Pay Attention, Love
On April 20, I gave the keynote address for The Baldwin Prize awards ceremony. The Baldwin Prize is an essay competition inspired by the legendary James Baldwin. The contest is open to students of Baltimore City College; it supports travel abroad and educational expenses. The following is a transcript of the speech, given to a room of beautiful teenagers and edited for print. Please note that the perspective is limited to self-care and does not address systems designed to harm Black and Brown people. In 2017, ARS made a conscious decision to teach participating daughters techniques that bring relief to a struggling mind or heart. These words reflect those techniques.
On some mornings I am a magnificent example of a woman. I kiss my son's forehead to wake him and sing made-up songs to soothe him out of his pajamas and into his school clothes. I tell my daughter, "Have a beautiful day, sunshine!" And look her in the eyes to say it. I do not curse in traffic. I tell the daycare provider her nails are so, so cute—"Honey baby, you just gotta tell me—where did you get them done?" In the hallways at work, I smile at any stranger who'll bless me with a glance. I sit at my desk with my back strikingly straight, because I feel the joy in my spine, even. And I answer every call with kindness sprinkled, no dumped, all on top of my words. I love myself very much on these days. I think I'm stylish and that my mind is sharp. I tell myself people—my colleagues and children and friends—are lucky to have me. I trust that I can handle, graciously, anything the universe might throw my way.
On other mornings, I am a good God shame to the human race. Fussing and growling and complaining and snapping—naming all that is ugly and wrong with the world. My son does not get a song to rise. He gets three- or four-word commands like, "Here, put these on," and "Hurry, child." I wave, in passing, at my daughter. By the time I am sitting in traffic, the day has taken a dreadful tone.
On either day my perspective is mine; it is my doing. I own it. It belongs to me. On either day my inner life is cultivating, thought by thought, my outer life. What I believe instantly comes true. Let me give you a silly example.
I have a Keurig coffeemaker. It is a lovely invention. You stick a K-cup in the little holder thingy, close it, and push Go. In 30 seconds: heaven in a mug. But you have to fill the thing with water now and then. Small price to pay, right? One day not too long ago, I was in a rush, because I had overslept. I set my coffee cup beneath the Keurig spout, pressed Go and tap, tap, tapped my foot four or five times before I realized it was empty—it needed water. Again. I threw a toddler tantrum. Y'all should've seen me. "I always gotta fill this thing up! It ain't neva full. What a pain in the..." I sounded foolish and I'm happy I was alone.
Now, for the last year or so I've been doing this thing where I test any thoughts that trouble me. Any thoughts at all. They can be depressing thoughts that make me suffer terribly and treat those around me poorly, or they can be bug-a-boo thoughts—slightly annoying ideas that momentarily turn me into a grump. I poke these suffering or annoying ideas; I prod, question, and deconstruct them to see if they're worthy of being believed.
In the time it took for my coffee to dance itself into my mug, I discovered that my Keurig was in fact not always empty. Simply by asking myself, "Andria, is that really true?" I was able to recall the seven other times in days prior that I didn't have to fill it with water. In fact, my coffeemaker gave and gave and gave, and all I needed to do was pour a little H2O in it every Tuesday or something. The story "this coffee machine sucks" did me no good. It made me frown my face (and I'm 40 now—I gotta to be careful; I can't afford any wrinkles); it encouraged me to be a little too forceful with my kitchen utensils; it sped the beat of my heart, in an awful way; and occupied my headspace with negativity. If I wasn't careful, that false story could have eaten that moment whole. But just the slightest shift in perspective put me at peace. By looking at my Keurig as a low-maintenance, reliable, heaven-making machine I sent annoyance packing. And created the conditions for what turned out to be a beautiful day.
I've been asked to speak to you about destiny and writing. It might be difficult to see either nestled in a temper tantrum over coffee, but I promise it's there. Gimme a minute. In the meantime, let me tell you the name of the speech. I didn't want to give away the whole plot by beginning with it. This speech, which I am so honored to give before such a magnificent student body, is titled, "Pay Attention, Love, For Every Waking Moment You Are Shaping Your Destiny."
So, I attended Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities. I earned degrees in creative writing from both. It's been quite awhile since I graduated from Hopkins, let alone Morgan, but in the time since then I've had the honor of publishing short stories in some reputable journals. I've earned a handful of grants for my work, written and recited a poem for an album you can buy on iTunes, been named Baltimore's Best Storyteller and had a novella recorded by an actress for Audible. I have such a long way to go—I don't write for a living, and that's my ultimate dream—but I am absolutely an author. I have manifested tiny writing destinies again and again, and I believe with all four chambers of my beating heart that they will culminate in a prize-worthy novel. Let me prove it to you.
