I logged into my Facebook account recently, and saw a notification that it was your birthday, Tashi Nicole King. I still remember saying Hi to you on graduation day – beaming that cheery smile, wearing that natural hair, as only Eryka Badu can, radiating with the lively, yet warm spirit for which you were known.
Sadly, the birthday reminder also let me know that you’re no longer with us. That you will never get to read the birthday messages posted on your wall or hear the constant dings on your computer. That you will not be able to attend the next QU reunion in the physical sense and watch Jen dance on the bar, or Euric crack yet another sexual joke. That you will never be able to read the countless letters of love from friends and family members, pouring out their hearts to you, hanging on their last memories.
Like the time we shoved a couch in the back of your old school Range Rover, bungee corded the door closed, with Jim and Stacey laying on the couch, laughing all the way down Mt. Carmel Ave. Or like the time you broke up a party my friends and I had, and I offered a wiseass remark at the sight of seeing the RAs, and your expression was priceless. It just said really, and that was one of my first lessons on accountability that year. Or like our graduation day…
Alas, I will never get to tell you that I looked to you as a role model during our college years. Not just because you were older than us traditional-aged students, but because you were comfortable in your own skin, being who you were and not who everyone may have wanted you to be – the smile, the hair, the spirit. I found that comfort, maybe 5 or 6 days out of the never ending week…but, I was mesmerized that you were Tashi all the time.
Much like our national or cultural icons, your name has come to have a particular meaning for me. Tashi. A frees spirit, like the bird Maya Angelou writes about, if it had been uncaged. A beautiful treasure, forget the Mona Lisa, you embodied a Bob Ross painting with its breathtaking baby blue skies and happy accidents.
And I won’t pretend to have been the best of your friends, but seeing your birthday moved me. How could you be gone so soon?
And though our paths crossed for but a brief period in time, I sit here wondering what you would have been doing at this very moment, had you still been with us…and I am reminded that maybe this world was not fit for your, that maybe, just maybe, you were meant to be in another world or another universe or another lifetime. There’s no other explanation for how or why you, of all people, could be gone so soon. But maybe that’s the point. To those who knew you, there were no words to adequately or accurately describe you…similarly there is no explanation for why you left us.
What is it about life that it would take the young? Those that had barely cemented their places in the world, and, by my account anyway, have more living to do. What is it about life that it would take the kind? Those who would offer the shirt off their backs (or whatever your cliché), those that were happy and gentle and kind even in spite of adversity. What is it about life that it would take Tashi? The smile, the hair, the spirited.
As graceful as your entrance, so too was your exit. So thank you for blessing us with your presence, for making our worlds better and brighter. Thank you, Tashi, for being you, and helping us be better versions of ourselves.
The shape, the mask, the music. Everything about the movie “Halloween”, used to scare the shit out of me. Back when I was a kid. Who saw shadows even in the darkness. Who heard noises and never knew that houses settled. Who ran from the boogeyman as soon as the lights went out, terrified that he might do to me what he did to them.
All grown up now, I no longer believe in the boogeyman. Not that boogeyman at least. Not the one that wheels a large kitchen knife or has an appetite for blood. No, this boogeyman is different.
I remember telling myself that work – a profession or even a career – was just an entity that helped earn an income. That it didn’t have any other value besides that. Until this past summer, when I began to feel him following me.
I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for a little over 5 months. It’s a never-ending job, really. One that cannot be quantified in the typical 9-5pm time frame…knows no boundaries (my daughter regularly bursts in the door when I am using the bathroom)…and does not allow you to take sick days or go on a break. Sure, it doesn’t produce income in the traditional sense; but it does produce years of nurturance and emotional connection. Priceless memories that I will cherish forever. Teaching my son how to swing from monkey bars. Basking in my daughter’s laughter as she chases bubbles.
And yet, because I have not been acquiring income in the traditional sense, I saw a silhouette of his figure behind every bush. Reminding me that I should be working.
Work. That entity that most of my employed friends tell me they wished they were doing differently. My best friend from college is a veterinarian but wishes he raced cars. Another friend in the corporate world longs for a career making and selling her own wine. Not exempt, in my previous job, I wanted to be an author and leadership trainer. All craving a different life. Or, at least, a different part of life. Even when we have it, we want something different. The boogeyman, feasting on our hopes and dreams, until they become the nightmares scaring us to death.
I try tell myself work shouldn’t define me this much, knowing it’s not the truth. Everything piece of academic and intellectual fruit I’ve eaten since my days as an undergrad tells me differently. That everything I did in college and beyond was for work – so that I could have a job, and always have access to a job. That while work does not have to define you, it should be a strong part of you. That if you’re not working, it had better be for a good damn reason; otherwise, you are the issue – it’s not work’s fault you’re unemployed. That as a man, you have but a few purposes in life, and work is one of them, if the primary one.
