Saturday, July 18, 2015

a poet's sacred space transforms me


Earth, I thank you
for the pleasure of your language
You’ve had a hard time
bringing it to me
from the ground
to grunt thru the noun
To all the way
feeling seeing smelling touching
I am here!
~ Anne Spencer

Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was an American poet and a civil rights activist heavily involved in the “New Negro Movement” and with over thirty poems being published during her lifetime she was an important figure of the black literary and cultural movement during the Harlem Renaissance period. She was also the first Virginian and second African-American poet to be included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry.

Spencer was a teacher and a host to renowned public figures such as Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and W. E. B. Du Bois.

She even helped found a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from her home in 1919.
Today her home and workspace remain a museum in Lynchburg, Virginia. Spencer was a gardener. Her garden “Edankraal” is named after the combination of her husband Edward’s name; her first name; and kraal, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral. The garden also included a “one-room retreat” which was a converted garage. This is where Spencer did much of her writing.

I’ve been thinking of Edankraal a great deal since I visited her garden a few weeks ago. For starters, her garden was amazing but as an English professor I am also quite interested in seeing where writers work and escape the realities of the day. Spencer was fighting the good fight so she especially needed a place that would comfort her. Spencer worked and, in many ways, recuperated in her garden. This is somewhat a big deal considering the heat and humidity of Virginia summers but what she created for herself was twofold; she created a beautiful workspace along with the help of her husband, and then she created a beautiful legacy of writing that has transformed so many. 

When I visited her home and garden it was mostly because it was recommended by Lynchburg Tourism and by Connie of Hartwood Roses but also because it was close to the cemetery I was visiting. I mean, I was already in the area. Sadly, even though she was a Virginian like me, I did not learn about her in high school or even in college. My first encounter with Ms. Spencer’s work was a few years as a college professor outside of Virginia. Okay, so I’m a professor in D.C. but still it is outside of Spencer and my home state. While the ability to continually be exposed to learning is one of the aspects that I adore about my career, it still saddens me that so many educators in my educational journey missed the opportunity to introduce me to Ms. Spencer or her work.
While I was in the Old City Cemetery’s gift shop, I picked up a copy of Jane Baber White's book, Lessons Learned from a Poet's Garden (2011) about the Anne Spencer garden. The book intrigued me because it was the story of how a space was transformed back into what it originally was. Plus, the title alone had me wonder what I, too, could learn. 

I visited Spencer's garden on a rainy day. In fact, just before and after I walked through her garden space it poured. I couldn't help but be grateful because it made the temperature a bit cooler although it only encouraged the humidity. The garden was much smaller than I expected. In fact, I drove around the block and completely missed her home because there wasn't a grand sign but a subtle one. It was a house in a neighborhood after all. I even felt as though I was trespassing a bit since one must walk down the driveway to reach the garden. There is a small sign that reads, "garden entrance."

I was pleasantly surprised to find boxes where I was able to push and hear an audio of the significance of each spot. From the workspace, to the name of the garden, to even the cast iron head named "Prince Ebo" in the pond that was a gift from W.E. DuBois, I felt I was actually in someone’s private space. It increasingly started to sink in that this was where history was made and this was a memorial in the same way as a historic grave marker. This was Spencer’s life. It moved me.

I’ve been considering my own “secret garden” lately and noticing how it could use some sprucing up. The patio furniture cushions have become drab and practically destroyed by the exposure to the sun for so many years. The other day I touched one and the fabric completely tore. It was time for some new life. It was also a work-from-home day but I’ve *received* a new assignment from work. Some would call it a promotion (without any monetary increase) but I see it only as something that will be benefiting our English department while simultaneously taking me away from home. That translates to my one research day where I was able to work from home is gone. Now I will be making the trek to and from work more often and with longer hours. I’m purposely being cryptic because it officially hasn’t been announced. AND, I also don’t want to talk much about it because I’m going for my ongoing psychology experiment here just as I do my commute—don’t say anything bad about it because once I do, I internalize the sadness/frustration/misery etc. I’m just going to keep telling myself that it will look good on a resume (which doesn’t matter because I’m a tenured full professor and I hope to retire from my university) and I can do anything for a year.

Once the world was young
For I was twenty and very old
And you and I knew all the answers
What the day was, how the hours would turn
One dial was there to see
Now the world is old and I am still young
For the young know nothing, nothing

But back to my work-from-home day… I took a lunch break and headed to Home Depot. I meant to buy some patio chair cushions and maybe a few flowers. I ended up with a cartload. That evening, I spend time in my garden. All that is left is that I’m waiting for a new patio umbrella. It had also seen too much time in nature and some dirt divers (which is a type of wasp for those of you who don’t know) were seriously certain that the umbrella was their new home no matter how many times I knocked down their nests. So the what-became-drab-red umbrella has been replaced for a monster green (some call it lime… whateves!) one. It should arrive on Monday. In this refreshed place, I will sit and be rejuvenated. I will be thankful for opportunities even if they aren’t the ones that I want. When I’m sitting outside everything seems right in the world. Edankraal also gives me a refreshed vision of what I can do. Spencer’s garden isn’t large. While I only have about a third of the space Spencer had in her yard, I, too, am able to do amazing things that enlivens my soul. 

This small garden is half my world
I am nothing to it-when all is said,
I plant the thorn and kiss the rose,
But they will grow when I am dead.

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