My essay, I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You, appeared on the Brevity blog a few days ago and I wanted to share it with you. If you love creative nonfiction like I do, this blog, which has more than 46,000 readers, is one you should take a look at.
By Ramona M. Payne
My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with […]
Last year, while reading an international magazine called flow, I came across a word that made me sit up and pay attention. The word is Ubuntu, a Zulu and Xhosa word that means our common humanity.
Intrigued, I decided to learn more about the African philosophy of Ubuntu, reading books and articles, including The Lessons of Ubuntu by Mark Mathabane, who also wrote the memoir Kaffir Boy. Ubuntu encompasses ideas such as respect, caring about each other, empathy, spirituality, and that we are inextricably connected to each other, even when we do not recognize it. It means that I am a person because of other people, or as they say in South Africa, “I am, because of you.”
It is a balancing act—recognizing that individuals have unique gifts to offer the group or humanity, while believing no one individual is more important than the group. This kind of balance requires careful thought, especially in a culture that celebrates individual accomplishment.
At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, President Barack Obama spoke of Ubuntu as Mandela’s gift, “his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye, that there is a oneness to humanity that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us…”
During 2019, I sought to learn more about what Ubuntu is, and began to see the world and its troubles in a new and more hopeful way. In 2020, I hope to go more deeply into both an understanding and practice of Ubuntu, trying to see the ways we are linked despite the differences that keep us apart.
You need to know two things about me. Number one, I am a firstborn in a family with four younger brothers. Number two, until I got almost to high school I usually thought I had the right answer. About everything. I remember the first time I did not have an answer to a question. One summer, I went to vacation bible school at St. John A.M.E. Zion Church with one of my brothers. I have mostly good memories of the experience, I may have even known some of the children who were there from my first two years of grade school at Rockdale Elementary. By that summer, I had spent a few years at Annunciation, a Catholic school, where I did well in school, all As except for one in handwriting, which although it broke my streak, I did not fret because after all, it was just handwriting. Continue reading
I first read Toni Morrison in my twenties; it was the novel Tar Baby. Three decades later, I find her to be the most compelling writer in my lifetime. In her writing she chronicles and lays bare the experience of black people in this country in a way that is both affirming and gut wrenching in its truth. When I heard the news she had passed on I felt compelled to try to explain what her work has meant to me, but it is nearly impossible to do.
Maybe the best way is with a story, one related to her book Beloved. I had read Beloved before, but it was only after rereading it a couple of years ago that I truly immersed myself in the history and legacy of the story. In the book, Sethe makes the lifechanging decision to escape the cruelty of slavery in Kentucky and cross the Ohio River with one toddler child, and another on the way. When the slave catchers come after her, she attempts to kill her children rather than have them be enslaved again. It is hard to imagine making that choice as a mother, but then again, only one who had known how horrific life would be if she returned, for all of them, could understand the choice she made. Sethe kills one child before she is stopped and captured.
The story of Beloved was based, or maybe inspired is a better word, by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky, got to Cincinnati,(my hometown) and like Sethe in the novel Beloved, killed her child rather than have it taken away. Margaret Garner was captured as she killed the child, and was later tried. In another insult to her humanity, and the humanity of her children, she was not tried for murder. She was tried for destruction of property, because the child was not considered anything more than the property belonging to another human being, the slaveowner.
In Beloved, Ms. Morrison accomplished a major feat—addressing the devastating and ongoing impact of slavery on the minds, spirits, and bodies of black people, as well as the daily cruelties and suffering they endured. It is not easy to read, but I felt as if she had explained my story and the story of my ancestors in this novel. She wrote in her foreword, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”
I read Beloved and I realized the river I grew up looking at from the bluffs of Eden Park had helped Margaret Garner pass over, and streets I knew in downtown Cincinnati had sheltered her and many others seeking freedom. Other forms of oppression awaited them, even in the north, but they sought relief from physical slavery and a chance to start new lives.
The Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned the opera Margaret Garner, and I was involved in a community engagement project to expand the audience for this opera. Margaret Garner was performed in 2005, each night sold out, and it was the most diverse audience in the history of Cincinnati Opera. There was a private reception before its opening and I was among the guests. I looked towards the door, and in walked Ms. Morrison. She was regal, her gray locks flowing, eyes scanning the room. There were so many people in the room, all eager to meet her, have their time with her. But in one moment, she saw me looking at her, and I smiled, and whispered “Hi”, trying to communicate I see you and I’m glad to see you, but I know everyone in this room wants to have your time, and I don’t want to be another person pulling at you. She smiled back, I nodded, and I left soon after. I had seen Toni Morrison, her books had already touched me, and there was no other reason for me to stay.
Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel in Literature in 1993. Our country’s greatest writer has passed on. She has been an inspiration to me because her prose was so powerful and evocative and gave attention to stories about people that had remained unknown, ignored or unexamined by many. I am grateful for the richness of her legacy and the magnificence of her writing.
One other note: I have heard many adults say that Morrison’s work is difficult. I believe it requires careful reading, but the topics and her unflinching look at our culture are very likely what people find difficult. However, she wrote a children’s book, The Big Box, with her son Slade Morrison, which I gave out as a graduation gift for years while it was still in print. I will make sure that my granddaughters do not wait until they are 20 to pick up their first Morrison book; I am so glad to have a copy of that book in my collection.
