Letter (8) — You F*cking Died

Photo by Marcel Ardivan on Unsplash

To The Brother More Brother Than My Brother:

You weren’t supposed to fucking die.
I miss you. 

We hadn’t talked since the day my dad died. Why is that? 

And then you died. You fucking died.
And I had so much still to say.
And I really needed to hear your laugh.
And I really needed a hug, but you fucking died. 

And I wanted to go with you. 
Some days I still want to go with you. 

We can be six year olds climbing old planted Christmas trees again. 

You can be the Luke Skywalker to my Chewbacca —
which isn’t the right combination of characters,
but our cast of tree climbing cohorts are all still here. 

They have fulfilling lives. 
They are happy. 
Social media says they are happy. 
They don’t want to go yet. 

You were happy. 
In the end.
After all the shit.
With your simple life, you were happy. 

I haven’t been happy since 1992.

I cowered from your contentment.
Even though I missed you, I recoiled.
I’m sorry. 

It hurts.
You weren’t supposed to fucking die.

Letter (7) — The Poe Inquisition

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

To Mr. Deep Freeze:

It all began with the swing of a pendulum. 

To this day, I do not know if Edgar Allan Poe falls within the parameters of a normal American sixth grade curriculum. It became apparent quite quickly that gothic tales of horror were not approved by the missionary parents who enrolled their students in the deeply conservative, faith-based owned and operated academy in which I was student and you were teacher. 

What I remember most about sixth grade is reading — a lot of reading. We read individually. We read in groups. We read aloud. You were my first teacher, there in the mid-1980s, to recognize and address that students of the same age are not all reading on the same level — not merely the words themselves, but the comprehension of those words. 

Combined with my parents, who never limited my reading… 

Adult Beth: You know there was a lot of sex and violence in that Wagons West series you let me read as a kid, right? 

Librarian Mom: Yes, but there was a lot of history in there too.

… you recognized that for me to grow, I (and 2-3 fellow classmates) needed more challenging reading options than whatever we were supposed to be assigned. 

You also enjoyed reading aloud to the class, introducing new-to-us authors and genres. 

Enter Poe.

Enter, again, Librarian Mom — deeply conservative yet simultaneously loath to condone censorship. 

I only know of the Poe Inquisition because the other parents wanted Librarian Mom to be their champion — and she declined. 

I do not know the extent of the protest or how wide a spread the kerfuffle had on campus.
I do not know which of my classmates went to a parent in… fear… horror… disgust… or whatever emotion was stirred in their sheltered souls. 

I do know the pontifical pendulum of censorship missed your neck that year. 

“The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.”

You finished reading “The Pit and the Pendulum” aloud to us and I loved every word.

Poe was my gateway drug into the deeper realm of gothic classics by Shelley, Stoker, Radcliffe, Stevenson, Wilde, du Maurier, the Brontës and more.

Beyond Poe, you were the unconventional teacher in an environment that praised convention and evangelicalism over education and acceptance. You were the catalyst of my literary renaissance.

I thank you. 

PS – Apologies for the nickname. Originality was lacking at age 11 and we were very much into derogatory homonymistic (I’m going to make that a word.) monikers. Our fourth grade teacher was known as Miss Sour. Same premise. We’re adults now and I respect your privacy. 

Letter (6) — We That Never Was Us

Image by Layers on Pixabay

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
— William Butler Yeats, Among School Children

To Him:

Why do we dance this charade?

Words veiled in blinding plumage.
The peacock’s narcissistic strut.

Tapping innuendo, one feather coerced.
Then two.
A false confidence masquerade.

You foreshadow covenants.
I feign indifference.

We tease the unknown.

I curtsy.
Eyes seduce behind veil of steel.

You bow.
Hand extended in burning anticipation.

We touch. Fire to Ice.

I melt.
You mock.

We pause.

Footsteps echo far.
Illumination dims.
I waltz alone behind the curtain.

We that never was Us deteriorates in darkness.

