Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

October 30, 2014
by Andi
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Pharrell’s Lesson on Singing and Writing

Don’t go singing nobody else’s story. We need you to sing yours. – Pharrell

I’m enthralled by Pharrell. First of all, “Happy” makes me, well, happy, but more, his presence on The Voice, which I have been watching since its first sense, is genuine and engaged.  While I like the other coaches, I find that Pharrell’s passion and wisdom really strike at the heart of things.

This week, his advice to the performers really struck home to me.  Over and over, he kept telling them that they needed to connect to the emotion of what they were singing, that they needed to sing the story rather than relying on skillful runs or polished deliveries.  “It’s your connection to the emotion that matters.”

I couldn’t help think of the writers I’ve had the honor of working with over the years – the college students who worry over every comma and the more seasoned adults who almost paralyze themselves when they think about HOW something should be said.  So much we worry about correctness, about showing off with our words. We worry about how we are perceived, and we worry about “getting it right.” But really, the only thing we need to worry about is the emotion, the compelling force that brings us to the page to tell this story at this time.  It’s the connection to the emotion that matters.  What you say matters. Say it honestly and with sincerity. 

Forget about getting all the commas in the right place, and forget about how so and so writes. Forget about getting all those big words in there and leave the fancy formatting and sentence structures aside.  Write your truth with as much vulnerability and courage as you can muster.  Because it’s that honesty that matters every time. 

I love when things are transparent, free and clear of all inhibition and judgment. — Pharrell

So be bold, be brave, be honest, and stop worrying about the little things – the way you say it or the correctness of your grammar and punctuation.  Those things are minor, tiny in comparison with the way story can bowl us over and leave us teary and breathless and smiling.

What things hold you back when you’re writing? What do you worry about that gets in the way of you telling your truth? 

P.S. I also love Pharrell’s sweaters and that he is just a tiny bit older than I am.

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October 29, 2014
by Andi
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If You Had Been A Slave

You wake in the morning just before the sun comes up. You’ve trained yourself to do this, to steal these quiet few minutes just for yourself.  Next to you, your wife lies sound asleep, her hair spiraled out like an aura around her head.  Nearby, your children rest with arms and legs flung wide; they haven’t yet learned to curl into themselves even when they sleep.

With the gentlest of fingers, you open the shutters and stand, letting the air up the hill brush the dust of sleep from your cheeks.  You breath deep.  Once, twice, three times.

But then, you must start moving. Your wife stirs, trained to wake as the sun peeks over the river.  Your children rise, too, shoving their feet into the pair of shoes they keep next to their cornhusks beds.  Everyone must eat and be down at the barn in just a few minutes, the children, too. Today, they are expected to play with the master’s visiting nieces and nephews.

Your wife makes a mush of last night’s cornbread and warms it quickly over the embers in the fireplace, the embers that burned all night even though it is almost 80 degrees outside.  Each of you eats with your fingers from the same pot – not enough spoons to go around and not enough time to wash them if there were.

And you simply cannot leave the spoons dirty with the flies so abundant in the pasture just outside the door.

The six of you shove on the one set of clothes you own and wander, the children still bleary with sleep, down the hill.  You, however, you are wide awake because you must be.  You need to keep watch for what you cannot predict – an unexpected carriage that you might need to greet, a whim from the overseer with a lash, a wagon arriving with a slave trader.  You cannot do much to protect your family, but you can see the horrors coming at least.

When you reach the barn, you see your friends and family – your sisters and brothers, your aunts, your uncles – gathered round.  A few people whisper, but mostly everyone is silent.  It’s best that way.

The overseer arrives, and the master has come with him this morning.  They ride amongst the group on their horses, staring down at you as if you are being inspected. No, you ARE being inspected.  For lice and sores and any sign of injury, not because you will be treated for these things but because those things may mean you need different jobs or you may need to be sold.  The old people stand up straight, and you know that the arthritis in their backs – the stiffness that has formed from years bent over tobacco – makes them want to scream with pain.  You see your friend who caught his hand in the reins of a plow tuck his hand quickly into a pocket.  It’s best to always seem fine and healthy.

