Bittersweet November

November and I have a love-hate relationship. Well, it’s not exactly hate but eh….On the one hand, there’s that flamboyant pop of color from the trees right before they give up their modesty. Or are they becoming more modest in their discarding? Whichever way, I love seeing them wave their gold, purple, red, and orange laundry in the air. On the other hand, it gets cold. Brutally, winnowing wind cold. And there’s Nanowrimo. The month where everyone (it seems) in the writing world scrambles to write a novel. Well, if I can’t buckle down on my skill set the rest of the 11 months, what makes you think I can do it during this month? So I get jealous. And plagued. And misery becomes me. And then I do not write a novel. I just complain on this blog and another blog about my inability to write. But, at least, here I am writing…to you…and others….and more importantly, reading and researching to be a better writer. Forever researching…

This bittersweet November I picked up Elissa Brent Weissman’s Our Story Begins, a collection of writings and drawings from authors and illustrators who have made it big today…oh, did I tell you that the writings and drawings are from when they were children?? Fun, right? I also am trying to finish a book I started some time ago by Cheryl Klein–The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. Klein does a very good job of getting your adult mind to wrap around the mind of a youth and put you back into your old shoes so that you can write more authentically, realistically, and creatively for our youth. She challenges you to embrace your quirkiness and eccentricities that are typical of growing up, and asks you questions about things you forgot about a long time…like your fears, passions, and desires at different ages. If you think about it, this could also make you a better parent and understand why your 5/8/12/16 year old does the things he/she does. Just saying. The first exercise I did in that book was a free-write…of memories when I was 8, 12, and 16 years old. It’s rough–give me a break, it’s a free write and I’m still on my Nanowrimo tirade, but I hope you will still enjoy meeting me at 8, 12, and 16 and a few memories I chose to share of those times. I really could’ve gone on for much longer, but I tried to keep it real…and honest.

