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Something Like Beautiful

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Something Like Beautiful

One Single Mother's Story

Asha Bandele

For Nisa, daughter and inspiration
AND
For Victoria, agent and midwife

If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully…Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows the details of her mother's life—without flinching or whining—the stronger the daughter.

A
NITA
D
IAMANT,
The Red Tent

Contents

Chapter 1

Love in a Time Of Confinement

Chapter 2

Statistics Don't Tell the Story. The story Tells the Story.

Chapter 3

Family Tree

Chapter 4

Girl Child in a Compromised Land

Chapter 5

Deportation

Chapter 7

Not Love, Actually

Chapter 8

The Essence of a Life In A Day

Chapter 9

The New Normal

Chapter 11

Reasons to Live

Chapter 12

Open Wounds

Chapter 13

Coming Back

Chapter 14

Something Like Beautiful

Chapter 15

Motherhood, Lost and Found

Chapter 1
love in a time of confinement

T
his is a book about love and this is a book about rage. This is a book about those opposing emotions and what happens to a woman, a mother, when, with equal weight, they occupy the seat of your heart. This is a book about what happened when they occupied the seat of mine at the very time when all I should have known, all I was told I should have known, was joy. Because what else is there but joy when a mother is staring into the brilliant eyes of the daughter she dreamed of, prayed for, and finally, finally made manifest? My laughter in those hours, days, weeks, and early months when Nisa was new and in my arms, on my breast, then, my laughter was loud, raucous even. It was regular and it was unbidden.

And then everything changed, dipped down so very, very low, but this is not a story about postpartum depression. It's an everyday life story of an everyday mother.

It's a story about the orbit of sadness that begins spinning in you and around you when you discover that the great life and love you had put together, the emotional balance and financial wherewithal, nearly everything you had counted on—everything I had counted on—disappeared, or, perhaps more
accurately, shifted just out of focus. You can still make it out, sort of, what the picture was, but you have to squint. And even then, blurs.

The particulars of my own life involve prisons and no parole, single parenting, and shaky finances. But in a sense, they don't matter, my particulars. What I know now, after all these years trying to climb out of a hole, is that I am part of a long line of women, Black women especially, who believe we have no right to pain, rage, sadness, that to acknowledge them, let alone walk all the way into them, walk all the way into the feelings so we can at last deconstruct them, is weak, weird, wrong, just plain wrong. But when we banish them, send them out of our consciences and conversations, where do they go, all those hard, hurt feelings?

For some of us the pain, the rage, becomes a belt we lash our children with. For others it shrinks down into a tight little knot that we come to call our heart. For others still, for me, the rage went inside and became a fist I beat myself with and beat myself with until I was sure that I was nearly worthless. I was sure of it.

And I suspect sometimes that I would have kept being sure of it had it not been for my daughter, my baby, who was just as sure of the completely opposite point of view and told me so with words, but mostly told me so with her life, her full, incredible, indefatigable engagement with life. It was everywhere and every minute, Nisa's engagement with life and love, and finally I could not ignore and I could not deny it. So, yes, yes it was incredibly hard losing so much so quickly: my marriage, the dream of a shared future. But it has also been incredibly wonderful, per
fect even, being this child's mother. Which ultimately is why I am writing this book, and why I am writing it specifically as a single mother. I'm writing to say that for all of the challenges, the children really do make it all worth it. And I'm writing to say that I know I am not the only woman to discover that I can look depression in the face and not call it by another name. I can face it, fight it, and finally, I can—and I am—moving past it. But I am also writing to say that this is no simple proposition, not in the slightest, and so this is how it was at times and this is why it was at times, but finally this was the way out. There was a way out.

 

A
FTER
N
ISA WAS BORN,
people asked about her father, where he was, if he had a relationship with his daughter. “It's complicated,” I would say at first, and then later, depending on the person, I would take a long, full breath and tell them how it was. I would tell them that Nisa meets her father in the place I met her father, the place I have always met her father. It's a place behind that's hidden, that's behind mountains and then more mountains, behind walls and then more walls. I meet him—we meet him—in a place that is beyond what's familiar, beyond what's comprehensible and perhaps even human. That's where we go, I say: a place beyond peace, but once there, we feel something like peace, maybe even something like beautiful.

