Not at ALL What You Thought

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Last night, I remembered how well I used to sleep when I put a chenille throw on my pillow like a pillow case. So I wrapped my pillow in the throw and went almost immediately to sleep.

And I dreamed that the girls (who seemed to be my sisters, for some reason) and I went down to Franklin to visit Daddy (who died ten years ago. In the dream, he was just fine, though). We visited for a while, but when I was ready to go home, the girls refused to go with me. They wanted to stay.

I cannot express the frustration I felt when all my threats, whining, and even tears did not change their minds. Even awake, I can feel it. Ouch.

I finally gave up tryin to persuade the girls, but I was goin home. Now, I don't know how we had gotten to Daddy's house in the first place, because then, I had to get a car from Daddy to go back home. Fortunately, in the dream, he had a big ol' car lot, in the field where Grandmama (Daddy's mama) used to plant peanuts. I could have any of the cars; all I had to do was fill out a form.

Thing was, each and every car had a dead body in, and/or on, and/or beside it (like a dealer havin died in the process of tryin to sell it to somebody havin died while about to do a test drive). Dead people. In various stages of decay. I decided, since a car with a dead person in it was my only choice, to pick one where the deceased had been so for quite a while. Dry bones only, please. And that's the only description of the car that I can remember, y'all. Sorry.

After choosin my car, Daddy said, "Give me your form," and I couldn't find it. I knew I'd put it in the Bosom Bank, but when I dug around for it, I couldn't find it. Finally, I felt a papery crunch down lower. I happened to be wearing one of those one-piece, whole-body girdles, and the form'd slipped down into the front of the "panty" area.

I turned away from Daddy, reached into my crotchal space, and pulled out the form. It was covered in a thick, grayish, slimy, disgusting crud, apparently a discharge. Ew. At this point, the form had become one of those disposable plastic and paper thingies hospitals use to help keep beds clean. I didn't want to give it to Daddy, but he wasn't disgusted at all, simply took the thang and sent me on my way.

But I was sick of this dream, so I woke myself up. It was so unsettling, I didn't want to go back to sleep, for fear of continuin the dream. (Would I have to pull that dry skeleton out of my new car myself? Or would I have to drive around with it?) I turned the lights on, turned on the TV, fought sleep until about five-ish this morning, when I had to get up and prod the girls into school-readiness.

Do dreams have meaning? I don't think so, unless it's just the mind tryin to figure out a problem that it couldn't solve durin the day. Lookin at it that way, then, I could see that my dream might have something to do with a spiritual relationship I've been worryin about. Worryin because I've been messin up. A lot. Askin forgiveness, you know, but not sure whether I've really repented. And, therefore, not sure I'm really forgiven.

Something in the dream, if this is its significance, bodes well for my relationship, then. I think.

But still. No chenille on the pillow tonight, honey.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Merry Thanksgiving!

My best gf, V3, owns a gigantic brandy snifter. Cracks her up every time she looks at it. Yesterday, I told her, “You’re s’posed to put fish or flowers in it.”

“I wanted it for a punch bowl,” she said. And that’s how she uses it. Yesterday, she pureed a huge bag of frozen fruit and poured the puree and nearly two liters of ginger ale into the snifter. This was our T’giving punch. V3 and her mama cooked nearly everything for our dinner –and from scratch: the turkey, the pork roast with cranberries, the macaroni and cheese, the giblet gravy, the dressing, the rolls, the sweet-potato pies, and the carrot cake. And, in case you’re not sure, when I say from scratch, I mean the “Good God, aren’t these the biggest sweet potatoes you’ve ever seen?” from scratch, not the “Are these all the canned yams we bought?” from scratch. And V3’s husband, S, wasn’t satisfied with merely makin bread; he had to serve his braided and painted with an egg glaze. He also fried the second turkey in peanut oil. (This one was treacherous: havin been born and raised in NO, S felt he had to inject copious amounts of liquefied heat into the turkey, the kind of insidious temperature that doesn’t start to bite till you’ve said, “Hey! This is good,” and walked out of the kitchen, away from water, bread and anything else that might save your tongue, until it was too late. If you like, you may picture S, 6’6”, dark and resembling a taller, more athletic Luther Vandross, grinning with evil anticipation as he fried this turkey. You won’t be far off.) Goobs and I, V3’s daughter, supervised by V3’s mama, made a yellow cake –again from scratch.

My own mama was serving dinner to the homeless at her church, from about 8 am till 1 pm, when she felt her 74-year-old legs and feet couldn’t take anymore, and then she went home and rested.

