Serendipity, synchronicity, or signs?
I recently was given the task of having to reflect upon what has passed for my “education,” formal and otherwise. I was given the assignment by the English professor teaching the writing course in which I am now enrolled. The first day of class, she wrote on the board “I wanted to tell you…,” and asked us to spend ten minutes continuing that idea. My first few lines were these: “I wanted to tell you I’m not sure about this experiment in education I’ve endeavored to undertake. It seemed the Universe was working against me. A school transcript – requested in May – had not arrived in the admissions office by the beginning of registration. Was that a sign?”
The day she gave the class our write-about-your-education assignment, I saw what seemed to me to be a sign that – maybe – this was a time for me to do what the teacher asked. In that day’s Washington Post, there was an article about a course on crime and justice being taught at the D.C. Jail. Some students are inmates; others are Howard University undergrads (including actor Nick Cannon). Reporter Perry Stein wrote that, during class the week prior to his article, “…the professor, Bahiyyah Muhammad, asked each student to think about their formal and informal education backgrounds. What values and skills did they learn as children and adults that contributed to the people they are?” I read those words and thought “Well, ain’t that somp’n?”
So, I decided to do what was required of me as a student. I spent some time looking back at some of the lessons that have gotten me to this point in my life, a senior citizen in a freshman English class where my “formal” education began: in a D.C. public school. Maybe I’ll learn I don’t know what I think I know. More than once, my instructor has said writing, sometimes, makes that happen.
There is a house in Kingman Park, bought by an “uncle.” He was really my first cousin once removed, but as he was my father’s first cousin and contemporary, to me he was “uncle”. He didn’t live in the house. At first, his mother and his children were the only ones there. When his uncle became ill and needed care, he moved him in. When the apartment building in Georgetown where my grandparents lived was sold, they moved into the house. When my aunt and uncle and cousins needed a place to stay, they moved there; my family – my parents and their seven (eventually nine) offspring — did the same, leaving our apartment in Benning Heights. Other relatives stayed there off and on as well. People slept everywhere at night, several to a bed upstairs and on pullout couches in the living room and den; two of my brothers slept in chairs pushed together in the dining room.
One day years ago, I decided to try and count — from memory – how many of us lived together in that small, three-bedroom house (four, if you count the enclosed back porch upstairs) with one bathroom and an unfinished basement jammed with the stored possessions of a multitude. I counted twenty-five, a number that included fifteen children. I was one; Charlotte was another.
Charlotte was ten-going-on-eleven. Even now, I don’t think I comprehend the magnitude of her deciding to forgo paper dolls one day to play school with me instead. I didn’t know anything about school. I hadn’t gone to kindergarten, but would be entering first grade at age five in that fall of 1957. Charlotte sat me down at a pretend desk and began what would become occasional moments of showing me things I’d never thought about: the look, meaning and significance of numbers, letters, and words.
A few weeks ago, I asked her if she ever had stopped and pulled aside any of the other children as we chased one another through the house, shrieking with glee. She said I was the only one. She guessed I must have been her “favorite little cousin.”
I am an only child now, no longer in a house full of brothers and sisters and cousins. I have learned that being a seven-year-old who is too polite to tell an aunt “no,” means she will believe you when you say “yes” when asked, “Do you want to come and live with us?” My aunt and uncle — my mother’s sister and her husband – would come and get me sometimes, and I would spend the day or night at their apartment in Columbia Heights. They and my parents had been living together in Adams-Morgan when I was born, and I had become their favorite.
The house in Kingman Park is a place I visit now and then. My family has moved back there, after a year in our own apartment at Logan Circle. At age six, I used to ride the streetcar alone from our apartment at the Circle up 11th Street to the end of the line at Monroe Street, right behind the building in which my aunt and uncle – and now, I – live; my mother would put me on, my aunt would be there to meet me when I got off.
Now seven, I begin third grade knowing no one, not even knowing how to find my way home. After school the first day, I begin to follow a girl from my class. I’ve seen her before. I know she lives a block down the street from me. I know she knows the way home. At some point, she turns and notices me, and I am embarrassed by my need and my stupidity.
Her name is Pamela. She lives with her mother and grandmother. She is an only child, too. We become friends. I visit her sometimes. I have to. At seven, I learn girls aren’t allowed to visit boys. I already have learned from the grandmother of a girl in my class who lives on my block that some girls aren’t allowed to come outside even to play with boys; her tone made me understand I was wrong to even knock on their back door and ask.
Pamela has a birthday party. She invites only me, a girl from our class and her little brother, and a girl from across the street. I learn about dry ice, used to keep the punch cold without getting watery. It is 1959.
It is 2016. I talked to Pamela last month. She said she recently discovered a photograph from that party. She said we all have our mouths open, eating ice cream. She said her husband wants to know if I have a good weed connection.
In 1961, my aunt and uncle bought a house three blocks up the street from our apartment, three blocks but a new world. It was a changing neighborhood, but because of Lavinia, a change never completed.
There were still white households on the block when we moved there. Our neighbors on both sides were Italian-Americans. In the house to our right, the older family members didn’t even speak English. Other than the French I was taking in school, I had never heard anyone speak a foreign language except on television.
Moving there provided me an important, life-long lesson: pay no attention to anyone who insist all members of a “race” or ethnicity can be viewed the same way. What little I may have known about race relations at the time was certainly added to when the neighbor to our left – knowing my aunt was in the hospital and assuming a man and boy alone at home could use the help – knocked on our back door one evening and presented me with a dish of Manicotti she had prepared just for us.
