A Once-Long Road Is Suddenly Shorter

Every year before my birthday, I take stock. I think about where I am and what I’d like to accomplish in the coming year. I’m surely not the only person who does this. It seems a pretty basic, obvious thing to do before your birthday.

Some years, I draw up long, elaborate lists of what the next year should look like for me. This has mostly been true as I enter new decades, I guess. Sometimes my lists are full of fancy. Somethings they are depressingly earthbound — such as the year when almost the whole list was related to dealing with various aspects of my health. That was a bad list, a sad list, the kind I hope not to need to repeat often or ever. There should really always be some whimsy, some sparkly fun on the list. If not … well, damn.

This year, something strange happened as I thought about making my list. I haven’t been young in a long time, but this year for the first time I really thought about being old, about the fact that I’m closing in on being truly old and I need to imagine what I want my aging to look like.

So I did.

And I realized there are things I want from my old age that I hadn’t realized I wanted, ways I want to be living that don’t follow any kind of path from how I’m living right now. And I’m not entirely sure how to do anything about that, but I am sure that I want to do something about it, that I can’t just keep bumbling along and expect anything to change on it’s own. So I sketched out some ideas, some plans for a course shift.

Not a course correction. I wouldn’t say I’ve been on anything like a wrong path — or, at least not entirely on a wrong path — but I do need to make some changes, and some of them need to be significant.

 

I work with a lot of people who are much younger than I am. A lot of 20- and 30-somethings. Young people who are very clear, very focused on what they want from their careers and where they want to be heading. They fascinate me. Truly. How do they know so much about themselves already? How can they already have a sense of what they want to be doing with their lives long term … to have enough of a sense that they’ve already done so much to move themselves along those paths?

Not that I’ve spent my life flitting around aimlessly, falling from one experience to the next … but I kind of have, too. It’s only by chance that I find myself with a career in education. I just about literally stumbled into my first teaching job and discovered I liked it and was pretty good at it, and so kept doing it. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching for nearly 20 years that it occurred to me that education was my career.

Really the only thing in my life that hasn’t happened by chance is writing. This all needs more thinking through. For now, back to my birthday and planning for Big Life Changes.

 

When I made my list this year, I made a list that looks out to when I’ll turn 60, to where I hope to be at that moment. I have a short-term list, too, but all the things on that list connect to where I want to be winding up when I turn 60. And I think I’ll be projecting out five and ten years from now on. Otherwise, how will I ever have the chance to be the old lady I now realize I want to be?

The sad part of all this is being fully aware that there is nothing new here, fully aware that people the world over plan for their futures every day, and that people have been planning for their futures forever, that the only thing interesting about what’s happened to me is the fact that I’ve lived 55 years without thinking far enough ahead in my life to make a sustainability plan.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do … and a crazy-short runway.


(I’m torn about whether this “counts” as an essay … I’ve fussed with it a lot, and cut out a long not-quite-getting-it section that tried to tease out why I don’t look at my life as a long-term proposition. Maybe that’s a separate essay, maybe it’ll just stay on the cutting room floor. This bit it what’s left, and I’m sticking with it.)


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Think of the Children

Last night, I had the great good fortune to read at Big Words, one of my favorite reading series. I really love the two young women who created the series and host the readings. Stacey and Jess are smart, funny, kind, caring, and beautifully supportive of writers. Big Words is always a great experience.

The theme for last night’s reading was “Side Effects.” As always, I struggled to find something to read or to write something new that related to the topic. In the end, I wrote something during my work day yesterday, typed it up fast, and headed to 61 Local, the bar Big Words calls home. Here’s what I read:

Think of the Children

My mother was told to reconsider marrying my father because, with him as a husband, she risked having dark, ugly children. (The fact that I know this points to a lot of issues in my upbringing, to be sure. Why tell me that my father was considered ugly? Why tell me that the prospect of being dark-skinned was undesirable? Why tell me any of this as if it constituted a funny story? So many issues.)

Despite the well-meaning advice thrown her way, my mother went ahead and married my father. She rolled the dice and wound up with three dark-skinned children, none of whom look like her, none of whom look like my dad, all of whom – yes, I’m going to say it – are pretty in the face.

Whew! Thank God for that, right? Imagine if we’d all been hideous and she’d found herself saddled with raising a passel of homely, dark-skinned pickaninnies. Clearly dodged a bullet there. I do understand thinking about what your baby will look like. Who doesn’t want a cute baby? But the toxic run-off that is Internalized Racial Inferiority shouldn’t dictate what you consider “cute.”

