Standards for Living

It has now been nearly two weeks since I’ve entered my forty-first year.

Or, as I’d like to call it, “Forty won.”

In a year marked by so much death – from ones intimately close, to strangers known and unknown, not to mention the brutal murder of democracy – I end my fortieth year with an even stronger zest and appreciation for life. Especially my own.

Because, in spite of all the tragedy and turmoil that 2016 embodied for most of the world – admittedly the first half was brutal for me as well – I somehow managed to ride out the rest of it with one of the strongest years I’ve had in nearly a decade on a personal and professional level. I made uncomfortable choices, found more of my voice, embraced the unknown, and found freedom in letting go of things that weren’t right for me. I’ve knowingly disappointed some, and unknowingly inspired others.

What resulted was the universe opening up a world of opportunity in the form of more love, support and fellowship from new and unexpected sources. Ones that allowed and, at times, insisted on, finding acceptance that I once sought from relationships – both familial and romantic – within myself.

So I took those trips. Went to those shows. Saw those movies. Booked those therapy appointments. And so on.

…and didn’t wait for that call to do any of it. And also didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.

In the spirit of keeping that momentum going, and in honor of all the fucks I’ve lost during this year, here’s a list of my standard for living for 2017 and beyond:

Stop Hesitating (“Take the trip!” “Buy the shoes!” “Go to the fucking doctor!”) When you have gainful employment, insurance, decent credit, and a shit-ton of people in your life who are in your corner, there are no excuses. Life is too fucking short…and it can all be gone tomorrow. I say this 7 months after my father’s passing, and over a year after the sudden loss of a very dear friend who lived his life fully and generously, so it’s not exactly an epiphany. Death has a way of putting you in “YOLO” mode; forcing you to face your own mortality and, subsequently, your “bucket list.” And the savagery of this year has been the biggest wakeup call of all.

Speak my mind. Anyone who really knows me might be like “When have you NOT?” To them, I say “Hush.” But recently, someone I was once close to, told me that I didn’t communicate with them during the time we spent together. In this instance, I no longer trusted them or had faith in their ability to act in my best interests, but they had a point. It is best to speak one’s mind, for better or worse, that way everyone can move accordingly.

Refuse to spend any of my hard-earned cash on the following: Hip Hop albums from most of this era’s artists (although anderson.Paak might get my money for a live show). Rihanna concert tickets. Anything with the Kardashian name. Poor-quality shoes, clothing and undergarments. Events where most of the demographic is under 35, or frequently uses the word “lit” with more intention than sarcasm, and/or people who like to invite you to functions/dinners/trips/etc. with the expectation that you’ll be bankrolling them or their friend’s portion of it. If we’re not in a long-term partnership, and I have not given birth to you…you’re paying your own way. I am not Angelina Jolie or Mia Farrow. Call Tyrone.

Don’t take anything in life for granted. Not to be mistaken with “not complaining.” While I try to avoid the other c-word, there are gonna be times in life when things aren’t perfect and something needs to be said in order to address and improve it. (See “Speaking my mind.”) That doesn’t mean everything is shit – it just means it’s important enough to me to be made better. But at the end of the day, even the lessons from failures are appreciated.

Do not entertain the idea of a long-term relationship with any man who isn’t equipped to be my best friend. New rule for 2017: “If he doesn’t make plans, doesn’t keep plans, doesn’t respect my time, doesn’t respect what I say, doesn’t respect my gender, doesn’t respect my family or friends (or – as my sister-girl once said after an ex spent two days at her home but never engaged in one-on-one conversation with her – “doesn’t find out who they are to you“), doesn’t show any interest in spending time knowing or building upon mutual interests…I’m not wasting any time with him. My desire for an honest, selfless, interactive and collaborative partnership supersedes my desire to have a proper lay any day. I believe “Stronger Together” isn’t just a nice and sunny political slogan. I’ve seen too many solid relationships where couples travel, party, and make plans and important decisions together. They respect each other’s input and rely on each other for mutually beneficial contentment and growth. They also have each other’s backs when times are hard for either of them. This is what I aspire to be and have in return. And because I’d rather be alone than feel alone…nothing else will do.

Never apologize for being who I am, and take zero shit from any “friend” or family member who has opinions on how I should behave. I’m single, childless, live in a city bursting with culture and vices, and I’ve survived four decades of life that consisted of  events that have broken many. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told.) And for the most part, I’ve done it solo. That I continue to maintain a sense of humor, optimism, desire and enjoyment of intimate connection and only have a marginal social media addiction – I’d say I’m doing okay. Not Oprah okay…but you never know what the future holds.

Stop doubting my abilities and gut. That I still do this on occasion means there’s more room for improvement, but I’d like to think I’m headed in the right direction.

If I’ve taken nothing else from this year, it is that there is no reward for playing it safe. Those who’ve impacted our lives most – in both life and death – have been the most extreme risk takers. The rogues. The controversial ones. The ones who colored outside the lines and bulldozed their comfort zones to fit big dreams (and in some cases even bigger egos). The ones who set a standard for the way they lived, and fulfilled it to the best of their ability, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how others said they were supposed to live.

If we all set standards in our lives, then we’ll do anything to preserve it for our own well-being and joy. Our jobs, relationships, finances, living conditions and even our political leanings are a reflection of those standards. Or lack thereof. I mean, how else can you achieve a “gold standard” without actual standards?

We owe it to ourselves to have them. We owe it to each other to honor them. If, for no other reason, for our own self-respect, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we did all we could to make the world a better place by being a better person in it while we could.

Those are my standards for 2017 and beyond.

What are yours?

Moving On

It is never easy leaving something or someone you truly love.

Oftentimes, it is unpleasant.

But the time will come when we’ll have to say goodbye to something or someone dear to us for whatever reasons that apply. It’s one of life’s inevitabilities…much like me wrecking a manicure seconds after walking out of the salon.

This week, I had that horrible task. Twice.

The first isn’t theoretically final, but symbolically it is; the apartment my roommate and I have shared for nearly a year is being reclaimed by its lovely owner and her family at the end of the month, so we needed to find a new place quickly. What stung the most was having to leave the beautiful neighborhood we’ve grown to adore, due to lack of affordable housing options. Never mind the fact that the apartment itself is a unicorn in terms of space and affordability. Both were ideal.

Alas, it was never truly ours…and so we had to face facts and move on.

Fortunately, we found an affordable gem in a decent neighborhood that suited all our needs, and wouldn’t force any major and/or uncomfortable adjustments.

The part I’m most grateful for, tho – aside from having a relatively painless search process in comparison to last year (woo hoo!) – is having my name on a legal document holding me responsible for the payment and upkeep of a place that I reside in…for the first time in SIX years.

While that concept seems scary AF, I’m elated, because circumstances over these last years haven’t supported this moment. A layoff in 2010 – followed by an unexpectedly lengthy stretch of un/underemployment mixed with drastic pay decreases throughout the years that followed – proved challenging. Signing a lease wasn’t only risky…it was impossible.

All this to say: As much as I’ve dreaded moves in the past, this one I look forward to, because it means I’ve finally reached the point where I can start over on my terms. It’s bittersweet, yet empowering, all at the same time.

The next goodbye is final and painful, because there’s still a great deal of love, and there was a tremendous emotional investment. The demise of a relationship always impacts me because the failure is personal and, at times, I’d like to think avoidable.

But that’s just wishful thinking.

Over the years, I’ve struggled and occasionally succeeded at being mindful of things in my past life that could – and have – segued into fatal relationship flaws: Let’s just say the list isn’t pretty. Or short. Let’s also say not living with my parents after twelve was the best thing that ever happened to me. Let’s also say that it’s because very early on, life played out more like a Lifetime Network movie written by Alice Walker.

Basically, I was a powder keg with a laundry list of issues ranging from trust, abandonment, intimacy, anger, jealousy, people-pleasing, self-esteem, selfishness and withdrawn (this one’s tough to shake).

Truth be told, I’ll always be a work in progress. But time, meditation, faith, introspection, healing, much-needed therapy and an outpouring of unconditional love and support from friends and family has allowed me to develop into a woman who is now open and optimistic about life, love and all its possibilities. I find joy in authentic relationships and experiences, and I’m quicker to listen to and embrace different perspectives. Most of all, I’ve learned to forgive, let go, and just let shit be.

Which brings us here.

If I’ve learned anything in these forty years and eight months of life, it is that as much as I love the idea of being in love, there’s much more to a relationship than that. It’s work, and sometimes I don’t want to do it, but I will if I know the end result is having someone to grow with, who has your back in times both good and bad and inspires you to do the same. Someone who takes interest in your interests, and includes you in theirs. Someone who relishes in your quirks, and can talk and listen for as long as it takes as you both learn something new and/or rediscover something not so new about each other (instead of using social media or discussing with an audience that doesn’t include either of you). Someone who understands that conflicts and anger should be addressed and resolved in minutes and (if really serious) hours…not days and weeks. Someone who has longterm plans and knows where you fit in them. Someone unafraid to take a leap of faith and land wherever your lives together may take you. Someone whose actions speak louder than their words.

For all our intents…we both failed spectacularly in making that happen. Twice.

And for what it’s worth, I wanted our relationship to work so badly, that I was willing to accept it as it was…even as it left me wanting more.

But it occurred to me that – much like the apartment hunting experience – I began the process desperate to compromise at the risk of losing a part of me. In the end, it took venturing out of my comfort zone on a road less traveled in order to find the place that feels like home, and nothing is lost except the expectations of how things should be.

Not only is that worth moving on to…it’s worth moving mountains for.

I’m scared and excited to find out what the future holds, but right now, I’m just gonna relish in the freedom of the present moment, and go wherever the day takes me.

Which, right about now…is the kitchen. I’m starving.

Taking Care

It can be said with great certainty that 2016 is likely going down in history as one of the shittiest years on record, and there are still 4 1/2 more months to go before it’s officially over.

Full disclosure: I’m making this declaration while laying on one of the softest beds, donning a terry-cloth robe etched with the majestic “lion head” logo of the Ritz-Carlton, following a nice hot bath taken upon returning to a sexy room – with its stunning view of Philadelphia’s City Hall – after an amazing scallop dinner at one of the most charming and kitschy restaurants I’ve seen in some time. Bottom line is: I’m not exactly suffering at this moment.

And yet here I am bitching about this shitty year.

Why is it so shitty, you ask? Where do I come off making such statements when I’m in a position not many folks will have an opportunity to experience? What’s made me take such a strong stance so prematurely?

To put it “Blountly,” this year has seen more death, more injustice, more ignorance and more animosity among the human race, and that has shaken my comfort level to its core and threatens the peace I’ve strived to maintain in my later years. Prior to holing myself up in this luxurious abode for a self-care timeout, I was angry with everyone; white people, black people, police, pundits, politicians and Pokémon players.

