FREEDOM WRITING IN ACTION. PERMISSION GRANTED TO BE FREE HERE!
I met you at an ice-cream shop on Spintex Road, the busiest road of all Accra, probably, that was 14 years ago and I can’t remember the name of the ice cream shop. I think now of all the questions I could have asked, all the questions we could have asked each other, not six but hundreds of them, not a simple rendezvous that would leave us feeling like two complete strangers, I thought you were too cocky, you thought I was a know-it-all kind of gal, too cocky too for your own style.
Do you even like ice cream, I would have asked. What do you think of the Holy Trinity vanilla, strawberry, chocolate? Do you keep it in your freezer? Are you a Homer Simpson type of guy who scoops out the chocolate, leaving the other two flavors behind for the woman to eat? Well, what if chocolate is her favorite too? Could we switch to plain chocolate ice cream please?
Do you prefer to lick cones or the odd cup n´ spoon? See, I’m a spoon sort of person, but you don’t seem to know what you like.
Do you like tropical weather? It gives me skin rashes and I hate to feel like I need to shower every hour. Do you prefer a fan or AC? I can’t stand AC, you see, but I can’t sleep with the fan on either, that’s not white noise for me. And what do you think of midnight showers or 3 AM showers? Because you might hear me in there once in a while. Would you get up to keep me company? Scrub my back?
Are you a shower or a bath type of person? Are you eco-friendly? Or will we be having this argument 14 years from now?
What do you make of screen time for yourself? What about for children? Are you one of those slippers-by- the-door kind of guy that turns on the TV to watch football, holding a beer, then another, then another, then another, like other men I know so well? What about wine? Can you hold in a couple of glasses? See that’s more my thing – shellfish and white wine or a cheese board and red wine.
But wait, let’s go back to kids. Not just about the screen time but what do you make of little feet stomping around the house and diapers crunching across the floor? What about middle of the night feeds and fevers? Tiny nightmares and insomnia? Are you strong enough for those? Yeah, I didn’t think I was either, but it turned out I’m rougher material than I gave myself credit for.
OK, what about the bill? Who will pay for the ice cream today? Are you the gentleman type or the shy guy who’s not sure what to do on a first date? That’s cute. Let’s go, we’ll review these questions 14 years from today. I still can’t
remember the name of that blessed ice cream shop on Spintex Road, where I met you.
Inspired by Caitlyn Siehl’s “Three Questions”
The day is taken by each thing, step-by-step.
And although it all feels like a flow, they are steps. Open your eyes, feel the agitation, take a breath, watch the fluctuations of the mind, cuddle back with husband. It’s 7:00 AM. Do you see how cuddling with the husband is just one of the steps? Nothing fancy, just one more thing that’s taken by the day. It shouldn’t be so.
The day’s taken by walking the dogs, driving the kids to school, buying the potatoes I forgot to buy yesterday, soaking lentils, chopping vegetables, tasting pickles and frowning under the vinegar taste. Cleaning dog poop, raising my voice at my kids, lowering it at the sick dying hamster, singing when sadness hits, going outside, looking at the reeds only cut halfway because I gave up on them – who cares about building that fence anyway?
Seeing the vases that need to be arranged but that I don’t want to touch – I don’t understand why people say that touching the earth is therapeutic. I don’t like the feel of dirt on my hands, at all.
Seeing the empty flower beds – the ones which used to have flowers so beautiful but I can’t remember where I bought them. If I remember I’ll buy them again this year.
Seeing the peach tree – last year the baby peach tree died from lack of water because I forgot to feed it, so I didn’t want my husband to buy this one but here it is anyway, small, waiting for nourishment like any other baby.
Watering the lemon tree, admiring the olive trees, and picturing myself lying under them, which I never do, even though all I have to do is open one of the doors and step outside. I keep it in my imagination alone.
When did I become such a homy indoor creature? Henry Thoreau said he couldn’t be caught dead indoors! I’m still impacted by his words saying he would spend three to four hours outside walking each day. The 20 minutes I walk outdoors every day are with the dogs – bless their hearts, they make me go out.
