My Father Keeps Appearing to Me

It’s that time of year again, folks.

On September 20, it will be four years since my father passed away.

Last year, my grief was physical: I was so fatigued and sad, it had trouble keeping my eyes open during the day. Two years ago, it was a bit of sadness, but nothing like following year. And three years ago, it was all still kind of surreal, probably because I was so much in the throes of writing my memoir.

The grief looks different this year.

Physically, I feel fine. I am a bit tired, but that’s because I’ve been travelling a ton for my business, and my spouse has also been on the road a lot, and the time away from each other definitely takes a toll. Emotionally, I feel fine, too. My spouse has been quite stressed because of work, so I’m more concerned about being there for him than anything else. Mentally, I’m also fine. I’m ecstatic to use my brainpower to work with a new client and to keep building my business. And spiritually, I’m fine, as well. Doing a devotional and praying every morning has set my day off well for over a year now.

Given all of these states of “fine,” and the fact that I’ve been so busy, I thought maybe I wasn’t grieving still, that maybe this year was finally the year in which I was finally over it all.

And then I walked to CVS to buy sandwich bags and saw a man who, from a distance, looked exactly like my father, only he didn’t look like him at all up close, of course.

And at church on Sunday, one of the assistant pastors [who does look a bit like my dad usually] looked so much like him, I wanted to say something. “You look just like my father. Who’s dead.” Didn’t seem like the cheeriest of things to say to a pastor on a sunny Sunday, so I said nothing.

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My father (middle) when he was in his early 20s, I’m guessing.

Grief has now morphed into seeing this person who is no longer living in almost every Black man I encounter. Which is just plain weird.

Something similar happened to me after my friend Jessica died: I found myself looking for her everywhere. I thought I found her in Prague—I wanted to scream her name so bad, but I literally bit my tongue to keep myself from frightening a Czech stranger. I missed Jessica really intensely, so much so that it hurt (it still does, but in a different way now); I can’t say the same of my father, so it’s even weirder to me that I keep seeing him everywhere.

I wonder if this is some sort of sign, as if my dad has a message for me. I’m not a believer in people communicating from the dead; while I believe in the afterlife, I believe that’s kind of it—you are where you are and that’s that. But what the hell do I know? All of life is one big mystery, so surely death and the afterlife are, too.

Frankly, I prefer this type of grief, this seeing my father where he isn’t, over the other ways I’ve experienced it. This has been a lot less intrusive—I’m not tempted to sleep all day, I’m not sad, and I’m not repressing anything. I feel neutral, like, even in my body; it feels the way it always feels.

Last year, I told my therapist that that’s what I wanted, to not feel anything around this time of year. This does feel close to being “over it all,” if I’ll ever be that. It feels like a wound that is almost completely sealed. It feels like having been healed.

 

 

 

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“I don’t even know where I am”

I didn’t blog last week because I was readjusting to life in DC after the quiet of Banff and… I was preparing for my mom to visit!

Of course, we took no pictures, so I have zero proof of her time with us, but oh well.

It was my mother’s first trip back to DC since my business school graduation in 2013. DC is a *very* different city from what it was even six years ago, and it was even more disconcerting to see the city’s changes through the eyes of a visitor.

My mom moved me into my dorm at Georgetown in August 2003, then into my first apartment in July 2007, so she knows the city I fell in love with. Mommy grew up in Camden, NJ, which has its fair share of character (some might call it blight, but I call it color). DC in my early years here reminded me so much of it, and I wondered if that’s why the city felt so much like home to me.

Watching my mother look at the buildings that have come up in DC only in the past two or three years and hearing her say, “I don’t even know where I am,” brought tears to my eyes. The worst was when we walked by the former homeless shelter-now luxury apartment building that still says, “Come Unto Me,” which is both a slap in the face and a punch in the gut. All my mother could do was shake her head.

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Photo from Washingtonian Magazine

I’ve written on this blog before about how different my life is from my family’s, not better or worse, but just different. But I loved showing them my home, the nation’s capital; I was so proud of it. Now it feels like showing something gaudy and expensive that doesn’t even look all that great.

But I’m not interested in living anywhere else. My feelings about my home get more and more complex as time goes on. Just like a relationship, when two parties are always growing.

Glorious Waterfalls: How I Know Wisdom from Fear

Hello all! I forgot to blog yesterday because I’m not entirely sure what day it is. I arrived home from Banff Sunday night, and it’s taken a bit to get readjusted to my actual life.

