Stop Paying Attention to Age

“I need a slow motion video, right now,” he recited bubbly when he answered my phone call. Most greet others with a hug or a handshake. Our special welcome is a rap ad-lib that we uttered no less than a thousand times in one day during the summer of 2011. We joked, drank, partied, and conversed during his one night visit to NYC. Most importantly, we needed a slow motion video for our plethora of shenanigans.

We met while I attended the best university at a “we have extra money in our budget so let’s host an extravagant buffet styled lunch” appreciation luncheon during the summer. His mother was then an administrative assistant in the Dean’s office and proudly introduced me to her soon to be fourteen year old son. His tall lanky frame, with over sized hands and feet, highlighted that was he in the midst of a growth sprout. His mom and my boss mentor suddenly disappeared into the crowed after the brief introduction, and we were left awkwardly together. Making small talk (Editor’s note: small talk with a teenager is top ten hardest things to do in life…don’t doubt me, just shake your head in agreement), I asked what he liked to do in his free time, and he tersely replied, “Play basketball.” I then invited him to hoop with me and some friends, not thinking that he would take me up on the offer. But he did; I still remember the phone call from his mother asking what time she should bring him to the gym. A couple days later, we were running up and down the court together. He was on my team because my big brother instincts wanted to protect him because neither my friends nor I knew if he could actually hoop since he was younger than we were and if he sucked it was only right that I shouldered the burden. Impressively, he held his own against the older competition and we won the majority of our games. More importantly, our friendship began.

We are six years apart, and being the elder I assumed the mentor role. We spoke occasionally about school and his social life; I mainly listened and offered advice when asked for it. After I graduated, our conversations continued, evolving as we each became more of ourselves. The frequency decreased each year, but we always made it a point to check in with each other ever so often. For example, when I found out that I was going to have a child at twenty-three, we spoke about it like brothers. I shared with him my anxieties and apprehensions, especially given that both of us had grown up without our biological fathers present. Likewise, when he was having a difficult time in college, we spoke about it like brothers. I encouraged him to continue his educational journey, and even sent him some money for “books.”

After all the pleasantries and small talk, he exploded that he connected with his biological father and siblings. The story seemed surreal; he went to college with his half sister and even met her a couple times because they shared a similar friend group. Only a few months earlier did she somehow connect the dots. I smiled when I heard the excitement in his voice about being a big brother and how he and his sisters are actively working on crafting meaningful relationships. And then the conversation became authentic when we broached the difficult questions about his father and their initial meeting. Undeterred and maturely, he detailed the work in progress of moving past the past and focusing on the future. I could hear, faintly, the hurt in his voice that he was actively moving beyond. He understood that bitterness would destroy this opportunity, so he decided to be happy and embrace the moment. During our two hour conversation, I learned from him. He showcased for me what letting go actually looks like. He demonstrated a strength and courageousness that left me in awe. I just kept saying in my head, “I want to be like him when I grew up” because he was handling tough situations in an admirable way that I wanted to emulate.

After we hung up the phone, some two hours later, I decided that I can no longer pay attention to age because it can not quantify one’s wisdom and maturity. I have met some older adults who act like children immaturely. Similarly, I have met some young adults who speak and act with a knowledge beyond what one would expect given their age. Thus, I am actively working to remove my assumptions about others based on their age.

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Success Is Born Out of Struggle

struggleOne of my co-opted life sayings is, “If we all put our problems in a public pile, I will gladly keep my pile.” I was reminded of that truth recently while at a friend’s boozy (unlimited mimosas), board game/UNO playing brunch in celebration of her birthday. I notice that when the opposite sexes of the single variety get together the conversation tends to stray towards sex and relationships, which makes sense given that our lives revolve around the two in some form and fashion. This conversation, however, was slightly different largely because all the participants did not know each other well. We were all associates, having all seen each other at different music industry events and being introduced previously, but not everyone were friends. Thus, we asked those seemingly standard, non invasive questions, in no particular order, like: what do you do for a living? so why are you single? any kids? where did you go for undergrad?

After my round of twenty questions, which I dislike because once people hear that I graduated from two Ivy league schools their view of me often changes. Some become intimated, especially when they learn that I teach English; they become much more self-conscious about speaking correctly, whatever that means. Some are surprised because I “don’t look the type,”confused because I have a six year old son out of wedlock, live in the Bronx, and have tattoos. Their vision of an Ivy League grad is not me. *Shrugs* I’m used to it by now. However, the same way I am slightly irritated by people’s projections and assumptions of who I am or who I’m supposed to be, does not mean that I am excluded from doing the same thing. And I have to remind myself of that fact.

Next, a friend (editor’s note: I use this term loosely because even though I consider him a friend, the following conversation made me question and think about what it means to be a friend) began his obligatory twenty questions. The barrage of questions, from the opposite sex, began with what he does for a living, and he quickly disarmed them with a curt response: “Whatever I want.” Taken aback by the ambiguous retort, they reloaded with a seemingly simpler question, “Why did you go to school?” Once again, he quickly responded, “I didn’t go to college.” Surprised once more, the firing squad asked the next logical question, why, which allowed for him to share a deeply moving personal recount of being homeless for roughly eighteen months after high school graduation. The questions increased as everyone’s interest was elevated. I had my own, but decided to be a silent observer.

The cheers of shots being given for losing Connect Four and the raucous laughter and conversation of a cacophonous sports bar during the Final Four were suddenly muted, and I only heard his voice. Not once did he falter when retelling his story because he knows it better than anyone else. He kept eye contact throughout the course of the questions, even smiling at times when the story took unexpected (Editor’s note: the whole story was unexpected) twists and turns, nothing short of divine intervention at one point. He even shared small things that I never considered, like knowing where to get water or where to use the bathroom without being hassled. As I sat to his left, watching his big brown eyes move around the table, fully engaged with everyone within earshot, I witnessed strength and resiliency firsthand. I wondered, while he shared his story, if I could have made it through those situations with the same high level of integrity. Could I be so open and honest about such a personal history with people that I see at various functions and parties? Could I…In the end, I had no response, but was grateful…not because I thought of my situation to be better or easier than his. But rather, I was grateful for the moment, an opportunity to share in something special. Needless to say, my admiration and respect for him grew a thousand fold.

After he stopped talking, the table was silent for a few moments, when one of the beautiful women said, “And look at y’all,” pointing towards my friend and I, “different paths but in the same place.” Her acute observation reminded me of how little assumptions should matter, and, more importantly, how much more valuable personal stories are.

Reflecting on the moment, I wonder why we don’t share our piles of issues more publicly, more often, probably out of shame or fear of judgment. Those few minutes, while our UNO game was suspended and our attention undivided, I felt so connected…to him and the others who listened. Understanding just this one part of his struggle, makes me cheer so much harder for his success.

I’m Not Superman, But I’m Stronger

notsuperman

“You don’t understand. He’s smart, handsome, even decent. But he’s not brave. No, listen to me. Superman is indestructible, and you can’t be brave if you’re indestructible. It’s people like you and your mother. People who are different, and can be crushed and know it. Yet they keep on going out there every time.”–Grandpa, from the movie, Angus.

The above quote hypothesizes that Superman was not brave because he was indestructible. His ability to survive any situation denied him courage because he knew, before the crisis even began, that he would emerge unharmed and triumphant. Thus, he could not exhibit any bravery.

Thus, my declaration that “I’m not Superman” oddly strengthens me. It momentarily calms my often racing mind (maybe, I should say it more often). I am not Superman and that’s ok. Actually, it’s more than ok; it’s better that I’m not Superman (I can then be me, which is the best that I can be!). Sadly, it has taken almost thirty years of my life to come to this conclusion and more importantly accept it. And believe me, I have tried to be Superman, stretching myself thinner than a film strip to please and help others. Sometimes I have done so to the detriment of myself. I’m not Superman though.

The trails, tribulations, successes, and failures that I have endured, however, prove that I am stronger than the alien-man stronger than a locomotive. So, by transitive property, I am stronger than a speeding train (Editor’s note: shout out to my math teacher who taught me that…and extra shout out to the readers who understand that “Big Bang”-ish reference). Throughout my life, I have exhibited courage to challenge my obstacles, even when I did not have faith or knowledge that I would come out victorious. Regardless, I still fought and more importantly, I’m still here!

There’s power in understanding one’s vulnerability and even more power in facing it. With that newfound knowledge, I proudly proclaim, “I. Am. Not. Superman.”

Positive Alterity

Recently, my writings have been racially charged. From the Trayvon Martin case to the subsequent comments after the arrival of college letters, my frustrations with being the other in the United States have spilled out onto this canvas blog. Sharing myself in this fashion, especially this past week, has been emotionally draining. Coupled with work, family, and life, I crashed last night. I was in bed and fast asleep by 9:30pm. Judge me if you must, but my body needed the rest. Yesterday’s post did not receive much traffic yesterday, and while I do not know what was going on in my reader’s life, I took the low numbers as a sign that all of this discussion of race was difficult for my readers. Maybe my onslaught of racially motivated posts was too much, too overwhelming, too challenging.  Yesterday’s post was very direct and required readers to think about their action, particularly their comments, surrounding race. I hope that my writing continues to challenge you all and creates discussions in your heart and your communities.

Today, I want to share a new term that I recently learned, positive alterity. This term was coined by Jan Weissman in her discussion of multiracial, interracial identity formation, but I find the term to be powerful and applicable for all. Weissman suggests that those who feel otherized, which can be seen in so many different ways–we all are otherized in some fashion,  can claim their sense of other as a sense of power. In this fashioning of “other than other,” one is able to claim rights and privileges of one’s own definition. Consequently, one is able to find joy in your identity even though the dominant culture may try to make one feel, as a result of your otherized identity,  insufficient or inadequate. The term allows for you to be you regardless of what society may try to impose on you.

While at the White Privilege Conference this past week in New Mexico, a group of facilitators presented a meaningful exercise. They wrote down the challenges that are present with working with white people within a white dominant setting (i.e. our workplaces, the United States). The words included shame, frustration, hurt, amongst others. More importantly, as a group we discussed the words that represented our cultures and identities. Some of the words were liberation, tradition, language, and love. We then wrote those words on colored paper and taped it over the negative, toxic words. Thus, creating a beautiful collage of words that physically illustrated the strength of our racially otherized communities. That picture, which I share with you all, has provided me with comfort and support during this time.  It is also an example of positive alterity, reclaiming one’s power even though one is otherized.

If you are focusing on my attendance at the White Privilege Conference or the fact that there were negative words associated with living in White culture, I challenge you to move past it. I push you to resist the strong temptation to deflect the issue, and instead focus your energy on the power of the activity, the power of positive alterity.

Reclaim your otherized sense and enjoy its power.

We are all deserving and worthy of love and respect, regardless of what the country may force feed us about us.

 

 

An Email and a Well

I am not ready to become a better me, I think to myself as I walk past the book, resting on the coffee table, for the umpteenth time. At least twice a day I cross the book’s stationary path, when I head to my bedroom and when I leave my apartment. So the number of times I have this thought is significantly higher than the word, umpteenth, implies. Truthfully, I must have had that thought for an ‘umpmillionth’ time. Finally, one weekend, when my life was in complete shambles, I decided to crack open the cover, and read what lay behind the smiling pastor’s picture. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain at that point. Desperation enables action.

I’m a fast reader, but it took me a while to read the book. Normally, I process a book’s deeper message while reading. With this book, I read, paused, processed, processed some more, then continued to read. Each page became filled with annotations, resembling Joel Osteen’s manuscript after a visit with an editor.

Words were circled.
Important lines were underlined.
Questions, affirmations, and comments were written in the margins.
Tears were shed.

Last night Early this morning, I received an email that ‘effed’ up my mood, completing extinguishing the high I had after a long, productive day. After reading it, I did not want to do anything else. I simply wanted to crawl into the hotel’s bed and sleep, with the flawed expectation that I would escape, ignore, or at least delay my emotional reaction to its presence. The hours completing REM cycles would be buffers, protecting me from those hurtful words and their intentional desire to trample and stomp all over my sensitive and fragile esteem. In other words, I sought a false solace in the bed, cowering from a bully.

In the book, there is a section that discusses relationships. He suggests that one should not allow others to throw stones in your happiness well. When one does, one’s well becomes drier because of the presence of the additional rocks, which build up and eventually dry out the well. I have very little knowledge of or experience with wells. Yet, I interpret this analogy to signify that one is in control of one’s happiness.

After one REM cycle, roughly three hours, I woke up with this troubling email still on my heart, already draining my energy needed for another marathon day. I strongly considered going back to sleep to run, hide, and ignore. Then my synapses snapped to the message of the well, the book, and the promise I made years ago to protect my well. I positioned my body upright and said a silent prayer. Then I reached for my ipad and accompanying keyboard and began to write, a safe and true solace.