Usually when I imagine myself tackling some major mission, I have an anthem playing in my head. The scenes unfold in my mind, in all their Technicolor glory, as if they are being shot by an imaginary director, and at the end of the “film,” I emerge victorious as the scene fades to black.
I need to get out (of my head) more. I know.
Even before I bought the van which would become the Beckyville Bookmobile, I envisioned myself and my road dog, Lola, traveling across the country, doing readings at indie bookstores and cultural centers, giving interviews, all while an invisible audience cheered our journey. For the most part, those mental movies have come true, and I am truly touched by the people who have supported us and continue to encourage us along the way.
But then my reading in New Orleans flopped.
Not that I expected this cross-country adventure to be failure-proof, but the lack of attendees for my signing at the Afro-American Book Stop seemed to confirm the anxiety that had been building up inside throughout my travels – that my dreams would only take me so far and then would sputter and die like the wick on a dusty candle that had been lit one too many times.
It was with this feeling of failure and general suckiness that I loaded up the Beckyville Bookmobile after the “signing” at the Afro-American Book Stop and drove across town, with Lola in tow, to the New Orleans branch of the Covenant House. I had been invited to do a reading at this shelter for homeless youth, but I thought Escape from Beckyville might be too mature for the teens, so I suggested hosting a creative writing workshop instead. I was looking forward to working with the kids. Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve volunteered with children. When I moved to San Diego some years later, my friend, Keyneica, and I founded It is Written, a program for at-risk youth that encouraged poetry and journaling as a means of healing. A writing workshop at Covenant House was a way for me to give back during this journey instead of focusing on what I could get. I can’t disclose too many details of what took place out of respect for the privacy of the children, but I did stress to the twenty or so kids in attendance that if they got nothing else out of the workshop, I wanted them to know that each of them had a story to tell and that their voice mattered.
Public speaking is not my thing, and I’ve always had a fear of addressing crowds. Mainly because I worry the urge to pee will strike mid-speech, and I’ll have to flee the room. Naturally, I chose to travel the country to do the very thing that scares me most. It’s hard for me to instill a sense of pride and boost the self-worth of others when I don’t always feel great about myself or that my own voice matters. Yet, I stood in front of the kids that day in a sweaty dress with chipped nail polish and shoes starting to fray around the edges because I wanted to give them hope, the same hope that keeps me going when I fear my savings will dry up before I return to the Left Coast or that the repo man will haul away my beloved purple chariot.
After our visit to Covenant House, Lola and I headed to the Community Book Center, an African-American literary hub, which saw most of its inventory wiped out during Hurricane Katrina. We were greeted by Mama Jennifer, a gregarious woman with a short natural, who came out from behind the counter to give us a hug. Her son, Chris, and several other patrons were engrossed in a discussion at the back of the store. After a brief assessment of my surroundings, I knew I was standing in a cultural center, much like Leimert Park in L.A., where black folks congregate to play chess and debate issues of race and politics. This feeling of kinship helped melt away the day’s drama.
Across the room, a brown-skinned woman with a head wrap beckoned to me. Her name was Michelle, and as I sat across from her in a folding chair, she read my palm. She told me that my energy was “off,” my diet was poor, and I needed to include more fruit – like blueberries and black plums – or else the journey would wipe me out. I wasn’t sure if she meant my eating habits would deplete my strength or soon kill me, so I sat up straighter in my chair, nervous. Pointing to the lines in my palms, Michelle said when I was younger I had many ancestors guiding me through life, helping me to tell my stories. Throughout the years, that number dwindled. “You don’t hear from them as much as you used to,” she said. Glancing over my shoulder, she said that she saw three ancestors who now aid me as I write. Then she rose, grabbed a bottle of oil from her bag and massaged it into my scalp. Around me, folks chatted about what movie to see for the night – The Help or Rise of the Planet of the Apes – as if this impromptu palm reading and anointing was an everyday occurrence. Jondrae, a tall man with dreadlocks, purchased a copy of Escape from Beckyville, and Mama Jennifer and I discussed politics and the sad decline of black bookstores throughout the country. Then her son Chris told me that they would be happy to carry my book at their center, and I could return on our trip back to California to do a reading. With hugs and well-wishes from our new friends, Lola and I were off again.
