Blue-Eyed Jazz & Love: 3 Lessons I Learned From Toni Morrison

As a writer when I feel the pull of creativity it is as seductive as the lure of a would-be lover, arms outstretched with whispers in my ear as sweet as honey mixed with molasses.  It is enough to keep you up all night and daydreaming throughout the day imagining the next thing to say that will capture the feeling, moment and emotion simplistically.  It’s beautiful.  Soul-stirring.  Inspirational.  Like sex that is so good it makes you wanna  cook good eggs or make good coffee.  But then there are the times, most times, when the words don’t come and their absence lingers like the smell of a former lover, arms long gone, and words long silent.  Emptiness where hope was.

Sometimes the words are there but I don’t feel like sitting with them or jotting them down or typing them on a keyboard so I distract myself with mindless television, meticulous housecleaning, or unnecessary errands.  Sometimes I read.

Lazy days and late nights in June, hard earned from busy days and long nights for several months straight, led me to a renewed love affair with Toni Morrison.  I first read Toni Morrison as a pre-teen.  A friend of my mother’s loaned me The Bluest Eye and Beloved and I marveled at the fancy script on the covers but was soon disinterested because I didn’t understand what I was reading.  I was too little, at the time, to make sense of the grown up tensions of incest and infanticide.

It took me years to pick The Bluest Eye back up, as much for the image of the blackgirl on the front as anything else.  And when I got past the first difficult pages (difficult, I believe, for any teenager to fully comprehend) I read words that made me make sense.  The Bluest Eye didn’t cure my depression but it made me feel less strange for my own misguided misperceptions of why I was so unhappy, as if light skin, long hair, and blue eyes would be the end-all-to-be-all of my problems.  The book pushed me to see my black as beautiful, to see all black as beautiful.

When I read Sula I was nearly grown and appreciated Sula’s fearlessness, even though I didn’t understand her grown-woman choices.  It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I could understand her better, though never fully, and appreciate her, even admire her.  When she declares her independence to her grandmother, rejecting traditional expectations of women to marry and make babies, saying “I don’t want to make somebody else, I want to make myself,”  everything in me leaped.  Those words were powerful.

Jazz is a good read, but it is complicated and jagged, melodic but intentionally scattered like the music, which kept me from getting all the way through it the first or second time.  Third time’s a charm and I read through it in one night.  Identifying with Dorcas, a motherless daughter seduced by a grown married man or seducing a grown married man (depending on perspective), got caught up trying to feel wanted and important.  Her memory haunted his wife’s house like a ghost because the wife could not be young and beautiful again.

My re-acquaintance with these stories and others (Love is on my nightstand) reminded me of how and why Morrison’s brilliant prose has always served as a writing siren and a blackgirl call for me.  The characters are black and female, bossy and complicated and real.  They laugh, they cry, they lose their minds and put them back together, they fall in love, they resist love, they want to be seen, heard, loved, made love to.  They are mothers, other-mothers, wannabe mothers, bad mothers, good mothers, best friends,  sister-friends, girl children, married, single, left alone, wanting to be left alone,  young, old, promiscuous, chaste, saintly, judgmental, loud, quiet, masculine, feminine, sad, abused, raped, murdered, resurrected, talked about,  beautiful and ugly.  They love each other fiercely and men conditionally.  They dance, philosophize, and complain.  They are real—everything at once and nothing in particular.  They put me in the mind of so many women I have known and loved and myself.

These characters are enough in their own right… fighting against films that often depict blackness and femaleness as  one-dimensional or broken, and spoken out loud words that sometimes forget that there are wonderful stories written down.  When black women write blackgirl stories… they are filled with all of the possibilities and dreams and hopes in the world. They also tell the truth and give us a place to see what we look like on paper.

Looking back at the books and their lessons I have compiled a few things I (have) learned from reading Toni Morrison this summer. (NOTE:  This is NOT an exhaustive list)…

SULA

1.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with resisting conventional labels and expectations.   Sula was a revolutionary, a rebel, a pariah. She didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about her.  She lived life on her own terms and resisted conformity.  She did what she wanted to do and what made her feel good unapologetically.  Though she had a problematic view of love and relationships, brought on by how she witnessed it in her family, she was faithful and loyal in her own right.  And that was  more than enough.

JAZZ

2. Love that is desperate (even when deliberate) is dangerous.  Dorcas died in Jazz because of the lust-inspired love of a man who could have been her father (and the disdain of her new, younger lover who was more concerned with the blood stains on his shirt than her bleeding and dying body).  This love and need to be loved is sometimes too much.  Manic love can never be sustained.

THE BLUEST EYE

3. Internalized self-hatred distorts our views of beauty.  Pecola Breedlove saw herself as others did and took on all of the bullshit of the world and put it on herself.  I don’t think it was Pecola that was ugly, but rather what she witnessed, experienced, and endured.  Society has done such a number on little blackgirls that it feels like all we need to be happy and acceptable is to be entirely different.  Not black, not a girl, not poor, not vulnerable.  Pecola’s peers knew the truth—that blue eyes and black skin would not make her beautiful, but rather odd.  Strange.  Pitiful.  And pitiful as she was, her fragility and naivete, her young body made mature too soon by a figure that should have protected it, led to a mental breakdown and deep emotional blues.  Blackgirls are not unbreakable (or unbeautiful).

These stories offer commentaries about love, friendship, black culture, black girlhood and everyday experiences often hidden behind closed lips and closed doors.  Morrison is brave enough to tell unspoken truths and to teach her readers remarkable lessons about living and loving.  I cherish the stories she tells and will be re-reading Love this week, and ordering her new book Home when I am finished.

What is on your summer reading list?  What is your favorite blackgirl story?

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Glue

In the morning, my eyelids feel glued together, the weight of some pressing spell pushing back down as I struggle to open them, fighting the tug of the mattress that pulls back down into darkness as panic rises in half formed horrors that are part dreamt, terror that I am missing something vital right now, and yet it is fifteen minutes before my heavy eyes stay open and let the light in.

I quickly sit up, turn to the window to force light into my eyes, and fumble at the bedside stand for any device to tell me if I have really missed something life changing. My mind jumps from one terrifying conclusion to another until I have read the calendar. I am not due anywhere till ten.

Still, lazing here will condemn me later to scold myself and imagine spots of laziness as fat or little leeches of genius attaching themselves to me, gluing me down tighter. So I slide my feet to the floor and press them into the wooden boards, the day’s first real sensation calming me and bringing clarity. I dig for shorts in the inevitable pile on my shelf, settle for wearing jeans that I will want to put on later anyway and pad into the living room. In the kitchen awaits tea and on my laptop the cavernous throat of the social internet and on the iPod I clip to my shirt, the lure of tunes not suitable for exercise and on the fridge the tapping toe of the shopping list and notes about chores. The glue stretches me towards them all, gelatinous tendrils pulling in all directions till I am unable to move quickly. But at least my eyes are open now and I am upright and I ignore their tug and begin my stretches.

Afterwards, I am proud of the expanded, worn feeling in my muscles and the fizzing of energy-inspiring blood flow, but almost an hour has passed and the tendrils are expanding, stretching now towards the shops and work, guilt seeding in my stomach like an ache of having gone nowhere.

At my desk, my fingers drum by the steaming teacup struggling to hold onto an ounce of my thinking as I stare at my own unfamiliar words on the screen. The glue has me cocooned tight in the chair but it clings to my mind and my thoughts run slow, what feels like a letter a minute etching onto the page as the windows of the internet behind on the screen and the window of the sunny outdoors behind the desk and the steaming tendril from the kettle on the other side of the room tug gently but insistently on my concentration.

At four thirty the sucking insistence of the shopping and cleaning and home drags me from my seat with little left behind, and I move slowly on.

When food has vanished and the cupboards are full and the television has momentarily sucked the energy from my mind with the lure of a fleeting warm place beside another body, I can barely stand to walk to bed as the mirriad gelatinous strands still clinging to me push down in a heavy web. As I roll heavily onto the mattress and allow my eyelids to flicker, the web slides from my shoulders, reabsorbed into the bed’s softness to reenergise itself as I rest. And though it is now late and I should sleep, recharge my energy to resist it again tomorrow, now suddenly I feel freedom, and energised, hassle my weary partner for attention and a place to use this energy up so I can sleep.

Exhaustion

I am tired
Not for lack of sleep --
No, I slept quite well last night,
and I've had my coffee.

it's something deeper, something
inherently present, 
in the fibers of my skin,
in my tendons, in my eyes.

I am exhausted, fatigued by life,
by the noise and silence,
the people, and
the empty rooms,
the light and dark ;
by hope and despair.

so worn down by the world
that nothing in it can
refresh my mind from the
constant buzzing

I am tired, and there are not
enough hours in the night
for the type of rest I need.

On Rape Culture

Gentlemen. This is what rape culture is like:

Imagine you have a Rolex watch. Nice fancy Rolex, you bought it because you like the way it looks and you wanted to treat yourself. And then you get beaten and mugged and your Rolex is stolen. So you go to the police. Only, instead of investigating the crime, the police want to know why you were wearing a Rolex instead of a regular watch. Have you ever given a Rolex to anyone else? Is it possible you wanted to be mugged? Why didn’t you wear long sleeves to cover up the Rolex if you didn’t want to be mugged?

And then after that, everywhere you go, there are constant jokes about stealing your Rolex. People you don’t even know whistle at your Rolex and make jokes about cutting your hand off to get it. The media doesn’t help either; it portrays people who wear Rolexes as flamboyant assholes who secretly just want someone to come along and take that Rolex off their hands. When damn, all you wanted was to wear a nice watch without getting harassed for it. When you complain that you are starting to feel unsafe, people laugh you off and say that you are too uptight. Never mind you got violently attacked for the crime of wearing a friggin time piece.