Within minutes, you are sent off to work.  Your job is to tend the horses, so you march to the barn and greet the animals who give you nothing but affection.  Meanwhile, your wife has been sent to the fields to harvest wheat, a scythe in her hand.  Your oldest son – a mere 14 – goes with her; his job will be to pick up the stalks and gather them into sheeves.  Your youngest 3 – ages 9, 7, and 4 – walk back up to the big house, stopping quickly to wash their faces in the horse trough.  You are glad you always keep clean water there.

The day continues until sundown – 12 hours later.  Then, you meet your wife and children on the small path that winds back up to the slave quarter.  Other families labor up the hill before and behind you, all of you almost too tired to walk home.  Your wife somehow musters energy to stoke the fire and put rice on to cook. She throws in a few dried beans, and you and your children sit and share stories of the day – the things younger master said, the way the old mare bucked when the young stallion came close.  It feels almost right in those moments.

But then, just as you lift the first bite of food to your mouth, someone pounds on the door and walks in. The overseer. A carriage has arrived and you and your oldest boy are needed.

You do not even try to put the spoon to your lips or look at your wife.  You simply stand and see your son do the same from the corner of your eye, and you follow the overseer out and over to the big house. You return to your home after midnight and know that tomorrow, you will do it all again.

Your only days off are Sundays, and while you would like to go see your sister on the neighboring plantation where she now lives with her husband, you are not sure the master will give you a pass, and even if he would, you are not sure that your legs have the strength to carry you the 6 miles there and then the 6 miles back only a few hours later.

In a few years, you will watch your young daughter sold to a man you can see will hate her and use her. You will stand silent but tearful as she screams your name from the back of his wagon.  You will watch your oldest son have his toes chopped off because he tried to run away, and you will witness his heart grow raspy and cold after.  You will see your wife die of some thing in her lungs after the master has waited too long to call the doctor.

When you are old, you will stand at that open window and take those few breaths of fresh air, the only freedom you have know for over 70 years.  And you will have no promise that life will ever bring you more than just those few moments of rest.

***

I wrote this piece as I tried to slip into what it must have meant to be an enslaved person. I cannot fathom what it must have been like to live with almost no choice for how you spend your time, no expectation of rest or privacy, no means by which to care for your family as you wish to care for them – that care given almost entire to a man who sees them as property. 

I’ve had several people say to me things like “slavery wasn’t really that bad. They had houses and food provided in exchange for their labor.  Their houses don’t look too awful.  They got to be with their families.”  And the rage and sadness I feel when I hear those things often overwhelms my ability to respond. 

So today, here, I am responding. 

Imagine you have to live where you work, in a single room your boss provides, with all of your family – 6, 9, 10 people.  Imagine your boss can come and get you to do something at any time of the day or night, that your wife or daughter can be taken for the “boss’s pleasure” at any time of the day or night.  Imagine you cannot leave without a pass or that if you do, you can be maimed or killed.  Imagine that you have to watch your children be sold away, your partner sold away. Imagine that someone stands over you and inspects you as if you are a prime side of beef – pinching your biceps, poking your thighs, looking through your hair for signs of illness. 

Yeah, slavery wasn’t really that bad.

If you’d like to learn more about the incredible, strong, perseverant people who were enslaved on the plantation where I grew up, I hope you’ll check out my book The Slaves Have Names.

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October 28, 2014
by Andi
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Country Roads and The Quiet Legacies of Slavery

Yesterday, I drove through Cobham, Virginia, a town built around a railroad station and surrounded by some of the oldest and wealthiest of Virginia’s early plantations.  Names like Rives and Cabell and Jefferson flavor the landscape like so much bittersweet spice.

St. John's Baptist, Cobham

St. John’s Baptist Church, founded in 1880.

