Back in 2003, a couple years after B.Michael’s passing, I sketched an idea in my journal for his AIDS quilt. How might a 3’ x 6’ panel emblazon his name and capture his essence? He loved to travel and I thought about his fascination with maps-atlases-globes, which he shared especially with the young people in his classrooms and in his life. He would extol the Mapparium in Boston, one of his all-time favorite destinations.
I envisioned the quilt as a world map, bordered by kente cloth. I began with the Atlantic-centered version ubiquitous in U.S. classrooms, but thought he would appreciate the Pacific-centered Peters Equal Area Map, an atypical perspective for those of us based in the Western Hemisphere. The continents would be a solid earthy orange color against a mosaic of greens and blues — teal was his favorite color — to somehow create a shimmering sunlight-on-the-water effect since AIDS panels are often seen from a distance. I wondered how we could indicate the cities he lived, the countries he was able to visit, and the spots where his ashes were dispersed.
I partnered with a brilliant quiltress, Cherrymae Gholston, to execute this vision. Quilting is done in community: manifesting B.Michael’s would necessarily involve the village.
I first invited people who knew B.Michael to send me a piece of fabric, solid or patterned, on the green-blue-turquoise-teal spectrum. I set up a Facebook site to locate potential contributors and generate momentum. In so doing, I learned that folks who knew B.Michael had continued to hold him in their hearts, even years later, and were motivated to participate.
I also solicited people who didn’t know B.Michael; their participation invited them to reflect on their own tender places. By the 10th anniversary of his death in 2011, I had received 108 swatches from friends and acquaintances from across the U.S. and a half-dozen other countries!
Through the process I was able to compost some of my own grieving. People are open to opportunities to connect. Virtual village is real. Grief can be generative. Healing has no plateau or half-life.
When it came time to compile B.Michael’s writing, I leaned in to this model of communal creativity. It had to be a “we” endeavor, a way to call forth and refresh B.Michael on our collective screen. He would not be the sole focus of tribute, rather he would be the organizing principle — the batting, if you will — for people to share about their lives because their stories matter too.
Colin Robinson helped draft a call for submissions, which we first disseminated mid-2017. We were bowled over by folks’ heartwarming responses. People reported feeling deeply inspired, some moved to tears.
After an initial flurry of submissions, I entered into conversations with a couple dozen more would-be contributors. Though their spirits were indeed willing, it turns out that people lead full lives, and are no longer in their 20s and 30s with boundless reserves of time and energy. Others were triggered, encountering their own versions of unexcavated grief, which made it challenging to follow through.
I could totally relate.
My own situation included a partner who had recently retired, a spirited kindergartner who I am co-parenting in my 50s, and a live-in mom living with Alzheimer’s, all of which eclipsed my capacity to move What I Miss? forward. I got swept up by the undertow of overwhelm. As a result, I carried around this low-grade guilt-fever that would periodically spike: I underestimated what was required; I left something so important unfinished; I wasn’t able to do it all; who am I to do this?; I’m not communicating about it. With self-compassion, I recognized that each of us has our version of this. I blinked only to realize that more than a year had gone by.
Then a shift. In March of 2019, for my 54th birthday, my partner, Mickey, surprised me with tickets to see Hamilton in San Francisco. I showed up for the most part uninitiated, hearing only that the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, had absolutely brought it. Despite this YouTube age, I was wholly unfamiliar with the music and libretto. Soon after intermission, Thomas Jefferson returns from France asking everyone, “What did I miss?” The final line of the final song is “Who tells your story?” Clearly these messages originated from the great Black Gay Beyond! With more pep in my step, I reconnected with my original intentions and revisited the project with more ease and joy.
Contributors who I had left hanging in 2018 were incredibly gracious and free of judgment. For our inaugural launch in November 2019, thirteen villagers ended up providing vibrant and moving swatches for this What I Miss? literary quilt. Their themes are varied and compelling — love, marriage, grief, politics, aging, HIV, memory, healing. I am grateful to and for these artists, most of whom are blood and chosen family of B.Michael. They include teachers, organizers and co-conspirators in intersectional social change movements whom I deeply admire.
By design, What I Miss? has no expiration date. Everyone who engages with this site is automatically in relationship with B.Michael and is hereby encouraged to send him a message. Your offerings continue to arrive in a plethora of genres, including poems, letters, interviews, essays, short stories, musical offerings, and visual art pieces.
B.Michael, ICYMI, this trove of messages is for you!
25 May 2020