When I was young and someone was nasty to another person, or displayed meanness of spirit when they knew the victim could not fight back, if I could not get directly involved, I used to wish for a hidden power that would let me take retribution in my own hands. I quietly thought it would be fair that if a person was unkind, disrespectful, racist, or violent, they should experience a sudden jolt of discomfort—perhaps churning stomach cramps that caused them to double over. For extreme cases, Continue reading
My husband and I sat with my father at mass this past Sunday, the ritual and order of the service familiar to each one of us, imprinted in a combined nearly 200 years of experience with the Roman Catholic Church. This church, which was renamed the Church of the Resurrection after three predominately Black churches, St. Andrew, St. Agnes, and St. Mark were merged, is where my parents attended church together for the last several years until my mother passed away in 2017. Continue reading
Last week, I devoted one day—I call it my Quiet Day—to a day of quiet reflection and preparation for the year ahead. This has been an annual practice and it is my way to start the year in a less rushed state of mind. I don’t bother with resolutions, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Nearly 20 years ago, I went through the training to earn a certification in coaching, and even though I no longer coach clients, I still use many of the tools when I want to work towards change in my life.
I began with a look at my 2018 calendar, going week by week to see how I had used the days. I remembered little victories, trips I took, days where I stayed home and enjoyed working in my yard. I thought about the people I spent time with, the meetings and events I attended, and then I wrote down on one sheet of paper the highlights of the past year. It is easy to quickly forget what we have done, felt, or experienced. I saw many happy, positive moments, and the exercise also helped me see where I had spent time doing things that I did not feel were in alignment with my goals, values or needs. Nothing to feel bad about, just something to observe.
Once I had looked over the past year, it was time to dream ahead. I identified a few areas where I want to focus, of course, one is my writing, and then I thought about the steps I would have to take to move forward. I felt a strong desire to try a new thing this year, perhaps something that is a stretch for me. I have not yet pinned down exactly what it will be; I have a few ideas, but I am certain the answer will come to me soon.
This morning, a question popped up as I mulled over an invitation. My inclination is to sometimes say yes, forgetting that no is also an option, often because it’s nice to be included, I am truly interested or curious, I like the people, the place, or the issue, or a sense of if I can, I should. But today I asked myself, “What is most in alignment with my goal or need for this moment, for this day?”Only then did I realize that although participating might be a good thing, it was not the best thing, for me, at this time. I’ve always said that as you get clear on your Yes, the No or Not Right Now becomes more apparent.
Because I can look back with gratitude and understanding that I am still learning, I can move forward with my dreams and goals for 2019, eager and excited to see how it all unfolds. Taking a quiet day is transformative for me, but it does not have to be done at the first of the year. Any time is a good time to look at your life and see if you are headed in the right direction.
This year was a milestone for me—I turned 60 and it was the first birthday that my mother was not able to celebrate with me, call me, or sign her name with my father’s to my card. When she passed away in late summer of 2017, I had no idea of how her passing would change me. I learned very quickly it was a hurt for which I had no words or experience.
I was excited about my 60th birthday and had planned a party (theme: Honey, I’m Grown) months in advance. As the June date drew nearer, I became apprehensive about how I would feel on that day, and wondered if in the middle of the celebration, I would realize that it was not a good idea. But that didn’t happen. Continue reading
I have great news to share—Black Domers: African-American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words, edited by Don Wycliff and David Krashna, was selected by U.S. Catholic Magazine as its January 2019 book club selection. My essay, which describes my experience as a Notre Dame student years ago, is one of many in this anthology. The book tells how Black students first began to attend Notre Dame, how we made it through, what challenges and opportunities we faced, and what we have to say about our time there and relationship to the University, now that there has been time to reflect. The book starts with the first Black student, Frazier Thompson (class of 1947), and continues to alumni who graduated last year. The stories begin in the 1940s and provide interesting historical context.
Writing the essay was a rewarding experience for me, because it reveals what I love best about the essay form. Not only can a good essay connect us to a more universal story, but it requires the writer to do more than recount what happened. Writing an essay requires that you try to make sense of how the event or person has shaped you, what you took away from it. I learned there is not one typical ND experience, nor did we all respond the same way when confronted with challenges. All of the stories are not upbeat, but they demonstrate the resilience of the students.
I hope you will be able to read some of the stories, and would love to hear from you if you do.
Update: Some have asked where the book can be found. It is available on Amazon and in the Notre Dame bookstore if you happen to be in South Bend, IN. Thank you for your support and interest. I also wanted to add that in lieu of any payment, the authors agreed to support an endowment for scholarships so other students can have their own ND story.
This afternoon I did something I seldom do when it is cold outside—I went for a walk in my neighborhood. The snow crept in overnight, and when I got up this morning the lawn was blanket of white, and the intersection near my house had the fresh tire tracks of the early risers on their way to work.
I had planned to walk today but when I first saw the snow, I was resistant and did not want to go through the routine of bundling up so that I could walk. So I put it off, one hour, then another, until it was noon. And then I remembered what I learned during my retreat last month. Continue reading