Open Letter to My Friends With Kids

I’m glad you had your babies. I’m glad good people are raising the next generation. Your children are beautiful and special and I enjoy watching them play with you and take their first steps and say profound things at bedtime.

Sometimes I’m annoyed because it seems like some of you have lost your identity and spend all your time posting photos of your children, but then again I’m sure I annoy a lot of people with my endless photos of our cats and our garden — not to mention my #365feministselfie project. Continue reading “Open Letter to My Friends With Kids”

Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage.  Continue reading “Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet”

Update: Five Things

  • My father-in-law is dying of cancer. He is dying at home with round-the-clock care, surrounded by his extended family. My father died in a public men’s room of an overdose. The contrast in details is pretty stark, but the feelings are much the same. And in the end, they’ll both pass through that gateway alone. Grief doesn’t live in a line, but a labyrinth. I’m surprised every time I turn a corner to find it there.
  • I have a pile of review copies in my office. Interviews with a couple of poets are in process, but none are ready for publication yet.
  • I’ve completed applications to three low-residency MFA programs. Yes, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen didn’t need MFAs to become successful writers. But I’m not living in the 19th century. Who knows what will happen during or after my course of study? It still seems important to try.
  • I’ve spent three days out of the past two weeks in bed. Having an “invisible” chronic illness is especially frustrating at times like these. Yes, it’s exacerbated by stress, but it’s not exactly like I can keep my life from being stressful. And it’s true that certain preventative measures can keep the symptoms down, but it’s not very helpful to beat myself up about not taking them (or being able to take them) after the fact.
  • We have a brief respite from February’s slings and arrows. I’m going to take advantage of it right now and go for a walk before the winter weather returns with a vengeance.

Photo courtesy of Akif Mert via Flickr, CC2.0

(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving

All the FeelingsI recently heard a historian giving an interview about the original Thanksgiving. She pointed out that what made the English colonists so thankful was the awful year that had come before. The Pilgrims hadn’t meant to settle on a rocky coastline with poor soil and long, frigid winters. They’d been heading to Virginia but got blown off course and landed on Cape Cod in desperation. That first winter, they lost a huge chunk of their numbers to famine and illness. Native Americans in the area had also been decimated by a smallpox epidemic. If it weren’t for assistance from Squanto and treaties with other members of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims would have been no more than a footnote in the history books.

Continue reading “(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving”

On Samhain and Being a Bad Witch

Think of the year as a wheel. Then divide that wheel at the Solstices and Equinoxes. Then divide it again between each of those days. That is the wheel of the year, and those eight holidays are the days when Wiccans mark the turning of the wheel. We call those days Sabbats, or the Sun Holidays. Samhain and Beltane are the two biggest deals in the Wiccan calendar. Many witches also observe the phases of the moons, or the Esbats. They’re important too, but I’m not going to talk about them right now. I’m going to talk about Samhain and why I am a bad witch.

Continue reading “On Samhain and Being a Bad Witch”

Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope

Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

Continue reading “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path”

The Move (Introduction)

On a bright, cool day in December I packed up all my things and took the fool’s journey into a new cohabitation. The fool will say “it’s different this time,” but the wise fool knows when it’s actually true.

What follows are excerpts from my journal entries written before, during, and after the move.

Saturday 12/10/2011

The dream:

A tent full of women in folding chairs,
a table at the front

a buffet served over beds of ice

Me introducing,
talking about the interplay between dreams/words and reality,
the inner and the outer life

how this very event starts as a dream,
started as words on paper,
and moved through them into reality

how reality and our experience of it
sparks our inner life —> poetry

the experience of a bite of food
or running into a friend by chance
or hearing someone else’s words read aloud

informs our own inner life

the idea of delicious food served over beds of ice
and wildflowers perched in mason jars
and a room full of women — all these beautiful women!
young, old, mothers, crones, fat and skinny, smooth and blemished —
listening and speaking

it’s important that some of the
women have short hair

Pepper Spray, Football, and Other Words that Don't Mean What We Think They Mean

Last night, as Army Guy and I sat down for a late dinner at Galway House, tables filled with (mostly) large (mostly) men shouted at the plasma screens as men in tight pants ran around and jumped on each other*. Eating at Galway House is like eating in your uncle’s rec room, if your uncle were Irish and liked Pabst Blue Ribbon and had a lot of boozers for friends — and liked to cook you really tasty food.

This was the first time I’ve been there during Monday Night Football season. Football, cheerleaders, and NASCAR aren’t really my thing, but I do love the Galway, in part because you’re as likely to find a Lesbian Avenger at the booth next to you as you are a member of the IBEW. And as Jamaica Plain follows the same path of gentrification that Cambridge and Somerville have, I find myself more and more drawn to the places I avoided when I was younger and upwardly mobile.

Last night we had to shout to hear one another, though, which was less pleasant. And looking back on the evening, I find the context of our conversation that much more disorienting. Surrounded by middle-class Americans enjoying a quintessential American pastime (drinking beers and watching football), Army Guy proceeded to explain to me the meaning behind the innocuous-sounding headlines I’ve been hearing on the radio. It wasn’t tabasco they were spraying on the faces of those kids who linked arms and sat down at U.C. Davis. It was a chemical compound 15 times as strong as a habanero pepper. And they didn’t just spray it at them. According to U.C. Davis Professor Nathan Brown’s open letter to the school’s Chancellor (which has since become a petition):

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

There’s more. This article in the Atlantic documents use of “less-than-lethal” force against OWS protesters across the country. The Washington Post also reports on “esclating protests”.

