A Simple Poem for My Sistren

Listening to rain and gusts of wind, wishing we were in my warm sunroom, peacefully rocking,


With cups of hot beverages in our hands.

We would talk about gardens, husbands and families,

Food, and politics,

Our speech more colloquial with each passing moment.

We’d probably sing, and I’d be teased about my autoharp story,

Maybe gather round the piano as we’d done in Virginia,

When we were young, but didn’t know it.

And lovely moments of sisterly silence,

The kind that comes from years of knowing,

Full from contentment and feeling like Home.

Send Help Now!

Ok, I know y’all might be tired of my ish, (I know I certainly am in a way) but some of my besties need to come fetch me, right now!

I came home yesterday, exhausted and hurting. I’ve not been sleeping well and the radio frequency ablation I had for my back has worn off. I was returning from a two hour drive to and from my dentist, and not happy with the prognosis. Hurting, grumpy, and resenting entropy and the capitalist system that profits from it, I wanted very much to walk into my house, freshen up, and get in bed.

But as I approached the door, to my surprise, there was very large box blocking the entry. I wasn’t expecting anything, so I thought it might have been delivered to the wrong house and my annoyance grew at the prospect of either finding the owner or arranging a return. Either way, I was going to have to haul it into the house, so I put my purse inside, metaphysically girded my loins and went back to take a look. It was indeed addressed to me, so I proceeded to tote it in. With Mothers Day approaching, I wondered if it could be a surprise present from family or friends.

Upon inspection I saw it was from Goodwill in Washington State, so now I was confused and curious, thinking that one of my gardening buds must have seen something I’d like or needed. I know no one in Washington, so my mind filled in the blanks.

I’m befuddled, but as it’s more awkward than heavy, I bring it in to an area where I can cut it open, sat down with my trusty razor to find what appeared to be a suitcase- an old, weird suitcase.

I was intrigued, but also nervous, quickly running through possible murderous enemies from my past who might have access to products used in chemical warfare and a hatred long term and deep enough to have found my address, and packaged it. Happily, I could think of no enemies, and certainly none with backgrounds in chemistry, espionage, or murder. At this point I will admit to having read too many mysteries and watched too many procedurals in my lifetime, as well as possessing a ridiculous imagination that often causes me to laugh at its determinedly intricate plots. I do crack myself up most days.

Reassured, my curiosity got the better of me and with a bit of difficulty, I opened the case to find: an autoharp!!!!!!!!

At first totally bemused and bewildered-wondering who would have sent this strange instrument- I then remembered that middle of the night some weeks ago when I found myself pricing autoharps online. I’d been thinking about things I enjoyed before my marriage that I might want to try again, and yes, it seemed like a great idea to buy an instrument I haven’t played in more than a generation and with which I was never especially proficient, so that when my friends and I all gather in Charlottesville or one of their farms, we can porch-sit and sing, and I’ll have a portable instrument! 😳

I want to disavow any knowledge of the aspect of self that visualized that scene, but I can’t. I recognize the desire to be with my dearest friends and recreate a version of our Christmas sing alongs, the always hilarious versions of Broadway shows that helped us blow off steam during graduate school, or the many songs we’d spontaneously sing, often to highlight parts of a conversation. The autoharp was under $100, so if it’s in good shape, that’s a bargain, but do I actually see myself playing it regularly? Who knows.

I don’t know who I’m becoming as a recent widow in a new state. Almost every part of my body hurts, I’ve come to pretty much hate the species of which I am part as the world is increasingly frightening and made unlivable via human greed and stupidity. Yet, apparently some part of me thinks an autoharp will help, and you know what? That’s fine. I don’t smoke, rarely drink, and have no friends anywhere nearby. My husband is dead and my body aches: if an autoharp affords any comfort or allows me to concentrate on music, this is a good thing. This was my first middle of the night purchase, and I intend for it to be the last, but now I do have a portable instrument, so there’s that. Move over, Dolly Parton!

