100 Years of Grace

Today was the memorial of Grace Lee Boggs, my mentor and friend. There was an extensive program. Danny Glover came to honor Grace. There were indigenous grandmothers, family members, musicians, poets including Tawana Petty and Will Copeland (who Grace called the next CLR James), scholars, and so many babies, all vocalizing from the audience.

Grace Lee, director of American Revolutionary, spoke after a lovely memorial film.

Julia Putnam and the children of the Boggs School sang their school song and it was a cuteness overload.

Nobuko and her son offered a song that landed like a meditation.

Scott Kurashige made us laugh with words from Grace (on how his ass was high like a black man’s), wearing a gorgeous white outfit originally gifted to Grace’s husband Jimmy from Kwame Nkrumah.

Angela Jones gave an immensely moving and poetic tribute that left us all weeping.

Emily Lawson and her daughter Tula led the Detroit Asian Youth Project in a collective piece of lessons from #graceleetaughtus.

Invincible shared audio from a conversation they had with Grace this year where she was still demanding better of all of us. Then they brought up Jenny Lee and Kristian Davis Bailey and they all shared core questions that Grace left them with.

There was so so so much, it was moving and loving.

I was asked to sing A Change Gonna Come, a song Grace loved, a song Jimmy loved. I sang it for her many times over the 9 years she was in my life.

I have been coughing for 3 weeks and when I tried to practice, no sound came out. But the spirit in the room was powerful, using all of us to love and release Grace. When it was time to sing, sound came, and for that I am grateful.

Here are the words I shared before I sang, bullet points from Grace:

– philosophy can be a root for a nomadic soul
– there are new ways to listen to my parents and elders…I must love them and hold them accountable
– use Hendricks for a proper gin and tonic
– conversation is a revolutionary activity
– creating science fiction is a revolutionary activity
– emergence is a revolutionary science
– being a good aunt and daughter is revolutionary
– not having kids might reduce the stress in my life
– apocalypse is an opportunity for a greater humanity
– transform myself to transform the world

A pastor at the end said two things I loved – first that Grace had lived so long because god was scared of that conversation. And second, that even though Grace was not a religious person, she embodied god more than most people in church on Sunday.

We ended things with a second line, dancing in the rain.

And there it is – Grace is everywhere. And Grace is gone.

Ben, Don and Raven-Symone at Dinner

Setting: Halloween night, warm and cozy Italian restaurant, candle lit on table. Ben and Don are seated, with glasses of wine. They are both eating pasta, we join mid conversation.

Ben:…and I simply don’t care what he has to say about me, he’s just a puffed up real estate emperor in the nude.
Don: Do you think you can actually win though? Not just against him, but against the lesbian?
Ben: Anything can happen. I mean heck, a Muslim named after a terrorist is president right now. Blacks can do anything.
Don: I’ve been thinking of running for office. I don’t really understand much about the Congressional system though, so I’m aiming for Veep.
Ben, shrugging: I don’t know much about human anatomy but they call me Dr every single day.

Raven-Symone enters and joins them, smiles and hugs all around.

RS: Well guys, it’s been a shitty week.
Don: Do tell.
RS: My girl broke up with me because she felt offended by my stance on black names.
Ben: I wouldn’t exactly call ‘Asgard’ a black name.
Don: Oh come on, you were just being realistic. As an example yourself!
RS, perplexed: What do you mean?
Don: Name me one white person in your income bracket with a hyphen in their first name.

Silence ensues.

Then, RS: Honestly, I get checks based on how many times I get myself or the show mentioned. That doesn’t happen if I don’t cross some eyes and dot some lines.
Don: Ditto! Ha, I know my job. Angry attention is still attention! I bring in numbers and, frankly, make my costars look downright liberal.
Ben: We really should get some credit for the way we’re unifying our people!
Don and RS cringe a bit at the grouping in with black people.

A fourth person approaches the table, a light skinned black man in a clown suit. His face is covered in black paint, an exaggerated red pucker around his mouth. His hair is a used mop, shoes floppy and tattered.

He pulls up the last chair at their table and sits down, smiling at each of them.

After a moment of silence, three voices start at one:

RS: Excuse you –
Don: That seat’s taken –
Ben: I don’t have any cash on me right now!

The stranger grins.

Stranger: I don’t need any cash my brother! And you missy, don’t you get all high yellow and mighty on me – you don’t recognize me?

He spreads his fingers out and wiggles them.
The three look at each other, clue free.

Stranger: I am the Ghost of Minstrels Past. (Theme music plays)

Ben: I don’t believe in ghosts.
GOMP: And yet, like so many things you don’t believe in, here I am.
Don: How did you die?
GOMP: Like all minstrels, alone and ashamed.
RS: Do you hyphenate all those words in your name?
GOMP: No, but thanks for asking.
Don: Why are you here though?
GOMP: It’s Halloween. Every Halloween I offer a few of you another option.
Ben: A few of who?
GOMP : You! Modern day minstrels.
Don: But I don’t sing. And I never do jazz hands in public.
GOMP: Our number includes anyone who benefits from blackness while simultaneously hating blackness.
RS: I don’t identify with blackness at all.
GOMP: Exactly my child of black America, you came from everywhere and nowhere! You emerged from the fractured fourth wall of fictional fame.
Ben: Huh?
GOMP: You don’t love who you are – trust me I remember. None of you even know who you are. There is a place I can take you where you will learn. It is a journey of time jumping along your own ancestral line.
Ben: Do we get to go all the way back to the Arc?
GOMP: Beg pardon?
Ben: All humans alive now trace back to Noah’s Arc.
Don: The white people on the boat with the monkeys? Who you calling a monkey?!
RS: I think you’re confusing your creation mysteries Don.

A moment of silence.

GOMP: I can’t with y’all. And I don’t have to. It’s been unanimously decided by the collective will of your peers. And if an arc is where you came from, that is most certainly where you’ll return.
RS: You can’t just take us! We are beloved unhyphenated-Americans! There will be an uproar!
Ben: I’m the president. Ish.
Don: Can I document this?

An instant later the table is empty, the wavering candle the only hint that something has changed. Black people, dreaming together of minstrels scrubbing their faces with soap, sink into a more restful sleep.

Sit down, shut up, and other messages of love

My knee says sit down.

My cough says shut up.

My heart says there is more grief in here, and more tenderness.

My vertebrae say sleep.

My gut says no thank you.

The base of my skull says Oh yes, that.

My right ear drum says the world is too loud.

My skin says dress me beautiful.

My eyes say don’t make me watch him throw her again.

My back reminds me how we’ve been thrown before, what it made of us. My back remembers being quiet, and pleased, and beautiful, and tired, and still.

My jaw says relax, it is enough.

My body speaks love so loud, and all of me listens.

there is an edge (ode to radical imagination)

There is an edge
Beyond which we cannot grasp the scale
Of our universe.
That border,
That outer boundary
Is imagination.
The only known edge of existence
The only one we can prove by universal experience –

We can imagine so much!
We can only imagine so much.

If perhaps it is a function of our collective minds
A dream of our endless nights
Then there will be abundance so long as we can imagine it –
Abundance on earth
If we can imagine it
Or abundance of earths
A sphere for every tribe
And every combination.
And to have it all
All we need is to remember
there is an edge
And grow our dreams beyond it.

– inspired by #ArtChangeUS

a conversation with the dinosaur at chicago o’hare airport

me: wow.
dinosaur in chicago airport: hey.
me: i feel a little loopy. have a three hour layover here because i missed my flight yesterday…only got a few hours of sleep last night.
dino: what did you do? when you missed the flight?
me: first i was in denial, i thought i could make it against all the odds. then i got really angry, and i snapped on this airline worker.
dino: i see a lot of that.
me: i bet. i felt so good, using all the worst words i know as i stomped away. but then i was just standing there breathing and…gaining perspective.
dino: airports can be good for that. everyone is taking a huge risk together, going up in the air. life is on the line, do you want to fly in a funk?
me: you know i travel so much i don’t really consider that part. sometimes i tune into the magic part of it, like…woah i am in the sky! and i have started meditating on planes.
dino: but it’s just the way you get around. the business travelers, its like any other shuttle. the kids and newcomers still have wonder. travel enough and rage is possible.
me: yeah exactly. but no matter how angry i was, it wasn’t going to get me home. and i thought about how i had missed my flight – it wasn’t that worker’s fault. i made a series of flippant decisions and expected my usual travel magic to get me there.
dino: travel magic? explain this – i mostly stand here.
me: mostly?
dino: long story. travel magic?
me: kind of a series of events of irrational good luck. traffic opens up, i get randomly selected for tsa pre-check, the airport shuttle arrives right when i get to the door, or they had to hold the plane an extra minute for some reason. things just align and i make it.
dino: but not this time?
me: no. and not last time i flew home either. last time i got on the slow train, bumped my head, lost my water bottle.
dino: dang.
me: yeah it was so sad.
dino: what do you do, in lieu of magic?
me: you know….both times ended up being really magical in their own ways. the first time i went to the spa til my next flight. spa castle, highly recommend it.
dino shrugs
me: oh right. so yesterday, after i was angry with that worker, i dropped back into myself, my center, and realized it wasn’t her fault, she was just doing her job. so when i was rebooked i walked back over to her and i told her i was sorry for taking my anger out on her, that it was a bad moment.
dino: what did she say?
me: she said it happens all the time, just let it go. but she teared up, and i teared up. like, we were having a real human moment all of the sudden, not in the prescribed roles of travel power dynamics.
dino: what do you mean?
me: well it’s this weird thing – like in the moment of interaction there is this temporary power that the airline person has over my life and time, but in the long run, i get to leave and go on about my life, not tied to a desk with no windows, finding my zen with miserable people yelling at me when they miss their planes. there’s a balance in there somewhere.
dino: i think i get that. how did you feel after that?
me: light. emotional. like everything was ok.
dino: and was it?
me: well yes. i decided to go back and get more time with my nibblings.
dino: your what?
me: nibblings. the children of my sibling. nephews and nieces, but not gender determining.
dino: i like that.
me: i got it from my friend tanuja – actually she lives here in chicago! maybe you know her?
dino: maybe.

(we watch people for a little while)

me: are you always here?
dino: kind of. i don’t remember being somewhere else in my memories. but observing all of you, i get the feeling i belong to a different time place and sometimes i feel like i’m also there.
me: has anyone told you things about yourself?
dino: yes…but what do they know? i think its all theory, all they know for sure is these bones go together. kids roar at me, as if i can’t talk. they learn that from adults. and yet here i am, thinking, feeling.
me: you’re really quite thoughtful.
dino: thank you. one more question before you go?
me: shoot.
dino: why do you keep missing flights home?
me: good question.
dino: seems like something to understand.
me: this might not be it, but…last year my friend charity died. and then on oct 5 my friend and mentor grace died. they were both really big parts of my detroit experience…and i don’t quite know…like i know they are gone, and the city is so full of them, but it’s full of grief too. and life, moving too fast for my grief. but…when i travel? i feel like they are still there, and it’s just me who’s gone.
dino: i feel that sometimes!
me: say more?
dino: well part of me knows that everyone i ever knew and loved is gone. but sometimes i think i am just doing this thing, being the dinosaur that wows people at this airport. and that one day i will walk out of here, flesh and bone, and walk towards the tallest trees, and they will be there, just waiting for me.
me: does it make you sad?
dino: immensely. it’s sad to outlive your loved ones, whatever that looks like.
me: especially when it’s raining. (points at rain)
dino: well yes. actually this season might be the saddest season.
me: so much loss.
dino: it’s also the most beautiful, from my vantage point. transformation is the most colorful and alive looking season. i don’t know this for sure but i think it’s when we are the closest to each other, this side and that.
me: i like that.
dino: me too.
me: thanks for this talk dinosaur.
dino: thank you for stopping to talk with me. i hope you get home safely. and see your loved ones everywhere.
me: you too dino. you too.

