Archive for the ‘the garden’ Category

“If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. If you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.” -Lao Tzu

imagesI just sent this quote to a friend who’s in a funk; as someone who grapples with depression and anxiety, I find it useful and thought he might too. But then I read this response on “wisdom and foolishness in social media” (which questions the quote’s authenticity) and it reminded me of a post Neesha Meminger shared earlier this week about managing depression and responding to depression in others. It’s a serious condition and one that has no quick fix. I’m fortunate that depression (thus far) has had a limited impact on my life; in fact, I think my symptoms were most severe when I was a teenager, before I even knew what depression was. In my twenties I started reading books on the subject and I discovered that a number of my friends were struggling with depression too. We started checking in on each other and we reminded one another to eat right, exercise regularly, and follow the doctor’s orders—in our little community there was no shame in taking medication and/or seeing a therapist to manage depression. And it was okay to admit when we had fallen into “the abyss.” By the time I reached my thirties, anxiety had become the bigger issue for me and I learned that staying busy kept me from dwelling on situations over which I had no control (the cause of most anxiety). I never knew my mother also had anxiety issues but in the years since her retirement from teaching, I’ve witnessed her world getting smaller and smaller as she has more time to dwell on and/or avoid the things that stress her out—like driving on the highway or traveling alone. I look at my mother and see what my future could be, which makes me vigilant about managing my own symptoms NOW.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways anxiety and depression affect my writing. The past few weeks have been a little bumpy—I finished The Deep in early March and had a week of post-partum blues before immersing myself in a demanding post-doc application. Once that was submitted, I started revising an old conference paper that some editors would like to include in a new anthology. Now I’m trying to make some progress on Judah’s Tale. The semester’s winding down; I’m preparing to go to Ghana for the Yari Yari conference in mid-May. When I get back, final grades will be due and then the summer will begin, giving me close to three months to write. That prospect should fill me with joy, but there’s a part of me that worries about having so much unstructured time. I plan to conduct research in the Caribbean and I have a conference in St. Lucia in early August, but the idea of waking up day after day with nothing specific to do is a little bit terrifying. In part because I know that if I’m not focused on a writing project, I’m likely to succumb to bouts of anxiety about the future or depression around my past. I had a dream about my older sister last night—we barely speak and though I do wish things could be different between us, I know I wouldn’t be thinking about her if I were immersed in writing another novel. So do I use my writing to anchor myself in the present? Or do I use writing as a way to avoid the unresolved issues in my life? Maybe both.

Today I’m going to see a bit of fluff—that new Oz movie. I’ve been quite social lately, which is another way of filling up my free time so I don’t sit and ruminate. A trip to the garden might be in order too…

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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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imagesRoses are still blooming in the garden. I hadn’t been to the botanic garden in over a month but the shooting in Newtown, CT made me long for solitude. Some of the paths were blocked off due to uprooted trees, but despite the devastation I still felt soothed by the leafless trees. A tufted titmouse peeked out at me from the braided wisteria  and I spotted another new breed while running in the park yesterday. I went to see The Hobbit on Sunday and then came home and watched Lord of the Rings. I want out—I want a way out of the nightmare that our society has become. Right now there’s a conversation on the radio about mental illness but I haven’t yet heard anyone say we need to have a conversation about GENDER. Women don’t commit these crimes. Earlier this semester I had an unstable male student and for weeks I worried he might come to class armed. He was suspended in October but I still keep an eye out for him—we have no real security on campus and the officer I filed a report with was sanctioned (I think) just for admitting this male student had a history with campus security. The administration was so anxious to protect HIS privacy, but what about OUR safety? He was suspended years ago and then readmitted, and almost immediately started to have problems in all his classes. When he allegedly attacked a female student in my other class, I filed a report and that finally got him removed. Today I opened my email and found a lewd message from another male student. I suspect his account was hacked, but still—in my mind it’s all part of the same problem. Looking forward to being in London soon…yes, it’s more escapism, but sometimes you have to believe there really is a way out…

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I woke up this morning with my introduction written out in my mind. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to turn to black feminist writer June Jordan, and thinking about my favorite poem of hers reminded me of the James Baldwin quote I used for the title of my dissertation: “the terror of trees and streets.”

