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Heavy Heart

29 Jun

I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR this morning. Terry Gross was interviewing W. Kamau Bell, the comic who has that show on HBO and a stand up called Private School Negro coming out on Netflix. He talked about a lot of stuff, doing ancestry.com, his parents, who were never married, split when he was a baby and both reared him; his meeting with Anthony Bourdain and their few encounters, one of which was spent in Kenya drinking gin and tonics.

Bell was moved in many ways by Bourdain–that Bourdain had been so warm to him (a self-described “nobody”) and that Bourdain was known for “not suffering fools. “He either loved you or ignored you,” Bell said in the interview. He got choked up when he talked about Bourdain’s light and that Bell could discern light being turned on.  Gross asked him if he’d been surprised that Bourdain had killed himself; Bell thought for a moment and said he didn’t know him well enough to be able to comment, but that even with that light, he did sense that Bourdain possessed a heavy heart.

I was struck by this characterization. I didn’t know Bourdain at all, I didn’t even watch his show, but like so many I was so saddened by his death struck that it would plunge me into my own sad hell. My sense of Bourdain and Bell’s description of him bore out my instinct of him, my attraction–that he felt very deeply as I do.

It’s very uncomfortable to admit that I understand how ending one’s life could happen, how the scaffolding holding you up just wears down. I am not suicidal, however when I heard comments from people who say suicide is cowardly or selfish or “he had so much,” or “she was rich” as I heard people say about Kate Spade, my back goes up. No one and I mean no one knows how it feels under another person’s skin.  On top of Bourdain’s heaviness, all that traveling is exhausting and as many have said and lonely.

When my memoir, Welcome to My Breakdown came out a few years ago, where I wrote about my grief at losing my mom and my depression, many people who know me said to me they were shocked to learn that I had depressive episodes. One woman, a therapist friend of a friend said, “what do you have to be sad about?” She caught herself and mumbled something contrary. I didn’t get upset. I understood that she’d only seen my light. It appears I don’t produce enough dopamine, a recent gratefully received an explanation. But I think given who I am as a writer, an HSP, an empath, who possess a heavy heart, I would have suffered a little sadness around the edges anyway. I know I have to take care of myself: Rest, have some solitude, be with my kids and husband, spend time with friends who are real, loving, accepting of my faults and theirs. People who are willing to do the work on themselves, not just other people.

I was listening to the interview while walking my dog in the park. Oftentimes I walk with a group. Today I was alone and sometimes when my dog friends aren’t there I get a little sad. Today, I was happy to be able to listen without distraction.

I was glad to be able to turn over the phrase heavy heart and put it in the context on my own disposition. It made assuaged my understanding of why his death hit me so hard.

Bourdain, whose June 25th birthday is 12 days before mine.

He was creative, loving, honest, heavy-hearted, an HSP. He was one of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Teaching Memoir

12 Jun

Every Tuesday morning from 10 to noon I teach a memoir writing workshop. My class is a group of 11 grown women. Grown meaning they’re aged the early 40s to 80 and they’ve seen some things. The class has shifted and grown over the years from about 4 to 5 students–including the occasional male and non-cisgender– to a steady maximum capacity. The table comfortably seats 12.

I love teaching memoir.

I love doing it in a way I’ve never loved work before. Even in my longed-for career as a full-time author, there’s plenty that I don’t like: the unrelenting, necessary aloneness, being both labor and management, listening to my inner critic yapping like a terrier, and critics. I do love having written. Back when I was writing fiction exclusively and steadily, I used to love to get revision letters from my then editor, the wonderful Dominick Anfuso. I do realize these are First World problems.

But this is the only “work” I’ve ever done that I love doing without reservation.

With each term, I grow attached to my students and my stalwarts who’ve been with me for a few years hold a cherished space in my life.

I’ve taught writing at colleges and while there were parts that I like and certainly students of whom I became very fond, I didn’t love it. I hated grading papers and even more so dealing with the pushback from the rare student, about grades.

I’m rarely so clear about anything, which is why I ‘ve been trying to understand what is it about this that I love doing this so much. I think it’s simply that what they’re writing about is their souls, their passions, heartbreaks, desires, despairs. Life. I get to listen, scribble while they’re reading and feel and convert feelings into words, to tell them what I hear that isn’t on the page. I get to be moved, engaged, humored, to testify. I love helping them find the key and then, eventually, to turn the lock to what’s really in their hearts, on their minds; what the piece is actually about. I don’t always know what that is, but I usually know what questions to ask to help them find it. I get to play shrink, to dissect emotions and psyches, which I love more than anything.  I love hearing them help each other with their thoughtful critiques. I love that I’ve created the space for them to feel safe.

I get to help people construct their pathos and their joys into poetry, into a symphony into rhythm and blues.

After class today one of my students, a poet, told me she loves the class because we talk from our hearts. Yep, that’s it. Heart talk. Heart writing. Heart work. I’m in that heart space and it’s exactly the neighborhood where I want to live.

 

Rambling

5 Mar

My friend Derek recently asked me: “What were you doing in high school?” He was responding to an admission I’d made that I couldn’t help my son study for his science test because I don’t really know the Periodic Table. “Mom, that’s not how you ask the question,” my son had told me during my quizzing attempt. He said it in his non-judgmental way that preserved my dignity. (My  otherwise sweet daughter probably wouldn’t have been so gentle). I told Derek that I’d never learned it. The fact is, I’m sure it was taught at my large, public, urban high school, but I was busy being cool, hanging with the popular crowd of older, cool girls–some who were doing their work.

I am a semi-introvert and quasi nerd, although that word hadn’t yet been created. I wasn’t  touching that part of myself in high school. Before those years, I loved to be in my imagination, to make up stories with my dolls (yes I was still playing with dolls at 13, although on the low, until my mother became concerned and gave them all to her friend’s daughter, Lucille.)

Forty years later, we are living in a highly taxed suburb, where a large majority of funds go to our my our large, public high school, which my son attends. The high school is the tale of two schools where  top students, who also have parents who know the system, go to top schools; bottom ones–many who have loving parents who don’t know they can fight the system–get ignored and the middle ones–who have parents who know how to fight  achieve some kind of success.

My son is popular. He is emotional intelligent–although the school doesn’t test for such. I’ve told them they should. His grades this year are very good and, perhaps, he could be working harder, which would put him in the top-tier. When I suggest bumping up to higher honors level classes, he says, “Naw, I’m good.”

When tell him that I didn’t push myself in high school and that now I regret it (albeit higher level math was never going to happen). He responds: “And you’re a best-selling author.” Hmmm, but, I tell him, with a tiny bit more effort and support you could do even more complex math–he has the aptitude. He gives me his look that says what he used to say when he was little “I know stuff…” which I now understand means I know a lot, including subtext and I don’t have to prove anything. Oh boy, this sounds inherited.

So, as we’re wrapping up the school year and it’s time to meet with the high school counselors to plan that “important” junior year, I am a little anxious; honestly, only a little. I’m hoping to find an appropriate academic program for part of the summer. One that he won’t hate too much. He wants to play in the basketball league he and his friends are creating. He will continue to play baseball, as he has since he was four.

I’m not sure where the idea for this post came from or what the point is (I do try to have one when I write these), but here it is.

 

“I didn’t want to teach you to hate”

9 Jul

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This man right here, my Dad, 91, grew up in segregated Anderson, SC, where Black men were still being hanged. He fought in WWII on an aircraft carrier, USS Franklin where he was of the 700 who survived; 2,300 died. After the Navy, he went back to Anderson, finished high school (he was drafted at 17), applied to white Clemson University, was rejected because they “didn’t accept Negras.” He had played baseball and football and Clemson had been his dream. He didn’t want to live another dream in a place where dreams weren’t only deferred, they were barred. Like millions, he became part of the Great Migration and landed in Newark, New Jersey, where he met and married my mother. He got a well-paying, if monotonous, job at General Motors where he stayed for 25 years. He didn’t tell my brothers and me about the lynchings during his childhood spent in aparthied (Jim Crow) or of mopping up body parts on the aircraft carrier after the ship had been attacked. When we became adults and he began to talk about the horrors that he’d seen, I asked him why he didn’t tell us when we were young. This man, this man right here said: “I didn’t want to teach you to hate.” Now, in his very elderly years, he doesn’t remember most things or people; news events escape him. He no longer knows what the word “news” means. Most days, his reality makes me very sad, but not today, not this week, this month, this 2016 when 560 Black & brown citizens have been senselessly, carelessly killed by police.

Like so many of you right now, my heart hurts. Two more Black people were killed at the hands of policeman–not even a day had passed between the two. Not even a full day and there was yet another video tape. Two more that I refuse to watch. I will not watch anymore videos of people being murdered. I stopped in November of last year (2015) when Laquan McDonald  was shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.  This year, 2016, 560 unarmed Black and brown people have been killed by police officers. Five Hundred, sixty. We are only in July; 560 souls.  And we watch CNN or Fox and read about it and sigh and say, oh no not another one, and hold our chests and some of us make placards and march. Some amazing people even create  movements like Black Lives Matter, which is often criticized for the use of Black in the name, critics saying using the word Black excludes other people, that all lives matter. Of course All Lives Matter–the difference is All lives aren’t at risk when stopped by the police because of a broken headlight. Twelve-year-old White boys aren’t shot down  in playgrounds by police. All lives aren’t taken or even threatened when encountering the police. Dylan Roof walked in to Emmauel AME church in Charleston, during Bible Study, opened fire and killed 9 people. When the police came, they put him in handcuffs. He wasn’t shot, he wasn’t beaten. He was put into a police car and on the way to the precinct, they took him to get something to eat. All Lives Should Matter.

My Dad didn’t teach me to hate, but I am angry, sometimes sad which is rage turned inside. I often worry about one of my brothers, who is filled with rage, verging on hate and like many men isn’t equipt with a vocabulary of emotions. People do sometimes default to hate. I know it’s hard not to; I know that my Dad was King-like unique. Patient as a Tibetan Monk, with the wisdom to understand that if he let himself experience what he’d witnessed growing up, the rage would eat him up–most Black people of his and previous generations understood this.

I spoke with my friend Gabrielle yesterday. Just called her up because we hadn’t spoken in a while. She is as sensitve as she is whip-smart. She is white. She brought up the shootings and said: I feel so sick, so sad, like I want to apologize to every African-American I see. Of course she knows that apologies wouldn’t change a thing, but is expressing a level of wanting to do, to say, something.

I have several close friends who are White, with whom I’m honest and open about my feelings (a requirement for me to consider one a close friend). I don’t need to say, but I will, they are good people. Extraordinarily so. I’m lucky, but I know I’m not unique in this experience. Here’s my proposal for what to do–for all White people who are horrified by what’s happening in our country and feel powerless about what to do–simply talk about it. Talk about it with other White people, not just to your Black or Brown friends; and if you’re feeling equipt, talk to the ones who aren’t as open-minded as you. I know that some people do. A few months  ago, I saw an huge, elegant banner draped over a primarily white Congregational church in my hometown that read: Black Lives Matter. Good people can no longer stand by quietly. We have to be able to see the humanity in all people and pass it along. It sounds insane to have to point out that all humans are human beings, but we’re living in insane times.

 

Passing for Them

7 Feb

Every now and then I run across something written that so describes how I feel that it literally shakes me to my core. A while ago, I read a piece called The Art of Passing for Them, written by a poet named Mary Stewart Hammond. It was on the back page of the New York Times Book Review.

 

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The piece resonated with me so because I’ve often been in the same place. She describes a charitable gala (as a non-paying guest) sitting next to a person, a “real donor” and the one-way convo included:

His/her golf game

His/her tennis game

His/her academic background

His/her wine cellar

His/her favorite ski slopes

His/her gifted children

Now, my friends know that I am a pretty gifted conversationalist. My friend Eleanore, a closet introvert, says that I can have a conversation with a stump. The reality is that I am genuinely interested in people. I like to hear their stories. What I struggle with though are people who are self-involved to the point where they never stop talking about themselves to inquire about another person, either with genuine or pretend interest. I enjoy discovering people who are counter to what they appear to be, which is pretty much most of us, but getting beyond the surface is often not done. I like nothing more than the discovering someone is more than just his/her list. When the reveal happens and soulful side appears, I want to applaud.

