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 […]
Favorite Books from 2019
My list may not be the same as the New York Times bestseller list or another “best books of 2019” list, but here are some of my favorites reads from the past year. I read about twice as much nonfiction as fiction, but there are some great novels in this group.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
- The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- All the Colors We Will See by Patrice Gopo
- Educated by Tara Westover
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) by Elena Ferrante
- In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
- Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
My goal for 2020 is to keep up the pace of about one book per week, although some take longer, others, less time to read. I typically stay with one book at a time and I look forward to settling in on a Sunday and starting new book. Many readers like to use audible and e-books, but I prefer the actual book, for the experience and feel of the book, so I can make my own notes (I know e-readers let you do this), because I want to take my time with the story, trying to figure out structure and pacing and how an author keeps me turning the page. I also found that I read more since I started setting an annual goal, because I make time to read rather than waiting to have time.
How do you decide what to read—booklists, recommendations from friends and other readers, reviews, book club? I’d love to hear how readers choose their books.
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.
The last two months have been busy—I launched my workshop series, Write.Pause.Reflect, in October and have been planning and delivering workshops, connecting with friends and meeting new people who are interested in reflective writing.
Write.Pause.Reflect is for anyone who is interested in using writing as a tool for managing stress, situations that cause you to worry, thoughts that keep creeping up, or issues of concern. Expressive writing, pioneered by James Pennebaker Ph.D., uses writing as a way to improve health, including mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. In April I experienced and learned the techniques, and after my first day I knew this was a method I wanted to share with others.
What is it?
Reflective writing uses prompts and reflection on the prompts to move towards better health. In the workshops, we pause to examine the writing and our thoughts about it and consider its impact. This type of writing is different from a diary or most people’s ideas about journaling; it asks you to consider the possibility of reframing the stories we hold about our lives.
Do I have to consider myself a writer?
It is not designed solely for writers, and no, you do not have to share your work; the writing is personal.
Each workshop has been engaging and the feedback very positive. Participants are thoughtful, willing to do the writing, and respectful of each other. I continue to learn more about this process and look forward to conducting more of these workshops in 2020. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or you can comment below.
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.
Every year, I use August as a planning month, my equivalent of get ready for school. I want to write more, read a few books, work in my yard, and enjoy this hot weather for as long as it lasts. But before I take a hiatus from posting, here are a few things I’d like to share:
Reading During July, I finished all four volumes of the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante and I highly recommend these books – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child. The novels follow the relationship of two girls from Naples, Elena and Lila, from childhood to their sixties. The sometimes-complicated nature of friendship, rivalry and loyalty, the role of women in a culture that was led by men, education as a way of escaping poverty, and the backdrop of Naples, Italy and its changing political and social dynamics are key themes in these books. I read the first novel, an extremely satisfying read, and the last line made me immediately pick up the second book. If you’re still looking for a great summer read, check out these books out.
Writing I primarily write essays and also started a novel a couple of years ago. The novel sits in a folder, and maybe one day I will revise it, or see if I want to shorten it and rewrite as a short story. Earlier this year I decided to take a break from any client work and focus on a much longer book-length project. It’s too early to give much detail, but I am enjoying the research, some travel, and of course the writing, although there are days when the words come slowly. In August I will take a few days to attend a writing conference and expect to come back home with great ideas and new energy.
Staying in touch I’m taking a break from posting here until after Labor Day, but you can still find me on Instagram @writepausereflect or on Twitter @ramonapayne1. Enjoy your August and I’ll be back in touch after Labor Day.
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
Twice this week I have had lunch with friends who were visiting from out of town. Both times we sat outside at Jesus Latin Grill, enjoying the food and another hot summer day. Each friend is able to find or follow me through my website, and they read it to keep up with what I’m doing and thinking.
This reminded me it is important to say “Thank you.” I want to thank all of my readers for taking a few minutes from their day to read my posts. I know everyone is bombarded with so much news, requests, and all manner of information and you could simply hit the next or delete button.
So thanks for reading my posts. I have been at it for several years and appreciate your interest in what I’m writing. Many of you let me know through comments and in other ways that you are paying attention, and for this I will always be grateful.