Note: This letter was originally published August 16, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage. The poem is a tweaked version of an original written a few years ago. The more contemplation I gave in writing a full letter to Him, the more I realized these words say all I need to say.

Letter (5) — If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?

Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

To my extraordinary black savior:

“Beth, This sure has been a pleasant surprise. I have never had a real friend from the motherland… ” (10th grade yearbook)

“You’re the girl from Africa.”

It was only third period on the first day of school — and I hadn’t told anyone I was from Kenya. Turning toward your voice, I had to look up. Then I had to look up again.

Two teenagers could not have been more different.

I was still short then — a small, talkative, blonde, white girl with green eyes. I’m taller now and I still talk a lot, but you probably wouldn’t recognize me. You reminded me of a Maasai warrior — tall and black. In place of a spear and shield, you sported a letterman jacket to indicate your rank.

“Yeah, I’m from Africa.”

“Cool,” you smiled, folding down into the normal person sized desk. How did you fit in those desks?

I was hoping to fly under the radar that year. Too late. Someone in the church youth group had talked. It only took two days for the harassment to start.

Attending a faith-based, multicultural boarding school in the middle of an African country shielded me from many things, but not the cruelty of junior high. I had spent the last two years enduring relentless torment from two girls in my class. An athlete, being a tomboy helped on the sports field, but we had reached an age where I was no longer considered “one of the guys.” The end of ninth grade left me feeling shunned and lonely. Perhaps it merely served to prepare me for something much worse.

What it did shield me from was blatant and brutal racism. Oh, I was aware of it. My father was once offered a position in South Africa. I cried and cried. I did not want to live with apartheid. He declined the opportunity, in part, because of my feelings. Still, at fifteen, I continued to believe racism in America existed only in history books.

One morning, I was making my way between classes when a boy almost knocked me over. And then another. And then another. In the midst of being jostled down the hallway, I heard one of them hiss, “Ni**er lover.”

I was not then, nor will I ever be, shamed into feeling guilty for loving black people. More often than I care to admit, I am angry at and ashamed of white people — like those high school bullies in the hallway. There was no denial, but I also didn’t take a stand. I was alone and outnumbered.

For a week I tried to find alternative routes between classes. They would find me. I skipped lunch and hid in the library every day. I cried at home every night. I asked to transfer to the high school across town — one where the student body was predominately black. I wouldn’t give my father a reason for the request, so I stayed. All I wanted was to go home to Kenya.

At a time when I was angry, confused, and terrified, you saw me.

The second week of school began. The bell ending our mutual third period French class rang. I gathered my books slowly, planning my zig-zag-mad-dash to Geometry. When I got to the door, you were there and asked me to wait. There was no way to get past you, so I did just that. Before long, we were joined by one of your friends.

Together, you escorted me to class — quietly daring anyone in the hall to take you on. No one did. I felt relief. I felt safe. When that class ended, you appeared again. And again. And again. At home that night, I didn’t cry.

Later that week, one of the bullies stepped into our path and issued a racially-laced verbal challenge. I expected a fight. It didn’t come. You took the high road and we just kept walking. Without backup, he had no choice but to move out of the way. Until then, each friend you brought along was also black. That incident brought a radical change.

When the bell rang ending first period the next day, I met you at the door. This time the other student with you was white. He was the first in a multi-colored rotation of personal escorts — most seniors, most athletes (We had talked a lot about sports while waiting for French class to start.).

Together, the upperclassmen and athletes took a unified stand that day.

The novelty of a blonde girl from Africa wore off in less than a month. I no longer needed a protection detail because, ultimately, I am white. Though I wouldn’t have made it through the first few weeks (or French class) without you, two other girls from foreign countries transferred into school late. We formed our own Kenyan-Turkish-Sicilian coalition and became fast friends.

I think of that time period often because it opened my eyes to the obvious problem of racism that still exists in the United States. My worldview shifted on its axis.

When I returned to Kenya at the end of the school year, I started noticing some of the negative impacts of colonialism in the country I loved so much. I also began grappling with the “White Savior Complex” and how, without some version of it, I would not have Kenya as my home. It would be another few years before I truly grasped the concept of white privilege and how I benefited from it. Eventually, I got there too — and that is when I realized I could and should do more.

My one month of mild teenage harassment because I lived in Africa can in no way compare to the lifetime of discrimination you withstand because you are descended from there.

I recently had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. The trauma she tolerated, not just on her first day at Central High School, but the ongoing, relentless, daily torment forced upon her, shone a harsh light of perspective on my own memories at fifteen. I have never been more in awe of another human. When asked how she put one foot in front of the other that fateful day, she said:

“I am an ordinary person. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances can do extraordinary things.”

Thank you, J. Thank you for being extraordinary.
To this day, I remember you. I see you. I hear you.
Your life matters.

Note 1: This letter was originally published on May 17, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage. 

Note 2: #BlackLivesMatter is the modern, digital version of the Selma March. It is a movement advocating much needed change. The fact that protesting racial inequality is still necessary (make no mistake, it is necessary) half a century later, is shameful enough without this black rallying call being appropriated into some version of #AllLivesMatter. No one is saying your life isn’t important, but it likely isn’t the target of violence, hate, and oppression either. Prejudice and shaming are not equal to systematic racism; nor are they mutually exclusive.

Note 3: I learned over the course of the school year that the student body was not overwhelmingly racist, but they were definitely privileged.

Letter (4) — #MeToo

Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

To the man who grabbed my 12-year-old ass:

Fuck you.

I was twelve.
You were the first man who touched me without permission.
You were an adult.

I was so small that I looked nine.
Skinny… no, scrawny.
Stringy hair. Tomboy.
Nothing advertised sex appeal.
You pedophile.

We were on a train platform in Germany.
It was broad daylight and the sun was shining.

I moved away from my parents and older brother to sketch a crumbling tower on the side of a hill. Our father encouraged us to keep a travel journal.

It was quiet.
This station was in the countryside.
No hustle. No bustle. No throngs of people.
For a while our family was alone on the platform.
Then you appeared.

You paced back and forth from one end of the platform to the other.
I was aware of you, but I was not watching you.
Like us, I thought you were just waiting.
We had waited with so many people at other train stations.
That was a mistake.

During one pass, you came closer.
You grabbed my ass.

I was shocked — convinced I imagined you touching me.
Don’t all predators bet on fanciful childlike minds?

But then you came back. You touched me again.
You grabbed my ass. Again!

I wager what came next was unexpected.
I spun around, smacking you with the journal in my hand.
Stunned, you stepped back.

We stared at each other.
I could see the guilt in your eyes.
I could see the fear.
What if I screamed?
You didn’t make a scene.
But neither did I.
Then you quietly left the platform.

But, you never left my mind.

My family never knew.
Had he known — had he seen — my brother would have beat the shit out of you. Twenty minutes later we boarded a train.

I was twelve.
Naive. Innocent.
Then you grabbed my ass and everything changed.
It’s the day I learned girls always have to live on high alert.

Again, fuck you.

You were the first man to touch me without permission.
You were not the last.

Note: This letter started as a personal Twitter thread at height of the #metoo movement. It was then published on April 30, 2020 via Medium. Later in 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage. 

Letter (3) — Every One Needs a Cheerleader

Image by Jill Wellington on Pixabay

To the Awkward Teenager Who Wanted to be a Cheerleader:

You made it!

I have no memory of trying out for the doomed cheerleading squad at our ultra-conservative, Christian boarding school with you. I don’t doubt we did, but I wager I was there for you. It was something you wanted. It was a sports-related activity for which you felt qualified and, as you pointed out in recent years, that was important in our community.

You are correct, of course.

Accomplishment in our academic bubble rarely had anything to do with academics and everything to do with athletics.

You were the academic.
I was the athlete.

More often than not, you were there on the sidelines cheering me on, even though the distinctly American, untranslatable to third-world ideals, squad of school cheerleaders had long since been disbanded. I saw you at basketball games, field hockey games, and even my track meets.

What you may not realize is, at the time and for many years after, my entire identity — the singular status to which my personal pride was attached — was the super athlete. I was THAT athlete from first grade all the way through high school. Faster than any boy. Stronger than most. Somewhere in there, I morphed from muddy tomboy to the hot chick — though I still felt like the muddy tomboy. It was just my thing.

It was my only thing. And then it was gone.

You know that picture Hollywood always paints of the fat, former football quarterback standing in the corner of the class reunion cracking stupid jokes and being mocked because he never became the great CEO and works as a garbage man instead? Or some such version of said story? Yeah. That’s how I feel.

It’s dumb. I’ve known for years I need to shake it. Deep down, I know I have more fascinating qualities than my former athleticism. But I’m stuck anyway.

And you are exquisite.

Somewhere along our adult journey, we switched places. You discovered academia and athletics are not mutually exclusive and you began to take your brain with you on run after run after run — all over the world. You have excelled in life to a level for which I am honored to know you, trust in you, and still call you friend.

Excuse the sports metaphor, but you have lapped me over and over again.

But you didn’t leave me behind when it would have been easy to do so.

With each lap, you have circled back around and lifted me up with words of encouragement which, in truth, have kept me putting one fat foot in front of the other for the last twenty-five years in this marathon of my life:

“Dreams are wonderful things. Go get it!”

“You are so amazing and the hero of your own life. I know your challenges are great.”

“To me, you are still that indomitable kid that showed me the ropes and tackled all the boys and ran like the wind. You always will be.

I called you my cheerleader once before. “What’s not to cheer?” you responded without hesitation. So casual. So confident. So all-encompassing and with zero judgment.

You once told me I am one of the strongest women you know, but every one of us needs a cheerleader and you are mine.

I know you were disappointed that day, so many years ago, when the hope of becoming a school cheerleader was dashed. I also know you are too strong a woman today to dwell on it, but the sting of teenage discouragement has a way of following us around in one form or another.

But, you did make it! You are a life cheerleader on par with the crazy, daring, competitive athletes who elevate cheerleading far beyond the pseudo-choreographed homecoming performances of the squad you idolized in junior high. You are incomparable.

Thank you for being the base of the pyramid when I am doing well.
Thank you for picking me back up when others around me let me fall.
Thank you for showing me that learning a new routine is not the end.

Most of all, thank you for being a life teammate and friend.

“Everywhere we go (echo)
People always ask us (echo)
Who we are (echo)
And where do we come from (echo)
We always tell them (echo)
We are the buffaloes (echo)
And if they can’t hear us (echo)
We shout a little louder!”

I love you.

Note: This letter was originally published on April 9, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage. 

Letter (2) — Wait For Me

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

To the Woman Who Gave Me Breath and then Gave Me Life by Giving Me Away:

I am sorry.

Ten years ago you wrote to me. Ten years — and I feel as though I fucked it all up.

“I’ll let you decide how far you want this to go,” you wrote. “I truly do not want to intrude on your life. If this ever becomes too much for you, just let me know.”

Despite my silence, I have not reached this place.

When we first connected, you had lost the love of your life. Five years ago, I lost mine.

You see, he was the only man in my life to love and accept me for being me — no matter how difficult I made it — and he was my dad. My father was an extraordinary man who gave me an extraordinary childhood and then guided me through the extraordinarily difficult consequences of the many poor choices I made in adulthood.

His death broke me.

Interpersonal relationships have never been my greatest strength. I rarely let people get close — and it has only gotten worse since losing my father. I didn’t realize it at the time or even two, three, or four years later, but I shattered that day. For five numbing years my ability to care — for anyone — has been limited to my two sons and my mother and my brother. In truth, I haven’t done much of a bang up job there either.

At one point, I began to think of you as family — not my parent, but maybe an older sister. How could I not? We are so much alike. I want to explore those similarities. Allowing myself to do that means letting you in. It means letting my half-brothers in. It is a commitment that, someday, I want to make. But, not today. Not now. Admitting this is acutely difficult because I realize I might miss out on something. It is a risk I must take because I need to be a little less psychologically splintered when I take that last step.

I wish there was a timeline I could give you, but grief has a firm grip.

Bradley Cooper, the actor, recently described the moment his father died and his words resonate through me.

“It’s a new reality,” he said. “Everything, everything. It’s not even one thing, it’s a whole new world. And it was instantaneous. It wasn’t like, months later. It was like, his last exhale, and I was holding him, and… everything changed.”

I did not hold my father as he died. Miles away, getting ready to go visit him in hospital, I was showering and nearly collapsed in agony at what I now know was the very moment he left this Earth.

I did not take time to grieve.

Oh, I cried and refused to leave his beside once I reached the hospital. I sobbed through funeral preparations and visitation and the service we had to celebrate his life, but I did not face my grief… or, as important, my anger.

There was so much to get done. After all, the last thing my dad asked me was if I was going to graduate.

Nineteen years after I first dropped out of university to have my oldest son, I was set to earn my degree — and, in my sorrow, I had no choice but to lock myself away from the rest of the family and finish writing my senior thesis. It was less than a week after losing him. My bachelor’s degree was conferred one month later. I did it as I promised him I would.

The emotional cage I built around myself in order to get it done never opened.

I came out of the bedroom that doubled as my writing room and carried on with day-to-day life, but I stayed emotionally locked away with my grief and anger. They are still here. Slowly, painfully, they are seeping out of my soul and I am most unpleasant during this time.

You do not want to know this me. Like I said — not now.

But, don’t give up. Not yet.
This is me asking you to stay.
Wait for me.
Unless, of course, you already left.

I will understand.

Note: This letter was originally published on December 18, 2018 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage.

Letter (1) — Message in a Bottle

Photo by Ali Kais on Unsplash

To the Globe at Large and Anyone Who May Stumble Into this Place:

Only half my life ago, we would not have met.

I could have reached one of you, I suppose, by a telephone call made on a device with a cord coming from the wall that was designed strictly for the purpose of verbal communication. Perhaps some scribblings on paper rolled up inside a glass bottle and abandoned to the ravishes of the sea would have found its way to a curious reader. Maybe a mad publisher would have found a collection of unwritten letters mildly fascinating — but that was another place in my life and certainly a different time.

Today, with just a few clicks, I can throw the entirety of my past into the sea of cyberspace for the whole future to find — and here you have found me. Welcome.

What you have happened upon is essentially a memoir comprised of letters I should have written — or it will become one.

There was a time when I wrote a damn fine letter, but the internet and my adulthood aged together. Handwriting gave way to email. Chat rooms morphed into social media. Blogging rose and fell and rose and fell as the world breathed in the same digital space. Instead of sharing our stories with ink and stationery stored in a hat box for generations to find yellowed with memories, we hide behind an easily editable digital glare.

I have been here with you since the beginning — renewing friendships and finding common passions. For all our connections, however, we seem to be drifting further apart. I, for one, stopped writing letters. I cannot entirely blame the internet. My life became quite trying and I allowed myself to be distracted. Still, there are words I must write and letters I need to send. It is far too late for stamps and envelopes and absolutions, but write I will.

I don’t know when or from where you are joining my journey, but know that it is a finite one. This is a project with purpose. Forty-nine letters will be written and that will be the end.

If you arrived at the beginning then much waiting is ahead of you. Come back. That is why we have bookmarks.

Did you land here somewhere in the middle? Feel free to bounce around at your will.

You stragglers at the end may have it better than the rest. The unwritten will be written and you can linger or leave at your leisure.

From whenever and wherever you are reading my letters, my hope is that you find meaning in at least one. Imaginably, you are harboring your words as I once did or you are yearning to absorb them from someone who is not me. Borrow them if you must — especially if healing is what you seek. For in writing these words, I am healed.

Now I toss this message into the vast void of the information superhighway, a place as strange, beautiful, and unyielding as the undiscovered depths of the sea. If it survives — if it winds up on your shoreline — please toss it back in after reading.

Note: The letter above was originally published on September 15, 2018 via Medium. I have since moved all content here.