The day is taken by each thing, and I’m taken by the day – I mean this in the most literal sense of being carried buy stuff but also that I am not the same person at the end of this day. I’m different than the one who woke up with fluctuations of the mind and noticed the agitation. There’s hope for me. There’s a way to begin the next day that’s full of new steps, steps I’m learning to take.
Inspired by Linda Gregg’s poem
“In praise of Spring”
I too want to give you the certainty that you can live in a world where you can know hurt, pain, the color of the dirt in the cemetery, heartbreak, disease, and still be happy.
I want to give you the certainty that you can live so cracked open that the light will stream in like gold, despite the brokenness. I want to give you the certainty that although the cup may never be quite full, you can feel as full as it gets, ecstatic with happiness; in fact, you can overflow with so much fullness and then bring others along the way.
I want to give you all of this, even though I’m just learning it myself. Learning that the cracks are not flaws, that the past is the past but made what I am today. To live the artistic life without shame and unapologetically, to be sensitive and be OK with it, not playing the tough woman on the block, not playing perfect. In fact, being as flawed and imperfect as possible, lowering the bar.
I want to give you the certainty that lowering the bar is as good a path as any. That rough drafts and pauses and breaks, moments to reflect, are all welcome.
I cannot give you a world without death. Your hamster died during the few days we were away, and it was such a tender moment to tell you. It was magical to hug you and sit with you in silence, listening to your questions. Listening to your certainty too: how you knew exactly where you wanted him buried – under the medlar tree. Daddy got a pretty shoe box, put some soft wool inside, put Ninja inside, closed the box and buried it, placing a little stick to mark the spot and a little note too, that now says – RIP Ninja, 2023. I have seen it now, but you haven’t. For a few days you went back to your busy childhood and have forgotten all about it. But tomorrow you will come back home and see it. I already showed you the pictures: the shoe box, Ninja inside. It was when you finally accepted that he was dead, because before you kept asking if we were sure he wasn’t just hibernating. No honey, I touched him, he really doesn’t move, daddy said.
I cannot give you a world without death, even without my own death or daddy’s death, but I do want to give you the certainty that if you lean towards grief, you will absorb its power. This makes no sense, I know, and I have no right
to ask you to trust me on this difficult subject but that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do – no matter how bitter the situation, find what you feel emotion and lean into it as much as possible. With all your weight. Spare no pound,
no inch. It will speak to you, I promise, in a way you have never heard before. Listen closely. Profoundly. I want to give you the certainty that you can listen to that depth and understand it in time. Yes, you can.
Inspired by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem
The little hippo umbrella,
the yoga mat,
people in general,
my heart, of course,
my body from giving birth,
my pinky fingernail,
the one thousandth cheap mobile charger,
the wings of the bee I rescued from the water,
the seashell my son picked up just for me.
Divided my consciousness between
what I think and what I do and say,
the love I left behind,
the girl broken by a man without a mind,
the shower head and everything in between.
Myself, above all, myself,
but I couldn’t be whole if I hadn’t
been broken over and over again.
The pencil my son broke in anger,
the dancing reed, teaching me,
the picture frame – once again
the four of us on the tile floor.
the tiny branch in the bird’s beak
and my weak back.
My broken dreams,
the cracked open hospital gown,
how fragile we feel in another’s hands,
and the words we wish we could take back.
Inspired by Doriane Laux’s poem “What’s broken”
for a moment
It’s the kind of day that’s weird… You know those days when you don’t know what to do with yourself and you keep stumbling on yourself and saying to yourself – get out of the way!
It’s the kind of day I push away – my back screaming at me in pain, reminding me of the negligence I’ve had towards my body for the past three months. And now here it is, like a machine, begging for a little oil, for a little tenderness.
