When I was in my 30s or so, I emailed my father because I’d had a revelation.
“You treat all of the women you’re connected to horribly,” I announced.
I’d cracked the code and I had proof. At the time, his mother was a recent double amputee, who’d just moved in with him and his wife. During a breakfast outing, she confided to Dwight and me that he was charging her rent.
I also recounted a rumor I’d heard about how he’d mistreated my own mother. It was something about helping another woman move to Moline, IL while my mother was hospitalized 165 miles away. The indiscretion occurred before I was born, but I’d heard about it so much, primarily when adults didn’t know I was listening, that I could re-tell it myself.
I left the secrets I’d accrued about his current relationship unsaid, and instead, concluded with his treatment of me, which included explicit and implicit abandonment and unfulfilled promises.
“You always did judge me harshly,” he wrote, “but you know what? You’d do better psychoanalyzing yourself.”
At the time, I was offended.
Wouldn’t knowing my parent offer insights into myself and our relationship? I mean, I guess I could’ve phrased it with a less judgmental tone, or used “I statements,” but I’m no therapist and at the time hadn’t sought therapy. All I suspected was that I may be better if I understood his patterns of behavior because parts of who he was had affected me in some way.
Or, was he right?
Would I do better to simply think deeply about my own negative behavior, which was quickly adding up and determine how to proceed with life in a healthier way? Would it be better to stare myself down in the mirror and focus on the image reflected back to me?
Fifteen years ago, it was much easier to point out everyone else’s flaws than to identify and focus on my own. It always is. Plus, I wasn’t ready for that type of introspection.
But, after finally doing the work, I find it’s also important to research your family of origin as a method of recognizing patterns of behavior they may have passed on to you. Sometimes these models have inextricably bound you together in unhealthy ways.
However, I do recognize the rudeness of my communication. If I had the opportunity to re-send this email to my father, I wouldn’t. I’d just accept the observations of his life as observations (and judgments) and be grateful about how helpful they may be for me.
While I believe we will do best to worry about ourselves, ultimately, we were each shaped by our first communities, our families. And understanding who they are/were can be integral to understanding ourselves.
What do you think?
Last weekend, my family and I celebrated my goddaughter’s birthday. Our hotel had board games and a pool table in the lobby. Thanks to Dwight, we had an impromptu game night that lasted to midnight.
As is common for the 21st century, I took some photos and posted them to social media. A few people were surprised that I posed with a cue. And I was surprised they were surprised. Sometimes I’m able to let comments like these roll off my back; but this time, I was bothered, not only by their surprised reactions, but also by their accusations that I couldn’t possibly know how to shoot pool.
My great uncle, Uncle Webber taught me how to play when I was around 12 or 13 years old. He and Aunty Belle had just bought a home in Maywood, a Chicago west suburb. They had one of those garages that dips under the house. When you exited the car, you opened the door into the basement.
In their basement was a pool table, and that’s where I learned to play. Uncle Webber taught me. He taught me how to hold the cue. He showed me how to chalk the cue, and he helped me understand the rules of the game. Because I visited Aunty Belle and Uncle Webber often, I frequently practiced basic rules, like hitting the ball on a specific side to execute a shot.
I’m not saying I walked around the west side with a cue in my back pocket, hustling people, but I learned enough to know how to play. Just like riding a bike, those lessons stayed with me. When Dwight suggested we play the other day, I reviewed them and proceeded as I remembered.
But you can’t say all this on social media. There isn’t enough room, and it’s social media inappropriate, I suppose. Instead, I posted a few one-liners and lol’d my way through.
This has happened before. People are shocked that I do something other than teach or write. Playing pool is just one example. People are amazed that I cook food, which seems absurd, considering how much I like to eat and that I have a family, who throughout the years, has required meals.
I get that we can’t know every single facet of everyone’s identity or life. But that’s exactly why I think we shouldn’t assume that the 2-3 parts people show us is all they have to offer. Most people are multidimensional. While I teach for a living and write to promote thought, I also cook, play Spades, volunteer, read tarot cards, workout regularly, dance, and practice yoga.
Let’s stop putting friends and family in boxes and actually try to get to know one another. It could be as easy as starting a conversation that begins with, “I didn’t know you did blah blah blah,” which could lead to a cool story and a deeper understanding of an individual.
A few hours after I wrote this, I saw this video on FB that shows exactly what I’m saying:
I learned the first semester of undergrad that being assigned several tasks at one time caused uncontrollable tension. There was an overwhelming sense that I wouldn’t have time to complete everything. That’s when I developed an organized coping mechanism system. I began keeping an agenda of lists. These lists ensured that I knew where I was supposed to be and at what time. As technology advanced, I not only kept lists, but I also created reminders on my cell phone and included the same events on my digital calendar. My lists had lists.
I’m sure list making is a “normal” task; my issue is that I never veer from them. A friend of mine jokes that she needs to make an appointment to speak with me. But she and I know it’s not a joke. I will not sacrifice a list item for an unscheduled phone conversation to catch up with a friend.
This rule continued as I raised children. My daughters understood that if they wanted me to do something, then they had to tell me at least a week in advance. I’ve missed ceremonies because they told me at the “last minute,” which would require me changing my schedule, sending me into a frenzy where I felt as if I didn’t have enough time.
The rigidity and necessity of my list making surfaced April 2019 when my youngest daughter was in a car accident. Someone hit someone else, who hit her, and caused her to hit a fourth person. She called her dad, who handled the situation and agreed that she was able to go to school. By the end of the day, she’d texted me complaining of headaches.
After an appointment with a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine), it was decided that she had a concussion and would need further treatment. Additionally, she would have to take pain meds every 3-4 hours and rest for at least a week at home…with me. This meant no screen time and no thinking, just resting. Are you aware of how challenging it is to keep a seventeen-year-old off her phone?
This is when I fully realized another issue. When life is fine, I’m fine. List. Check. Go. When something occurs, especially if it’s traumatic, I begin to feel worried that I cannot handle the task at hand and complete my list. I spiral quickly.
Ensuring my daughter ate food, rested, didn’t watch television, stayed off her phone, didn’t FaceTime her group for a group project (which she did), took pain medications every four hours, all while checking off my daily professor tasks, like grading papers and answering students’ question was…a lot.
But I didn’t realize it until my husband came home.
“Why are you so tired?” he asked.
My answer? Tears. I was emotionally exhausted. The days’ events had worn me out, and underneath it all I was also worried that our daughter wouldn’t recover soon enough. She was in a rigorous academic program and needed her brain. She had an oral exam in a week and AP exams shortly after. Concussions can take months to recover from. Her fogginess was evident. She couldn’t recall words, like theory. What if she never healed? What if this accident ruined everything? What if I wasn’t doing enough to help her heal? How was I supposed to balance helping her and doing my job?
I never saw myself as suffering from anxiety. I reserved that for other people, like my cousin who had prescriptions for panic attacks or those who washed their hands and cleaned obsessively. Certainly, I wasn’t like them.
I’d even read that people with anxiety chew ice and shared that info with my husband. “You used to chew ice,” he said.
And I thought so what? I’ve never had anxiety. But, I do. My life is peppered with people asking a simple question, like “how are you?” and me crying uncontrollably because I’ve held onto frenetic feelings and worse-case scenarios of a situation.
Last year is just the first time I’d realized it.
Part of the mental health stigma is that issues have to be extreme. This is untrue. You do not have to be walking down the street talking to yourself to have a mental health issue. You can simply have an overactive mind that constantly tells you there isn’t enough time to complete tasks. You can have the incapacity to appropriately regulate your emotions. Or, you can have fill-in-the-blank issue that you’ve kept secret to appear “normal.”
Either way, the first step for any healing is acceptance. I’ve accepted anxiety is a part of a few mental health issues I’ve tried to hide. Next month, I’ll discuss another.
December 7th, 2018, I took a girls trip with five women. I’ve known one of these women since first grade and the others since seventh. While many of us have gotten together separately over the years for high school reunions or visits back home, the six of us hadn’t been together as a group since high school.
I admit I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m happy to report that it was one of the best trips I’ve taken with a group of women. We all got along just as we had over two and a half decades ago. It’s as if we were the same people, just 45 years old, with more life experiences to share.
Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on what made our time together so special.
We’re similar. All six of us attended an academically talented and gifted school called, Whitney M. Young for both the Academic Center (7th-8th grade) and high school. At the time we attended, it was the best high school in the nation. Meaning, we’re all not only intelligent, but we’ve also faced some of the same challenges throughout life when it comes to education and career choices. I mention this not to brag, but to highlight that when friends are similar at a core level, then deeper conversations ensue. Most of the time, we didn’t have to provide background information prior to talking about a shared issue.
We respected our differences. Prior to this trip, I believed that friends are such because they have similar interests; therefore, there is little need for compromise. You know what I mean? But that weekend revealed that while we are similar in some ways, we’ve grown to be different in others. That Friday, one of us wanted to sing karaoke, so we made our way to City Walk’s Rising Star. Another friend exercises daily, so she awoke each morning before everyone and walked on the beach. To our surprise, one woman enjoys watching NASCAR; so, we all paid our $20 and toured Daytona International Speedway. These are just three examples. While we weren’t necessarily fully invested in each other’s events, we each partook. I can only speak for myself in saying the reason I participated in everything is because we were there to visit with one another. Whether that be at a fancy dinner, on a jet ski, or at the pool, I was happy to compromise to hang out with women I considered to be friends.
We listened. On this trip we had constant, intimate conversations. We not only revealed events that had happened over the years, but also how we felt about these experiences. Not once did I feel negatively judged for sharing myself or my shortcomings. At no point did I think, “I shouldn’t have said that” for fear of the side-eyes or subsequent comments that accompany saying something not aligned with society’s values. Once again, I attribute the warmth of this inviting and supporting environment to the quality of women I’d unconsciously chosen to befriend years ago.
I’ve spoken a lot about relationships on this blog. But this trip solidified my overall feelings about them. Whether friend, familial, or romantic, good relationships feel warm and loving. They are non-judgmental and, in some ways, symbiotic. They are as natural as the ocean’s waves and as long lasting or fleeting as the sand that surrounds it.
As of today, that’s my answer on this topic. Let me know what you think.
About three months ago, a high school friend sent me a picture I had given her during our junior year. On the back, I’d done as many high school students used to. I’d written her a personal message. In case you can’t read my writing, it says:
Even though you never call anyone, and never tell anyone anything, and never go anywhere with anyone: u still the homie!
Okay. Let’s take a pause to commemorate 20th century rituals, such as signing pictures!
Now, back to my point. When I read what I’d written over two decades ago, I laughed. How much had I changed from 1990? I considered this person a friend, and I still do, yet for some reason, I had to call her out on her non-friend like behavior. Sound familiar? It does to me. I’ve written countless blogs that focus on relationships and understanding how we treat one another within those relationships.
Based on what I wrote, it seems to have been my lifelong quest.
Reading what I’d written reminded me of a quote. Loosely paraphrased it says, it’s not so much that we need to find ourselves, as we need to remember who we were, or something like that.
I agree. Much of our childhood and adolescent years are spent becoming acculturated and acclimated to our surroundings. We learn what we can, cannot, should, or should not say, and in some cases, do. Initially, our parents take on the role of ensuring we’re properly socialized. Once we begin school and other activities, society takes over. Some of these lessons are explicit, like don’t swear in public. Others are implicit, like girls should be quiet and demure.
One lesson that stands out for me is from my mother. She would always tell me, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” She tried to instill some sense of etiquette to my tone. By my mid-30s, and after watching others’ reactions in conversations, I began to self-censor not only my tone, but also my speech, because try as I may, I can’t seem to say things with sugar or honey. And if someone was going to worry about how I said something, it was best not to say it at all. This lasted two years. For me, self-censorship causes a buildup of unused words, and that’s not good for my health.
I’m believing more and more that we are born knowing who we are and what we need to do. Like the paraphrased quote above, we just need to remember who, what and why?
Eventually, I found my way back to who I am. Blogging has helped. While I do edit words for grammar and usage, I don’t suppress my tone or what I want to say. Likewise, I never intend to hurt someone’s feelings, so in person, sometimes I pause or exhale before speaking. But I make sure not to mince words. Finally, I’ve accepted the idea that if you’re focused on how I say something, instead of what I’ve said, then maybe we don’t need to communicate. And that’s okay. Maybe you’ll find someone who says things in a manner in which you can receive the message.
So, what do you think? Do we change over time? Are we taught to fit in, which causes us to change? Have you had to re-learn who you once were?
“Shine your light for the world to see.” It’s a quote from a rap song that I’d heard decades ago (Mos Def). But I’m really feeling it after our D.C. book reading. Just like the previous two, this one was completely different as well. The Jacksonville book talk was more like a starter event. The authors had never publicly read their stories before, so the energy was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Though each writer’s voice was clear, it was quiet.
Three months later, we’d moved 345 miles north to Atlanta. Three women had read in Jacksonville, so they were a bit more familiar with expectations. Their voices were grounded, louder. This time the audience had changed. The energy was palpable in varied ways. Questions were about the writing process, as well as the healing process. How had any of us done this? This included forgiving our fathers for heinous shenanigans. This included writing our mini-memoirs for someone other than ourselves.
Seven months after the Jacksonville event, we convened in Washington, D.C. and everything had changed. Two readers were pros. Kotrish Wright declined the use of a podium. Instead, she used the space around her to give more of a performance act. Her voice rose and fell, like an experienced reader. Inflection was important for specific parts. Ishna Hagan read her narrative with confidence and poise. She stood in her truth, which seemed to give her power.
Tikeetha was a novice to this experience. But I couldn’t tell. She read her story with the ease of a famous author. Though her story is sad and heart wrenching, she managed to make the audience nod and laugh at all the appropriate times.
And finally, there’s me.
This time I felt like I was shining my light for the world to see. An attendee who had cried her way through a question and almost the entire reading thanked me for putting this together. She’d intended to find a way for her mother to heal from trauma and mental illness. Another woman recounted her own father-daughter situation. It was enough to be another chapter in our edited collection. She, too, admitted she needed to find a way to counter her childhood dysfunction. A friend of mine provided me with a list she’d brainstormed to broaden my reach: come to Richmond, VA and call her OWN network contact.
After this third reading, I feel like we’ve each come into our own. We’ve done much more than pour our hearts on pages for catharsis. We’ve demonstrated what love, forgiveness, grace, and healing look like. We’ve exposed ourselves in ways that neither of us believed possible.
“Umi said shine your light on the world; shine your light for the world to see.” With this project, we’ve shone brightly and come into our own. And we plan to continue in our own way.