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?

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…

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…