Let me tell you about Mari Evans. Ms. Mari was one of Gregory Ellison’s phenomenal mentors. As you know, Greg is my mentor and friend that I do Fearless Dialogues with. Well, last week, Greg was going to see Ms. Mari in Indianapolis and at age 93 and she died about 48 hours before he got there. He was able to be with the family as the planned for her funeral which will be tomorrow in Indianapolis and it will be a big deal. I had the amazing fortune to spend a few hours with Ms. Mari and I want to tell you about her.
As Greg is mourning the loss of his mentor on this side of things, we mourn with Greg. However, we are also laughing at how authentically she lived her life. She was a firecracker!
Ms. Mari’s Bio
Born in 1923, she edited one of the first critical books devoted to the work of black women writers in 1984. It was called Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. In the African American literary world, she was an icon. She was part of a group of poets of women of color called the Eboni Literati. Among others in the group were Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovani, Pearl Cleage, Johnetta Cole, Louise Merriweather, Toni Bambara, Gwendolyn brooks, Paula Giddens and Pinkie Gorden Lane. The most important of her countless awards for writing came in 1981 when she received the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award. She was a student of Langston Hughes.
My first encounter with Ms. Mari
The first time I encountered Ms. Mari’s work was on my first day of my Pastoral Care class in my first week in seminary, Greg was my professor and he had us read a poem by Ms. Mari. I went to seminary out of having a mid-life crisis. I was broken, battered and seriously bruised. I was excited about this class because I thought it would cure me of this crisis I was having.
Well, we read this poem and we had to act it out as part of our covenant as to how we will hold each other’s sacred worth in our hands for the duration of this class. By the end of the poetry reading, I was bawling my eyes out. I cried like a baby. I had never heard of Mari Evans but I fell in love.
This is a link to the poem as she reads it with Greg.
and you will bring me a whole person
and we will have us twice as much
of love and everything
I be bringing a whole heart
and while it do have nicks and
dents and scars,
that only make me lay it down
An’ you be bringing a whole heart
a little chipped and rusty an’
sometime skip a beat but
still an’ all you bringing polish too
and look like you intend
to make it shine
And we be bringing, each of us
the music of ourselves to wrap
the other in
Soft as a choir’s last
lingering note our
I will be bringing you someone whole
and you will be bringing me someone whole
and we be twice as strong
and we be twice as true
and we will have twice as much
and everything – Mari Evans
This poem is inscribed in stained glass as part of the art program at the Indianapolis airport. You can view it here.
My second encounter with Ms. Mari
Fast forward to Summer 2016. I have graduated and working on multiple projects. Greg calls and says, “What are you doing next weekend?”
I answer, “I don’t know! Why?” He says, “Let’s go see Ms. Mari.” I said OK.
So we drove from Atlanta to Indianapolis. I met Greg’s Aunt Dottie. If you have heard Greg do the 3 feet challenge, he mentions her in that. Well, the next day, we take off and go to see Ms. Mari. She is 92 years old and is a firecracker.
I took a bunch of notes that day. She eyed me hard. She did not trust me taking notes. I promised her I would not do anything with them that I wanted to remember my time with her as it was precious to me.
While I was there, she asked me to get her mail from the mailbox. There was a stuffed envelope in the box and I pulled it out.
She said, “Who is that from? Nikki?”
In my star-crossed eyes, I could not imagine who “Nikki” was so I said “No. It is from Virginia Tech.”
Ms. Mari rolled her eyes hard at me and said, “Don’t you know that is where Nikki is?”
Stupefied, I said, “Nikki who?”
She said, “Don’t you know anything? Nikki Giovanni? Who else?”
Wishing the ground would open up and swallow me, I said, “Oooooh!”
Instead, I was instructed to open the envelope and she said, “Is that a computer-generated letter or is it hand written?”
Dear reader, I will not tell you what she said when I said it was hand written. Suffice to say, she really loved Maya Angelou’s hand-writing.
I almost fainted at the thought that Maya Angelou and her exchanged letters. I was in the presence of royalty!
Greg asked her play a tune for him on the piano. She said, “Well, I have not played too much these past few years. I liked to play with Donnie.” Yes, honey, as in Donnie Hathaway.
She had stories for days and her acerbic wit was on full display.
I asked her if she and Greg would read her poem “Celebration” since he read it every semester. I wanted to share her divine gloriousness with other students.
She reluctantly agreed. That’s the video you listened to above. I recorded on Greg’s phone of this reading. She is fussing about it in the beginning because of my request. At this point in the afternoon, she still did not trust me and my motives.
You can learn more about Ms. Mari by checking out her Wikipedia Page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Evans
And this article about her at: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/evans-mari-e-1923
Why is Ms. Mari important to you?
Ms. Mari was one of Greg’s mentor. Who are your mentors? Notice that I said, “one of” Greg’s mentors. We all need more than one mentor.
- I have never met a person in my entire life who takes mentors as seriously as Greg. Every year, we plan out his entire year and the number 1 priority for him after his family are his mentors. He values his mentors because they keep him fresh. They ignite his creativity and they have him thinking about his life when he is their age. He puts on the calendar when he is going to see them that year and he tries to arrange for two visits with each of them. Most of them live out of state so sometimes he arranges his speaking engagements to intersect with this time of renewal and renovation. Prioritize your mentors.
- Have different mentors for different things. Ms. Mari was a muse and teacher to Greg. In her presence was this magnificent air of excellence and words. Her choice of diction ignited creativity even in me. Greg did some of his best writing after a visit with her. Below is a poem I wrote in her presence. I have never written a poem in my life!!! That is the power of having a mentor. It helps you think outside the box and creates safe spaces for you to explore aspects of yourself that you do not know.
- Honor your mentors. Ms. Mari was elderly and lived alone. Greg was washing dishes and cleaning up her home. We were sorting out papers and putting things away. Sometimes, we do not want to serve others because we ourselves need serving. However, make that time – for yourself and your mentor. Humble yourself around them and you will discover new things that will build your life in fascinating ways.
Now, tell me. What is your plan to intentionally seek out mentors in your life? Who fascinates you? Who, in your already existing orbit, is capable of mentoring you that you are overlooking?
Here is the poem I wrote in Ms. Mari’s presence. My mind went to a friend that week who had some issues as you will see. It is an act of courage to share this poem with you.
Hear my Tears by Iyabo Onipede
Brimmed and perched
Only on one eye lip. Finally,
Curving a path around the contours of his cheek,
Glistening against skin the color of gold
Disappearing into mahogany bristles.
“It is weakness for a man to cry.
I should not cry.
But I have these feelings
And I don’t feel safe with them
On the inside of me like this.”
My wife says I cry too much.
Please. Listen, hear my tears
Because I do love you.
-June 4, 2016
-Written in the presence of Ms. Mari Evans,