The Last Volley

I stood on the edge of the court and watched as the volleyball spiraled towards me. I threw up my hands and covered my face with my arms. The ball hit my elbows and crashed to the gym floor. The group of nine- and ten-year-old girls groaned at me.

“Melony, pick up the ball and serve it,” the gym teacher, Ms Graham, said with no small hint of annoyance.

I picked it up, threw it into the air, flailed my arms to hit it and grazed it with my pinky finger. I watched in horror as the ball landed onto my forehead.

The frustration of the room transformed into laughter. The gym teacher blew her whistle to return to a state of calm and called Christi to my side. “Show her how it’s done.”

I watched in awe. She threw the ball straight up, jumped, and at the exact right second, she smacked the ball with her palm. It flew over the heads of my classmates onto the other side of the net.

The game continued until the whistle sounded again, only it was the period whistle to announce the end of class. Thankfully, the ball never came my way again.

I gathered my belongings and skulked past my classmates to make my way out. Ms Graham caught me as I tried to sneak past. Her hand landed on my shoulder and three words came out of her mouth I didn’t want to hear, “A word, please.”

I stopped and walked closer to her. Out of every teacher I had ever had since kindergarten, Ms Graham was the only one that didn’t like me. Aside from being able to run fast, I was perhaps the example of a bookish nerd with no skill in athletics. 

“I tried,” I said, “honest, I did.”

“I know. But trying isn’t enough in my class.”

I flinched. I didn’t know how I could improve on this one thing.

“I feel I need to be upfront with you. If you can’t get this right, I will have to give you a C this term,” Ms Graham said.

A C! No, nonononononono.

“But-“ I said.

“No. Listen,” she crossed her arms for added effect. “This is how you get an A. You need to serve the ball and get it over the net. And you have to hit bump the ball, again over the net.”

She must have seen the terror written all over my face, so after an uncomfortable break, she continued, “You need to do this once before the term is up.”

I gulped and nodded before I realized what I was doing. She showed me to my homeroom and apologized to the teacher before leaving.

I couldn’t focus on class for the rest of the morning; instead, I spent my time planning. Two weeks to master these two simple little things. But first. I’d need Christi to help me.

The next morning thirty minutes before school began, I entered the gym and took a volleyball out of the equipment locker. Christi agreed to help me, for the price of a nutter butter every day. 

For two weeks, I would leave the gym with red palms and fresh new bruises on my forearms from the force of the ball. And every day for nearly two weeks, I would walk away certain that the C inched that little bit closer.

When the end of the term came and I hadn’t heard from Ms Graham about her requirement, I went to her office.

“Uh, Ms Graham?” I said. “It’s the end of term.”

“I’m aware,” she said. Her eyes met mine. “I know I told you trying wasn’t good enough. But you’ve changed my mind. I’ve watched you over the last two weeks try very hard to get it. Your arms are covered in bruises to prove the point.”

I tried to hide my arms into my sides.

“We both learned a valuable lesson, I think. I’ll let you decide what that is. Anyways, you’ll be getting a B+ this term.”

I never considered fighting back. I accepted her grade and her reasoning and walked away with a half smile on my face. I would never be a natural athlete, but if I worked hard enough, I could pass as an below average one.

Layers of Guilt

 

20191107_073506
Pre-COVID happy space

CW: Mental Health - ish

Every week for at least a month, I have sat down at my desktop computer to write. The blinking cursor surrounded by white space taunts me, “You have no words.”

But I do. Just not the right ones.

For a while now, I have felt guilty that the pandemic has not affected me much. I’m exceedingly lucky to have a job from which I work from home. I even have a separate room that allows me to switch on and switch off from work. I’m healthy and everyone I know is healthy. I live in a state and a country with far fewer cases than those of my friends and family in other countries. And all of this. Every single bit of it. Gives me such overwhelming guilt.

It has been that guilt that has stilled my hands, and so the blinking cursor’s rhythmic taunts continue.

After an impromptu chat with some of my best writer friends, I decided I need to ignore that guilt. Every story is different, and why shouldn’t I talk about some of my experience with this cursed year?

I have wanted to talk about how much harder it is to write in 2020, the year of COVID-19. At first, I thought my writer’s block was because I am feeling the inequality in the world all that much greater (it’s so bad!) . And then I thought it was because I’m addicted to video games again (over 665 hour on Animal Crossing). And then I thought it was because I’ve turned lazy and incapable of doing anything productive.