My second week in Banff was just as wonderful as the first. Overall, I managed to complete three essays and three short stories—remarkable productivity for me. This means I’m ready to start submitting work again, something I haven’t done since last summer. Of the three short stories, I realized I need to scrap one altogether and re-write it, but I’m glad I had the time to revise what I have of it to know that I need to re-write it.

My biggest takeaway from the residency is that [drumroll, please], I could be done with my book right now, if I wanted to be.

I know.

Yes, the memoir that I’ve been working on for three years and had planned to do even more work on. I could be done with it now.

One of the components of the residency was a meeting with an editor at Electric Literature, an online literary magazine celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year. I met with Jess Zimmerman, the Editor-in-Chief, and she loved the two chapters I showed her. She gave me great feedback on them and said I could include them in my book proposal (the marketing document nonfiction writers create when they’re trying to get their book published traditionally). Instead of paying someone to edit the book, she said I could start querying and hope I’d find the best agent/editor combo to help me take it to the next level.

I would argue that was a life-changing epiphany. And now I will definitely start querying by the end of the year (though not around the holidays, that would be pointless).

On my last day in Banff, I went for a hike by myself. People advocate for hiking in groups, and for good reason. You could get attacked by an animal or break a limb. But I’m a writer, and that means letting nature intrude my thoughts, and it’s hard to do that when you’re with other people.

I set out on the Bow Falls Trail, one I knew was well-trafficked by tourists and is more of a nature walk. I haven’t seen that many waterfalls in real life, so this was incredible to see and hear with my own eyes and ears:

When I saw people on the other side of the river, I thought I’d walk over there, just to see what was there. It was amazing to get another view of the falls, but also the mountains behind it.

I saw some people climb up a steep trail and looked down it. It led to the water, but the trail was, reiterating, steep and rocky, perhaps not really a trail at all. I wasn’t going to do it, but then I felt I should. I realized it wasn’t actually harmful—again, not the safest, but not harmful, either. So I went. And there was this.

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What I had to climb down to get to the water

I’ve talked about feeling closer to God in nature, but I was finally able to articulate that hiking is how I know the difference between fear and wisdom: I know where not to go because it could hurt me, but I also know where to go because I will encounter God’s glory.

Sitting on a rock by the water, I found myself praying, God, please let me take this serenity home, not the sounds of the water, but the feeling that I can do anything because I am kept by the Maker of all of these things. That, friends, is how I intend to live the rest of my life.

Oh, the Mountain Majesty

This week has been one full of lessons: (1) It’s amazing what getting enough sleep can do to tamp down anxiety, (2) my stomach really hates mass-produced food, and (3) newer mountains are significantly larger than older ones.

My first week in Banff was magical. It’s day nine of 14, and I can safely say I’m now used to the altitude, as walking up a slight incline no longer winds me, and I was able to go to the gym twice at the end of the week. (Though I was not able to lift or squat as heavy as usual. I should not have tried.)

Last week, I revised two essays and one short story, which is *extremely* good for me. I haven’t been this productive in my writing since early 2018, when I was revising my memoir again and publishing essays much more frequently. Reading over my work and implementing suggestions I got months ago, it felt good—maybe it’s all the mountain air, but I kept saying, “Wow, that was a great line,” as I read my work. Not having time produces an extra amount of anxiety because it makes me harder on myself, as if with less time, I have to produce better out the gate, which isn’t a realistic expectation. I need to accept the fact that good writing takes time—if not moments of a day, then moments of years—and let that be that.

Sunday was a highlight of the trip, though. I took the day off from writing and went on a centre-sponsored trip to Lake Louise.

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Me (in my hiking pants!) by Lake Louise

It is a large lake that is fed by a glacier; meaning, it is incredibly cold and one would be a fool to get in it. The lake is surrounded by mountains with trails, so one of my colleagues and I trotted the 1,205 feet to a 7,005-foot elevation to the Lake Agnes Tea House, the oldest tea house in Canada.

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Lake Agnes Tea House, high up the mountain above Lake Louise.

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The view from my seat at the tea house

According to the little info sheet at our table, it was “originally built as a refuge for hikers 1901 by the Canadian Pacific Railway surveyors and has been serving tea since 1905.” I had a delightful oolong tea with biscuits and jam and an energy bar that might have been more chocolate than energy, but was delicious.

