I had never heard of Nina Simone until I met Liam, “my English boyfriend,” so I assumed she was English as well, for a moment. I had been living with him, first in Manchester and later in London over the course of a year with a brief completion and defense of a Master’s thesis thrown in the mix. I’m fancy. At the time I procured his music, we were broken up, but (like good masochists) sharing a space until my visa ran out. Torture.
I arrived home to a Memphis that I could not remember without him. He, too, had spent some time across the pond with me in my apartment on Linden in Midtown, before it was out of my price range. I finished my Master’s degree while he “secretly” worked at a Sushi place. Thus, when I returned home without him, I was home, but I was constantly in the shadow of our past. It was hard because it was a lovely past.
However, it didn’t take me long to busy myself with teaching and performing, and by the time I turned 29, in 2008, I was quite the lady about town. In my humble opinion.
Ask any woman how much she weighed at any given time in her life, and she will more than likely be able to tell you, without hesitation, her exact weight, size, and shape. At least, I can. I always kind of felt like that was the message the world was trying to tell me, that I had a specific outward standard to meet. Hell, I also assumed there was a specific inward standard of which I consistently fell short.
When I turned 29, I weighed about 120, and wore a size four. The last time I hit those numbers, was in 1992, when I turned 13.
How did I do it? I was “too busy to eat,” but I still managed to go on long, “city” walks with my ipod tucked in my back pocket. I missed walking quickly through the narrow streets of London, climbing the escalators out of the underground two steps at a time, moving with purpose through the veins of one of the biggest cities in the world.
This time, I power walked through the heat of the southern American summer, refusing to drive anywhere that wasn’t absolutely necessary. No one does this in Memphis. Still.
Since I had been in Europe during one of their coldest summers the previous year, I missed the oppression of the heat on the Mississippi Delta, if you can believe that. I walked, sometimes in the morning, but more often at dusk, and I reveled in my own sweat from the slow heat of the late summer. I relished it. It healed me.
I put Liam’s music on the iPod that he bought me for my 27th birthday, and I listened to it on my long walks. There was a lot. Every album from The Smiths. Every Wilco Album. The New Pornographers. The Chemical Brothers. The Knife. The Stone Roses. And Nina Simone. To name a few in a series of non-sentences just to enrage my grammar-nazi friends (Relax. I am one of you. I just like doing things I’m not “supposed to do.” I’m not selling heroin to poor people, so can I just have this one?)
The first time I heard Nina Simone’s voice, I felt a little embarrassed for her, not because I thought it was an ugly voice, but because it struck me as something out of the ordinary. I grew up in a world where the extraordinary were encouraged to embrace the ordinary, lest they fall into temptation and be lost forever. Over the years, I have come to believe that in order to embrace the part of myself that is truly remarkable, I have to be vulnerable, sometimes to an excruciating degree, a bit like Nina Simone's voice.
One summer, I directed a live-action “music video” to the (not) hit song “Flip City” from the soundtrack to Ghostbusters II. I also starred in it. I convinced a bunch of girls to let me choreograph performance art depicting the rise of the ghosts at the hand of Vigo the Carpathian, and we performed it in the talent show at CHURCH CAMP. I should have had “uncomfortably vulnerable” down pat.
The transcendent voice of Nina Simone bled emotion. She did not fit into the status quo, but, as I have observed things, black women rarely do. She was so angry, and she was so sad, and it was all so familiar.
So I listened, and I walked, and I tried a little more to open up and accept life as it came.
Until next time: