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Monthly Archives: May 2017

(Writing) Professional Deficiencies

Writing 150It feels like it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve talked about writing. When the Spring semester classes for college started, that ate up most of my time and what wasn’t claimed there was spent on family, work, or my social life. Then my sister passed, and life since then has been pretty full dealing with the fallout from that. I’ve withdrawn from this semester of classes, but it hasn’t felt like a lot of free time has opened up.

Slowly but surely, though, things have begun to settle. Now that I’m away from school I’m beginning to wonder if pursuing a degree at this point is something I really want to do; it’ll take me over two years of constant work (taking classes during the summer and winter breaks) just to get an Associate’s Degree with an intent to transfer. After that, it’ll likely take me three years at least to earn a BS in Psychology.

I think there are better ways I can help, right now. Volunteering with NAMI, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or any number of other organizations geared towards mental health might be a more immediate way to work with those who need the most help right away. I can also study outside of classes, learning more about mental health issues, the state of current treatments for them, and the barriers that so many different people face in getting the help they need.

But that’s a post for a different day. I’ve got a minute to think about writing, so let’s reflect on where I am with that aspect of my life.

The short answer is not well at all. Going to college was difficult, as I expected, but I also underestimated how much time it was going to take away from everything else. Work has been pretty hairy even though customers have been quiet — shifting to ten-hour days four times a week means free time during work days are at a premium. A lot of what’s happened over the past several months has forced me to become more organized and focused, which needed to happen. But it’s also made it all but impossible to focus on my writing.

Now that I’m not taking classes for at least three and a half months, I can start turning my attention back towards writing. I’m not sure if it’s possible to develop a full-fledged writing practice, but I’m sure interested in trying. So I’ll go ahead and announce my intention to write 1,000 words a day every day from June 1st until September 1st. The best part is that intention will face a pretty stiff test right off the bat — I’ll be going to Biggest Little Fur Con at the beginning of the month, and fan conventions are notoriously difficult places to write if you, say, have ADHD.

But that’s a good challenge to start off with, right? If I can nail 1,000 words in the chaos of a furry convention in Reno, I can do it pretty much anywhere, at any time.
I also know that I don’t read nearly enough, and that’s something that pains me greatly. I’m never going to get better as a writer if I don’t read voraciously, and I’ve struggled with that for an awfully long time. Life is so busy that it’s hard to find space for something that feels like a rare and idle pleasure, and these days it feels especially difficult to single-task in the manner that reading requires. But that might actually be why cultivating a reading habit is so essential; it forces you to slow down and pay attention to what’s right in front of you. It’s hard to fall under the spell of something you’re only giving half your attention to.

There’s a tremendous stack of books to read on my shelf right now, and it’s time to start making a dent in them. I’d like to write more short stories, so focusing on those is a good idea to start with. A couple of friends bought some really neat short story collections for me and I’ve subscribed to Apex Magazine, Fireside Fiction and a few other publications that have choice works out right now. There’s no shortage of things to read; it’s just a matter of building the hunger for it.

So, I resolve to finish “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin by the end of the month and start going in on short stories, novels, graphic novel collections and other things soon after that. I resolve to talk more about the things I’m writing and reading, the lessons I’m learning from acting and observing, how my skill and understanding as a writer is developing.

I know that I have a tendency to over-commit to things, so I’ll be careful — I’m setting my sights low, but I also need to make sure I’m devoting a significant amount of time to this to prove my intention. Resolving to read and write every day — and finding ways to create time for both of them — is something I can do for at least a few months; once September rolls around, I can take a step back and see if this feels better.

Also, hopefully, this will let me make more polished posts here and accelerate the development of my voice, which I’ve always wondered about. What will I sound like when my mish-mash of influences coheres into something unique? It’s an exciting thought. I’m looking forward to finding out.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

(Personal) The Best Thing About Tragedy

Myth 150Pixar’s Inside Out is an amazing film, and I’ll get into exactly what I think about it later. But for now I want to talk about one perfect moment of many in the movie because I keep thinking about it recently. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry — I won’t spoil too much about the plot or anything. It’s a small thing, but like the best emotional beats it opens directly to the heart of things when you look into it.

The premise is that the emotions we all experience — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — are people whose job it is to make sure our emotions influence us to take action when necessary. Each emotion has a situation it’s designed for, and Joy (our main character) is really dedicated to making sure her person has the happiest life. This, of course, puts her in direct conflict with Sadness.

A character that Joy and Sadness meet while traveling suffers a loss that affects him deeply, and Joy can’t seem to snap him out of the funk he’s in. Exasperated, she steps away; Sadness sits next to him and encourages him to talk about what’s upsetting him, getting him to move through his pain instead of avoiding it. Once he’s had a good cry, he stands up and announces he’s ready to move on. After that, Joy realizes Sadness’ purpose — the pain we experience allows us to have empathy for others, to help them move through pain that can feel unbearable at times.

This first week of May was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. My sister was the one person who would have gotten me to go back to my hometown of Baltimore, and her sudden hospitalization found me on a plane there without hesitation. I got the call on Friday morning, arrived early Saturday, and saw my mother for the first time in 19 years that day. The next day, I met the father of Teneka’s children and my two oldest nephews for the first time.

That was the day we were gathered in a conference room with a small team of doctors and social workers and told that my sister was brain dead. My heart broke, not just for my loss, but for the loss of my nephews’ mother, my mother’s daughter, my brother’s partner in life. Our grief in that room connected us, as painful as it was; I can’t speak for anyone else, but being comforted and being able to comfort my family made me feel just a tiny bit better.

The following week was a struggle to absorb the twin tragedies of my sister’s passing and the cold realization of how much my mother’s health had deteriorated over time. She was a small but ice-hard woman, and she kept a clean home. Walking into the house I grew up and being hit by the smell and sight of what it had become is a shock I won’t forget. As soon as I saw her, lying in her bed, I knew that I would do anything to get her out of there and into a better situation.

My husband paused, allowed himself to recover, then immediately went to work helping her. His aunt did the same when she drove with me to help prepare for my sister’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen my mother since the day she told me not to come back all those years ago. Ryan only knew of her through the stories I told him about my upbringing. His aunt had never met her — she was a country girl from Arkansas stepping in to an inner-city home for the first time.

None of that mattered. Time and again, I found myself helped through this terrible time by friends and family stepping up to share my grief and take on a burden that wasn’t theirs. When someone else needed my help, I stepped in without hesitation. Knowing that there were so many others who would do — who had done — the same for me made it easy.

Over the week I was in Baltimore, I was able to heal the rift with my mother — who loved my husband, by the way. I was able to meet my nephews for the first time, and get close to someone who loved Teneka as much as I did. Our family came together in a way they hadn’t in quite some time, and I forged a bond with friends and neighbors that allowed me to reclaim my past. Most importantly, the beautiful, graceful connections that we formed helped ensure that my grief for my sister was tempered with an appreciation for her life and all of the people she had touched.

Our ability to feel pain is also our ability to feel empathy. We can know what it’s like to lose someone and reach out in ways that can genuinely help ease their suffering. As hard as it was to deal with everything back in my hometown, I keep going back to the people I bonded with, the deep and lasting connections we formed, all of those times where love filled the room and allowed us to be open and honest and kind. I feel sad, and I will for a long time. But I also feel incredibly fortunate to have the friends and family I do, the support that carried me through all of this, the ability to witness the best in people.

Even in heavy grief, my heart feels lifted by gratitude. I don’t know that I can express how much I appreciate the kind words and deeds of everyone who reached out over the past few weeks. Thank you all, for everything you’ve done.

 

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(Personal) Eulogy For My Sister

Myth 150When I was younger, I used to make plans with my sister to run away from home all the time. We always thought that the way our mother treated us was grossly unfair, and after a particularly hard day we would pack up a few days’ worth of clothes, make a couple of sandwiches, and sit beneath the porch of our childhood home to plan our escape. Of course we never went through with it; when the time came to pull the trigger, we always found a reason that the timing wasn’t right or why tomorrow would be better.

Only, as time went on and we grew up, we both did run away in our own sense. I fell into a ton of extracurricular activities in high school and when I graduated, I worked two jobs and spent the rest of my day at the library until it closed just so I wouldn’t have to go back home. After that, I tried really hard to be an active Jehovah’s Witness. When that didn’t work, I fled to college in southern Maryland.

My sister literally ran away without me when I was 13 or 14 years old. Suddenly, she was gone for months and neither my mother or I had any idea where she was. I was so stunned that I couldn’t think of anything to do except sit and stare at the wall for hours after school. It was safer for me than feeling whatever it was I felt. I knew the emotion was too intense for me, and that I would end up doing something to purge myself of it that would not be good.

I didn’t realize that was grief until just a few years ago, and since then I considered myself lucky that it had been the closest I’d come to the pain of losing someone so close to me. I can’t think of myself as that fortunate any more.

My sister died on April 30th, 2017. She had been found unconscious and unresponsive in her apartment a few days before, and when the paramedics arrived it took over twenty minutes to get back a pulse. She was on a respirator for days while the family gathered and doctors performed a few tests. By the end of that weekend, it was clear that her brain had died even though her heart was still beating. We heard the news as a family — my mother was there with me, and so was the father of her two oldest children. It shattered us; each of us had a complicated relationship with my sister that took us further away from her, then closer, over time. I’m not sure any of us understood how much she meant to us until we were told that we would never get to speak to her again.

In a lot of ways, I felt like I had already mourned my sister the first time she ran away. She came back and ran away a few more times before I left home for good, and that pattern would be repeated over the years in several fights with my mother. The last time I spoke to her, she had come back from going “off the grid” again for a few days, ready to work with Mom to get the house in order, take care of her children, and start the long hard road towards being a mother, daughter, caretaker and everything else folks wanted her to be. I didn’t think it would last, but I never could be sure because I didn’t know my sister — not really. The sister I knew had “died” the first time she disappeared without a trace, and all these years later I was still feeling my way around this changeling that had taken her place.

But of course that’s not the reality of the situation. Of course my sister was the same girl who plotted escaping home with her quiet, nerdy brother — just with more experience, an adult’s understanding of the childhood pain she carried with her for her entire life. When I think about what my sister went through in her too-brief life, I’m stunned by her strength and the realization of how much she loved people, how much she sought love and acceptance. And it breaks my heart that I realized that only now, when it’s too late to do anything with that knowledge.

Like all of us, my sister had mental health issues that had been inherited by our biological mother. Unlike me, though, she still lived in the heart of Baltimore City where these issues are largely unrecognized and go untreated. When she tried to talk to her friends about them, they would tell her that she was “making things up” or that she just had to think about her problems the right way to see how ridiculous an idea it was to have “anxiety disorder”. Over time, my sister learned to nurse her issues silently and even when asked she would be reluctant to talk about it. She had to bear the burden of her own faulty brain while stepping up to be strong for everyone around her. She worked so hard to clean and care for my mother, who only gave her scorn in response; she tried hard to provide a good life for her oldest son, even though his mental health issues will make it extremely challenging; she had to fight an uncaring bureaucracy for any help she could get, even though she had been punished for having such a hard time by losing her two youngest children to foster care.

Thinking about what my sister had to go through, it’s no wonder that she turned to drugs when she did — and that it was so hard to kick the habit whenever she tried. The comforting oblivion of being too intoxicated to think or feel is an extremely tempting one, especially when just piecing together a life for yourself is so hard and thankless. Still, she knew that she needed to stop for the sake of her children. The fact that she ultimately failed is a tragedy, but it is not one of personal deficiency. She needed a support network that believed in her and worked to validate her experience, one that would give her hope that she could still live a happy life. In the depths of depression surrounded by the craziness of the inner city, something like that can feel as impossible as flying to Mars.

Still, she stayed. She stayed because she was the only one who could care for my mother, an exceedingly difficult woman who pushes away anyone who gets close enough to help her. She stayed because her children needed her, and she tried to get clean for them. She fought and fought and fought until she couldn’t any more; but she never gave up. She gave her family everything she had and then some; she hid how much it hurt when she was told again and again that it wasn’t enough.

At last, her pain is over. Her struggle has ended. I wish this wasn’t the way it happened, and I’ll regret not doing more to do right by her for the rest of my life. The only way I can prove how sorry I am is by being as strong as she was, as giving and hopeful and tenacious. She eventually fell to her demons, but she never stopped fighting them. I can’t either.

Because of my sister, I will run away from my fights much less often. Standing my ground and fighting my battles is the legacy she left with me with. For that, I sincerely thank her.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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