Category Archives: Literature and Poetry

We Can Do So Much Better: Luvvie Ajayi’s “I’m Judging You”

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I used to have a bad habit of flipping to the last page of a new book and reading the last sentence first. It’s not usually a spoiler, because I don’t read a lot of mystery or suspense, but reading the last sentence gave me a general idea of where the author plans to take me. Here’s the last sentence of Luvvie Ajayi’s new book “I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual”:

“We just need to start now. We can start doing better any time we want.”

Amen. Don’t let the title scare you off–Luvvie’s judgement is cast far, wide, and right in the mirror too. In four sections, the mind and tongue behind Awesomely Luvvie lays out the myriad ways we are not living up to our full potential.

In Life, she had me laughing about these awful people we all know: Dinner Scrooges, Lannister Friends, otherwise sensible friends who have fallen under the spell of Island Peen, booty-hole bleachers, and the fun house mirror culture that calls a size 4 actress “curvy.” This section is classic Funny Awesomely Luvvie. I laughed, but I kept waiting for the insight that I know she can deliver.

And that insight knocked me on my ass in the section on Culture. Luvvie lays it out. Racism isn’t just white hoods and burning crosses. Privilege isn’t nullified if you have to work for a living and studied hard in school. The single story of Africa that we’ve been sold (or clung to because it’s comfortable) is a farce. Rape culture is real and #YesAllWomen. Feminism, homophobia, the frailties of religion–it’s all in there. This is the section that I read slowly so I could learn from a friend who’s not much like me. For example, I know intersectionality is a problem in feminism–the goals of Feminism have often been the goals that benefitted white, hetero, cis-gendered, Western, Christian the most. Luvvie makes it so concrete:

“The misogyny that white women get looks different from ours, and our struggles aren’t in the same box. They might be called “bitch,” but we get called “nigger bitch.” They might make 77 cents for every dollar that a white man makes on the job, but a Black woman gets only 64 cents out of that white man’s dollar.”

If you’re starting to think that this book might be too heavy for the end of summer, Nope. Here’s how Luvvie, a Christian, takes down those who cling to one verse in Levviticus as the foundation of their homophobia but skip over the verses about shellfish, tatoos, and poly cotton culottes:

Leviticus, my ass.

Leviticus, my ass.

The section on Social Media should be a must-read for any child who is about to be given a phone of their own. #WeMustThinkOfTheChildrenForTheyAreTheFuture. We must also put a stop to #HashtagAbuse (#hash #tag is a totally different topic and actually kind of fun, but messy). We all need to get some behavior when it comes to Facebook oversharing, flirting on LinkedIn, falling for fake news, or curating a life made of eSmoke and eMirrors.

And all of that wisdom (and side-eye) leads to the final section of “I’m Judging You”…Fame. Luvvie is famous. She started out Internet-famous and now she’s getting to be famous-famous. She drops some facts about microwave fame, sex-tape fame, reality show fame…all forms of Lame Fame (TM Baddest Mother Ever, all rights reserved).

So what ARE we to do?

  1. Buy the book and enjoy laughing and learning with Luvv.

B. Call out foolishness in all its forms. We all have a platform and a sphere of social influence. Your influence may reach thousands, or it may reach a circle of friends and family. Expect better. Shut down the fat jokes. Call out the casual racism. Speak out on that board you’re on or the club you’re in or the school where you work and speak up for inclusion. Vote. Vote with your dollars and your voice.

iii. Get creative when it comes to spelling. I’m talmbout expanding your vocabulary as much as you worry about alphets. Learn words like “yansh” and “mtchew” and “minuswell.” We often have to search for new words to match our growing world views. Skim the footnotes, iSweaterGawd.

2a. Start doing better. We can start now.

V. One more thing. I started following Luvvie so I could learn how she creates success (and for Game of Thrones recaps). She’s been doing this social networking game since Facebook had 20 members and two of them were those Ken Doll twins. I’ve learned that it’s not all magic. There’s a good bit of magic, but there’s a shit-ton of WORK. Hustle. Consistency. Drive. Determination. All those football coach words. I’m learning to believe in myself. It might take a few more years, but this thing I wrestle with on the weekends is going to be a book one day.

Until then, click the cover to order “I’m Judging You” for yourself!


(This is an affiliate link.)

The Excruciating In Between

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

That’s what Daddy and I said to each other last Sunday, when we had our last good visit. As I crossed the parking lot to my car, I realized that he hadn’t ended our conversation with what he always says when one of us is leaving–“Be careful. I don’t have any extra children.”

He had said it to me and my sister two weeks before when we visited. I remember it clearly because Little Gay chuckled, “Now THAT sounds like Daddy!”

I sat there in my car with the nagging fear that I wouldn’t ever hear it again.

I was right.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

The Lion of Lucerne Switzerland.

I’ve talked to him since then, but he hasn’t been able to talk to me. Now we are caught in the exruciating in-between.

My dad has been sick for a long time. My Daddy has been gone for a while now. The strong arms with their topography of scars from angry cats and terrified dogs. The voice that called me Shug. The finger that pointed up at the ceiling when he was about to say something funny. That kissing sound he made to call a dog in for some scratching behind the ears. Even the terrible cheese dip that he made in the microwave and brought out to the little metal table by the pool. All gone.

But his body is still here. He is in between worlds and we are too. Kind people say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and I think “but he’s still alive.” Then there are the people who say, “I hope he gets better” and I can’t find words to say, “That is impossible.”

For a week, we’ve all hovered somewhere in this excruciating in-between. Alone in their house, I cannot bring myself to sit in his chair in the library because it’s Daddy’s Chair. I had no problem sitting in it before, but now I am caught between that comforting memory and the idea that he won’t ever sit there either. In his room at the hospice, I sit nearby on the narrow loveseat but not next to him. That’s my father, right there…but my daddy doesn’t seem anywhere nearby. In-between.

So I go to Griffin for my turn to sit on watch but I can’t do it. And there is nothing but “it” to do. So I go to work to stay busy and it helps some, but every time my phone rings my heart stops. We run out of milk, even in this strange fatherless world, so I go to the grocery store and I buy things that G can cook in case I need to go. I take my kids out shopping for school clothes and I surreptitiously make sure they have something somber to wear for the day that I will soon have to explain to them. But I don’t tell them yet because we are caught in-between.

This isn’t my first time walking down this path. My late husband died at home and I was his caregiver. Richard never gave in to the idea of dying; even as his body disintegrated around his brave heart, he fought. In the small hours of his last night, while he stumbled around our bedroom barely able to speak, he drew together a moment of lucidity and said, “This is a rough patch.” I sat on the edge of the bed in the half-dark and tried to believe him.

He was in hospice care for about nine hours total between me signing the paperwork and his last breath. There wasn’t a lot of room for in-between. There wasn’t much time for “the forethought of grief” as Wendell Berry calls it. There was busy-ness and then there was grief.

None of this excruciating in-between.

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“We’ll Die Walking”: Lessons From Reading In a Hospital

Remember when you could sit down and read a book for a couple of hours? Yeah, me too. That was before kids. I read whenever, wherever, and however I can these days.

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Percy Fawcett, explorer

Yesterday morning, I had a strange experience while reading on my walk into work. I’m halfway through “The Lost City of Z,” which my friend Jill loaned to me last January and I’m finally getting around to. I can’t give you any spoilers because I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s really good (thanks, Jilly!). It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer in the Amazon who set off in 1925 to search for a city of gold and ended up vanishing into the jungle without a trace. Or maybe there are traces later, but like I said, not finished yet.

I was engrossed in the story of one of Fawcett’s early expeditions, a trek to find the source of the Verde River between Bolivia and Brasil. The expedition hit snags and Fawcett and his men–after a few bad decisions about how much canned food to carry–ended up starving in the jungle next to a poisoned river with nary a fish. Fawcett refused to turn back, even though most of his men were falling ill from the fevers brought by the relentless mosquitos and vampire bats.

There I was, hurrying to the end of the chapter in hopes that I could find out how the party made it out alive before I had to clock in. My face buried in the book, I trekked up the sidewalk, right at the crepe myrtles, left at the rosemary, then I ducked into the building through the side door under the Rehab pool. A wall of icy air-conditioning hit me but I never looked up from the page. Just like Fawcett in the “green hell,” I was confident that I could find my way.

PET scan of the brain

PET scan of the brain

No one is ever in that hallway. The only thing back there is a storage closet and the back entrance to the P.E.T. scan area. What’s a PET scan, you might ask? That’s a kind of radiology test where some highly skilled people put a radioactive tracer in you then take a picture or Positron Emission Tomograph to map out disease activity in your body. It’s the test that shows you if cancer has spread. When cancer survivors say they have to go in for a scan, it’s probably a PET scan to monitor the progress or remission of their disease. A PET scan explores the previously invisible life of our organs. In a way, it’s like Fawcett heading off into the jungle hoping to find treasures and fearing what may be revealed.

Like I said, that hallway is safe for reading because no one is ever back there. But that morning, I had to pull up short before tripping right over a group of three people. They walked out of the PET scan doors in a cluster–the radiology tech in his sage green scrubs, a young woman carrying two purses and a sheaf of papers, and one women of about sixty, who looked to be carrying the world on her shoulders. They didn’t pay me any attention, there behind my book.