*

Yesterday was my birthday, so of course I’m thinking about my storyline – how I came to be here, what about me is anything like my mother, my father, all the family before me on both sides. I’ve just hit 56 years, which means I’ve lived plenty long enough to have been influenced by where and how I’ve lived and can’t honestly attribute all the truths about myself to nature over nurture, but it’s also true that I’ve inherited plenty from my family, from that risky mixing of my mother’s and father’s gene pools.

One result of my mother’s gamble is that I get to be tall. My brother, sister, and I, we’re none of us as tall as my father’s side, but having that height in our blood pulled us up from the tininess of my mother’s people. My mother (who I will generously describe as not-quite five-seven) is a giant in her family, while my father’s family had true giants like his Uncle Ambrose who was nearly seven feet tall.

Here I’ll digress and say that I have lived my life obsessed with being tall. I coveted the regal height of my father’s cousin Pam, who was six-two. Both my sister and I dreamed of reaching her stature. I still dream about it, I won’t lie. I mean, can you imagine if I were six-two? I would, quite simply, have achieved godhood, would already have taken over the world, legions of minions and cabana boys behind me. (You know this is true, but let’s get back on track.)

*

I am the daughter of southern parents who met after choosing to make their lives in the north. Is that why I grew up a northern snob, wanting to turn my back on the worlds they’d chosen to leave behind … but also the reason I crave southern dishes when I need the reassurance of comfort food?

I used to look for connections most particularly with my mother’s family. As if my father’s didn’t exist somehow, as if everything I was I took from only one branch of the tree. This is foolish because … biology … but also because I just have to look at myself to see my father’s family. My large, long-fingered hands are entirely my grandmother’s hands. My face is entirely her face. This funny little bridgeless nose that no one in my immediate family has is from my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family.

When my mother was warned about the dangers of marrying my father, the folks issuing the warning were caught up on surface things – what would the children look like? And maybe the fact that so much of my physical appearance comes from my father shows they were right to be worried. But did they give any thought to the beneath-the-surface bits?

What you get when you mix two families together is a crap shoot, of course. Some things, like my Pipkin nose, are visible from the start. Others, like my facility for learning languages, reveal themselves over time. Many of these beneath-the-surface bits that are true about me seem common in both of my families, while some very clearly come from one side or the other. There is lots of good that’s come down to me: the language learning thing, my ability to be charming and diplomatic, my voice, my creativity, my silver-instead-of-grey hair.

But it’s not all cute noses and French vocabulary. There’s the list of good, but an equally long list of less-pleasing things, too: crushing self-doubt, heart disease, a history of cancer. And there’s the list that waits in the wings, always ready to take the stage and become part of who I am – alcoholism, mental illness, vengeful grudge-holding. These are things to hope I haven’t inherited, but which I know could be lying dormant, landmines buried at conception.

*

I got a birthday text from my niece, who is my god-daughter, my role model, and one of my favorite people in the world. She thanked me for being a guiding presence in her life, for inspiring her to stay true and be proud of who she is (and yes, I promptly melted). My father’s detractors would have been pleased with my niece. She is a beautiful young woman who would ace their paper bag test. I am more impressed by the smart, strong, thoughtful woman she is growing up to be. And I am thrilled that some of that is because of what makes me me, because of what my brother passed down from our parents, our grandparents, from everyone who came before, because my mother threw caution to the wind and married my tall, dark-skinned, ambitious, intellectually curious, deeply flawed father.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Washing and Folding

My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.

Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.

I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.

My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.

I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.

(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)

Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.

But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.

I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.

And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.

But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.

And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?

Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?

The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.

The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.

The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.

I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.

I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.

A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.

If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

 

Close to Home: La Impostora Edition

Part I – In which she tries it.

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. The assignment I was given for preparing the workshop was to spend some time talking about myself – what I do, what kinds of people and decisions shaped me, that kind of thing. And then I was supposed to lead the girls through an activity of my choosing. Easy? Ha!

First there is the trauma of having to spend time talking about myself to a bunch of young people who don’t know me and didn’t ask to know me. What on earth was I supposed to say to them? What was going to be interesting to them about some random old lady they’d never expressed an interest in? As I said: trauma.

Next, the is the question of the activity of my choosing. Gaaah! Just as troubling as talking about myself, and for the same reasons. Yes, I was a teacher for many years. Yes, I’ve facilitated many workshops. But … Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but it does, too. Because (OF COURSE) La Impostora was on the scene, looking the side of my head, making sure I was aware of just how good a mistake I’d made when I’d agreed to do this workshop. Sigh.

