A Return to Writing

A friend once told me, “Going back to writing is like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. Just get back on that seat and practice.” Interestingly enough, that’s what people tell me about driving too. Writing, driving, and riding a bike—the three activities that bring me the most dread these days.

See, at some point last year, I made the crazy decision to take a year-long hiatus from writing. It was roughly around the same time I stopped driving, learned how to ride a bike, and just as quickly unlearned that skill. I took a break from writing to put all my focus on planning my wedding. As for driving, well, stopping wasn’t a conscious choice. It just so happens that everything I need is within walking distance. Plus, I work from home. Taking all things into consideration, this place is the lazy man’s paradise or the consumerist’s version of heaven. You take your pick. And riding a bike? That’s always been more my husband’s interest than mine.

Now, out of those three life skills, writing was the one I felt I wouldn’t have problems going back to. See, I love writing. It’s something that comes naturally to me, or at least it used to. Writing was more than my bread and butter, it was the way I made sense of the world and everything going on around me. It allowed me to reexamine life and put words behind thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t readily express verbally.

To quote Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect.” And isn’t every experience bigger—whether for the worse or for the better—in retrospect? To put it in productivity terms, writing was my area and moment of “flow.” I was never a brilliant writer, but what I lacked in technical skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and drive. It’s the incessant pull of es muss sein that can’t be quieted until everything that needs to be written has been expunged. Writing was my lifeline. And for a very long time, Writer was the fulcrum of my identity.

So, as you can imagine, it came as a nasty surprise that returning to writing—especially for pleasure—wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be. I can’t seem to get through one sentence without self-doubt creeping in. Rust has settled in, crusting over that old enthusiasm I used to rely on. The interest is there, the pull is there, but the execution is proving to be agonizing and sloppy. But giving up is not an option. To stop writing forever? That would be my personal hell.

And so, here we are. Tabula rasa. I’ll write. I will chip away at the crust and the rust, fake that old fervor until the upswing of that fever comes to consume me. I will go wherever my writing takes me. And maybe, in conquering this fear of writing, the lever will pivot and I’ll also drive and ride a bike once more.

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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