted. I still have flashbacks that are triggered by the most unexpected things. I don’t like being touched by people with whom I do not share specific kinds of intimacy.

So, Roxane Gay, in a few thousand masterfully manipulated words takes us on this magnificent journey into and through a world that we may otherwise opt not to acknowledge. We eagerly and willingly ride shotgun with her as she locates (but does not confront) her violator, sitting outside his office like a maniacal stalker. We completely understand. Still, she puts it all on the table, unapologetically and unexpectedly. For this reason (and a dozen or so more) it is easy to get lost in Hunger; easy to change her crutch of food into the personal crutch that secretly holds you together; easy to become Roxane Gay. Hunger is a thinker’s memoir that, at some point, becomes extraordinarily relatable to every reader. Yes, a few years ago, when I first learned of Roxane Gay, I thought we’d be great friends. After reading Hunger I think she’s already family.

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home — A REVIEW

“Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home,” by Sheri Booker, was introduce to me before I saw the cover. What I read is perhaps that most unique memoir I have come across in a very long time.

Set in Baltimore, “Nine Years…” addresses “life” in the funeral business, but it twists, turns, and journeys beyond the normal expectations of death and gore. It takes the reader into a depth that is unexpected, applying a level of storytelling that is both telling and profound, and that is very welcoming.

Part confessional, part biography, “Nine Years Under…” opens, a few pages in, with the death of Booker’s aunt.  This experience evolves into the unexpected, unpredicted, and ‘unlikely’ undertakers’ Odyssey for fifteen-year-old Booker. Alfred Wiley, the proprietor of Wiley funeral home, sees something special in young  Booker, and oddly, offers her employment (it took a while to understand offering a funeral home job to a fifteen-year-old), and she rises, profoundly, to the occasion. Sheri becomes a sort of protégé in the world of embalming and reconstruction, learning every aspect of the business (she began and remained in the business office for years before she started working on bodies) and letting it shape her into someone she certainly would not have been otherwise.

Throughout the book, Booker prepares the reader for something unexpected. Each page climbs to uncertain destinations. She colors the story with characters that seem almost surreal and often immense. The image of a funeral home is unhinged as she writes of mourners holding their own “form of ceremony” and of fights that spill over into the street in front of the funeral home and the brutal death of personal acquaintances whose lifeless bodies become clients. She lets us into her heart, and into the often complex personalities of her characters. Booker, for example, nails the sometimes tyrannous personality of Alfred Wiley, creating him with broad no-nonsense strokes insisting on uncompromising loyalty and unquestioned commitment, even if he refuses to reciprocate the same (when firing someone he says, “leave the keys”). She confesses a sort of unrequited love for the son of Wiley, but dart strategically through the details, so we are left to wonder the actual depth of their relationship. She does, however, profess the eventual realization that the Booker / Wiley affair was a love that was never meant to be. But even there, it seemed that she held back the details.

The book has magic and equally some moments that feel self-serving, but it does entertain, and it does reveal many unknowns. “Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home” answers questions that many may refuse to ask about funeral homes and the business, and it makes Sheri Booker translucent. Nine Years… is part history lesson, part sit-com, but all a lesson of life, loyalty, love, and death. A worthy read, from a special talent.

The Hate U Give — A Review

17-angie-thomas-hate-you-give.w710.h473.2x

Like a comet, in the form of her debut and NYT best-selling novel, The Hate U Give,  author Angie Thomas rocketed across a haunting and darkened sky leaving a trail of light a mile long. In the first chapter, the reader senses a developing conflict, anticipating the revealing of the unknown. What better way to dive into the deep end of the emotional abyss than a party?  The public flossing and social adoration of the 464-page multifaceted work of fictitious realism made me wonder if it was honest to its premise: The police shooting of an unarmed African-American boy based on that officer’s fear (sound familiar?). Admirably, Thomas, who is from Mississippi, pulls no punches, on either side of this deleterious event and (re)opens the emotional wounds that African-Americans were confronting even as the book was in its early stages of composition. She keeps it real, from the opening lines: “There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me,”  and intended or not, this simple line becomes the ever-evolving, multi-meaning theme of the novel.