Cobham, as is true of most rural Central Virginia communities, speaks of its history in the placement of its buildings and roads.  In town and on the hills overlooking the area, white plantation houses gleam.  But down the quiet St. John’s Road, you find small, well-kept houses of 3-4 rooms.  The gleaming mansions belong to the wealthy – the descendants of the original owners or other – probably white – people who had enough wealth to buy into this history; the tiny houses are owned by African American people who, probably, bought or were given small pieces of land on the edges of the plantations where they once worked. In both cases, families have lived on this land for generations on end.

As I drove and around the mansions, I marveled at the way the autumn sunlight lit the houses and the trees in the yards around which a skilled zero-turn mower operator had trimmed.  Then, on the smaller road without painted lines, down off the hillsides and into the forested, quiet spaces – beautiful in their hush and shimmer – I found the less noted community populated by black people, push mowers in small sheds.

There, a man washing his car waved as I passed.

The land here holds many of us fast in our histories and our legacies. Perhaps this steadfastness of place is something most true in rural places, where travel has historically required much more effort and where, even now, a trip to the store is quite deliberate and almost never spontaneous.  It’s also true here because of economics – the wealthiest keep estates in their families for generations and the poorest pass the hard-won slivers of property on through the years.

Rural Central Virginia is a testament to all of history’s stories. It’s written in the houses and in the roads – gossamer whispers of lineage and the kind of wealth that carries through in bloodlines and scars rent deep in flesh and family.

And I love it all – the plantation homes with their carving staircases shaped by hand by enslaved carpenters, the stories of ambassadors traveling the world and returning to this quiet space where the Blue Ridge hugs us close.  But most of all, I love those quiet communities – the ones tucked behind the scenes, the ones I didn’t see written about in the “authoritative works” on Virginia’s historic homes at the Historical Society.  There, I wonder about the ancestors, those people who built those mansions. I ponder their fortitude, their resilience. I consider what quiet acts of rebellion they pondered and the choices they made every day to acquiesce in order to survive.  It is here that my heart goes.

I love that man who took a few seconds to wave at me as he washed his car.  On the backs of his ancestors, these white mansions were built,  the steel tracks of transport and travel were laid,  the roads on which I now drive my shining white Subaru were shaped.

There, in the quiet of that small road – named for its church, St. John’s – stories ripple in the air. They are quiet stories held close, and all the richer for it.  They are not my stories to tell, but you better believe I’m listening so that when they echo out of that valley between the mansions, I can grab ahold of them for the finest treasure that they are.

Next time you drive the back roads on your Sunday afternoon drive, do be sure to revel at the mansions and marvel at the vast fence lines that surround them. But look, more, for the quiet neighborhoods of small houses, where the stories aren’t built in ornate structures so they will be seen. Slow down on these roads. Look closely for all the richness and glory in less flashy things. And by all means, wave by if you are given that gift.

What quiet communities do you treasure where you live? What stories are largely not spoken wide in your community?  Have you looked for them?

If you are interested in learning more about some of the amazing people who lived and worked near Cobham, please watch  Lorenzo William Dickerson’s amazing film The Coachman.  It’s an example of one of the quiet stories, the ones that we are gifted to hear.  Check out the trailer below.

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October 27, 2014
by Andi
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Fired Through Time; Preserved in Stone

All around this farmhouse, there are field stones – some have been circled into a sort of patio at the east side of the house and some – that I witnessed for the first time yesterday – circle the pergola and terra cotta style picnic area on the west side, just near the ruin of the slave quarter.

Slave Quarter Ruins

A chimney from a slave quarter on a Central VA Plantation

I expect they once formed the chimneys that sat against all the houses here and have now, in the repurposing spirit that has always lived on small farms, they are landscaping.

The stones, though, were first laid into place by the hands of enslaved people.  Likely gathered from the surrounding fields, they were hefted via wheelbarrow into piles so that one man – always a man – could climb the rickety, hand-made scaffolding and craft two chimneys – one that ran right outside the window of the room where I now sit and one across the house.

