I wrote this poem some years ago, while contemplating what is success. It still feels relevant.
I Cry each Time I Sit here and Scribble Another Couple of Lines
The stale air feels heavy inside my mouth,
And I feel a sudden sadness permeating from the pores of my skin.
A dreariness rather, that has no name,
But a name I know all too well.
Life may as well have me already defeated –
For, I feel a downpour of rain each time a friend asks about my 401K plan,
As I shudder to think saving for retirement has become life’s next feat;
Could we all be already dead?
Steadily stashing money away for the rainy days of tomorrow,
Yet, forgetting to soak up the sun that’s still shining today.
I think I can hear the four horsemen trotting nearer;
Or is that my fear of failing becoming clearer?
I must be equating the two again,
The way I often confuse receiving a rejection letter with receiving the kiss of death,
On those dark, damp, desolate days,
When the greyest clouds fill the skies,
And trees bow in exhaustion,
And the sun concedes defeat,
And dreariness thunders, and rattles the earth.
I wipe away a single tear just before it rolls down my face.
Could that droplet have held the cure for cancer
And healed the tumor that has grown upon my soul?
Thoughts abound as I ache for nourishment;
My throat is closing up,
And that stale air is now sitting at the back of my windpipe, stirring.
My heart can barely pump
And I wonder will this day be my last,
When it was my poor mother’s,
When the wickedness of cancer stole her;
So I lie in bed, wondering,
Steadily wiping away tears.
But, death doesn’t frighten me,
Words terrify my soul (the way the bogey-man once did) –
Those rhythmical, descriptive, addictive words that simply roll off your tongue,
That gives life to your emotions,
And helps you feel those feelings that you have never felt before.
So I wonder if I will ever be able to capture these feelings exactly how they appear in my imagination where
The strong, vibrant sun,
And cool, gentle breeze rescues me from another day in a melancholic world;
The bright blue sky becomes my canvass, and…
A buzz of my cell phone signals another stream of consciousness interrupted
As I leap to see who’s sent a text message,
And I mash the buttons for a quick reply,
Or so I tell myself,
Before playing text-tag until my inspiration wanes.
No wonder writing hates me now –
I’ve neglected her over the years,
I’m but a fool,
Too late to realize that writing is now pushing back;
Much like those days when I stuffed my craft into the dark, damp, desolate corners of my spiritual closet,
Though hoping it would somehow blossom like the flowers sitting outside my doorstep.
And with another passing thought, I shed another tear,
And yet another tear that could have held the cure for my cancerous adverse for writing.
My taste buds salivate from the garlicy aroma brewing on the stove,
What has come of success?
Late days, followed by late dinners, and no time for writing?
Yet, steady shoving money into a 401K plan!
Could success even be real?
It feels like the wind that briskly blows by, but stands still when I turn to stare him in the eye.
Success must be real, alright!
Because failure has a kick like Jack Daniels,
And cuts like the sharp, thin edges of freshly cut paper.
Does success hate me so?
And keeps me crying for my mother’s touch…just once more;
I shed a another tear each time I sit here and scribble another couple of lines;
For, success seems to know everyone,
But success doesn’t know me.
This was someone whose footsteps I always wanted to follow. We were RAs together and after graduating, she went into higher education. A year later, after graduating, I found myself going into higher education. She ventured into student leadership and development, and I went into student leadership and development. She made the jump into the corporate world, and I wanted to make that same move. All though her journey, I had no idea that her some of jobs were just as UNFILFILLING as my own. Upon interviewing her for the webinar I facilitated last week on the elusive dream job, I uncovered this nugget of wisdom from my friend, Jen, which is just as fitting for recent college graduates as it is for seasoned professionals:
“Get a side hustle! If your job isn’t filling you up, then find something that will – something you can do alongside what’s (currently) paying the bills. It could be working on a book you always wanted to write, or volunteering at an organization. For me, it was DJing. I totally stumbled into it. I basically taught myself. And in the beginning, I would work all week at my full-time job and be miserable and mentally exhausted by Friday. But then I would hit the boards at a club on a Friday night and the dance floor would be PACKED and people we having a great time and I was like “I did that!” And it just lit me up. And I was instantly hooked. I would only make a couple hundred dollars per gig, but it was not about the money – it was about doing something that felt like I was applying my talents to bring joy to people. And now, here I am, five years later, turning down gigs because I’m too busy!”
