As we are all finding our footing in 2020 — a numerological symmetry and auspiciousness that makes me insist on calling this the new decade, in spite of the many, many, MANY Facebook posts admonishing that “the new decade actually begins next year, dammit!” — I have been looking back on 2019, and trying to decide what I have to say about it, as are our New Year penchants and reflective natures. And as it’s been awhile since I’ve fed and watered this blog, I’ve been especially searching for a worthy reminiscence to wax forth about. 2019 was actually a pretty opportune year for me, releasing three new published works and planning a game-changing relocation, to name a couple, so there are actually a number of things that could be reminisced. Here’s the one I’ve chosen to reflect on.
On the afternoon that I learned I’d won a book award (I received the news exactly a year ago today, January 18, but wasn’t allowed to say anything publicly until announcement day, a whole month later), I had just left a meeting, and had hunkered down at an Indian food restaurant that had become my weekly lunch ritual. I sat alone as I always did, in a kind of comfort I found in very few other places. A meal alone. Unengaged in a conversation the way everyone else in the cafe was most definitely engaged, and feeling just a little bit haughty about that. Like I was really especially cool for entertaining a good book instead. The only thing that marred that chest-risen thought was the fact that I was actually on my phone doing the deed of most modern-day people with any amount of time to themselves, scrolling the Facebook newsfeed for the good-fortune posts of my friends and the inevitably disarming jealousy that wracks the soul of a good old-fashioned self-loather like myself. Or browsing Twitter to see who’s saying what about You Know Who. Or placing about the 20th item in my Amazon cart. One of these days I’m gonna get an email that says “either press buy or f*ck off!” The good book I was presently inside of was sitting to the side of me on the booth seat, abandoned for more transient pleasures and curiosities, so just how haughty could I really be?
I opened up my email, and saw only the first words in the subject heading from Winning Writers, an online writer’s resource for independent authors and book award host, which had informed me earlier in the week that I was a finalist for their 2018 book award for my novel Trading Fours, which had actually come out several years before, but this was a unique book award that did not care how old a book was that they felt deserved awarding. The words I saw, before opening the email full stop were, “Congratulations. You’re a first prize winner….”
I don’t know that I can do that moment justice. Let’s start from much earlier. In the day? No. In my incredibly blessed but consistently frustrated life. I am not a person who wins things. I had managed to get myself safely to the age of almost-60, and had known a very decent life as a working musician. But in my 30-something years at the task I had barely gotten my foot in the door (bruised and bloodied from the many tries) that most of my colleagues who came up in the business with me had. Neither had I ever managed a book deal, though I went through two agents in the years past, unsuccessfully trying to sell this manuscript or that. Momentary sidebar: I recently sent an apology letter to a friend, who had asked for my writer’s advice, as she is writing her first book. I was unhelpful, and I needed to acknowledge that to her. I explained that part of the problem was my own (at times) inability to value my own gifts. What I know for sure is that there is an army of little devils that routinely shows up to battle me. And the members of that army look like: the absence of a book deal; my inability to get pieces placed in the multitude of journals I submit to; rejection after rejection after rejection. This army doesn’t always win the battles against me, but it does often enough.
I can get into poor-me mode pretty easily, and I see it wanting to move in that direction even as I type this, so let me redirect. The truth is, I’ve always chosen (or created) material, directions, inspiration, and content that would never pass the commercial muster. In that way, I’ve been stunningly stubborn, and even a little arrogantly self-assured that my time and my voice, unique at its worst and perhaps something else altogether at its best, will have its day. So, I’ve been fully aware of the sacrifices that come with not playing a game by its rules. Still….it has always been tempting to regret my choices when I see the world stages that my friends are on with this mega star or another. Or the TV gigs, and appearances on the Oscars or the Tonys. It’s awfully tempting. And then I have to remember to breathe, to keep doing my spiritual work, and to get still.
I swear to you, getting still is the only way into divine channels. The only way to answers. (BTW, it’s me I’m swearing to. Me I keep needing to remind and remind daily).
I continued to eat my delicious Indian food, while texting my sister and my roommate the amazing news. My sister called me instantly, and I took the call even though I was in a restaurant that’s quiet like a library. I cried. She cried. I wasn’t loud. I’m way too concerned about proper public behavior for that. But burying my head in the table and nearly in my plate, my sister and I had a whispered conversation of “oh my god!”s. My roommate, who has also been my dearest friend for 45 years, had just defended her dissertation the day before, and was officially a doctoral recipient. She texted me in response to my news, “I guess that makes us the power couple!” followed by the laughing emoji. Once I finished alerting my inner circle, I just sat, trying to finish my meal in between tears and giggles, each of which just kept popping up.
When I left the cafe, I drove over to the neighborhood bookstore to buy a Mary Oliver book. It had already been my plan even before discovering that this day was about to be literary-themed, and triumphant. I’d learned about this magnificent poet only a month before, on Christmas Day when I was at my dear friend Barbara’s house for Christmas Dinner and her annual reading. Guests are encouraged to bring something to read. Anything. Something of your own, if you’re a writer. Or from the works of established writers, if you’re not. It’s just a rare literary salon old-fashioned-ness in my life that I annually cherish. And a man at the gathering whom I knew only peripherally had read a most enchanting Mary Oliver verse that evening. Everyone in the room seemed to know who she was but me. I was instantly mesmerized, couldn’t believe I’d missed this beauty all these years, and then Mary Oliver died less than a month later.
I tend to do this to writers. On the day I bought my first-ever copy of Catcher In the Rye, the news of JD Salinger’s death came the very next day. No kidding. These weird literary, death-centered synchronicities just seem to be a part of me, and I’m tempted to consider myself an awful witch with powers I wield so carelessly in my enthusiasm for words that I scare the poor composers of those words right out of this life.
As I think about my unintended curses on America’s preeminent wordsmiths, and my irresistible euphoria over being essentially told, by the news of this book prize, that I am indeed a wordsmith too, and should be lucky to be so heralded away to Heaven by some overzealous fan’s love of me and careless curse, I find myself laughing out loud in the parking lot of Barnes & Noble at my insane brain’s delicious follies about how it all works.
I felt a connection with Ms. Oliver on that day, an intimacy that broke me into tears of joy repeatedly before the sun set on January 18, 2019. Somehow I didn’t want the day to end. Because I just don’t tend to have those kinds of days. News of accolade and acknowledgment. And then communing with poets I hope to soak into my own writer’s veins, telling me that I don’t even have to be good; I only need to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. Thank you Mary. That may just be the clearest lesson I needed to learn that day, and apparently still, as I navigate this life just trying to be heard. Thank you Mary Oliver. Thank you Winning Writers. Thank you world. For your unintended curses and gifts.
It was a good day.
photo by Hannah Wei
Angela Carole Brown is the author of Bones, Aleatory on the Radio, Viscera, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and the 2018 North Street Book Prize-winner Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and meditation. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.