It was the other house, the one with the Italian-speakers, that taught me even more. That is where Lavinia lived, another only child who lived there with her mother, uncle and grandparents. Called “Veenie,” she was thirteen at the time. At nine, I was old enough to know a girl that age was not likely to waste time befriending me. I learned otherwise. The first time I ventured out onto my front porch at the same time she was outside, I expected to be ignored, but Veenie proved to be too open and free-hearted to not acknowledge me. Standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, leaning against the stone wall of her yard, she turned and spoke.
Veenie and I did the things kids do when growing up as neighbors: talking over fences and across porch railings, spending time in each other’s basements listening to music, lying in our backyards on summer nights looking up at the stars, doing those things sometimes in bunches with the other kids on the block.
Over the years, almost all the white families moved. Veenie’s is the only one that never did. There was a period when the harassment that came with being one of the last few white students remaining at Roosevelt High got to be too much for her and her mother sent her to stay with relatives and finish high school in Maryland. As an adult, she made a life for herself elsewhere, but with the passing of her grandparents and mother she returned to the house and lives there today.
The neighborhood is changing once again. When I went to her Christmas party last December, Veenie’s guests included neighbors of varying ethnicities, including whites and the Chinese-American guy to whom my uncle sold our house.
I once took a creative writing course at Federal City College. I thought that was something I wanted to do. There are very few things I remember about the class, and none of them involve writing. One was the instructor who served as a guest lecturer. He taught the same course at the same time in a classroom next door, and my teacher would invite him over to speak sometimes. And, why not? After all, he was Gil Scott-Heron. I remember him coming over, but nothing of what he said about writing or anything else. I guess I was just too awed to absorb it.
That was not the case with Sonia Sanchez, who came to the school one warm Spring evening and spoke words that saved my life. She spoke about the danger of being caught up in the madness of one’s life — no matter what that particular madness was – and the importance of easing one’s way out of that madness. She emphasized the need to “ease”, saying that trying to extricate yourself suddenly was not always best.
It was this message that led me to explore more about my writing teacher. He did not have the fame of Scott-Heron, but nonetheless he was Leslie Lacy, author of The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro, and there was something that drew me to him in a way that went beyond what he had to say about writing. I learned what it was when he spoke about it in class one day. He said he had a school, called the Hara School of Love, where he taught nutrition, vegetarianism, exercise (including yoga), massage, meditation and (of course) writing. The school was held on Saturday afternoons in his apartment and those of some of the students. After my first visit, I lost interest in Federal City College and much else in my life at that time. I was beginning to ease my way out of my personal madness. That was 1973.
Three months ago, I went to see and hear Sonia Sanchez speak at George Washington University. I wanted to thank her. I did.
In 1974, I moved to California, eventually settling in Berkeley and enrolling in a college high in the Oakland hills. There, I met a classmate who seemed determined that we should be friends. She is one of the most direct people I have ever met, willing to say what is on her mind, doing so with humor (most times) and in full voice. She was born in Turkestan and came to this country as an infant, her family settling in a community of other Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. When we met, she was the divorced, single parent of a little boy, whom I later babysat. She also was an instructor of TM, Transcendental Meditation, something I had heard of only because the media did stories about it when the Beatles delved into it.
Thanks to Leslie Lacy, meditation was not a foreign concept or practice for me, but what I learned about TM made me realize there was so much more to meditation than I understood, about both its practice and its benefits. I decided to learn the technique. Dvorah agreed to instruct me. A date was set for me to go to the TM center in Oakland for my initiation. On that day, Dvorah had the flu, so a colleague of hers performed the ceremony and gave me my mantra. This is what I learned that day in the midst of my first meditation using TM: The Music of the Spheres is real; I heard it.
How do you forget someone who changes your life in such a way? You don’t. Dvorah and I talk through e-mails these days. She came to dinner the last time she was in town, and invites me to come visit her in California. In any case, she knows she’ll hear from me every birthday.
Sometimes, we learn some things in some ways we haven’t been able to adequately explain.
In Music, Its Occult Basis and Healing Values, I learned about the healing values of trees as well, and the importance of having a relationship with one. So, I became a tree-hugger. In the woods of Dimond Park in Oakland, I chose a particular tree alongside Sausal Creek that I would hug upon each visit, then sit with my back pressed against it as I meditated. Once, while sitting there, I heard a group of kids approaching, talking among themselves. I remember wishing I could just disappear into the tree, to become a part of it. Another time, I spent the night alone in those woods; I did this to overcome fearing just the thought of doing so. I sat under “my” tree until light.
At some later point, I went to the Berkeley Psychic Institute for a student “reading”. I opted to be read by a student because the ten-dollar fee suited my budget; the institute’s instructors were beyond my means. I sat in a chair in the front of a room before five or six students, with their instructor seated in the back to observe. The student selected to read me was a young man, a Berkeley police officer who was trying to develop his psychic abilities to improve his work.
Do I remember anything he said? No. This is what I haven’t forgotten: after a short while, the instructor stopped him. An older woman, she stood and said of the then twenty-three-year-old me “I have to read this one. Some souls are too old for you to read.” She looked at me, and the first words out of her mouth were “I see you trying to get in touch with a tree.” Now, ain’t that somp’n?