rewrite of my 2014 Portrait for a new series, “Unopened Gifted”.
From the back row I waited for the seats to fill in front of me with the fifty students, staff, and community members chosen to attend a reading by African American author Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry. As usual, my anxious punctuality put me there much too early and I felt foolish sitting in the last row when there were still eight empty rows in front of the podium.
I willed blindness. No peripheral vision.
No, I don’t recognize anyone.
No, I don’t want to look over and have to smile.
No, I don’t want there to be a chance of (gulp) mingling.
At nineteen years old I was, as I am now, awkward in social situations. As the room started to fill, I felt conspicuous amongst the literati, the professors, and the people who didn’t just read Brooks- they taught Brooks.
The semester prior, my professor had selected a short story and a poem I had written to be published in the school journal. After it was published she told me that I had been selected to attend an intimate poetry reading by Gwendolyn Brooks (Gulp).
After receiving the letter of invitation, I spent three weeks trying to find the perfect outfit. It had to say “I-am-an-author-I-am-not-19-I-do-not-actually-want-you-to-talk-to-me-I-didn’t-finish-high-school-but-now-I’m-doing-better-dropout-dropout-dropout-but-yes-I-am-an-author-oh-that’s-not-to-say-I’m-an-author-at-Gwendolyn-Brooks’-level-I-just-want-to-sit-in-the-back-please-and-not-mingle-thank-you-loser-loser-dropout-dropout.”
It is safe to say I overthought the outfit I was to wear (along with every other detail).
The room filled without much mingling. Gwendolyn Brooks entered the room last and slowly took her place at the podium. She seemed small and branchlike behind the cumbersome mahogany.
She read three passages. By the second reading, I felt it happening. The lump in the throat. The sadness. The connection. The overpowering, overstimulated, and over-the-moon feeling of depth and words and poetry and beauty and world and universe and meaning and oh-no. It’s happening. Holding back the tears and so they found the path of least resistance: my nose. There was not a tissue in sight.
I considered my sleeve and her words -words I loved so much- and I completely missed the end of her last poem reading in my effort to maintain.
While others took notes and nodded their heads in some sort of intelligence commiseration, I just sat there, my lip trembling, my eyes bulging, and my nose watering. Physical limbs expand, and outlines receded, vanish… and we are part of the world, the atmosphere, the blue sky and the blue water.
And again, the tears. The ugly kind. The can’t-take-her-anywhere tears.
At the end of the reading and lecture, there was a small reception and I watched as the smarts got into their smarts line, holding their smarts books, while they smiled with admiration at Gwendolyn Brooks. They handed her their books to sign.
Oh no! I didn’t bring one of her books or even a copy of a poem or a loose-leaf sheet of paper or anything at all for her to sign. It just didn’t occur to me; I had her works memorized.
I took an obligatory cookie and a triangular cup of punch and I stood there, willing invisible. People pressed past me, heralding Brooks’ work as they pressed, and they moved on toward the door together: a beaming, wonderful feeling, smart group of people.
I wasn’t sure if leaving would be considered rude so I made an exit plan which involved the last two people in line and slipping out behind them. My nose was still running with my mind and suddenly I was in front of Mrs. Brooks and a quick look behind me confirmed that I was the last in line.
My jaw locked and my tongue stuck to the backs of my teeth.
I searched frantically for something intelligent to say. What was that thought I had the last time I read “We Real Cool”? What was that connection I made while she read “To the Diaspora”? Nothing. A blank. I real cool. Me.
I didn’t have anything for her to sign. All I had was a napkin holding up my hand and a half-eaten cookie. I quickly set the napkin with the cookie on the table in front of her.
There it was: a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie on a small white napkin between us.
She looked at it and smiled. I flushed. Why did I do that?
Before I could think, the cookie was off the napkin and in my mouth. My mouth was dry, really dry, and the cookie made it worse. I willed that cookie into small enough pieces that they could slip down my throat and out the door. Take me with you! I begged. The napkin I gave to Gwendolyn Brooks with the grease spot was eyeballing me from the table.
“Are you an author?” She asked.
“What do you write?”
I swallowed the cookie bits and told her the truth, “I don’t know.”
Mrs. Brooks pulled out a folding chair. She took my clammy hand in her fragile one and told me to sit next to her. She asked me many questions and I answered them all. She would laugh and get uncomfortably close to me. I could smell tobacco and chamomile on her breath when she laughed and her laughter blew back my hair. I told her which poem of hers was my favorite and she made me recite one of mine. She’d press one long finger under her head wrap and scratch a moment and then lean in until I could see the pores smile where her glasses had been.
“I know you can do it,” she said, leaning back and adjusting the napkin on the table.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She smiled with her chamomile tobacco teeth.
The custodial staff started to fold and stack up the chairs. She just kept talking. It’s too much for here, let alone my soul, but the bits that fall out when I hold them:
“Write what you know… write what you know, girl.”
“What if I don’t know what I know?”
“You know what you know.”
“I don’t think I do.”
She just smiled and said, “That’s just talk.”
When it was time to go, I thanked her and stood up. She leaned forward in her chair and slid the napkin toward her. She wrote something on it and then handed it to me.
It was an address in Chicago.
“You take that. It’s my personal address. And when you figure out what you know, well you send it to me because I want to be the first one to read it.”
I drove home that night with whirling words and mind. And I kept the napkin.
It went with me all the way across the pond to England. I hung it on my dorm wall and it watched over me while I studied English Literature and wrote frantically between pertussis fits. It accompanied me to University in Illinois and then it stayed safe in my files through marriage, children, and suburbs. Through it all, it was with me, a napkin with a greasy eyeball and a very important opportunity.
When my son was born in September of 2000, I started to write my book. I remember the moment I proclaimed, “I know what I know!”
For two years I slaved over the pages. When I was satisfied, I dug out the napkin and considered it. She would think I’m crazy. She probably meant to say, “Go on girl, send it to me sometime in the next year or so, sometime in the not-too-crazy future, not in 25 years. Yah, that’s crazy, that’s what I know.” She’d say.
I should probably look her up online first.
In June of 2002 I looked up Gwendolyn Brooks and read that she had passed away in December of 2000. Just three months after my son was born. I wish this was a fiction, a creative tidbit, a cool spin… something to make it interesting and poetic. She could have stood up, having fulfilled her contractual duty, and gone back to her hotel and rested. She could have signed my napkin and moved on. She could have done a lot of things. But instead, Gwendolyn Brooks gave me a gift. This woman who grew up gifted in a racially-biased society, with her face not recognized for gift because of something as arbitrary as the color of her skin. This woman, this artist, who spent a lifetime sitting with authors after hours, after readings, after classes, after after, is the woman whose address I have on a napkin in a file in my desk drawer. That’s what she did. And now I can only wax poetic about the things I did not.
What I know: I sit in the back row. I worry over social events. I show up too early. I sob uncontrollably when something moves me. I always forget to bring tissue. I love words. I bleed words. I need words. I love words. I love words. They become more than a body. They are part of the world, the atmosphere, the blue sky and the blue water. This I know.
The rest of it? Well, that’s just talk.
“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.” -Gwendolyn Brooks