But gentle readers, aside from a couple of folk era tunes I might remember, autoharp doesn’t really lend itself to the songs we generally sing, although it could be a creative addition to South Pacific. I can honestly connect to my mother’s “country girl” roots and her familiarity with the autoharp and Southern Appalachian music through the workers and their kids who came down to Fayetteville for work when she was young. She respected Pete Seeger and other folkies who’d supported her idol, Paul Robeson, and had none of the disdain for white folk music that was prevalent in our communities. She knew the history and connections between spirituals, blues, indigenous African and American music, folk, and rock. “All music is made by folks, all music is folk music” she would say. We watched Tennessee Earnie Ford and Patsy Cline as well as Nat King Cole on our console tv. My sentimental father sang plaintive Hank Williams songs as well as playing Fats Waller’s stride piano tunes. Steeped in the jazz of Sidney Bechet, Ella and Louie, we also listened to ancient 75s and 33s of Caruso and Martinelli, and Mahalia, and we all knew the words to every song in My Fair Lady. Music was music, and if we, or they liked it, my parents had it in the house.

So while there’s room in my psyche and life for an autoharp (I really wonder why I didn’t get the cello!?!) most importantly, and my reason for concern about that late night vision and the source of my plea for help is simple, silly, but to my randomly ridiculous mind, quite crucial:


Seriously: come get yo’ sista, now!

Robert D. Raines, Remembered

I’m sorry to again be writing because of Death, but I guess I’m of an age where it shows up more regularly. And the fact is, between disease, war, and murders, it’s the unwelcome guest at all our houses. But this isn’t about death, it’s about one of the most unique characters I’ve ever known and who I wish had shared himself with many more people. He was a pure delight and merits this moment.

He was funny, subtle, generally on a quiet high even when he wasn’t actually so. I knew his fears and limits, and I think that I was as good a friend to him as he was to me.

Robert Raines was one of my dearest friends. He was my family’s paperboy for a brief time when we were about 11, and we learned our Catechism together, although only one of us was actually Catholic. But we really became besties in high school, sharing trips to the Village and our love of music. He was always avant garde in his reading and music, and it was he who turned me on to Hendrix, long before he was known in the States. Robert was quietly brilliant- the first person I knew to discuss the importance and underlying problems of belief systems. It was he who introduced me to yoga and changed my life. He hosted what can only be called a salon in his basement while we were in high school, built his own speakers, and later studied engineering at RCA. Our friends would gather to smoke and listen to the early greats, and the night he debuted Jesus Christ Superstar, I think we all felt like participants in something monumental. We went to rock concerts and art shows, and discussed everything from politics to physics. He was an actual boyfriend for a period, an intermittent lover, and always the faithful friend who encouraged me to take risks and go beyond what was the norm for young Black kids in Jersey City at the time. When I hesitated to take a particular journey in life, he did something to give me a sense of security and let me know that I’d always have a safe place to land. That allowed me to leave my first unhappy marriage and later, go to UVA rather than stay at Rutgers

It is deeply painful to have had my inner knowledge confirmed recently. I knew that he had to be dead or completely incapacitated when my last letter was returned and I didn’t hear from him. We were never out of touch for too long and everyone who knows me well was aware of him even if they never met my most reclusive bud. My husband knew that he was family even though they met only once. Occasionally he would ask if I’d heard from him and he shared my concern when the letter came back that year. He helped me do the fruitless online search. As long as his house remained in his name, I had hopes that perhaps he’d met someone special and was somewhere in Hawaii, living his best life. But this past Sunday, another high school friend confirmed for me that he had died the year that the mail was returned, and I am again, bereft. Grateful that I had such a brilliant and abiding friend, sad that I won’t hear his distinctive voice and jokes. Sorry that I never got to introduce him to Dr. Roy Wagner at UVA- they would have understood each other perfectly and “tripped out” in conversations I can only imagine. Sorry that I didn’t get to honor his life and pay my respects. Saddened that I wasn’t there, but buoyed knowing that he would tell me in his sometimes whispery voice to find the next path and follow my light, and to listen for the laughter along with the music. He would simply say, “Well…you know, Anjana…” then laugh and take on a stern and parent-like voice, and repeat, “Anjana! You KNOW what you need to do!! Get to it and fix your soundtrack- the pop is overriding your own sound. Get back to the groove.” He’d end it with one of the childhood names we had for each other and I’d know that despite my numerous doubts and fears, that in fact, all will be well.