The truth is: While all of those things, and the layers of guilt that come with them, certainly have something to do with it, the primary reason is because of the loss of my writing space.

I mentioned before that I have a separate room from which I work 40 hours a week. That room, once upon a time, was my creation space. The place where I built worlds and spent hours fighting inner demons. But in March, all of that changed when I went from one-day-a-week working from home to five days a week.

When I first started working from home full-time, I started at 5:30am and finished around 6pm. I felt I owed it to my company to get the most out of my day as possible, since they were trusting me to do this abnormal working arrangement. I would forget to eat lunch or take breaks; I’d sometimes even forget I hadn’t gone to the bathroom in hours (yikes). (I should note that at no time did the business ever require this of me; it was completely self-imposed.)

In May, the company started sending out mental health communications. It seemed I was not alone in doing too much. At an online seminar, a psychologist told us tricks to stop this vicious cycle. They were simple:

  1. Set your start time and do not turn your computer on until it’s time.
  2. Set a lunch hour in your calendar. That way no one will schedule a meeting when you’re “switched off.”
  3. Set your end time. Turn off the computer and close the door to the room, if you have a separate office space.

While these tips didn’t help most people in the company, since finding a spare room is near impossible in most households, they helped me. I spoke with my manager and set my boundaries. 7am start time, 12pm lunch break, 4pm finish time. It was a great setup, which I have largely maintained since.

Only, I didn’t realize at the time that it had reprogrammed my brain to think my creative space is now a work space, and I continued to sabotage my desk by putting post-it notes around my monitors to remind me of color codes for Power BI and formulas I wrote “just in case,” spiral notebooks filled with minutes and ad hoc notes, and a calendar with meeting times and reminders (because I’m old and like to duplicate what’s already in my Outlook calendar).

Still, as I mourn the loss of my creative place, I’m also riddled with the guilt of having an office and work and health (sorta – I’m fat, ya’ll) and the privilege that comes with all of that. But I’m also incapable of knowing how I can help change my world, let alone this world.

Layers of guilt is healthy, right? Sure. Yep. Totally.

Grief – a series

0. Death
My Choctaw grandpa died
one cold January morn,
surrounded by his son,
his family,
and his wife.

1. Isolation
In a nursing home,
She had left him,
had overcome her grief –
moved on –
Long before we did.

2. Anger
Less than a year,
she remarried at the VFW;
he reminded her of Grandpa,
she said.
We did not share her belief.

3. Bargaining
She married a Mexican;
He moved into her house,
cooked us tamales to earn our trust.
We relented,
but only for her sake.

4. Depression
It would not last;
The inheritance dwindled
She married a conman,
Dad said;
But no words got through.

5. Acceptance
She was convinced she needed him.
That we were just jealous,
So, we left her with him,
disowned her,
and never saw her again.

Let’s be super honest here. It’s obvious, I’m not a poet. This poem, a series, is part of the June poetry slam over at YeahWrite. The month is over, but still, I encourage any and all criticism. (Hint: I know it’s not good) (Discussion points: is it clear that we were racist? That we were in the wrong here? That it’s written from the perspective of an unreliable narrator?)

Basil’s Adventure

Basil fidgeted with the gold coin in his pocket as he quietly walked into the open door. It was dark inside, the way he liked it, but it was too cavernous. He was exposed, laid bare by its lack of papers and boxes to keep him secret, safe.

He turned his head, widening his eyes to take in the room. Outside, a car sprung to life, and it took all the courage he had in him to not squeak.

Basil kept reminding himself, that he only had to make it through this room. That’s what Justin had told him. The Grand Rat, his fierce visage burned in Basil’s mind, had targeted the mousy desk-clerk because of his stature. He was unassuming.

Back home, his wife and kids were waiting for the cheese and bread he’d gotten earlier, but instead of going home to them, he was here, traipsing through his office building, looking for one vent sitting beside a filing cabinet. Apparently, only he could fit into. Worst yet, The Rats had his family hostage as collateral.

Finally, he was there. Opening the vent meant using a screwdriver. Basil dropped his coin in his pocket and pulled out the Leatherman he had squirreled away in his cluttered desk.

