Relax, Relate, Release!

Relaxation.

Relaxing.

Relax.

These words do not come easily for me to say and are even more difficult for me to do. But I’ve actually managed to achieve them in the past two weeks, and I am proud of myself!

I never really gave myself time to recover from my traumatic work experience in New York. I took all of two days off just to clean up my apartment before I dove into writing my memoir (in which I re-lived my traumatic childhood). After a year, I was wiped out. Even my therapist said that I should take some time to relax.

The idea of relaxing has made me nervous since I was a little kid. When my mom told me to take time to relax, I inevitably wound up being bored, mostly because I associated relaxing with sleeping, which my mother did excessively because of depression. In my adult life, I sought to make my reality the exact opposite of what I grew up seeing, and part of that meant being really busy. In my early 20s, I worked two jobs, which amounted to regular 13-hour days. Despite said two jobs, I never had enough money to go on vacation. (I’d also not grown up taking family vacations since we couldn’t afford to, so it was par for the course.) My husband and I take a vacation together at least once a year, so that’s helped me learn to unwind, but only for that time. I didn’t feel that I deserved a break. Until I went through one trauma after another.

Now, with no employer-based full-time job and a self-mandated break from serious writing, I have allowed myself to sleep in, to read (follow me on Goodreads to see what), to treat myself to lunch at the museum café, to write fiction and drink a beer by the pool in the middle of the afternoon.

My mind feels smooth and clear, not lumpy and restless. My body doesn’t feel as tense. I feel better able to focus and more capable of figuring out what I want out of life. In a nutshell, I feel more confident.

I don’t believe in regrets, but if I did, I would regret not taking the time to recharge earlier in my career. Maybe that would have helped me make less fraught decisions. Now, I can use the energy that I’ve restored to charge into my next challenge, whatever that may be.

Baby Steps

With my one-year resignniversary behind me, and after clearing my life of needless material possessions, I’ve been asking myself what’s next. Now that my summer writing workshops are over and I’ve finished the first draft of my memoir, I’ve had the strangest yearning: To go back into the corporate world.

I love writing. I will always love writing. I need to write in order to feel like a stable human being. But I realize that’s only one part of me. I am an odd duck who needs to organize things, solve problems, analyze data, and make decisions to move a project forward in addition to making up imaginary situations and people (in fiction, that is. In memoir, I’ve told my very true life story).

For the past year, I have not exercised that part of myself. It feels like a limb with a cast just off: limp, pale, and weak. But it’s still useable! I’ve yet to meet someone who chopped off their arm after it healed from a break!

I still have some scars from the trauma I experienced at my old job, so I haven’t actually updated my resume or started applying for jobs. I’m allowing myself to take the tiniest of baby steps. In true What About Bob fashion, so far, (1) I’ve looked at job descriptions online, just to see what’s out there, and (2) I attended my first networking event in DC last week.

Note on (1): There are so few jobs in DC. I mean, not actual open positions (there are a bagillion), but types of jobs. I’m sure I knew that when I lived here before, I just didn’t realize the magnitude of it until now. All DC jobs are government, consulting (including lobbying), research, or nonprofit. So, I instantly grew frustrated that my career options are limited here as compared to NYC, but I suppose I shouldn’t be upset about it because it’s just so damn obvious.

Note on (2): Networking in DC is different from networking in New York because the people are very different. DC people seem to work in the industries I listed in the previous paragraph, and, therefore, there’s less to talk about because everyone knows what everyone does. When I passed out my business cards, one person said, “Oh, you’re a writer,” but didn’t really ask what I write. Another person asked what I do otherwise, and I said, “I just write for right now.” Although my career is very different, people didn’t seem all that interested in it, which is fine because I didn’t want them prying, but I also found odd, because wouldn’t you want to talk to someone who does something different? Shrugs.

So continues my journey to figure out what’s next for me. Yes, it will include writing. But what else?

Writing Binge, Clothing Purge

Yesterday, I donated half of my wardrobe and one-third of my books to charity.

When I got home from the VQR Writers’ Conference on Saturday, I felt the need to cleanse myself of material possessions that were holding me back. So I spent Sunday going through all of my clothes, including the winter ones that were packed away in those big plastic bins. I was going to do the Marie Kondo thing of asking myself of each piece, “Does this spark joy?” But then I realized that “Does this even fit?” was the much more salient question.