I posted Part I of this letter in July of 2016, following the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Now that the city of St. Anthony has reached a settlement with the Castile family, yet the officer who murdered Philando was acquitted, I’ve felt compelled to withdraw from it all. I want nothing to do with current events, news stories, social media, you name it, I want out…all the while knowing that I will never be truly able to retreat from the real issue – racism. See, I could not (and still cannot) imagine living in a country where a person who looks like me, can be murdered, simply because they look like me, and no one is held responsible…but here is nearly three million dollars to avoid “a federal civil rights lawsuit” as one article suggests.
So here is Part II of this letter, now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive.
Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),
Because the answer to dismantling the racial tension we’re experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point fingers at the Others – on the opposite side of the fence, as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country – I am writing to continue the conversation.
Has it gotten any realer?
By that I mean the racial tension in this country that feels as thick and overbearing as the humidity on a scorching summer’s day. By that I mean the discomfort one ought feel at seeing a person get shot, the final moments of their life caught on a cell phone video. By that I mean hearing people proclaim, “go back to your country”.
See, social justice warriors would avow that during times like these, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the feelings of the majority, but instead, with the rights of the minority. And while I believe in this idea on many levels, on one particular level – from my experience in helping bring under-represented groups to the figurative table (as a member of the dominant group you aren’t particularly under-represented, but just go with it) – these are the times when we should be engaging in dialogue with the dominant group. So again I ask, has it gotten any realer?
I’m hoping it has. If you’re my friend, that is, it probably has. It has to be tough knowing you are part of the larger group that has historically inflicted harm and marginalized other groups. And even though you do not participate in those inflictions, you still benefit from them, and the subsequent marginalizations. It’s similar to the bouts I face with my own privilege as a male. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot undo all of the atrocities committed by the group of which you’re a part. So, if you are my friend, you undoubtedly have inner conflict over the racial tension sweeping across our nation with flu-like quickness. I’m sure you’ve been scapegoated, and stared at, and had insulting remarks yelled in your direction because of the actions of some of the people who are in the dominant group to which you belong. So I’m writing because I’m wondering if it has gotten any releaser. See, those scapegoats, stars, and insulting remarks are what many of us face daily. But I realize they may be new for you, and unbeknownst to you, you’ve worked so hard at becoming, and remaining, an ally to people of color (as we’ll see below), that I’d hate for you to retreat because of the inner conflict you’re experiencing. I’m also writing because although I can’t tell you with any certainly that the inner conflict will subside, I can offer this: I’m glad you’re my friend.
In looking back on our friendship, I’m glad you laughed with me (and not at me) when I told stories of growing up Black, and poor, and fatherless. I stole a line from the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when I used to say, “I’m just a poor Black man trying to make it at Quinnipiac”. And even though you may not have fully understood what I meant, I appreciate that you were willing to try. Like listening listening to Tupac on full blast with me (remember those days?!) or engaging me in dialogue when I told you the reason I couldn’t swim – we don’t got pools in the hood. I’m glad we had those conversations and shared that laughter. Most times, the laughter was really was a cover for the pain. On the flip side, thanks for introducing me to Alanis Morrisette, drinking games (flip cup, anyone!), and how to take pictures without giving the finger.
It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we had – how your father left your mother for another woman, how there was only one Black kid in your high school graduating class, and how he got picked on to no end, how you always wanted to date another girl but couldn’t find the courage. How you had cancer in high school and how your brother was an unsupportive schmuck. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works. Those talks helped me connect with you in ways that could never be duplicated in a classroom or some diversity training. More than anything, those talks helped me see you as my friend first, and your racial and ethnic group second.
For me, those talks helped things get real – my connection to you, my connection to your world, my connection to everything I was not.
