Photo by DaYsO on Unsplash

“Have you ever stood in the presence of a tree and listened to the wind pass through its leaves? The roots and body stand defiant and unmoved. But listen. The branches stretch out their tongues and whisper shhhhh.”

This is Cole Arthur Riley’s favorite sound, and the opening of her first book, This Here Flesh. The life of this book begins long before these words, in Riley’s commitment to (re)learning how to listen to the trees, to the voices around us, to the stories her family carries. In this piece, Riley reflects on the questions she crafted to welcome those deep stories into a world where story itself has become a mere tool.

This is our first installment in The Cutting Room, a series sharing the creative work that helped shape a book but didn’t make it in the final draft. This piece was integral to, but ultimately not part of, the introduction to This Here Flesh.

Jina Moore for Guernica

Alice Walker told me, “How simple a thing it seems that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.” So imagine my disappointment to find my gramma tells me, stiff and plainly, “Phyllis.”

To hear her name at all, I soon found more was required of me. A form for my seeking. A way to ask one to say their name with the truth it demands — the stories it contains. And even to learn what of those stories can be found preserved in me.

Tell me a memory you’re afraid of forgetting.
What body did you first fantasize about occupying? How old were you?
Tell me about a moment of being confused by something in a new place.
Where were you when you first saw your mother cry?

* * *

When we speak of story, we are prone to speaking of the grand and the general far more than of the particular or the specific. I ask my father what he’s scared of, and he says he doesn’t like dogs. What he doesn’t speak of is the time Shorty’s dog attacked him when he tried to snatch a pizza crust out from the dog’s mouth. He won’t describe the warmth of the tongue, or the smell of metal mixed with pepperoni. Or the way he was held or never held.

Perhaps we find it so natural to generalize because many of us have learned that a story must have a “conclusion” — some kind of meaning or lesson. We lack patience for things that don’t resolve. We lack compassion for nuance. Good historians, and maybe good daughters and granddaughters, are capable of holding both; our task, then, is to learn how to draw out in others what they’ve learned to condense. To prove to them that we are prepared to wait, to listen, to ask.

What’s something that you can’t look away from when you come across it?
Who is someone who terrified you as a child? Has the fear remained?
When did you first become aware of your Blackness?
At what age did you feel most alone? What moment?

* * *

I think good questions are a kind of salvation. In the last few years, I’ve come up with a list of them to help my elders visit memories with specificity. Sometimes I’d record their answers so I could preserve the words in their own voices, remember when my gramma’s mouth curves downward or where my father’s hands go when he’s ashamed of them. As I did so, it occurred to me that many of us are actually quite desperate to get “small” memories out. When he shared such a story, my father’s face would unfold into a smile, revealing a face I had never known before. Our conversations would become punctuated by “And then there was this one time!” and “Have I ever told you about the time…?”

Cultures dominated by whiteness and capitalism, which idolize utility and productivity, have implicitly taught us that a story is only worth telling if it is worth using. We have reduced storytelling into moral lessons and persuasive business pitches. We have been exiled from those stories which are ambiguous and want nothing from us. I had to relearn curiosity — to travel into stories knowing that some would live only one life, never to be told again. These stories were not lessons for me about which path to walk down; they existed to show me what it is to lie down in the grass and listen to the wind pass through the trees.

Good questions are disinterested in demanding something so narrow as an “answer”; they want the face of the storyteller to come into focus just a little bit more. And in that, perhaps their own face.

Tell me about a time one of your secrets was found out.
What image comes to mind when I ask you what joy is?
Who were you with when you learned what sex was? (I never quite found the courage to ask this one.)
Tell me about a moment when you were angry and unashamed for it.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?

* * *

It would never be long before the conversation led us to places and stories that we had no intention of visiting (as all good stories do). It seems that once a person allows themselves to enter a memory with specificity, it opens doors that they can’t readily walk back out of. This is to be handled with deep care and compassion. Some doors are indeed closed for a reason. And others are begging you to close your eyes and tell someone what the room smells like from inside.

When did you first think about death?
Your first funeral — whose was it and did you understand?
Tell me your most vivid dream.
When have you felt most free?
What is the question you are terrified I will ask you?

* * *

We’ve just spent the morning at the beach in button-ups and dresses. We gathered around a vase of yellow roses — a photo of her propped against the glass and dusted with sand. After we went around the circle telling stories about her, we got up and tossed the rose petals into the ocean. I think we had imagined the waves carrying them off, poetically, with a kind of finality. But instead, the tide ushered them back to us, and we just stood there, letting them clasp at our legs while we pretended not to notice. Some seagulls came and snatched up the ones that drifted away from us. And it’s little Maddie who yells and says, “Please don’t eat her.” And it’s Kendall who laughs and says, “They aren’t her ashes, Maddie.”

And it’s around then that I go to the car and pull up some of the recordings I have saved on my phone. I close my eyes and play one at random. I’m saying, “Tell me about the dream.” And it’s her smooth, velvety voice that rises to meet me. I pick the sand from between my toes and listen for as long as it takes.

Cole Arthur Riley’s book, This Here Flesh, is out today from Penguin Random House.

Cole Arthur Riley

Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest. Black Liturgies is a project of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation, where Cole serves as executive curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She once took very seriously a professor’s advice to write a little every day, and has followed that advice for nearly a decade. She is on Instagram @colearthurriley.

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