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Part 3: Art, Riots, and Grief

This is part of a series where I write about how I moved to Austin, Texas. You can start from the beginning here.

Billy and I drove through the mountains of Arizona to make our way back to Colorado. When you are driving through the mountains you are at the mercy of the two lane highway and whatever the mountain weather and traffic brings. We got a bit stuck as we headed north so we decided to take a small detour around the highway.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it added about four hours to the drive and we would end up arriving in the Navajo Nation at 11pm. Due to the covid restrictions and the lack of resources, if we chose to stay the night we would have to stay put for five days. We continued driving until about 1am when we made our way off of the reservation and could stay at a hotel without causing any harm to the Natives.

The south west of Colorado was beautiful, unlike any other part of Colorado we had ever seen. My brain wanted me to slow down, she wanted me to linger a little longer in the deep forest and in what seemed to be very peaceful towns along our route.

Despite the call to stay out and away from cities, and modern culture, the call to return seemed stronger, so we continued on.

By the time we arrived in Denver and settled into our temporary home, I was beginning to feel deep heartache.

There were many reasons for this. The loneliness of the pandemic, the riots across the country, the hours and hours of phone calls with my friends experiencing the trauma of being Black in America, and my own personal heartbreak, that will maybe one day become a chapter in a book when I am healed enough to write it.

I was also realizing, alone in a small apartment in the Highland neighborhood of Denver, that freedom was something I had to cultivate inside of myself, and I was nowhere near knowing how to do that aside from putting my bags in the car and heading west.

It seemed everyone else had someone. When they felt lost or were trying to navigate pandemic hardship, they did it together.

Why was it that I felt I needed to do this myself? Everyone else seemed fine (and mostly happy) having someone to lean on.

Of course part of me wished someone would just help me, see me, take over. I was tired of packing bags and unpacking bags. I was tired of clothes strewn across the floor and in someone else’s closet as I pretended to find ways to organize them temporarily.

Sometimes I would just buy something new in an effort to avoid organizing what was there.

Even when my mom first died I remember seeing message after message come through, “You’re so strong. I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t do what you do. I admire your strength”.

“No!”, I wanted to scream. “I am NOT that strong! I am broken into a thousands pieces. Please help me.”

But I didn’t know how to tell them that. Their messages of encouragement seemed like an assignment to continue to be strong, and I took that assignment seriously.

I can look back now and understand that the little me, that little girl that so desperately wanted someone to help her when her mom was sick, and the cancer was back, and the house was dark because chemotherapy wiped out my mother and she went to bed at 6pm, she was the one feeling desperate.

And in all honesty, the people encouraging my strength could not have helped me anyway.

The only person I wanted help from was my mom.

And so in 2020 this little girl was still desperate for help and incapable of asking for it. These were her feelings driving our curiosity and longing, not my present state.

But if understanding ourselves in the moment were that easy I may have nothing to write about.

I spent my mornings running miles and miles with Billy trying to move this energy through and out of my body. I listened to Bob Dylan and Maggie Rogers and Sam Cooke. I spent hours and hours consuming podcast interviews with Black leaders like George Raveling, writers like Elizabeth Gilbert, and listening to Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name on Audible.

Where do we go from here? I would ask myself as I climbed hill after hill.

Each morning at the end of our runs Billy and I would stop by Method Coffee Roasters over on 32nd street. And every morning they would remember us, greet us like old friends, engage Billy as if he was their dog and slip him a milk bone before we took off back down the hill. These tiny little encounters each morning would keep me from spiraling deeper into my heartache and I started running the three miles every day just so I could end up at the coffee shop. On days when the heartache was too much to bear, I mustered the energy to walk there instead.

One rainy Sunday afternoon I decided to walk the arts district. I spent the day blaring Dylan in my headphones and exploring all of the exhibits.

This kind of feels like freedom.

Maybe I was getting closer.

A run into an older woman in one of the galleries. She asks me what I am doing out and about that day. I always have a hard time answering people’s questions about what I am doing or where I am from. I have started to say, “Well that’s a rather long story but the short answer is…” and then I fill in the blank with wherever I was last.

I tell her I may move to Denver.

This woman and I get to talking about art, about riots, about grief. She comments on my energy, that she appreciates I am out walking on a rainy afternoon on my own to explore art.

More affirmation that being alone is “strong” and “interesting”. Should I share how much I wish I had someone to walk with me?

She invites me to an art show at her home. She says she thinks I will like the people and asks if she can mail me an invitation.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that I am not sure about Denver yet, that I am looking for a sign, but the heartbreak seems to be making everything blurry.

Maybe I should tell her? Maybe she has an answer?

I don’t have the courage.

So instead I say, “if I am here I would love to come”, and I give her my friend’s address just incase.

Later that day I receive an email from her, it reads:

On Sunday, I had several best things and one of them was meeting you at Artist on Santa Fe Gallery while you were on your artist’s date. I was heartened to meet someone who was obviously living life so fully and having adventures and exploring this lovely world of ours, and doing all of that while wearing a mask. It was a wonderful, heart to heart connection and I thank you.

The Fourth of July came around and Billy and I sat on the sidewalk outside of our apartment watching the fireworks explode in the night sky. For some reason it transported me back to that Fourth of July right after my mom died. My family sitting around the dining room table trying to have some kind of normal gathering while white poster boards were spread across my living room stuck with glue and photos of my mother’s entire life.

My mother gone, all of us trying to pretend we were there for any other reason.

So much pretending, is this the only way we get through it all?

These thoughts haunt me.

The next morning I run a little faster in an effort to outpace them.

My sublet was coming to an end and I hadn’t really gotten my answer about Colorado. I wanted a sign, a signal that, yes, my love, you can build a life here.

Was the woman in the art gallery a sign?

The Method Coffee Shop?

The way the sound of the river calmed my heart?

I wasn’t sure and in coaching this is what we often call a sign of another kind. No clear answer is sometimes your answer.

I spent one of my last days in Denver at the Art Museum with an old friend walking around the Norman Rockwell Imagining Freedom exhibit. It was timely.

I noticed the parallels between the 1960’s and this summer of 2020. I felt the exhaustion of my black friends wash over me as I stared at these images so similar to the modern images plastered on the evening news.

Why are we still here? I ask myself as I wonder if everyone else in the museum is asking the same question.

My friend drops me off at my sublet and I say goodbye while holding back the tears. I have gotten better at this.

I take the elevator up to the 5th floor and I walk into the apartment and the tears come steaming down my face at a pace I didn’t expect.

Will this ever stop happening? I wonder.

My mother used to cry this way every time we pulled out of her hometown of Chicago to head back to our home in Indiana.

Perhaps this is just how I am built. My mother’s daughter, I think.

Billy watches me with curiosity as I pack our things for the hundredth time in less than six months and I am reminded of that Janis Joplin lyric, “Freedoms just another word for nothing left to lose”.

We jump in the car and head east defeated yet hopeful. If not Denver, there must be somewhere else we are meant to be, something I am not seeing. I was determined to find out.

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