I’ve been intrigued by hiking and mountain climbing since accidentally climbing Camelback that one time and—chintzy as it is—reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. I can only speak in clichés when I say that being in nature makes me feel closer to God the Creator—so many of these mountain peaks and faces look like painted backdrops on an old Hollywood set, it’s so hard to believe they’re real. I’ve never felt more honored to be a writer in this space, copycatting His creating in a way He has gifted me to.

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How is this even real? The water is turquoise, how?

Being around 19 other writers (as well as roughly 40 jazz musicians, who are all remarkably talented) here in Banff has been transformative. We have a week left, and I have to be honest, that while I miss my spouse, I can’t say that I miss Metro delays or sirens blaring on Rhode Island Avenue. I’m going to soak in the rest of my week here and I pray that I take this serenity back home with me.

So, This Is the Point of Writing Residencies

I’m in Banff!

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The view of the mountains from the library (a building that looks way cooler from the outside than inside)

It’s really impressive how beautiful a place I’d never really heard of can be.

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Banff Centre campus after dinner (well before sunset, which doesn’t happen until after 9pm)

This week, 19 colleagues and I will spend time writing, reading, meeting with Electric Literature editors, and enjoying these insane views.

It’s day two of 14, and it’s taken a while to get used to things, the elevation and the fact that I am exclusively here to write. When I applied for the program, I thought it was a standard workshop, the kind I’ve done every summer for the past few years, one in which I’m booked solid from 8:30 or 9am until the post-reading reception with wine at 9pm or later. When I looked at the schedule for this program, I thought it was missing some details: there’s optional group lunches and a craft talk/lecture every other day, but otherwise, no “required” activities were listed, no workshops, nothing. And that’s how I realized this is a residency, a joyous concept: you just write.

It dawned on me yesterday that the point of residencies is to be productive without the heart palpitations. I’m generally a pretty productive and efficient person, but it sometimes comes with a bit of anxiety—the feeling that there’s so much to do, how will I do it all, will I get it all done, and when I do get it all done, how I will I do everything else that comes after?

But for the next two weeks, I get to check things off my to-do list (yes, I made a to-do list, I’m no animal), but without feeling that the whole world needs me to attend to it.

The past two days have been a bit busy, with traveling to Canada and orientation and learning where things are on the residency campus. But today, the stride is different, and I can already feel my heart beating more slowly. I hope this is also a sign that I’m getting accustomed to the altitude (roughly 4,500 ft above sea level), because I’m tired of getting winded going up one flight of stairs due to there being 20% less oxygen up here.

And so, breath or no breath, I write, amid these views that take what little breath I have away.

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The view from my room

Preparing for Banff

This time next week, I’ll be in Banff, at the Electric Literature residency. I’m thrilled and, for some reason, not nervous, mostly because I’m looking forward to being in the mountains and smelling all the clean air. It’s been a great excuse to buy up a whole bunch of hiking rubbish I probably won’t use! I’ll report when I get there.

Have a great week!

I Don’t Have Room for Fear

This summer has been one of the most trying in my life. Some of it is my own fault—who starts a business in the middle of summer?—and some of it seems to have fallen out of the sky—my spouse starting a new job, one of his dearest friends dying, and an incident at my church that could easily have been perceived as racial profiling.

The third thing—the event of my church—has been most difficult because church is where I go to escape negativity. I know people have lots of criticisms, fair and unfair, about the church as a whole, but over the course of my life, it has been better to me than bad (and I say that having had the father I had, a man my great-aunt called a “jackleg” preacher). But this time, it was a slip-up that was quite painful.

Two Sundays ago, while we sat listening to the senior pastor’s sermon, an older Black man came into the auditorium. He was clearly homeless, which isn’t an issue—lots of homeless people come to my church, and that’s part of why I love it. He walked with a cane in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He made his way down a side aisle, presumably to find a close seat. It was distracting, but I wasn’t bothered by it otherwise. But suddenly, three rather large dudes came into the auditorium and two of them spoke with the gentleman before walking out with him. There wasn’t any drama, no yelling or physicality, but it didn’t look good at all, especially since, maybe three minutes before, the [white] senior pastor had just spoken about how moved he was when he watched When They See Us.

