The use of “workshop” as a verb gives me the giggles. Because I, like most people, laugh uncontrollably when unnaturally exposed to the elements of semicircle group therapy. “To workshop” is to temporarily brand oneself not only a self-help guru but also someone worthy of critiquing someone else‘s work — be it poetry, a painting or parenting. That last one is what got me telling a group of strangers, “I should be more present.”
Here’s how it works: Your mother turns one year older; she says “no presents” and instead e-mails you a link that directs you to this sentence, among others: “This will be a queer-affirming space full of love, healing, listening and support.” Then, before you can use “gay” as a pejorative, you and your mother’s only grandchild (a pug named Miles) are on a plane to Atlanta to reaffirm your “unstoppable mother-daughter relationship” because you didn’t buy her a birthday gift.
The last time I was in a circle of self-promotion was in high school. It was the day after senior prom, and my mother had arranged for all the people who loved me to gather in my “uncle” Terry’s backyard for a sort of bat mitzvah-type ceremony, minus the religion. My mother read a poem. Her friend banged out a steady beat on a drum. Mr. Platt, my homeroom-chemistry teacher, was there.
My friends whispered among themselves, and then finally one got up the nerve to ask me repeatedly if Terry, dressed in something one might call “retired” Studio 54 chic, was my dad. “No,” I replied, with more punctuation than necessary.
My mother’s original plan was for all of us to walk down to some body of water in the Greater Los Angeles area, at which point someone with at least a bachelor’s in theology would dunk me backward into the sludge and declare me a woman. We compromised, and I agreed to participate in a “rite of passage” in Terry’s backyard.
The ceremony pretty closely resembled a picnic, minus the food. The main event — after a round of slam poetry — was a circle of about 20 people who, one by one, hit me with compliments as I stood in the center and took it like a woman. When it was all over, I was allegedly prepared to move to New York, having overdosed on love and support.
More than 10 years later, according to my mother, Frances, it was time for a re-up. So we headed to a place in Atlanta called the Mother House, where, for nearly six hours, the two of us, along with other “couples,” cycled through a series of exercises meant to eat away all the unnecessary buildup that happens after two women spend the equivalent of an entire life together.
It was like Drano for relationships. And despite being way too cool for anything like that, I totally got into it. I meditated. I uttered the Yoruba affirmation “ashe” more times that day than I had in my entire existence. I ripped up a piece of paper that listed all of my (surprisingly) many faults and vowed in front of a room filled with women that I would “release” the negative energy. The theme of the day: “Moving the hell on.”
One of the last things my mother and I did there — after building an altar, drawing pictures with crayons and choreographing a modern piece to express love nonverbally — was to wash each other’s hands with lavender-scented water. That was hard. We had to stare at each other and not laugh.