Se Sentir Bien dans Sa Peau*

In high school, when it was time to pick a language to study, I chose French. I suspect this was out of some misguided notion of French making me more … polished? sophisticated? Something. As a kid, I’d always imagined studying Latin. Who knows where that idea came from, but there was no Latin on offer in my high school. Only French and Spanish. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? It would certainly have served me better in my eventual career. But alas, I chose French.

French class was mostly comical. Talk to my brother about it. French was the only class we were ever in together, and I think it might be one of the things that helped us start being friends after an unfortunate period of sibling disaffection. Tony can still recite the ridiculous dialogue we had to learn in our ridiculous textbook. (Poor little Philippe LeDoux. I wonder if his problems were ever resolved.) French class was also one of the places my school’s single non-English-speaking student was warehoused. That kid needed ESOL instruction … and instead, he was put in French class!**

But I learned a little bit. And I made a yule log one year. And I got a good recipe for beef burgundy that my family enjoyed the hell out of. I got to go to Montreal, which was a great trip. I had fun in French class. I didn’t finish my four years of study with anything even vaguely resembling command of the language, however.

Then I was off to college. No French for me freshman year, but in sophomore year I had a sudden interest in maybe actually learning another language. I was cocky enough to think a strictly-beginners class would be too easy for me … but not cocky enough to think I could find my way through an intermediate class. As luck would have it, there was middle ground available: an advanced beginner class!

Course enrollment at my college included a step that I now find fascinating but which at the time I mostly found intimidating. Students have to interview instructors before they can sign up for a class. This went pretty badly for me every time. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember some of those awful interviews. Ugh. My interview for French class must have included me speaking some French, me forming some opinion of the woman who would be my instructor – other than that she was beautiful and much more stylishly pulled together than any other instructor I’d met. Somehow, we both saw and heard the right things in that initial conversation, and I signed up for the class.

My instructor was Gisele Barrau-Freeman. She was French, and I was surprised to realize that it had never occurred to me how much sense it made to have a native speaker teaching me the language. In high school, my teacher certainly know more French than we did, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Gisele was a great teacher, and I discovered that I liked learning languages. I even got to practice creative writing, working over several weeks on an invented memoir about my childhood (about a childhood, not in any way mine): “Quand J’etais Jeune.”

In the spring semester, two things happened. First, Gisele encouraged me to participate in a theatrical showcase the French club was putting together. This seemed like a crazy idea – act? In French? – but also seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I wound up taking on two parts: a scene from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Socrate est un chat.), and a monologue from our textbook, a grande dame talking and talking and talking and revealing herself to be quite ridiculous. Both scenes were funny, so I was taking on comedy in a language I barely understood. Right. Sure. No sweat.

Gisele worked with me to help me prepare. I remember her giving me hilarious tips on how to play the grande dame. She did a fabulous impersonation of one of her older relatives to give me the idea of what to aim for. She didn’t have any doubt that I could pull off both performances. She took my success as a given. Remembering that, I realized all of the teachers I’ve written about this week – and the ones I’ll write about for the rest of the week – have this in common. They all believed in me without question. They all took my intelligence/talent/skill/whatever as a given. And that is simple, but it’s also magical, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up hearing consistently about how skilled and fabulous they are. And then there are the rest of us. Some of us have had some positive reinforcement from time to time. Some have had none. For us, the gift of having someone take your ability as a baseline, the starting fact of who you are, is just about earth shaking.

The performance went off pretty close to perfectly. All the things I’d worried about came to nothing. I remembered my lines, I remembered Gisele’s tips on playing the grande dame. I can’t swear that fund times were had by all, but they were definitely had by me.

The second thing that happened spring semester was that Gisele pushed me to apply for the junior year abroad program in Paris. She’d overheard me talking about wanting to take my junior year off campus. I’d been thinking small and shallow – my college had very few men, and even fewer heterosexual ones, and I wanted a break from all that manlessness, so I’d been looking at colleges that had lots of men, more men than women. Gisele pointed out that there were, in fact, men in Paris.

Applying to a study abroad program would never have entered my mind. Leaving the country? Leaving the country for a year? And, while I was learning French and I wasn’t the worst I could be, I certainly didn’t speak well. How was I supposed to navigate France in French? And how would I ever afford such a thing? My family, by just about every measure, was poor. Unquestionably-poor. Ultra-poor.

Gisele listened to my concerns, but she asked me to set them aside. She assured me that my French was better than I thought. She pointed out that, whatever my French proficiency, there was no better way to improve it than living in France. Money was an issue, yes, but I would still have my scholarships. I wouldn’t have to pay for a year’s worth of expensive room and board at our expensive college, and that would make room and board in Paris affordable. And she reminded me that an application wasn’t a commitment. If I was accepted and couldn’t manage the costs, I wouldn’t go. If I didn’t apply, there were no options at all. She kept encouraging me to apply until I finally did.

For people who’ve read this blog for more than a minute, all my crazy travel stories? They only exist because Gisele talked me into applying for the Paris program. I had never traveled alone, had never thought seriously about going to Europe or anywhere else. My year in France opened something in me, showed me another way of imagining myself, gave me permission to see more possibilities for myself.

In the spring of junior year, Gisele came to Paris and we spent an afternoon together. We had lunch, then poked around the stalls at the Clignancourt flea market. She bought me a pretty scarf and a pair of small chandelier earrings. She called me out a little for hiding behind my baggy, non-descript clothes, wanted to show me I could have another look, could have other looks. It felt too difficult, too scary, to take that on in that moment, but I held onto it – and the scarf and earrings 00 and when I finally decided to stop trying to erase myself, her voice was in my ear, encouraging me to see who she saw, encouraging me to step into the light.

Gisele taught me French, yes. But that was the lesser of the things I learned. She told me what she saw in me: I could be funny, I could take center stage, I could take chances, I could do things no one expected me to do, I could embrace myself. And then she held up a mirror and encouraged me to see myself, too.

As with Mr. DeBlois, I have no idea how she saw what she saw or why she chose to push me. She must have done this for plenty of other students, but I definitely felt she was making a special effort to lift me. And I am grateful for it. Thank you, Gisele. You encouraged me to see a broader world, a broader range of possibilities for myself, a broader version of myself. I was slow to some of those lessons, but I learned them. Thank you.

_______________
* Feeling good about myself
** The insanity of this, boggles my mind to this day. I’m pretty sure my school had no services for non-English speakers. It wouldn’t have occurred to the administration to create such programming. But once they were faced with a student who needed to learn English, how could they ignore that need and schedule him into classes in not one, but two languages he didn’t understand?! Seriously, WTF?


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.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

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Being Seen

It’s day two of Teacher Appreciation Week. Yesterday I was thinking about third grade and the two great teachers I worked with that year. I noted that the haven I found in that classroom was short-lived, that I found myself in a very different kind of classroom the following year.

The next important teacher for me was my English teacher in my last year of high school. Yes, the gap is that big: third grade and then skip ahead to senior year. It’s a long way, but it could have been longer, so I’ll count myself lucky.

Skipping to senior year is particularly interesting because I had that English teacher, Mr. DeBlois, for ninth grade English, too. He wasn’t a bad teacher in ninth grade — though I will admit that all I remember about that class is being made to watch the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” followed by In Cold Blood, and having to fight my way through The Old Man and the Sea.

I cannot remember who I had for English in 10th grade, so that was clearly a scintillating experience. I had a pretty awful but ultimately easy 11th grade English class and then back to Mr. DeBlois for senior year.

What made the difference in my experience between 9th and 12th grade? It’s surely true that Mr. DeBlois went through some changes of his own in that time, but the primary change was me.

I started writing “for real” when I was about 11 years old, started showing my writing to other people when I was 12. Back then, I was pretty certain I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poetry. Correction: I wrote a lot of painfully, aggressively BAD poetry. A lot. But people liked it. In junior high I won some local newspaper’s youth poetry contest. I’d written an awful thing about loving yourself for who you are — as if I was anywhere near doing that at that time! My poem won for my age group and was “published” in a mimeographed anthology with the other win-place-show writers. It was a very big deal for me.

