May 2015. Today is Mike Brown’s 19th birthday. This I learned from the political education and relationships that I have benefitted from through the It Starts Today campaign that ends today on Mike Brown’s birthday. April 2005. Ten years ago, I was invited by John, Courtney, and Jamie to apply to join the Advisory Board at Resource Generation. I did so. I entered my first board meeting at the Walker Center in suburban Boston in a cohort of rookie board members along with Andrew, Ajita, Penny, and Meg. We were some kind of board Fab 5 heading into headwinds of organizational turbulence, interpersonal challenges, and divine breakthroughs that I could hardly fathom when I first walked through that doorway as board member. It was revolutionary to attend meetings where the culture was to introduce yourself by saying four things: Your name. The place you live. Your class identity. Your “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun). I’ve been more schooled in and on gender and sexuality from the colleagues, friends, comrades, and confidantes of RG than any Women & Gender Studies classes could have instilled. At the first RG conference that I attended (circa 2006), multiple RGers did not only talk about their inherited wealth but told stories of how they could trace their white families’ wealth all the way back to slavery. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It rocked my world. And, I was hooked. RG gave me the tools, the political education, the camaraderie to be able to say that “my mom grew up in a working-class, white family” for the first time. I had never understood this, nor seen this facet of my family tree before being immersed in spaces that were explicit and unapologetic about class, classism, capitalism, and class dynamics. Not by being outwardly focused and waxing philosophical about class in society, but by being inwardly focused on families and the belief systems and biases that color my choices. I have been off of the board for just about four years and forever give thanks and have multiple, daily appreciations for the gifts that having been a board member at RG has bestowed upon me. Wisdom, love, patience, courage, trust in others (in their anxieties and their daring feats and so much more), impatience, humility, a yearning to tell stories and write blog posts among them. And ask others questions so they will write their blog posts and tell different versions of their stories. Today, I honor the life, the premature death, and the legacy of Mike Brown and all the people of Ferguson, Missouri. As one more name, place, and episode in the long legacy of lynching and the addiction to violence that discolor the US Constitution. I had not known the name of Ferguson before last summer. The people and popular outrage of Ferguson compelled me to figure out how I could act where I was and with those people that I already knew. To inquire who were the small group of people that I could band together with in such a nauseating, perplexing, horrifying time. If you’ve got some change in your pocket, some discretionary dollars in your bank account then go and invest in Black liberation, in Black leadership, and in Black dignity. By investing in Blacks in America, we are investing in all humankind. Thanks, yall. And, praise Jesus that I’ve learned to see that those who believe in freedom are of all races, of all classes, of all nationalities. And, I will continue to seek out those who believe in freedom and civil disobedience.
Years ago, someone described my cooking as subtle. Aside from the jokes that that meant bland, I heard the compliment acknowledging the use of nuance and a soft touch. Like my father’s light-handed ra-ta-ta-tat of the salt or pepper shaker on his steak.
In tonight’s dinner of grilled cheese, ketchup to go on the side and onions to grill in the skillet were givens. Rosemary sprinkled within was a last second addition before putting the two slices of bread over the heat. And that bit of spice, makes all the difference.
Like the rosemary in a grilled cheese, there is nutmeg in pancakes, asofetida (hing!) in curried lentils, ashes of cinnamon and red pepper in hot cocoa that change everything else about a mouthful of flavor. and allspice in anything with pumpkin.
Food each day can have such lovely additions when I think of them. It is a practice a lot like an appreciation. By practicing at least once a day, and sometimes more than once, cultivates the greater chances of having more spice and appreciation in the next day. When I have had long lapses of bland days, they tend to be devoid of being able to appreciate the itsy bitsy things in life. With time, I have found little games and sensory gimmicks that increase my abilities to appreciate.
It is becoming the same in the kitchen, where I open the cupboard door that is too the left of the stove more often. Most spices sit on the second shelf, within easy reach of the gas burners on the stove top. As I have come to make pancakes more and more, not a pancake recipe goes by without nutmeg. Nutmeg is only denied on the odd occasion that it detracts from the rest of the batter.
When I concocted the four ingredient version of hot chocolate — soy milk, cocoa powder, coconut oil and agave — into a pot on the stove, I thought of the dashes of cinnamon and red pepper. It was as little work as the Swiss Miss packets (with those awful, artificial marshmallows) that I had plenty of as a child. Yet, considerably better suited to my grown up palette. Just as my adult self has less practice with schoolyard humor and teasing, which I have replaced with appreciations and mirroring.
I was born may 1978. My skin had a green hue to it under the lights of the hositpal’s maternity ward. Or so my two brothers thought, probably their own comic book projections. They called me the Hulk, in my mom’s presence, the first birth she had given where she had not taken any drugs – or shot to the spinal column. That was a big regret or surprise to her, because my head was many orders larger than the two others that passed through her birth canal. In addition to my 2 brothers, I have 1 sister who was also awaiting my arrival. My dad, supposedly, was awaiting a 2nd daughter, who he hoped to name Stephanie. He got me, instead.
So, I’m the last born. The final seed. In the early years, my status as the fourth of four meant that I was a spoiled baby, in the eyes of my 3 elders. My sister is 18 months older, one brother is 5 years older, and the other is 8 years older. We were the four-hued siblings, mulattoes born in the mile high city during the ‘70s. As, I’ve learned in the last decade, one of many outposts in fly-over country.