Remember a minute or so ago when I said something like my inner life creates my outer life? And that somehow the way I make my coffee in the morning is tied to my destiny? Well, I believe that what I think and how I feel in a given minute, ANY minute, is up to me. And since minutes make hours and hours make days and days make months and months make years and years make a life, I work like a mad woman to choose inspiration in every moment, so that I think thoughts and feel feelings that serve me.
I bet this is sounding kinda crazy, so allow me to provide some receipts. I'll start with the bad news. Let me share with you some of the disturbing things I've believed and describe how they've driven me to some incredibly sad destinations.
In my 20s I believed only a slim, fit body was a lovable body. That belief was made up of little and big harmful thoughts alike. Ideas like, “Your thighs ain’t supposed to be all on top of each other like that—rubbing together when you walk…almost starting a fire!” And “Chile, you look like a fool in that dress. You might wanna go with the extra, extra baggy T-shirt.” Those thoughts terrorized me. They impacted not only what I wore, but how I walked, talked and behaved. They determined the creative risks I was willing to take (I wouldn’t audition for a dance company, for instance, because I just knew they wouldn’t welcome me). They convinced me the universe did not favor me and pushed me feet first into an eating disorder it took me years to conquer.
In my 30s I believed an unhealthy, downright abusive relationship was sacred. I thought the man I loved was absolutely the only man for me. Those backward beliefs were comprised of little scary thoughts like, “No one will love me like he does,” “I can’t see myself with anyone else,” and “I don’t want to live without him.” That thinking coerced me into remaining in a loveless space for many thousands of days.
As a budding writer I thought Black English, the language my family, my friends, my people speak was relegated to quotation marks. In other words, I did not think the beautiful letters my grandmother Mary strung together deserved to take up entire paragraphs on a manuscript page—they should only rear their heads when characters were speaking. That belief cost me time, growth, opportunities and self-esteem.
What I believe I get. What I believe drives my actions. And my actions, by universal law, deliver equal and appropriate consequences. When taken apart, when broken down and closely inspected, beliefs are nothing more than itty bitty baby thoughts I choose to agree with.
Now for the good news.
In the same way that harmful thoughts have led me to unsafe places, so too have beneficial thoughts plopped me right on favor's doorstep.
I believe children are people. And because I agree with thoughts like, "Apologize to your baby girl when you're wrong" and "speak to her in a way that does not flaunt your adult power all in her precious face," my daughter and I maintain the sweetest of unions. She has decided to go to Morgan State, for instance, and nobody on God's green dirt ball can convince me it's not because she wants to be close to her momma.
I believe that art saves lives. This is one of my favorite concepts to believe in the world. It is a patchwork quilt of thoughts, of course, but I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out the pattern in my examples. I’d like to focus on the actions prompted by this particular belief, if you don’t mind. Because I know art saves lives I started a summer program for Black girls ages 15 and older in 2015. In the last three years, we’ve gifted dozens of girls dozens of books and stipends too; we’ve introduced them to prominent Black women authors and artists and published their original work in literary journals. We’ve helped them produce sold out plays and create lasting relationships.
In that summer program—it’s called A Revolutionary Summer, by the way, and applications are open until late May; I welcome all who are eligible to apply—we teach our daughters how to write. And I have a wonderful belief about writing, too: I believe…I know that writing is thinking. I know that the thoughts that wind up on the page are not ready-made, patiently sitting on shelves in your head for you to grab a pen and transcribe them. In fact, I believe that writing is a process for creating knowledge, not merely a process for communicating it. Through writing, you construct meaning. And because I know that writing is this active, reflective, recursive, theory-building and theory-testing act, I have been able to support many young people as they work to improve their skills.
So, about that coffee.
Way back in 1997, when I was at Morgan State University, I somehow discovered that I could arrange a sentence in such a way that made people call me truth-teller. I was only 19, but something about language on a page and my knack for maneuvering it convinced me I should point my life in its direction. I believed in my gift—new, raw and untrained as it was. I fastened myself to the dream "write a novel that'd make Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jimmy Baldwin proud." True story. And though I was not conscious of my thinking, I can look back and assess its significance with awe now. Because I believed I was a gifted writer (before I even qualified as a mediocre one) and that belief was built on thoughts like, "Baby, that sentence is superb," and "Girl, you are a beast with that pen," I practiced the craft religiously—my discipline was unrivaled. I made audacious choices like applying to the the 2nd best writing program in the country; I submitted to literary journals that were all the way out of my league; I went after major grants, and challenged myself to write lyrics and solicit agents. Essentially, my tiny thoughts grew to 200-page original, competitive manuscripts, songs on albums, and countless occasions that aligned perfectly with my thinking. I thought myself into destiny after destiny. And I will continue to do so, but only because I believe the best about my coffee machine. Only because I am paying close attention and understand that every waking moment is an opportunity to craft a brilliant future.