Friday, April 27, 2012

Reading the Leaves

I've always loved prophets. When I read the Orestia in high school, I thought that Cassandra was one of the most misunderstood characters in that story. (Don't get me wrong, there are lots of misunderstood characters in Greek plays; they're like these enormous comedies of error, only they aren't in the least funny and everyone dies, bloody and enraged, at the end. Clytemnestra was probably my favorite, but that's a story for a different day.) Cassandra was this woman who was brought back from her homeland as a prisoner of war, the daughter of the defeated King Priam whom her captor, Agamemnon, has made a slave and used however he saw fit. Agamemnon, hadn't really garnered a lot of favor (with his wife) in the first place, for slaying his youngest daughter to bring favorable winds so he could leave home and fight a war that wasn't his to fight anyway.

Are you following me here? No? Maybe a refresher on the Trojan War, I don't have time to go into it here.
nabbed this from Miller White Scripts, who nabbed it from maicar.com

So Agamemnon brings this woman back; he returns home a war hero with the spoils to prove it, and the town (chorus) is super happy to see him. After some back and forth with his wife who is less happy to see him--and really, isn't it hard for a couple when one of them comes home from war, practically a stranger, even if he wasn't bringing some Trojan tart with him?--they go inside, but Cassandra stays in the chariot. She's silent, immobile. She won't come when Clytemnestra calls her. Maybe she's dressed funny, wears her hair differently; she's obviously not from around here, and everyone thinks that she doesn't speak the language. Then finally, she opens her mouth and starts to prophesy: ". . . I see evidence I trust—young children screaming as they're butchered—then their father eating his own infants' roasted flesh . . ."* This is about Atreus and Thyestes, one of those family curses that reaches back and forward for generations. Then she moves on to more pressing matters. Clytemnestra is going to kill Agamemnon, war hero and King of Argos.
Oh evil woman, you're going to do it. Your own husband, the man who shares your bed—once you've washed him clean . . . there in the bath . . .How shall I describe how all this ends? It's coming soon. She's stretching out her hand . . . and now her other hand is reaching for him [. . . ]Look over there! Look now! She's caught him in her robes—now she gores him with her black horn. A trap! He's collapsing in the bath! I'm telling you what's going on—he's being murdered in there, while bathing—a plot to kill him!
 Come on! That's some intrigue. Nobody has it on the Greeks for scary shit acted out of our basest human needs and urges, nobody. As an artist, I really wish this stuff was staged more often; I feel like it never goes out of style.

In her fury at being misheard and misunderstood by the townspeople, Cassandra throws off her prophetic garments and rends her clothes, furious with Apollo for having given her the gift of sight in the first place, and burdening her with never being heeded or understood. She bravely turns to face her death, which she knows is coming at the hands of the Mistress, saying that the house stinks of murder, smells like an open grave, and asks the townspeople to mark how she goes to die. "I want you to witness how I went to meet my death, when for me another woman will be killed, a man will die for one who married evil[...] I pray to the sun, here in the light of his most recent day, that those who carry out revenge for me will make my enemies pay with their blood for butchering a slave, an easy victim. Alas, for human life. When things go well, a shadow overturns it all. When badly, a damp sponge wipes away the picture. Of these two, the second is more pitiful."

This story grabs me somewhere special, in a place where I can barely make words. But I didn't want just to talk about Cassandra, but about prophets. I woke up this morning thinking of John the Baptist, that long-haired, locked, bug-eating preacher who wandered the desert of Israel foretelling the arrival of Jesus. He sounds like such a hippie. When the Jewish leaders ask him who he is, he says, "I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'
I don't know who this guy is, but his look gets close. He needs locked hair. And darker skin.
Pinched from the Archdiocese of Washington page.

(Man, I wish that when people asked me questions like that, I could answer all cryptically, in metaphor and parable and Morpheus-from-The Matrix-speak like that. It probably wouldn't make my life any easier, but it might get people to stop asking me questions.)

John the Baptist knew what was up, and he knew just how to answer people in a way that would leave them schooled. I'm just a man who's getting us ready, he said, but one day soon, this Cat is coming, and he's so dope, I'm not even good enough to tie his shoes for him.

Prophets in the Bible were so compelling to me. Full of poetry, reluctant to have to deliver bad news to the Israelites--and wouldn't you be? Look at what happened to John the Baptist. Jeremiah was a ceramicist, for crying out loud, and all he wanted to do was sit in his shop, and throw bowls and water pitchers, and remain in captivity along with everyone else that Babylon was sitting on, and be left alone. But God was having none of it; He had a message and Jeremiah was the person He'd chosen to deliver it.

I guess I've been thinking about this because when I was in Maui recently, I saw a whale, a humpback whale. Wait, I saw many whales, but this one was close. It was maybe 50 feet from the boat I was on, and it came up, did what's called a peduncle arch (thank you, Pacific Whale Foundation) and a fluke up dive and went down again. It is perhaps one of the most spiritual moments I've experienced in recent history.

Was the whale there just for me? Doubt it. Was it there to mate in warmer water before migrating north to feed during the winter? Almost certainly. But still, I experienced the whale as a kind of messenger. The vibe around me and the whale was, "Listen up, and listen carefully. Something is happening. Don't miss it." Then it was gone, underwater to sing its incomprehensible whale songs, and the spell was broken.

But I was different.

I'm not using this platform to come out as a prophet or seer or anything like that. Although something about that is interesting. With as connected as the world is, as much that people know and as fast as they know it, to have a blog about seeing the future is kind of sickly engaging. But that's not what's happening. In fact, I don't know what's happening. All I know is that a few weeks ago, a mammal the size of a yellow school bus swam by me, and I felt something, and now I'm trying to plug in, to be still and listen, and to look for signs.



*all of the text I'm quoting here is from a version of Agamemnon I found at http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/aeschylus/oresteiatofc.htm There's a link there that has some info about the House of Atreus that might be helpful if you don't know it.
*from The Gospel of John.

Friday, April 20, 2012

water baby


Last night I dreamed of a manta ray that became a boy. He came out of the sea that was under my bed in a hotel room. I pulled him out of the sea, and once he was in my room, he became a boy, a small brown boy with black, close-cropped hair, covered in sparkly, shiny motes and shell-like creatures, blue scaly pants, with a satchel over his shoulder. I had pulled him out of the sea, thinking he was a manta ray, but he wanted to go back to the sea and not to stay with me. When I asked him why he wanted to go back to the sea, he sang me a song. Kiss me, Mother, Kiss your darlin, he sang. Then we sang together, Lay your head upon my breast. Throw your lovin' arms around me. I am weary, let me rest*.

After the song, I understood. I let him put his manta ray suit back on, and sent him back to the sea.

I also dreamed that I couldn't find my wallet. I needed my ID to take part in something with my cousins--my cousin and his new wife.


In essence, I dreamed that I had to find proof of myself in order to be with my family.

There were other things, but I leave them out because they seem unimportant. My mind is communicating with me. I'm listening.

*you might recognize this from O Brother Where Art Thou. I wasn't watching it last night, but I love that movie.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lock'd Up

When I was younger I learned about a concept called Jubilee. I remember being a young girl and listening to Christian radio in my dad's car on the way home from after-school care and hearing this song come on the radio with this chorus:

Jubilee, Jubilee
Jesus is the Jubilee
Debts forgiven, slaves set free
Jesus is the Jubilee

According to Wikipedia, "The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) year is the year at the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years (Hebrew Shmita), and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the territory of the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah."
Now, while I have not done anything--anything--for forty-nine years, I love the seven times seven repetition in the narrative of the Old Testament: the seventh day as the day of rest in Genesis; the seven times, once a day, that Joshua and his army marched around the city of Jericho, and the seven times they marched around the city on the seventh day before they blasted trumpets and knocked the walls to the ground. But when I think about the jubilee year I think about the seventh year, not the seven times seventh year. Seven is a great number. Lunar cycles are broken up into multiples of seven. Seven is a lucky number here in the west, and according to Chinese astrology, so many lunar festivities are completed on the seventh day because seven is the number of completion. So maybe seven has this cosmic, spiritual vibration to it that somehow makes sense to me.

On a tangent, I want to take a moment to say that right now, I have a hard time with worship music. I grew up with it as a constant soundtrack for family interaction, and it never played an organic role in my personal worship experience. It wasn't soothing or motivational or positive for me; in fact I have memories of being forced to sing worship music, for reasons that had nothing to do with worship. That kind of behavior was really effective at distancing me from typical worship practices. I'm carrying a lot of baggage that I can lay at the feet of people I've come in contact with through various churches and worship experiences. So while a spiritual narrative can make me feel warm and connected to something larger, worship music just generally makes my skin crawl. But this isn't a post about the ways I've been failed by the church, or about the frailty of man, or about the struggle to make meaning and connect to Something Larger.
This is a post about black hair.
My husband took this photo on 2008; my hair's almost three years old here. As you can see from my expression, black hair is something I take seriously.

Specifically, my black hair. March marked the seven year anniversary I started locking.
I've written about locking before, about the politics of black hair and it's something that I think plenty about, even when I'd prefer not to. So I don't know how much time I'm going to spend talking about white beauty standard and idiot talk-radio hosts who make thoughtless and racist remarks. What I've been thinking about is my own journey, why I locked in the first place and what I've been learning as a part of the process.

But first, a lesson/rant: I hate it, Hate It, when people call locked hair dreads. Maybe it's because I'm a writer and I deal in words, but I have to ball my hands into a fist and bite my lip to keep from correcting people when they talk about "dreads". I have had people I thought were close friends who called my hair dreads, and it was all I could do not to correct them and say, Listen, my hair's not dreadful, it's beautiful. I don't have dreads I have locks. I should have done it. Now I wish I had corrected those people; they still don't know any better for my "politeness". The term "dreadlock" came from British imperialists in Kenya who saw the way men and women wore their hair--they labeled the style dreadful locks, and a moniker was born. I hate the idea that the anyone would name a style dreadful, and for me it's not a word like "nigger" that's been reappropriated; it's just wrong: sad, hurtful and ignorant of what the hairstyle really has to offer.

I locked my hair in 2005. I'd been natural, that is not treating my hair with any chemical straightener or alteration as black women in America often do, since '02, and I'd begun to think about locking my hair. I'd heard my mother talk all kinds of junk about Whoopie Goldberg, who was the only black woman I'd ever seen with locks. But I kept seeing people with locks, and I started to research the hairstyle. I discovered that locking was for some people just another way for a black woman to wear your hair natural, but for others it was a very real, natural, spiritual choice, an expression of connection to God, a vow of devotion and spirituality. I really responded to this. So I locked.

This is a picture my father's oldest brother took of me when I visited him in San Francisco in 2006. These two gentlemen posed with me, very politely, after my uncle stopped them and told them I was visiting from Chicago--they're union workers, also from from Chi-town. My hair's about a year old in this photo.

I don't know if I had a lot of expectations of wisdom to descend on me through my scalp after this choice. I know I wasn't going to spend hours in meditation, like Hindu monks, who called their locks "jata" . I didn't know if there was a trip to the Motherland in my future, or that I was portraying any devotion to Haile Selassie. But I vibed with the idea that locking was going to connect me to something larger, that my hair would serve as roots to put me in touch with a kind of wisdom and understanding. I wanted some of that on my plate.

My hair's gotten me some attention. Much of it is really good. I feel a kind of kinship with other locked heads (male and female) I see, and when our eyes meet, we share a mutual respect and honor for each other. I remember listening to a story that a women told to me one afternoon after church about her recent trip to Zambia, and how she felt truly so much a part of the culture there, despite being an American, because of her locks. I am consistently complimented on it by people who express their admiration respectfully, thoughtfully.

Not all of the attention my hair gets is good. I don't, for instance, like it when people (often, but not always white) touch my hair without being invited. This also happened a lot when I was wearing my natural very short. I want to remind folks that I'm not a little dark genie for them to rub for luck. I also do not like it when men--of all races, ages and persuasions--holler things like, "Hey, Natty, Natty," at me, as if that will turn me away from whatever I'm doing and send me running toward them, ripping my clothes off. In fact, some of the attention I get from men who have no idea what it means to be locked is pretty crass. When they say things like, "God, I love your hair," I try to answer back, "Thanks, me too," and change the subject so I'm not inviting them to subjugate and objectify me further.

But here, now, on the seventh anniversary of locking, I've been thinking less about how others respond to my hair and more about what being a locked head has taught me. I didn't know it at the time, but I believe locking my hair is one of the first steps that I took to moving closer to the center of myself--the center of my self. I am a truer version of myself, a healthier, more whole person, because I locked my hair seven years ago. I am learning to accept my reality--my successes, my weaknesses--because I locked. I am learning how little there is in my life that I can control because I locked; and I've learned about others, and their struggles on their journeys to the center of (and sometimes away from) themselves.

It's not for everybody. It's not what makes me hot. It doesn't mean I'm a hippie. It is, in some contexts, a political statement. But now, in my year of jubilee, my locs are a reason to celebrate, and a quality of myself that does help keep me rooted to the Earth, and the Something Greater.