Our police are attacking our own citizens — our own children — with chemical weapons and clubs because they linked arms and sat down and refused to move. I turn on the news and I don’t know whether I’m hearing about Cairo or California. History is happening before me, and I’m watching it from the sidelines, more confused than a schoolchild will be in forty years reading about it from a book.

“It’s been fifty years since the 1960s,” I shouted across the table last night as our neighbors drank beer and watched football.

“Yes? And?” he replied.

“I guess it’s time for another round.”

We paused and contemplated the flat-screen TVs, the tinsel snowflakes and shamrocks that dangled from the ceiling.

“All those years ago in the 80s when people were telling me I was born too late while I ran around with a long skirt and a peace sign around my neck… I wasn’t born too late, or too soon. I was born at just the right time.”

I think about language, and how the language we use betrays our beliefs. As the bifurcation of America continues, I wonder how long it will be before we can agree to use any of the same words at all. Nonviolence or nuisance. GLBT or homosexual. ObamaCare or health care reform. Austerity or social injustice. Pepper spray or chemical agent.

And I realize something about myself, something disappointing and also something that makes me settle deeper into a sense of who I am. My days of protesting are over. I won’t be camping out in Dewey Square, although I will donate money and materials to those who do. I’m not brave enough to link arms and sit down in front of men in uniform holding weapons. But I trust that I have a purpose, some bit part in history to play, even if it’s a stack of journals in a dusty attic and a neglected little blog. And I will cheer my team on the plasma screen as I eat my steak at the Galway.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that at least one screen was dedicated to the Bruins (hockey) rather than the Patriots (football). There is no line of sight in the Galway that does not include a plasma screen TV.

This Is Your Hair on Henna

Starting in college, my naturally golden locks started to darken. When I overheard someone describing me as having brown hair (it’s dirty blonde, thank you very much), I finally took the plunge and dyed it red. I look great as a redhead, and at one point had shoulder-length red hair. Unfortunately, chemical dyes are murder on anyone’s hair. Since I’m spoiled with naturally thick and mostly healthy hair, I really noticed the difference when it started to frizz out. Eventually I allowed my natural color to grow back in. Last summer, though, grey hairs started making serious inroads into the faded blonde. When I cut it short, I decided to take the plunge and go red again. Chemical dyes worked okay for a few months, but once again my hair started to frizz, break, and whimper. I wanted to grow my hair long again, but knew that if I kept dying it I’d end up with a full, thick head of damaged, faded red hair and obvious roots.

I’d heard about henna, but had been warned about the difficulty of finding a quality supply. The henna they sell in supermarkets and beauty supply shops isn’t pure henna, and it’s often mixed with unnamed chemicals that can do all sorts of damage to your hair, especially if you’ve already dyed it with something else. Then I discovered that a friend of mine with gorgeous, long, glossy curls uses henna, and I asked her where she gets it.

“I use henna from Yemen,” she said, and sent me a link to Catherine Cartwright-Jones’s online henna empire. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my curly-haired friend sent me to one of the only reliable sources of 100% pure all-natural henna. The website isn’t the easiest thing to navigate, but that’s for the best of reasons: It’s host to a wealth of information about the history and uses of henna. And it’s a home-grown business without the budget to hire an information architect and UX designer.

After a fair amount of perusing, I ordered a 200-gram packet of henna from Pakistan. I opted for the Pakistan henna because it was described as having a lower dye content than the Yemen variety, and I was hoping for a more coppery red.

When I got the package, I was really excited to try it, but also wanted to make sure I paid attention to what I was doing. It’s not difficult to prepare Mehandi henna paste in advance, but it does require some planning. You have to mix the henna powder with a mildly acidic liquid (lemon juice, for instance) and let it sit for at least 12 hours in order for the dye to be fully released. You also have to leave it in for at least twice as long as a standard chemical dye.

My first attempt was less than perfect: I only used about half of a 200-gram packet, mixed with orange juice, and didn’t have quite enough paste to coat my hair in the recommended “mud-mask” fashion. In spite of the shortage, the results were quite impressive.

Here’s my hair before the henna:

Photo of my hair before using henna

And here it is afterward:

Photo of my hair after using henna

This time, inspired by the individual mixes posted by various women, I decided to get more creative. In particular, I wanted something to mellow the smell of uncut henna, which I find vaguely reminiscent of dried blood.

This is what I put in my second batch:
300 grams henna (Lawsonia inermis) (half from the last packet, plus one full packet)
about 20 grams senna (Cassia obovata)
Enough orange juice to give the mix the consistency of stirred-up yogurt
~1/2 C ground cloves
a righteous sprinkle of ground ginger root
cinnamon
frankincense (I’ve always wanted an excuse to put frankincense in my hair!)

I let the mix sit for almost 24 hours, and while the smell of the henna was definitely still there, the other spices masked it well. More than 24 hours after rinsing out the dye, my hair still smells richly of cloves and the other spices I used. It’s a deeper, richer red than the last application. The texture is glossy and smooth, rather than the frizzy, damaged mess that chemical dyes produce.

For my next batch, I’m thinking about reversing the proportion of senna and henna for a more subtle color. I’ll probably use less cloves (they darken the dye) and more cinnamon and ginger root. I may use some cardamom as well, and more frankincense if I have time to replenish my stash (I’ve had a bottle of frankincense on my altar for about 10 years. I don’t think my ancestors mind.)

If you’re interested in learning more about henna, its history and uses, there’s a free e-book on the Henna for Hair website.

I found the historical information fascinating and feel like I’m connecting with an ancient tradition that goes back thousands of years, even while I wrap my head in plastic wrap and watch Netflix videos while the henna sets.