All the Feels

Lately, my goal for my writing—especially my essay writing—is to achieve a high level of emotional resonance.

Emotions not focused on happiness/joy are tough for me sometimes. My default setting is to avoid them because that’s just how I was raised: don’t focus on the negative of the situation you’re in; survival requires focusing on the positive.

But being able to dive into dark places and then articulate those feelings are precisely what I should be able to do if I want to be a good memoir writer.

I read with envy pieces by Ashley C. Ford (especially this one), or this piece by T. Kira Madden. I thank God that nothing that traumatic has happened to me and that these women are survivors, but the point I’m making is that these women are just that good at their craft that they make me *feel* what they felt, even if it was just a sliver of their emotion.

This involves going into to really scary places in one’s mind and talking about really scary things.

For me, one of those scary places was my career. When I was treated poorly in my last job, I internalized some of those things and felt like a huge failure all the time, while I was in the job and after I left and started writing. Doing creative nonfiction classes at Sackett Street and Catapult with the same instructor, Michele Filgate, helped me break out of this a little. Michele told us to go where we were scared because that’s where the story is. (One of her own hard stories was recently published by Longreads, please read it!)

So, I wrote about some of the microaggressions I experienced in my job, how my bosses tried to make me feel like I was crazy when they were the ones doing the abusing. I didn’t know how to convey how I felt except to just be honest.

It took months and multiple workshops, but I finished the piece. It was published last week by Levo League, a career website targeting Millennial women.

I was blown away by the responses I got from my essay. Woman after woman commented on the post or sent me messages saying that they had been through similar situations. One even said she was wondering if she was crazy, questioning whether she was in an abusive environment or not, but my essay helped her confirm that she was.

With over 2,000 views, I am so overwhelmed and blessed that so many people have read my work and that it resonated with them.

This should be a lesson to me to keep going where it’s scary: the places where people need light and know that they are not alone.

Expressing my feelings doesn’t come easily to me, but I can see how it helps. It’s helped other people, and it has helped me regain my confidence in myself. I’m still finding my voice, still getting comfortable with the idea of going into these places where I don’t want to go because they don’t feel good. My craft needs for me to, and the good Lord is calling me to, to help people know that they are not alone.

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My Goals for 32

I skipped writing a post last week because last Monday was my birthday, so I took the week off to think a little bit less about what I’m doing right now and a bit more about what I’d like to do in the near future.

For starters, I turned 32! That’s a huge deal for someone who knows their fair share of people who didn’t make it past 27. Not to be morbid, I just thank God for every day I get.

That being said, I’m a planner like nobody’s business. I like to figure out where I’m going before I get there, in addition to how and when I’m getting there.

I decided that, this year—my 33rd on the planet—I want to finish my memoir. No surprises there, you might be thinking, and you’re correct. I started my third round of edits, including rewriting the first chapter, last week, and that helped me see that I have a lot more to do. Editing isn’t just moving things around—it’s full-scale making what I have sound a lot more compelling. (No, I’m not embellishing anything, I’m just moving beyond the step of “get it all down,” and actually turning my memories into a cohesive narrative.)

I also decided that I’d like to go back to work full-time.

I know, I know.

If you’ve read enough of my work (including the essay that will soon be posted to Levo.com), you know that my career history has not been to my satisfaction, to say the least, especially my last job (#nightmare). I’ve been going to therapy to move past the abusive elements of that job, and writing has definitely made me feel more confident about going back into Corporate America. Writing has been a part of my life for my whole life (was just thinking today that it all started with Ghostwriter in 1992), and that will not change. But the part of me that needs to solve concrete problems and be around people also will not change, and I can’t ignore that part of me, either.

Last, since my spouse and I are in our early 30s and have been married for five years, we’re starting to figure out when we want to start having kids. (Ack, I’ve gotten to that place in my life that that’s a real conversation and real planning.) We’re not starting soon, but it’s definitely a more real possibility to us now than it was five, or even two, years ago.

So, I have a lot of goals: book (that’s well-written and compelling), job (that I enjoy doing because it’ll take me away from writing), and prepping for a kid. Looks like my Jesus year (next year) is going to be a busy one!

A Special Anniversary, Part II

Happy bloggingversary to me! I started this blog one year ago today to build my author platform and keep track of my thoughts and feelings as I wrote my memoir. I called it “Tales of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I couldn’t think of anything else to call it. I realize that I should rename it “Diary of a Memoir-Writing Life” because I’ve gotten way more personal here than I ever expected to. Thank you to everyone who’s read me here and supported my work elsewhere online. I hope to have many more things to say as I continue editing my book!

I called my first post last year “A Special Anniversary,” since it was one year after my father passed away. I wrote a positive reflection on some of the laughs we shared, in truth, because I couldn’t think of any other reflection. (I took the post down when my awesome Gotham memoir instructor, Blaise Kearsely, encouraged me to submit it, and it was published on Thought Catalog, my first published piece!) I couldn’t write a moving tribute because I felt sort of numb about his being dead. I felt bad about it, feeling like I should be broken up thinking about my father being no longer with us.

Well, unfortunately, I still feel that way. I still feel largely nothing about my dad being gone.

I wish I could say, upon typing previous sentence, I felt a well up in my chest and tears misted at my eyes. But, nope.

I say this in contrast to, for example, when I think about my friend Jessica. When she died three days after my wedding, I could hardly get out of bed. Five years later, I still can’t quite talk about her without crying at some point, as my therapist learned a few weeks ago.

But nothing ever happens in me when I think about the fact that my father is in eternity.

I feel less bad about feeling this way now. After writing down my whole life story, I don’t feel guilty about not feeling bad because I see the parts in my life when my connection to my father fissured and fissured until there was nothing left. I wondered if the exercise of writing a memoir would make me feel closer to him, but it didn’t; in a way, it made me feel more distant because I was reminded of all of the terrible things he did.

But one thing I feel differently about after writing this book? I feel a bout of empathy—oddly enough—for my father’s first wife and his kids from his first marriage. Once I put myself in their shoes, I could clearly see that it would suck for my husband (even if I didn’t treat him well) to conceive a child with someone else before we were even divorced. It would super suck for my dad to move out of our house to live with someone he had a child with. I see how that is really awful, and I hate that it ever happened to them. But my empathy ends at the point of holding onto a grudge not worth clinging to. Even when I put myself in their shoes, I always come to the conclusion that I would have had to get over all of it at some point, and recognize that the child didn’t ask to be born, and not hold any animosity toward her. But that’s just me.

I am blessed that my life has chugged along over the past two years. I’ve had some weird challenges, like my job going south and having to re-adjust to a changing city, but overall, I’ve still had the good end of the bargain. I’m just going to be grateful for every breath, tell my story, and march on, continuing to accept myself and my flaws for all that I am, even when my feelings aren’t what I think they should be.

Thank God for Well-Read Black Girls

This past Saturday, I took an early train to NYC for the Well-Read Black Girl Writers’ Conference and Festival. How was it, you ask?

AMAZING.

I missed the conference portion of the day in which one could go through some generative exercises and meet with agents, but I was there for the festival bit, which had all the panels. There were just so many highlights of the day! Here’s a list, in no particular order (except for the order of events because I’m a spazz like that):

  • Opening remarks from Naomi Jackson, whose debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, was the first novel I read in 2017. I liked it, but I more so found myself jealous of Jackson’s talent (of course). But seeing her speak reminded me that she’s not some god, she’s a person—a Black woman like me. Sure, she has an MFA and lots of education and experience with craft, but at the end of the day, she told a story, and guess who can do that, too? MOI.

  • The fireside chat between Rebecca Carroll and novelist Tayari Jones was incredible, mostly because the women had such great chemistry and Tayari is hilarious! (For example, growing up in Atlanta, she was surrounded by Black people, thought HBCUs were the only types of universities, and was surprised to find out that white people also go to college. GOLD!) It was great to hear a literary storyteller who was so down-to-earth and reachable, for lack of a better term. Usually, when you think literary authors, you think Toni Morrison—again, a god-like creature whose talent I will never possess. But then you see people like Tayari who are also talented and also so real, and it makes you okay with being you.