But then a thing happened: La Impostora’s noise helped me! I thought, why not have my workshop be about Impostor Syndrome?! I know it affects so many of us, and surely the young women I’d be meeting could benefit from hearing about it, from realizing that they aren’t alone, that lots of people have that inner mean voice that works triple-time to beat them down and hold them back.

This seemed like a stroke of genius, some much-needed divine intervention. I could still hear La Impostora, but I kept going, tuning her out as best I could.

In the end, I drafted a workshop plan with two themes: pushing back against La Impostora and practicing gratitude. They do and don’t go together, but I thought it would work, so I got my materials together – including ordering a 2-lb lb. bag of tumbled stones so the girls could reach choose a rock to help with their gratitude practice.

Part II – In which she demonstrates that she really knows all the buttons to press.

Workshop day came, and I was ready: stones, markers, multi-colored index cards … all the business. The workshop was scheduled for 6pm, so when I left for work that morning, I had a whole day ahead of me before I’d head to the group residence.

That was more than enough time for La Impostora to get in gear and back into my head. I should have known she wasn’t finished with me.

About midway through my morning, I realized my workshop was going to flop. And miserably. How had I imagined that I could teach anyone anything about Impostor Syndrome when I didn’t know how to deal with it myself? Those young women were going to expect me to know something, and I was going to stand there with not one bit of helpful anything to share with them. I was most definitely going to fail and fail spectacularly.

At one point in the midst of this steady repetition of oh-how-much-you’re-going-to-suck, I even said to myself, “This isn’t Impostor Syndrome. This is just what’s true.” Yes. Said that to myself. And was totally serious. That stopped me, made me pause and think maybe what was actually true was that I was caught up in some Impostora spin right at that exact moment.

I let her rattle me some more, and by the time I left for the group home, I was well and truly convinced that I would be splendiforously bad. How could it be otherwise?

Realizing what was happening didn’t make it stop. And that surprised me. Usually, calling out what was happening did the trick and set me on a different course. On my way to the house I tried to puzzle out why that tactic hadn’t worked. And I had an interesting thought: maybe I should have done exactly what I was about to suggest to the girls:

  1. Hear La Impostora’s mean comment.
  2. Shut her down and stop that thought.
  3. Apologize to myself for saying such mean things.
  4. Replace the mean thoughts with positive ones.

Oh, look: an actual process for redirecting my brain! Imagine that.

I didn’t make this up. I stole it from a book I read years ago. I’d forgotten about it. And then, as I was planning the workshop, there it was, bubbling up from the back of my brain.

So I got to the house and did my workshop, and it was fine. Was it the best workshop I ever gave? Hardly. We were all too thrown off by having our evening begin with some unplanned police activity at the house. So our start was rocky, and we took some time to work back to normal from there. But – La Impostora and law enforcement interruptions notwithstanding – the workshop went well!

Highlight of the evening? Letting the girls choose gratitude rocks. What’s this, you ask? Another thing stolen from … I don’t even remember where. You keep a stone in your pocket (I keep one in a pocket of my purse and another on my nightstand), and every time you reach into your pocket and touch it, it’s a reminder to think of something you’re grateful for. It’s a silly mnemonic, but I like it.

I used to carry a beautiful piece of aventurine in my pants pocket, but then I almost lost it, and that was too upsetting, since my Aunt Mildred had given me that stone. That’s the one I keep on my nightstand now. The stone in my purse is a beautiful piece of labradorite. I’d be sad if I lost it,  it it has no sentimental significance, so I’d get over it. I’m extra, with my semi-precious stones, but there’s no need for all that. Any smooth pebble will do. And it doesn’t have to be a gratitude stone. Someone gave me a river stone once with the suggestion that I use it as a reminder to say something nice to myself.

The girls loved the stones and took a long time talking through how they were making their choices: what colors they loved (quartz and rose quartz were big faves), what memories or thoughts the stones triggered, what aspects of their personalities the stones represented. It was fascinating and fabulous. And I was thrilled by how into it they were. I walked out of the house smiling – which is, of course, the equivalent of thumbing my nose at La Impostora.

Stone2
My lovely bit of labradorite
Stones2
The leftover stones after the girls made their selections.

Does this mean I’ve won this forever-war? I’m sure not. But I do think it means I’m closing in on that victory, on whatever victory would look like. Maybe I’ll always run up against her, but maybe I’ll get to a place where I’m always the victor, where she never accomplishes more than giving me a nanosecond of pause. Victory indeed.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

To be or not to be … a person who stops.

It’s Tuesday, Slice of Life day, and I posted this “slice” on FB earlier (CW for language):

Went out to pick up some lunch. My plan was to buy something then walk over to Poet’s House to eat and write and stare at the water. I turned the corner and saw an elderly Black man on the ground, half rolled up in a carpet. He didn’t respond when I tried to rouse him, and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I called 911. 911 wanted to send the police, but I kept asking for medical help. Finally she connected me to EMS at the fire department. While I was on with EMS, the man moved his leg, slightly. That dispatcher said she’d have a truck out as quickly as possible. A young woman asked if I was calling 911, and said she’d wait with me for the ambulance.

We waited and fairly quickly a fire truck arrived. We thanked them for coming so fast. All the pretty young men poured out and surrounded the man on the ground. They roused him and it turned out that he was drunk and most likely homeless, not sick or injured. One of the firemen teased me for calling 911. “Are you from here?” he asked. “You don’t seem like you’re from here.”

I thanked them again for coming quickly and said I was glad I’d been able to have them come and not the police. “They protect you, too, you know,” one of the firemen said. And I said yes, that was sometimes true but that there was no denying the good reason for my reluctance to call them. (I mean, seriously? Are we going to pretend that there’s no reason for Black folks to think twice about calling the cops? Are we?)

The young woman and I started to leave and an older woman came up and asked if we had called. She said she’d run home for her phone and was coming back to see if she should call.

Because 911 had been called, the firemen said, the man would have to move. This displeased him enormously. He started to get up and started cursing me. Please know that there are three of us now standing there: me, the older woman who is white, and the young woman who is white Latinx. The only one singled out for abuse is me.

He called me a stupid whore, called me an ugly cow, called me a dumb nigger bitch. I was already walking away, so I didn’t hear what else he had to say, though I could hear that he kept going. I’ve been called out of my name before, but this felt uglier. I didn’t turn back and look at him, mostly because I didn’t know how volatile he might be and didn’t want to inspire him to come after me … but also because I didn’t want to see the firemen, see them not doing anything to stop that, see them maybe even laughing at the thanks I got for doing what I thought was the right thing to do.

The older woman told me to forget about it. “The important thing is that you cared enough to stop and do something.” Is that the important thing? I want to think so, but I’m not so sure.

I bought my lunch then went back to my desk feeling deflated, conflicted, overly-sensitive, sad.

#sigh

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But here’s the thing. I posted this on FB because of course. And I got a lot of loving responses from my loving friends. Also of course. My friends are kind and beautiful people who don’t enjoy seeing me upset about things.

Yes, I was grateful for their kind responses because I really was feeling sad as I walked back to my office, couldn’t even magic up a fake smile for my favorite security guard. But mostly … I am a fraud.

Trust me that this isn’t La Impostora, this is for realz. I pass people on the street all the time, people who maybe need the help this man didn’t. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t. And there’s no logic to my decisions about when to call, about who really needs to interact with first responders or the healthcare system and who should be left in peace. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t.

And today, the whole time I was on the phone and then waiting for EMS, I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the sea of people who just kept walking, who barely shifted their steps so as not to step on the man, who walked on the carpet as if they couldn’t see that a person was rolled up in it.

But I am those people. Just about every day of my life I am those people. How dare I act all holier than thou because this one time I decided to stop.

In truth, I’m not surprised by what happened today. I’ve seen this happen to other people, and I’ve had it happen to me. Maybe I was particularly hurt by this man simply because I wasn’t prepared. Because I’d been dreaming myself into the library at Poet’s House, already letting my mind wander, already choosing which of the four fountain pens in my bag I’d choose to write with.

And the man on the street makes sense to me. I can understand where he was coming from. How much abuse does he face on a daily basis? How difficult must it be for him to have one lousy interaction with strangers after another? And how frightening and disorienting must it be to wake up and see five large uniformed men standing over you and talking loudly into your face, touching you without your permission? Were that me, my first reaction might be to lash out, too. Sure, I would probably not lash out in the way he did, not with those precise words, but still.

None of that makes what happened today any less unpleasant. It makes me think about my own choices, however. I chose to stop today and see about that man. Why did I stop? Why don’t I stop every time? I usually try to see if the person is breathing, if there is a clear visible ailment or wound, if someone else is already stopping to see about them.

Which makes me think about that young Latinx woman. When I confirmed that I was on the phone with 911, she immediately said, “Well, I will wait with you.” I thought that was lovely. She didn’t need to do that, for him or for me. I appreciated having her there, especially when the firemen seemed to question why I would bother calling 911 for the man on the ground. (“You call about every person you see on the street? In this city?” one of the fire fighters asked me.)

So she was also a person who stops. I wonder if she always stops, or if she is like me and employs some random-ish set of criteria to determine whether she will stop.

*

Will I continue to be a person who stops? I will. Of course. Nothing that happened today makes me think I shouldn’t stop. Will today actually make me stop more? Maybe now I’ll see that my ridiculous calculus of when to stop is just that: ridiculous.

I don’t know if I’m a “good person” for stopping, for calling 911. Because what does that mean, really, anyway? I mean, sure, I’m okay enough (depending on the day) but that’s not the point of any of this. Stopping is the right thing to do … the right thing for me. Calling 911 isn’t always the right second move, but stopping and taking a moment to assess in more than a cursory way that still sounds right.

Assessing in more than a cursory way. That’s what I wanted the firemen to do. I said the man on the ground turned out to be drunk and maybe homeless, but I don’t know that. I only know that he was able to sit up, able to talk, able to get up with difficulty and start walking away (while cursing me). But the EMTs didn’t examine him at all, not even a quick once-over, and that’s what the situation seemed to warrant. Why was it enough for them to show up and rouse him but not actually tend to him? Granted, he was in no mood for accepting much of anything, but does that automatically mean he didn’t need anything?

So my title isn’t a real question at all. I know full well that I will continue to stop (we’ll have to wait and see if, as I said, I stop more than I have in the past). Here’s hoping today was the worst of the responses to my nosy-body, good-neighbor behavior.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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original-slicer-girlgriot

And yes, as I said up top: It’s Slice of Life Tuesday.
Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers have going on.

Asking for What I Need

I don’t often ask people for help. That’s tied up in a lot of things, I’m thinking. My reluctance to reach out isn’t a thing I’m proud of. I don’t go around boasting about my self-reliance. The horrific experience of my move to my new apartment is proof positive that I need to learn o ask for help. And ask early.

It’s been crazy-hot lately and last night, after a long, minimally air-cooled trip home, I discovered that my building was part of a neighborhood power outage. No lights, no fan, all the groceries I’d put in my fridge on Sunday turning into trash. Fun!

I stood in my dark apartment, getting hotter and hotter, feeling sorry for myself and scrolling through hotel options on my phone. I texted my mom and my friend Mopsy, not for help but because I wanted someone to know so I could get a little sympathy. And sympathy I got, but I also got Mopsy’s good sense and immediate, how-can-we-fix-this jump to action.

She suggested friends I could stay with — an option I hadn’t thought of at all. I’d gone straight from “I will die of suffocation in this apartment” to “I have to find a cheap hotel.” I shot Mopsy’s suggestions right down, of course. The last thing I intended to do was impost my sad, sweaty self on any of my friends. Mopsy left me alone for a minute, but she was undaunted. Maybe because she knows me, knows how I can’t bear asking for anything. She came back moments later with the suggestion of two friends whose place is close to mine, friends who I know have space for guests, friends it would be much harder for me to dismiss as options.

But I didn’t call them. Of course not. It would e too easy for them to say yes if I called them. I sent a text because people miss texts all the time. They might not see it right away and then it would be too late for them to help me out.

Except J saw my text. And called to say that yes, I could come and stay, that she was turning the AC on in the guest room so it would be ready for me, that I should come right over.

Yes, that simple. That normal. That kind. And, as I slogged around my hothouse (because I am a high-maintenance flower if ever there was one) packing an overnight bag, I had to acknowledge that it is always this way. Always simple, normal, kind. I have friends … and they show me again and again how willing they are to do more than hang out over tea or paneer tikka. They are both able and willing to step up when I need them. And they do … when I can actually force myself to ask them.

When will I learn this? But really learn it so I don’t have to keep re-learning it?

This is another manifestation of La Impostora, another way Impostor Syndrome gets in my way, makes me question my value, question whether I am deserving of kindness, of care. As always, I recognize her at her work, only after she had begun to do her damage.

This is about the forty-leventh post I’ve written about La Impostora. She is solidly entrenched in my psyche, and I have a lot (a LOT) of work to do to root her out once and for all. I’m getting much better at spotting her, much better at catching her early enough to keep her from ruining things.

I went to J’s last night. The guest room was delightfully cool, and I slept comfortably and happily, and I woke this morning feeling rested and cared for. La Impostora was pouting in a corner, and that felt just right.


It’s Slice of Life Tuesday! You can check out all the slices on Two Writing Teachers!

original-slicer-girlgriot

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.