I’m sure there are many of you, who share similar frustrations with some – or all – of the above, and have reeled from the passings of notable, iconic and influential people such as Prince, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel and Muhammad Ali amongst so many others. Each were heroes in their own right, who weren’t afraid to stick up for themselves and for those who didn’t have the privilege of their platforms. They took care of us – even though we couldn’t take care of them.

But one loss that has affected me the most is one in which the care was mutual and reciprocal. Two months ago today…I lost my father.

While this loss wasn’t unexpected…it still fucking hurts.

Sure, I can say that he’s not suffering anymore. That Alzheimer’s took him long before the day his body lost its desire to fight. That I no longer have to suppress the urge to burst into tears in front of him when he couldn’t remember who I was. It’s what I’m supposed to say, right?

But for every vacant gaze, there’s a moment of recollection that brought an unbreakable smile and a glimmer of hope. And that’s why it hurts. Because that hope is now gone…along with my very first love.

And, in spite of everything, I’m just here trying to get that hope back within the realm of reason. That lust for life and “joie de vie” that’ll get me through the rest of what’s turning out to be an absolute shit-show of a year. Because, with everything that’s happening – and I do mean everything – it is now more important than ever that we all find our joy and our strength to get through the rough waters of violence, racial and global tensions and divisive banter across all party lines. Because, hopefully, at some point, the love and care we have for ourselves and others will drown out the hate.

Sooo…whatever your method: Vacation…staycation…meditation…medication (kidding) – remember that self-care is essential for the duration. Roads can be bumpy, and trips can take longer than we expect. But if we’re trying to navigate in a broken-down vessel, our destinations become damn-near impossible to reach.

Take care.

 

Designing a Decade

Here we are again, folks…the end of another year!

Now, before we start sighing “finally,” let’s just take into account that we are still here, and still able to fully appreciate the luxury we have of seeing it come to an end, and the promise of new beginnings (or just upgraded versions of your existing situation).

As we know, not everyone has made it this far.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it has been quite the year. One that has overseen the loss of a romantic relationship, a dear friend/mentor and a first cousin with faulty hearts, my father’s left leg, my patience for pushy real estate brokers and the elder/health care system, a piece of my back tooth, thousands of dollars in moving costs, and occasionally my sanity.

For a moment I was about to say my faith, but that wouldn’t be completely true. Because even when shit got a little too real, I knew it would figure itself out. I just didn’t know when!

But amidst those losses, there were huge gains not only in my faith, but in the power of love, family, friendship and loyalty in its truest form.

These lessons from the school of hard knocks came just in time for my fortieth birthday, which I quietly – and happily – celebrated fifteen days ago with one of my fabulous girlfriends. After treating me to dinner, she then lavished me with ridiculously expensive skincare that I’m afraid to use because I will fall instantly in love with it, and become one of those women who spend the financial equivalent to childcare on preserving her own youth. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Because, even though I look damn good for my age, I can always look better! (She says with tongue placed firmly in her cheek.)

And so, as I sit here…fresh from spending the holiday bouncing from Pennsylvania to Virginia with my crazysexycool family, where I ate a lot, drank even more and laughed when I wasn’t in pain from a recent dental visit…I’m contemplating what I want my new year and my fourth decade to look and feel like.

…and the one word that keeps coming back to me is: “loyalty.”

It’s that feeling of knowing you are loved and supported in your best and especially your worst times. That feeling of knowing help is just a message, a phone call or even just a “look” away. That feeling of not being judged by your mood, your circumstances or your lifestyle. That unconditional love that tells you, “you’re crazy, but I can’t imagine life without you,” or “this isn’t one of our best days, but let’s regroup and make the next round better,” and “we’re not always going to agree on everything, but I’m always going to be here.”

Only that kind of security and confidence comes from loyalty, and this year, I felt it. Breathed it. Bathed in it. Draped it all over my skin, and wove it into the fabric of my being.

It has taken me four decades to fully appreciate that word and its meaning. I’d begun mentioning it in passing when someone asked me what I looked for in a guy, but I’ve since come to understand how much it means to me beyond intimate relationships.

It resonates when I’m rewarded at work with verbal and financial acknowledgements, and when my colleagues tell me to take as much time as I need when my father made an unexpected trip to the emergency room during what was intended to be a short trip to Savannah, and give me more exciting and challenging assignments because they value my work and insights. Or bring me lunch. Or a bottle of wine after a breakup. Or an L.L. Bean fleece jacket. Or kickass tickets to watch tennis and/or “The Peanuts Movie.” (Okay, I love my job.)

It resonates when I see a woman, whose plan was to spend her retiring years traveling the world with the man she loved, spending her days making doctor and medicine runs for him, helping his daughter navigate through the messy process of it all, and taking shifts to feed him in a nursing home…while hoping he remembers her name.

It resonates when his family who live nearby hasn’t visited in the five years of his affliction.

It resonates when I contemplate going an hour out of my way to Harlem to pick up a prescription, because the women at the pharmacy always pleasantly acknowledge me by my name.

It resonates when friends and family spring into action when I have a slight meltdown on Facebook, and help me not only find a place to live, but keep me laughing, liquored up, and thoroughly entertained through some of the hardest months I’ve had in some time. Just because.

It resonates when I consider who’s worthy of my time, energy and my own loyalty going forward.

I’m realizing now that everything has come full circle. Historically, I’ve been drawn to – and spent most of my professional life in – industries that mostly thrive on strong and fruitful relationships and loyalty, so it was only a matter of time before I caught up and realized that I, too, require them to thrive personally.

