Kamilah Aisha Moon on Touching the Masks

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books). A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center, Moon's work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including the Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Villanelles, Gathering Ground, and the Ringing Ear. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Drew University, and Adelphi University. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Kamilah Aisha Moon author photoWe arrive here as ourselves; any mother will tell you this is true. Before words, before autonomy, before this world has any real focus in our infant eyes, we make ourselves known. It’s a miracle we spend our whole lives celebrating, losing and recovering, lamenting, rejecting, and embracing.

Before the hazings on playgrounds, high school dramas souped up on hormones, and before the lenses of race, class, sex, and orientation can trap us into lesser versions of ourselves, we seek, experiment, and feel our way along in the safety of good homes, if we are fortunate.

I certainly was. Poet Stephen Dunn has a line in his poem “Tiger Face” that reads “Good parents are blessings/ whoever they are.” Mine paid such close attention to me, and now tell stories from those early years. One of their favorites is about when I was two years old, getting into things and exploring around the house. I was finally tall enough to open the door to a narrow hallway closet, a utility closet that stored various tools and household supplies. On the back wall hung a huge papier-mâché African mask that my father made.

My parents watched as I stared up at this fierce, imposing mask, and then I screamed and ran down the hallway. They proceeded to watch as I—again and again—opened the same closet door, screamed, and ran down the hallway every day that week. Each day, I would stare a little longer before I screamed and ran. Until the final day, instead of screaming or running, I walked in and touched the mask.

So much of one’s character and spirit can be revealed in the smallest of gestures, gleaned from our choices. This scenario has played out in my life again and again, a hallmark of the way I’ve moved through experience after experience thus far. The decisions to move from city to city, building from the ground up in strange towns and new jobs, with someone and alone. The willingness to try and often fail at new things and travel solo abroad. The decision to put my writing first and leave a good career to move to New York for graduate school, despite considerable odds.

I just turned forty in September. The year leading up to it was filled with angst and anxiety as I reflected on the challenges and losses of the last five years in particular. I experienced existential ruminations and real fatigue that threatened to paralyze everything just as some goals I've worked toward for many years were beginning to come to fruition. Then a voice of reason deep inside of me asked, "Where is that fluid girl who let fear propel rather than imprison her?"

I forced myself to remember what has been exceptional and good in my life. I turned to the practices that have always seen me through the tough times: reading and writing. As a line in Sharon Olds' poem “Material Ode” advises, I had to choose “to love only where loved!” and leave institutions, relationships, and spaces where this love wasn't happening. I had to recall, for myself, what I wrote in an email to a younger friend who was in a confusing, whirlwind moment in her life: You'll rarely feel sure or completely comfortable with most endeavors. If you do, interrogate why because that's how growth feels—off-kilter and magic, all at once. Losing your breath and getting it back, over and over again.

This world has so many ways of assaulting the body, mind, and spirit. Indignities that make it easy to forget the unique force you are and the love you come from, leaving you unrecognizable to yourself. Ask your loved ones—your beloved mirrors—to remind you regularly of your highest, most resourceful, intuitive self. Do the same for them in return. And yes, bravely write it all down the best way you possibly can.

Success in writing and life is as much about what you let go of as it is about what you gain. Let go of others' false verdicts of who you are and who you are meant to be. Let go of doubts and negative projections. Let go of past mistakes. Face those fears that loom large, and touch them (perhaps screaming through tears, and with small, shaking hands) to take away their power.

Photo: Kamilah Aisha Moon. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.


Fear of the Mask

Thanks,  Kamilah.  This went a long way for me.


Kamilah Moon Touching the Mask

Beautiful, Kamilah. A message I'll try to remember when I'm feeling like the most trodden-upon soul in the world. Every encounter is a place of potential good and love, if I embrace them with courage and the willingness to love where not loved.

Touching the Masks

I also had to leave behind those who did not wish me well. They were a negative force in my life and writing. I didn't want to mention projects or anything important, till I finally realized, what am I doing with these people? I started my own business in which I choose my own clients with the idea of getting negativity out of my life.