Tag Archives: self-reflection

(Personal) Goodbye, February

Myth 150The last time I spoke to my mother on the phone, she sounded lonely. But in typical Mom fashion, mostly she complained about the people with her at the in-patient rehab center. The white woman who had roomed with her was a racist. The nurses checking in on her were stealing her clothes. She just wanted to be by herself.

Her hearing isn’t good and the phone in her room is even worse, so most of my questions — half-hearted attempts at small talk — were answered with “Huh?” and “What did you say?” over and over again. I repeated myself louder and louder, until I was screaming at the phone enough to feel angry and anxious. After about ten minutes of that I opted for a different tack — soft and gentle noises of acknowledgement. “Mm-hmm,” I said. “OK.”

Mom has been in and out of hospitals and rehab centers for nearly a year at this point. This latest run was a particularly hard one. She had been invited to stay with her sister, my aunt, while we worked out arrangements with Baltimore City to get an elder-care nurse to check in on both of them. That lasted about three days before she was back in the hospital with an infection. Two weeks later, she was released to a rehab facility. Three days after that, back in the hospital with a more severe infection that had reached her blood.

Through it all she’s been at turns gravely ill, terribly uncooperative, and demanding in the way that only very old people can manage. My aunt (the title you give to any family member who is also an older woman) has quickly realized what a handful my Mom is, so she’s been pretty hands off about all of this even though she said she would take care of her. I can’t blame her. Mom IS a handful. Most of the trouble she gets into is the kind she creates for herself and expects other people to get her out of.

Her most recent stay in rehab is scheduled to end in three days. Neither of my aunts are all that interested in taking her back, but there’s nowhere else for her to go. According to her social worker, she’s too independent for a nursing home and too poor for assisted living. At least she realizes she can’t go home now. The last time I asked her where she wanted to go it never came up in the conversation. But there was a weary resignation in her voice as she fumbled for an answer; she can’t think of any place she’d rather be.

I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for months now what a rotten year I’ve had. My sister died of a drug overdose last April, I say. I had to organize the funeral while trying to find a place for my invalid mother. I had to try to get my sister’s youngest children out of foster care even though I couldn’t take them. I had to confront all the stuff in my past that never got closure.

But after answering my mother’s pleas to call her anytime, day or night, with promises that I would, it hit me that she’s had an even more awful year. I lost my sister, but she lost her daughter. And before she could even grieve properly she was ripped out of her house and away from her neighbors and support. She was forced to rely on help from someone she really didn’t like all that much. Her life has been an endless procession of strange places and overworked health-care workers, a litany of pain in her back, her hips, her stomach, her heart. When the physical pain isn’t too bad, the grief rushes in to take up a shift. There are so many people she lost: her husband, her first son, her daughter, her grandchildren, and me.

Sometimes when the sun goes down the stress chases away her awareness. She can’t eat, she can’t sleep, she can’t do anything but wonder where she is and why she’s there. She gets mean. She refuses to take anything but medicine for the pain. She never gets enough of it.

I know if I were in my mom’s situation, I would want to die. I couldn’t take knowing that all the chances I’ve ever had in life have been taken, and this is where they’ve lead me. I don’t think I could handle the regret and the bewilderment, the ache of a failing body on top of the ache of loss. I think of her every day in some room that smells like industrial cleaners and is probably way too cold, waiting for a familiar face to make her feel better. It breaks my heart.

But I can’t let go of all the choices she’s made, all the things she’s said and done to push me away and ultimately cut me adrift. I can’t forget all the terrible things she said and did to my sister as she struggled with mental illness and addiction. I can’t rally a scattered family around someone they decided they didn’t want anything to do with years ago, or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucracy from across the country.

And I can’t write stories while trying to sort through this tangle of anger and guilt and frustration. I can’t write blogs about politics or geek culture. I can barely get it together enough to stay out of trouble at my day job. It’s hard. I don’t know what to do. In three days Mom could be wheeled out in front of a building to wait for a new home that doesn’t exist yet. It feels like a massive failure for her to be this close to that.

The next time I talk to my mother on the phone, I hope I can shout good news at her. I hope we can find a place for her to settle down, work through that grief and pain. I sincerely hope this is the bottom.

God, it’s been a hard year.


Posted by on March 6, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection


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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.


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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.


Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection


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(Personal) My 2017

Self Improvement 150Happy New Year! Congratulations to all of us for making it through 2017 with our sanity mostly intact. It was a really rough year, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, something else would come along and knock me off my feet. There was a marathon of awfulness from the current presidential administration, starting with lies about the size of its inauguration and ending with lies about winning the War on Christmas. In between there were unprecedented wars of words with former allies and aides, the media, protesters and members of Congress; over 90 days on a golf course; shockingly provocative statements made on Twitter; leaks and firings from the White House; a rise in racist and totalitarian rhetoric in the public square; and a sustained assault on equal rights for women, minorities, Americans with disabilities; access to health insurance for more Americans; environmental and corporate deregulation; tax cuts for the wealthy; disastrous foreign policy; and a massive grass-roots resistance fighting against all of it for the entire year.

My therapist said that she had never seen so many people come in for psychological services precisely because of our political situation, but this is where we are as a nation. So many of us feel threatened by our own fellow citizens that it’s affecting our mental health. We fear for our friends and family, our autonomy, and our lives. We live in a world that feels hostile, cruel and crazy. To say this year has been a shock is an understatement.

Personally, this has been compounded by derailments in my plans for secondary education, my family situation, my day job, my writing, and my mental health routine. I dropped out of college (again) due to the sudden loss of my sister, and I’ve been struggling with the consequences of that for my family ever since. My finances have been wiped out pretty much entirely, which means that I’ll need to make some changes in my lifestyle and stay the course with an unsatisfying job (at least for the time being) in order to recover. Familial obligations, emergencies, and continued depression has made it almost impossible to build a consistent writing practice. The stress and anxiety has overwhelmed my coping strategy, meaning several depressive episodes, anxiety attacks, and a general struggle with anger and despair over the year.

2017 sucked. A lot. My sister Teneka died of a drug overdose in late April, leaving behind four children and an elderly mother who can’t take care of herself. Knowing Teneka struggled with many of the same mental health issues I did — Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, for example — highlighted just how lucky I am to have a job that allows me the chance to address those issues at a reasonably low cost. I also have a support network that understands and empathizes with that struggle, where she didn’t. Instead she tried to raise a son with special needs and an impossibly hostile mother all on her own, while two of her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Trapped by her mental illnesses, struggling to do what was extremely difficult at the best of times, caring for a mother who emotionally abused her — it’s no wonder to me that she turned to drugs as an escape. Where else could she go?

I learned about all of this from February to April, and the week in Baltimore as she died was the hardest week I’ve ever spent. But I got to see my two oldest nephews for the first time, gained a brother-in-law who is passionate, dedicated, and wild, and reconnected with my family after over a decade of estrangement. I’ve gained a measure of closure with my mother, even though I continue to struggle with finding a way to care for her that doesn’t involve an emergency cropping up at least once a month. Her finances are beyond repair, but I only came to that decision after depleting my own.

My mother has been difficult ever since coming back from Baltimore. Our time together was surprisingly positive. She met Ryan as my husband, and it turns out she really liked him — she still asks about him. And I thought that I had been able to speak to her in a way she understood and short-circuited a lot of the tantrums she tends to throw when things don’t go her way. She can be astonishingly mean when she’s unhappy or surprised. However, as the months dragged on and she caused scramble after scramble when refusing to do something we had agreed on a few days before, it became clear that she hasn’t really changed and she’s still the same self-absorbed, stubborn person she was when I left home.

Dealing with my mother and the loss of my sister took up most of my energy throughout the year, and I spent a great deal of 2017 in a pretty bad headspace. Frustration, anger, grief and guilt have been swirling within me with no good outlet or expression for it. I’ve become resentful of the stress and lost time and money Mom has demanded without thanks or any note of appreciation. Only recently, when other members of my extended family became involved, have I felt a measure of relief and understanding about how difficult this situation has been.

That anxiety has bled over into every other area of my life. I haven’t been writing consistently at all; I’ve been short with a lot of “problem” colleagues at work; I’ve become less talkative online and flighty or confrontational. My anxiety and depression have blown right past my coping mechanisms this year, and it’s affecting my ability to work and be mindful with my relationships. I haven’t really liked the person I’ve become over this past year — even understanding how it happened.

The other major thing that happened this year was spending two weeks in Belgium for work training. It was the very first time I had been to Europe, and it was a fascinating, enriching experience. Two weeks was just enough to get a sense of how people live in the Flemish part of Belgium and I have to say I rather liked it. Things are so much more laidback there, but in a way that actually promotes productivity. Instead of trying to do a million things at one time, there seems to be more of an effort to allow people to focus on one thing and manage that as well as possible. Expertise, built through considerable time and effort, matters.

