It’s taken quite some time for me to write this. There have been many obstacles to my writing: an egregious scheduling conflict that forced me to choose between going to the Cave Canem Poetry Retreat and the Allied Media Conference. Then, after the decision was made, contending with it, asking myself why I had chosen not to stay in Detroit despite the fact I have wanted to attend the AMC for many years now. What did it say about my priorities? Who was I going to have to apologize to? And of course there were a host of other issues concerning the fact that I had promised people a place to stay in Detroit and also had my workshop proposal accepted and now needed to find a replacement for myself. In one way, all of the chaos involved in rearranging did, in fact take up a great deal of time that could have been spent writing. The broader reality is that depression seized me.
I turned thirty a week ago. I invited pretty much everyone I knew in Detroit to come by to a barbecue on Sunday. Earlier in the day I got my nails done with a friend who dropped me off with the intention of returning an hour later. The house sitter for the second Write A House dropped by, and left again when he realized he was the only guest. Of course, as I went to get the grill going, a heavy rain began to fall. I still grilled in the shed (yes, with the door open, no, it’s not a gas grill). Many folks were out of town, or had other obligations. As I was in the back yard, I would hear sounds or cars in front of the house, and run inside to make sure people could get in if they showed up. I did that for two hours with increasing embarrassment and shame. At one point, a car pulled up in front of my house, I got excited, and two people I’ve never seen before hopped out, walked into my yard, took books from my Little Free Library and then left. I felt pathetic. I felt small. I felt invisible and alone.
I have a very hard time with birthdays. I like celebrating my birthday, but I often find myself disappointed: this person never showed, that one didn’t call, or no one was around at all. I don’t see it as an opportunity to receive gifts, I typically just want to spend the anniversary of my entry into planet earth with people whose company I enjoy doing something low-key and fun. This year, I even considered traveling for my birthday specifically to avoid feeling low and blue. The only thing that stopped me was money.
The house sitter showed back up, and we’d never met before. It was more embarrassing to have him there at first, honestly. If I was going to be alone at the birthday party I tried to throw for myself, I’d prefer to be alone allowing myself the space for sadness. At some point, another friend dropped by and left a gift on my porch, thinking I wasn’t home.
The friend who I had gone out with earlier in the day returned after a little while, and shortly thereafter two other folks arrived. We ate grilled chicken and corn and played spades, they sang happy birthday to me beautifully. We ate red velvet cupcakes from Prince Valley, and I felt held. I ended up having a lovely evening, and felt grateful to have four good folks to spend time with.
When I woke up it was my actual birthday. I spent that day doing end of the year reviews for InsideOut, talking on the phone with friends and family, and panicking over the aforementioned scheduling conflict. I didn’t physically see another person, and I don’t think I went beyond my yard for the day. It felt fitting. The thing that drives me is the work that I do. It can be rewarding but it’s not fulfilling a lot of the basic requirements for human happiness. May people my age have serious long term partners, or spouses or children, or some combination therein. It doesn’t mean that they are all happy or living without struggle. It doesn’t even mean that they are not lonely. Regardless, I consistently feel like an outlier, wary of romance and trust, happily childless and sometimes uncomfortably lonely in a new place. Admitting that feels like weakness.
Two things felt hard about trying to write this. First, it feels selfish to write about myself, particularly about my sadness when I am tasked with writing about my experiences in Detroit. Second, it is hard to feel visible and invisible all at once, or as a friend put it “seen but not known”. This isn’t a happy affair, to write about. It doesn’t give you a feel for the vibrancy of Detroit, and were it not for the expository nature of what I’m writing, maybe better left in a journal. There is still something worth salvaging from the wreck, I hope, and I think it lies in where I am right now.
I was planning to do a post about the AMC, but as I won’t be there, I cannot. Where I am instead, Cave Canem, is a place where I feel seen, and even known by some. It is a space in which I allow myself vulnerability, because it feels safe here. It feels safe because of our shared vulnerability, our willingness to hold space for one another in coming together as black poets in the United States. While I do not keep in touch regularly with everyone I’ve met through Cave Canem, there are so many ways in which this is my literary community. I don’t have that in Detroit. I have friends who are writers. I have not spoken with a single one of them about my work. I go to readings. I read. That is not the same as having a literary community where everyone feels equally invested in each other and our work.
I couldn’t actually finish this post before being at Cave Canem, because needed to juxtapose the way I had felt all week with the way I felt during the opening circle of the retreat. What is dawning on me is that I have spent the majority of the last seven months overwhelmed and largely exhausted when I have free time. I know that I have to put in work to build relationships and intentionally make space to create a writing community for myself, but I’ve just started to acclimate to where I’ve landed. While I might be tenacious and flexible, a lot has changed, and it’s a lot to take in, and I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time to process what that means for me, and what I want out of life going forward from here. I think this is where I start from, allowing myself the space to say publicly that it was my birthday and I spent most of the week sad, angry and stressed out, that I don’t want that, and I need to be reached out to as much as I reach out, and that I feel at a loss for how to do that sometimes. I’m saying it now, because I need to make it known.