  • The writing as self-care panel—OH! All I could think during this panel (in which 5 writers talked about their writing processes, their ways of keeping sane and healthy) was “MY TWITTER IDOLS ARE REAL PEOPLE!” and “I feel so nourished right now.” It was so inspiring to hear Black women talk about how they take care of their souls because so few of us do. I was most moved to action by their reminders to keep negativity out of your mind by watching out much social media exposure you have; admittedly, it’s difficult because social media plays such a huge role in building a platform these days, but they were right: it’s easy to go nuts looking at everything everyone says out there, and you have to take care of yourself in that regard just as well. Afterwards, I got to meet Jenn Baker and Ashley C. Ford, two prolific writers who bring me joy as I follow them on the Twitter!

  • The last panel, Writing as Political Resistance (shown in featured photo), was also moving because when you’re a Black woman and you write your ABCs, you are resisting. I felt so encouraged as the panelists told us that our stories mattered and that they should be heard. I felt so confident!
  • Speaking of confidence, I had a chuckle to myself because I was one of the few women with relaxed hair at this conference and that took me by surprise. I don’t know why: I would venture to say that most Black women artists wear their hair natural to be true to themselves. At first I wondered if people would look at me funny since my hair is still straight, but then I quickly corrected myself: no one gives a flip what my hair looks like, and if they do, they’re probably not a writer because Black women writers have entirely too much to think about to ponder someone else’s hair. So, yeah.
  • Seeing great women writers who I hadn’t seen in the longest time, including Obehi Janice, with whom I went to Georgetown, and Kristen Jeffers, with whom I shared a DC co-working space, but hadn’t actually met until this weekend. Small world.
  • I met some great women readers and writers, and got exposed to authors I didn’t know before. For someone to have my English degree and my vocabulary, I haven’t actually read all that many books, especially by Black women writers, unfortunately. So I bought a bunch at the expo (ack!) and wrote down a whole bunch more. I have a lot of catching up to do.

So, I had a spectacular weekend being encouraged to know that I’m doing the right thing with my life right now. It is clear to me that people need to hear my stories. My voice needs to be heard. God is using me and my words to bless people and help them become who he’s called them to be. I’m accomplishing my mission and purpose, and, God, it feels good. Many, many thanks to Well-Read Black Girl for the encouraging and inspiring day!

The State of My Tribe

I wasn’t going to do a blog post on this because it’s a pretty sensitive topic for me, but as a memoir and personal essay writer, isn’t everything I write sensitive?

This weekend, my spouse and I went to North Carolina to visit my family since we hadn’t been home all year, not since Thanksgiving last year.

On Saturday, we went with my mom to Cherokee, up in the mountains in western NC. I’d never been to the mountains, even though I grew up in NC. We went to the Cherokee museum and took in all this history about the various Native American (although everyone there said, “Indian,” and I was like, How much of a liberal bubble do I live in that I’m uncomfortable with people saying “Indian” instead of “Native American”?) tribes. My mom was disgusted at how the white people came and “civilized” the tribes: “They weren’t civil before the white people got here?” She said. “They were just barbarians?”

Then went to Harrah’s, the casino up the road, and won no money. I swear, no one was winning at all. Just a bunch of elderly people smoking cigarettes in their Hover-Rounds with oxygen tanks attached, pulling at the one-armed men. So, more depressing than the Cherokee museum. We lost $15 and didn’t even get free drinks.

Otherwise, our trip was fine. Everyone in my family is doing okay in their own way, but all in ways that make me worry.

My mom is pursuing another master’s degree (she already has a law degree; yes, a law degree). When I asked her if the student loans she’d have to take out would be worth it for the income boost she’d get as a result, she said, “It should. Otherwise I’ll just pay them off til I die like everybody else.” Oy. Mommy has also started a home church with a guy from work. She wanted me to meet the guy, so I did. I know she wanted me to like him, but I didn’t. I found him a self-important pseudo-intellectual who enjoyed hearing himself talk, but I was polite and kept my face off my sleeve, so to speak, as best I could.

Otherwise in my relative group, my sister is getting divorced, and I feel terrible for her and her children since all I’ve ever wanted for them is stability, and my brother has cancer, but is in great spirits.

My life isn’t perfect, but it’s good: I’m physically healthy, all of my bills are paid, my marriage is strong, my prayer life is improving. On the whole, I’m doing pretty well. I want my family to do well, too, and thinking about this, I cried on the plane back to DC last night.

