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Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!
I love my life as a writer for several reasons. Primarily, I enjoy the craft of writing; the satisfaction I get from putting my thoughts into words. I love the research, the impact on my own thinking, and turning it all into words on a page; the art of creating stories – both nonfiction and (coming in the not-so-distant future) fiction. I love the wonder and magic and awe of what writing does for me. I love working alone in my pajamas on a rainy day, taking a walk along the river on a warm, summer’s day to think about a particular chapter or paragraph or sentence, hanging out at the library, or taking a short break by walking into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and returning to my laptop to dive back into the words.
There’s another aspect of writing for which I’m grateful. I recently received small royalty checks from Beacon Press for the sales of my two books during the first half of 2015. Inheriting the Trade was published almost 8 years ago; Gather at the Table more than 3 years ago. They’re both definitely “catalog” titles now. Major publicity and media coverage for both books is in the past. In case the first two sentences in this paragraph misled you, it isn’t the royalty checks for which I’m primarily grateful. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to receive income from my work, but that income is, ahem… modest (I haven’t yet achieved Stephen King or John Irving levels of success).
No, it’s that people read my books. They give Gather at the Table and Inheriting the Trade to friends and children and parents and colleagues. They check them out at the library. They save them on bookshelves in their homes. They sometimes write to me to tell me how my stories impacted their thinking.
All this time after they were published, more than 300 copies of my books – in hardcover, paperback, and ebook – were purchased between January and June of this year. I find that amazing. I love receiving royalty statements to see how many more people now hold one of my books in their hands. For THAT, I’m forever grateful. Keep reading, friends, and we authors will keep writing. I appreciate our relationship more than you probably know.
Katrina Browne extended the official invitation to me in February 2001. I would join her and eight other distant cousins in a few months to retrace the Triangle Slave Trade route of our slave-trading ancestors from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back. She would make a documentary film of our journey.
Without telling Katrina or anyone else connected to the film project, I decided to write a book about my experiences. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager. I started the Great American Novel several times, wrote a children’s book, took a writing class here and there, but never seriously pursued writing with the passion I’d felt three decades earlier. And I never succeeded. But this was surely to be an adventure worthy of fulfilling that dream.
I first met Randall Platt in the late 1990’s at a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference. Each time I attended a PNBA conference I attended as a retailer (we sold comic books and graphic novels, and rented audio books, at our family’s video store). I waited in lines to meet authors, to have them sign my copy of their book. I dreamed of one day being “on the other side of the table” like them. Randi had written several books, including the humorous Fe-As-Ko series of novels. My personal favorite was The 1898 Base-ball Fe-As-Ko. I signed up for her mailing list.
I know without question it was no coincidence that my invitation from Katrina was followed shortly by an announcement from Randi Read the rest of this entry »
Before I signed a contract with Beacon Press to publish my first book, the working title of my manuscript was The Immeasurable Distance Between Us.
I envisioned the cover of my book long before publication, with an image of a young teacher from Chicago and me walking side-by-side in Accra during the Panafest Pan African Historical Festival. Visualized it. Printed it. Framed it. Then signed a contract with Beacon Press and the title changed to Inheriting the Trade.
That’s all to the good. I trust my publisher and the book has done (and continues to do) well in getting into the hands of readers.
And today, July 4, 2015, I look at the image of my envisioned book cover that still hangs in my office. And I think about all I’ve learned over the past 15 years. Earlier in my life I didn’t think much about Independence Day, or Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving… just enjoyed them, or partied with friends or family, or whatever. Now, thanks to new friends, authors and others who challenge my thinking, such commemorations have become far more complicated in my mind. I don’t celebrate them much anymore. I think about what’s behind and beneath them.
My initial chosen book title comes from a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York.
Sadly, much of what Mr. Douglass spoke about 163 years ago remains true today. Racism and injustice are alive and well. Florida. Missouri. New York. Maryland. Since 9 of our African-descended brothers and sisters were assassinated by a racist terrorist two weeks ago in Charleston, South Carolina, 7 black churches have burned. None of this is an attack on Christianity. It is an attack on black people. If you are white and don’t understand this fact, you haven’t read my books. Please do.
I hope you are as troubled and contemplative about Independence Day (and certain other American holidays) as I am.
I first became seriously fascinated with deprivation tanks when I watched Altered States in 1980; the William Hurt/Blair Brown sci-fi, love story about a Harvard professor who drinks a spoonful of psychedelic mushroom juice from South America before slipping into the isolation tank to travel in his mind billions of years to the beginning of time; the birth of life.
LOVED that movie.