But seriously…Don’t we ALL?!

So, tomorrow night, when the ball drops into the year 2016, it is my intention to continue loving – and being true to – the skin I’m in from this decade until my last, and reciprocating all the love, support and loyalty that has allowed me and my loved ones to thrive in the chaos of 2015.

Are you with me?

 

 

 

All The Things We Leave Behind

Tragedy never strikes when it’s convenient.

That was the hard truth I learned Sunday afternoon while en route to see – of all things – “Amy,” the documentary about Amy Winehouse.

As I stood in my own little world on the platform at Church Avenue, desperately looking at my phone to avoid any interpersonal connection that would distract me from my mission, readying myself to board the incoming Q train…I see a Facebook post that changed (or, dare I say, punctuated) the course of the day.

A woman I’d known through one of my best friends, an esteemed writer and jewel of a person I regret not spending more time with when she lived here, posted a status expressing her heartbreak at the passing of another mutual friend…one who had crossed my mind only moments before during my walk to the train station.

My initial reaction was disbelief. I’d known he was in the process of finishing his novel and he was wrapping up other projects and had a flair for dramatic expression. I thought it was a joke. I texted another friend who’d introduced us, and inquired about his whereabouts and headed into BAM to watch the movie.

I checked Facebook once more, and this time was informed he’d had a heart attack, to which I immediately asked “How could a heart so big just give out?” Then I exhaled, exhaled again, turned off my phone and watched the movie. Numb.

At the time, I didn’t know if watching the story of a troubled and tremendous talent like Winehouse would be better or worse in terms of helping me deal with the reality I would face when the lights came back up. We all know how the story ended there. It just seemed as if I were adding fuel to the fire. Piling on more stories of lives cut too short.

As it turned out, it was the best thing.

Like Amy, my friend Brook was an immensely gifted writer who made a name for himself through his prose and simply being his authentic self. While he didn’t belt out a song the way she did, or possess an obscene amount of demons that would ultimately lead to self-destruction, he did leave his mark on the world indelibly.

Unlike Amy, Brook was the product of a close-knit and nurturing family, one that lauded education and ancestral history, and taught him to embrace and appreciate all things different and new. He developed a sense of adventure, a love for life and good food, and believed in – and cultivated – a world with no boundaries and full of boundless potential.

It was no surprise that those of us drawn into his circle were all of the same mind and spirit. It is also no surprise that when we all learned of his passing, we found it incomprehensible that he was no longer here.

Creatives by nature can be notoriously moody, self-absorbed, reclusive and in the case of the really good ones…absolute assholes. He was neither of these things.

That’s not to say he didn’t have “quirks.” We all do.

But at his core, you would never find another person more generous with his time, and more ready to take on the world. Even when he stumbled.

He was also very passionate about changing the world, and did his part as a writer, a teacher, a mentor, a cultural vessel, a friend, and a man who simply had a knack for always being in the right place at the right time, and knowing exactly how to start – or guide – the conversation.

Although he didn’t have the level of fame Amy had, Brook Stephenson’s name is legend amongst those in the know; a staggering creative collective comprised of artists, writers, music makers, tastemakers and all-around genuine spirits who’ve created the glorious multicultural fabrics that make New York, Detroit, Atlanta and beyond, hotbeds of realized (and soon-to-be-realized) potential.

Reflecting on these lives and the legacies they’ve created in such a short time on this earth forced me to acknowledge not only that I have yet to realize my own potential, but to truly consider exactly what legacy I’m poised to leave behind if, and when, I finally do.

It’s common for death to inspire self-reflection and a more keen sense of our own mortality, but how often do we truly take an account of the footprints we leave on this planet? How have we lived? Have we really lived? How have we treated others? How have we served others? What have we contributed to this life and the lives of others? Have we done so because we were motivated by accolades, acceptance, padded profiles and increased value on the theoretical food chain, or did we do it simply because it was good to do? Have we used our gifts to the best of our ability to be the best with our ability?

Am I waxing poetic because I feel an incredible surge of guilt for not seeing my friend in the last year? Perhaps. Am I being haunted by his constant motivational chant of “If not you, then who?” Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I doing exactly what he told me to do right at this moment…something I haven’t done in the last five months…despite having lots of material to write about? Yep, it sure does look that way.

Fans. Friends. Family. Foes. Foundations. We all ultimately leave something behind when this life comes to an end.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Now that you’ve answered that…make it happen.

Right now.

Mirror, Mirror

Forgive me for the unusually long hiatus.

It’s not that I’ve been extremely busy (although I kinda was), nor was it the absence of a topic of discussion. I think we all can agree that over the last few months, there’s been nothing but discussions.

Yet, every time I sat down to write about it, I found myself in that unenviable position every one of us has suffered at one point or another, where I just could not.

But now, I’ve been inspired by — of all things — television.

Unlike my younger days, where I sat for hours transfixed to a television with the intensity of a One Direction fan, these days I’m often out of the loop on most things that show up on most-watched lists, and the equivalent of “water-cooler” conversations.

Like a number of people from my generation, I watched TV not only to pass the time, but to transport myself to imaginary worlds where people had money, adventures, superpowers and even cool, talking cars. As a kid in a single parent home, I also got comfort from seeing the family comedies, where there was a mom and a dad who worked together to teach their kids valuable lessons in comedic ways.

As time passed, those shows – “Dynasty” “MacGuyver” “Wonder Woman” “Knight Rider” “Good Times” “The Brady Bunch” “The Cosby Show” “Family Ties” et al – disappeared, and in their place were shows where real people engaged in shameless acts of desperation for attention, exposure and seemingly lucrative payoffs.

That’s when I tuned out. The fantasy of my childhood shows at least gave me hope of a better life than the one I was currently living. The “reality” was just a depressing commentary on the extreme measures people will take to make their own fantasies come true.

And then Shonda Rhimes came on the scene… Making both history, and shows I could somewhat relate to or, at the very least, enjoy.

From “Grey’s Anatomy” to my current addictions “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder”, Rhimes and her team of writers created stories that teetered on both lines of fantasy and reality. In the case of Grey’s and Scandal, the shows would mix raw and genuine human emotions with the fantasy of teasing happily ever after scenarios that often go horribly awry. A couple who pined for each other after parting ways would reunite, only to have one die in a plane crash. A taboo love affair with the President of the United States gets the bizarre blessing from his wife.

I mean, really, how the fuck is that real life?

But this past Thursday, Shonda and her team outdid themselves, when “Scandal” took a much-needed turn from a nonsensical plot line to deliver the most heavy-hitting episode in its history. In it, they tackled a subject that had gripped the country — myself included — for the last six months: The Ferguson incident.

For anyone who’s been living in a self-imposed bubble, the story of unarmed teenager Mike Brown being gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has been widespread news. What had already began as a tragedy with the death of an unarmed youth, escalated further by the police department’s refusal to discuss the case until they had found evidence — which would later reveal to be false — that the victim had committed a criminal act which, in their opinion, justified the shooting. The public’s frustration with the police and media seemingly depicting minority victims as criminals had reached its peak, sparking riots in Ferguson and a wave of protests around the country. Everyone from pundits to presidents in other countries sounded off on what had become a firestorm and a black-eye (literally) for the United States of America.

…So Shonda and her team took every sound bite, every perspective and every character and caricature that has lent a voice to this chapter in American history, and lumped it into one very emotional hour of television drama.

In her version, the father of a slain son becomes his protector by sitting with the body while holding a shotgun until justice has been served to clear his son’s name. The police chief hires a black crisis control consultant to mediate the situation before it escalated to chaos. The president, still reeling from the death of his own son, agonized over the shooting, but is advised not to make any public statements due to the hotbed issue.  The crisis consultant has her team investigate the truth, which revealed the shooting officer’s guilt. The officer is then arrested and the victim is cleared. The father is then taken to the White House by the crisis consultant to meet the president and weep in his arms. Credits roll as the episode is neatly tied up with a bow.

In between all the fantasy, there were bits of reality: The anger of the community over another unjustified physical and character assassination. The charismatic, boisterous and occasionally manipulative black activist who uses rhetoric under the guise of good intentions, which ultimately encourage further destructive and counterproductive crowd behavior. The politician who jumps in to give their two cents in hopes of bolstering their presence and agenda with the fifteen minutes of media fame they’ve been allotted. The police chief who’s more concerned with the image of his department than the situation at hand, or the respect and trust of the people he’s supposed to protect and serve by resolving things peacefully and professionally. A crowd of people who are justifiably angry over their mistreatment, but unaware of how their own actions and reactions further alienate them from the sympathies of society and, sadly, justice. The police officer whose resentment over the attitudes of the community and his own deep-seeded disdain for their ethnicity severely clouds his judgement and makes him a ticking time-bomb in a job he clearly should not have. And a president who’s damned if he does say something, and damned if he doesn’t.

As stated before, I’ve had difficulty putting into words what I’ve been feeling over the last few months. As I’ve listened and watched people sound off on this, the Bill Cosby allegations and even stupid shit like a reality show based on sorority girls, I’ve wondered — sometimes out loud — how African-Americans pick and choose what they’re outraged about.

For instance: Why is it hilarious when women act a damn fool for ratings and lauded for their ambition in one show, but dragged to hell and “read to filth” because they wore letters in another? Why is it funny when Kanye West slut-shames Amber Rose for being an exotic dancer, when his wife had sex on camera with another man and built a fucking family empire from it? Speaking of “Empire,” why are people up in arms over the character depictions on a show that is a fictional scripted drama, when we grew up watching soap operas with absurd and borderline psychotic plot lines? Why is it okay for rap artists to spit lyrics about putting “molly” in a woman’s drink, but when it’s revealed that everyone’s favorite TV dad did it in real life, suddenly the women are liars? Where is that same outrage that prompted the now famous #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, when a video of black people fighting goes viral? Where is the same call for action when another black youth or innocent bystander falls victim to revenge and/or gang violence, or just a kid with anger management issues from being abused at home or school?

Maybe it’s just too hard to see ourselves, or own our hurtful behavior, beliefs and habits when they’re reflected in so-called “art” for public consumption and scrutiny. It’s easier to point fingers and talk about what any other race but our own have done to embarrass or degrade our culture.

We spend a short month reminding ourselves how wonderful and majestic our history is; how many people of color changed the world by inventing groundbreaking medical and scientific techniques and countless household items, and blazed trails that have set legal and human rights precedents. How important it is to recognize and support black achievement. We quickly — and loudly — derided the Academy Awards for “snubbing” the movie “Selma”and its director, Ava DuVernay, citing the monumental impact of the event on which the film is based.

But for all the pomp and circumstance we built around the historical significance of honoring the movie on the fiftieth anniversary of the march itself, upon closer inspection, we failed to notice that the box office take of “Selma” was significantly less than the average Kevin Hart movie. Meaning we also snubbed the movie by not supporting it in the theaters!! In fact, we snubbed it more by not doing so, sending a far more dangerous message about our hypocrisy than an Oscar nod ever could.

As much as it makes people uncomfortable, I’m happy there are now shows that rip the band-aid off of the once taboo subject of talking about race and the issues we all face. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Jewish. African. Arabic. All. Of. Us. Be it discrimination, or even quiet-as-kept subjects like sexual abuse and incest — which was covered in a searing episode of “How To Get Away With Murder” (and may earn Cicely Tyson another award) — we need to see ourselves and our stories so we can maybe… hopefully… start the conversations and actions that create necessary changes.

Understandably, people get rattled when the lines between fantasy and reality get a little blurry, when all they want is to escape to a world where they can be entertained. But more and more, society is showing us that we can no longer look away or tune out when something doesn’t appease us.

If we can hold sports, entertainment and political figures accountable for their “scandals”, surely we can do the same for our own… Can’t we?

It all starts by looking in the mirror…

Lost and Found in Newark

Last Friday and Saturday, a mass of thousands gathered in Newark, New Jersey, for Oprah’s “Life You Want” weekend.

I was one of them.

Along with Madame O, Mark Nepo, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rob Bell and Iyanla Vanzant united to share insights and stories that were sometimes humorous and oftentimes heart-wrenching — all for the purpose of guiding us to discover our true callings.

Having only watched a handful of her talk show, barely reading my “O” magazine subscription, and catching just a few programs on her OWN network, it would seem utterly confusing as to why I would sign up for this, but that’s precisely why I did.

I had spent a good portion of my life avoiding Oprah’s influence, yet admiring the results of it. That she had reached this status of mogul/actor/entrepreneur/philanthropist from humble and terrifying beginnings made her more of a mythical figure to me as opposed to someone I could relate to, so I never fully invested in seeing her work full on.

Being so averse to seeking or acknowledging a need for help at the time, it never occurred to me to indulge in something that could bring me comfort, joy or at least help me understand that what I’d gone through was not something that was exclusive to my story. Millions of women (and a smattering of men) understood more than I did that Oprah Winfrey hadn’t just built a media empire, but a fellowship of people who all wanted to improve their circumstances, and at least be uplifted and entertained while discovering they weren’t as alone as they thought they were.

And so I joined them… and it turned out to be a pretty damn good decision.

As she took the stage of the Prudential Center on Friday night — resplendent in a royal purple gown that flowed with her every step and voice booming with confidence — this woman, affectionately (and appropriately) called “the queen of all media”, shared with her adoring subjects stories that excited and disturbed us. She peppered her accounts of personal, academic and professional achievements with painful truths of being raped, pregnant, discriminated against, insecure about her body and her desperation to get what turned out to be an Oscar-nominated part in “The Color Purple”. The more she spoke, the more this “mythical” creature became a human being to me — even becoming more so when she admitted to wanting people to think she’s nice while her man, Stedman, reminds her that she is not. (I think I loved that part more than most of her reveals.)

I left that night feeling both energized from her truths… and a little freaked out by seeing my baby picture among the hundreds floating across the screen behind her. In a sea of thousands, that small acknowledgement endeared her — and her team — to me more.

When Saturday morning arrived, Mark was ready to help us clear our racing minds, and guide us through a meditation that left a hush in a room with thousands of women. (Let that sink in… this crowd came to work!!) And while he had our attention that morning, he had our full respect and admiration later, when he was asked to reveal something in his life he will never regret and — without missing a beat — answered “Susan” as he gestured to her in the audience. Yes, there was a collective and audible sigh.

When Elizabeth came to the stage, it was clear she was a rock star to the throngs of screaming women who had read her book “Eat, Pray, Love”, and instantly contemplated leaving everything behind to discover themselves by spending a year globetrotting. It also didn’t hurt that she was played by Julia Roberts in the movie adaptation. Basically, she was the woman everyone wanted to be if they felt Oprah was too high a standard. At least, until they spent the weekend realizing they could be whichever one they wanted to.

Liz shared her journey from being in a “picture-perfect” but unfulfilled marriage, losing everything she had in the divorce, feeling desperate, hopeless, and taking a leap of faith by spending a year finding her passion and purpose and never looking back. Being one of the few who hadn’t read the book or watched her on OWN’s “Super Soul Sunday”, I found her story and candor refreshing and oddly familiar, having walked away from something similar to marriage, losing everything and making discoveries of my own… albeit with less stamps in my passport. Or, for that matter, a book deal.

Rob Bell came to the stage using his humble and unorthodox spiritual charm to explain how expansive the universe was and how we each contributed to it, and I found myself wondering if he and Neil DeGrasse Tyson collaborated. When our minds weren’t being blown by the math and science used in comprising the distance and speed of planets, we were putting our lives into perspective after stories about his late grandmother and his family life gave us pause to appreciate the value of each moment and breath… and Montblanc pens.

What Gilbert is to the dreamers, Iyanla is to those (like me) who live in a “dream-like” state.  Those who fall under that category ignore or fail to grasp reality and/or anything that requires work to create or maintain something of true value. Given that she spoke from experience — having gone deep into debt after refusing to pay her bills and being left by her husband — it only seemed natural and logical to explore some crucial life choices after that talk!

It all brought me back to my last post, where I shared a list born from personal mistakes, and the takeaways that I’ve just recently begun putting into perspective and practice in the last year and a half. The events of this past weekend not only validated the importance of those lessons, it mandated my need to fully embrace them with an open, authentic and uncluttered heart and mind every day.