So I was definitely already thinking of myself as a writer when I landed in 9th grade English with Mr. DeBlois. I don’t think I let him know anything about my artistic delusions. I kept my head down and did my work, I responded with predictable horror to the Jackson and Capote films (and with the additional, unexpected horror of seeing how funny my male classmates found the murder of Nancy Clutter). There weren’t any occasions I can recall when sharing any of my glaringly awful poetry would have been appropriate.

But in 12th grade Engish there were plenty of opportunities. I wrote a contrived short story about violence in the Jim Crow south. I wrote some sing-song-rhyming poems about God only knows what. I wrote a Dr. Suess-style story about some creatues (the Bushelbracks) that lived in the bushes behind my grandmother’s house. Whatever.

(The fact that I remember any of this is terrifying, but it is also not very surprising. My mother, who has always been the number-one fan of my writing, kept all my work. Eventually, these works would be collected and stored in a green and yellow plastic bag from my favorite clothing store: Tempo Fashions.

You really cannot make this stuff up.

The Tempo Fashions bag would come out from time to time and we’d pick through its riches, reading some bits, laughing at others. For a bunch of years we thought that bag of fabulousness had been lost. That green and yellow pattern was pretty loud and distinctive, and it couldn’t be found anywhere. My mother solved the mystery: the bag had been replaced! She found all the writing, just in a different container. We can all rest easily now.)

Rather than point out that my work, even at its “best,” was pretty bad, Mr. DeBlois encouraged me to keep writing. He didn’t just grade my assignments, he wrote comments and questions as if we were in a writing workshop and my wacky offerings were worthy of considered critiques.

No one had ever responded to my writing in that way. People were nice about my work — even people who weren’t my mother — but no one had ever taken the time to have something to say about it, suggestions for how I might do more, might improve. Mr. DeBlois treated me as if I was a writer. And that unquestioned acceptance was beyond powerful for me.

What did he see? It was most assuredly not good writing. Really. That’s not modesty or La Impostora. The things I wrote that year were awful. The strongest piece I turned in was a poem I stole from my little sister!

So, he didn’t see talent, exactly. What, then? It could really just have been my energy for writing. I don’t remember anyone else in that class being as into the creative writing assignments as I was. So maybe he wanted to support me in doing something I was passionate about.

Whatever his reasons for giving me the time and attention he did, I am grateful. I wrote jokingly about my Tempo Fashions Collection, but having someone take my efforts so seriously was invaluable.

Yes, it’s true that the very next year brought the start of college and the awful poetry workshop experince I mentioned in yesterday’s post. And it’s true that I shut down after that workshop. I was still writing, but I stopped sharing my work with anyone. I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and started saying that I liked to write, that I wrote a little but wasn’t a “real” writer. That was surely the year La Impostora became my constant companion … BUT … I didn’t stop writing.

How many people do good teachers reach? How many of their students have that special experience that changes something about them? How many other students in my high school did Mr. DeBlois see something in? There have to be others, plenty of others. Because he taught for years and because I’m not that special. In what ways is the support he gave them still meaningful in their lives?

Mr. DeBlois isn’t the only or the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, but he was the first, the first to make space for it to be okay for me to be a writer. That was almost 40 years ago. Thank you, Mr. DeBlois. I was on this path before senior year, but you set me more firmly on it, gave me some sturdy, comfortable hiking boots to carry me through. Whatever you saw in those crazy assignments I wrote for you, I’m grateful for it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


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.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation

Me, a name I call myself.

Monday is my surgery. In preparation, I spent half a day at the hospital this week cycling through a round of pre-surgical screenings. I’ve had enough of these surgeries that these appointments feel pretty routine. I have favorite chairs in the different waiting rooms. I know where the free coffee is. I know which of the restrooms are cleanest. The biggest unknown is really just whether or not the phlebotomist will find my vein on the first try (this week the answer was yes!).

But there’s been a change in the pattern. As I checked in before the final appointment, the questions started the same as at each previous check-in, but then took a fresh breath.

The man taking my information began to look … pained somehow. He leaned forward conspiratorially, which was a little odd, a little alarming.

“I have to ask you … questions … about your … sexuality … your identity, about your sexual identity.”

“Oh! Cool! No one’s ever asked me about this before.”

He nodded, still uncomfortable. “It’s new. I have to ask.”

“Great. Please continue.”