Imagining all that? It sucks, doesn’t it.

Now imagine you could never take the Rolex off.

Time, Again.

Before we met, you showed me your diary.

I must confess that I am still confused by this sequence of events, as, I imagine, you must be confused by my decision to leave your life so suddenly. I’ve gone over everything in my head time and time again and I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow, everything got mixed up. Though this may seem a flimsy reason to you, it is reason enough for me. I don’t understand, so I’m going to leave.

Before we met, you showed me your diary and then we were having sex on the wooden floor of your living room. I still remember the way the plants filtered the sunlight and the sound of the tea kettle building up steam. Then our son was at the foot of the bed, asking me where you’d gone.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “I expect she’ll be back soon.”

Today I went into your study and found that you’d converted it into a gallery. The first photo of every roll of film we’d ever had developed was there, somewhere. I found that I could date every one, even the ones that hadn’t happened yet. They seemed to go on forever, a jumbled mess of happy memories, each one partially obscured by blinding white light. I knocked over a jar full of tacks but when I went to pick them up I was overcome with vertigo and I had to leave.

We were making desperate love in your basement when you told me about spacetime. You said that the future is just as real as the past. You told me that just because you aren’t there yet doesn’t mean it isn’t real. You said it was like Baghdad still being real when you’re in London. You talked about personal time and light cones and folding space and I didn’t understand anything except the way that your breasts moved and the way your breath misted in the cold. Then we were on a roller coaster and you were screaming and you said, “This is what it’s going to be like all the time.” A balloon seller lost hold of his wares and they floated majestically into the sky. It was beautiful.
After you introduced yourself, we resumed our date and I asked you again why you’d chosen a drive-in. You told me that you had a special soft spot in your heart for B-movies. You said that there was something endearing about the earnestness of it all. You said that they called out to our imaginations in a way that big budget films can no longer achieve. You said that all science fiction – no matter how dismal – was optimistic in that it assumed that there would be a future at all. We were in a board room and you were explaining to the assembled group of investors about the Machine. They were smiling and nodding. They didn’t really understand but experts had told them that your idea showed promise and, after all, a war was on. The coffee tasted terrible and I kept fidgeting in my seat. You were radiant. No one thought to ask what would happen if the Machine broke.

Today, I watched an egg assemble itself on the kitchen floor. It made a strange popping noise as the last bit of eggshell attached itself. It flew into the air up and up and then came to rest on the counter. A helicopter roared overhead and our son came in and told me he was scared. I didn’t know what to tell him. The war has begun and no one can say how or when it will end.

I remember your reaction when you read this letter. I remember how the last line, where I say “we weren’t meant to live like this,” brought a tear to your eye and you turned to our son and tried to explain to him that I was gone. But how could you explain? What does ‘gone’ mean to a child his age? Then we were lying together under the stars and when the first fireworks went off, you leaned over and kissed me for the first time. You tasted like popcorn. I can’t blame you for choosing a new husband.

When you finally came back, you were younger. That was the hardest for both of us, I think. We didn’t share the same memories anymore. You held me and told me that it would be alright, that you had hardly changed but I think that we both know now that that wasn’t true at all. Time changed people. That’s how it worked.

Today, I went down to the basement and stared at the Machine. I can still remember the day you turn it on. You’ll stand in front of a crowd of reporters with our son and your new husband at your side and you’ll give your speech about the tyranny of time and death and the triumph of science and about setting us free. But inside, you’ll be thinking, “I wish he had been here to see this.” I know this because, before we met, you showed me your diary and you wrote about this day. How could you not? It was the most important day of your life. You saved us from the enemy and ended the war. You asked me to stop it. There’s nothing I can do. The future is just as real as the past. There is no before or after anymore. Because of you, there never was.

We weren’t meant to live like this.

Forgotten

I once told a girl I loved her, until one day I didn’t, anymore.

The problem with people is that they’re never constant. They always change. Sometimes gradually, sometimes so abruptly that it just takes you by surprise, and you’ve got no other choice but to accept it.

Their faces remain, the way memories do to remind us, often painfully, that there was something good in the past… and it’s lost now. The past and who they were, back then: never to return again.

But what’s even more painful is when you change. You look in the mirror and you see someone else, you feel another heart beating in your chest, and the images you see in your mind are different. You feel alien to yourself, because somehow you remember how you used to be and you know that’s not who you are; you know that’s not how you’ve been, these past few days, weeks, or months.

And try as you may, you can’t convince yourself just well enough that the love you once felt is still there.

It got lost in the past, just like you.

It got forgotten, and forgotten it will remain.

Now that’s heartbreaking.