I contributed the collard greens to V3’s dinner. V3 bought the greens, the prettiest I’d ever seen, and we two picked the hard stems off, while V3 searched vigilantly for worms. Nobody likes worms in their collards, but V3 is right neurotic about it. We found one and a half tiny, brand-new-leaf-green worms during the picking, and one worm after the first washing. Now, if it’d been my kitchen, there’d been no “first” washing, just one washing, but during my (I have to say meticulous, leaf by leaf) washing, V3 kept lookin over my shoulder into the sink full of water, her huge, long-lashed brown eyes worriedly searching for hiding worms, her thick brows bent in a frown of suspicion.

“See any more worms in there? They hide, you know. Sneaky things.”
“No,” I said lightly and amusedly. (I can’t help but think that if it was anybody else but V3, I’d’v been annoyed. Huh.) Unfortunately, after that wash, I was stupid enough to show V3 another tiny worm, pressed on the lip of the sink stopper. This is when the washing became “the first washing.”

So “If I find another worm, I’m just gonna eat it and not tell you,” I said, as my fingers became ever more pale and wrinkled. V3’s mama fell out laughing. V3’s mama was a tad dubious about my collards recipe (salt, pepper, butter, and steam: “No Southerner worth his salt puts butter on greens!” she said), but she was pleasantly surprised, to my relief.

V3 had invited her parents (who brought three of their grandchildren, twin girls and their brother), my sister, her husband and their sons, a colleague and her mother, a couple from our church, my daughters and me. Over the phone, a neighbor* whose oven had to be borrowed, said, “This isn’t like you! You don’t like a lotta people!” Kind of embarrassed Neighbor to find out that she was talking to V3’s mother (who loves a lotta people), and not V3. This characterization, however, is not strictly accurate: V3, like me, hates spending a lotta time with total strangers (and she has to, on the regular, because she’s a published author, and her husband’s a well-known artist). But most of these folk she knew and loved, so . . . .Anyway, the colleague and her mother couldn’t make dinner. Colleague’s mother lives in NC, which was havin horrible Weather on T’giving. Colleague decided to stay home, too. And the church couple didn’t show up, either. We don’t know what happened with them.

So we arranged the tables in the kitchen and the dining room to V3’s satisfaction (which is sayin somethin: she’s not The Artist of the family but she has an artist’s eye, certainly), got the food on the tables, and V3 put the punch at the very end of the table in the dining room, where the adults would sit. The sixteen of us joined hands and the evil S gave the blessing, thanking the living God for His presence in our lives, for each other, for the food, and then we all said “Amen.” V3 forestalled our children’s bum’s rush for the food with instructions on how to feed:

“You will take one plate from one table in the kitchen. Come in here (the dining room) and get what you want to eat, moving to the right. Take your full plate back to the place where you found it, take one cup from the same place, come back here and get some punch. Go back to the kitchen, sit down and eat. You don’t have to try to get everything you want at one time. You’re welcome to come back for seconds, but remember that you may want dessert, too. ” My sister’s younger son, M, ten, bright eyed and always commentary ready, raised his hand. (My sister, on my left, nudged me: this was gonna be good.)

“Is the punch alcoholic?” M asked. I think my jaw hit the floor.
But “Yes,” V3 said, without missing a beat. “We’re all gonna get drunk.”

*This is the neighbor who once owned, then fell out of love with, the dog currently named Frody.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Overheard in the Ladies'

So I'm sittin in a stall (yes, that's what I was doin, like it's any of your bidness), and I hear three giggly younguns come in. One says, "My hair. . . ." Another says, "I got on a girdle and my bra's cuttin me."

"Really? You're wearin a girdle?"

"Yeah, girl. I'm fat."

I flush and come out, makin for one of the sinks. Without lookin around, I say, "NONE of y'all knows what 'fat' is."

Stunned silence.

Then gales and gales of laughter, upon which I made my exit.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"The Heart Wants What it Wants"

I was talkin one of my former students into reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods, and after I'd told him a little about it to whet his appetite, his eyes brightened and he asked, "Have you seen What Dreams May Come?" I hadn't (though I own the DVD). So we struck a deal: he'd read AG if I watched WDMC. (Former Student swore the parts about Hell wouldn't be really scary.)

Took both of us a while to get on with our several parts of the deal, and he even started reading before I'd found the johnbrown DVD. But I finally watched the thang. While I was tryin to get into it, one of my gfs called to give me an update on her day, and I mentioned that I was tryin to watch this movie. "I hated that stupid movie," she said. Apparently, she and her husband saw it when it first came out, in a movie theatre, with a huge group of friends in Maryland, and (as you've just read) they hated it.

"Well, lemme see what I think about it," I said, and gf rang off. Actually, I thought it was a sweet little movie, though ignorant. Or disingenuous. And when I told gf that, she said, "Well, you have a right to your opinion, but don't expect me to go to hell for you. I remember tellin S [her husband], 'Don't believe the hype. I ain goin to hell for you,'" she laughed.

"Ah, it's a movie about love. All it means is 'If you need me, I'll do everything I can for you. Because I love you.'"

"Yeah, but I ain goin to hell for you."

"Hey, it ain like I believe in the stuff I saw in that movie, but Jesus did it. He went."

"Exactly. He already did it, so why should I have to?"

"Well, it's a story. I like stories." Gf gave me the verbal equivalent of a shrug and we hung up.

Thing is, this is a movie, though full of mythological elements, that is not about religion. It's about the omnipotence of love, a favorite H'wood theme I've had a lot of philosophical trouble with since I became a grownup. Because, in most H'wood stories, this omnipotent love is eros, or even epithumia, not, say, phileo, or even storge (although, of course, I've seen movies about the omnipotence of a mother's love, too).

Years ago, it occurred to me that we love family members, not because they are so sterling of character or because they have done so much for us, but because our culture tells us we should, nay, we must. (That very truth, rat thayah, is the reason so many people are in therapy and/or on medication in America rat nah.

In my opinion.)

And while our culture teaches that we must love our family members (why? because they're our family members), it simultaneously tells us that we have no control over the feelings we have for other, extra-familial people. We're supposed to love Mama, Daddy, Sis and Bruh, but not necessarily our spouses (for example). Them we're allowed to fall in and out of love with. In fact, it's completely understandable, also, to fall in and out of love with other people's spouses. Well, not understandable, exactly, but certainly excusable. Why? Because we have no control over whom we love. Love is something that just happens to us. We fall in love, like it's a hole we couldn't possibly have seen, no matter how well we pay attention when we walk around in this life. Unless it's family, of course, in which case, we make up our minds that we're gonna love each other till death.

Doesn't make sense to me anymore.

I mean, if I can make up my mind, be obedient to to my mama and love my sister and brothers, respect my mama until I die and honor my daddy my whole life long, then don't I have some responsibility about how I feel for other people?

I've begun to think I do. So for the past decade or more, I've been deciding that I would take responsibility for the way I feel about other people. If I say I hate somebody, I say it with the decision that this is how I've made up my mind to feel. Same with love. Or "falling in love." If I become attracted to a man, I do it with the quality decision to be honest, to admit to myself on the regular, that I'm behaving a certain way towards a man deliberately --either acting on that attraction or not acting on it. I'm a grown woman. I have a graduate-school degree. I am more or less sane. I have a say in my own destiny, johnbrownit.

So (for example) when I look back on the beginnings of my relationship with the man I eventually (and unfortunately) married, I deliberately remember talking him into kissing me for the first time. You're right: at the time, I didn't have to talk long or hard. But, honey, as horny and predatory as I want to remember him back then, I was just as much in control of the situation. I made the kiss suggestion. And when he just barely, perfunctorily kissed me in response, I make myself remember that I told him I wanted another. That (not, for example, his quality decision, years later, to work against our marriage, not for it) was the true beginning of the end. Because I knew then, had known for a while, that the man had a girlfriend and a son. What difference does it make that, when I asked him, "Do you love her?" he responded, "No"?

I didn't have to ask, you know.

Some a y'all are gonna say, "Stop bein so hard on yourself." But I'm not, really. I'm just tellin y'all the truth, as I see it. As I look back on our relationship, I see several places where I made decisions for that disaster I used to call "my marriage" in spite of all good advice, my graduate-school-bolstered intuition, and actual facts against every one of those decisions. Because, in the very beginning, I had chosen to love that man. And if things had gone differently, I believe I still would be lovin that man.

I seem to have gotten away from the johnbrown movie. Let's go back. It's about the omnipotence of love, I said; it suggests that if there is a hell, true love will make you leave heaven to rescue the person you love from hell. If you are true soul mates, then you cannot live without each other; you will choose to live in hell if your true soul mate can't leave hell. In Shyamalan's movie The Village, William Hurt's character says, "The world stands in awe of love. It bows down to it." (It is love, after all, that sends Bryce Dallas Howard's character Into The Woods. But it is also a kind of love, after all, that creates the crisis that makes her feel she has to go.)

Well, in movies, it certainly does. In real life, the world actually stands in awe of the mere claim to falling in love. If you love her, it doesn't matter that she's married; you have to follow your heart. You just have to. All the movies and fairy tales and other stories say so. Ain no way around it. You have no control over it. Let yourself off the hook. Who's to say you aren't True Soul Mates? What if he's with the wrong woman? You love who you love. Go for it.

Except, I, for one, ain goin for that particular fairy tale anymore.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Coupla Poems

These are sonnets. I wrote 'em this year.

Lit Class
You sat in the back row of my classroom,
Nylon ‘rag tightly protecting your ‘do
(Probably an intricate braiding some
Young woman created. I knew you
Wouldn’t show it here, my room unworthy).
Your eyes were bored, your aspect so distant
Your manner said, “You say I have to be
Here. Here I am. But I need nothing, man,
From you. There is nothing you can teach me.”
I could not meet the challenge of your gaze;
I teach around rhyming and story.
But my eyes met those eyes, that look, for days.
And, then, on Friday, when class is dismissed,
A grin transforms your face, and I feel kissed.
c. 2006

I linger, old and tired and weak; the cold
Has made a home within my hollow bones.
Yet the sun dangles fat, burning like gold,
And the breeze brings all the turtledove’s tones,
The smells of suckle, onion and black earth.
The tree tops quiver green and full of young.
Babies gamboling through their brand-new world
Make me remember when I was so young
I thought the world was mine and mine alone.
But now my power wanes. (My span died first,
Wider than I –wilder?—it wearied soon.)
Now my old, throbbing bird’s heart’s fit to burst.
Finally bald, I see my last feather
Fall. I close my eyes to dream of fire.
c. 2006


Friday, November 03, 2006

Sunday Supper at Hector's

On Sunday, my daughters and I had planned to meet up with my best gf after church; her husband's tryin to make basketball players out of our children. But then, during service, one of the ushers passed me a note from J: "Hector (J's husband)'s cooking this afternoon. If you aren't busy, we want you and the girls to come to our house."

All bets were off, then.

That Hector is a man of many parts, like they used to say in the old days. He's a short (shorter than Goobs, which is sayin somethin), round man, quiet, humble, and easy-going, doesn't look at all like he rides a motorcycle; has an addiction to mind-teasers; and cooks fit to make you speak in unknown tongues, among other things. Hector's Latino, sunny, insightful, and affectionate, and will talk your ear off, in better English than this professor, if you let him. Everyone adores him. Everyone. One of our bishops visited a few years back and, having watched how beautifully Hector ministered to our pastor, strongly suggested that Hector be promoted into church leadership. He was. And everybody was glad for him. You don't see that kinda sentiment often in church, honey. He's married to J, the twin of J, and they (Hector and J, that is, not Hector and J and J) have three kids: K, C, and Hector, Jr. J is a short, slender, dark-skinned black woman with a ready, gap-toothed smile. (I just saw her on campus a while ago, with K in tow; J's takin classes so she can multipy her options, and K has to go with her because K got out of school early, for some reason.)

Talk about some pretty children. In my opinion, they all look like their mother. C, in particular, the middle girl, seven years old, has long, thick, wavy, black hair, and grown women would kill for her coloring. C, in particular, decided that she was in love with me on Sunday. Throughout the day, I was sittin somewhere, at the table, in the living room, anywhere, minding my own bidness, and C deliberately positioned herself in front of me and then perched herself on my knee. After the third time, I said, "You plant that thang anywhere, don't you?" and she responded, simply, "I love you." Throughout the sitting on my lap, the child would rearrange herself, off and on, for maximum comfort (hers, not so much mine, love notwithstanding), wiggling here and there, throwin her arms around my neck, etc. She smelled like Johnson and Johnson's Baby Oil and weighed more and more every minute. She's a heartbreaker.

But all of them were so well-behaved. Even Hector, Jr., the baby, who used to be a hell-raiser. On Sunday afternoon, he did what he was told --the first time-- and kept smiling (in my opinion, mostly because, while supper was readying, Juice and Goobs were chasing him around outdoors). K, a middle-schooler, was watching TV at one point, but when her mother came from the kitchen to say something to the other grownups, K put the TV on mute and kept it there till her mother stopped talking and left the room. C wanted Papi to help her with her birdhouse kit, but Hector told her that she needed to be sociable: "That kit's a one-man thing. We have company." C then contented herself with planting herself on my lap or running around outdoors with her sister, her brother, and my girls.

Hector cooked. By the time the girls and I had arrived, the pork roast was already done and had been sittin in the warm oven for a bit. Hector was waiting for J to come home from the grocery store with the Spanish yellow rice, beans and plantains. While we waited for J, Hector dug out a very, very old game, Mastermind, to play with Goobs. He and Goobs have had a rather longish rivalry, begun when he discovered that she could play Mancala. She couldn't beat him at it (as she had beaten quite a few adults, including her mother, to everyone's shock), but she came pretty close. So every time Hector found a game, he'd look pointedly at Goobs and say, "I'm lookin for somebody to play this game with me." Goobs played Mastermind with Hector twice: once to figure out how to do it, and once again to beat him. But she didn't beat him this time, either.

The whole time they played, Hector talked with me and his sister-in-law (she and J's brother, S, had also been invited), about Work and the Lying Liars We Deal With There. Apparently, Hector's boss was angry at Hector's offensive decision to try for a better position --after being expressly--and inconceivably-- told not to apply for it-- and the boss was out to get him. Like Goobs, though, the lying liar was out of his league. "People think because I'm easy-going that I let people walk all over me," said Hector. The boss would soon learn otherwise. A pox on him. S, Hector's sister-in-law, is a six-foot-tall peaches and cream blonde with one blue eye and one hazel eye. She's too smart for most people in nea'bout any room, but she's also warm, funny and down-to-earth. On Sunday, she was complaining about the dearth of clean underwear in the house. (She has three daughters, teenage and older, who are apparently not squeamish about wearin Mama's draw's,* especially when the alternative is to wash a load of clothes.) Her husband, S, an average-height dark-skinned man in his late thirties, plays bass guitar for the church choir and installs home security systems during the week. (He's been Employee of the Year for about five years now.) He dotes on her, and the feeling is very mutual. They'll have been married for twenty-some years this week.

J finally showed up with more groceries than she had planned to buy. "[Something I forget] was on sale," she said with her wide grin. She kissed everybody after she put down her bags, and Hector started cooking again. He threw the rice and beans in separate pots, started heating them, and began cutting up the plantains. The smell was like a wondrous torture. S came in from the livingroom (where he'd been watchin some football game) and commented upon it. S, S's wife, and I just planted ourselves in the kitchen, watched Hector and continued discussing the lying liars. (C planted herself in my lap again.)

And then the power went out. Everyone groaned. J went out to find out what had happened and learned that some idjit had run into a power pole. The power was out all over. "Well," S, S's wife said, "We have roast and chicken and bread." (I had brought the chicken. I'd cooked it early that morning and, after the note, said to myself, "Even if I can't cook as well as Hector, I can bring an offering.") "Let's make sandwiches."

Hector was very frustrated, but he put the bread and meat on the table. The pork roast was so tender and juicy, I wanted to cry when Hector started slicing it. S, S's wife, pulled out some bread slices. The kids were outside, still running around (even C, by then), and S, S's husband was watchin football again, so only S and I had pork roast sandwiches. (I didn't want a roast chicken sandwich.) Then S said, "Hector, how far along was the rice and beans?" At which point we discovered that they were done! Hector mixed the rice with the beans and stewed tomatoes and served them to us. More and more folk were coming into the kitchen, finding plates and cups, and eating. "Watch," Hector said. "After we eat, the lights'll come back on." The food was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. J asked the room, "Has anybody blessed the food?" I replied, "S and I've been thankin Jesus for it for a good while now." I ate entirely too much of it.

After everyone had had at least one plate, the power came back on.

At some point, long past the time I should've, I waddled out of the kitchen and sat down in the living room. Hector put Click in the DVD player, and all the kids and adults gathered 'round. (C planted herself in my lap again.) S and S kinda lay around on a couch and giggled at Adam Sandler. Hector, Jr. lay on the floor at my feet and giggled, too. (During the sex scenes, Hector, Jr. and C, the babies, half-heartedly covered their eyes.) Hector senior sat on the floor, too, farther back in the livingroom, next to the couch, and played with his kids' erector set. (Soon C left my lap to build stuff with Papi.) J sat on a chair in the kitchen. Juice sat on a stool in front of me, occasionally going back into the kitchen to eat fried plantains with really hot sauce, and Goobs sat on the floor near Hector, Jr.

God was on His throne and all was right with the world.

*The word S used