We jettisoned from 5280 early in my life. Kindergarten was in Denver, with 1st grade beginning in Nairboi, Kenya. After 10 years as an employment/discrimination lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, my dad joined the foreign service. Big lifestyle change in mid-career, as Reagan’s re-election campaign was ratcheting up. At that time, the State Department was the least diverse agency in all of the federal government. So issues of inclusion, access and race-at-work is in my genes. That was unbeknownst to me until a year ago. Guatemala followed Kenya. Virginia after that. Swaziland came after Kenya. Back in the U.S., I have lived in NM, CO, MN, NY and WA over the last 17 years.
Nearly one-half of my life has been back in the US, with the first half of my life lived was in Colorado and then as the son of a diplomat. Dad was trained as a lawyer, Mom was trained as a schoolteacher. Until she had my brother. Her passion for teaching shifted to PTAs, as my dad’s work was enough for them to raise a family. They bought a house in 1971 for $24K, which was one-fourth (or one-sixth) of my dad’s income at the time. They still own the same home, 40 years later.
Living abroad, I had functional Spanish, and elementary SiSwati. In hindsight, Swahili would have been curious, but it was my first place abroad and I was 6. In a place where getting accustomed to a new country was plenty. From one country to the next, good grades translated. I excelled in numbers and math, while I blumbered in English, literature and grammar. I have a fond memory of spelling, that was my forte in grade school. My mom inquired about writing assignments from my sister and me. At a certain point in elementary school, I only brought math homework, assignments and test home for updates. There were report cards at the end of a school period. But, I learned at an early age to cloak my writing to myself. The critique was more than I could stomach. So went to great lengths to avoid it.
For a few years, math was eclipsed by geography. I struggled with art, being artistic, and being creative. For some time early in high school, I was so scared that I resented art class. A few moves around, did place me in a setting to get to work on the yearbook by the time I was in high school. One year led to the next, and I was one of 3 yearbook editors. It was a wholly different medium, of published matter that captivated me. In exchange for a kick-ass cover illustration, we promoted a contest for a free yearbook for the best design. To my knowledge, we received a single submission. It was all that we needed. On a black cover, white dots from a white-out blotter to illustrate the sky, moon, letters and a castle tower.
That same year, I embarked into the first t-shirt making endeavor I was a part of. Again, we threw the conventional wisdom, the parameters and norms that had defined others and confined me. Instead, we put text and images on the chest and back. And deviated from the white/off-white backgrounds. I still have that tan colored shirt with orange illustrations. A long sleeve in dark brown, with the same orange were color combinations that awakened my peers.
I sustained my studies when still in high school. As dating and girls began to enter my life, I found that student groups gave me an outlet beyond the classroom intelligentsia. I had heard the duality of book-smarts and/or street-smarts for years. Along with life, certain subjects began to wane. It may have been the reading and writing components, as I still enjoyed the social aspects of learning together.
My relationship with books has evolved. I struggled with Shakespeare constantly. Literature blossomed late, relatively late. I had been a reader of non-fiction for so long. Although, reading Borges, Garcia Marquez and Richard Rive. Years later, I wonder if Rive was a foreboding to Chris Abani. Over the last decade, I have read a handful – yes, 5 – of books that have fundamentally altered my worldview and outlook on life: Botany of Desire, Spontaneous Healing, Fire on the Prairie, Kindred, and When the Past is Present. Just this week, I learned that Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 12 weeks. As she left an intense relationship in NY for the Caribbean.
One way that the internet has impacted my life, is by making me more literary and finding more tools, and supports to nurture my voracious appetite for words and reading. If Cupid had a bookworm arrow, it missed me until I was out of college. My palatte opened up once I was no longer commanded to read. And directed what to read, irrespective of how dry or ho-hum it was.
I use the internet to read more about authors, their lives and the environments that affected them. I use my cell phone to note book titles and a list of authors that arise in conversations, on a whim, or in passing. My list has grown to more than 120 books. And the public library is one of the beloved public institutions. I have numerous library cards, three in my current possession. As an adult, I take the time (sometimes frequently, other times rarely) to visit the library for so long that I can wander through the stacks. It is a form of synchronicity and trusting the universe, long before I had read such phrases that apply directly to experiences that I have lived, known and breathed.
At this juncture of my life, my relationship with money is at the fore. As is my relationship with masculinity. After two and a half decades of leaving those stones unturned, I visit them often. Probably daily. I no longer want to perpetuate cultural norms that act oblivious to such powerful social forces.
I have less fear now of writing. Of debt. Of the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unseen. Less fear of unemployment. Less fear of myself, and my limitations. I delight in those.
I do not need to have the life of the generation before me. Yet, I was glad to realize it back then and be open to it going forward. Monumental changes made for a tumultuous 2010. 2011 was an era of rebirth, renewal and redirection.
Death has been lingering, maybe since Buddy’s passing in January 1997. The first death of a family member since Gma Shirley had died 9 or 10 years earlier. Death at 18 in the states felt very different than it had at 8 outside. It felt isolating, confusing and fracturing in Guatemala. There had been ridiculing, shaming and enough punishment that the one time I recall crying over Shirley’s death was inside the warmth of my fleece jacket one day during lunch. It was overcast overhead, seated on some bleachers overlooking a soccer field, and I shut the world out in order to cry inside my red pullover.