It’s a hollow day. So much to do but I resist it all. That’s OK. Here’s a big difference: for the past few days I made a point of putting the bloody phone down. Full mornings of just not looking at the screen at all, instead doing all the callbacks and writebacks and textbacks during a specific hour in the afternoon. Wonderful. Except today I numbed again, I kept picking it up compulsively, hoping I have no idea for what. A blessed e-mail or text message? A miracle in the form of WhatsApp? What was this today? Maybe I’ll call it sadness but that’s not it. Loneliness? Anxiety? It’s the kind of anxious day, yes, when I’m expecting something but don’t know what. And although the early morning was quiet and devoted to stillness and poetry, I don’t know how I fell into the well of the phone again.
It’s the kind of day where I acknowledge: the phone does take me out of myself.
It’s the kind of day with good stuff too. My son now has his own phone, and he went bike riding with friends after school. I could call him for the very first time, to let him know I would come home and be on a zoom call, didn’t want to be disturbed. It’s not my phone that’s the demon. Demons are something else, somewhere else. They’re in the numbness I already feel watching the news, one more day of war, one more day of prices rising – what else is new – one more day of families in distress. I must catch myself in this numbness and almost force myself to feel something. At least to pause and ask myself: are you really listening to this? Months past, are you deliberately watching these images again, of the old lady with the open wounds full of ants, mistreated in the nursing home she was supposed to be cared for? I saw neither holiness nor mercy in those images, only suffering, despair (mine) and possibly the fear of whoever held the phone to film the whole thing and post it on social media. It’s the kind of day when, right after it, we all apologize well enough, not good enough.
It would have been a good day to save that person’s life and give her back the integrity as a human being. A great day to save a life, the TV doctor would say.
It’s the kind of day for despair and fear. And hope. Honestly, it’s the kind of day you don’t want to have. But here it is. The kind of day you don’t want to have, having it anyway.
Inspired by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem “For a moment”
pockets of peace
1. Tell yourself that you could never write about finding pockets of peace in painful times because you don’t ever seem to have an emergency kit at hand, though you have created many emergency kits, you never seem to use them.
2. Try anyway.
3. OK, here’s to trying.
4. A pocket of peace is my oldest son getting into the car after school, articulating for the first time ever that he will be either a scientist, a doctor or a chef. When people ask him what he will be when he grows up usually says, I don’t know yet. So this came as a huge surprise.
5. A pocket of peace –my youngest son’s current love story that I’ve been writing about and it’s up to 20 bullet points now. Today’s one was – mom, she kissed me like 20 times today. – Really? Did you kiss her too? – Yeah, but only like 10 times. – Is her skin smooth? – Yeah. – Does she smell nice? – Really nice.
6. Pockets of peace – waking my oldest in the morning. Me talking away. Him – mom, shhh, can you please be quiet? My brain is still in neutral and you will start it up. I don’t want that yet.
7. Two minutes later he gets up and laughs. You know mom, I’m so clumsy. Last night I got up to pee but my legs weren’t really working yet, so I fell flat on the floor. And he laughs again.
8. Pockets of peace – that he has his dad’s lightness and sense of humor, thank goodness!
9. Him telling me – mom, my music teacher drew a flute on the blackboard that looked like a brick! We couldn’t understand a damn thing she was explaining. I laughed a bit and she made me play in front of the whole class.
10. He could be frustrated or embarrassed with the situation but he knew it wasn’t his fault. The teacher was just having a difficult day and he saw that. He took it lightly, he laughed about it.
11. I have so much to learn from this gentle funny 11-year-old that I’m so happy to call my son.
12. Pockets of peace – these small moments, the tiny things that slip through our fingers in the busyness of the days. The things I don’t want to miss.
13. Look at this – there are pockets of peace in painful times after all. And I just wrote about a dozen of them!
Inspired by Nikita Gill’s poem
“How to find pockets of peace in painful times”
the dark in me
The dark inside, the dark in me, the dark that no one else can see, is here, sustaining me. I’m almost obsessed with it.
