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How I Gave Myself Permission to Reclaim My Passion

Reading stories fed me. So why couldn’t I get back to this habit that I loved and that had saved my life, time and time again?

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For the second time during our What’sApp video chat, my two-year-old grandson covered his eyes with his little brown fists as I encouraged him to count to 100 by 10s. “Urrrrg,” he growled.

“Counting makes me tired too,” I empathized. My daughter laughed because she knew that’s exactly why I am a writer and reader instead of a mathematician.

Reading is my superpower.

Yet in the last few years, I’m embarrassed to admit that I found myself (gulp), reading less and less. Divorcing, relocating to another state, working as an adjunct professor with multiple side hustles until I landed my full-time job, publishing and promoting my memoir have been time-consuming, distracting and hard.

Not to mention for the last two years, like the rest of the world, I was dodging COVID and maskless beachcombers. Still, through it all, I lugged my books with me across the country in my SUV, on airplanes and in my rented portable moving and storage units. A hoarder, I couldn’t give my books away to save my life, and I continued collecting their hard, square bodies like honey in my beehive — buying and stacking them haphazardly on my shelves, then my floors and finally behind my couch. Please, no judgment.

Despite that my life was a carousel of lectures, readings, pandemic blues and work, I was still deeply ashamed that I wasn’t reading reading. I secretly cringed when my bestie boasted that she’d devoured an author’s powerful short story collection, or when I saw Oprah Winfrey’s or Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram applauding another worthy novel. Reading stories fed me. Why couldn’t I get back to this habit that I loved and that had saved my life time and time again?

Why couldn’t I concentrate enough to finish a book?

Solace and Salvation Between the Pages

As a child growing up in a violent household, reading was at once my lifeblood and my salvation. I’d developed the willpower to drown out the loud arguments in the other room until I couldn’t. At 9, 10 and 11, I voraciously read a book a day. I scribbled in my journal by flashlight and inked bad poems, trying to find my little mouse voice. As a teen, I spent long nights mouthing the poetry of the New Negro Movement, e.e. cummings and Sonia Sanchez. I lost (and found) myself in these other writers’ worlds, simple as that. Cramped in a tub padded with blankets and a pillow, I read all night because my basement bedroom didn’t have a bright enough light. I read until the dawn crept around the cheap bathroom curtain.

I missed words, I missed stories. I missed the anticipation of entering other worlds and being immersed in characters’ dilemmas, living with images that flooded me like cool water over river rocks.

As I grew into my craft, reading and writing were more than hobbies. They were things that I owned, that created my identity, that assured I wouldn’t be a casual statistic of poverty and lack of education. I wouldn’t be a pregnant teenager like the rest of the women in my family. The ability to read empowered me. I was in control of that space. I educated myself with sci-fi and fantasy, with poetry and National Geographic magazines. In my youth, I could do this self-edification anywhere — in trees, parks, benches, libraries, balconies, atop grassy hills and on rocking boats. So why wasn’t I able to sit down, focus and read as my locs silvered?

Recently, I asked this question of myself via an exercise I teach my freshmen called the Writing Inventory. I borrowed and modified this favorite teaching tool as a budding educator. It asks students to mine their first experiences with writing and how they formed their beliefs about themselves as writers. Inevitably, one of them always says something like, “I was taught that reading a lot helps you write better.” So true, the avid reader in me crowed in agreement; but the lapsed reader in me mourned.

I missed words, I missed stories. I missed the anticipation of entering other worlds and being immersed in characters’ dilemmas, living with images that flooded me like cool water over river rocks.

I had to act, make an action, like Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography when he felt stuck as a learner and decided to read and copy the entire dictionary. I had to do something.

I began perusing my bookshelf to see what I needed to read for writing current book projects: My forthcoming second memoir is a follow-up to Black Indian. My forthcoming collection of poetry is about the founders of Los Angeles. As I touched my books, the old flame of joyful engagement licked through me. I reexperienced the sheer freedom of picking a book from a shelf.

Sliding my fingers across their spines, and in honor of Women’s History Month, I finally settled on Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave. I hurriedly heated a cup of tea in the microwave, opened my book and was pulled immediately into Harjo’s Muscogee Creek childhood and her first encounters with jazz. I then cracked Nikky Finney’s lauded Rice and felt the meatiness of South Carolina images expertly cleaved. Her line breaks, open spaces that invite reflection, swell in my chest like love.

As I write this, my mental heart muscles are singing and dancing : I’m happy again with my reading self. And by reading, I’m feeding my writing self simultaneously. The old adage will always apply — to be a good writer, you have to read. There’s simply no other way to say that. Yet, patience grasshopper. One book at a time.

Besides, I’ve got a grandson who will be watching me, who will see me reading, knowing that his grandmother’s superpower actually works.