Besides, I explain, for us, there is no choice. Despite our prayers, our deep magic, our spells, our potions, and all of our tears, we end up here each time. Here where it is barren, dry, bleak, rotting. Here at the prison. Here where my husband
lives, where my child was conceived. Here where she learned the curve of his arm, the nuzzle of his beard. Here where I once did. Here in a prison.

Even in the brightest space of summer, when the sun has pushed aside clouds and everything is gray, the prison sinks in the center from the weight of its austerity. Still, Rashid and I had always refused to be broken by our own reality, a reality that has stretched across years. Undaunted, we proclaimed: We will never be broken by this.

We told each other stories about how we could always work together, a couple, a team, to cast aside that which did not sustain us. And when we could not piece together those stories, we figured out how we could at least make them minor factors, irritations, but not defining. Not of us.

What defined us was the truth in the beauty Rashid and I created, alone, together. Even in that ugly space we arched toward one another and in that space and in that time, no matter what else existed that could break us into pieces, we were whole. This is how we made a child. From that whole place. We owned love and we made love and when that happened, we made love as a complete thing, a sacred thing: love not as a simple act or as simply an act. But love as symphonic, or love as a people's movement, a groundswell, and always love as a state of being, of presence, of grace.

We were able to do this because we were committed to a real world, a living world, not the bizarre matrix of the prison system. It was one too many people knew. It was one that trapped too many, stagnated too many, hurt too many. Rashid and I tried to envision a livable place, one that was meant for real and human
habitation. In the world we envisioned, a world where making love was a universe, a grand space that began with a word, a kind expression, a nod or a phrase, a touch or a gesture that said, I understand you and I will not judge you. There was a way in our world to return to joy, a way to achieve touching without fear, without recrimination, without violence, without larceny, without lies. Touching in order to give, never to take.

No matter what family, friends, and others thought and no matter all the doubts those closest to me expressed when I shared with them the reality of my love, my life, they finally agreed that mine was a good life even as my landscape was bordered by the desolate. I remember my little sister, Anne, said that to me once, how despite it all, my life was so blessed. And it was, which is why from that good life, that blessed life, from that stark place, that uninviting place, we made a baby.

We made a shining girl with eyes and hope wider than the sky, wider than even the love that had created her, and this is her story really. Because in the end, she is bigger than us, Nisa is. She is bigger than anything her father and I knew. She is bigger than even the best of our dreams, the best of our love. But I have to tell the story, where it began, how it began. I have to keep on telling it for her so that she knows she came from somewhere beautiful even if the beauty was not laid bare for the world to see. I have to tell it so that she knows why I know, why her father knows how much greater she is than the pieces that made her. I have to tell it so that she knows she was more than a child wanted. She was—she is—a child needed, my Nisa, our Nisa.

Even still I cannot tell it without admitting that no love alone can ever make a human being's journey simple or perfect, and
ours has not been, my daughter's or my own. For all of the light, there too has been darkness that seemed completely impenetrable, especially in the very early years of Nisa's life. I am trying to change that. But to make that change means I have to look at it without whimpering or turning away. I have to speak of the failures, my failures, and they track our story. Some of my failures embarrass me in ways I never knew I could feel so embarrassed, ashamed even—and that's a word I hate, a concept I reject.

As a mother I have felt both of these impostures with equal weight. But while my experiences and the personal shame born of them may be particular to me, I know that I am not the only one, not the only mother who has failures stacked up. And yet we are far more than our failures. As alone as I have felt in the years when it seemed as though I had lost nearly everything, the years I am still spending sorting it back out again, sorting myself back out again, at the end of the day what I am certain of is that there are women who have struggled as I have. I want to shake off the hurt now, shake it off of Nisa and shake it off of me and shake it off of all those mothers and children out there, unknown and unnamed, small families, kempt and unkempt, but more often than not, judged, fingers wagged in their faces. I want the hurt off of them.

Which is not to abrogate any single mother's responsibility, surely it's not to abrogate mine. There are times I have to force myself to remember to breathe when I think of all my mistakes, my slips of judgment, and the way they have tracked me and my baby like some madman stalker all the way through, not just moments, but years that I would recall if I could, years for
which I would beg, Can I have a do-over? I would beg because how can a mother not beg to erase anything ugly, anything wrong that entered the life of her child?

Of course, we do not get do-overs, much as we would want them. What we get are second chances at best, but second chances are not do-overs. Second chances do not erase your first pass, your first actions. Not if you are a parent. Still, they do have their place. I am only coming to understand that now, the full meaning behind the cliché: Get back on the horse.

But when I am being my most courageous, and when I have gathered up everything I can call on inside of me that is strong and honest, I determine that I will speak of and acknowledge, along with the beauty, every single error, every single misstep. To lie about it, to deny it, only risks its repetition. And we have not always done this, as parents, as adults, even as poet Audre Lorde admonished us two decades ago: “Our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.” Rather than that, I want to choose truth and reconciliation, even when it is hard, even when it mortifies me.

Because what is also true is that within those times—and I do mean the worst of them—after I became a mother, only after I had this girl—this out-of-my-dreams child, standing or sitting or lying there—an energy, a force reminded me that we would see the other side, we would be in another place. But we really do, as they say, make the road by walking it, by traversing our own course, and no matter how hard it has been at times, this is our course and we will make it by walking together, and when we do, we will understand all the steps we took, all the steps I took. One day even my bad choices will make sense and we will
claim the whole of ourselves and the life we have shared. We will be survivors. We will be more than that.

Nisa and I are not all the way on the other side yet, not as free as I want or need us to be. But we are closer to what feels like freedom than we have ever been before and I was not always sure I would be able to say that. With the singular exception of the fact that I had loved deeply in my life and had been loved deeply in my life and from that love I became a mother and being a mother was nearly the total of everything I wanted, I was not sure, for a long time, of much of anything being good or beautiful or safe at all.

 

W
HEN SHE IS OLD
enough to understand any part of it, I tell Nisa a story about a girl who was me who was once twenty-three years old. It has felt uncomfortable at times, but I know that what most of us want is to know and understand our root, our core. And we want to think it was good, where we came from, how we got here, that we weren't in error, that our history was not in error. We are living in a time when shame and punishment and one strike you're out is more the norm than not, and this must be especially true for my daughter, for any daughter or son who begins life as the child of a prisoner. She needed to know she was not wrong, wrong is not her name.

“How did you meet Daddy?” she asks, the undercurrent being, Tell me something good, Mommy. Tell me I come from someplace good. In language set to an age and tone that makes sense to her, I tell her once I was twenty-three. I was newly divorced, fully devastated, and without a direction or desire. My
first husband, good-hearted and kind, did not wind up being a person with whom I shared similar passions, and before our marriage really began, we'd devolved into a silence that swelled so large it stole all the air and then it was over, our marriage. As they go, we had what some would call a good divorce; no one did anything that could not be forgiven. We love each other even now, but separation still burns you, still leaves you shaky, and I was. I was shaking and looking for something, for someone who would steady me.

“Mommy was trying to figure out what to do with my life,” I tell her. “And Mommy loves love,” I say. And I tell her how loving love and wanting love, my heart was open when it showed up in the person of a twenty-eight-year-old man named Rashid. Her daddy, I explain as Nisa listens intently, was brimming with ideas and opinions and an impossible optimism. He had completed his degree in sociology, was desperate to enter a master's program. He read books and magazines and articles and scripture as though each chance to read was his last chance to read. “Your daddy is so smart,” I tell her, “just like you.”

I tell Nisa how I was still in college then. I was an on-again, off-again student, a habitual dropout, but for the moment, right then when I met her father, fully engaged in the academy, a student of political science and Black history.

This is how we met.

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