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.

 

Good Mourning

Good Mourning

Yesterday, the body of a 41 year-old woman was found lying motionless in her bed for several hours in a Brooklyn apartment.

Foul play was ruled out because she was breathing, conscious, and simply recovering from coming home at four in the morning after dancing (and sweating profusely) all night at a Prince and Michael Jackson tribute dance party. She was also just happy to be laying there in silence – ears still slightly ringing from the night before – and only realized shortly before arising from the soft sanctuary of that bed, that she still had the top sheet tucked into the mattress, and was sleeping between that and her duvet most of the day.

That moment, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent of my current mid-life crisis.

Not the one-night stand I had last month in Cuba, mind you. Just the struggle of getting out of bed after a night of dancing, which technically came on the heels of walking through an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and a Target run…but still.

Anyway, I digress.

Time is forcing me to acknowledge certain truths about life. More specifically…that it ends. Last year was a pretty brutal one for mortality, and as I brace for the inevitable acknowledgement next month of the first anniversary of my father’s passing, I’m reflecting on how I’ve handled it, and if there’s anything I would’ve done differently.

But really, how does one handle these things? What’s the right way to deal with loss…or anything?

For me, I chose to do the following:

  • Holed myself up in a luxury hotel for a night in a city that’s home away from home; this time as a tourist and without my family’s knowledge.
  • Began going to therapy again.
  • Saw The Total Bent off-Broadway, and EclipsedThe Color Purple and Hamilton on Broadway. (And yes, I’ve been obsessed with the the latter’s soundtrack ever since.)
  • Traveled to Chicago, Bahamas, and Cuba for the first time, and Washington D.C. – twice in six months.
  • Watched Beyoncé, Alice Smith, Gregory Porter, Angelique Kidjo, Andra Day, Gary Clark Jr., Thundercat, Camp Lo, Leela James, Daley and many more artists perform live. (Shoutout to Michael Olatuja and Greg Osei – two artists of African descent with very different and beautifully unique music. Check them out!)
  • Saw the Cubs win at Wrigley Field, the Knicks lose at the Garden,  and the craziest Super Bowl ever on a television in a place stocked with enough booze to get us all through that second half.
  • Actually saw most of the movies nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, which made that finale all the more satisfying!
  • Discovered the artwork of Kerry James Marshall at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the futuristic brilliance of fashion at the Manus x Machina exhibit at the Met, the impressive collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the stunning and iconic sports photography at the Brooklyn Museum, the historic and life-changing experience that is every inch of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (which I still haven’t cleared after two visits and logging nearly eight hours in), the vibrant and achingly poignant works of art depicting the history and cultures and resilience of the Bahamian and Cuban people, and attended two visually stunning and contrasting fashion shows.
  • Joined two dating sites…and promptly regretted it. But gave it three months before completely disabling and scrubbing them from my phone and inbox. Bliss ensued.

Yes, reader, I went on an epic cultural binge while simultaneously embarking on a journey of self-discovery and opening up to the possibility of new love.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re absolutely right…it has been expensive AF! In the place of where savings would ostensibly be, there are just awesome memories, and a shell of a bank account that doesn’t get to fully reflect on paper what my 800+ FICO score would have the world believe.

Should I have been monetizing these experiences in the form of paid content? Hell yeah I should’ve! But that’s neither here nor there now. What matters is that I enjoyed every minute of what I did – even if I didn’t necessarily relish in the reality of not having the pleasure of telling my dad about my new adventure, or having a significant other to share them with.

To the outside world, in particular, anyone unfamiliar with me or my thought process, the past year would appear to be escapism at its finest. A fair assessment, and one reached by many (well-intentioned, but often close-minded) people who expressed concern for my well-being; unaware that for the first time in a very long time, I was in my element, and happier than I’d been in some time.

Here’s why: Art in all forms brings out various emotions: Joy, triumph, wonder, anger, sadness, despair, confusion, humor, heartbreak and hope. They can all be elicited from a song, a painting, a film, a photograph and even a destination. And in the last eleven months, I’ve tapped into every emotion imaginable. I’ve even encountered some I didn’t imagine. That’s where the beauty of having a therapist on this journey comes in. It’s been especially helpful given the current state of affairs in this country politically.

We all have our ways of coping with loss, but I’m grateful for the route I chose – even if it’s left me somewhat fiscally anemic for the time being. Death – notably one following a long debilitating illness – teaches you the greatest lesson about life. It teaches you to relish every healthy moment you have left on this earth, and don’t take for granted the things and people who support you and help you get through each day still standing. During this time of exploration, I’ve also managed to catch up with friends and loved ones I haven’t seen in ages, and in my travels I have forged new bonds or strengthened old ones. To me, that’s priceless.