In the piece Mary Stewart Hammon says she doesn’t reveal that she’s a poet because she understands that once she does she knows what will happen. It happens all the time when talking to Them. She’ll say she’s a writer, but again, knows what’s going to come next.

“What kind of writer?”

She’ll say, a sportswriter, figuring it’s familiar enough to Them, but now Them is interested and a discussion of a range of sports ensues. She doesn’t share that she’s a poet because she understands that in this crowd, this is not understood. She feels like she has to explain that she’s not a girly poet and that she’s not weird or neurotic.

“Poets are just regular, normal, neurotic human beings, who according to the latest survey are even more stable than fiction writers, yet everybody loves to sit next to fiction writers. They could have a best-seller in their laptops, meaning money, and money means some way of valuing what they do sitting home alone all day.”

My memoir is a lot about breaking free of the Them, of the Them in me. It’s about feeling good about my choice (actually I feel like it’s not a choice–its just the way I was born) to not be a part of Them. To, as my friend Carmen says all the time, stand in my truth. Of course first that means you have to know what that is and that’s probably the first problem: Most people don’t know who they are so by default become Them.

I think Mary Stewart Hammond and I have had a similar problem with passing. We look like Them, so it’s easy to mistake us. WE have a lot of the same stuff, go on vacation to a lot of the same places, have kids who know each other. But…

For me becoming a grown ass woman has meant owning all my stuff and not apologizing for it. There are times when I just don’t want to go to your party or out to dinner or certainly not to your gala. Do I have other plans? Yup, I want to lie on my couch. I need idle–for me it is divine. It is necessary. It is oxygen.

I’ve ended a few friendships because those former friends were simply too much–no  off-switch. They were quite successful, worked hard, socialized non-stop. I liked these women, but the 24-hour drive made me jumpy and ultimately bitchy. I can become irritated fairly easily by too much stimulation that is not intellectually gratifying. It puts me in a bad mood. Noise. I really don’t like to be bitchy. I came to understand, that for at least one of them, her on-switch was how she survives. Turning inward would put her in a sad place, she once said, from which she might not recover. I was too much work for her. I’m too melancholy. I can’t just show up, won’t, if I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to just talk about things that don’t enhance some understanding of who we are, the human condition, the struggles we  face, the things that really bring us joy, fear, sadness, inspiration.

So now there are times when I feel the absence of such high-octane friends, but I make a point to spend time with people who aren’t Them. The ones who are living their truth out loud and providing space for which we can all be WE. I am grateful.

 

resilience

22 Jan

IMG_5811I just went off, or HAM as the kids say (hard as a mother…) on my son. We were on our way to school at 7 am–never my finest hour–and I sat in the driveway and blew the horn to get him to get outta the house and into the car. I never blow my horn in my driveway and hardly ever do anywhere else. I think it’s rude and usually unnecessary, but I knew he was dawdling, looking in the mirror, looking for a certain hat, not one to keep him warm, but one to look cool. The one from Drake’s clothing line. I just lost it. He spends 25 minutes getting dressed and less than two making sure he has his work and knows what the school day requires of him. He almost left his math folder on the dining room table. There’s a quiz tomorrow. I reamed him out the entire way to school. He sat, sunken slightly in the passenger seat not saying a word as I talked, okay yelled, about his future and pointed out that there are some kids walking around town who were well-dressed and cool in high school and can’t get in or finish college or get a job. I’m still simmering an hour after I dropped him off.

My son Ford is a good boy. He’s sweet, has great friends, is a good baseball player, can play chess and is intuitive and funny.  He is cool and I mean that it both ways: he’s calm, like nothing bothers him and he’s got an understated way that reads Miles Davis kind of cool. Just is; just has always been.

I understand that much of this behavior is age-appropriate freshman year behavior and I believe (know, hope…) that he’ll mature and learn how to handle his business.

I had more  than a few of these rants directed at my daughter when she was in high school–not freshman year because the sadists who ran the all-girls Catholic school had oppressed her to the point of compliance. The uniform  requirement also saved lots of time that would’ve been spent on primping. After a few months, it became clear that that Catholic school was not the place for her, so she transfered to the school where my son is now. She and I had our battles (not much about school work), but she got kicked out at least one carpool because she couldn’t ever get out of the house on time, but we survived and she is thriving. I look at Baldwin’s level of grace and resiliance now, as she navigates her way in Paris during her junior year abroad and I’m bursting with pride. She takes all of her classes in French, she’s dealing with a difficult living situation and she got through the horrendous terrorist attacks, scared, but didn’t once say she wanted to leave the program and come home. A few students in her program did leave. Sure she wanted to be with us during that time, and God knows we  wanted  to wrap her up, but she kept a grip on herself and made it through.

Lots has been written lately about the importance of resilience and that it is the most important trait to have in future success. I came across this list:

Characteristics of a resilient child that cannot be influenced:
Normal intelligence
Attractiveness to others
Good Fortune
Knack for seeking out people in environment that are good for a child’s development

Things that can be fostered:

Strong relationship with a competent adult
Feelings of hope and meaning in life
Faith or religious affiliations
Good schools
Connection to Positive Role Models
Feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy
“Acceptance gives us the gift of resilience –fully joining the flow of life without being defined by what happens,” said Sharon Salzberg Cofounder of Insight Meditation Society Author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program.

Ford clearly is flowing and he has all the characteristics of resilience, perhaps that’s why when I’m spinning on my head, wondering what I should do to light his fire and make him take more responsiblity for school, he always says to me, relax.

Maybe the babies really are our teachers. Clearly, I need to practice acceptance, ahem, resislience.

I’d like to hear how you help or have helped your kids become more resilient. How have you?

 

 

Balanced: An Inspired Melancholic

10 Jan

It’s Sunday and it’s raining. Yesterday the grey of the clouds were charcoal-colored as I drove to the Catskill mountain area, about 90 minutes from home.  Parts of the area are quite pretty, but the cast made it dismal.  Although my temperment doesn’t need any help in feeling glooming, I didn’t mind the clouds.  Melancholy is a state with which I’m well-acquitanted, but I’m beginning to accept that this isn’t a bad thing. A few months ago, I came across an article in the Times, The Case for Melancholy, that vibrated in my soul.

When I was leaving the baby shower for my niece-in-law that evening, I looked up and saw the house was enricled by 50 foot,  lanky, bare trees–I thought it was beautiful. My daughter and best friend, probably thought eerie, but remained mute as I voiced this observation.

“Melancholy, distinguished from grief, is not caused by events, like losing your job, the passing of beloved pets, your miscarriages or health problems. Nor does it vanish when you receive excellent news, like a big film star optioning your novel, or being invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to Venice for the Biennale,” wrote Laren Stover.
One thing I know for sure is that when I’m feeling inspired by something, whether it’s simulating company, a sentence, a book that moves me or when I’m able to write consistently for uninterrupted periods (hardly ever!) I’m not sad. Things that  speaks to my soul acknowlege the complexity feelings.

I can feel good and my melancholy is right there, in the room lounging on the chaise, welcomed.

 

“It was reassuring also to see in the recent animated film “Inside Out” that Sadness, the gloomy Eeyore of emotions, saves the day with the perky persistence of overbearing Joy,” Stover wrote.

We need both. (If you haven’t seen the movie, where joy, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, are characters, do.)Stover says melancholy requires reflection: a sort of mental steeping, like tea? I like that image. I reflect. It’s what I do. I like that about me. What I don’t like right now is that I’m not feeling inspired and I know at this age, I’m hardly alone.

I’m trying to figure out what to do about this. I’m interested in hearing from you.  If you’re introspective and over 50, 55? What inspires you?