November 24, 2017
I remember being 8 years old. It was 1993. Third grade. At Amidon Elementary. The school was in my neighborhood and I used to walk there or take the bus there with my grandma. I loved walking with her. She had a nice, sure, easy, swaying sort of walk. Confident, but not cocky. Reassuring. Approachable. Loving. I don’t think I walk like that now. My teacher’s name was the same as ours. Brown. Her name was Ms. Brown. That’s my name. And my grandma’s name. And my mother’s name. We are all Browns. We are also brown. Ms. Brown was black. But very light skinned. She had golden hair…kind of like my youngest daughter’s hair. I don’t remember her being at the school before or after the year she taught me. I think it was rough for her. A boy named Brandon was in our class. He kinda looked like Ms. Brown. Cute. But naughty. I could never be with someone that naughty. (Insert chuckle here, hubby). I remember he physically fought with her one day. No, he didn’t hit or kick or punch her, but she was trying to take his backpack, and he wasn’t letting it go. He was pulling it back. Back and forth. Back and forth. Like a tug of war game…between an adult and an 8 year old boy. Or maybe he was 9 or 10. I think maybe he stayed back because of his behavior?
It was a Monday. In 1993. October. Maybe the 12th. When I learned my great-grandmother died. After the fact. Her name was Marie. That is a part of my middle names. My three middle names. You know, Latin American Catholic tradition. Though we aren’t, or weren’t Catholic. Not Roman Catholic. We were Anglican Catholic. Who would’ve thought that 8 years later, at 16, I’d become Muslim? Maybe I was Muslim then, too. I don’t remember actually worshipping Jesus. I bowed my head to the cross because that it what I was told to do. I was very respectful of authority. I was a good girl. I still am. I used to light the candles at the altar in church. Though I was afraid of fire. Still am. Who isn’t afraid of that which burns? I am only now choosing to think of it as that which gives light and warms. We wore white robes…like thobes, tied at the waist with a rope as a belt. I was an acolyte. One time, for communion, instead of putting my hands over my chest so that I could just receive “the body and blood” as a wafer dipped in wine, I made the sign of the cup. And I took a whole swig of that wine. And I was bouncing around the altar dizzily that Sunday morning. How embarrassing! I can laugh at it now, though at the time it wasn’t so funny to not be able to walk in a straight line or speak clearly.
Oh, where was I? My great-grandmother. Marie. She lived in Alabama. I just learned this year that she was actually born in Georgia. I just visited Georgia for the first time this May. I loved it. I remember she was crafty. Just like my grandma. Just like my mom. Just like me. She made me a cabbage patch doll once. From scratch. Not the store bought kind. But it looked just like the store bought kind. And I loved it. It had a blue and white plaid dress. She made it when I was around 3. She had 8 or 9 kids. I can count them all up. My grandma and her two sisters are the only ones who moved this far up north. Grandma said her mom was hard. Like tough. All I remember is the cabbage patch doll. And picking blueberries and blackberries in her garden…farm…I wish I could visit it now. Trying to reclaim my history and past and ancestry, I also took the children blueberry and blackberry and raspberry picking this summer. Simply because of this memory. 
But 1993. Last memory of great-grandma Marie was that she thought I looked like her 17 year old daughter. The one who was murdered. At 17. Ruby. She called me Ruby. It kind of scared me. She had just had a stroke. And was in the hospital. I drew a picture for her. Of flowers in a vase. I think I called it “Spring Flowers in a Vase”. It was on pink construction paper. I drew it in crayon I think…or maybe it was markers. Anyways, as soon as her nurses put the picture on the wall over her hospital bed, she woke up. From her coma. Just. Like. That. And called me Ruby. And was so chatty. Freaky stuff. But I loved it. I loved getting to know her. I don’t remember her being this chit-chatty ever before.
1993. Mariah Carey, Salt N Pepa, and Janet Jackson were all the rage. I listened to Janet well into 1996 or 1997. I even choreographed a dance for the younger kids at the daycare I attended. We were going to perform “Rhythm Nation”, I think. I can see this performance gene in my daughters as they show me their dances they’ve made up and struggle to control the younger siblings that just won’t follow suit in the dance routine. Did you know? Janet became Muslim, too.
1993. Is this the year I began jumping over the cracks? So I wouldn’t break my mother’s back? 20+ years later, after therapy, it all makes sense now…though I was terrified then. It seems death surrounded me. It still does. It’s a part of life, isn’t it? Just another version of it. That we cannot see. Those of us living anyway. 
I liked being 8. I liked making art. I think I might’ve won an art contest that year. Perhaps the “Buckle Up for Safety” one? I loved my art teacher. Ms. Carpenter. She’d pull me out of class every so often to make art and do art contests. Often, I’d win. That made me happy. That my art made other people happy and smile. And that because I was a strong reader or writer or something academic, I could be pulled out of class to do something more fun! Something more up my alley…cuz I don’t remember half of what I learned about history in elementary school anyway. I don’t remember most of what I learned about history in general in my grade school years. They kinda made it pretty boring. I do remember that I liked learning about Greek Mythology and the Native Americans though. We had to make a diorama for the Native Americans as a project—I did mine using figurines from the movie, Pocahontas. I think it came out around that year. That was 6th grade. Ms. Anderson. She might just be my favorite teacher. Along with Ms. Carpenter. Yes. They were my favorite teachers. I wonder if they are still around? I woke up this morning with Ms. Anderson’s address in my head. I don’t know why it popped in there. I never visited her. But maybe I can now…if she still lives there. It’s not far away from me at all. And I drive.