By having those talks, I now see that we were able to correctly conclude that there’d been historical and institutional injustices committed against damn near every racial and ethnic groups. So when I spoke of injustices members of my family had faced, I could see in your eyes that you felt I wasn’t making it up. That validation has been important to our friendship. To be my friend, I’ve needed to know that you get it, that being Black brings about a certain level of burden. But it wasn’t just Black and White – yesterday it was the Irish, before them, Native Americans and African slaves. Now, it’s African Americans, the entire LGBT community, and our Latin brothers and sisters. Injustices have also afflicted Asians and Italians, Jews and Muslims. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” I think it’s safe to say they came for me, just as they came for you. And we’ve remained friends because we spoke up for each other.
I’m asking you now to speak up because it’s real.
I’m asking this of you because there is a certain level of emotional and psychological safety I feel in your midst. You have, and continue to allow me space to share my organic thoughts when it comes to issues of race. Like the soliloquy I crafted about whether I am truly an American, after the officer who killed Michael Brown was not indicted. Or like all of those times I quoted jokes from Chappelle Show. They weren’t White jokes any more than they were Black jokes. Instead, they were humorous analyses of our cultural differences, because sometimes using humor helps lessen the pain.
See, sometimes you just need a vent session, like when women get together for a Ladies Night. Nothing against men, sometimes women need a forum to share their thoughts and experiences with other women, without judgment, and without fear of offending anyone. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to admit that I didn’t understand how some White people could do (fill in the blank – whether it was kill a lion for sport or not season their vegetables), knowing that I love you and White people, too. I appreciate that you joined me in that space. Never one did I hear I was mentally weak or that my response is just a part of my narrative or rhetoric. Your response to my response told me that I was free to have my perspective in your midst, and that I could be my authentic self.
Along those same lines, I’m better off that you challenged me when I needed it. Whether it was calling me out for being am ableist, exhibiting male privilege, or reminding me that not all White people do (fill in the blank). Even though those were tough conversations, we were able to have them – and I was willing to listen – because you are my friend. We had those conversations because we got real with each other. Through I may have given you the finger a couple of times during those talks, I can honestly say I’m a better person because you’ve challenged me.
Thank you, as well, for celebrating my culture, focusing more on our similarities than our differences, and for not trying to define my Blackness for me (as you’ve seen, you can be Black and listen to Alanis Morrisette!). Most of all, thank you for learning with me. Calling me you brother from another mother was funny. But referring to me as your nigger wasn’t cool. I know I called you that word several times, and I referred to our mutual friend who’s also Black, as my nigga. And sure, we listened and dances to music, where the lyrics seemed to be nigga this and nigga that. Through all of that, I love that you understood my boundaries and respected them.
Within our friendship, we have been able to expose each other to new ideas, and push each other to extend our comfort zones. As I sit here empathizing with you during these times where racial injustices seem like they’re at an all-time high, I have to imagine you feel as if you’re part of the problem, simply because you’re White. While I can never give you a She’s Down card for other Black folks to see, I can let you know that you are an ally and that I value your friendship. When shit goes down, I know I can count on to help stand against the injustice, and for that, I’m proud that you’re my friend. For those, and countless other reason, thanks for being someone I can count on.
So this is your ally card. And with it, I am entrusting you to bear it responsibly. I’m also asking of you to speak up because it’s real. It’s real that a family member (though marriage) commented that if I don’t like the country and he and his brothers fight for, that I should leave. It’s real that I have to teach my children to embrace their dark skin because everything on TV tells them light (that is, White) skin is the best skin (try having that conversation with a five-year-old!). It’s real that Black and Brown people are being murdered by the same groups that’s supposed to protect and serve.
In order for your ally card to remain valid, I’m asking you to take another step — let it get real. And when it gets tough, and need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.
I attended an informal writing workshop, and found this nugget of wisdom. Imagine you’re on a beach (or some other land mass) and two people are looking for treasure. One person is looking using a metal detector, maneuvering it back and forth, covering great distances. That person is most likely to stumble across small nuggets of treasures (such as coins), only. Another person, takes an archeological approach, and digs deep. Instead of covering a wide surface, this person expends their energy digging further down into the land. This person is more likely to come across large, impactful treasures (such as fossils).
The one treasure hunter, using the metal detector, would use moments or stories to tell a tale. The other, using the archeological approach, would use ideas, concepts, or issues to tale their tale.
I’m not sure who authored this metaphor but it spoke to me! As a writer, the idea is to go deep — explore an idea, concept, or issue further than you ever have. Give it the full complement of your time, attention, and energies. That is what makes for impactful writing. Write like an archeologist. Write deep.
Every day, I hear of adults failing the young people and teenagers in their lives. This is my letter to those adults:
Dear parents who told their daughter that she simply could not go away to college:
At this impressionable age, your daughter is bubbling over with ideas and ambitions, hope and dreams. One dream that she had was to go away to college. To be on her own, for the first time, and prove to herself, that she can make it. On her own. She wanted to go away to college, not as some sort of slight against you. But to better herself. Your decision to rid her of that college dream did more than just temporarily remove her desire to go to college. It also told her that she should not even dare to dream. She did not tell you, but you left her a broken mess. She no longer believes that she has the ability to pursue something greater than herself. You shattered that vision by insinuating it was okay to have low expectations and reach for mediocrity. Unbeknownst to you, you instilled in your daughter all sorts of self-doubt. You may as well have told her that she could not accomplish her goals, or that she did not have the capability to achieve all those aspirations she had been dreaming of since she was a little girl, or that she should not even dare to dream. Your message of mediocrity will not only affect your academic aspirations, it will also affect the relationships she makes, the people she choose to date, the career that she pursues. It will impact her life in all of these ways, and so much more. Please consider a change of heart. More than, please consider letting your little girl dream again.
The counselor who had to pick up the pieces.
If that girl were to write a letter to her parents, this is how I imagine it would read:
Dear mom and dad:
Growing up, your parental voices were seldom nurturing, and were more time authoritative screams – leaving your ears deaf to my cries. Your verbal scorchings have scarred my soul, and left me devoid of spirit, hope, or ambition. You turned your back and blockaded my every attempt at capturing your attention, when I only wanted your approval. My hopes began whole and were crushed into cubes, and then used to cool your ever distracting glass of lemonade. You became my adversarial force, incessantly ordering me to and fro, stop and go. And by ignoring me, you became parentally ignorant.
I grew lonely, and then became fed up with feeling all alone.
Your ignorance again reared its ugly head when you ignored me, taking little interest in my days at school, the teachers who belittled me in front of my classmates, and the sugary candy that made my teeth rot and my tummy ache. You sat me in front of the TV, VCR, video games, and other new technological advances, and wondered why I fell sullen and melancholic. And when I didn’t respond, I was assaulted with further tongue lashings and then, the back of your hand or your thick leather strap.
I used to fight with my brothers and sisters: the mythical standards you’ve set for us had caused me to grow ashamed, and in the process of masking my imperfections, I had in turn shamed others; both your biases and prejudices singed my soul, and left me afraid to love. But, I no longer feel alone. In my peers I now confide – though we are both as green as budding stems. I would have rather learn from their experiences than sip from your tainted glass. My soul was on the verge of dying, just as yours has already. Yet the passion and zeal of my youth just will not let me go gentle into that good night. That’s from a poem I read in English class. You know, the class I told you I loved so much and wanted to study in college. Only to hear you laugh in my face at how I would never become a writer or be able to support myself by majoring in English. Thanks for the encouragement.
This latest fiasco dealt me a major blow. By telling me that I could not go to college, you may as well have told me that I shouldn’t even dare to dream.
Your daughter who’s gone to pieces
Dug into my writing jar this morning, and found the word Expansion. Here’s a brief interpretation of Expansion, and what it could mean to one person.
Expansion, as in expanding one’s mind, one’s perspective, or one’s value system.
Theresa took stock of her current state. She could feel her hands and fingers intact. She could breathe – at least she felt as though she were breathing. She could open her eyes, and when she did, he was no longer there.
There in her apartment, in Hoboken, New Jersey. A floor above the guy she saw everyday on her morning run. An apartment shared with her college roommate, her best friend in the entire world. There in her apartment, she hoped she was alone; it was the first time she remembered ever feeling this way – wanting to be alone. Before he came along, she had always associated wanting to be alone with, well, loners – kids at her school she and her friends joked were socially awkward, or weirdos, what the hell is his problem.