It helps to know there are people in my corner committed to making sure I do. A lot.

Coming off of seeing Audra McDonald’s heartbreaking portrayal of Billie Holiday during her final days in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”, and looking into a crowd including many older than myself, it was strangely comforting knowing that there’s no statute of limitations on dealing with demons, and conversely, it is never too late to change or improve your life. It’s also okay if you don’t have your shit together by a certain age, as long as you consistently make the effort to actually have it together.

All clever marketing, cool light shows, dance parties, abbreviated exercise classes, crying jags and feel-good missives aside, this experience genuinely renewed my appreciation for life and all its quirks, blessings and benefits. It also reinforced the importance of putting my own happiness and peace of mind first in order to be the kind of person who can ultimately contribute something more helpful than harmful to others.

Kinda like that analogy about putting on your oxygen mask first before helping others during a plane emergency.

Or… you know… becoming a beloved television and movie star who encourages people to read by starting a book club and founding a magazine, build schools and funds scholarships for underprivileged kids, and runs a network and a tour that encourages people to be their best selves.

Kind of a no-brainer which life I choose…

Life Choices

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Robin Williams, but when news spread yesterday of his death, I — like millions of other people around the world — felt the loss.

In an age where increased celebrity access give admirers a false sense of connection, it was never a tabloid magazine, countless gossip items, or a reality program that ingratiated Robin to fans young and old.

It was him.

For decades, his body of work was only eclipsed by his larger-than-life personality and generous, childlike and lightning-quick spirit. His energy and ability to transform from one character to another in the blink of an eye was not only mind-blowing, it was at times daunting. One was always left with a sense of wonder after watching him perform. Not to mention a hurting stomach from laughing so hard.

He was an alien, a sailor, a struggling dad reinventing himself as a beloved nanny, a teacher, a poet, a soldier’s reminder of home away from home, an aspiring doctor with a humorous bedside manner, a refugee from Neverland, a comic reliever who raised money for the homeless and others in need, and an all-around stand-up guy.

Sadly, he had demons he couldn’t conquer, and this is where he became more familiar and connected to the world. This is when he became a human being… and just like us.

The tragedy struck me not only as a fan of his work, but also as someone who is familiar with what it’s like to struggle with depression.

From a confused and angry youth peppered with abuse and abandonment, to a confused and simply frustrated adulthood, my most recent bout was a little over three years ago. At the time, I was struggling to find steady work and income — having been part of a massive layoff one year prior — and a permanent place to live after ending a toxic long-term live-in relationship months before. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after losing both his and my late grandmother’s house, and I was now responsible for his financial affairs and welfare in addition to my own — using what was left of my savings to pay his debts since he had no money left to pay them. As my savings dried out, I was forced to use my retirement fund to supplement my income when temp jobs weren’t enough, and was subsequently hit with a massive tax bill.

An incredible sister-friend generously gave me her room to stay in while I got back on my feet, and it would be where you could find me on any given day… sobbing uncontrollably and contemplating taking my own life.

In spite of those circumstances, I chose to continue my life, and became more curious to find out where it would all lead. Eventually, leads from friends led me to more consistent, and permanent, work — which allowed me to afford a room in a great apartment in Harlem, where I live to this day with a few spirited women. Over time, I’ve settled into my role as my father’s “caretaker”, but every now and then his disease finds ways to remind me of the inevitable. I consciously took action to create a life that had value beyond the tangible kind; one where I had more control of — and accountability for — my personal joy. 

Things got better from there.

We now return to the year 2014, where I’ve now discovered a fulfilling career that feeds my passion, a relationship that’s beyond anything I’d imagined, and a new and improved lease on life. 

In the last month and a half, I’ve experienced my first cruise, my first trip to New Orleans (and introduction to its cuisine), my first Essence Music Festival (which is where I had my first live Prince experience), and this past weekend I finally went skydiving for the first — and only — time. I also got a promotion at work, which led to my first bouquet of roses — ever — via my boyfriend.

In a way, this Summer of “firsts” signifies the beginning of a new life… a “rebirth” in a sense… one that never would have been possible had I chosen to end it only a few short years ago.

Which brings me back to Robin. While I cannot imagine what he was going through (or maybe I can) when he chose to take his life, it is my hope that in doing so, he has saved the lives of others who live in silence… dangerously close to making the same choice.

The sad truth is, it usually takes a tragedy to spark a necessary conversation. Amongst the tremendous outpour of emotion over the past 24 hours from those still grappling to understand how someone who brought so much joy could be in so much pain, there have also been an increasing number of those speaking out about their own demons.

If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it is that there is always another choice. A better one.

I wish he’d made that one…

Strong Feelings

A few days ago, life took a turn at an unexpected moment.

As I was waking up, I literally woke up.

Laying in bed — resisting the call of the morning and its wicked accomplice, the snooze alarm — I noticed in the mirror on my closet door the image of brightly painted toenails on a narrow and feminine foot. Inching further down, I saw a relatively defined calf attached to a meaty thigh and a softer body than the one that got me into so much trouble years ago. This prompted me to sit up and slowly observe the face lined with dark circles gained from loss of sleep taken by an active mind. (Well, more so than usual.)

This renewed look at my frame wasn’t like the others. It wasn’t critical of my lack of a washboard stomach, my tired eyes or my ongoing battle to save my breasts from the grasp of gravity. It wasn’t to admire any yoga results in my slightly muscular arms, or lament my small-but-strong childlike fingers.