In all…I have no regrets. And now that I have an Amazon fire stick…I now have no desire to leave the house much in the coming months. (I’m kidding. Kinda. No, seriously, this sucker is a game changer!!)

Fin.

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?

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.

All The Rage

Like almost every African American in my social network timeline, I went to see “The Best Man Holiday” on its opening weekend.

While my reaction wasn’t as effusive as my peers, I did enjoyed it for what it was: an entertaining film that brought back the days when movies that featured a predominantly black cast didn’t play up to any stereotypes. The days when movies like “Boomerang”, “Love Jones”, “Soul Food”, “Brown Sugar”, “Love & Basketball” and the first “Best Man” gave us a view of educated professionals, creative people following their passions, and families that were achieving middle and upper middle class success.

That was an era when great and sometimes compelling storytelling and positive and realistic imagery — ushered in by “The Cosby Show” — promoted the renaissance of black entertainment… a time when neo-soul music was coming up, hip hop was socially conscious and infusing jazz in their sound, and both were being incorporated into legendary soundtracks.

For whatever reason, it appeared this era was too brief for that genre. The films that brought career success to Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and Morris Chestnut –to name a few — faded into obscurity, and made way for a new brand of movies that often went straight to video or played for a certain type of audience who were content with watered down characters who were more caricatures than three dimensional.

Today, nearly fifteen years later, what should be a simple celebration of an entertaining movie and a revival of that craft, has now escalated into heated debates and unnecessary comparisons.

From a poorly worded USA Today article — where the author was dumfounded by the film’s ability to nearly keep pace with “Thor” despite being in a thousand fewer theaters and called it “race themed” — to a cavalcade of online militants who’ve grown tired of the crop of “slave genre” movies, Malcom D. Lee’s movie found itself with the unwanted and unwarranted baggage of other people’s expectations.

Although the film’s second half took an emotional turn, the overall romantic comedy was suddenly pitted against a juggernaut of a comic franchise that is Marvel (one that, it should be noted, had two black lead actors in the cast), and unfairly dubbed the antidote to more somber flicks such as “Fruitvale Station”, “The Butler”, and “12 Years a Slave”. Message boards still reeling from “Django Unchained” urged people to support the movie for reasons beyond its feel-good nature. Deep sighs of relief from people suffering “Tyler Perry backlash” could be heard across the nation. The shade being thrown was enough to blind you from the beautiful and seemingly ageless cast that just set out to make a warmhearted Christmas-themed sequel with friendship, love and forgiveness at its core.

I suppose these days, when movie-going has become a fairly expensive pastime, one tends to be a bit more selective and discerning when it comes to how and what your hard earned money is spent on. And when the caliber of entertainment being ladled down your throat on a regular basis comprises mostly of train-wreck reality programs where positive messages are severely lacking, then it’s no wonder when smartly written shows like “Scandal”, and anything where the lead characters are prominent African Americans in non-submissive roles conjure up the kind of emotion mostly felt on graduation day.

But the rage is just overwhelming. My fear is that our propensity to get fired up about everything is just going to end up burning bridges of opportunity time and again.

Granted, the onslaught of material tackling the disturbing subjects of slavery and racial discrimination appear excessive when you’ve been inundated by it in the past couple of years. It would also seem that the timing couldn’t be more unfortunate, as ignorant actions and statements appears to be on the rise. But where “Django” was a cartoonish revenge fantasy (much like “Inglorious Basterds”, which ironically didn’t fire up as much outrage in the Jewish community), this year’s crop of stories were either based on factual events and people, or derived from a true story. It’s an interesting commentary, given that decades ago Alex Haley was once heralded for sharing the story of his ancestors in his epic novel, which became the historic TV movie, “Roots”.

One would think at a time when Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team of historians launched the spectacular documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on PBS, the time would be ripe for embracing and appreciating true stories that shine light and perspective on the hardships and triumphs faced by black people in general, and open up dialogue in communities starving for respect and recognition while struggling with identity and self-esteem in a continually shifting social and economic climate.

Which is probably why “TBMH” was such a breath of fresh air. Like its predecessors, it allowed the audience to view a world where the black people had success in their careers and relationships (or saw any challenges with them neatly resolved by the time the credits rolled), and were treated equally — and even adoringly in one case — by the white cast members.

Most importantly, race never had a starring role in this movie… Love did.

Perhaps the painful reminders of a flawed and tragic history and reality is still too much of a jagged pill to swallow, and we prefer our entertainment more diluted and, yes, a bit melodramatic as a means of escape.

It is, after all, entertainment. Maybe we do need to see a crying (and shirtless!) Morris Chestnut, a snarky Terrence Howard, and a New Edition tribute to make it all better… at least for two solid hours.

Given the sheer joy it’s brought millions of people thus far… I’m gonna go with a resounding “Yes.”

 

The Year of Living

It’s November…

It’s that time of the year when you realize it’s coming to an end soon.

For me, it’s the time my month-long introspection leading up to my birthday begins.

In all seriousness, 2013 has been fucking awesome.  

No. I didn’t strike it rich. Nah, I’m still simply infamous within my own circle of friends, former cohorts and occasional acquaintances.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way… although I wouldn’t take issue with having more money.

What made this year so amazing is that it was, in essence, “the year of living”. Not exactly dangerously (although I did almost jump out of a plane yesterday — had those pesky clouds not spoiled it), but truly living and fully appreciating my life and taking big chances.

This year, I rang in the new year at the Barclays Center watching Coldplay and Jay Z sing “Auld Lang Syne” as confetti rained on my head. I resigned from a job considered great for social-climbing, but draining for my soul (and immunity system). Braving bitter cold, I joined the throngs who stood outside the Capital to watch the presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. Found a job at a company that feeds my creative passion; where my colleagues treat me with the utmost respect, shower me with praise and encouragement, and give me things like insurance, vacation days and “summer Fridays” — the first time I’ve ever had that in my entire work life.

This was just the first three months…

The following months would see me spending quality time with incredible people taking in great art, music, sporting events, movies and important teaching moments where rage and emotion ran deep. The spring and summer months saw me boarding planes to Miami, Savannah, Panama and Toronto (a few times).

Truth be told, that was fucking exhausting. Fun. Exhilarating even… but exhausting.

This year I learned to let go of things and people who weren’t healthy for me. It wasn’t as deliberate as it was natural. At some point, you realize whose around for the party, and who’s with you when there’s no music (or other methods of escape) playing the role of artificial bond. And you just let things be.

This is the year of self restoration, where my body and soul discovered the joys and benefits of yoga, meditation, and Buddhism. Nothing brings me back to a place of calm and resolve like a good “Om” and chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”. I’ve found it lifts my inhibitions the way alcohol or weed would, except I don’t get a headache, nausea or slight remorse afterwards.

This year has been unprecedented when it comes to physical activity that doesn’t involve sex (well, exclusively anyway). Aside from yoga, I’ve also completed my first 5K race, my first Breast Cancer walk in years, and my first indoor rock climbing experience. Also, a special shout-out to aerial silk class, for simultaneously making me look and feel like a graceful acrobat and temporarily cutting off the circulation in my hands and feet. Pink makes that shit look so easy — and she sings while she does it! I’m pretty sure her stage name also stands for the color of her fingers and toes as she belts out those songs.

Speaking of sex, I gladly took a break from it until I committed to dating someone who connected with me beyond physical chemistry. As I’ve come to value the role communication and friendship plays in building a worthwhile relationship, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the pleasure of being intimate with someone who makes me laugh, makes me think, and recognizes and encourages me to value all that I have to offer. In turn, I’ve found how quickly and easily things flow when you mutually have that kind of connection as opposed to forcing one based on a desire to not be alone.

The best part of this year by far has been my father. Two years ago, there would have been expletives in correlation with that word. Today, my father provides me with some of the happiest moments in the simplest form. When he answers the phone “Hey baby!” after hearing my voice. When he continuously hugs and kisses me during my visits. When he lets me cut his ridiculously long fingernails. When he remembers a detail without me having to repeat it about six times in one conversation (a rarity). When I hear he doesn’t need as much insulin because his sugar levels are good. When I hear he’s recognized an old classmate before they got a chance to approach him at a 50-plus year reunion. When I hear he’s gone outside for a walk. And finally, when he looks me in the eye after widening his own after a long pause, and randomly reveals that while I didn’t grow up in the way he had hoped, he was proud of the way I had, and of the woman I’d become as a result.

Nothing could really top that…

While the remaining two months of this epic year have plenty of opportunities for equally memorable moments, the past ten have been nothing short of a sensational dream. Of course, there have been bumps along the way, but that’s made it all the more perfectly balanced.

It takes a year like this to restore your faith in the beauty of life when just a few years ago you momentarily considered ending it.

When I think of the lovely beaches and people of Panama… The majesty of the Falls and the lush vineyards of Niagara Lake a drive away from the clean and beautiful city of Toronto… Being so close to Chris Martin you could literally touch him as he and the band head back to the stage during an encore… Cheering, booing and crying with a million strangers on a chilly D.C. morning… Crossing a finish line as a crowd cheers you on… And even getting close enough to jumping out the plane… How could I not value every minute and every breath of air spent this year having these experiences, and not look forward to more to come?

