By BASSEY IKPI
So this sadness returns quietly. Always quietly. No great trumpeting or horn blast. No drum circle or full bodied gospel wail. No stunning metaphor or dazzling simile. There is only this throbbing and distant and empty and quiet. Always this white noise of rush and tide. It’s what silence sounds like.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out some way to create poetry out of this heavy, hollow something. But times like this when it feels like even the words don’t want me, I am hard pressed to understand what my purpose is. Beyond the baby boy, who gets me laughing and smiling and sometimes exhausted and wishing for time machines, through it all. Even if it means I put him in the high chair and turn on The Backyardigans or Wonder Pets for 10 minutes to disappear into the hallway and press cheek against knees to stop the tears before they appear.
There has been blessed little crying. There was a moment last week, after the car broke down in Baltimore. There was a distinct and persistent wetness on my face and a thick in my mouth. And I allowed it. Hoped that this flooding over would be the end of it. That the water would overflow into that empty space and fill it with something. Anything but this loud and frenetic nothing.
I pretended that I was crying for a him. Pretending that it was the cracked and bruised leftover heart that was leaking motor oil all over my hoodie. I needed an easier reason to cry, why not a him.
There is no him. Just me.
I’ve been hiding. Pretending that this thing no longer exists. Pretending that I can carve a little bit of “normal” out of this. Shape it into something more palatable, more acceptable. More readily understood. Replace one word for another and pray that no one notices how purple my hands are. How quickly the words tumble uncensored. How often the debit card is emptied. How there is a new obsession every other day. This need to face blinking cursor and call it writing. Or Facebook page and call it writing. Or Twitter and call it writing. Or chat… and call it socializing. But it’s really about this need to own something daily. That there’s a place that I need to be, where I will be missed if the status remains the same for three hours.
And there is the baby boy who misses me when 20 minutes go without a song. Without a new dance. He is attaching himself more these days because he knows this thing is here. Remembers it from before, so he will not sleep unless the mama is lying beside him. Will not eat unless the mama holds a fork as well. So I am trying. I am lifting myself out of bed every morning to assure him Cheerios and Pinky Dinky Doo and Hip Hop Harry and the only nursery rhymes I know sound suspiciously like Tribe and Lupe and Jeff Buckley and Joshua Radin and Jason Mraz and Sam Cooke and when he hears the first three lines of Billie Jean, the boy spins and laughs because he knows already. And one day, I hope he will forgive me this. Because he knows when the mama puts him in the high chair for ten minutes, she is probably in a hall somewhere pressing her cheek against her knees.
This thing ain’t easy. And I don’t mean to complain because this life is beautiful and it’s magic. And I am blessed and grateful. But this brain feels broken sometimes. This brain does this thing that takes little soap bubbles of “everyone feels this sometimes” and morphs them into latex balloons of “you’re the only one who can’t seem to lift herself out of bed in the morning” and then the balloon becomes brick and the brick becomes wall and wall is mountain and then you’re stuck. So I’m grateful to only be latex balloon.
But this thing ain’t easy.
Four years ago, January was the first time. Chicago. It got me. I was in my dressing room like I had been countless times, putting on my make-up but trying to avoid myself in the mirror. I caught a glimpse of my neck stretched tight, the eyes that appeared hollow and tired and empty. I didn’t recognize myself and the tears that I usually, every night, reserved for the floor of whatever hotel room I happened to be in, found their way into the dressing room. And I was afraid because the goal was always to keep it together until curtain. And here i was, before the show even began, flooding. I remember pacing and jumping and dancing and singing and trying to shake myself out of the tears, but everything I did seemed only to make them come faster and harder until I was underneath the sink, knees to chest. Daniece came to deliver the wardrobe like she did every show and found me like that. I’d never seen anyone so terrified only because it had been 10 minutes since the last time I saw my reflection. I was unable to speak. Unable to move. Only able to sob out, “Please. Go get Alice.”
So it could be worse. It can always be worse. Silver lining.
It’s not worse. It is this.
So today, after a week, where the email messages and the facebook messages and the honesty box messages were assuming this thing or that thing. Or asking for inspiration. Or review. Telling me that because of me there was a thing that happened or didn’t happen. And how inspiring these words that I don’t own are. When the new poems aren’t being written. And the book remains finished but paralyzed. And the gigs are coming but not fast enough. And the boy needs clothes and shoes and a house on a hill and music lessons and a father who exists beyond CDs and books and I can not offer him any of that right now. I feel a bit like a fraud. Like I can’t inspire myself out of this balloon and bubble so who am I to inspire you into a proper poem? And I know it’s not all true. I know it is the broken brain and the way it misfires that makes it feel true. I can feel you all rushing to comment with pep talk and reassurance and I love you for it. But I have to figure out a way to pop my own balloons.
Or learn how to keep them as soap bubbles.
When it’s not about boys. But it is. And it’s not about this writing that feels pointless. But it is. This life that is so beautiful and amazing and magic. But it isn’t. This back and forth trying to figure out how I came to this here. This mommy and daddy’s house. This far from Brooklyn. This somebody’s mother. This how did any of it happen? This suddenly too old to live a life this untethered. This wondering why the alone keeps returning. Why the quiet is so loud today. Understanding that this isn’t real. But it is. Knowing that I created it. But I didn’t. This desire to be “normal.” To wake up one day and crave straight hair and 401K and savings account and a house on a hill and some kind of chicken recipe and a husband who mows lawns and tickles babies and comforts the girl who needs something stable. Even when stable feels closer to death than sleep.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigeria-born, Oklahoma-bred, PG County-fed, Brooklyn-led writer/poet/neurotic who is also the single mother of an amazing man-child, Elaiwe Ikpi, a.k.a., Boogie. A strong advocate of mental health awareness, Bassey is writing a memoir about living with mental illness and producing Basseyworld Live, a stage show that infuses poetry and interactive panel discussions about everything from politics to pop culture. Find more Bassey on her site, Bassey's World.
Photo by Jati Lindsay