Today is one day before my girls begin 5th and 7th grade, so I’m using this space to explore beginnings. Not so much their first steps into the school year or my first steps into autumn, but rather, I’d like to explore those steps we all take to grow and change — processes we all go through continually, though I think I feel the urgency the most in September.
It is a heavy feeling, mixed with sorrow and wonder, doubt and hope. What will those first steps lead us to? Where will we lead ourselves?
This summer I’ve been turning over a scene from The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan, a book about (in part) a daughter whose mother uproots her from one country — a country she knows and loves and feels familiar in — and takes her to one that is, well, foreign. The food is different. The people are different. Everything is different. She can’t even speak the language. The girl, a teenager, is beyond upset, and I feel for her, though I also feel for the mother.
In the scene I’m thinking of the girl is alone and making a snack for herself — choosing items from the pantry and fridge, not sure what she’ll like — when she realizes this is what it feels like to think independently. She considers her friends back home, who no longer email, text, or connect with her on social media, and it is with equal sadness and curiosity that the girl relishes in a newfound freedom of deciding for herself whether something is good. She gets to take in the world and its people and decide for herself what she thinks of all of it. Understanding this, she’s not sure whether to feel upset or joyful. What’s more, it makes no difference how she feels. This deciphering what she thinks is happening, regardless of how she feels about it.
In a recent conversations with a friend, we were discussing the mythical phoenix bird — the one that, after a certain time, bursts into flames and grows again from its ashes. We took on the metaphor for ourselves: We know the burn of unraveling.
“But I think we’re also becoming,” my friend added. I’ve been thinking about this conversation too. It seems we must unravel in order to become. The two go together. We can’t stop ourselves from becoming. If we believe we are never finished, then we will burn in order to fly for the rest of our lives.
I think of my daughters who will be carried away on a big, yellow bus hours from now. I think about my walk back from the bus stop, brewing coffee and spreading out ingredients of my life and deciding for myself what it is I’ll do with them. I think of the phoenix and her rise from the ashes, perhaps still smoldering from the fire, and I think of the girl, alone, snacking on the first taste of independence, bitter and sweet at the same time.
We climb the bus steps, we open our notebooks, we wonder at our new wings, we consider our new surroundings in a brand new world. It’s good to take note of how we feel about all this, but I think what matters is what we do next.
In this poem from Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson expresses the bittersweet feeling of beginning and ending, of unraveling and of becoming:
after greenville #1
After the chicken is fried and wrapped in wax paper,
tucked gently into cardboard shoe boxes
and tied with string…
After the corn bread is cut into wedges, the peaches
washed and dried…
After the sweet tea is poured into mason jars
and the deviled eggs are scooped back inside
their egg-white beds
slipped into porcelain bowls that are my mother’s now,
her mother sends with her on the journey…
After the clothes are folded back into suitcases,
the hair ribbons and shirts washed and ironed..
After my mother’s lipstick is on my father’s
scratchy beginnings of a beard now gone…
After our faces are coated
with a thin layer of Vaseline gently wiped off again
with a cool, wet cloth…
then it is time to say our goodbyes,
the small clutch of us children
pressed against my grandmother’s apron, her tears
quickly blinked away…
After the night falls and it is safe
for brown people to leave
the South without getting stopped
and sometimes beaten
and always questioned:
Are you one of those Freedom Riders?
Are you one of those Civil Rights People?
What gives you the right….?
We board the Greyhound bus, bound
I like all the sensory details that mark the ending of a season, but I also like the observation of how difficult it is to move on. It is both sad and dangerous. This week write a poem that combines the unraveling with the becoming. What first steps are you taking this season to continue to change and grow? What must burn so that you can spread your wings again?
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