Identity Heft

Identity Heft

Etymologically speaking, “a walk in the park” is supposedly an easy thing to do.

Therefore, it came as a complete surprise to me yesterday, when I could barely make my first lap around the nearby park before needing to retreat to the nearest bench in an attempt to shake off a sudden pain that hit me on the right side of my back.

Initially, my first thoughts turned to aging, as it tends to do these days because perimenopause is menacingly real and unsexy. Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and understood that even though I walked out of my apartment with nothing but my keys and photo ID in case the cops need to identify my body…I was carrying something heavy.

The week started awful, with me learning as I sat in an airport on my way home from a bittersweet but much-needed getaway that one of my elder cousins lost both her daughter and grandson (who was a father of six) within days of each other at the same hospital in their hometown. Instantly, a wave of guilt rushed in because I’d lost touch with that portion of my family, and didn’t know how to respond…or if I should. Learning the circumstances of both deaths from another cousin only exacerbated the feeling.

My father had always been the family connector; the one who called and drove or flew to every state and family member, and this was his first cousin and her immediate family who had now suffered two devastating back-to-back losses I could never imagine. By contrast, I’ve lived and operated as an only child with limited family engagement for most of my life — gravitating only to specific family members I spent the most time with due to our proximity to each other in age and/or geographical location, and used Facebook to monitor the rest (hence how I learned of the tragedies). It’s moments like these that remind me just how isolated I’ve been to the point of being my own island, and it’s honestly something I’ve begun taking stock of as I grow older and less likely to have a family of my own.

So when I entered the park on that gorgeous sunny day, and saw multiple family gatherings taking place…it didn’t just remind me that I didn’t have a life filled with many of those moments and connections, it became clear to me just how defining those moments are in shaping the people we become.

I’ve always been in awe of and envied people who had solid family and community foundations that encouraged and motivated them to become highly functioning members of society. I get weepy when I watch movies like “In The Heights,” with its message of pride in family, community and cultural heritage. (Same with assorted Asian movies where the young protagonist grapples with coming of age and walking the fine line between self-actualization and preserving constrictive traditions for parental and elder approval.) I grew up in a Queens suburb where my predominantly Black and Caribbean neighbors were more interested in what you had for their own gain, than in collectively thriving as a community. As a child, I’d spend summers in Georgia being ridiculed for my New York accent, and often singled-out for my “big city” behavior. (Interestingly, I now slip into a twang when I touch down in the south, or am speaking to certain members of my family — something I’ve also done unconsciously when speaking to British and Hasidic clients in my past work life when, in retrospect, I wanted them to feel at ease.)

For the longest time, I’ve had trouble identifying and defining who I truly am and what I want in this life. Having no one around to help me figure it out only made me feel more aimless and alone. I often joke about being “raised by wolves,” because unlike my peers, I wasn’t taught how to cook traditional meals (or any – I wing it), how to drive, the importance of investing in things like stocks and real estate, or any particular set of life skills that might’ve made me more of a (human) force, and less of a person who happens to have a shit ton of life experiences that equate to zero tangible assets to show for any of them but a lot of interesting stories and billable hours in therapy. I’ve also never spent any of my formative years being schooled on my family heritage, being exposed to long-term healthy relationships or celebrating holidays like Kwanzaa and Juneteenth…and am only playing catchup on the significance of it all.

Which is why it surprised me that I’d become more protective of my Blackness — and the culture in general — in recent years, considering the bulk of my traumatic experiences came from my own people. That I’ve taken up advocating for people of color to take up spaces in the corporate world when I go mostly ignored by them in the real world unless I have something that benefits them is…something I’m working through. That, and being violently triggered when someone makes decisions on my behalf without my input and/or consent.

These thoughts are too heavy.

One of the many things I’ve learned in this life is that hurt people hurt people…until they do the work to become healed people. And there are gonna be days when it’s hard to not take shit personally, but I cannot and will not continue to let the actions of a few keep me from opening my heart to being and doing better for others and myself. Especially when the end result is authentic love, connection and peace. It’s a lesson I’ll be taking into consideration as I attempt to find the words to comfort grieving relatives and, eventually, find something more.

I’m still insecure when it comes to knowing my true purpose and direction in life (note: I know what it is, the imposter syndrome just hits different), but I’m confident that I’ve built enough of a foundation over the last few years with a circle who genuinely want the best for me and will quickly jump in to make sure I stay out of my own way. I’m blessed to have a support system that celebrates my wins, comfort me through my losses and give me strength on days when I falter and think I can’t make it. They remind me who I am when I tend to forget. Nothing fills me more than being able to do the same for them in return.

I guess, in a way, that does make me my father’s daughter. That’s a good place to start…

I’m rambling…but my back feels better now.

Pull The Trigger

There is no greater buzz kill than returning to New York on Christmas Day.