It was a tough way for Theresa to learn about expansion. But now, underneath the covers in her bed, all alone in her apartment, wishing to God he had left, she had become one of those kids. Someone she knew someone else would say what the hell is her problem when she was in their midst.
After what he did to her, Theresa felt herself expand.
A raw excerpt, from a longer piece I’ve started on what I have learned from working in the field of preventing sexual violence and violence against women. Enjoy!
What have I learned by working in this field?
The easy answer is a lot. I’ve learned a lot. A lot about myself, specifically my upbringing, and those lessons that were passed down to me, reinforcing the idea that women are objects – not subjects, but rather, things in the form of sexual commodities.
How many girls you got, Ab, I was asked countless times by older guys on the block, encouraging me to have not just one girl, but several. Years later, those comments would turn into You hit that yet, which was code for, did you have sex with her. Not, Did you two have sex, which commands equality. Rather, Did you have sex with her. Meaning, did you do whatever it is you wanted to do to her sexually. She has no sexual needs, no emotions. She doesn’t even have to have a name. She only needed to have a fat ass that I was supposed to tap, hit, or smash.
After being in this field, however, I have been told that I should simply refute and reject these teaching, as if it were that simple. As misguided as these teachings are, it is not a matter as simple as flicking on a light switch – Click. I will no longer treat women like sex objects.
As in, after attending some training or hearing a speaker, my world is supposed to open up so much so that I change everything about the way in which I see the world, in particularly, my view of women. And if, for instance, an attractive woman is in my vicinity (whether it be Jennifer Lopez on the TV screen or someone at the gym), I am not supposed to gawk at them (rightfully so!); more than that, I am not even supposed to notice them, because even noticing that Jennifer Lopez has a voluptuous physique is objectifying.
Herein lies the complexity of it all. If we are able to freely admit that men’s sexual objectification of women takes years to formulate (and if cannot admit this, we are not critically assessing the situation), we must – in turn – acknowledge that it will take a significant amount of teaching and instruction for guys to unlearn their objectifying values and adopt new ways of behaving. If I’ve learned nothing else, it is that we should be patient when working with men.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should not continue to hold men accountable for fawning over the Jennifer Lopez doppelganger, for instance. Because we should. Accountability is one avenue for behavior change. But how we hold men account needs to come in different forms. Smacking men (figuratively) with verbal insults creates a divide, pitting men on one side, and everyone else looking to change men’s behavior on another side. Telling men that they need to change without acknowledging the complexities of it all (for instance, how media uses men’s values and caters by giving sexual images of female entertainers) is shortsighted. We must approach this as a critical issue, not one with a simple solution. Further, demanding that men change their behaviors towards women (in this case, sexual objectification) without giving healthy alternates is limiting. If we want men to behave better, we should provide examples, namely: how do we show men they can express an attraction to someone, while not treating that person as if they are only a fat ass or pair of perky boobs? How do we teach men they can give a compliment, while not harboring feelings being entitled to attention? How do we teach men they can express themselves sexually, while not treating the person as though their only role is sexual?
Too many times, we present men with what we think is a powerful message – in the form of a one-time speaker, which really just becomes a great optic. But as with many speakers, as time passes and luster of the words fade, behaviors return to the status quo. If we are to help men move along the continuum of seeing, and treating women more respectfully, empathically, equally, we should exhibit patience. If you have a guy in your life, it may take several conversations for that guy to see the issue with gawking at women at the gym. (They may never see the harm.) If you work with young men, it may take numerous programs and events before those guys have a true understanding of how they sexually objectify women without even knowing it. Just like exercising, getting men to change their objectifying behaviors will take repetitions, exposure to new ways of thinking (akin to muscle confusion), and further repetitions. This is not a process that will come about instantaneously like jello pudding, and we must remain cognizant of that. Through it all, we must be patient. Holding men accountable while exhibiting patience.
Oh, and just in case there is any confusion – the message is intended for men, not women. I am not asking women to exhibit patience with men’s behaviors, just like I would never ask our LGBT brothers and sisters to be patient (that is, content) with homophobic acts by the heterosexual majority. So I am speaking to me (primarily), and professionals who work with men (secondarily), to exude patience in getting men to change. In the end, we will not see results overnight. But the lessons we teach now, have the potential to last a lifetime.
Our campus was so charming that it was intoxicating – just one visit to the Q was enough for any high school student to fall in love. The phrase the grass is always greener didn’t apply to our campus; for, no matter where you stood, the patch of grass right by your feet seemed to be the greenest anywhere on earth, and each blade appeared as if it had been individually groomed, much like a beautiful girl who spends hours in front of the mirror, making sure each strand of her hair falls perfectly in place. The trees were tall enough that they provided ample shade when we walked to class, but weren’t so monstrous that they belonged in a forest. Each time I inhaled, I couldn’t help but notice the air was fresher and purer than any I had ever tasted, like a tall glass of sweet, ice-cold lemonade on a scorching hot summer’s day. The sun was warmer, brighter, and yellower than I had ever seen, and it painted our skies a breathtaking brilliant blue. When night fell, the moon glowed, and the stars twinkled so luminously that the usually pitch-black skies appeared just a few shades darker than the afternoon skies. During those four years, it felt like San Diego had visited Connecticut, especially in October when the foliage of Sleeping Giant Mountain (which sat, rather slept, across the road from our campus) would turn the same brilliant shades of canary yellow, pumpkin orange, forest green, and scarlet red that I only remember seeing in Bob Ross’s paintings, or, as we were, nestled in the mountains of New England. Even when the weather was inclement, it was still, somehow perfect: when it rained, it would only pour for an hour (or so), and afterward, rainbows stretched across our bright blue skies; and when it snowed, classes were canceled and we spent the day sledding down hills, having snowball fights, and making snowmen, and afterwards, we sipped beer or hot chocolate (or, perhaps, both) to warm up.
By October, the New England air was beginning to kick – it bit like Jack Daniel’s, which my friends and I drank together on one October evening during our freshmen year.
(The rest is a creative recreation one of the memorable nights, my freshman year.)
“What the fuck,” the groggy voice called out from the other end of the hall, sounding like a small animal crying for help. We couldn’t help but chuckle when we heard his heavy footsteps come rumbling.
“So you like the Beastie Boys,” I said to Chris as Little Sean burst into the room.
“The Beastie Boys are dope,” Rick added, almost as if it was planned; the word dope sounded oddly out of place coming from his baritone voice, and we all snickered.
“You guys are dead,” Little Sean screamed.
We all burst into laughter. Little Sean knew he was the butt of the perfect prank, but the frustrated look on his face told us he didn’t know why were picking on him this time…and to such an extreme measure.
“Watch out! Little Sean is gonna puke,” Adam yelled, as he rolled over on his bed (nearly crushing Rick), and slipped underneath his blanket. For a big guy, Adam moved pretty fast, but his blanket only covered his chest, and he looked like pigs in a blanket with his legs and feet dangling off his bed.
Little Sean looked like a deer in headlights. It was almost as if he’d forgotten that he puked all over Chris’ rug the night before. You could see the faded memories coming back to him as the color left his face. He was shocked and stunned, and for the first time since I met him, Little Sean was speechless – no retort, no sarcasm, no using someone else’s words, nothing.
He walked away sheepishly, and we couldn’t help but laugh, and a few minutes later we all ran down the hall, (Adam had grabbed his camera) and watched Little Sean struggle to turn everything right-side-up.
It took Little Sean the rest of the day to return his stuff back to the way it was, and clean up the shampoo, conditioner, soap, and shaving cream that had spilled on the floor. From down the hall, we could hear the loud clank of furniture hitting the floor, and we laughed with every bang. We finished watching Austin Powers a couple of hours later, and Tim and I went to help Little Sean flip his bed right-side-up.
It wasn’t until ten o’clock when Little Sean joined the rest of us across the hall. We pretended to hide our drinks as he walked in, but he wanted no part of alcohol that night. Instead, he slipped Chris a $75 Target gift card, with the words My Bad written on the envelope, and we did a socials; this time, with Kamikaze shots.