It’s something that I’ve been struck by and have been trying to incorporate into my life ever since. I’ve attempted to put more energy into focus and deliberate practice, knowing that while it might mean I work more slowly I can also learn and grow a bit more quickly. This has been (not-so-)surprisingly difficult with my ADHD, but I get that. It’s a process, and I’ll need to develop mine a bit differently in order to make it work.

However, learning more about the new ‘flagship’ product at my company seriously tanked my morale. Our company was purchased by a holding company and merged with a European one in a somewhat similar space, but we got the ‘short end’ of the deal. Europe had the control, and it became clear that they weren’t interested in working with their American colleagues on how to support the product; they had no understanding of American business culture and were openly dismissive of their stereotypes of it; and the product itself was a shambles, but the only thing we were allowed to sell in the United States. It convinced me that the place I work for doesn’t really have a future, and I should probably prepare to leave sooner rather than later.

My attitude has cooled somewhat, and I’m content to stick around for a little bit while I build up my technical skills to make a proper run at a new job in 2018. But knowing that I was ‘stuck’ in a work environment that triggered my anxiety pretty fiercely (because I felt like I was set up to fail at my job with little to no recourse) because my finances are in pretty bad shape was not a great feeling and became a major contribution to my overall levels of stress.

As difficult as this past year has been, I have to say that I’ve also grown so much closer to so many people over the year, even as I’ve shrunken my social circle a bit. My love for Ryan has deepened further still, and the life we’ve built together has been an anchor allowing me to maintain some sense of perspective. All of the people who have been kind and patient and compassionate towards me have helped so much more than they know. So many days this year have been spent feeling hopeless, nihilistic, doomed. Those small kindnesses, those moments of connection, have been essential for carrying me through those times. I can’t thank all of you enough.

I went into 2017 expecting it to be hard. I knew that the incoming President would be no friend of mine and I would need to prepare for a grinding political resistance against the worst abuses of power and trust. I knew that we would need to band together as a community in order to protect one another and help each other survive. But I had no idea how much of an emotional toll it would take, turning to a friend to find out a fundamental disagreement meant I would need to advocate for my rights and perspective. I had no idea dealing with my family would be so exhausting and fruitless. I had no idea that I would have to give up my dream of becoming a psychologist for the time being and find other, more immediate ways to help people.

Through it all, though, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was. I have learned the value of discomfort and how to push through it. I have rededicated myself to compassion and equanimity. And I know who’s in the trenches with me. My sense of self (and self-worth) have deepened, and I feel ready for the uncertain times I face in 2018.

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Posted by on January 2, 2018 in mental-health, Self-Reflection


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Kwanzaa, Day 5: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today’s principle is Nia, or Purpose. This is another one of those blue-sky concepts that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and that can make it a little difficult to talk about. What context should we place Nia in? How does it fit in with the Nguzo Saba and our cultural identity as a whole?

This year I wanted to make sure I talked about the Seven Principles and how I think about them today, while drawing a direct line to our history to prove why they’re necessary. Dipping back into our shared history, we can see that so many things have been made possible when we unite under a common purpose — neighborhoods are transformed, rights are earned, our self-image is restored. Our best achievements as black Americans have come from a sense of purpose, a drive to achieve something. The civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Lives Matter and the election of Barack Obama all came out of that sense of purpose.

But there are also aspects of our history that show what can happen when we don’t align under that common purpose. Our own ancestors sold their own people into slavery; African history is marked by tribal warfare, genocide, and humanitarian crises; so many African governments are corrupt and unconcerned about the atrocities visited on people. Here in the United States, our culture chases after the material wealth dangled in front of our eyes instead of focusing on the enrichment and well-being of our community. So many of us have adopted the worst excesses of individualism and the wealth gospel; we only look for the best status symbols, the trendiest clothes, all empty symbols meant to cover up our intellectual and spiritual poverty.

What is our purpose, as individuals and as a people? What is our life’s work? What are we doing, each day, as a small gesture to get closer to that purpose? Again — it’s one thing to say who we are, to speak our identity into being, but it’s another thing to live that identity. It takes work, risk, sacrifice, and patience. Who we imagine ourselves to be is quite different than who we turn out to be, even as we take strides to live up to our best ideals.