He slipped it in the grooves. The lights turned on.

This time, Basil did squeak. And just like that, he couldn’t move. He was fear-frozen, lips trembling, eyes panic-scanning the room. 

His gaze fell on two pairs of brown suede shoes. They belonged to the boss.

“Basil, what are you still doing here?” 

Basil stammered. He couldn’t think, couldn’t move.

The boss lifted him to his feet. His cat-like whiskers moved with his mouth.

“Basil?”

Basil burst into tears. “The Rats. They have them. My Gus and Phoebe.”

“Stupid Rats,” the boss said with a shake of his head. “Gone too far this time. We’ll get them back for ya, Basil. You just wait here. Well, not here. But in the front office.”

Basil choked back some snotty remains and nodded, “Oh, oh, oh, -kay, Mr Patch.”

The boss led the way out of the room, closed the door, and locked it behind them. Basil settled into a tight corner with his coin in hand, and waited. 

 

 



Recovering racist

CW: Racism

It was March 2002. This morning’s topic of conversation: the 2002 Oscars. It had aired the night before, and I was excitedly talking about my favorite moments. I (a white-appearing part Native American) was sitting on my white male manager’s counter-desk with my heels hitting his overstuffed filing cabinets.

“I was so glad Halle won!” I said. I pumped out my chest as the head chef, a Texas-bred black man, walked by and nodded at us.

“Yeah, same,” my manager said. His smile half-seen as he focused on his computer screen. “And Denzel.”

I shook my head, “Nah, dude. He didn’t deserve it. It was only cuz-of that Affirmative Action bullshit that he won. Denzel should’ve won for The Hurricane in ‘99.”

My manager swung his chair around, stood up, passed me, and closed his door. On the other side, the chef walked past again, eyes narrowed.

“You can’t talk that way!” my manager said. He crossed his arms.

“Uh, what?” I asked, oblivious. I didn’t want to admit that I had mimed the words my father had said earlier.

“It makes you sound racist,” he said with a stern expression.

“I’m not a racist!” The knee-jerk reactionary words rang in the closed-in space. “My best friends in high school and college were black.”

He shook his head and walked back to his chair. He sat, posture rigid, practically imposing.

“That’s exactly what racists say.”

“But it’s true.” 

I jumped off his desk and landed with a soft thud on the ground. “I’m done here,” I swung open the door and crossed its threshold.

He called back to me, but I ignored him. I stalked into the ladies’ bathroom, cheeks burning. I’m not. I’ve never – Who does he think he is?

I didn’t know it then, but he had sown the seeds of doubt in me. 

I think back now to my high school and college friends, the ones I so boldly misused as mascots to my non-racism. I think about the trombone player with broad shoulders and a broader smile. I think about how instead of playing football as he would have been “suggested” to do, he spent his days practicing his instrument and playing Mario Kart with his white friends in his upper-middle-class home. I think about the half-black girl adopted by two white parents and how she never sounded “black”. 

Did they code-switch to match their environment? Probably. Did I know what code-switching was back in 2002? Absolutely not. 

I think about my college friend. His blackness was the butt of every joke he told since he was the minority in our circle of friends. “Horror movies have it all wrong. As a black man, lemme tell ya. There ain’t no way in hell he’s walkin’ into that house. He’s high-tailin’ it outta there.”

He’d laugh, we’d laugh, and I just wonder now if that wore away at his racial pride at all.

I didn’t do or generally say the things overt racists do, but that does not mean that it wasn’t there. From an early age, I learned from my parents to keep my feelings hidden. I’d hear Dad say things in the privacy of our home. It would be a natural occurrence for him to say the n-word or other slurs that should never be uttered. Raised in a strict and sheltered household, it was normal. This was how everyone acted. I was too close to it to see the truth.

It took one closed door and a frank word for me to realize I might be racist.

It would take longer yet to overcome the deep programming of my youth, and it would take distance from my family for me to see the source of my hate. It would take reading other people’s stories to understand how generational trauma occurs and affects people. And it would take documentarians to show me the truth about racial profiling and incarceration.

I can’t say I’m the best person to talk to about racism. I’m probably not the ally that people of color need right now. But I do know, sometimes all it takes is one nudge to change a person’s heart. 

So you can be damned sure I will speak up if I hear a racist comment.