The tailings, the remnants that did not fit the master’s chimneys on the house or the kitchen (which is what I suspect my future office was originally) would be carried back to the edge of the farmyard and put into the chimney for the small slave cabin.  Unless of course some wise man hid some of the best stones back for his own residence.

Soon, we will be shifting some of these stones down to our new firepit. P will muscle them into a wheelbarrow again and roll them down into what was then (and is now) the pasture.  Then, he will ring them out, a circlette to guide the feet around the flame.  They will hold heat and fire once again. Somehow, this return vibrates in the air.

When we light our first bonfire, I will study the faces of my friends gathered round. I will gaze at the sockets of their eyes and the soft flesh just below their jawbones, and I will look for the ghosts of those people who gathered not only the stones but also made the fire that kept this farm going for so long.  I hope they will join us, sit a spell near the flaming logs and rest – welcome, remembered, home for as long as they wish it to be.

But the stones around the picnic area, those we will lift back to their home, not as a chimney but as a foundation, to outline the old slave quarter, to shore up the base of our memory so we never forget.

What family artifacts have you carried into now with you? What architectural features would you most like to see if you could return to your family’s home place? 

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October 26, 2014
by Andi
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What My Books Say About Me

It’s just before 8am on a Sunday. Everyone else is asleep in the house, but I’m up – animals fed and Xander the rooster crowing his fool head off to bring the rest of the world to awakeness with us.  It’s a peaceful time.

Bookshelf vignette from Flickr via Wylio

It’s not my bookshelf, but I think it’s awesome. © 2012 Emma, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

I’m sitting on our coach in the reading room we have just finished putting together in our new farmhouse.   Across the room, P’s grandfather’s table sits ready for our first puzzle, which we selected after midnight last night when we had put away the final things.  It’s “Aunt Fay’s Market” and shows a beautiful farm stand that will, no doubt, inspire the one we’ll build at the end of the road here.

A bit closer to me, my grandfather’s red velvet chair sits ready for a great book and a cup of tea. Across its back is a purple throw that I received when I worked with Relay For Life.  Between the chair and where I sit, a worn shipping trunk acts as a coffee table, its finish flaking off in just the perfect way.

The couch itself doesn’t speak to any great sentiment for me, and Meander has chewed away its corners. . . but it is deep and perfect for sitting cross-legged or taking a long nap.  In time, we will replace it with something more reasonable in proportion but equally comfortable. Then, this couch will travel out to the office next door, so I can take long naps here between words.

The room includes 3 bookshelves, all built from oak by my father.  They stand over six feet tall and have traveled the U.S. with me for over 10 years.  They speak of my father’s love for me and of our mutual tendency to weary of a project near the end – the top shelf of one slants quite markedly, making it perfect for taller books on the left-hand side above and the right-hand below.

Here, I can sit close with the books I love, and in the past few days, while I’ve sidled up to these pages, I’ve realized a few things about my book habits.

  • I buy a LOT of books simply because I hear they will be great, because my friends have written them, because they are on a subject or by a writer I adore.  And I keep them until I do read them.  So most of the books on these shelves I have not read.
  • I do not keep many books after I read them with a few exceptions:
    • novelists whose work I love, books on writing (memoirs, textbooks, writing guides, etc),
    • books on farming/gardening/homesteading (which now occupy 2 full shelves),
    • books by my favorite religious authors (Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton)
    • and books on racism and the legacy of slavery (which fill 3 overflowing shelves).
  • I like the story my books tell about my life. They reveal who I am and about what I am passionate.  It used to be that I bought copies of “the classics” whenever I saw them at used bookstores, but I almost never read them. Now, my book collection feels more authentic, and in that, it reflects the way I am living my life.

In fact, this whole room speaks to some things I’ve found to be essential to live – memories, family, friends, comfort, history, and the opportunity for new. I love that.

I hope you’ll come by the farm sometime, maybe on a cold winter’s afternoon. We can read together – bring your own book or pull one off the shelf here – by the warmth of the woodstove.  I’d love to share this space with you.

What books do you buy? Keep? And what do your bookshelves say about you?

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