I’ve always been a little different from my family members, which my mom and sister will readily admit. “She was a strange child,” my sister told my spouse at breakfast on Sunday. But these differences are starting to break my heart a bit. While I don’t regret a single decision I’ve made over the past 15 years to get me where I am today, I do wish I were closer to my tribe.

God has funny ways of working things out. He’s allowed us all to be where we are right now for some reason or another. I know my tribe will be fine, but for now, I’m praying for all of us.

Relax, Relate, Release!

Relaxation.

Relaxing.

Relax.

These words do not come easily for me to say and are even more difficult for me to do. But I’ve actually managed to achieve them in the past two weeks, and I am proud of myself!

I never really gave myself time to recover from my traumatic work experience in New York. I took all of two days off just to clean up my apartment before I dove into writing my memoir (in which I re-lived my traumatic childhood). After a year, I was wiped out. Even my therapist said that I should take some time to relax.

The idea of relaxing has made me nervous since I was a little kid. When my mom told me to take time to relax, I inevitably wound up being bored, mostly because I associated relaxing with sleeping, which my mother did excessively because of depression. In my adult life, I sought to make my reality the exact opposite of what I grew up seeing, and part of that meant being really busy. In my early 20s, I worked two jobs, which amounted to regular 13-hour days. Despite said two jobs, I never had enough money to go on vacation. (I’d also not grown up taking family vacations since we couldn’t afford to, so it was par for the course.) My husband and I take a vacation together at least once a year, so that’s helped me learn to unwind, but only for that time. I didn’t feel that I deserved a break. Until I went through one trauma after another.

Now, with no employer-based full-time job and a self-mandated break from serious writing, I have allowed myself to sleep in, to read (follow me on Goodreads to see what), to treat myself to lunch at the museum café, to write fiction and drink a beer by the pool in the middle of the afternoon.

My mind feels smooth and clear, not lumpy and restless. My body doesn’t feel as tense. I feel better able to focus and more capable of figuring out what I want out of life. In a nutshell, I feel more confident.

I don’t believe in regrets, but if I did, I would regret not taking the time to recharge earlier in my career. Maybe that would have helped me make less fraught decisions. Now, I can use the energy that I’ve restored to charge into my next challenge, whatever that may be.

Baby Steps

With my one-year resignniversary behind me, and after clearing my life of needless material possessions, I’ve been asking myself what’s next. Now that my summer writing workshops are over and I’ve finished the first draft of my memoir, I’ve had the strangest yearning: To go back into the corporate world.

I love writing. I will always love writing. I need to write in order to feel like a stable human being. But I realize that’s only one part of me. I am an odd duck who needs to organize things, solve problems, analyze data, and make decisions to move a project forward in addition to making up imaginary situations and people (in fiction, that is. In memoir, I’ve told my very true life story).

For the past year, I have not exercised that part of myself. It feels like a limb with a cast just off: limp, pale, and weak. But it’s still useable! I’ve yet to meet someone who chopped off their arm after it healed from a break!

I still have some scars from the trauma I experienced at my old job, so I haven’t actually updated my resume or started applying for jobs. I’m allowing myself to take the tiniest of baby steps. In true What About Bob fashion, so far, (1) I’ve looked at job descriptions online, just to see what’s out there, and (2) I attended my first networking event in DC last week.

Note on (1): There are so few jobs in DC. I mean, not actual open positions (there are a bagillion), but types of jobs. I’m sure I knew that when I lived here before, I just didn’t realize the magnitude of it until now. All DC jobs are government, consulting (including lobbying), research, or nonprofit. So, I instantly grew frustrated that my career options are limited here as compared to NYC, but I suppose I shouldn’t be upset about it because it’s just so damn obvious.

Note on (2): Networking in DC is different from networking in New York because the people are very different. DC people seem to work in the industries I listed in the previous paragraph, and, therefore, there’s less to talk about because everyone knows what everyone does. When I passed out my business cards, one person said, “Oh, you’re a writer,” but didn’t really ask what I write. Another person asked what I do otherwise, and I said, “I just write for right now.” Although my career is very different, people didn’t seem all that interested in it, which is fine because I didn’t want them prying, but I also found odd, because wouldn’t you want to talk to someone who does something different? Shrugs.