Of course, I wanted to know what exactly had happened, but I couldn’t help but to be upset. It is 2019 and I live in Washington, DC—white supremacists have rallies to encourage each other (and their comrade in the White House) to continue perpetuating hate. I can’t help be a little on guard, you know?

My spouse and I were both shaken by it, so we sent emails to the pastor and a few other people in leadership. But the responses were hurtful. They didn’t insult us, but they’d basically said that we’d misunderstood the situation, which is the same as insulting me, if I’m honest. The explanation drove the point home—our church isn’t comfortable talking about uncomfortable things, but leadership went out of its way to avoid a warm, safe place to have this conversation. My church touts its position in the marketplace—we own a coffeeshop and a movie theater, both of which we use for community events, etc—but when it came to the people in that marketplace, the conversation was pushed into the woods.

Since the event in Charleston in 2015, when nine Black people lost their lives after opening their doors to a white psychopath, I’ve thought a lot about the place of fear in my religion. Countless scriptures—many out of Jesus’ mouth itself—tell us not to be afraid, fear not, have no fear. But we seem to be incapable of following these commands. Fear drove us to assume an old Black man with a cane and a cup of coffee would cause the pastor harm. Fear drives us to walk around uncomfortable conversations instead of being healed by them. Fear could have saved the lives of nine Black people, but look who actually obeyed the commandment. How ironic that we sing the song, “I’m no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God.”

What I’m saying is, this, one of the most difficult summers of my life, is showing me that I no longer have room in my life for fear. If I’m to build a successful business, continue writing to my heart’s content, expand my family at some point, I don’t have time to be afraid. I think the point of the commandment isn’t to make us feel inadequate, but to give our fears to God, who, once we do that, plows us through the crazy. I don’t know why terrible things happen, and I wish they did not at all, but until we’re in a place where they don’t, we have to go all in and listen, knowing that He’s got our backs as we do what He’s asked of us. Well, that’s the case for me, anyway.

No Need to Hide

I’ve alluded to starting a business, and I can now give some specifics about it since I’ve more or less formally launched (if updating my LinkedIn and Facebook jobs counts as having ‘more or less formally launched’). My business is called Vonetta Young Advisors LLC—my brand is me!

Since I was a little girl, I’ve woken up every day with the desire to help people like me—women and people of color—our fair share of the pie. I’m living that out in my business, as I advise women and people of color who are starting their own investment funds in private equity, venture capital, and real estate. I help them articulate what they’ve done in the past, what they do now, and what they want to do in the future.

This couldn’t be any farther from writing, in a way; so much so, that I was concerned about potential clients googling me and finding my writing website before my business one. I admit that I felt that I had to hide my creative self. Financial services is not an industry that’s always kind to creative types. In business school, I was told to focus on the “clear communication skills” I acquired from being an English major and to remove from my resume that I studied abroad for Creative Writing, and I became afraid of people knowing this aspect of who I am outside of what it could do for my corporate career.

In talking with my life coach, I’ve come to embrace both sides of myself. I am not ashamed to have a creative talent, so I don’t have to hide it. Hiding it would participate in someone else’s fear—this fear that creatives will bring diversity of thought to an industry well-known for groupthink.

I think about Carla Harris, a Vice Chairperson at Morgan Stanley (so really high up and important at an important entity) and board member of Wal-Mart. She is ludicrously smart and tough and inspiring. AND she is a singer who has made several gospel and Christmas albums, and has performed sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. BECAUSE SHE DOES OWNS HER CREATIVE ABILITY (yelling at myself, not you, reader).

And I have to be my own brand of this. I’m the woman who is an investor, who advises investors, and writes darn good literary nonfiction and fiction under her own name. If someone has a question about it, I have an answer: it’s who I am.

As I embark on this journey of entrepreneurship—a journey I never thought I would be on because I wasn’t all that attracted to it—it’s allowed for a lot of personal and spiritual growth already. I was supposed to go to a symposium in Chicago last Friday, but my flight was cancelled, so I missed it. I was disappointed, as I thought it would be a great chance to network and get some clients in the door, but it didn’t work out. When I walked back into my house with my luggage, my spouse was waiting with open arms, then said, “Oh, you’re not as upset as I thought you would be.” And that was because I have this sense that my authenticity and God’s love for me are colliding in the best ways, and if a door doesn’t open, it wasn’t for me. If someone doesn’t want a published author helping with them with their communications, I cannot help them. But God is honoring my being true to myself. All the more reason not to hide who I am.