I taught my 8 year old about the Greeks last year. She is learning about the Native Americans this year. She is part Cherokee. It has been wonderful learning with her. We are learning together. But hopefully not in a way that would make her forget, like I did. We are reading stories written by Native Americans and learning their names for things and connecting it to our present. And we have been learning pow wow dances…and dancing at pow wows. And she got to see a picture of her great-great grandmother. Who was Cherokee. Next year I am tasked with sewing the girls a Cherokee tear dress, so we will really be in official regalia during the next pow wow. 
Back to 6th grade. 1996. I loved me some Toni Braxton. Still had love for Janet, too. But then I was all over Celine Dion, the Spice Girls, Monica, En Vogue, the Fugees, Blackstreet, Ginuwine, Keith Sweat, R. Kelley. Yeah we sang “I Believe I Can Fly” at our 6th grade graduation. But the song I keep hearing at Safeway…every time I go there…even in 2017…is Donna Lewis’ “I Love You, Always Forever”. I sing it loud and proud, too. And downloaded it to my phone. I couldn’t resist that feel-good-happy tune.
6th grade. Ms. Anderson. She was funny. She was memorable. We had a pet hairless rat in our class. She used to carry it in her pocket. She wore a lab coat to class. She wasn’t a science teacher though. She was the general teacher who taught us reading, writing, history, and math. Maybe we had a different teacher for math? That memory is kind of fuzzy. Any who, we always paid attention to her because we wanted to see what that rat was doing. And I mean, who has a hairless rat as a pet? Sometimes she’d put it in a clear ball and let it roll around the class. We’d shriek. We’d giggle. We’d get our work done so we could get the hell out of there. LOL. Though that’s really where we wanted to be. I remember riding in her car once or twice. I think she was taking me to a contest or spelling bee or something. In the car, there was always her dog. I don’t think her dog had the seatbelt on…so it would slide back and forth as she drove. I don’t remember the dog so much. Maybe that is something she told me when I probably asked why her car had so much hair in it. Fuzzy furry memory. But I remember her. And the memory (whether or actual or implanted) of a dog sliding. For anyone who’d think that I was the teacher’s pet, they’d be wrong. One time I talked so much in class, Ms. Anderson made me stay after school writing 100 times, “ I will not talk in class.” That was so embarrassing and the first time I got caught and punished with that kind of punishment. I don’t think I got caught again talking while the teacher taught. I wonder if kids in school have to do that sort of thing now. I wonder if I should do it in homeschooling…hmmmm…Ms. Anderson treated everyone with love. I think she’d stand up on chairs and tables, too, because she was short. She also taught my cousin who is 20 years old than me (I’m rounding up).
She believed in me. She wrote me snail mail. Which I love. When it isn’t of the bill kind. She liked my writing in elementary school and encouraged me to write more. I kept letters from her. She had the best handwriting. Looked like calligraphy. One time, I wrote this racy piece of a woman in a red dress near a fire place. Her comments were hilarious though I don’t remember what they were. I remember my mom laughing and us being shocked and bewildered and entertained at the same time by this crazy story I told which probably let on that I was watching Lifetime or some more mature programming…but not yet rated R. Oh well. 
Today, I also have in front of me a letter by an author I used to read. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera. I ate her books up like a bag of chips. Loved those mysteries based in Miami from a Cuban-American author. It was an identity crush. When was the last time you heard of a Cuban-American female crime author? I wrote to her praising her work, and she wrote me back extolling me to become an author. I think I will take her advice. And that of Ms. Anderson’s. I didn’t know then that that’s what I really wanted to do when I grew up, though I had been doing it all along. It’s amazing that they did. This letter was written in tenth grade. Right before 2001. Right before I found Islam. At 16. When I became much more aware and interested in who I was. Funny—lately, I’ve been questioning “what” I am. No matter. I found myself…in a book. The best book ever written. The Book. The Qur’an. The Recitation. Of the Original Author. 
Before, I was afraid of my family’s punishment from not obeying them and my bad attitude and back talking at home. After Islam, I did not fear that. My mostly bad attitude and back talking were replaced with serenity and more respect for my family. But I feared their approval and acceptance of the “new” me, which, at heart, was really me all along. Would the neighbors point and laugh, or shun me, thinking me a terrorist too? I was still the same girl. I just wanted to wear a scarf on my head and cover up a little more. I hid. I snuck around. So people wouldn’t see the real me. Covered and uncovered at once. I just wanted to visit museums…and get lost in books. And wonder. And wander. Not all who wander are lost. I knew my way. I’d walk home from NW to SW. Just to experience the day. The weather. Usually plugged into headphones. Something Arabic or Spanish in my ear. Sometimes something English from Creed or 3 Doors Down. I liked 97.1 WASH FM. That new beginning when I was rediscovering me was the most liberated time in my life though I was still subject to the scrutiny of authority. They changed their minds afterwards. I wasn’t so bad. I wasn’t undergoing a phase. I wasn’t worshipping a different god. I wasn’t another person. I was their family. They protected my prayers. No need to hide them anymore after getting caught making fast rak’ahs behind the door.
Today I looked up your address Ms. Anderson. The one that popped in my head this morning randomly. It’s not like me to search like that on the internet, but hey, wasn’t it your class, where we learned about the internet? And the TV crews came in? And we were on TV as the modem dialed the internet up from cyber space and linked us to the world? Or was that 5th grade with sweet Ms. Norman, who passed away a few years later? So I used what you taught me. Doesn’t look like your house sold since 1989. So you must still be there, right? Because you taught me and wrote me way past that year. My last letter from you is from 2004. The year before I married. I’m going to write you and see….and I hope you still like what I write…and still find it hilariously entertaining. And I hope that now I act my age…and am authentically me…just a better version of me…whether 8, 12, 16, or 32.


2 thoughts on “Bittersweet November

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