“We’ll get these read this afternoon, and your doctor will call you with the results,” he said, looking the older woman right in the eye and nodding gently. Neither woman spoke but they both nodded in return. He smacked the button on the wall that opens the doors to the Radiation Oncology department. They hesitated a second while the doors swung open then he led them through in silence. I waited in the hall for the doors to close behind them.

Walking through that spot, the spot where that woman had stood a second before, I felt like I was walking through a cloud of her fear. It was tangible, buzzing, a gray heaviness like a swarm of jungle mosquitos carrying yellow fever. That fear that a cancer patient feels, coming to the hospital for the scan that will bring good news or the worst news. The scan that reveals the next part of her life and how it will go. That ordinary woman seemed like Fawcett chopping his way into the jungle, one foot at a time, never knowing if the next moment would bring a viper or a city of gold.

I thought about that woman and her daughter, how their afternoon would stretch out before them until the jangle of the phone would send their hearts to the ground. I hoped the news would be good. Please, please, please let that scan be clear. Let her laugh with relief and let the tears that they cry today be tears of joy. I took a couple of breaths, thought about all the times Richard and I had waited for one test or another. Thumbs up, thumbs down–will our life go on?

I pressed the button for the elevator. As I waited, I was struck by this passage in the tale of the Verde River party:

The starving expedition. Fawcett far right.

The starving expedition had a camera but no food. Fawcett front right.

“Fawcett soon noticed that one of the men had vanished. He eventually came upon him sitting collapsed against a tree. Fawcett ordered the man to get up, but he begged Fawcett to let him die there. He refused to move, and Fawcett took out his knife. The blade gleamed before the man’s eyes; Fawcett ached with hunger. Waving the knife, Fawcett forced him to his feet. If we die, Fawcett said, we’ll die walking.”

– David Grann, The Lost City of Z

I thought of that woman and how her shoulders stooped. I had assumed she was carrying her fear of dying. But really, she wasn’t like the starving man who wanted to surrender to death. She wasn’t rolling over and giving up–she was still walking, still consulting with her doctors, still LIVING. Regardless of the results of her scan.

I don’t remember if Richard ever had a PET scan. With blood cancers, your cancer is everywhere from the get go, metastatic from square one.

I do know that he never gave up. The man looked at me not twelve hours before he died and mumbled through cracked and bloody lips: “I’m just going through a rough patch.” He insisted on living, right up until the moment he died. He never quit walking, and I followed him right through that jungle, right up to the gate of the golden city.

“If we die, we’ll die walking.”


Want to read it for yourself? Here’s a link!

Loving Your Mammy Isn’t Going to End Racism

Back in college, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel about race. I remember feeling honored to be asked, but I only recall one thing that I said that night. We were deep into the session and people began to get honest about the way they saw racial divides showing themselves on our little campus–in the classroom, in the dining hall, on elected boards.

At that point, a young white woman who was a well-known campus leader took the floor and said, with exasperation shaking the bow in her hair, “I just feel like we’re LOOKING for a problem here. I mean, nobody’s stopping anybody from sitting where they want to in the dining hall. I’m not a racist if I want to eat lunch with my friends. I mean, I was RAISED by a black woman…I love black people!”

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I remember my friend, Terri, catching my eye and looking like she was about to bust. I spoke up and took a chance on satire:  “I loved my Mammy too but that doesn’t fix the problem.”

The punchline worked. It got a good laugh and kept the discussion on track, without saying, “Sit down and shut up, Miss Scarlett.”

And it was true–I did spend several of my formative years under the care of Ms Jenny Mae Bray**, better known in our town as “Quicker.” She never liked her given name so she went by her family nickname, a reminder of how fast she got things done. Quicker watched us while our parents were at work. Now, don’t get any highfalutin’ ideas–we lived in a single-wide trailer with some wooden steps on the front. She had full reign over us and what Quicker said WENT. One time Joe snuck out into the yard without Quicker’s permission and she spanked him with my Bolo Paddle until it cracked in two.

Quicker was a giant presence in my youth. I lost touch with her after we moved when I was in second grade, but my memories of her are sweet and rich. When I was all grown up and in graduate school, Mom took me by to see Quicker at Baby Sister Argroves’ house, where she was working. Later that afternoon, I saw my brother and said, “Joe? How big was Quicker?” He blew out a long breath and said, “Oh man, she had to be six feet at least and maybe 225, 250?” I held up my hand at my shoulder and said, “She comes up to HERE on me! She’s tiny!” We marveled at the truth that time had revealed. And we agreed that we still wouldn’t try any foolishness while she was in charge.

calpurnia

Yes, I loved Quicker. I still remember how, when she gave me a bath in the green tub, she squeezed the washcloth filled with warm water on my shoulder. I do that to my children and think of her. I remember the smell of her egg custard pies and the way she would put a little pat of butter in the center of each while they cooled on the kitchen table. I remember the smell of the iron and how she sang to herself while she ironed shirts in the center of our tiny living room.

I loved Quicker, but I didn’t know her. I only knew the narrow part of her life where it intersected with mine. That’s why I said what I said on that panel about race at Wesleyan. Loving one person through a narrow lens doesn’t mean you understand what life is like for her or her family or her race. Proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. That’s why the first step in joining the discussion about race in America is listening. Widening the lens that we’ve used for so many years to “see” our neighbors, our friends, our beloved.

Spoiler Alert I’m about to talk about a scene in “Go Set a Watchman.” Yes, I read it. Go ahead and judge me.

A lot of people didn’t want to read Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” first novel because they didn’t want it to change the way they saw the characters that we’ve all grown to love from To Kill a Mockingbird. How could Atticus be a racist? How could Jem not be around? How could Scout be a grown woman drinking booze and kissing men?

In reading another view of them, from 20 years past the TKAM storyline, I might have to widen my lens. Kind of like getting to know someone like Quicker, who had been a big part of my life, but only on my terms.

The scene that most moved me in Watchman was when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia at her home. Calpurnia’s family has suffered a great blow with the arrest of her grandson. The situation is made hopeless by the racial politics of the time (because if the racial roles were reversed in the car crash, and a young white man had hit a drunk old black man, no charges would have been filed). When Jean Louise shows up at Calpurnia’s knee, she is devastated to find that Calpurnia “is wearing her company manners.” Jean Louise is not welcome; she is cast out into her whiteness. In shock, Scout cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal what are you doing to me? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

And Calpurnia answers, “What are you all doing to us?”

With those words, Jean Louise’s lens is shattered because Calpurnia insists on being seen in her entirety, not just as a part of Scout’s life. “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks.”

Quicker took good care of me. Because I loved her, it’s my duty to honor her too. To seek to understand. To listen. To widen my lens. To right what has been wrong.

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**Edited to change Quicker’s name from Strozier to Bray. My mama corrected my memory. I think the fact that I didn’t even recall her name correctly is a great comment on the point I was trying to make: I loved her, but I didn’t know her.

Sunday Sweetness–“Start the Day In Happiness, In Kindness”

Here’s a beautiful sunny day kind of poem by Mary Oliver, read by the author:

Want more of her work? Follow this link:

 

Want to read a classic Baddest Mother Ever story about kindness? How about:

Panning For Gold Atop Lookout Mountain

Saturday Snort – The Sexiest Old White Men of American Literature

 

I’m probably going to English Major Hell for this one, but here goes…
poe

 

OK, no more jokes about Poe. I shall poke fun at him nevermore.

 

eliot

 

Man, wouldn’t it be cool if T.S. Eliot was the surprise guest at next year’s Super Bowl halftime show? Maybe doing a duet with One Direction.

 

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We always see pictures of Samuel Clemens in a white suit…so OF COURSE he wears tighty whities! Mystery solved.

If you like funny stories about underwear, check out this classic Baddest Mother Ever post:

If You Walk Out of Your Panties

To Call Myself Beloved

The last poem in Raymond Carver’s collection A New Path to the Waterfall is called “Late Fragment.” Legend has it that his wife, Tess Gallagher, found it scribbled on a scrap of paper in the pocket of his bathrobe a few weeks after he died from brain cancer.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to

feel myself

Beloved on the earth.

Raymond Carver screwed up most of his life with alcohol, but he spent the last eleven years of his brief time on this earth sober, successful, and happily married. Then he died from brain cancer anyway. That’s how life goes, right? No promises. No deals. No rest for the wicked and only the good die young.

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As I grow older and my heart gets tougher, those two words–even so?–resonate. They are the acknowledgement of all that has come before, the good and the bad, the fair and the shitty: “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even considering all that has happened to you and where you are right now and whether you deserve this fate?” Carver accepts it all with two simple words: I did.

Oh, when I read this poem for the first time, I thought I knew a thing or two about life. I was 21 and completely enthralled by a man who was totally out of my reach. He loaned me this book–he liked to lend me books and ideas and I lived to borrow them, mostly because they had been imprinted with his approval. So when this poem worked its way into my tender and untried heart, I skipped right to those last words: to feel myself/Beloved on the earth. Being beloved is the point of life, right?

Nope.

The longer I live, the more I realize that the heart of this poem, this last fragment from the crumbling mind of a bruised genius is the line just above that: To call myself beloved.

It’s not about the even so and whether it will ever be balanced out.

It’s not just about being beloved while on the earth.

The work of this life is to call myself beloved.

 

late fragment