That’s when the bone-chilling music runs through me. When I know I cannot escape the thoughts. I. Should. Be. Working. Looking for relief, I step into the next room, and stop. He’s staring right at me. Expressionless mask. Blue jumpsuit. Fingers wrapped around a kitchen knife. Shit, I better run.
I had a conversation with a friend recently, and he admitted he was in a rut. He’s in his mid-twenties, has a great career (he’s a lawyer, for god sakes!), lives on his own, is single and ready to mingle, and is your typical bachelor. But, still, he’s stuck in a rut.
He wasn’t the only friend who professed this to me. Another friend who lives in Boston (well, just outside of Boston, really, like most people who live in Boston) and is ready to party as soon as his phone starts to buzz. He is a manager at his job and by all means is successful. Yet, he feels stuck.
Another one of my friends lives in Connecticut also feels their pain. She is unhappy, but not miserable at work – which only means she doesn’t really like her job, and it’s not what she wants to do (although she doesn’t really know what she actually wants to do); but her job is not terrible enough to make her quit. Beyond work, she’s out partying every Saturday, at Happy Hour every Friday, and has Girls Nights about once a month. She vacations with her girl friends and has heart-to-hearts anytime she needs. Despite that, something’s missing.
If that wasn’t enough, another friend from New Hampshire, who is married, has two children, and makes six figures (which makes my puny paycheck look like crap!), wishes he could go back. He loves his life now — his wife, his children, dog, white-picket fence, and all that nuclear family jazz – but every now and then, he talks about the way things used to be.
And then there’s me.
We’re all afflicted by it. The life that was. What’s haunting us can’t be found in the DSM, and can’t be cured with a pill. We have no physiological deficits, and we’re not suffering from PTSD.
Our problem is we have already frolicked through the fields of heaven, so the circumstances we’re going through now simply feel like purgatory. We’re all wishing we could somehow fuse our lives now with our lives from back then. We all wish we could return to a life that was.
We’re all going through the quarter-life crisis, in our own way. Here’s how my quarter-life crisis started.
Boy did I need a fix today. The white canvass of a blank screen is my drug. Seeing blank print on this screen is like my high – it takes me far away to a magical place where I have no worries (or at least they don’t worry me as much), where positive vibes are the only sensation running through my body, where I can feel, completely and utterly, safe. Safe to just be. Safe to be me. Years ago, in a distant world, it would have been a notepad and a pen. Now it’s a computer screen, providing me a fix.
We all need something to help us cope with the stressors. Nothing is absolute, so maybe not everyone needs something; but I sure as hell do. My father-in-law would say you need something to take the edge off. I guess he’s right…sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of my family members, and my friends’ family members, hooked on drugs that I could never understand turning to a substance to ease the pain. I remember my uncle getting into heated arguments with my grandmother, past midnight, walking up the whole block. Shouting, cursing. Talking about what she better not do, spitting off about when he is going to do. He was a high as he wanted to be. Probably off hair-ron…or as it is classically known, heroin. Those memories are burned within my conscious, the way an animal would be branded by its owner.
Still, taking the edge off isn’t what it’s like for me. Neither is it as described in New Jack City, when Pookie cried out, “but that shit just be callin’ me man, it be callin’ me.” That which gets my high isn’t calling me, I’m calling it. Feeling all sorts of mixed up inside, with an irritating itch, and only thing can scratch it. To be taken away from this world, even for a brief period of time. To let go of the inner strife – the frustrations and anger and disappointment – if but for a moment. To feel safe enough to just be, and just be me.
So right now, I don’t need a shot or a drink or a glass of wine. That would only make me resent the amount of time I’d have to work out, to work off the calories. No, I just need the white canvass and the blank print. Because what happened today, was some bullshit.
I attended a powerful student event, yesterday. A group of students organized a rally, of sorts. Whereby all members of the campus community where invited to a forum, where students shared their experiences of discrimination or discomfort, feelings of shame and self-hatred, as related to being a part of the campus community. One student shared an experienced he’d had where a faculty member questioned him, to his face, as to whether he was an engineering major. As if students in the engineering program couldn’t be black. Another student shared her feelings of not belonging – for, although she identifies as Korean, she does not identify with the culture and experiences and expectations of other Korean students. How she has no place to call home. How she doesn’t even know who she is.
These stories resonated with me, loud and clear. Bringing me back to my college experience. I had decided to join the Black Student Union after attending the first meeting where one of the members shared an ugly experience where a fellow student had called her a nigger. It was then that I made it my personal mission to stamp out every discriminatory act I encountered. More than that, I made up my mind that this was my fight. