Remembering Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison novels

 

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.

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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.

The Big Box by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison

 

 

I am Exceptional, Except When I am Not

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

Thoughts on Father’s Day and Fathers

Father’s Day has always been special for me; I have such a good father, and the day also comes so close to my birthday that my birthday and being a daughter have always felt linked. Today we celebrate the fathers, godfathers, other family and friends who have raised us and in many cases, helped to raise our children. We also remember the fathers who have passed on, and those who miss them.

Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, wrote about her father in a way I could relate to. In this book Kushner, who grew up reading in Hebrew, explores how differences in translation, language, and culture affect the understanding of the Bible. It is also a fascinating story about her  family and I highly recommend you read it. Here are her words from this memoir:

My father taught me what he has always taught me: how to ignore the disapproval of the world, no matter how loud it is. He taught me how to listen to myself, and how to hear that same thing in other people and places: the quiet beating of the individual heart.

I hope each one of us would have such a person in their life.

 

Practice Makes Progress

 

I’ve been taking a drawing class at the museum for several weeks. On the first day, our instructor asked us to draw a self-portrait. I started with the obvious—trying to capture the shape of my head, the size and slant of my eyes, the fullness of my lips, adding in cheekbones and topping the image off with hair, or enough swirls and poufs to make it look like hair.

The finished drawing looked nothing like me. Maybe there were a few aspects that resembled what I had seen in the mirror, but my drawing could have just as easily been a picture of someone else.

The takeaway for the day was to learn how to look and then sketch what I saw, rather than what I thought should be there. Next, I had to copy and draw a photo that was placed upside down, which forced me to look at lines, edges, and shapes to complete the picture. Instead of thinking, well, this is the arm, I know what an arm looks like, so I’ll draw an arm, I drew from sight, not expectation.

Guess what happened? My upside-down drawing was far more accurate than I thought it would be, because I made myself focus on what I noticed as I went along, rather than what I know.

Learning how to draw has been rewarding because the initial progress has been swift, hastened by learning some basic rules. My pictures look considerably more accurate than they would have weeks ago. There are basic principles and with practice I am learning how to employ them, observing shapes and shadows, how to measure and adjusting on the page.

I see parallels between my writing and my new drawing practice. When I write an essay, I often start out with an idea, not fully formed, just a sense of what I want to write about. As I keep going, noticing small details, or where my interest picks up, I make decisions about incorporating them into the work.

My drawing instructor recently said, “You have to bound your composition, you cannot fill everything in.” I decide which elements serve the final drawing, much as choosing the right words serves an essay or story. Drawing has taught me to look more closely at the world around me, and reinforces the truth that practice is essential to improvement. My goal is not to hang my work in a gallery or museum, although I share each week’s work as eagerly as a first-grader, excited that my hands and mind have tried to work in concert to create something. Like my writing, the process is as importance as the outcome, and the process and the practice are the two components I can control. The more I draw, the more I want to write, because they complement each other.

Writing will always come before drawing for me, but I’ll keep up with my sketches, if only because they are fun to make and use a different part of my brain. Practice does not have to make perfect, making progress is reason enough to keep on.

 

I Go to the Rock

StAndrew2019

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

Day of Reflection and Preparation

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.

Thanksgiving This Year

Autumn candle

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

Walking Away Money

 

Several years ago, I left a job that I mostly enjoyed, planning to take a one-year sabbatical to sort out what my next move would be. I was a development officer, also known as a fundraiser, for a large midwestern university with national name recognition. I believed in the programs for which I fundraised, the visual and performing arts, scholarships, endowments, and I met amazing benefactors, many of whom I still maintain friendships with. But I knew I needed a change, wanted to explore some of the stories that I carried in my head and heart. I had been able to spend time with highly creative people—artists, musicians, sculptors, actors, and writers, while in that position. When we had time, I asked about their processes, how they studied, when they found the time to practice and create. Continue reading