My purpose, personally, is to help people feel more connected and engaged with the world around them. In my mind, the great sickness of our age is the lack of empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. We’re so quick to judge other people. We’re so quick to judge ourselves. Learning to accept who we are is important because we can then extend that acceptance to other people; our family and friends; our neighbors and community; strangers, and eventually the entire world. That work is incredibly difficult, though, because of the culture we’ve built around us. We hate things within ourselves but refuse to do to the hard work necessary to change them; then we see others projecting those things and hate them for it, too. We hate people we see as failures — the homeless, the poor, immigrants, minorities. We hate people we see as successes — politicians, entertainers, athletes, business owners. It’s become too easy to see the people around us as signposts for what’s wrong with the world, but for the most part they’re simply who we would be in that position; just human beings struggling to do their best.

The older I get, the more I recognize the value of community. Human beings are social animals, and we need to identify with something larger than ourselves in order to be whole. That doesn’t need to be religion, mind you; it can just as well be the potential of humankind to achieve things that are currently only in our imaginations. I want to give myself over to the ideal that we can overcome the things that divide us while celebrating the things that make us unique; I know that if we come together our collective brilliance can make a legitimate utopian society. I also know that we have a long way to go in achieving that dream, precisely because the kind of person I would need to be is so far off.

So my purpose is to learn how to connect and engage with the world around me, to accept myself and others as they are. By speaking up and sharing how I stumble towards that purpose, perhaps I can help other people avoid similar pitfalls or come up with better ways to navigate around them. Perhaps I can encourage other people to loosen their judgements of others and see why they are worthy of love and respect just as they are. Perhaps I can help others fight against ideologies that prevent us from coming together.

As I get older and wiser still, my sense of purpose may change. How I expect that purpose can be achieved may change. But that’s OK; it’s important to adjust your beliefs based on new experiences, insights, information. All any of us can do is the best we can, but it’s important to know what you’re pouring your effort into, and for what reason. It’s definitely difficult to do, especially at first, but the more we think about it, the better we get at aligning our actions towards it.

Today, I invite all of us to think about our Purpose — not just for individual success, but for the success of the people we care about, the groups we belong to, the human race. Those huge, over-arching goals can be tied to the little things we do every day by thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether the action moves us closer to or further away from our purpose. Then, we adjust accordingly.

This is an especially good practice right before New Year’s, I have to admit. I’ll be thinking a lot about this as I make my goals for 2018.

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Posted by on December 30, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection


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Kwanzaa, Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?


A depressingly common refrain we tend to get whenever we make the attempt to center blackness for a time is “Why don’t we get WHITE (pride, History Month, superheroes, etc.)?” My response is this: Has this ever happened to most (if not all) white ancestors in your family?



Please watch the video — it’s less than five minutes long, but it’s important. This actually happened. It may not have happened in this exact way, and those specific words may never have been used, but it’s an encapsulation of the way the black American experience began. Our ancestors were taken from their homelands against their will, and any connection they had to their cultures were beaten, worked, and terrified out of them. It all began with their names, that most basic possession telling us who we are and where we came from. Africans brought to the US as slaves weren’t regarded as people; they were property, and anything that gave them other ideas were systematically removed. The effects of this are still with us, even now.

For example, let’s take a look at the most common surnames in the United States and where they came from. Smith is English; Johnson is Norman; Williams is English. Various minority groups in the US have popular surnames from their ancestral homes with two notable exceptions. For Asians, the most popular surnames are Nguyen (Vietnamese), Lee (Chinese), and Kim (Korean). For Hispanics, they’re Garcia, Rodriguez, Hernandez — all from Spain. Native Americans, whose culture was subject to similar systematic destruction, have Smith, Johnson, and Begay (Navajo) as their most common last names. For black Americans, it’s Williams. And Johnson. And Smith.

Our ancestors were stolen from their home and had their cultures irrevocably cut from them. Any culture that survived was hidden in folktales, in songs and stories. Black Americans didn’t even take last names until after Emancipation, and our only options were the last names of the people who last owned us. This is all distressingly recent history, too. The last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade (Cudjoe Lewis) died in 1935. Eliza Moore, the last known American born into slavery, died in 1948. The last person we can confirm was a slave, Alfred Blackburn, died in 1951 — when our current President was five years old.

