Tuesday, June 30, 2009

For Those of You Who Still Think Hair Is Just Hair

Today I was looking through pictures and turned to my friend Billy. "Remember when you had those box braids during winter?" 

"Yeah, them things itched!" 

I smiled, for this is what happens to me with braids, and a tiny part of me feared it was some sort of psychosomatic allergic reaction to my embracing another black hairstyle! How twisted hair and race are to me. But actually, it's not just me. Billy went on,

"And I didn't like the way people treated me when I wore them." He proceeded to tell the story of how he when out to eat with a white girlfriend when he had braids. The server refused to look at Billy, or even address him directly when he ordered food. He says he'd noticed a very slight disdain in the looks he received from people, as though they were immediately more suspicious of him with the braids. More afraid of him. Despite the fact that (as he says) his skin isn't that dark, he's small, and he's soft-spoken. 

"All of that didn't matter when I had braids. It was like I'd automatically done 5-10 and was thinkin' about armed robbery next." 

Now, for women of color (including ambiguously mixed women), I haven't noticed that we are seen as dangerous according to our hair--that seems to be a black male thing. It's no secret, however, that our intelligence and beauty are read through our hair. 

It reminds me of when I was about to graduate from college and met with an alumnus for a networking event. He snarled something about affirmative action and told me, "You'd better tone down that hair if you want to get a good job." 

I'm sure people still think the worst of racism, the blatant/obvious/physical, has passed or is passing. But I tell you that some of the most painful things in life are very quiet indeed; they are the sinister subtleties that we allow to live beside us because they appear too harmless for us to do anything about. You cannot pass a law that demands men be attracted to women with natural hair. You cannot pass a law that bans sideways glances at braids. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mixed Roots Reflections

The Mixed Roots Fest (see previous post) last weekend was every bit as lovely as I'd imagined. I met Lisa Marie Rollins, which was sweet! She's a biracial adoptee who was also raised in a white home, and she remains engaged in the conversation of adoption through her writing and other forms of activism. Basically, she's my double :) To top it off, she's super bubbly and beautiful, and--of course--she just gets it. (What I loved about the fest and what I'll love about VONA are the moments that I don't have to explain. I don't have to explain the racial experience, which can be difficult to do sometimes with people who have never experienced it.)

The fest was fairly small, which is to be expected with something so new, but there were big names and tons of interesting people there--Angela Nissel, Danzy Senna (author of Caucasia and Where Did You Sleep Last Night?), and even television people such as Karyn Parsons (remember Fresh Prince of Bel Air?) Besides that, there were many gorgeous multiracial people walking around, many of whom had hair just like mine. At one point a quite attractive guy--who I didn't realize at the time was comedian Ian Clark --turned to me and said, "Well, it's no use telling you you have great hair at this place--everybody does!"

Speaking of hair, my reading went well--there were lots of murmurs and mmmm-hmmms in the crowd as I read about my first experience getting a relaxer in an ethnic salon. I could even pause when describing that awful dred-thing that happens with ethnic hair when it's half-texturized and the roots are long and say "Y'all know what I'm talking about!"   

Didn't see much else of LA outside of the fest and Japan town, but it was good to hang out with Carolyn. Her place is a bit of an anomaly in Los Angeles, tucked away near one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city that has historical claim for the many beautiful Victorian homes lining the streets. Carolyn is someone I've added to my list of People I Want to Be Like When I Grow Up. She's accomplished and successful, handling two high-traffic blogs for the Los Angeles Times, working for David Foster Wallace's previous agent, teaching a college creative writing class, and freelance writing in her "spare" time. Oh to make a living from writing...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

California's Calling

Tomorrow I leave for my big 3-week California trip. A solo professional venture/ exploration/vacation. 

First stop, Los Angeles. The Mixed Roots Literary and Film Fest, where I'll be presenting some excerpts from my manuscript. Staying with Carolyn Kellogg, now a staff writer for the LA times book review.

Next, San Diego area. A relaxing week with my lovely aunt, whom I haven't seen since 2006 and have never visited on my own. 

Finally, San Francisco. Voices of our Nation Writing Workshop (VONA) with Asha Bandele. Staying with Patsy, CNF MFA graduate who lived in my current room in Pittsburgh before I moved in with Adri. Touring the city with some friends Marcela hooked me up with. Visiting April, fellow adoptee. Lots of sights and fun stuff. I'm stoked!

Answered Prayers

When I have moments of doubt (often), when I wonder if God truly listens to prayers, when I gauge the seemingly easy, simple life of unbelievers and just want to chuck this struggle, I think of the many, many answered prayers I've seen since I began a serious prayer life in '05/'06. Not that I think I have the power to change circumstances or coordinate God's moves, but there is something strange that happens when one turns to God with all things, when one submits to that greater force and leans into faith. It is something internal, subconscious, yet powerful in its subtlety. It is difficult to believe in the unseen. It is something you must choose each and every day. It is something that cannot be totally proven, and for that the world will often find your beliefs absurd (you're up against the prevailing arrogant notion that if we can't fully understand something that means it automatically doesn't exist). It is difficult, and there are things I've been reluctant to let go of and trust God with, but over and over I am proven wrong.  

Sometimes I'm amazed at the specificity of God's response. A few years ago I prayed that Dad would get a new appointment, one at which he would feel fulfilled and purposeful and would not be checking his retirement clock every single day (I bought the thing for him as a joke but then soon regretted it when he would miserably recalculate the exact year/month/day/ moment he could retire each day).  My parents moved to Pana last June, and Dad is the happiest I've seen him in a long, long while. Without prompting from me he told me that he wasn't even sure where the retirement clock ended up after the move, maybe in a closet somewhere. 

I had prayed for Mom when she was sick and depressed--we had no idea why and she refused to see a doctor. That one took a while. We discovered that she had diabetes, and since she's restricted her diet and begun taking care of it, she's healthy--she doesn't even need insulin shots!

I prayed to find my birth family, especially my brother Justin. What I found was not only a real, living blood brother, but a wonderfully sensitive, kind, giving, earnest person who immediately embraced me after a quick phone call and invited me to his small wedding a few months later. After 25 years, I was a sister just like that. 

I prayed for the opportunity to go back to school, but then when the opportunity came I was reluctant to leave my job and all I worked for, and I put that at God's feet too. Then, to the amazement of many, I was able to do both. MGH allowed me to take a company computer and work part-time remotely, a flexible work arrangement that had never been done before at the company. Even more, I've been blessed with a wonderful manager who is so supportive and interested in my writing, writing that has nothing to do with my MGH work. 

There are many more recent blessings of personal healing, born during times when I didn't even know what, really, I needed to pray for.  

And lately, with this sudden influx of dating, I'm finding that my cup, as they say, overflows. 

I choose God every day. And though I may not always recognize it, every day He hears me.  

"Here's a Toolbox," said Graduate School.

"Now make your degree." 

I have decided that graduate school is much different than what I imagined it would be, and after talking to several other friends in various grad programs, it seems I'm not alone in this. I figured I'd come to school, take classes of course, but at the meat of things I'd have a wonderfully attentive writing advisor who would hold my hand and encourage me and hold weekly meetings to talk about my writing (okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but really this is almost what I had at good ol' OC!) Not that I literally need my hand held, but I've been much more on my own with the giant project of writing a book than I thought. I just met with my chairperson last week, after having busted my butt to get a first draft completed. She is going on sabbatical next semester when we're supposed to meet, so she'd suggested we meet now over the summer. I walked into our meeting and she was on page 75 of 240. She hadn't even read the thing! C'mon, now. She gushed about those pages she'd read (which normally would please me but I was mostly irritated), but the meeting was basically a waste, as she's asking me questions about the narrator's positionality and how that changes, whether the narrator becomes self-reflexive about the writing, etc. 

Well, I can't really answer that based on 75 pages. You'll have to read the whole draft. 

Is it really too much to ask? Apparently so. Other writers I've talked to say the same thing. We're on our own here, but what it comes down to is our own individual motivation and drive. I really wanted advice on my manuscript, and some good, solid reads--from faculty and peers. (I've found now that workshop doesn't even help me that much anymore because my project is in full-book stage and it's hard to pull out a 20-page excerpt that can stand on its own and not receive criticism that isn't constructive for an entire project.) Even my friend who is in a graduate program for speech therapy can't seem to get personal attention for her lab projects at WVU!

But I can say that there's no way I would have accomplished what I've accomplished if I were still writing piecemeal shorts while working full time at MGH. I have jumped in head first, and have learned a lot--though not necessarily from direct instruction. The readings courses have been helpful, some of the workshops have been insightful, just having my eyes absorbing creative words on a daily basis has been tremendous. I've made my book a priority, and because of that the project has blossomed. I've gotten to know some awesome writers and teachers. I've discovered research possibilities I never would have found on my own. I've made grand friends, and for once feel knit into a diverse community that shares many of my intellectual pursuits.  I've realized that I own this, it is mine, and it is up to me to make it a success. 

Graduate school gives you the tools, but you have to build it on your own. NOT what I was seeking or planning for, but fruitful nonetheless. I think it's a good thing.