Mostly I write from all the dark in me, not the light. I write from the bad thought, the agitation, from the fear, I write from a rumbly tummy and winter solstice, from warm socks and sitting on the floor, back against the wall. I write from hardness, from stiffness, from crossed legs, then crackling and stretched, from aches being eased as best I can.
I write from the secret life we all possess, I write from exhaustion and despair, from broken pieces, fights and grudges, traumas and pains, the family wounds we all sustain. I write from misery, from saying too much of a yes, I write from messiness, messy drawers and closets, lack of organization and plans, piles of laundry to be made, clothes scattered in my kids’ rooms, me complaining about it, but clothes also scattered in my room, so who am I to talk about it? I write from the nearly empty fridge and pantry – what was I thinking delaying the shopping like this? Lack of onions and potatoes, pasta and tomato sauce, narrowing the options of a meal to barely nothing. Maybe we should eat out.
I write from shame and guilt, from avoiding the natural glimpse of my own body in the full-sized mirror standing against that wall, even when I do it unconsciously. I write from eye-wrinkle creams for the post-40, promises of sweet almond oil and other skin smoothers. I write from getting dressed as soon as possible, rebelling against the depressing show of stretchmarks and dimples of cellulite. I write from grey hairs taking over the beautiful black ones and me refusing to do something about it, for now. Standing strong, for now.
I write from standing weak, from not holding my ground, from not holding my own. I write from misunderstandings and apologies, from secrets shared and broken promises. From seasons gone and old regrets, former lovers, and a dead pet… the one I accidentally killed.
The list could go on and on, endless with the lack of light. The light is here, sure, it just prompts me less.
I write from all these dark places in me, the dark places I’d much rather the world – and me – not to see. I’m writing from honesty.
Inspired by Rosemerry W. Trommer’s poem “Dark Praise”
Collecting things was my mother’s superpower. She clipped recipes.
His art piles up in the living room. What will become of it when he dies?
It’s a burden to my brother, a life destined for the trash.
My brother said they’d take me away if I showed it at school. Because I loved her so much, I didn’t say anything.
My parents wouldn’t have fought for me. That would have destroyed me. She loved me in her own way.
My father never hit me quite as hard again. I was 8.
Once I was a married woman, it was a done deal. I never pulled away.
I honor the history of chocolate chip cookies.
My grandmother appeared in my dreams last night. When she died, her hair turned into a furious winter.
The smell of teenage boys. My cousins knew nothing of this history.
I honor the $23 she sent to me in college. What if I let myself take up space?
After two years of COVID and cancer, we head to the woods, we sit and nibble on salami and olives to fill up our tanks.
I haven’t been terribly productive. Walking in nature won’t increase my visibility. I’ve been working on self-acceptance.
If I wake up late, so what?
I’m worthy of love. What does that mean to me?
I no longer need to feel guilty for those four quarters I stole when I was seven. I’m surprised I didn’t become a delinquent.
I sought out eastern philosophy. I see the shoots sprouting.
Asking to join the team, the dirt between my toes, sweat in the back, never thought the rain was to play in. Can we rewrite the rules of femininity?
I want to cut the bullshit. I’ve seen my 6-year-old make herself small for a group of girls – realizing the reality of womanhood!
Piece inspired by loose sentences of
in writing groups
So small i barely
Drinking a double espresso in a whiskey glass because all the espresso cups were in the dishwasher.
I finally found the insecticide when there are no more fruit flies to kill in the kitchen.
I was so excited I labelled two folders under the same name, without even putting a single sheet in any of them.
For the 3 rd day in a row I got out of bed on the opposite side of my slippers.
Have you tried whistling against strong wind? I have. Try it out, go ahead.
She said that her ex-husband “got very quiet suddenly, got up and left the room, leaving his phone and computer behind. He might as well left his body. He just disappeared.” I’m obsessed with this image.
“I go to the beginning with pockets empty. Maybe what is possible is enough” (T. de los Reyes, from Philippines). I want this to be true.