Ever since then, part of the black experience has been working towards the ability to decide who we are for ourselves. Our entire time in America has been marked by a dominant culture impressing its ideas and attitudes about us ON us. Black Americans are criminals, drug addicts, super-cool bad-asses, magical Negroes, thugs, loud, ignorant, troubled people in need of saving. We are angry, or lazy, or any one of the fears or hopes of our country plastered over our real selves. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible ManĀ is all about this — what it does to someone to not be seen, to only have the expectation of who they should be pushed on them again and again.

Kujichagulia is the principle of self-determination, the second one we consider in Kwanzaa. But what is it really?

First, let’s take a moment to consider how truly fun it is to say: Koo-gee-chak-oo-lee-uh. SO MUCH FUN. I love that word. Kujichagulia. Man. So great! OK, end of aside.

This is why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. This is why Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. If the erasure of our ancestral culture began with names, the reclamation of our own self-determination can begin with the same thing. Kujichagulia goes so much further beyond names, though — it means that we, and we alone, own the labels that identify us.

It means black men don’t have to be dumb brutes, or crazed gangsters, or smooth-talking ladies’ men. It means black women don’t have to be plain-spoken and wise, or sassy and independent, or drug addicts and rape victims. It means the black community doesn’t have to be a place where your only options for life are the streets or the church. We don’t have to accept the images that are handed to us just because we don’t have a solid, continuous link to our past.

Kujichagulia means that we forge our own identities. That’s a tremendous power, but also a tremendous responsibility. We must consider who we want to be and what we want to represent, and we must build ourselves from the ground up to align with that. It’s a lifelong process that can be difficult, confusing, frustrating, scary.

But it can also be a source of tremendous strength, knowing that ultimately YOU must decide who you are, what you are to be called, and what you stand for. Our ancestors suffered namelessly for hundreds of years; our forebears fought and died for our right to forge our own identities; we continue that struggle, here and now, by using our freedom to decide the best within and for ourselves. We clothe ourselves with the names, ideals and culture of our own making; we dismiss the names and labels that don’t serve us.

Today, I invite us to think about the way we think about ourselves. What makes us feel like we’re the best people we can be? What diminishes us, makes us ashamed? What has been given to us that we should not or will not accept? Who are we, really — not just as people, but as a community, a nation, a race?

Self-determination isn’t just an intention or a declaration; it’s a choice, an action, a promise. It’s not enough to just say who or what we are. We must also live up to the names we give ourselves. So let’s do that.


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Kwanzaa, Day 1: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150Habari gani?

You might not know it, but today is the first day of Kwanzaa! A lot of people tend to dismiss Kwanzaa because it’s a made up holiday, or because it promotes divisiveness by centering the African diaspora, or because the whole thing sounds so silly. But all holidays were newly made up at one point or another and we’re still doing it all the time; we’ve only celebrated Movember since 2004 and International Talk Like a Pirate Day since 1995. Kwanzaa is older than both of those, celebrated since 1966. Celebrating our culture doesn’t divide us any more than Hanukkah, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, or Chinese New Year; being united is not the same thing as being completely assimilated into the dominant culture. And yeah, Kwanzaa is silly — but so are holidays in general. None of them would be any fun otherwise.

But what IS Kwanzaa, though? It’s just a holiday that was created in the mid-1960s to celebrate and reflect on African-American culture and values. It’s expanded to include the wider pan-African diaspora in the decades since, but it’s still a relatively obscure holiday. I personally think that’s great; because so many details of the holiday are so nebulous, that means that we can create our own traditions and make the holiday are own. As long as we do something to reflect on those daily values; honor our ancestors and the sacrifices they’ve made; and work to instill and strengthen our bonds in our community, there’s no one way to observe the holiday.

Traditionally, though, Kwanzaa features a few central things: a kinara, or ceremonial candle holder; the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles that represent the Seven Principles; mazao, or fresh fruits that represent African idealism; muhindi, or corn, representing our future; the Kikumbe cha Umoja, a cup we share in celebrations honoring and thanking our ancestors; and a mkeka, or mat that all of these things rest upon. You could also have a poster of the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles; a bendera, or pan-African flag with the colors of black, red and green; a dashiki, or traditional West African garment; gifts, books, art, or music featuring the culture of the Pan-African diaspora.