Frightening and exciting, I wanted to float in one of those tanks; albeit without the drugs. It sounded like the ultimate meditation session; totally alone, the Universe and me. And I never did. There was a place in Portland, three hours away, that had a couple tanks but I never went.
Fast forward thirty-five years. I’ve received wonderfully healing and renewing deep tissue massage from Bonnie Snyder, LMT on and off for more than a decade. During my appointment in April she mentioned Float Central and how she floated for an hour and a half the day before she received a massage and what a difference it made.
That was it. No more procrastination. I called to make an appointment for the day before my May appointment with Bonnie. They no longer call them “deprivation” or “isolation” tanks. I guess they’re going for less claustrophobic terms nowadays. It’s just a float tank, which still removes all external stimulation, including light, sound, gravity and pressure points, from your mind and body. Physically, float therapy has been known to help relieve stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, and pain, and enhance healing from soreness or injury.
Me? I just wanted to float and meditate. An hour and a half seemed like a really long time. I usually meditate for more like a minute and a half and call it good.
I watched this introduction video the day before my appointment and then drove to Float Central the following morning.
The woman behind the counter explained that the huge stack of bags of Epsom salt in their lobby is what goes into the tank of water where I’ll be floating. No wonder you can’t sink! She explained the process and showed me to the tank room. After a cleansing shower I climbed in and closed the tank lid above me.
I settled in and began to breathe. Slowly in and slowly out. The video recommended I count my breaths; a good way to pass the time for my first float, I thought. I quickly calculated that when I got to 300 I would have been floating for about an hour. Other than counting, I tried not to think about anything outside of this moment; to just be here and see what comes up. I began with my standard morning meditation routine. I breathe slowly in and out, paying attention only to my breath.
Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…
Next I offer gratitude for people and things in my life for which I’m thankful. Then I visualize my dreams manifesting in my life. That seemed to take up about ten minutes. Then, I just breathed.
Forty-one… forty-two… forty-three…
A lot of what I experienced was darkness and silence, which felt quite peaceful. The floating was easy; never the slightest concern that my face would sink beneath the surface. No fear at all. Images of owls began to appear, then wolves and dogs, then faces of people I did not recognize. It seemed as though they were people on the other side; ancestors who had passed offering me comfort. Colors in patterns appeared and shifted; bright and then dim, always slowly in motion.
One hundred twenty-eight… one hundred twenty-nine… one hundred thirty…
Several times I realized I had breathed out but not back in. How long since I breathed in? A few seconds or ten minutes? I don’t know and it didn’t matter. More owls. More wolves. More ancestors.
Two hundred forty-one… two hundred forty-two…
Music gently began to play when I reached the two-fifties. That’s not possible. I couldn’t have been in here more than about forty-five minutes. But sure enough, my ninety minutes had passed. I slowly climbed out of the tank and took a shower to wash off the salt. I felt more relaxed and at peace than I have in a very long time.
My appointment with Bonnie the following day made for a back-to-back gift to myself that felt relaxing, healing, and inspiring. The massage felt smoother somehow; not completely different, but different in the way I felt the pressure of her touch from time to time. I’ve scheduled the same back-to-back experience later this month. I look forward to spending more time with my owls and ancestors.
I highly recommend this experience for your whole self… your physical body and your inner spirit.
And if you haven’t seen it, check out Altered States. It’s a great flick; though if it seems like it may scare you away from float tanks for thirty-five years, go float instead.
I can’t recall ever having a layover in San Diego before. The convenient part was the arrival and departure gates were adjacent to each other. Easy plane change for a 45-minute layover. I made my way over the few steps to the line for my connecting flight and stood behind a young couple standing on either side of a stroller holding what looked to be about an 8-month old baby boy.
The baby’s eyes and mine locked on each other and didn’t let go. He smiled. I smiled. Daddy lowered a spoonful of yogurt toward his mouth but his lips were closed. I opened my mouth as if I were feeding him with the thought he would mimic me and open up. He did, and took in the yogurt. He continued to stare and smile. So did I, expecting at any moment that Dad or Mom would turn to look at me; this man with whom their child was so intently engaging. They would nod. I would smile. “Nice baby,” I would say. “Thanks,” they would respond. And the spell would be broken. But it never happened. They never turned.
Baby and I continued to stare; our eyes locked and joyful. “It’s good to see you again,” I thought. “You, too,” he replied.
As clear as any feeling I’ve ever had, I knew I knew him from previous lifetimes. And I knew he knew me. I just knew.
“That’s ridiculous,” I thought as doubt crept in. I smiled one last time, turned and walked away. I walked around for maybe ten minutes before returning. The boy and his parents hadn’t budged an inch. He looked at me and smiled.