This was my takeaway after leaving my family in Philadelphia, as they were preparing to host Christmas dinner. In the midst of the Cavalier/Warriors basketball game.  I knew then that I’d regret that decision. I was correct.

Heart already heavy from the realization that I’d spent less than 24 hours with them before heading back, the lateness of the train to Trenton, the loneliness of sitting and walking in silence for four hours, and the return to a city awash in people just trying to find their place in it, stole whatever joy I managed to muster in those brief moments filled with laughter, long tight hugs, deep conversations and an unexpectedly fun game involving a shit-ton of saran wrap.

It has taken me hours to place the source of my sadness: Everything feels unstable in my life right now.

On the surface, things look great. I’m in the most ideal job, home and relationship that I’ve ever been in throughout all of my forty-two years. And it scares me to death to think that it’s all too good to be true. But the last few weeks have me bracing for a future in which I’m about to find out how much I’m capable of handling on my own…again.

Which brings me to my parents. Because everything ultimately leads back to the people who made you.

There are days when I resented them. There are days I pitied them. There are days when I try to understand where their heads were at when they thought it was okay to leave me with strangers, neighbors and members of their families who turned out to be child molesters. There have been days where I’ve felt personally affronted when they’d get credit for my accomplishments in life, when neither had been in it full time since I was twelve. And there are days when I accept the fact that they had no idea what they were doing and – in the case of my father – eventually did the best he could, considering he didn’t have the most nurturing parents.

Last year after my father’s passing, I unexpectedly found myself digesting story after story about how involved my father was in the lives of so many people. Normally, that would cause a swelling of pride to know how beloved your dad was, and how many lives he touched and impacted. The thing is…he was being other people’s hero during the years I struggled to pay tuition, find a job that paid a livable wage and compensate for his absence with remarkably insecure and occasionally abusive partners after deeming myself unloveable (the thought you have when your parents are alive and well, but not involved in your life).

And while years of tough conversations in our later lives healed that wound enough to compel me to assume the role of his caregiver in his final years, the pain of the time and moments lost will never fully go away.

In my adult life, it has manifested itself into someone who is fiercely independent, but constantly seeking connection. Terrified of becoming her mother, no longer interested in becoming mother, but strangely aware that her ability to listen to and comprehend children would’ve made her a great mother. Someone who now knows that words unspoken lead to opportunities unrealized…for better or worse. Someone who somehow managed to take decades of trauma, fear, anger and resentment, and turn it into the fuel that keeps her going in her daily journeys to a place where she finds peace, love and acceptance in who she is…and who she isn’t.

Someone who is still struggling to understand what’s become of this world in the past year; where it seems everyone is reminding her of her parents, — in the sense that they willingly chose roles in which they have a responsibility to take care of people, but everything goes to shit because they’re too busy serving their own interests and enriching their own lives while those who need help suffer from neglect.

See what I did there?

This whole year has been a trigger of near catastrophic levels. As vocal as I’ve been over the past year and change to friends, family and the social media world, the words somehow escaped me to truly express how I feel about all this chaos.

To be reminded on a daily basis that there are people in power whose mission in life is to take away my power takes me to places only this blog and my therapist can pull me out of.

With that, I’m going into 2018 absolutely terrified, yet still acutely aware that I’ve done this before.

And I’m still here.

I have to believe there’s something good about that.

Even if it’s to testify that things can – and will – get better.

Also: If they haven’t already, your parents will fuck you up in some way, shape or form. I cannot stress the importance of having a fantastic support system, an openness to look into your self to clean and mend the wounds properly, and let go of the things you thought you knew so you can learn something new.

The past can be our anchor, or it can be our teacher.

We still have the power to choose which it will be.

Happy New Year.

 

A Day In A Life

Yesterday, one of my awesome girlfriends and I went wherever the day took us… and it was quite an experience.

First, it took us to a diner downtown where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast while listening to songs from classic artists like Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and wondered aloud if the hits of today will ever deserve the longevity of the songs they often sample from. We also agreed that Rihanna’s raunchy songs have nothing on Miss Ella’s sweetly sung dirty ditties.

Next, it took us to One Police Plaza, to join the throngs of people who battled the sweltering temperatures to listen to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, as she choked back tears when she spoke of her son and her new fight to save the sons of others. Although she succeeded in fighting the tears from flowing through her speech, we were not so lucky.

Afterwards, it took us to the Shomburg in Harlem, where we viewed items documenting Nelson Mandela’s transformation from prisoner to president, and the works of Lois Mailou Jones — whose vibrant pieces influenced by African, Caribbean, post-Impression era Paris and African-American culture had us in awe.