Kwanzaa is always celebrated over seven days between December 26th and January 1st. The names we give for things come from the Swahili language, which was a major influence in the Pan-African movement of the 60s and 70s. However, since most of us African-Americans have ancestry in West Africa, there are a lot of influences and traditions from that part of the world as well. Each day, we greet each other with the phrase “Habari gani?”, or “What’s the news?” You wish people a Joyous Kwanzaa, though personally I prefer to say “Have a Solid Kwanzaa” because it’s SO much more awesome. Not all black Americans share my aesthetic, though, so among strangers or acquaintances it’s best to use the traditional holiday wishes.

If you look at the roots of Kwanzaa and particularly the man who started it (Maulana Karenga), you’ll find that the original intention of the holiday did indeed foster a separation between African-Americans and the dominant Western culture in the United States — but that language has softened with greater understanding of our place in the lands we inhabit, and a greater desire to connect and communicate with others. Kwanzaa isn’t an isolationist holiday, and it shouldn’t be; the whole point is to rediscover our roots and share the hard-won perspective and wisdom that has grown out of our shared cultural experience. Kwanzaa centers us at the end of our year, reminds us of what we truly value, and reminds us that we are part of a community that needs us. Our hard work and success is that of the community; when we lift up our brothers and sisters, we lift up ourselves.

Which might be why the very first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or unity. Today, we remind ourselves to strive for and maintain the unity of our family, community, nation, and race. Looking back over the past year, where there have been so many forces that seek to fracture us, it’s easy to see why this principle is more important than ever.

Unity is one of those ideals that are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. I’ve thought a lot about what unity means to me, and personally it’s the simple fact that we’re all in this together and we should treat each other accordingly. The human experience is astonishingly varied and complex, and our individual perspectives lead us to many different conclusions. Some of us prize compassion as a virtue above all; some of us think loyalty is more important; for others, it’s justice. When the importance that we place on these virtues cause conflict about the correct course of action, we very often begin to paint those who disagree with us as the enemy, or as monsters lacking some basic trait of humanity. Often that’s simply not true — some people just don’t care about a virtue as much as we do. It doesn’t mean they don’t care at all. Sometimes, other things are simply more important.

As frustrating as this can be, it’s important to remember that these people are in the same boat as us and we’re often working towards the same ends. We all want a better world for ourselves, our family, our community. We all want fairness and equality for people. We all want to be safe, healthy, and happy.

Obviously, I don’t mean those whose vision of a ‘better world’ means getting rid of the other people in our boat who aren’t like them, or who think that those of us who are different are somehow inferior and not worthy of the same treatment. That ideology — and the people who take action based on it — must be purged completely if we want to have any hope of true unity. We can’t be united if we don’t include everyone in the boat.

A lot of us think that unity means that we must stand together against something, but that’s not true either. We can — and should — stand united FOR a common purpose. We can come together to make our family, community, nation, and race as great as it can possibly be. The difference here is that instead of uniting to fight against some negative influence, we choose to direct our attention to the positive, the uplifting, the healing. We promote the things we value, instead of simply condemning the things we don’t.

I’m not going to lie — this is hard work. It can be difficult, especially in the midst of disagreements, to remember that the person I’m engaging with is a brother or sister and that we’re both in the same boat. It’s all too easy to unite against something and pour my energy into the things I want to eradicate instead of the things I want to nurture and protect. It’s hard to remember that someone believes as they do because of their own direct experience and that is different from mine. I get it wrong again and again and again. I can be divisive in so many ways.

But that’s OK. It’s human nature, and I’m only human. What’s important is to continue striving for unity, not just as a nebulous and vague concept but as a tangible, graspable goal. We can unite. We can work together. In fact, we must.

So how can we work towards being united? How can we bring together our families and communities? It starts with us. We must learn to recognize which differences can be accepted without change and what is truly necessary for us to agree on in order to be united. If someone thinks that hard work is the way out of poverty and not a strong social safety net, for example, ask how they promote that value in impoverished communities instead of pushing back. Our problems are complicated enough that there is no single solution, no magic bullet, that will untangle those knots. We can work with each other according to our individual values to eradicate poverty — that IS a distinctly American value, after all. E Pluribus Unum — Out Of Many, One.

I welcome all of you to think about what unity means for you, and how you can promote it within your family, community, and nation. Really drill down into the specifics; make it real. Then, think about what actions you can take today to bring us together as one people. It’s a small, but very real thing we can do to honor the sacrifices our ancestors made to give us a better life.

I wish all of you a Solid Kwanzaa. See you tomorrow, brothers and sisters.


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