My dear friend- presente.

Life After Death?

Saturday will mark two years since my husband died. Two years since I went singing into our guest room, where he’d slept because he was sick and didn’t want to wake me or risk my health. He thought it was the flu, but in 37 years, he had never been sick for more than 24 hours, so after day two, I’d made an appointment for him to see his doctor, on what turned out to be the day he died.

I was laughing at us both, thinking we’d overslept, and saying “wake up, sleepyhead-somebody’s got to let the chickens out!

And I danced into the room singing “Wake Up Little Susie,” amazed that we’d both slept late, and expecting to see his grumpy, pre-caffeinated morning face, with that begrudging smile he’d first muster for my benefit, but which became real when I kissed him and made him laugh.

I won’t go into the horrid details of that discovery and morning- the shock that’s lasted nearly two years and the PTSD I still struggle with. What I do want to say is that although I can as yet see no future for myself, it has been my personal Beloved Community who have consistently done that for me. They have held me, and listened to me- crying, wailing, confused, furious, hopeless, “bereft, bothered, and bewildered.” They sat with me and helped sort through his things. They worked hard and helped me pack up thirty seven years of our lives together, even the things they knew were ridiculous and I’d dispose of later. They’ve walked me through basic things I could no longer figure out, and they’ve been always kind and given me the shoves I’ve needed at just the right times. They’ve kept me alive and held the space I might someday walk into, where Life resides and maybe flourishes.

Some wise person once said to me that when you can’t see your future or how you’ll make it, that’s when you’re creating something new, not just moving the pieces around.
I know that is true, but honestly? Right now I don’t care, I don’t wanna! And I know I’m sort of holding myself in an emotional hostage situation, but I want to just do enough to feel less pain. I kinda hate the thought of “life going on,” y’know?
I have a lovely next door neighbor, who’s happily married to his second wife. His first wife died, and he recently told me that she was diagnosed only a few months after they married: can you imagine?!?
Anyhow, he shared his story of grief and “nothingness” before he met his current, beautiful wife. And he also shared that every once in a while, something will trigger that sense of loss and pain, despite his happiness and general contentment.
I was both touched and relieved when he told me that. To know that it’s possible to regain joy and still grieve the beloved lost. That love grows around the grief.

My loved ones-kin and kith- are like the gold used in Kintsugi, helping me to find my scattered, broken pieces, and believing that I will again be a whole, yet different and beautiful self. In unexpected ways and levels, community is Life.

Caution: Paradigm Shift Ahead

I just received an email from a newsletter I’ve been reading for years, announcing a change in their domain name and asking to be “whitelisted.”
Now, I don’t know where you come from, but that sounds like some straight up KKK/white supremacist ish to me. As does “blacklisting/blackballing/blackmail/blackguard” and all the other terms employed to situate whiteness as good and blackness as bad.
And no, this isn’t a new thought. I’ve interrogated racism in language since at least the 1970s, which is exactly my point: how are people still using these words without a thought? Even with the limitations of English, there are alternatives. However, rooting out the inherent racism behind the words requires a fundamental reckoning with the culture and the societies on which they stand. And there’s the rub: people talk a good game, but true decolonization calls into question every structure and belief that we have, starting with the fabrication that folks really want equality and justice for all. Think about it and what that really means.
It’s the reality of revolution, not merely transient reform.

Good day, and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

The Barbers of The ‘Ville

Seeing a UVA alum headline that Ronde Barber has been elected to the Football Hall of Fame took me back to my early days at UVA. I was walking up Main Street from my Fifeville digs, having moved out of grad student housing a few years earlier, with my teenaged son. While this was my regular route to Brooks Hall, I was heading up at a different time for me, and on this afternoon there was a small, growing line of women, most standing, a couple with folding chairs. Being curious, I asked what was going on and a giggling, middle aged woman explained that they were there to “watch the Barbers when they come by.”
I, of course had no idea what she was talking about and couldn’t fathom a town with what I thought were “barber parades.” I was already bemused by some of the local rituals, including the hubbub surrounding horse races and football. During my first semester, I’d written an ethnographic style paper about the annual painting of blue and orange stripes along University Avenue, as I’d never witnessed an entire city given over to so much sports related pageantry. I was a Northern raised girl and had attended a small, formerly all-women’s college, where the sports were tennis and equestrian, and not primarily featured. Although my original grad school was comparable to UVA in many ways, as a fellow in philosophy, we were away from the bustle, and decidedly unconcerned with what went on in the larger campus areas.

In what I think was an attempt to shush me, the nearest seated woman quickly explained by saying “Just give it two minutes and you’ll see,” while the standing lady said “They’re brothers- Tiki and Ronde- and we come out to cheer them on and get a look. They run here on certain days.” (She actually named their running days, but I didn’t pay attention to the schedule she’d memorized.)

Ooo-kaay, I thought with a shrug. That’s nice, I guess, but I wondered what made these brothers special, and what were the names she called them. I started to move on, but just then the seated women rose, and on both sides of the street, eyes turned as a line of young men appeared, obviously part of a team. They didn’t run in military formation and while they were clearly training, most seemed casual and friendly, acknowledging the people on the street with a glance or nod. One playful young man laughingly waved and did a graceful pirouette, but it was clear that he was not the object of their attention, even though a few people smiled and politely waved him on.

But then the brothers appeared: two brown, beautifully sculpted bodies, one after the other, aware of their fans, but focused on their runs. Both had on t shirts, an apparently disappointing occurrence for a few followers. The men smiled and one waved, but they kept on jogging towards downtown, and in that flash, the excitement was over. The chair ladies rose, folding their chairs in a swift movement, a few chatting, most making their way back to their lives, leaving me more confused than ever.

All of the men were attractive athletes, but in a hundred years I would never have imagined women lining up only to watch two men jogging. I had a mix of reactions that included surprise, concern about the possible racial undertones, and downright amusement at the silliness of the entire “event.” I decided that I was either in the most liberated and fun loving town or the most desperate, but any way you sliced it, I knew I wasn’t in New York anymore.

The Barber twins with their grandmother. UVAMagazine.org 1996

About Love

Everybody and their mothers have written about Love and maybe all of it is true, certainly much of it is recognizable to me. We write/talk about Love as we know or understand it, and even when we don’t have a single clue. It is a subject both ephemeral and concrete and one of which we seem never to tire. (I have a theory about why that is, but it’s for another chapter.)

In the here and now, what I find most central to Love and relationships (they are not always mutual) is simply being known in very specific ways. When you’re with your besties or a long term lover, what gives it life are the shared contexts, the easy familiarity. That you know each other’s foibles but don’t hold them against each other unless it’s agreed upon by both. That they can tease you and it’s ok because you know that they hold no malice and always have your highest good in their hearts. It doesn’t sting and you can laugh along, maybe even augmenting the remembered offense/embarrassment. They mirror you in a way that allows you to see yourself with the love they have for you. There is trust that comes only through time and experience. Your friends are those whose food you can taste and gently say “Yeah- no, man, this is not it” and they either go back to rework the recipe or shrug and tell you “ok, but you don’t know what you’re missing!” They’re the people with whom honesty (not cruelty in disguise!) is helpful and not hurtful.

One of my criteria for considering someone a friend is that we can belly laugh with each other, because again, there’s a level of intimacy that allows for the ugly crying or the snorting laugh that I certainly don’t have with everyone I might like or enjoy. A long term lover/partner has that extra level of physical intimacy, not only for sex, but in knowing your body as well as your minor habits that are learned only in close daily proximity (and maybe shared bathrooms!) These are different relationships, but all are important and work together to create a dialectic and language of love.