So continues my journey to figure out what’s next for me. Yes, it will include writing. But what else?

Writing Binge, Clothing Purge

Yesterday, I donated half of my wardrobe and one-third of my books to charity.

When I got home from the VQR Writers’ Conference on Saturday, I felt the need to cleanse myself of material possessions that were holding me back. So I spent Sunday going through all of my clothes, including the winter ones that were packed away in those big plastic bins. I was going to do the Marie Kondo thing of asking myself of each piece, “Does this spark joy?” But then I realized that “Does this even fit?” was the much more salient question.

I started exercising (mostly with weights) about 2.5 years ago, and I changed my diet to be a bit more clean(ish); as a result, my body has changed a lot. My shoulders are broader now, so little my cap-sleeved t-shirts looked ridiculous. My biceps are visibly larger, and they threated to break the seams of some of my dress sleeves. My butt has gotten firmer and higher, making some of my dresses inappropriately short.

I didn’t realize any of this because I hadn’t actually worn any of those clothes in the past year. Since I quit my job, I’ve solidly taken on the uniform of a writer: in winter, jeans and sweater, and in summer, shorts and t-shirt. Sure, I’ll throw in a casual dress here and there, but not really. Since I’ve been delving into some uncomfortable emotional places, I’ve wanted to be physically comfortable, meaning even in my wardrobe.

But, I did ask myself of some of my clothes, “Does this spark joy?” And for a whole host of my button-down shirts, slacks, and skirts, the answer was a resounding, “NO.” I am not opposed to business attire (I, in fact, look forward to wearing it again one day), but most of my work clothes reminded me of just that – work. My striped Banana Republic buttondowns reminded me of every Monday morning Investment Team meeting in which I felt that I did not belong. My shift dresses purchased on Gilt.com reminded me of my performance reviews in which one of my bosses flagrantly lied about my performance. I know they’re just clothes, but it was what they represented: denigration, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, sorrow, regret. All but joy.

There was no way I could hold onto these pieces and feel liberated from that crazy situation. One year later, I feel a psychic freedom I wish I’d had 365 days ago.

 

The last time I went through one of these purge phases was when I returned to the US from a semester abroad in England, about 11 years ago. I’d just experienced a HUGE life change – I’d spent half a year away from my family going to countries where none of my family members had ever been. It was obvious that my life was going to be different from then on, and I needed to make room for that difference. So, I went through all of my clothes and books, and donated everything I wanted to get rid of.

I most clearly remember packing up my shelves of chicklit. I had decided to write literary fiction, so needed to be careful of what kinds of books I took in: only those I wanted to emulate in some way. Yes, this made me a little bit of a book snob (I have not read any Sue Monk Kidd or even Harry Potter as a result of this rule), but it made my art better.

What is the big life change I just had that made me want to dump all of my old stuff?

A year spent doing the thing I have been most passionate about since I was 12 years old.

Spending the year writing my own story has been monumental. The amount of self-assessment I’ve done, the amount of empathizing with people who still hate me has been sorta nuts. And it has prepared me for the next phase in my life. I’m not sure what that phase is, and, of course, I plan to continue writing in some capacity, but it is clear that something in me has shifted and I sought to mark the change by making room in my life for new things.

That’s my “I’m paying attention to Bret Anthony Johnston” face.

All that being said, I should say how great the VQR Writers’ Conference was. It was very different from VONA, mostly in that there were white people at VQR (seven people of color among 30 attendees, which I suppose is a decent ratio for these sorts of things?).

Although the cafeteria food was inedible, the mosquitos were relentless, and a couple of workshop participants voluntarily read wildly racist material, I had a lot of fun. I met some amazing writers who I hope to keep in touch with, and my workshop instructor, Anne Helen Petersen, was incredible. Instead of doing lectures on craft, she led us through some generative exercises, so I now have a boatload of ideas for new essays, two of which I started at the conference with her guidance (meaning, she actually sort of outlined essays on the white board as we spitballed questions – it was INCREDIBLE). I’ve never had an instructor spend so much time on the participants’ writing, especially on generating new material. So while I couldn’t help think about the ghosts of the slaves who obviously inhabit UVA’s campus (you should thank them whenever something automatic works, like the paper towel dispenser), I felt honored that I was chosen to attend the workshop.

VQR readers

VQR Open Mic readers

I told myself that after a year of writing my memoir, I would take a break. I would drink tea and go to museums and write fiction, perhaps all at the same time. The point of that was to finally actually recover, since I’d gone from one emotion turmoil (crazyass job) to another (crazyass memoir). But VQR has restored my excitement about revising my book, and we’re planning to move into our condo soon, so my break might wind up not happening, and I’m actually okay with that. I guess it’s the next phase moving in. I’ve made room for it, so I should just open the door.

 

 

Announcing the Next Step in our Independence…

In honor of Independence Day, I would like to announce that my spouse and I have finally (after this and this) moved to the next stage of adulthood: homeownership!

Us with our rockstar real estate agent Harrison Beacher

We closed on a condo in DC last week, and I think we’re thrilled about it. The process went so quickly, we hardly had time to think, much less be really excited. But now that the dust has settled a little, we’re pretty stoked. We’re moving into a new phase in life, and that is super scary. We both think a kid will likely be the next big change for us, but we’re not in a hurry to get to that, so we’re just going to savor our new home.

I’ll have a longer post about this when we finally move next month (after the reality has set in a bit more). Until then, I’m headed to the Virginia Quarterly Review writers conference next week, and will have a report on that soon after.

Happy 4th of July, friends!

VONA/Voices: The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me

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VONA faculty members lay down wisdom in a panel discussion about writing.

Last week was one of the best of my life, I think.

I spent the week at the University of Pennsylvania in writing workshops at VONA, where I mingled and sat at the feet (figuratively) of some literary greats, including Junot Diaz. My instructor was Reyna Grande, a Mexican writer whose memoir The Distance Between Us detailed her own journey crossing the border and how it affected her family.

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My instructor, Reyna Grande, reading material from her new, not-yet-published memoir. #sneakpeek

My piece—the first 20ish pages of my memoir—was workshopped on Monday, the first day of the week, which was nerve-wracking. I also happened to go last, after two of my colleagues’ great work was discussed, which compounded my heart palpitations even more. The feedback I got was brutal, but good: the child narrative voice I use in the early chapters limits what the reader can see if there is no accompanying adult reflection; also, my book’s overall theme didn’t ring through the early pages. Reyna’s personality was a little hard to read, and that made the workshop more difficult because I couldn’t put a confident “but she doesn’t actually hate my work” on it until the end of the week, after we’d opened up to each other a bit more.

I had a one-on-one meeting with Reyna, and that was invaluable. I mean, her lectures contained MFA-level material and the other workshops were great, but the one-on-one meeting allowed me to talk out some of the kinks in my story. I told her the basics of my story (my dad was a minister who was married four times and abandoned me and my older brother in favor of my sisters, with whom he had an inappropriately close relationship), and we discussed a short piece I wrote for her class, a letter to one of my sisters who made me feel like I didn’t belong in a most vulnerable situation. And that was the key—belonging. I knew that was a theme of my book, but I didn’t know how important it was until I spoke with Reyna about it. Therefore, having that 20-minute conversation with her changed the course of my book, and made me think that, maybe, I’ve got more than one memoir in me.

Reyna also had us write about our first time doing something, first about the physical experience, then about the subtext/what really happened underneath that physical experience. I wrote about my first (and only) time on a water slide. My mom took me on it when I was about 4, and it didn’t go so well. It was my first near-drowning incident. I wasn’t happy with the way I’d written the assignment, though, so I didn’t share it in class, but thought about it more once I got home, back to DC. Only yesterday, during a long walk to relieve some muscle stiffness, did I realize that the story wasn’t about my mom letting me go and me nearly drowning. It was about her putting me in harm’s way and not apologizing. It was about my needing to forgive my mother for everything that happened with my father. I had never thought about that EVER in almost 32 years, with all my focus going to forgiving my father and sisters. But forgiving my mother is equally important, and I was finally able to do that in my heart yesterday.

People say that VONA is life-changing, but I sort of thought they were full of sh*t, or at least way more touchy-feely than I will ever be. But VONA did more for me when I got home than it did the week I was there, and that is incredible.

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Renowned poet Patricia Smith and students shaking us up with a heart-wrenching poem about children’s concept of death. #blacklivesmatter