The last year that had this kind of impact on me was 1996. That was the year I made my first trip to London, Paris and Versailles, experienced the Olympics firsthand while working in the Olympic Village during the Atlanta games, and had an internship with a magazine that ended up putting me in two of the editorial stories and spent my days playing dress up in sample closets, taking Polaroids of ugly prom dresses and making showroom appointments for a beloved market editor who now goes by the name of Rachel Zoe.

I doubt my appreciation for years will lapse as drastically going forward.

I drink far too much wine now to let that happen again.

Looking forward to picking up a bottle of a 2013 vintage. Even if the wine itself is crap (seeing as there’s a crop crisis — thanks global warming), when I say “it was a good year”, it’ll be with the utmost sincerity… and maybe a bit of nostalgia.

So… what’s your year been like so far?

Lost In Translation

There’s something to be said about a “stay-cation”.

I mean, besides the obvious “I’m trying to save money.”

It’s an opportunity to discover new things in your hometown that you may not have had the time or inclination to, had you not had the luxury of unused vacation days at your disposal.

For me, it was a chance to catch up with some friends and family, get in touch with my silly side dressing up for a Halloween party, and watching people undress during a jazz/burlesque show.

But it was the final day of “stay-cay” that would bring the most discovery, and ultimately affect me more than any afro-wig sporting, or semi-nude debauchery could.

With my newly found block of time, I was able to re-awaken my dormant relationship with NY Cares and volunteer for a new program. Having already worked with children, the idea of working with women of Arab descent was a new challenge I was game for. As a volunteer, we were required to have “empowering conversations with the women in English”, which seemed more like a cake-walk upon first glance.

For the most part… it was.

As my fellow volunteers and I entered the room of women who were fresh off their English language teachings, we were initially taken aback by the large number of them that had gathered. With four of us to their twenty-plus number, it was daunting at first trying to figure out how to incorporate all the women into our conversations. One of the veterans of the program — clearly a pro — began by getting all the women to say their name and tell us where they’re from and if they had children and how many. It turned out to be a great ice breaker, as the women revealed their children’s genders and numbers, which segued into jokes about the boy/girl ratio in the room and how they perhaps chose their seats in the room based on the gender of the kids.

As class progressed, we discussed the Arab holiday that had recently passed, for which they brought in a feast of dishes to celebrate amongst each other following the class. They asked us about our religious holidays and what they mean to us, and a poignant moment occurred when the women learned that Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve. Apparently, they were stunned to find out that much the way they attend mosque prayers leading into their holidays, Americans partake in a similar ritual. One of the women, who spoke perfect English, declared “so we are all the same.”

If that had been how our session concluded, I would have been content in what could easily be called a “kumbaya” moment. But there was more time left. And eventually we had to break out into groups to have more in-depth chats.

So it was here where the real education happened.

In a room filled with women hailing from Yemen, Sudan and Sri Lanka, we were adeptly maneuvering through small talk about family, favorite foods and parks in New York when the women excitedly volunteered to read their assigned paragraphs to me and looked for guidance when they had difficulty with words. Honored by the gesture and happy to be instrumental in improving their grasp of the language, I listened and gently ushered them through their selected paragraphs — even after realizing every one of them were negative.

As I listened to stories of friendships being endangered by one’s lack of reliability and phone etiquette, of a girl who thought she told funny stories until her mother informed her she’s not always funny, and of a man who will never be fat because he’s a light eater who prefers fish sandwiches and vegetables — the part of me that wasn’t coaching them through pronunciation and complimenting them on completing their paragraphs was horrified!

The idea of being there to have “empowering” conversations with women who are being taught to speak with condescension was troubling, but the fact that most — if not all — of the women there to learn the native tongue of their new adopted home had no idea they were being taught this was even more troubling. I’d probably be standing on a soapbox if the people responsible for this were American by birth… but they’re not.

As I looked at these smiling women, who spoke with pride of their families, prodded me about my own (non)marital status, offered me food and laughed with shyness and perhaps a little spirit, it became clearer that a lot of what we perceive about each other is simply based on what we are taught or told by those we consider “experts”. It would give me the greatest pleasure if one of the women became so adept at understanding the language that she realizes and corrects the well-intended but slightly offensive “curriculum” being shared with her fellow classmates.

In spite of the lesson, it was an amazing experience to see so many women, young and old, unafraid of taking on a new challenge in their lives… lives which in their respective parts of the world could have been limited to simply being wives and mothers.

At the end of the day, I may have taught them how to pronounce a few words and phrases, but they taught me a lesson or two.

Sure, that kind of story doesn’t have the shock value of chicks with strategically placed tassels, but it’s less likely to give me panic attacks in the event I miss yoga class.

Who needs to get on a plane, when Brooklyn is just a train ride away and has just as many adventures? A metrocard can give you all the excitement of Vegas, and the international intrigue of a UN mission.

Needless to say, the Tuesday recap at the office was interesting…

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.