Driving slowly on the motorway, 80 km/h, mostly due to being deeply sad, my car beeped, alerting “tiredness detected. Take a break”, blinking the symbol of a little steaming coffee cup. Maybe it would have been good medicine, but I didn’t take it.
My husband’s alarm went off at 5am and I so wanted to kick him out of bed. “Give me a minute”, he said. “I was dreaming of motorbikes. At least let me park!”
The two of us sitting at the kitchen table, he reads me his wish-list for the year 2017: support my wife in her projects; reach 85 kilos by September; get the motorbike driver’s license. He got two out of three…
I saw the number of e-mails he had, and I panicked! But he just sighed, switched the phone off and went to kiss the kids goodnight, still telling me a joke before going. Seriously, how does he do it? How can I be that relaxed too?
I saved a bumblebee from water yesterday and I watched it for 15 minutes to make sure its wings dried and were functional. When I told a friend about this, I felt stupid.
The poem says, “there is an age when you are most yourself” (Something About the Trees, by Linda Pastan). Am I passed that age?
I’ve also read somewhere that if you have too much repetition you fall into a dull routine; too much change and you lose your center. Having moved houses and countries several times, I couldn’t agree more.
Yes, still obsessing about it: there’s an age when we are most ourselves… when is that? Oh God, when?
Yesterday morning my oldest son told me that “Mother” is the most difficult verb of all. And we conjugated it together.
Sorry, there are no instructions. There’s no video. But you’ll know when you’ve gone too far. Maps, videos, they’re useless. The only compass you can trust, you know where to find it.
You leave the room and to the right you find your sleeping son, so beautiful stretched out in bed that he could easily be a star and you would miss it if you were looking down at a map, a useless map. Then go straight into the kitchen and see the man prepare coffee with three or four paper filters and a blue strainer. There’s no coffee machine, no coffee maker. However, this is the best coffee you’ve had all week!
Look at how unique and vivid the colors seem to you today. Is it because the day ahead – although scarce in instructions – seems exciting?
Your good friend sent you a message: I would like to go to my brother’s house first and then go to a good-sized supermarket in town. Sorry, there’s no video, no other instructions. But your heart’s compass quickly tells you that it’s best to take the day off to be with your friend. Pick him up at the airport, buy him a cup of coffee and a pastry, take him home to drop off his bags, take him out for lunch, take him shopping, and back home. His presence is beyond compare. It was a full but relaxed, spacious day, with the kind of feeling one can only get by being close to giant trees.
Sorry, there’s no video. But you’ll know when you’ve gone too far. The next stop is someone’s house, where she’s taking a nap before picking up her husband from the nursing home. We’ll all go there – there’s no map, maps are useless in old age, but the compass inside you says, “let’s all go and get him, maybe that’ll make him smile. Maybe he’ll like the surprise (if he recognizes us, you think).”
Follow road after road, roundabout after roundabout – here traffic signs are not useless – this city at the end of August can be a dangerous place. Get there safely, wait at the gate where the van with the ramp welcomes the chairs that slowly roll in, among goodbyes and see you tomorrows, to take the elderly back to their homes after a day spent with friends, comrades, or whatever they’re called – probably just people with whom they are thrown in daily without anyone asking them about their preferences. Because it makes the whole thing easier.
You ask the woman – is this the gate? She says yes. The same gate she wrote to you about a few days ago in a WhatsApp message, mentioning some elderly people on the inside and others – younger – on the outside. And she said that it could all easily be mixed up, you know, all that: we must be careful because those out here can go in and those in there can come out. The younger man to whom she was saying this (but not much younger than her!) looked at her, shocked, without understanding, because the idea of being sent to a nursing home seemed completely foreign to him. He obviously thought he was far from being put in one. Young and vibrant he still felt, old age would never come, ever. However, the woman sees mortality clearly in herself and in him, and knows that she can enter that gate very soon, so she was surprised that the man didn’t see it too!