Angie Thomas pulls from a place deep and familiar. At times her words are transcendent, beyond storyteller; becoming a universal conversation. It is abundantly clear that Thomas invested more than research in the producing of this novel, she pours her soul into it. She, thankfully, did not bombard and bull-rush us with one-dimensional rebellious banter, as easy and, perhaps, enticing as it may have been, but instead invited us to those pivotal moments and events as they were unveiled. She made us feel the pain of the bullet; the searing heat from the lies and cover-ups, the complexities of familial love, and the riotous, ravenous nature of a community. She pulled magically from her experience, producing characters that walked the streets she’d ambled upon ( i.e.,. Fo’ty Ounce), the same streets we may have walked upon all across this country. We know them.  We love, hate, and sometimes fear them. But Thomas accurately reminds us that they are our familiar.

There will be many moments when the reader feels that they are no longer reading The Hate U Give, but hypnotically experiencing the panic and chaos, the conflict and affection, the challenges and disappointments that spring from the pages; breathing in the burn and scorching their lungs.   It was certain that Thomas intended this to be the desired reaction and it was done beautifully.

When Starr, the narrator, and 16-year-old powerhouse, is made to walk through the maze between community loyalty or honor to her friend,  she treads lightly, but decisively. Her goal to make certain that the officer who shot and killed her friend, Khalil, is exposed and pays for the devastation of his crime. During an understood, but relatively undisclosed period of time, Starr grapples with the decisions she has to make. She wisely decides to hide her identity (as the ‘other’ passenger in the car) to avoid conflict from a multitude of parties hell-bent on justice, chaos, or honesty. Her world is turned upside down, and her awareness of the truth of social injustices beyond the judicial system peeks. As she begins to understand, so does the reader. We begin to reflect upon the lives Black men killed by police officers, from Eleanor Bumpurs to, most recently, Charleena Lyles.  Gotta applaud Thomas for stepping into a place that is hard for society to find (and agree upon) common ground.

Read this haunting, brilliant, necessary, and honest novel! One of the best “layered” reads to date.

DuEwa Frazier’s Quincy Rules

Quincy Rules with DuEwa pic

Title: Quincy Rules

Author: DuEwa Frazier

Pages: 192 (on Kindle)

I wasn’t certain what I’d find as I flipped (more like tapped) through the 192 pages of DuEwa Frazier’s novel, Quincy Rules. One thing was certain, I had no concerns that the book wouldn’t be a pleasant reading experience, and after completing the first chapter I found myself, like Biff Tannen,  pushing my way through the line of teen bibliophiles to take my rightful position as DuEwa’s ‘greatest fan.’ I was addicted.

Quincy Rules isn’t necessarily a complicated story, yet through each page, it effortlessly becomes something more than expected; a  heavily infused story filled with complex elements of real life. It becomes a story of one’s internal drive, the need to tirelessly seek the unknown, remaining steadfast to one’s convictions, and persevering by any means necessary. The story is essentially about an admirably smart and equally mature 15-year-old, Quincy, who lives in Maryland with her mother, stepfather, and brother. Although her life is free of common teen controversies, Quincy is consumed with thoughts of the missing piece to her personal puzzle; her father, who sends her cards and letters with no return address but steadfastly opts to be a mystery, or does he? She has never met him, despite endless inquiries to her mother,  but his contact, although mysterious, is constant. And this is where DuEwa Frazier’s skills begin to shine.

Determined to put an end to this mystery and finally meet the man who seemingly knows her but is unknown, Quincy, with the help of her best friend Delaney, develops a plan, of sorts. From combing feverishly through the phonebook and the hiring of a private investigator, to raising money to put an ad in the daily newspaper, Quincy surges forth, driven, determined and relentless.  In her search, she comes across her father’s possible childhood address. There she meets Jaclyn Stackhouse, a  colorful old lady, sweeping outside the house.  They engage in conversation and Quincy presents a picture of her father, Paul. Jaclyn, unmoved by Quincy’s presence or the photo, proclaims the picture to indeed be of her son…Richard. To further confuse matters the kindly lady refers to Quincy by the name of Richard’s daughter, Samantha,  and stubbornly refuses to believe Quincy’s assurance that she nor her father are who Jaclyn thinks they are. From this moment forward, Jaclyn becomes a character of many facets, and the reader is propelled into a game of illogical logic. To preserve the importance of this grandmotherly character, I will refrain from saying anything more about her. Her character can be a definite spoiler.

Frazier uniquely leaves open ends throughout the story, and encourages predictions and possibilities, making the reader think, or at the very least, wonder about the meaning of this developing maze.  She keeps the mysteries flowing, as the story becomes more revealing. Additional characters are introduced, (one is a substitute teacher who still has me wondering),  thus beginning a steady motion in unexpected directions and the aforementioned open ends. The reader can only imagine what amazing angles will be established. The possibilities for story prediction are indeed at full throttle and in doing so, has us begging for a sequel.

At the end of Quincy Rules, DuEwa Frazier does something enlightening, masterfully uncommon and brilliantly engaging; she poses ten questions about the novel and immediately changes the dynamic from a casual to an inclusive read.  Brilliant!!! This technique had me (many years removed from being considered YA) answering the inquiries with the enthusiasm of a teenager, and delving as if lured, into literary, social, and emotional elements that I would have otherwise dismissed. That is DuEwa’s genius. She writes in a style that encourages (I’d even say ‘forces’) the reader to think, anticipate and predict, only to do it all again upon completion of the reading. Quincy Rules is a wonderful, well paced, and highly recommended novel. As an educator, I believe it should be an investment for every elementary, middle, and high school English / reading department. I can only imagine the world of discussions it would create.

Thank you, DuEwa Frazier!! Waiting for the sequel!

 

 

A Review of Bernice McFadden’s “Sugar”

 

Title: Sugar: A Novel

Author: Bernice L. McFadden:

Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: Dutton Adult (January 10, 2000)

Bernice McFadden’s first novel, Sugar, encapsulates the elements that exemplify the making of a classic. This is not to say that it was perfect, for that would be pretentious on my part, but it was arguably a guaranteed page turner that you hoped would last just a little while longer. As a debut, Sugar did not lack any of the many elements we have come to know and love about McFadden’s storytelling style or her imaginative, colorful, and captivating characters. But the tale, even with its twists, was simple – direct with less density than, let’s say, The Book of Harlan (one of my favorite novels). Stylistically, it was as vivid, engaging, and captivating —  unmistakably McFadden.

Set in Bigelow, Arkansas, Sugar takes the reader on a heartfelt journey through poetic pain and the lives of Sugar Lacey and Pearl Taylor (primarily), and a host of others (secondarily). Sugar’s deleterious childhood, overwhelmed by scars and filled with a level of isolation that steals her youth and ultimately her identity, contributes to the creating of the wayward woman she becomes.

Pearl, we learn early in the novel, struggles with her own isolation, but unlike Sugar’s, hers is involuntarily self-imposed, developed after the tragic and brutal murder of her daughter, Jude. This isolation is not so much about staying out of the company of others (she finds both companionship and solace in church), or even being an effective mother to her other children (Seth, her son, speaks on this point in a single but precise statement later in the book), as it is about withdrawing into herself. 

Pearl’s actions and personality scream depression but McFadden is careful not to label her, allowing the emotional wave we ride with Pearl to reveal, by layer, her quiet but obvious struggle. This internal conflict catapults Pearl into a place from which she cannot easily escape until Sugar crosses her path forming and firming an unusual friendship and, progressively, the voids they’ve carried are seemingly filled.

Sugar Lacey is bold, worldly, mysterious and irresistible. She is a woman equally desired and hated, caught, it seems, in a complex network of interconnected (and interlocking) elements, surviving the only way she knows how, by giving pleasure, yet seems to have relegated herself undeserving of joy. She is a vassal to the highest bidder, a beast of burden, a mannequin sans emotions, and as such she receives nothing but a womb filled with frustration. But despite her transgressions and unsavory nonchalance,  she has a heart longing, from the child she never was, for unconditional love.

Sugar reinvents Pearl, rebuilding the confidence she sorely lacked and the sexiness she secretly, seemingly, yearned for. She takes Pearl from mundane to magnificent, while Joe, Pearl’s husband who would object to this rebirth (and perhaps revelation) or so we are made to believe, is out of town (his reaction shortly after his return dismisses all assumptions, including Pearl’s). The elements of resurrection (the church is an important “character”) develop almost seamlessly throughout the book and the conflicts are broad but not alarming or distasteful; they are real and familiar.

Sugar, as a novel, is multitudinous — an impassioned vision, seething with hope and finishing with unexpected confessions, familiar brutality and wow factor discoveries. It would make for an amazing movie, an incredible television series or Broadway-worthy stage play (think The Color Purple). I was enveloped by Bernice McFadden’s voice, slowly consuming each chapter and resting a day before beginning the next.  I am that kid waiting for her upcoming creations with bated breath and wondrous anticipation. Read Sugar, and you’ll understand. I promise.