Initially, we only intended to stay in New Orleans for two days as part of our book tour, but we ended up extending our sojourn in a smoky two-bed suite for an additional four days. I needed that time to regroup and plot our next move. Our next stop was the OnyxCon convention in Atlanta the following weekend, but I didn’t have plans to do any readings after that. Several bookstores in various cities informed us that they didn’t host readings on weekdays, so I had to recalculate how to hit up those spots on weekends. Also, I was getting invites to do book signings at private residences up north. The month that I planned on being on the road would have to be extended as well – maybe even until October.
Secretly, I didn’t mind spending the extra time in N’Awlins, although the days were so hot, it hurt to breathe. I had visited the city several times since Katrina, or “the storm,” as the locals call it, and loved the rowdiness of street performers and the friendliness of strangers. One such black man wearing a red-white-and-blue striped top hat and white suit ran up to the Beckyville Bookmobile as we were driving and said, “Give me some flyers or postcards so I can pass them out.” He didn’t even know what we were selling; he just wanted to help us spread the word – whatever we were doing. While munching on beignets at Cafe du Monde one afternoon, we met a young woman named Nell, who had served in the Navy for ten years. She walked us back to our van and bought two copies of the book because she said she liked supporting black authors. Every night, Lola and I loaded up on fried food and margaritas or walked past brass bands in the French Quarter, the sounds of trombones and drums washing our backs as folks second lined in the street. We would return to our hotel room and watch crime dramas while sipping Riesling out of plastic cups. We had the stability of beds and a hot shower instead of sitting upright in a van for hours, eating greasy drive-thru cuisine – en route to our next location.
Our NOLA adventures couldn’t mask a growing sense of emptiness. The day after the reading, Lola and I decided to attend a local church. We were emotionally and spiritually fatigued, so we headed to Household of Faith, a worship center we learned about from the assistant at the Afro-American Book Stop. We got lost finding the church, so we ducked in fifteen minutes late, just as the choir was in full swing. About a third of the size of my Inglewood megachurch, Household of Faith was the type of church where members knew each others names and met regularly for cookouts or fish fries. I got teary-eyed a few minutes into service and had to put on my sunglasses, like a celeb who recently found religion. The weeping intensified when Pastor Antoine Barriere approached the dais. A nut-brown man wearing jeans and T-shirt, he had a laid-back, comedic preaching style. His message for the day was to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all things. Not for all things – like illness or debt – but to maintain a spirit of gratitude in all seasons of life. He also quoted Galatians 6:9: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
“If you sowed today, and you reaped tomorrow, there would be no time to be weary,” Pastor Barriere explained with a southern hip-hop drawl as he strutted back and forth. “At the end of the situation, you gonna get a harvest. I’m trying to tell somebody, don’t get weary. Don’t let people get you to take a short cut. Don’t let people get you off your game. When you know you workin’ on something, go on and work on what you workin’ on. Whatever is really going to produce greatness is going to take a repeated investment.” By the time service ended, I was recycling snot rags, and Lola had to dig in her purse to find fresh tissues for me.
During our stop in New Mexico the previous week, my very wise cousin, Ranae, told me that I would learn a lot about myself along this journey. One thing I’ve learned is that I may cry and panic and wrestle with fear and indecision, but after the tears have dried and the anxiety has dissipated, I’ll keep moving forward.
Two months prior, I was sitting in a cubicle at a job I’d held for nearly eight years. I had a title, prestige and stability. What I didn’t have was purpose. It’s easy to dream when you have health benefits and a check being deposited into your account each week, but I didn’t want to be a part-time writer or sit around and wait for mainstream publishing houses to come calling. I felt an urgency to tell these stories, to present a funky and futuristic slice of black womanhood, and to drive cross country to spread the word. When I hear from women (and men) who say they identify with the struggles of my characters or who are touched by the stories, I know I made the right choice.
I don’t blog about my hardships as an indie writer to rack up sympathy points or pretend that I’m such a brave woman. Many times, I don’t feel brave at all. I’ve always said that I’m just a vessel. All I can do is keep writing and keep dreaming … and keep driving. I may complain about the struggle, but I don’t regret it. This is voluntary combat. I am an enlisted soldier, and every day, I’m warring for my dreams.