being there

1. I want to be present. Here, not always over there, or in my phone somewhere, or on my way somewhere else.

This is the quality about Grace that I am appreciating most as I reflect on all that she taught me.

Grace was present with her ideas and her conversations, regardless of the age, history or politic of the person she was speaking to. She stayed with an idea, turning it around in the light. She brought each visitor into the question she was present with. When she could no longer be present she would end the conversation.

I’ve mastered the art of sort of being present. I love the idea of being present, but I’m often out ahead of myself making plans, or lagging behind myself replaying the past. I document the present well, but sometimes I feel about that distance from it, watching my life through a lens, filtering.

So I’m actively trying to get present. And the thing is, I feel so much when I’m present.

Sometimes it feels like too much.

I’m learning that I got good at numbing and leaving and dreaming and remembering because sometimes the present is so emotionally overwhelming – joyous or painful – that I don’t believe I can be in it.

But I am meditating and reflecting and journaling and declaring that I want to be here. Not perpetually there, in some elsewhere. I don’t want to look back and find I spent my life being ‘there’.

2. Being there for people through life’s changes is an art form. I have experienced some of the best presence and love from the most unexpected places this year. And learned that some people have tons of other skills but really don’t know how to be there when it’s hard. They say the wrong thing, or direct attention away from the hard thing in a way that feels cowardly, or disappear until the hard time is ‘over’.

I’m longing to develop the skills of being there for people in a way that feels comforting and appropriate and good when things are falling apart, or simply changing rapidly. It’s both tangible (the voice that says ‘I’m right there with you’ when giving you tragic news, the check in text that requires no action, the friend who shows up with bad movies and ice cream when the tears are gone and only the emptiness remains) and intangible (the person who gives you quiet without saying they are doing so, the prayers and love extended through space and time). I don’t think the changes are going to stop, I want to be able to feel excited about change, to pivot to an opportunity outlook quickly, to trust the changes.

But it’s all aspirational right now. Right now I’m just trying to avoid my most familiar grief homies (chocolate, pizza, whiskey, harmful connections, cigarettes…I’m three weeks smoke free after a year of grief smoking!) and in that, notice that there is a way I’m learning to be there for myself, instead of substituting my own presence with food, drink, drug or distraction.

I fly all the time, I know the ritual with oxygen masks. Put mine on, then help the child sitting next to me (is it always a child next to us, asking us to do the right next thing?)…but in life it can be so easy to attend to the crises of others first. I’m grieving a few people who I believe gave more than they had, putting others first until they literally slipped away from themselves.

With each day I believe more and more in that self sustenance, that greedy inhale that guarantees the next moment will be one in which I can choose to give, simply because I’m still here.

I want to really be there for myself, and then expand into my ability to be there for the people I love. ‘The only lasting truth is change’, so how do I change with my whole complex centered loving self? This question I ask of my self and my species – how do we stay whole and change?

Only, I think, by being present. So…return to point 1, rinse, repeat.

Being Quiet

My mentor and friend Grace Lee Boggs died on Monday. I’ve been writing about her since then – poems, memories, what I learned. I’m not ready to post it yet. But meditation has been helping me move through it, so I wanted to share some thoughts on that, from before and after.


I’ve been meditating 37 minutes a day this month in honor of turning 37. I added another minute yesterday, I’m wanting to get up to an hour daily, maybe more.

Here’s some reflections:

What I’m mostly doing is intentionally being quiet inside and out. To listen to my breath and body means to quiet the distractions. Outside distractions are impossible to control but getting easier to see, release.

Inside…whew. I notice my breath for two seconds and then I start thinking about something, coming up with an idea, writing this piece, reliving a conversation. Then I notice where I am, pick up my attention, bring it back. Three seconds later it’s onto another thought journey away from center.

I must admit that I like what I think during this time. It makes me realize how much I need quiet time to work, because a deeper stranger part of my brain becomes available in the silence.

I also love how it feels to abandon the thought, undone, and return to my center, to my breath. I find my thoughts are all equal in a way…most of them concerning something beyond my control, trying to figure out how I could have controlled it in the past or how I will control it in the future. When I surrender thinking for brief seconds I feel so free.


On the day Grace died, I meditated three times. Twice before I got the news, and then a 100 minute sit at the end of the day, a minute for each of her years. It was a journey, at times chaotic, at times so full. By the end it was slow, calm. I didn’t know I could be still for that long.

Sitting still is about the only thing that feels right right now. I’m craving so much more quiet. On one of my last visits with Grace, I asked her what she was thinking about. She smiled and looked a bit surprised, and she said, ‘not much!’, and there was so much wonder in it.

I have been sifting through my memories. I think Grace is the only person of color I’ve known to die at peace. That is massive to sit with. I am joyful for her and grateful that she told us she was ready in so many ways.

It means it’s possible. I’ll think more on that eventually.

Right now, I just miss her so much. Being quiet is the only way to handle that.

Parable of the Sower Concert Review/Gush

Terry Marshall of Intelligent Mischief recently articulated this moment we’re in as a Black Renaissance. I concur – we are transforming pain into gold at an impossible speed. I keep turning around and finding something black, brilliant, fantastic, collective, wonderful – I feel in the midst of an artistic explosion, of a people cultivating creativity and joy in the face of genocide and mass produced misery. And Octavia Butler is one of the seed mothers of this moment.

There are some of us who read the Parable of the Sower (and it’s sequel the Parable of the Talents), as sacred text. Butler, the author of these two near-future novels, was a black sci fi writer hermit who died in 2006 after giving us 12 novels, a collection of short stories, and winning the Hugo, Nebula and MacArthur genius grant.

Everything she wrote is provocative and interesting, but in the Parables she cuts in right next to her own story, and many of ours, a black girl creator, surviving. Lauren Olamina is growing up in a gated community in dry, divided California as the government swerves violently to right.

I heard a few years ago that Bernice Johnson-Reagon and Toshi Reagon, mother daughter movement folk singers, were going to make an opera of the Parables. At that time, I fell out with possibility. Then I wished I had lived my life differently, seriously pursued my vocal practice, tightening up my pitch issues, because clearly this was the best thing that could ever happen in life.

As the Opera/concert piece has moved along its iterative process, I’ve been awestruck by the caliber of talent in and around it, while also landing in my own Octavia/sci fi work (I’m in NY because Octavia’s Brood is reading at the Schomberg open house on Wednesday!).

In January there was a first set of Parables concerts. I was out of the country and seriously priced out what it would cost to fly to NYC for one night. Out of my economic capacity.

Then it was in Abu Dhabi, because…of course. Octavia in Abu Dhabi. But again, tickets were researched and too expensive and I was left bereft, so distant from the experience of my dreams.

All of this context is just so you understand a little bit about how ecstatic I was when it was announced that the concert would be in at the Annenberg Center in Philly when I was scheduled to be in NYC, when I priced the trip, when I realized it was possible. I got tears in my eyes buying the tickets. That’s the level of anticipation I took with me on the bus, to Philly, and into the concert.

Because this was a predestined perfect night, I got to eat at White Dog Cafe, which I’ve been hearing about for years – I have tons of respect for its founder Judy Wicks, who is one of the sparks in local living economies work. I shared a meal with my dear friends Sofia Santana, who bussed down with me from NYC, Jennifer Kidwell, and Sham-e-ali. Jennifer, an incredible singer and performer now based in Philly, was part of one of the earlier iterations of the opera. Sham, a poet, had seen the concert the night before and said she’d wept the entire time.

Rasheedah Phillips of Afrofuturist Affair was in the lobby with her sweetheart, we’d all been together at Ferguson is the Future just a couple of weeks ago.

Sofia and I got to the theatre right as the show was starting – I dashed to the bathroom and switched from my bus outfit into something more appropriate for a historic event. It had a belt, pink lipstick, the basics.

The musicians were tuning up in the black box of the theatre. There were twelve chairs in a circle, microphones, a full house audience, and the singers were standing at the edges of the theatre. I recognized vocalists Tamar-Kali and Karma Mayet Johnson, Marcelle Davis Lashley, violinist Juliette Jones. Many of the others were new to me.

Then Toshi came out from the back with a gorgeous smile on her face. I love watching her perform – she sits down surrounded by instruments and immediately makes it feel like we’re just watching her jam out in private, extending ease and intimacy to everyone.

Then the music came. It came up through Toshi, and from the edges of the room. I had to take off my belt right away. The context was set in songs that walked the line between chant, lamentation and praise. We learned that the water was gone, that some were seeking solace in God, and the gifted and gorgeous singer Shayna Small, who sang Lauren Olamina, was feeling a change, feeling everything.

After the second song I turned to Sofia and said “this is a best-experience-of-my-life”. There was a fearlessness about the songs, they were precise and subtle and then deep and full, the pace was just right – the pace respected the way Octavia told this story.

Toshi gave us some context after a few songs. I’m not sure it was needed, it all felt so spiritually correct…but how could I know, I’ve read the text twenty something times.

Toshi spoke at various points throughout, her words always spare and heart opening. As the journey north began, she said, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, you can just make something up and walk on that.’

The main thing I will say about the songs is that as I was hearing them I was deeply satisfied, and when each song passed I wanted to rewind and stay in it, even the songs that covered the hardest moments. Hyper empathy in an apocalypse is painful, the terrifying world changing behind them as Lauren and her crew made their way north, the ideological battles between systems of belief that give and take away responsibility – the Reagons have written songs that allow us to feel all up in this text.

I didn’t know I needed these songs till I was flooded in them.

One of my favorite moments was Toshi inserting a folk singer into the story. She said it was Octavia’s mistake, that when things are going so badly, people need the singers to tell the story, to give them back to themselves. Yes, exactly.

Towards the end of the concert, the songs were straight up Earthseed verses. I kept catching tears all over my face and then getting caught up in wonder, needing to undulate and tap my foot and dance and sing along.

Helga Davis was a sitting closest to us, and her moves were so funky and distinct, Sofia and I couldn’t take our eyes off her.

I walked out after and ran into several magical people, including radical dance artist Althea Baird, both of us wide open and teary eyed. Annie Danger later posted that those of us who’d experienced the show might need a support group to live into the change. Sonia Sanchez was in the audience.

Now I’m glowing from the experience, wanting everything I suffer through, everything I learn, to be sung in chorus by the Reagons. And even as I wonder how I can hear the songs again, I recognize that in this time of instant gratification it is a gift to be given something so rare, so visceral, so about being bodies and hopes and grief in a room together.

Thank you Toshi and Bernice for the vision and the execution. Thank you Eric Ting for the direction – the presentation felt so organic, centering the songs and voices. Thank you Bertilla, Helga, Karma, Tamar-Kali, Morley, Marcelle, Josette, Shayna and Jason for the gift of your voices and the way you became conduits for this crucial story. Thank you Juliette, Robert, Fred and Adam for the music which swelled up the room.

Looking forward to the next iteration.