I started exercising (mostly with weights) about 2.5 years ago, and I changed my diet to be a bit more clean(ish); as a result, my body has changed a lot. My shoulders are broader now, so little my cap-sleeved t-shirts looked ridiculous. My biceps are visibly larger, and they threated to break the seams of some of my dress sleeves. My butt has gotten firmer and higher, making some of my dresses inappropriately short.

I didn’t realize any of this because I hadn’t actually worn any of those clothes in the past year. Since I quit my job, I’ve solidly taken on the uniform of a writer: in winter, jeans and sweater, and in summer, shorts and t-shirt. Sure, I’ll throw in a casual dress here and there, but not really. Since I’ve been delving into some uncomfortable emotional places, I’ve wanted to be physically comfortable, meaning even in my wardrobe.

But, I did ask myself of some of my clothes, “Does this spark joy?” And for a whole host of my button-down shirts, slacks, and skirts, the answer was a resounding, “NO.” I am not opposed to business attire (I, in fact, look forward to wearing it again one day), but most of my work clothes reminded me of just that – work. My striped Banana Republic buttondowns reminded me of every Monday morning Investment Team meeting in which I felt that I did not belong. My shift dresses purchased on Gilt.com reminded me of my performance reviews in which one of my bosses flagrantly lied about my performance. I know they’re just clothes, but it was what they represented: denigration, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, sorrow, regret. All but joy.

There was no way I could hold onto these pieces and feel liberated from that crazy situation. One year later, I feel a psychic freedom I wish I’d had 365 days ago.

 

The last time I went through one of these purge phases was when I returned to the US from a semester abroad in England, about 11 years ago. I’d just experienced a HUGE life change – I’d spent half a year away from my family going to countries where none of my family members had ever been. It was obvious that my life was going to be different from then on, and I needed to make room for that difference. So, I went through all of my clothes and books, and donated everything I wanted to get rid of.

I most clearly remember packing up my shelves of chicklit. I had decided to write literary fiction, so needed to be careful of what kinds of books I took in: only those I wanted to emulate in some way. Yes, this made me a little bit of a book snob (I have not read any Sue Monk Kidd or even Harry Potter as a result of this rule), but it made my art better.

What is the big life change I just had that made me want to dump all of my old stuff?

A year spent doing the thing I have been most passionate about since I was 12 years old.

Spending the year writing my own story has been monumental. The amount of self-assessment I’ve done, the amount of empathizing with people who still hate me has been sorta nuts. And it has prepared me for the next phase in my life. I’m not sure what that phase is, and, of course, I plan to continue writing in some capacity, but it is clear that something in me has shifted and I sought to mark the change by making room in my life for new things.

That’s my “I’m paying attention to Bret Anthony Johnston” face.

All that being said, I should say how great the VQR Writers’ Conference was. It was very different from VONA, mostly in that there were white people at VQR (seven people of color among 30 attendees, which I suppose is a decent ratio for these sorts of things?).

Although the cafeteria food was inedible, the mosquitos were relentless, and a couple of workshop participants voluntarily read wildly racist material, I had a lot of fun. I met some amazing writers who I hope to keep in touch with, and my workshop instructor, Anne Helen Petersen, was incredible. Instead of doing lectures on craft, she led us through some generative exercises, so I now have a boatload of ideas for new essays, two of which I started at the conference with her guidance (meaning, she actually sort of outlined essays on the white board as we spitballed questions – it was INCREDIBLE). I’ve never had an instructor spend so much time on the participants’ writing, especially on generating new material. So while I couldn’t help think about the ghosts of the slaves who obviously inhabit UVA’s campus (you should thank them whenever something automatic works, like the paper towel dispenser), I felt honored that I was chosen to attend the workshop.

VQR readers

VQR Open Mic readers

I told myself that after a year of writing my memoir, I would take a break. I would drink tea and go to museums and write fiction, perhaps all at the same time. The point of that was to finally actually recover, since I’d gone from one emotion turmoil (crazyass job) to another (crazyass memoir). But VQR has restored my excitement about revising my book, and we’re planning to move into our condo soon, so my break might wind up not happening, and I’m actually okay with that. I guess it’s the next phase moving in. I’ve made room for it, so I should just open the door.

 

 

Announcing the Next Step in our Independence…

In honor of Independence Day, I would like to announce that my spouse and I have finally (after this and this) moved to the next stage of adulthood: homeownership!

Us with our rockstar real estate agent Harrison Beacher

We closed on a condo in DC last week, and I think we’re thrilled about it. The process went so quickly, we hardly had time to think, much less be really excited. But now that the dust has settled a little, we’re pretty stoked. We’re moving into a new phase in life, and that is super scary. We both think a kid will likely be the next big change for us, but we’re not in a hurry to get to that, so we’re just going to savor our new home.

I’ll have a longer post about this when we finally move next month (after the reality has set in a bit more). Until then, I’m headed to the Virginia Quarterly Review writers conference next week, and will have a report on that soon after.

Happy 4th of July, friends!

VONA/Voices: The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me

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VONA faculty members lay down wisdom in a panel discussion about writing.

Last week was one of the best of my life, I think.

I spent the week at the University of Pennsylvania in writing workshops at VONA, where I mingled and sat at the feet (figuratively) of some literary greats, including Junot Diaz. My instructor was Reyna Grande, a Mexican writer whose memoir The Distance Between Us detailed her own journey crossing the border and how it affected her family.

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My instructor, Reyna Grande, reading material from her new, not-yet-published memoir. #sneakpeek

My piece—the first 20ish pages of my memoir—was workshopped on Monday, the first day of the week, which was nerve-wracking. I also happened to go last, after two of my colleagues’ great work was discussed, which compounded my heart palpitations even more. The feedback I got was brutal, but good: the child narrative voice I use in the early chapters limits what the reader can see if there is no accompanying adult reflection; also, my book’s overall theme didn’t ring through the early pages. Reyna’s personality was a little hard to read, and that made the workshop more difficult because I couldn’t put a confident “but she doesn’t actually hate my work” on it until the end of the week, after we’d opened up to each other a bit more.

I had a one-on-one meeting with Reyna, and that was invaluable. I mean, her lectures contained MFA-level material and the other workshops were great, but the one-on-one meeting allowed me to talk out some of the kinks in my story. I told her the basics of my story (my dad was a minister who was married four times and abandoned me and my older brother in favor of my sisters, with whom he had an inappropriately close relationship), and we discussed a short piece I wrote for her class, a letter to one of my sisters who made me feel like I didn’t belong in a most vulnerable situation. And that was the key—belonging. I knew that was a theme of my book, but I didn’t know how important it was until I spoke with Reyna about it. Therefore, having that 20-minute conversation with her changed the course of my book, and made me think that, maybe, I’ve got more than one memoir in me.

Reyna also had us write about our first time doing something, first about the physical experience, then about the subtext/what really happened underneath that physical experience. I wrote about my first (and only) time on a water slide. My mom took me on it when I was about 4, and it didn’t go so well. It was my first near-drowning incident. I wasn’t happy with the way I’d written the assignment, though, so I didn’t share it in class, but thought about it more once I got home, back to DC. Only yesterday, during a long walk to relieve some muscle stiffness, did I realize that the story wasn’t about my mom letting me go and me nearly drowning. It was about her putting me in harm’s way and not apologizing. It was about my needing to forgive my mother for everything that happened with my father. I had never thought about that EVER in almost 32 years, with all my focus going to forgiving my father and sisters. But forgiving my mother is equally important, and I was finally able to do that in my heart yesterday.

People say that VONA is life-changing, but I sort of thought they were full of sh*t, or at least way more touchy-feely than I will ever be. But VONA did more for me when I got home than it did the week I was there, and that is incredible.

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Renowned poet Patricia Smith and students shaking us up with a heart-wrenching poem about children’s concept of death. #blacklivesmatter

How I Survived My College Reunion

Sometime last year, after reading sensationalized, click-bait style essays on Thought Catalog and XOJane, I drafted my own, which I titled, “Going to Georgetown ruined my relationship with my family.” Which isn’t true.

This past weekend was my 10-year college reunion. Since I now live in DC, I took the bus or a Lyft to the tent parties held on campus to see people I hadn’t seen in that many years, or more. I was anxious to the point of abdominal bloating, which is really not helpful when you want to show off all the time you’ve spent holding minute-long planks over the past couple of years.

And those who know me even an iota know that I did not enjoy my time at Georgetown while I was there (the first or the second time). Undergrad was, by far, the hardest four years of my life, due to a bunch of factors, but mostly academic rigor that I wasn’t used to and socioeconomic weirdness.

The moment I stepped onto campus in August 2003, I knew that I was different from damn near everyone else there. I was poor. I was raised by my mom with little contact from my dad by the time I went to college. I would have to work while I was in school. I would not travel for spring break. I shopped at the Gap, not BCBG, and I only bought things on clearance because I couldn’t afford even sale prices. On top of that, I was Black.

The combination of everything I listed in the previous paragraph made me feel like the elephant in every single room I entered (though not physically: white girls still complimented me on how skinny I was, something that had been happening to me since eighth grade, and something that Black girls virtually never did or do). I was uncomfortable to a magnitude I didn’t know was possible for four years straight.

BUT.

I would do it all over again. Every single anxiety-ridden, self-questioning moment.

Why?

Because I was finally outside of my comfort zone, in a place where I had figure out who I was and where I wanted to belong because no one was there to tell me.

I was put off by the preppy lifestyle because I didn’t have the money to sustain it and it felt inauthentic, even in those who lived it every day of their lives. It seemed that most of them were hiding something; nothing crazy, most likely just dissatisfaction or unhappiness of some kind, neither of which I wanted. They were also not attracted to me, likely because we had so little in common.

I didn’t really fit in with many of the Black students in my class, either, though I’d been struggling with that since elementary school. In college, I was too conservative and not militant enough and had put my ‘hood roots safely behind me in my personal history book. Rather than aiming to be as “black” as possible, I decided to do and believe what felt right to me, and that definitely caused some friction.

I found that I fit in with the people I’d always fit in with: the misfits. The theater kids, the international students who were venturing to America for the first time, the Christians who drank and partied and loved Jesus with all their hearts, the girls who had never had boyfriends, the boys who were trying to figure out if they liked girls or not, the literary bunch, the Library kids.

But the kids I wasn’t friends with influenced me powerfully. From them, I learned about Earl Grey tea, the Parisian department store Printemps, art history, and how to become an investor. Obviously, these new things were the ones that stood out most when I went home to North Carolina. Asking for a cup of Twinings Earl Grey in a house that only has Lipton can be awkward, as with any growing pain.

Georgetown helped expand my world, literally when it afforded me the opportunity to study abroad in the UK, and figuratively. It made me aware that I am a global citizen, not just one of my city, state, and country. When I thought I was being quartered, I was really just being stretched so I could reach beyond boundaries of differences with empathy. I am who I am, and I am a better version of who I am, because of Georgetown, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

I was anxious that I would be seen as a Wall Street failure who got an MBA, but left the industry and had time to write a book since she’s kept by her corporate lawyer husband. But more than one of my classmates told me that I was “impressive” for having written a book. They said that they were proud that I was in their class, representing them well. I was blown away by their positivity and encouragement. I know I’m not supposed to need validation, but, hey, I’m a Millennial and I need a bone thrown sometimes. It made me feel good to know that I had done something that even I wasn’t sure I could do, and that my classmates respected me for it. I just hope not to let them, or more importantly, myself, down as my editing and publishing journey resumes.

 

There’s no place like home.

But, for the next two weeks, I’m on break. I’m letting my memoir breathe, as we writers say; that is, I’m allowing myself some mental distance from my manuscript so I’ll be able to edit it with a more objective eye. I’ll still be writing, but I’m going to catch up on reading and journaling, and try to do as much of nothing as I can. We’ll see about that.

Writing Wins (!)

This was a rare whirlwind of wins for me this week, and I just wanted to celebrate!

Memoir: I started editing my book!