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up

like this

Which bodies belong in which spaces? Our age, race, gender, and sexual orientation too often determine where we’re able to find sanctuary. I’ve read almost half of Ruth Chew’s books and won’t have any trouble comparing hers to mine, but need to begin with a consideration of the way African Americans relate to nature. In Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, editor/poet Camille Dungy reflects on the trauma of enslavement (and lynching) and its impact on the way blacks engage with the natural world:

    African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working this land into the country we know today. Viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or an asset in a banker’s ledger, African Americans developed a complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation in American culture. (xxii)

Given the active history of betrayal and danger in the outdoors, it is no wonder that many African Americans link their fears directly to the land that witnessed or abetted centuries of subjugation. (xxvi)

Even during the most difficult periods of African American history, the natural world held potential to be a source of refuge, sustenance, and uncompromised beauty. (xxv)

I’ve got a few more articles to read on the development and design of urban parks, and the memorialization of the dead…writing an essay is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Not exactly fun, but challenging and—if it coheres—satisfying. Scheduling a midday break at the museum…


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On Thursday I ordered my new bookcase from Gothic Cabinet and then went to the new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my cousin and purchased this little pin…we then went next door to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Question Bridge exhibit—I will definitely be going back to watch more of this expertly integrated video installation (you can watch excerpts on the website *and* there’s an educator guide). Black men ask and answer questions of themselves and one another, and though their answers are interesting, it’s almost more fascinating to simply watch them processing and articulating their values and beliefs…and they’re beautiful! I joked with my cousin that they need to put names and numbers in captions, but really it’s quite moving just to hear so many thoughtful black men reflecting on issues that matter. I wish I heard those voices more often…it’s somewhat sad that it takes technology and a degree of manipulation to create/simulate this kind of dialogue among men. Still, it’s very creative…I’ll be teaching two sections of The Black Male this fall, and will definitely use this in the classroom.

On Friday morning I went up to East Harlem to join the party—my Behind the Book students at JHS 13 were celebrating the publication of their full-color short story anthology, Remembering Our Loved Ones. These are stories they wrote after completing my “Postcards from Far Away” workshop. It was really gratifying to listen as each student went to the front of the classroom and read part or all of her/his story, which was a tribute to someone s/he loved and lost. At the end I asked the students to autograph my copy of their book…I felt really lucky to be able to share that moment with them. Chris from Behind the Book then gave me a packet of letters written by a group of 6th graders I’d worked with at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Their teacher already sent me a moving email, but there’s nothing like hearing from the kids themselves:

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I’m listening to NPR right now and they’re talking about Comic-Con—the “safe space” it creates for comic book lovers who, as children and teens, were ostracized as nerds and geeks. Last week a Facebook friend posted this graphic, which addressed the same issue, and then there was a photo of President Obama with Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) making the Star Trek sign giving the Vulcan salute (sorry, Trekkies). I’m thinking about getting one of those t-shirts that reads: Black Geek. It might be important for me to wear a shirt like that when I do my author visits. School principals always want to stress that I have a PhD but I didn’t start out wanting to be a professor—I started out dreaming of gnomes and castles and magic beans. So when I sat down to develop an abstract for this book chapter, I reached back into the past for a book that left a lasting impression on my imagination: The Hidden Cave by Ruth Chew. I thought it was about a pair of kids who found Merlin encased in a tree in Central Park, but it turns out the book is set in Brooklyn! So now my paper is


on the significance of urban parks as sites of discovery and recovery in speculative fiction for kids. Chew actually wrote (and illustrated) 29 novels, and almost all of them feature some kind of magic and are set in Brooklyn (where she lived). So as a child in Canada, I read a book about Merlin (because I’m an Arthurian geek, hence my current irrational devotion to Game of Thrones) and as an adult now living in Brooklyn, I’m producing scholarship on that same book (and its relationship to my own novels, which are also set in NYC parks—the African Burial Ground, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park). Which is why I’m a proud black geek!


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…brave as winter roses…

I’ve been writing down bits of verse lately. Last month I went to the garden and saw a bright yellow rose named Obedience. That’s a haiku waiting to happen, right? But I couldn’t settle long enough to compose anything. Today in the garden I was contemplating the soft jade moss that grows between the cobblestones when I noticed that some rose bushes still have buds despite the chilly temperatures. Somehow that led to the above simile, though I don’t quite know where to place it. I thought of Genna and the sequel to Wish that I haven’t yet finished. I’m ready to start Nyla’s book, but that’s set in the summer. I wrote a grant for a book I want to write about my enslaved ancestors who bought their freedom and moved to Canada in 1820. And I’ve got an academic book—Magical Blackness—the proposal for which is due in January. So why have I spent the entire day planning yet another book set in the Caribbean? Last week I checked the price of a flight to Nevis and then last night I met Terry Boddie, a Nevisian artist who is part of “AQ/Art Quake,” an exhibit in Brooklyn designed to “honor Haiti’s history in artistic leadership, and address the impact of the January 12, 2010 earthquake.” I was at the gallery to see my friend Gabrielle Civil‘s performance art/installation—you can watch some of it here—but I knew Terry was part of the exhibit and hoped to have a chance to speak with him. I very rarely meet people from Nevis. At the post office last week a woman revealed herself to be Nevisian but she was “going postal” at the moment so I chose not to introduce myself. She wanted to cash a check and three postal workers turned her away from their window because it was almost closing time and they didn’t have enough cash on hand. She walked off muttering to herself (quite loudly) about how it was no wonder the postal service was facing bankruptcy. Then one black male clerk sent another customer after her; she came back to his window and handed him her check and ID but within seconds they started bickering…she claimed her taxes paid his salary; he insisted he paid more taxes than she did and then added, “And I was born here!” Which, understandably, set her off: “MY FATHER WAS BORN ON THE ISLAND WHERE THE FIRST TREASURY SECRETARY OF THE UNITED STATES, ALEXANDER HAMILTON, WAS BORN! I AM PROUD TO BE WEST INDIAN!”

So am I. But I’ve got a lot of digging to do and outside of my immediate family, the Caribbean people I encounter generally see buried roots as no roots at all—you’re a piece of flotsam adrift in the sea. But last night Terry talked about his connection to Nevis (where he spent the first fifteen years of his life) and how he sometimes uses hair in his work. “Because it’s in your DNA,” he said, “and your blood.” What binds us to a particular place? And what gives us the right to call that place “home”? For me, I had to spend time in Brooklyn; I had to watch the seasons change and become part of the history of this place. I wrote about Brooklyn before I moved here, but I couldn’t truly weave a compelling narrative until I knew the city intimately. I need to develop that kind of intimacy with Nevis, and meeting Terry last night gives me hope. To some, I will always be an outsider. But not to all. Maybe people from a small island are too accustomed to being dismissed to be dismissive themselves. Time to test the waters…

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I believe in signs. On Saturday as I walked past the library I noticed that someone had placed a rock on top of a tree trunk. I’d never noticed the trunk before, and couldn’t remember what the tree had looked like or just when it was cut down. Walking down that corridor—Flatbush Avenue, with Prospect Park on one side and the Botanic Garden on the other—always starts me dreaming. It’s a valley of shadows. I’d just passed the garden and wondered who had planted the corn stalks that are growing halfway up the steep slope that rises beyond the garden’s spiked cast iron fence. Then the library was on my right, and I happened to glance at that tree trunk with the rock. I looked from the rock to the space-age public toilet that was installed on the other side of the street and knew both would find their way into this new book. Went for a run on Sunday and as I passed the boulder marking Battle Pass, noticed someone had tagged it with purple spray paint. Immediately heard D’s voice, “Some kids got no respect.” Thought about going back to take a picture but kept on going. Came home, got on the train to head downtown and realized I’d left my wallet behind…got off at the next station and walked home through my old neighborhood of Prospect Heights. As I headed down Washington Ave. with the garden on my right, a flash of red caught my eye—a cardinal swooped past and perched on the fence just a foot or two away. Then his mate called him and he slipped back inside the garden and out of sight. If I hadn’t left my wallet and taken that route home I would have missed my friend; he finds me whenever I’m in the garden, but I haven’t been there in a while because my visitor pass expired. Didn’t renew it because I thought I might be leaving the city, but now I know I’m here for good. And for a reason. Am designing a course on Race & Environmental Justice and had just added “Shell in Nigeria” to my list of topics when Nayani posted this on Facebook. A good hook to get students interested in Ken Saro-Wiwa…everything’s connected.


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You can actually see things more clearly.  A rainy day is the best time to visit the garden; I went yesterday afternoon and only saw two other people (who didn’t make eye contact).  When it rains, you can dip the brim of your umbrella and disappear, see the world without it seeing you.  I was so busy looking at the ground that I forgot to look up at the buds on the trees, the raindrops suspended from dark, slender twigs.  Then I noticed the moss and the dry sides of trees, the sheltered places beneath branches that raindrops can’t reach.  The bright pink rhododendron and star-faced daffodils were the only brights spots in the garden.  Mostly I was looking at bark…trees will tell your stories if you come close.  Writing again…

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signs of spring

Since I can’t take a picture of how easily distracted I am and prone to procrastinate…

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