Farewell to a dear friend

I’m blogging a week and a day late because I’ve had quite a lot going on, some good and some unfortunate.

The good is that my business is taking shape. I’m in talks to sign my second client already and I’m attending a conference in Chicago on Friday that I hope will open some more doors for me. I’m breathless and excited about all of it, even if I’m a little afraid because this is uncharted territory for me.

The unfortunate is that one of my spouse’s best friends, Suzannah Jones, passed away over the weekend. She texted my spouse two weekends ago to tell him she was going into hospice care, and we were absolutely devastated. Then the week went by and I was anxious about when we would get to see her. We did on Saturday, around noon; she passed away that night. She was 36.

Suzannah was, perhaps, the most joyful person I’ve ever met in my life. She’d had her ups and downs, but she came out of everything laughing. Two years ago, her husband noticed a mole on her arm that looked weird and encouraged her to go to the doctor. She did, but by then, the melanoma had metastasized to her lungs.

She spent two years in treatment and if she ever had a down moment (and I’m sure she did), I never saw it. She called the cancer Frank, mostly, “F*cking Frank.” The times we met her for dinner, she was joyful as ever, laughing that loud, unabashed laugh whose sound I pray never leaves my auditory memory. A “ha-ha-haaaaa” that swung up into the air and stayed there.

Suzannah and my spouse worked together at his first job out of college, a healthcare consultancy in DC. She was his cube-mate and quickly became his first work wife. She even hemmed his pants and replaced buttons, for the love of God. She was selfless and so damn funny. She sidehustled at the DC Improv because she loved to laugh so much.

I’m cautious to say that I have regrets in life; sure, there are things that I wish I’d done differently, but I try not to regret anything because I believe everything happens as it should (not “for a reason,” per se, just, as it should). But I get so close to saying I regret not going to coffee with her because she was so pleasant to be around. My answer to that feeling is that, if I’d gotten closer to her, I’d feel even worse about her absence. That’s probably a terrible way to think about it, but it works for the state that I’m in now.

Her family will be sitting shiva for her for a couple of days. No, they’re not Jewish, but she liked the idea of loved ones getting together to laugh (and do Fireball shots). When her brother said this, I immediately thought of that awful Associated Press misquote:

“I’ve been to their homes where they sit and shiver,” the AP quoted the sheriff as saying.

But what he actually said was “I’ve been to their homes where they’re sitting shiva.”

So, we’re gonna sit and shiver for an amazing woman who was taken away entirely too soon. And I can hear her laughing now.

(The PSA portion: Please get annual or semi-annual skin checks at a local dermatologist. Wear sunscreen and avoid excessive sun exposure. Cancer is no one’s fault, but please be vigilant about your body.)

My reading at Writer’s Center LIVE!

Friends, I write this post to you from the comfort of a lounge chair on Bethany Beach in Delaware! I should confess that I’ve never used a laptop on the beach, and it’s a little odd, but I look really relaxed in the reflection of this screen, so it’s not all bad.

Anyway, last week, I gave my third public reading! I was a featured reader at Writer’s Center LIVE!, a literary variety show held at, well, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. I’ve taken a couple of classes at the Writer’s Center and have gotten to know some of the staff. One of them attended my last reading and asked if I would like to read at this one, and I said yes.

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Though, when I saw who else would be reading, I had to laugh. Tyrese Coleman, Philip Dean Walker, Stephanie Allen, and Kayla Rae Whitaker have all published at least one book; Kayla was the truly featured reader of the night as the winner of the center’s first novel prize. On the Facebook invitation, it called us, “nationally renowned authors,” and I actually wondered if they’d made a mistake by inviting me.

And then I realized that impostor syndrome is a son of a gun.

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They hadn’t made any mistakes. They knew I haven’t published a book. They asked me to read because they wanted me to, because they believed that I’m a good enough writer to read with folks who have published books because they know I will one day. I sometimes wonder why I can’t have as much faith in myself as other people have in me.

The reading went wonderfully. I read my flash piece, “To Be a Real Teenager,” my most recently published piece in DASH journal. It’s hard to describe the way it felt holding a book (well, journal) that included my work. It was weighty and substantial and felt important in my hands. This must be what it feels like to read from a book in front of people, I thought. And that was exciting, impostor syndrome be damned.

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Photos by Josh Powers