If you might recall, several weeks ago, I met with a few literary agents who expressed interest in my memoir. One of them wanted me to send the first 20 pages of my manuscript and a synopsis. Well, this week I busted out a 600-word synopsis (for which I am now seeking feedback) and started macro-editing the first 20 pages. I used the book The Artful Edit by Susan Bell to get me started, and it has been so helpful, mostly in getting me to ensure that every sentence I include in my book is there on purpose.

Publishing: I was published in The Billfold!

I am in my second class with the delightful Michele Filgate, who I took for Creative Nonfiction online at Sackett Street and now freelancing at Catapult. When I submitted an essay to my class about my quest for financial security is in conflict with my life as a writer, Michele suggested that I pitch it to The Billfold. I did, thinking I wouldn’t even get a response, but I did, and my essay ran this past Friday! It’s gotten 66 recommends (!!!) and so many positive comments, I am really overwhelmed by how well-received it’s been! I mean, I guess the way I feel about people reading my work is a blogpost or essay in itself, but it is just crazy – I am so touched at the number of people who have said I’ve touched them!

Conference: I was accepted to the VQR Writers’ Conference!

Since my friend Lauren told me about summer writing workshops, I wanted to get my feet as wet as I could. Praise the Lord, I was accepted to VONA, which I was toppled over by, and then I was accepted to VQR on top of that, so I’m just outdone. Of course I’m looking forward to the instruction and networking, I’m honored that I was chosen to take part in these programs. I know they both get a lot of applicants, so it means the world to me that they thought I was worthy to be among them.

Talk about a winning week! I feel super boosted as a writer, and it has come at the right time: I’m approaching the 1-year mark of having resigned from my job in NYC, so I’m glad I’ve had some successes to make me question myself and my decision ever so slightly less. 🙂

Stop & Smell the Grapes

This past weekend, I went to San Francisco visit my friend LT, who is moving to Asia for a really cool job at a start-up. As a result, this blog post has nothing to do with writing, only wine.

We drove up to Sonoma and went did tastings at two wineries, Copain and Porter Creek. While I loved Porter Creek, the tasting at Copain was incredible, mostly because of the view:

But the chickens at Porter Creek were a hoot!

I bought entirely too many bottles of wine, but it was well worth it. It was sort of a pre-celebration: by the time you read my next blog post, I will have completed the first draft of my memoir. If that doesn’t call for wine, I don’t know what does!

Sociological Pickles of the Talented Tenth: House Hunting Edition

Backstory: my spouse and I both obtained bachelor’s degrees from Georgetown; I have an MBA from the same school, and my spouse has a law degree from Howard. When we lived and worked in NYC, we were basically in the 2% of income earners in the country (but NOT NYC because, well, billionaires). Essentially, we are blessed to say that we started from the bottom, now we’re here.

Pickle #1: One pondering that has particularly bugged me is, “Is it still gentrification if the people moving into the neighborhood are affluent Blacks?” My spouse and I debated this and ultimately concluded that the answer is both yes and no; yes, if your base assumption is class, and no, if your base assumption is race. As much as I enjoy buying chia pudding from Whole Foods, I don’t really see the ‘hood as “inferior in quality or value,” and my spouse and I tend to blend in pretty well on the surface in these neighborhoods, despite my Tory Burch flats and Longchamp bag.

Pickle #2: Basically, we have the choice of living in a lower-income area, like we did in NYC, or a higher-income one. Living in a lower-income area allows us to be 3-D models of DuBois’ Talented Tenth. Not Black Saviors by any stretch, but just role models for kids who want to be upwardly mobile on the economic ladder. It allows to be living, breathing Obama-ites, being the change we want to see.

Now, notice that I said that we have options. This means that, although we make a pretty good living, my spouse and I actually think about living in a neighborhood where people earn considerably less than we do. We take seriously the chance to live in a place where there are more renters than buyers, so property tax income is lower, therefore the schools aren’t so great.

I sort of only just realized the other day that not everyone takes the low-income option as an option. When I was chatting with a friend the other day, she said that she and her husband were moving to a nicer area of North Carolina, where the schools had some of the highest test scores and rate of free/reduced lunch was only 5%, meaning that most of the kids are middle- to upper-class. I don’t knock my friend AT ALL for thinking about this because it’s an important consideration. But I do find it interesting that my friend probably wouldn’t think to live in an area with poorer people because, even though she is woke, she is white.