It may be a painful process that gets you there, because the processes of risk, vulnerability, exposure, and shedding previous beliefs-even about yourself- are the fires in which love may be forged. Childhood criticisms and hurts are often in the skins that we grow, and allowing ourselves to be loved and eventually see, recognize, and accept what the beloved knows to be true and real about us is just plain hard. Many reject it, even become angry at the beloved for seeing the vulnerable hurt child they’ve worked so hard to protect, hide, or even destroy for years. And you know why? Because at the bottom of that pain is the belief that it’s true and that anyone who truly sees you cannot love you, and if they do, there is something very wrong with them. At best, the beloved is seen as weak and despised, and the sweetness of possibility is salted down and infused with bitter herbs into an unpalatable mess.

(I don’t know who the artist is, but this one of my favorites and brilliantly real and funny.)

All your people know you in various ways, and that’s a great joy in life. But the few people with whom we choose intimacy and with whom we might consciously struggle to understand and accept more of each other are a special group and of necessity, few. It requires a balance of love and honesty that cuts through all illusions, and it requires complete awareness and surgical skill to know what instrument to use at any given time: scalpel, serrated or butter knife, blunt instrument. And it cannot be done with ego, a savior’s complex, parental complexes, or anything other than a selfless love for that person. We need people who will tell us when our noses need wiping and that our clothes can only highlight certain features and you have to choose whether or not “looking fat”negates your beauty: to remind us of our beauty and why we are loved and lovable.

Such relationships are not always pretty on the outside. People have the idea that true love/soul mates are straight out of Disney or the romcom ending: that once they have recognized and accepted the other, there’s never another argument or their annoying habits will now be cute or just go away. That’s not how this works, my loves, because between our screwed up social expectations and training, the complexities of life in general, and sharing space and growth with another already-made human- if you’re really about intimacy, spiritual development/growth, and long term love, I can assure you that it will be messy and maybe gut wrenching as well as deeply beautiful, because if you were already seriously “enlightened”you would no longer need or have any desire- and where’s the fun in that?

From The Book of Joy: Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, compiled by Douglas Abrams

The beautiful friendship between Rev. Tutu and the Dali Lama was one of soul recognition and delight, but those great masters weren’t living together and sharing their daily lives. There was no need at that stage of development. That is not where most of us live. We’re in the struggle- with ourselves, our work, families, and intimate partners. We’re wiping children’s butts and picking up the dog poo, trying to stay on schedule, and watching the clock at work, and maybe all at the same time if you work from home. We are in the trenches of the mundane, often alternating between gratefulness and resentment towards those closest to us, wishing for more time while wondering why everything takes so long. We are humans with all the contradictions and complications that come with the territory, and we live in societies that seldom value or reward the qualities that lead to deeply loving relationships.

So that’s all I came here to say. Just some musings, maybe a couple of clues. Y’all have to work out the rest in and amongst yourselves. It’s in the living of it all.

But you knew that, right?

From Wayne Edenshaw Haida’s Pacific Northwest Coast people

In And Maybe Of The Spirit

I’d finished a bone density test at the local clinic, and was scheduled to have a mammogram next. The nice lab technician led me to an inner waiting room, where a much older woman sat in the requisite gown. She looked tired and rather unhappy, so I just nodded and as is my habit, took the seat furthest away, especially since she wasn’t wearing her mask, despite signs requiring everyone to do so. I’ve become used to this sort of behavior here and remain vigilant and as distant as possible at all times, carrying sanitizer in every pocketbook, lest I change bags and leave without one.

But contrary to the way she looked, the old lady spoke to me in a pleasant tone and asked if I was “five years clear, too.” Confused, I said, “I’m sorry, excuse me, what did you say?”

She spoke more clearly and asked “Are you also five years cancer free? Are you here for that?” Astonished, but hoping to keep a straight face as my heart lurched in compassion I answered, “No m’am, I’ve never had cancer.” She in turn seemed surprised but said, “Oh that’s good- you’re lucky.”And I agreed. Noting the pain and complete lack of happiness in her voice I quickly added, “But you’re five years out and free? That’s great!”

She agreed, perking up a smidgen, but said, “Yes, I’m here for my yearly. I was fine until I got here, and now I’m nervous.” I nodded sympathetically and agreed that waiting was nerve wracking. Hoping to distract her, I asked if she had any grandkids or children, and she had several of each, listing the boys and girls, then asking about mine. We chatted for a bit and I told her I’d moved here a few months ago, after my husband died last year. After expressing her condolences, she told me that her husband had died at 38, of pancreatic cancer. Given my shock and sadness, I knew that if we weren’t in a pandemic, I would have moved closer and maybe even held her hand. She went on to say that he’d died eight days after diagnosis, and we agreed that it was one of the worst forms of that dreaded disease, though I secretly thought that a quick death would be preferable to the nightmare of prolonged sickness and the diminishing quality of life I’ve seen with so many patients. And in my mind, a list of questions I couldn’t ask were whirling: environmental, workplace, family history, etc.

Curbing my training and bringing my focus back to her, I was amused to hear her saying that she’d “tried marriage a few times, but they didn’t take.” I said “He was the one, huh?” And she nodded, repeating his age, we both agreeing that it was too young.

We chatted for a few minutes longer when a woman came over, asking if she was ready to go, teasing us and saying “Y’all are having a party out here, but you can’t have any alcohol!” I wasn’t sure if this was a relative till I saw her ID badge, and I quipped “Well, it’s Christmas- y’all need to rethink that policy, ASAP!” and we all chuckled a bit.

The nurse turned back to my new acquaintance and said “I have your results, Mrs. ——“ and I could see her body and face tense up as she nodded “Yes?”

“It’s good news! You’re all clear, and next year you’ll just have a regular scan, no more of these! We couldn’t give you any bad news at Christmas, now could we.” My comrade’s confusion turned to joy as she said “This is the best Christmas present you could have given me” and I stood up, cheered and clapped like she was my own aunty, and said “That is wonderful news; I’m so happy for you!”

And I was, and am, because yes, that lady needed to be free of that awful burden, and in those few minutes, my heart had been touched by her story. I knew I was fortunate to have been with the man I loved for thirty seven years, and hopefully, in two weeks when I get my results, I won‘t be starting down the terrible road she’s no longer traveling, and that swallowed up my Mom and my sister, and other people dear to me. I cheered because that’s something no one should suffer for five minutes, let alone five years, grateful as most are to have the time, even with the suffering involved.

But mostly, I was happy because we all need those small “miracles,” those moments when we win, and when trouble takes a walk: when a nice person catches a break. We need that, and I honestly appreciated being part of her moment.

I am not a prayerful or religious person. My husband did all the praying and I did all the worrying- that’s how the labor was divided in our household, and it worked. I figured out the practical plans A-Z and he seemed to have had a hotline to the divine. With his death, any beliefs I once held were murdered- smited by hurt and anger at the unfairness of his sudden and unexpected death. It’s been his interventions and words and the loving actions of family and friends that pulled me back from complete bitterness and hatred in these past months. Only his love has made me take back my complete repudiation of any and every possible deity, including even my previously always beloved, trusted Ancestors.

So when I tell you now that I will be doing something akin to praying for that elderly woman whose name I don’t know, you can call it a “Festivus Miracle“ or whatever you like, but if there’s one thing this life has taught me, it’s that you should celebrate every single win, big or small. And when you get to witness a win for a stranger, embrace it as your own and magnify the joy, because sometimes it seems like there’s not enough joy to go around, and we have to share whatever bits are here, with loved ones or with strangers. We’re reminded that we are all related, and that their joy is also our joy: that we’re all the underdog sometimes and we know within us what that feels like. That it’s unhealthy and unhelpful to wrap ourselves in the fear of relating to, or being “infected” by another person’s troubles or sorrows, and that if you actually have good boundaries, they allow you to safely cross them now and again. To understand that it’s unnecessary to try to build an impenetrable wall that can only ever fail, ultimately and completely.

So Happy Holidays, good people. There’s an entire month of them, so take your pick. Go out and spread joy, or at least enjoy it for the sake of others and your own well being. Remember: Scrooge was a frightened schmuck trying to control the variables, and Tiny Tim- the most vulnerable of all- was heroic in his joy and love and compassion. L’chaim/Salute/Shanti-Om/Bendiciones ❤️