Photo by Darrell Fields
Earlier this year, I was removing the last of some 50 boxes from a storage unit.
Finally, after losing my house to foreclosure in 2014, I felt haunted by a question of renewal:
What will I live for?
For five years, other questions, reflecting anger, frustration, and despair, had been pissing me off:
What the hell are in these boxes? Why didn’t I just let them all go and move on?
But then I found treasures, emotional and administrative, that viscerally reminded me why I scrambled every month to keep paying Public Storage.
I found photos of my children. I found love letters. I excavated more than 10 years of PAID LA County tax bills. I fingered pages of correspondence to the Maryland child support agency and trembled holding documentation of my years-long financial contributions to my kids’ support after divorcing their Moms.
Flooded with emotion, I found even more reasons to keep my head to the sky.
I blew dust off the layout boards for my book of Kwanzaa tales, Wherever Dreams Live; I fingered the design flats for Genetic Dancers, the magazine “for and about the Artistry Within African/American Fathers.” I held in my hand evidence of consistent cultural work during the 1980s.
Next I found plastic containers holding tapes of me reading poetry at The Getty Center, and other venues around LA during the 1990s. Just reading the labels, I could hear the echoes of poets blending voices, often in the Inspiration House PoetryChoir format, which demanded we improvisationally respond to each other and to virtuoso musicians playing with us. At our best, we transformed readings into ceremonies, into mini rites of passages!
Ultimately, I found cassettes and CDs recorded at KPFK-FM while I produced and hosted Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living, the weekly poetry-music radio show that held down Mondays, 10-11 p.m., from 1999 to 2004. That show, in fact, set the framework for the PoetryChoir format.
Coughing through dust, reclaiming my life, and ignoring my aching back, I knew it was time for an LA Resurrection!
It was easily 2 am. My oldest brother Glenn had come home from his ramblings. He entered the room we shared. Glenn is eight years older than me, and back in 1973 he was our family’s official hippie, living a life about as far from 9 to 5 as he could get. I was already asleep, but I could hear him firing up his turntable and amp. After he dropped the needle, the speakers blasted Buddy Miles’ LA Resurrection. To say that music woke me up is laughable! I actually wanted to strangle Glenn. I cannot recall if he lowered the volume, or even played the song to its resolve. But close to 50 years later that song still jumpstarts me!
Frederick Douglass wrote in his Growlery. I wrote, lived, loved and lost in my Inspiration House, my actual cottage in one of LA’s urban canyons, where I picked tangerines from the tree growing in the sloped backyard; where I sheltered my daughter after we put her criminal ex-stepfather in jail for rape; where on any given equinox I gathered with musicians, poets, dancers, and community servants of all kind, from all cultures, speaking languages of all kinds, swapping their humanity, and scarfing home-cooked greens and potato salad prepared by VKali, my sister from another mother!
But I can’t let Inspiration House simply conjure sentimentality about a specific home (or even poetry readings). It’s a concept, a personal mission and vision, that opens my spirit to (re)starting my future. It helps me remember I’m a ‘miracle wrapped up in human flesh’ worthy of rolling up my sleeves (my pants pulled up YEARS ago), and learning from my experience, intellectual stamina, task-oriented concentration, entrepreneurial leaps of faith, and creative productivity, while always walking the talk of that proverb my father used: Say what you mean, mean what you say, then do what you promise!
I lost the crib but I didn’t give up then, and I aint giving up now. Recently I wrote my son and daughter: “I am still angry that I lost my LA house to foreclosure after living in my crooked cottage for some 15 years. I am not paralyzed. I know my home was made of wood and stone, and that I will have another home in my future. Yet I still struggle … after all the time, ideas, money, taxes, sacrifices, friendships, love, pain, and pleasure that I’ve invested here, after arriving with you guys in 1991. I truly wanted to keep my home and then pass it on to y’all. So – deepest truths be told – I’m not a blank slate emotionally and financially.”
These are year-end meditations from a mature African American man grappling with changes and challenges in life. I’m on the trail of natural beauty, riffing about happiness, joy, beauty, aging, and the importance of creativity and imagination in a well-lived life.
My quest is to live a default style of collaboration, so that across all platforms – former jobs, contracted work, and community collaborations, former wives, lovers, and extended family – folks don’t need truth serum to describe me (flaws and all!) as trustworthy, ethical, collegial, candid, responsible, accountable, competent, curious, reliable, and a valuable asset to whatever mission is at hand.
Brain researcher V.S. Ramachandran was asked in a TV interview about a critical skill necessary to envision, then fully participate in the crafting of a satisfying life. Ramachandran’s ‘best answer’? “Creativity. Metaphor. Poetry” … and collaborating with “people who have a poetic mind, and people who are passionate about what they do, who think of life as a grand adventure….”
On the Metro recently, I watched this African American woman twist a black balloon into the shape of a dachshund for a Latino boy, who gazed in awe as the sculpture came to life. Before giving the child his gift, the woman asked the mother and father for permission. When they nodded yes, the boy cradled his new pet. Faces shined. Simple, uplifting pleasure reverberated among the quartet of strangers.
And one smiling witness, who’s on the move again!
And it’s starting to feel good.
People get ready there’s a train a coming!
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… Last Will & Testament of Peter J. Harris (To Be Executed Over My Dead Body): When I reach the end, I want my ‘homegoing’ ceremony to be a house party! I mean it! Whoever officiates, however it is officiated, let’s turn up the music, let’s clap hands, let’s dance, let’s parade, let’s live! One person in attendance, or a thousand, let’s exhale in common humanity. Forgive me if I’ve clutched any grudges to my grave. Pass on any wisdom I ran up on along the way. Choose a song (breath, gesture, moan) over a speech. And keep any speeches timed as if folks got to head back to work…. So, here it go, yall, starting with my own Overture: I lived my life seeking stylish equilibrium between perspiration and celebration. Each day, I tried to be a valuable participant in any encounter or experience, from the smallest and most randomly anonymous, to the most intensely formal, scheduled and socially ritualized. Each day, I tried to express myself, ask questions, listen without prejudice, search for more humane ways of connecting and collaborating with folk, protection of the vulnerable, justice in the evolution of my society, and respect for individuality within community. If I worked it right, my absence will conjure a frangrance specific enough to make everyone from my closest intimates to professional colleagues, say, ‘This individual right here!’ before launching into a flashback that uniquely describes how our paths joined up in a memorable way, in a way that changed us both for the better. And left us refreshed and ready, always ready ….” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop