Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On [finally] meeting Bill Withers.

Six and a half years ago, in honor of Mommae's 80th birthday, my family asked me to pen a poetic ode in her honor to share at the celebration. Immediately, I pulled out my Best of Bill Withers CD and let the funk and sincerity of his "Grandma's Hands" guide my pen to shape the images reflected in "My Grandma's Hands." I'd love this song for as long as I can remember, I'd like to think my entire thirty years. When Blackstreet sampled the guitar intro and gritty moan-hum of his voice in their mid-90's hit "No Diggity", it just made me bump "Grandma's Hands" even harder (even though I did love "No Diggity" as well)! That song IS the gold standard of honoring a grandmother, worldwide, and I wanted to lend the same level of honor in my poem, in ode to him as well.

When I was writing, it never quite dawned on me that I'd be given the opportunity to hand him the poem I'd dedicated to my grandmother. After all, it was well known that you were not about to catch Bill Withers on stage, which meant I wasn't going to be front and center of a concert where he was within reach. And it just didn't seem feasible that I'd arbitrarily run into him on the street and have a copy of the poem at that exact moment. (Though it's not uncommon for me to run into random artists and celebrities; just the other night on my way back to New York, I ran into John Legend at LAX.) But Bill. It didn't cross my mind, back in '03, that I would be able to get the poem directly to him. It was inspired by him, yet for my grandmother.

After sharing the poem with my family, revising it into its final draft while in writing workshops at grad school, and going on to perform it during poetry readings and a couple more of Mommae's birthday celebrations, I started to think that it would be wonderful to share the poem "My Grandma's Hands" WITH BILL WITHERS. You know, one of those thoughts like, "Dag, it would be dope if I could meet him... but WHERE am I gonna meet Bill Withers?" A fleeting thought that turned into a nagging desire the evening of August 10, 2008 when Celebrate Brooklyn paid tribute to Bill during a concert in his honor. That night I ran into an acquaintance I met when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence, a film faculty member and fellow alum Damani Baker, who told me about the documentary he and his friend, Alex Vlack, were filming on Bill's life. He quickly mentioned that Bill was in fact present at the concert that evening, handed me a "STILL BILL: THE MOVIE" t-shirt and hurried off to continue filming! Then, later in the tribute when Bill actually walked on stage during the rendition of "Grandma's Hands" and started moaning out the verses, the wheels in my mind really began to spin out of control because I realized I was just ONE DEGREE of separation from Bill Withers...!! Even if I didn't know Damani all that well! So, basically since 2008, when I realized a film was being made and was going to be released by this familiar face, Damani (who also, coincidentally, attended film school with the older sister of one of my good high school friends), I've been waiting for my opportunity to meet Bill Withers. And, I knew MY TIME would come.

Well, last night that opportunity came on through! On the heels of losing not one but two grandmothers, and after years of honing my poem, and after pining and daydreaming about the opportunity of actually being in the same space as him, I finally met Bill Withers. I'd actually gotten wind that on Wednesday and Thursday of this week Still Bill would be premiering at the IFC Center and that Bill would be in attendance. BOOM! HERE WAS MY CHANCE!! I knew I'd get back to NYC on Tuesday and that I could attend the screening (which I saw earlier in December) later in the week to meet him! The only problem was that the tickets weren't going on sale until the day I was leaving LA, and even when Monday came around, the tickets weren't available right when they were supposed to be. So I went to the Still Bill facebook page and found out that Celebrate Brooklyn would actually be hosting a screening and discussion with Bill on Tuesday evening, just hours after I would make it back into town!!!! So, I printed out copies of the poem to give to Bill and the filmmakers, and then started talking to God, "Lord, please let me get this to him. I've waited so long, I know this will be the opportunity, but please let this be the BEST opportunity; I can't wait! Thank you, Lord! Amen!"

I'd read on the website that there was going to be a meet and greet with Bill for the members of the Celebrate Brooklyn organization, of which I am not a part. But I thought, "Maybe--just maybe--I'll find myself inside of the meet and greet!" Though, I didn't want to chance it, so as soon as I got to the theater, I sat on the second seat of the second row in front of where Bill and the filmmakers would be sitting for the discussion afterward and determined that when they opened up the floor for questions and comments, I would tell Bill how much I appreciated his music, recount the quick story about my grandmothers, and hand him the poem. I didn't even know if there were going to be many questions from the audience, but I was going to get mine in.... And as it turned out, there were only two: a gentleman on the first row, and me! (They actually did let a little bitty girl say hi to Bill on the mic!)

................and Bill Withers was sooooooooooo completely gracious in accepting my poem (sigh*swoon)! He listened, offered condolences, thanked me sincerely, and smirked that the way I wore my hat reminded him of his cousin, Betty from DE-troit! (No! MARVA! It was definitely his cousin, "Marva! wearing that hat!!") He came over to give me a hug and gladly accepted the envelope I'd prepared for him. And it was all I could do to keep my eyes from misting up. Once the discussion formally ended, I got a picture with Bill, then later on still ended up going to the "VIP" meet and greet for a few minutes before I floated out on cloud nine!

Well, for the record, Grandma's Hands isn't the only song by Bill Withers that I am completely enthralled with. I'm sure I annoyed the guy sitting next to me by singing along with all of the songs I knew in the film. But in the grand scheme of his catalog, there are sooo many jewels that I still don't know. So all night I've been listening to his earliest albums on the music site, Lala... I dream of penning timeless ballads like Bill Withers. And again drawing inspiration directly from him, I hold dear the fact that he didn't become a professional songwriter and recording artist until he was about 32 years old, after overcoming a number of obstacles in his young life, including being a severe stutterer from the coal-mining town of Slabfork, West Virginia. Imagine, building aircraft toilets until after age 30 and THEN going on to become a Grammy award winning soul music icon.... So, I've been writing, and I'll keep writing, and I'll keep listening to Bill Withers, and I'll enjoy the journey to greatness in which my life is unfolding.... and I'll look forward to meeting Bill Withers AGAIN!


My Grandma’s Hands
“Grandma’s hands, boy they really came in handy…” — Bill Withers, Grandma’s Hands

My grandma’s hands have a story to tell—

not about how they ache and swell,

but have guided her through a life so well.

This life, well-planned according to the Master’s hand,

has covered a multitude

and planted roots that began in her own backyard.

My grandma’s hands have protected and touched

the lives of those who needed them most.

My grandma’s hands were shields of comfort

when youngin’s needed to be held close.

My grandma’s hands are TOUGH.

Her hands have picked loads of cotton and loads of laundry,

wiped little bottoms and smacked big mouths,

popped hands, pressed hair, plucked splinters,

and burped EVERYONE’S babies.
These hands have written checks

that support individuals and families.

My grandma’s hands have clapped, they’ve praised;

Clapped and praised the Lord.

Clapped and praised the Lakers!

Her hands have flipped the television
from her sports to her stories
while circling every word
in the puzzle search
as she eats a glazed donut.
I’ve seen these hands fry chicken and bake 7-Up cakes

as she sips her morning lukewarm coffee

in the middle of the day.

My grandma’s hands have taken weekend trips to Vegas

with hopes of big earnings from the nickel slots.

She’ll journey back east,

or far east on birthday cruises

with a few of her kin.

Her hands have nurtured
many gardens
of collards and mustard greens,

red tomatoes, white daisies, roses pink;

Cultivating tirelessly—

picking, pruning, arranging offspring into her prized bouquet,
to honor her life and celebrate her love.

Dedicated to Georgia Mae “Mommae” Erby, on August 23, 2003 for her 80th Birthday Celebration, who we lost on December 26, 2009; and also dedicated to Betty Jean "Gran Gran" Jones, who we lost on January 6, 2010.


Aisha said...

Mai, i have no words! That is just pure love and blessings!

Trymaine said...

Such a beautiful poem. Our elders should be honored each and every day, in our prayers, in our words and deeds.

Brenda said...

Mai, you really are the 'bomb digggity'. You make us all so proud. Lovely, focused, driven ...that's you. Aunt Brenda

La La said...

Mai, wowee, I am intrigued by this story, and always thrilled @ the fascinating things that happen to you!! Keep the faith your perseverance always pays off

Nala said...
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Nala said...

Fly Mai, you know I am an avid believer in "The Flow" and "God Winks"...This is such a perfect example of how God will bring what we desire to fruition, if we truely believe by faith. I'm glad that you were finally able to achieve this dream. If it was on your vision board, you can now delight to check it off the list! You know this poem has always been one of my favorites that you've written. I wish you much continued unexpected surprises and life-changing opportunities to you sis! xoxo