“Welcome back,” I felt.
“Thanks,” I replied. “You’re going to have a great life.”
“Yeah, exactly what I need.”
“It really is good to see you again,” I thought.
“You, too,” his eyes said.
Our smiles never wavered, nor did our gaze for the next several minutes until the flight began to board. As I settled into my seat I felt renewed confidence that all is well with the world. We’re all on our way home and we’re walking this incredible journey together.
And every once in a while, when we pay attention as we look into the eyes of a fellow traveler, we recognize an old friend.
We see each other.
An article I wrote, “Dear Ben Affleck, My Ancestors Were Slaveowners, Too” was published this morning.
I was contacted this past Wednesday by an editor with Zócalo Public Square, an L.A.-based not-for-profit that hosts live events and publishes daily humanities journalism. They describe themselves as an “ideas exchange” — their mission is to connect people to ideas and to each other.
She wrote, “I’m hoping you’ll consider writing a piece for us. As you probably heard, Ben Affleck asked producers of the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots” to not reveal that his ancestors were slave owners. I thought it would be interesting to get a response from you — as a writer who has delved so deeply into the story of your family history …and as the head of an organization devoted to healing the wounds rooted in our nation’s history of slavery. I thought you could write an open letter to Ben Affleck that essentially tells him why it’s OK (and actually really good) to dig into one’s family history, even when it involves something as painful and horrible as slavery.”
The article begins…
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
You can read the full article here.
My dear friend and fellow author Andi Cumbo-Floyd posted a blog entitled “6 Reasons I Don’t Get Author Autographs.” I didn’t need to read what she wrote to know we are polar opposites on this one. But I did read her post. She doesn’t like crowds, knows what it’s like to give a talk and then sign books, knows that writers often don’t necessarily love the person they write, “love, Andi (or Tom)” in their copy of our books. I get it. And I feel totally different about it.
I LOVE getting books autographed. My prized possession is a signed copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, my personal favorite novel of all time. I remember when my friend Brad called me and said, “Hey, Tom, there’s a signed copy at…” and he told me it cost seventy-five dollars and this was around 1979 and I was a poor, working stiff who still owed on college loans and I told Brad to forget about it. I called him back an hour later and told him I’d find the money to pay him back.
Why? Because Somerset Maugham hadn’t just written The Razor’s Edge. He’d held this particular copy of his book in his hands; had signed it. His DNA was on this sucker. So as I read my new, signed, copy, Maugham was there with me, physically; literally. The book became more alive, more connected, to me. I’d read it before. This time was different; more personal.
I sometimes write to authors when I’ve been particularly moved by their book. And sometimes they write back. Though I won’t share their names here, the notes I’ve received in return are cherished treasures. And sometimes I have received notes from people whose books of mine I have signed… including just yesterday from a student at a college I visited with my writing partner Sharon a couple weeks ago. “Thank you for your encouraging words,” she wrote, amongst other things. “Whatever your next big project is,” she wrote, “you can count me in.”
I’ve felt nothing better as an author than the feeling I get when I receive such a message.
Richard Bach wrote that some of his best friends are people he’s never met… authors… the words on the pages of their books. I get that. And I respect Andi’s position. And for me? I feel differently. I LOVE meeting authors and owning their books they have held and signed.
And yes, Andi, I have Sherman Alexie’s autograph… in a few of his books. I respect your choice. Truly, I do. And I’ll be waiting in line for my next signed book…
I flew to Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, and flew back home Sunday. I’m speaking across the state tomorrow and in Indiana next Wednesday.
Then I’ll fly to Southern California to join Mom, my sister, our family, and friends to celebrate Dad’s life on the 31st.
It feels a little like a pinball machine is going full tilt in my head with all the silver balls bouncing around at once and the bells and whistles and lights celebrating the highest score ever on “Vampire Stimuli Juggling.” WoooHOOO!
I spent much of yesterday quietly thinking.
I thought about all I experienced over the weekend at the conference; the people I met, the ideas that were shared, my daily telephone conversations with my mom, the eyes of the 10-month old baby whose eyes locked into my 60-year old eyes in the lobby of the hotel just before I caught the shuttle back to the airport to fly home.
Lindi and I watched Boyhood last night. As Mason’s life and the lives of his family unfolded before us I was filled with sadness and hope and I thought what a perfect film to watch at a perfect time.
I thought about Dad being diagnosed with cancer more than three years ago, shortly before he and Mom celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary; about the precious blessing of having him with us these past three years, which offered many opportunities to be together, to talk, to hug, to share “I love you” over and over.