This really is great. I hope all hospitals — and all everywheres are learning to expand their questionnaires, learning to expand their understanding of the full diversity of who we are as people, learning to be more inclusive and welcoming to people who don’t fit neatly into the pink and blue, cisgendered, binary boxes we’ve been categorizing folks into all our lives. It seemed pretty clear, however, that some work was still needed in terms of helping staff feel at ease asking the questions, helping them see the questions as okay to ask, not just mandatory.

“What gender were you assigned at birth?” He was still leaned forward, still speaking only just above a whisper.

“Female.”

“And what … and how would you describe your gender now?”

“Female.”

“And … well, okay.” He sat back, plainly relieved and ready to move on to the part of the interview with which he felt more comfortable.

“Those are all the questions?”

He looked surprised. “Well, no, but –”

“Shouldn’t you ask what pronouns I use?”

So here I’ll say that I don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about. It would be easy for me to move through his questions with all the answers he might expect me to give. I wasn’t trying to give that man a hard time. But part of me was curious to know what other questions had been added. And part of me wanted him to exercise his nervousness on me and not on someone for whom that conversation might have been more fraught. If he’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable, let him get that out of his system interviewing a person who hasn’t been made to feel othered and uncomfortable again and again and again.

“But you said female.”

“But that doesnt have anything to do with my pronouns.”

And here I have to stress again that I really and truly have no idea what I’m talking about. But it seems to me that my identifying as female doesn’t have to mean my pronouns are a given. I need to do some homework here and figure that out. In the moment, though, I didn’t want him to skip questions because of his assumptions about me.

“Please go ahead and ask the rest of the questions.”

He leaned forward again, sighing. “Your orientation?”

“Oh, okay. I guess straight.”

“You guess straight,” he said, shaking his head.

Yeah, I don’t know why I did that. I swear that I was not in any way trying to mess with him. I’ve done this a few times recently. Not long ago, without any warning or forethought, I started a sentence with: “I am, for all intents and purposes, a heterosexual woman …” Why did I say that? And what does it even mean? So, I wasn’t trying to mess with that man at the hospital, but clearly some messing is going on with me.

“And your pronouns?”

“I use she and they.”

“She and — that’s not a choice.”

“Really? What are my choices?”

“You can pick she, he, or zi.”

I have no idea whether or not “zi” has become wildly popular. I don’t know anyone who has chosen that pronoun. But even if I knew scores of people who had, “they” should still be an option. “They” is still a go-to choice for many people. Why would you have “zi” and not “they”?

“Zi? Serioiusly? They isn’t on your list?”

He shook his head. “You want zi?”

“No. I definitely don’t use that. But you have she, so I’ll go with that.”

“But you said she and they.”

“Yes, and she is one of your options, so please use she.”

“Not zi.”

“Not zi.” I smiled. “You know, it’s so good that the hospital asks these questions, but I think you need more options for the answers people might give you. They is pretty standard.”

“I’ll pass along that feedback.”

In the end, I think I exhausted that poor man. He seemed surprised that I didn’t have an issue with his questions, which made me wonder about the conversations he’d had with the other patients in the waiting area. He was a Black man, maybe in his 40s, and every other patient in the room was an elderly white woman. I would guess that at least a few of his conversations had been … prickly at best. So maybe he was pleased by my enthusiasm, even if he was also a little over me by the end.

My #bravenewworldindeed hashtag seems fitting here. I created it to highlight our descent into greed- and hate-fueled violent, lawless chaos things that upset me in the work of Trump and his masters and minions. But the hashtag fits in this polar-opposite context, too. We are walking ourselves and one another into new territory, territory where — if we do our work right — everyone will be welcomed, everyone will be included and safe and valued. And asking me my pronouns is part of that. And if the straights have to feel awkward and uncomfortable as we learn how to welcome everyone in, so be it. And it’s about time. And let’s get over ourselves and keep it moving.


It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

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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.

Settling into My Rage

This post contains spoilers about the first Avengers movie. If you haven’t seen that movie, and you hate spoilers, don’t read the section bracketed by bold red text.

(Of course, if you haven’t see the first Avengers movie, I honestly don’t understand your life, and I don’t know what to say to you. Really. Get on that.)

__________

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

— James Baldwin

I used to teach teens and young adults. I loved teaching, and I loved my students, and both of those loves were fairly obvious. Nevertheless, with every new class, we would reach a moment when someone would comment loudly to the group that they hoped they’d never see me angry. And everyone would enthusiastically agree. This in the face of my daily showering of love and affection on their silly heads. When I asked the reason for this dread of my anger, I got the same answer: if I could be as nice as I was, if I could be in such a good mood every day, my anger must have the force and destructive power of a hundred-year storm.

I laughed at that assessment, but the laughter was for show. I knew they were right, that they had seen me much more clearly than I might have liked them to. My anger was so powerful, I actively worked to keep her straight-jacketed, chained, and locked in a sound-proof cell.

Most days, this plan succeeded. Anger might have been burning through my insides, but outwardly I appeared calm. So calm, in fact, that I developed a reputation for my ability to remain unruffled in response to bullshit.

The swallowing of my anger didn’t work all the time. She found ways to slip her chains and rampage freely – wreaking havoc as casually as breathing. Relationships, job opportunities, civil discourse in the check-out line at Key Food … all went down in flames. As my exes what my anger looks like. (Seriously.)

I was terrified of what I saw in myself at those times, of what I couldn’t see. After keeping my anger on lockdown for so many years, I’d lost touch with her. I didn’t know how deep she ran, didn’t know just how much devastation she was capable of. I was terrified of her, of the damage she could do, but also of how she made me look, of what other people would think of me if they saw her.

Because we know where this path leads. Me being labeled an Angry Black Woman.

And that would be the worst. As a Black woman, I’m not allowed my anger. Not if I want to be heard, to be respected, to be believed. The moment a Black woman shows her anger – unless it is directed at other Black folks, particularly Black men and boys – she is dismissed or violently subdued.

So I worked hard to swallow my anger. But I live as a Black woman in this world at this time, and there’s only so much swallowing a person can do. I found myself choking down rage again and then again and then some more.

I started opening the cell door and letting my anger out here and there. Using what I hoped were controlled bursts like a release valve in an attempt to equalize the pressure of being a Black woman in this world at this time.

It was a risk, being unashamedly, publicly angry. For so many years, I’d believed giving my anger free rein was a danger I couldn’t manage.

And I really couldn’t manage it. Not at first. I did a pretty poor job of balancing the level of anger against the given situation. But, even when I was getting it wrong, I started to feel a lot better. The pressure release worked. I no longer felt as if I was choking all the time.

Equally surprising: the world did not implode. While surely unpleasant for anyone on the receiving end, the expression of my anger did not burn all things to the ground.

I thought about the past, my rep for being preternaturally happy, and I wondered how I had become so angry. And I wondered why, if I was releasing my anger, I was still so angry.

Which was when I had my Avengers epiphany. [SPOILER] Just before the big final battle, the crew is gathered. Black Widow, Hawkeye, Thor, and Bruce Banner – as Bruce Banner, not the Hulk. They’re about to take on a host of Big Bads and one ginormous alien monster thing is coming right for them. Cap looks at Banner and says, “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.” Banner says, “That’s my secret. I’m always angry,” and instantly morphs into the Hulk. [END SPOILER]

That moment shook me. I looked at Bruce Banner and saw the truth of myself, the thing I’d been swallowing year after year. I am an angry Black woman. One hundred percent. I am angry all the time. All. The. Damn. Time. Rather than being mortified whenever my anger slipped her bonds, I should have been impressed that I hadn’t spent my life smacking people upside the head every five minutes.

Anyone who’s met me or read my work in the last four years will not recognize rage-swallowing Stacie. They know Angry Stacie, they’ve seen what my fury looks and sounds like. I hope they also see how it has moved me closer toward my real self, my true self. I am angry. Angrier than I am tired, angrier than I am sad. I no longer apologize for showing my dark side. I embrace and relish it. And let’s be very clear: when I say my “dark side,” I’m not assigning a negative descriptor to my rage. I mean my authentic self, the one I kept hidden for far too long. Dark, rich, powerful … as the song says, anger is a gift. And I am here for unwrapping it every single day.

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.

Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because not everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’m no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


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.