Pickle #3: Given Pickle #2, whenever we look at a house in a higher-income (read: more white than other colors) neighborhood, I feel kind of terrible. While I have no fear of discrimination (though it’s a very real possibility), I fear that my kids won’t know authenticity. Although my kids would go to a great school, I think they’d be at risk of losing sight of their place in society, as children of two hardworking, well-educated Black parents who want them to give back to not just their community, but communities where people don’t give quite as much. I’m afraid of the level of entitlement that accompanies living an easier life; I want my kids to know struggle only because I want them to be strong.

I understand that all of these pickles are true first-world problems. They’re probably some sort of discrimination in their own way, but they’re still very present thoughts, and not recognizing them won’t make them go away. All I can hope is to be the best neighbor I can be, wherever that winds up being, and to teach my kids to do the same.

We Are All Horrible Human Beings

Last night, Rustin and I boarded the Metro after house hunting. We were discussing the house and trying to decide if we wanted to make an offer. It was a serious discussion, but we felt patient and lighthearted, and were having fun talking about it.

When we arrived at Union Station, an old homeless man got on the train, followed by several teenaged boys. The homeless man, who appeared to be either mentally ill or under the influence of something (maybe both), plopped into a seat with a clear trashbag full of clothes, leading me to believe he’d just left the hospital or shelter. The boys gathered in the seats around him, and one of them hovered over him, provoking him to hit him. The homeless man yelled so loudly for them to leave him alone that the whole train (which is usually pretty quiet in DC, one thing I love) went dead silent; earsplittingly silent aside from the screams of this homeless man to be left alone.

Since the whole train was looking at him, I thought the one boy standing over the man would get embarrassed and sit down. Instead, he taunted him more, even threatening the man’s life. The man pushed past him to sit in another seat, but the boy followed him, still mumbling provocations. Then, the boy punched the old homeless man in the head and nose until he bled. One of his friends took the man’s bag and opened it so all of his belongs fell on the floor of the train.

The other passengers huddled at the far end of the train, away from the crazy. We were supposed to get off at the next stop, and when we did, we called the cops to report what had just happened. The other passengers rushed into the next train car, and when I motioned with my hands for them to call the cops, too, none of them even looked my way.

As we walked, I told Rustin that it reminded me of a situation I was in once in high school. One of the kids who everyone knew was in Special Ed was sitting next to me on the bus home. One of the huge kids found it a good idea to start making fun of him and started punching him in the head as hard as he could. The boy was sitting right next to me, blow after blow falling on him, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be associated with the “special” kid. I didn’t want the bully to say, “What? You like him or something?” So, I put my own piddling, insignificant social status above that kid’s safety.

I will never forget that moment because it showed me how horrible a human being I am. If any of us would allow that to happen to someone who is unable to defend themselves, we are all horrible.

When we got home last night, I remembered that it is Holy Week, the week in which Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends then executed, ultimately as penance for the sins of all humankind. I started praying and, as I did, my heart broke into a bagillion pieces. It broke for the old homeless man who could not defend himself. It broke for the boy beating him. It broke for the friends of the boy beating the man. It broke for the people who ran to the next train car at the next stop.

I wondered, how could we as a population have failed so many people? We’ve failed our poor. We’ve failed our youth. We failed ourselves, holding our own safety above that of another human being who is worth just as much as we are.

How could we as a society have let that boy get so calloused that he thought nothing of beating up a homeless person? Does he have nothing else to live for that he was so okay with going to jail, where he must know he will be treated unjustly as a young Black man?

How could we as a society have left that homeless man alone? He could have been killed and his blood would have been on all of our hands because we left him alone. Even if we didn’t jump on the boy who was beating him, there is so much strength in numbers that the man was safer with us there than in our absence. And we left him.

I repented for not doing anything more, for once again, holding my own safety more highly than another’s. I was again the 14 year-old-girl on the school bus, all the same at age 31. I pray that I actually become a better person instead of just talking about it.

There are no easy answers, and I know that I’m being hard on myself. I should—we all should. That’s the only way the world will change. That’s the only way the world will change, when we call out unacceptable behavior, including our own omissions.