Sorry, there’s no video. No instructions on how the smell changes. How that house years ago smelled of babies when she bathed your children, dressed them, perfumed them; then it smelled of home-cooked food and the warmth of the meals you had together. And now it reeks of old age, urine and shit, while she changes diapers again on a fragile body, but one you wish she didn’t have to. The bed, sofa and TV are now strategically placed on the first floor near the bathroom, but even that’s not enough to ease the loads of laundry she does weekly to keep him clean. She says everything smells of urine all the time and she doesn’t know if she can trust her nose anymore. You tell her half the truth, that your nose is clogged, so you can’t smell anything.
There’s no video, sorry, there’s no useful signpost, but as soon as you sat down at the table and saw the new configuration of the house, adapted to the recent needs of old age – while she hid the wheelchair upstairs so he wouldn’t see it before she had time to prepare him for that conversation – you knew the only thing you could do was to take half the clothes she had brought inside from the yard and start to fold them. The men out there talking, father and son, in a senseless conversation ruled by Alzheimer’s, while the dog jumped like crazy, and you both sat at the table, folding away, and you noticed the mixed smell of detergent and urine. You refrained from saying that the clothes and the house needed a stronger washing program. Without instructions, how were you supposed to know it was okay to say that? That it wouldn’t be too painful? There’s no video, maps are useless, and the compass of the heart told you to be quiet. It told you to sit down at the dinner table and enjoy the meal. Before, it told you to watch the man cook something simple for dinner while you set the table. You opened the drawer and took out the blue towel, but then you saw the red one underneath and thought yes, the occasion asks for a red, more ardent one. You wish you had taken a photo, but without tutorials it’s hard to remember everything.
Inspired by Maya Stein’s “Finding your way to Bodieu”
WHY WE TELL STORIES
… because the bird perched on the roof, and I couldn’t stop seeing it and staring at it.
Because I look at the bird and I think about several stories about birds:
a. that birds are lucky they can fly
b. that birds inspired men to create airplanes
c. that birds are a symbol for balance, how their wings work so perfectly together
d. how their song is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world along with a baby’s laughter and a church bell on a weekend morning
e. that my son would call birds from the sky when he was a baby. Rebecca holding him, telling him to call the birds, “come bird, come”. And my son would reach up his tiny hand to the sky and call “bâda, come bâda”. And we smiled every single time and he really thought he could call them, and I wonder if he ever wondered why they never came to him.
f. because birds fly and my kids asked me why we can’t fly. And when they saw cartoons that could fly, they believed they could too and tried desperately to wave their arms up and down, and then asked me to build them propulsors to make them fly, which brought so many moments of fun with plastic bottles, tape, and colorful paper ribbons – orange and yellow, to imitate the ignition fire.
We tell stories because a friend has Alzheimer’s, and we are losing him. It’s a euphemism for “we already lost him.” He’s not there anymore, not really, just something else remains for which we can find no name.
We write stories to remember that the difficult times may be the ones that unite us the most – us, husband and wife, more together than ever in supporting a woman who’s seeing her husband drift away.
Because two days ago that woman went by a church and cried, and the Uber driver asked if she wanted him to stop the car so that she could take pictures or get some air, and her friend comforted her, telling her it was good to cry, that she was letting things out. Later, I learned that she met her husband around that church area many years ago. And she found herself thinking how and who he was back then and what he’s transformed into so quickly. Where did time go? What did time do? In the past couple of years we’ve seen him disappear. This morning he woke up, asked for 20 Euros and left to the café, where he waited for a contractor of his imagination. Then he wanted the divorce, again, and his wife took him to see a lawyer, then to a doctor’s appointment, then home, where he drank 4 glasses of wine, finding a bottle that was hidden and then opening another that his wife didn’t even know existed. Then he insulted her, as it’s usual these days. She was exhausted by the end of the day, and she called us, half in tears. She told us this story.
We write stories because that’s all we can do. To put ourselves on paper and hope our stories make sense to those who read them. Hoping that someone will understand us and reach out and say “hey, I get you, I really do, yes, of course, me too…”.
Inspired by Lisel Mueller’s poem Why we tell stories