It simply dawned on me that I was alive and healthy, and all the things I just mentioned — which have either determined my diet or my insecurities — didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

In the last few days, I’ve gotten a promotion at work, begun steps to finally unravel the mess of my finances from the last three-and-a-half years, and discovered an amazing support group of like-minded individuals.

This comes on the heels of my continuing education in a course that supports my chosen career path (finally!) and the ongoing encouragement from a village of loved ones and a smattering of determined Buddhists.

In the wake of the passing of Maya Angelou and, most recently, Ruby Dee, it occurred to me that the impact of these women resounded not only because their gifts could be seen and heard around the world via innumerable resources and platforms. It is because they never allowed themselves to be pigeonholed or undermined by their physical attributes, and instead rose to reverence through their versatility, intelligence, indomitable strength of character and resounding faith in themselves and the potential of generations of others to be greater.

This week I saw more than what I could physically “see”. I saw the fruits of finally speaking up for what I wanted in my career and life and seeing them become possibilities rather than dreams and wishes. I saw an emboldened woman, who acknowledged she had more to offer the world than a smile and witty banter. I saw futures where fantasy once played.

I saw… me.

Only stronger.

Let the greatness begin…

Pins and Needles

Today is the last day of 2013.

Normally, the thing to do is to reflect on the year that was — but I’ve pretty much done that already.

In the event you need a refresher, it goes like this: attended a few awesome concerts, quit my job and got a better one, clocked in some mileage with two trips each to Savannah and Florida, three trips to Toronto, and one to Panama, had a couple of brief but fun romances, spent more time with family and true friends, found my spiritual center with Buddhism and meditation, and stepped up my active side with a bit of running and yoga. And overall had a great damn time living my best life. 

So I’d like to take this moment to discuss something that will likely become my new favorite ritual at the closing of every year… 

Acupuncture.

Yes, that centuries-old practice of Chinese medicine in which needles are placed into your skin at specific pressure points in your body to relieve ailments and release tension.

For the uninitiated, the question “How can sticking needles in your flesh make you feel better?” is probably running through your mind the same way it did mine. I’ve never been a fan of needles of any kind. Usually, I need to be distracted by a speck on the wall or something of interest when I’m getting medical tests done or donating blood, so the prospect of being stuck rather leisurely and frequently never registered on my list of things to do — even when one of my best girlfriends sang the praises of it years ago.

But one company health fair, a charismatic and slightly aggressive woman named Helen, and a fully covered insurance plan all conspired to spark my curiosity. It might have also been her explanation of another ritual called “cupping” which was said to remove toxins and — here’s the kicker, inches — from your body.

Hey, anything that gives Gwyneth Paltrow embarrassing circular marks that look like she was probed by aliens must be worth a try, right? 

Nearly two months after my first session, and I’m hooked. Considering I resemble some variation of a human cactus for about forty minutes a day three times a week, it is surprisingly relaxing, and very often knocks me the hell out. I’m also convinced the cupping has indeed slimmed my torso a bit, and possibly removed all traces of any drink-infused holiday revelry. Double score.

I suppose the main takeaway from this experience — besides Diana is always right — would be to face your fears  — especially the ones that truly scare you — and embrace things that cause you pain.

As it turned out, those momentary pricks don’t hurt when you don’t think about them, and the trade-off is long-term relief of a greater ailment.  

Which brings me to a conversation I had last night with a friend. We were talking about our past relationships, and after speaking about how unhealthy they had become, it was then that I realized the impact of this year in particular, and what really made it so wonderful: This was the first in which anyone whose actions or otherwise were either harmful or didn’t fit my best interests were, for the most part, left to their own devices. 

Men with stories about needing breaks or more attention, being “wild”, or being lost, were left alone and encouraged do what makes them happy. Women who relied on me to do their jobs while they sat on beaches, and repaid me in poor treatment (forgetting their days of unemployment when they were treated to dinners), and those who had mocking fun at my expense (on occasions with the aforementioned), were no longer worthy of the time I’ve grown to value exponentially. Generally, anyone who had the benefit of receiving a job referral or a housewarming, wedding, child’s birthday or christening gift in the last four years (three of which were otherwise known as my underemployed years) got “time outs” if complaints were made regarding my attention span.

In short: This year I lived for me, and pursued peace of mind over being a “piece” in someone else’s game.

That unconscious purging turned out to be the best medicine I could ever hope for; when one’s life is filled with so many positive, generous, funny, creative, intelligent and just downright amazing people, it’s counterintuitive to hold on to a few who make you feel anyway other than appreciated.

My issue will never be how other’s choose to live their lives… it will be how they think I should live mine in a way that pleases them.

It is at this very moment while writing this, that I considered on my next acupuncture session to give each needle the name of someone who’s “gotten under my skin” metaphorically. I’m sure it would be some great symbolic moment to name the pins protruding from my neck after folks I consider to be pains in the neck.

But I can’t… cause that’s just stupid.

Also, for starters, all I can think about is the fact that I’m half-naked on a massage table looking like a mash-up of a voodoo doll, the bride of Frankenstein, and Pinhead from the “Hellraiser” movies. My next area of focus tends to veer toward my lack of Chinese language skills, which would serve me well for the intention of eavesdropping on the conversation of the ladies in the office.

And then… everything goes dark… as tranquility and slumber take over, and any stress or discomfort is all but forgotten. Once I’m done, I walk out into the world feeling shiny and new with an extra pep in my step (and a need to hydrate).

Now if that isn’t the perfect way to start the New Year, I don’t know what is. I’ll take that over a resolution any day!