Miss Nikki and L’il Mo

Don’t look now
I’m fading away
Into the gray of my mornings
Or the blues of every night
~Nikki Giovanni (from Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day)

I’ve been meaning to write this essay for a while, but things have just been…crazy. Time zones and new carpet and moving offices, Apex parties and family and library readings. Another book edited, another interview turned in, the same heart broken into pieces for the umpteenth time.

You know how it is.

And still in the midst of all the meetings and melodrama are the Authors in my Neighborhood. This week, I met Amy Grant. Last week it was Dr. Bill Bass (founder of the Body Farm) and his co-author Jon Jefferson.

Before that, it was Nikki Giovanni.

I had been looking forward to Nikki’s arrival for weeks. A powerful woman, speaker, teacher, and poet…funny, personable, and assertive…Nikki Giovanni is just All That.

And she’s cute, too.

I went to the presentation armed with two cameras (35mm still takes a better picture in low-light auditoriums, sorry all you digital folks) and my copy of her new book, On My Journey Now. How did I miss that she was a fellow Candlewick author? Too many conventions on the docket I suppose.

I didn’t take too many pictures, though…mostly, I just listened to her speak.

My friend Nicole and I had discussed the mutual doldrums we had been in lately — caused by different things, of course, but the destination was still the same. We both were looking to Nikki to give us some inspiration, to light the lantern and show us a path out of our dark tunnels. We hung on every word, waiting for that moment of epiphany.

Nikki spoke of many things in her loud and wonderful way, spreading her arms wide to be sure that the room knew it was included in her discussion. She spoke of Virginia Tech, and what still resonated on that campus. She spoke of the Jubilee singers, and the reason Nashville is really called “Music City.” She spoke of slaves on boats and the cabin songs that evolved from their moans, moans that could be understood by all no matter what your race, creed, or dialect. She spoke of homeless people, how she admired them for having the strength to keep living such a horrible life. She admired them all for that same thing–for that ability to see through the pain and the sadness and somehow still have hope for a better tomorrow.

But instead of feeling inspired, instead of feeling like part of that group, I felt left out. I will be the first to admit to anyone that I’ve had a pretty fabulous life. Sure, I went through the typical school days ostracism, the typical struggle with my self-image, the typical teenage angst towards my parents. I am a privileged, middle-class girl from privileged, middle-class stock. I’ve never had to want for anything, to fight against anything, to hate anything.

That doesn’t make me strong…it just makes me here.

What in my life is so horrible? A birth, a death, a wedding. A soulmate trapped on the other side of the ocean. A rape of my forest and an invasion of privacy.

Those people cried for their lives.
I cried over a bunch of trees.

So what is it that makes me strong? It’s in here somewhere, I know, I can feel it. I can feel the passion and conviction down there, so I know it exists. It comes through my voice and my tears and my words.

But why? For me to believe in a better tomorrow is arrogant, isn’t it? Better than WHAT, exactly?

But maybe that’s it. Maybe just the fact that I don’t settle, that I still have passion and conviction, that I believe–even misguidedly–in people and see them for what amazing people they can be, maybe THAT is my strength.

I don’t just believe in a better tomorrow; I believe in the people that are going to get us there.

When I got home from LA (the second time), there was a box waiting for me.
Inside it was a tree.

The tree is a Chinese White Serissa bonsai tree, also known as the “Tree of a Thousand Stars.” In with the tree there were more names: Carrie Rapp, Maurice Broaddus, Chesya Burke, Gary and Nancy Frank, Sara Larson, Michael West, Debbie Kuhn, Jason Sizemore, and John Hay.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are my friends.
This is my Mo*Con family.
These are the people I believe in.
They are the reason I look forward to tomorrow.

The tree may be a serissa japonica, but it told me its real name as soon as it left the box: Little Mo. He sits in my kitchen window, making the view a little more tolerable every day. I even took the books down.

And it still makes me smile.