I thought about how my second book, Gather at the Table, was published more than two years ago, offering my co-author, Sharon Morgan, and me the opportunity to crisscross the country since, speaking with people at universities, corporations, conferences, book fairs, churches and other gatherings about healing the wounds inflicted through racism and the legacy of slavery. Even more, our journey offered us the opportunity to build our solid friendship.
I thought about the past few months; how in July I became certified as a STAR Practitioner, authorized to integrate Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience into my work. How in November I read the top ten things dead people want to tell you (ah, the timing), by Mike Dooley, the man from whom I’ve been receiving daily Notes from the Universe for the past dozen years.
I thought about driving to Southern California in December to spend four days with my parents, talking about life and death, Boy Scouts and baseball, laughing through reruns of Family Feud on the Game Show channel, setting up a new laptop to replace their ten-year old desktop that was on its last legs, going to church together the Sunday before Christmas; the church they were married in, that I attended almost every Sunday of my childhood, where we will remember Dad together at a service to celebrate his life, across the street from the hospital where I was born and where he died.
I thought about talking with Mom when we knew Dad wasn’t coming back this time, about changing my plans to immediately fly to Southern California, about her encouraging me to go ahead and attend the conference in Orlando, about my gratitude for my sister for staying with Mom throughout Dad’s passing and for several days after.
I thought about life and death and the intimate and infinite relationship between the two, about feeling as close to my father now as I ever have. About talking with my 6- and 7-year old granddaughters about what happens to Pampa after he died; about cremation and how our bodies and our spirits are both connected and separate.
I thought about all I experienced during the conference, where I became certified as an Infinite Possibilities Trainer. Where I met, spoke deeply with, and held in my arms, Mike Dooley, who’s Notes from the Universe have greeted me each morning for so many years with a reminder of my power, of life’s magic, and how much I am loved. Where I learned more about our innate ability to shape our lives and live our dreams through understanding and working with our thoughts, words, attitudes, beliefs, and actions.
I thought of the intimate and infinite connections between this conference and my work with Coming to the Table, my writing, STAR, Gather at the Table, speaking appearances, and Mike Dooley’s 10-month old daughter, my children and grandchildren, my father, my mother, and how each moment offers the opportunity for me, and for you, to direct our future.
I thought about Deborah, Jeoffrey, Gretchen, Regena, Tracy, Craig, Roberto, Susan, Rebecca, Andy, Mike, and so many others I encountered this weekend; the words “I told you I would find you again” being whispered in my ear in the midst of a powerful embrace, and knowing they were true.
It’s a lot. Believe me, I know. And I’m paying attention; enjoying the game. I look forward to celebrating my father and continuing to create my future. How about you?
The Possibilities are Infinite.
There are times when I am “stuck” in my own writing for various reasons, but I always read. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading a book. I read for the joy of the story. I read to enter other worlds. I read to inspire my own writing. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin for a writer. Both are requirements for the job.
Since August I’ve participated in The Painted Steps, a small group of writers who have committed to working together for six months, to inspire each other to keep our writing at the forefront of our daily lives, and to complete the first draft of a manuscript by the end of January. We meet via video conference every week. The Painted Steps is the brainchild of Andi Cumbo-Floyd, author of The Slaves Have Names. Over the past couple weeks Andi asked us to share some favorite “opening lines” in books and then “closing lines.” The “opening lines” was easier. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “I am an invisible man.” Choosing closing lines to share with my fellow writers took more time; more thought.
The successful ending of a story not only offers a conclusion. Successful endings offer beginnings to further contemplation of what has gone before and imaginings of what’s next. What follows are the closing lines from ten books that have had a profound impact on my thinking; on how I view the world. I hope these lines don’t ruin these stories for anyone who has not read them. I don’t believe they do. hopefully they inspire you to read… Read the rest of this entry »
SUPPORT A GREAT CAUSE!
This Holiday Season, you can give copies of Gather at the Table, or Inheriting the Trade, books from the King Legacy Series, the powerful An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (which I recently reviewed) or virtually ANY book published by Beacon Press to your friends, family, and professional colleagues and you will SAVE MONEY and SUPPORT HEALING in the United States!
My publisher, Beacon Press, has partnered with the non-profit organization Coming to the Table, for which I work as Executive Director, to offer this special. Order as many books as you want directly from Beacon Press. When you go to your “Cart” to check out, enter CTTT in the “Coupon or Promotional Code” box in the upper left corner and click the “Apply” button. You will receive:
Make a positive difference in the reading lives of those around you, and in everyone who is served by Coming to the Table! I wish you a joyous and blessed holiday season. Let’s join together in working toward more Truth, Justice, Mercy, and Peace in 2015!