Not finished with us, the day proceeded to carry us into a panel discussion around the corner at the Congee Library, where we listened intently as women discussed being single in America, and the rise of single people in comparison to those who chose to marry. Among the great insights was the observation that many factors have changed since the days when marriage was popular and, ostensibly, sacred (i.e. we died younger, met our spouses at school, and had more inventory and less online presence and options, etc.). By the end of the discussion, we all collectively agreed that there are no rules when it comes to relationships and marriage… only a requirement that you have to want to be in one and willing to put in the mutual work to get the mutual benefits. Afterwords, my friend an I were so determined to get the unspoken men’s perspective that we semi-cornered the lone man that sat in on the discussion, and spent another half hour standing in the hallway getting his take.

After a brief visit with another friend who was getting her jewelry hustle on at an outdoor festival, the day then ushered us down to Lincoln Square to see “Fruitvale Station“; the powerful film documenting the last hours of Oscar Grant’s life. Before Trayvon Martin, Grant was another young African-American man whose fleeting moments of bad judgement overshadowed his life struggle to be a good person and do the right thing — also with fatal results. More tears flowed. That the movie was released around the timing of the verdict was a mix of serendipity and shrewd marketing, and a strong reminder of just how blind the justice system can often be when it’s convenient.

Our final stop of the day was possibly the most endearing to me. During our day adventure, my girlfriend got a call from her mother informing her that there would be a feast of crabs at her home in Brooklyn. When we got there, the house was filled with family who gathered to eat seafood, talk, entertain the adorable newborn girl and make plans to meet for church and a birthday boy’s dinner the next day. While there is little that excites me more than the taste of crabmeat, the sight of a family gathering warms my heart to the highest level and gives me hope beyond any description I could give.

Yesterday, I witnessed life through the eyes of two African American sons whose lives were cut short, an outraged public, a mother who has unwittingly become the hope and voice of terrified mothers everywhere and one African-American woman raising her own son and grappling with what to say and do to protect him from becoming a statistic. As I spent the day absorbing how special it was, it didn’t escape my thoughts that the idea of bringing a male child into this word could conceivably be considered a dangerous thing in the future.

In a country where the victim’s character is often on trial more so than the person who ends or endangers their lives, it almost seems comical to expect drastic attitude adjustments. But history has shown us that persistence — and faith — can ultimately pay off in time.

Alas, that’s for another day… and if it’s going to be anything like yesterday (although I suspect it will be better), I don’t want to miss a minute.

Something Old…

Every now and then, something that looks lovely on the outside can be a major pain in the ass to hold on to.

My grandmother, an elegant lady with a mind as sharp as her tongue, had an appreciation for beautiful things. One of those things happened to be a sterling silver tea set. Like her name, Elizabeth, the set is fit for a queen.

How it ended up in my possession is anyone’s guess. That an item fitting a lady of the manor came to be with an urban misfit in a rental continues to baffle my mind. (Maybe my Anglophilia was drawn to it.) Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate nice things, but if I have to pay for it, it stays in the store!

When my father bestowed it on me, he did so because everything else was about to be lost, and of all the grandchildren, our personalities were the most similar. Like her, I’m headstrong, quick-witted and tempered, and oddly drawn to men with good intentions but very bad habits.

I’m also like her in a sense that she too never took to cleaning the damn thing. My silver polishing experience started out impressively but ended in an epic fail. My plantation days would have been numbered. It was apparently a chore best reserved for my Uncle John, her younger brother who bore a striking resemblance to Ron Isley.

In any case, here I sit with the only family heirloom in existence, and I couldn’t be more ambivalent about it. The memories that are conjured by it aren’t as warm and sentimental as they are cold and distant. Where most grandmothers teach their granddaughters essential domestic skills and share stories about family history, mine forced me to watch soap operas and had my hair relaxed one summer because she refused to deal with combing it. Up until I attempted cleaning it, I’d never in my 30-plus years touched the set, or even seen it uncovered by plastic.

To me, the set is a symbol of all the things that hurt me about my upbringing. It signifies a childhood filled with isolation and experiences that ended it too quickly. It reminds me of a time when the people I looked to for love and stability let me down in such a monumental way that the scars haven’t truly healed decades later. I could say it made me stronger and more self-reliant, but that’s just BS speak for someone groomed for a very lonely existence.

For some, antiques are fascinating and exquisite pieces of history that give a home flair. Most people proudly display them somewhere in anticipation of passing along a tale of family triumphs and tragedies.

Then there are folks like me, who see them as something best kept in museums or homes that have no connection to its true history… The better to create their own stories and memories. I personally would prefer reminiscing about a time I went to a market in a faraway land and picked up a vintage mirror than recall the day some drunken relative nearly walked into it. But that’s just me.

Not since Alice’s trip to Wonderland has a tea set been immersed in such dramatic mental dialogue. That a thing of beauty, preserved for decades, could be both a strange symbol of endurance and a spacial and emotional burden — is perplexing.

Suddenly, the thought of having a cup of tea just stressed me the hell out.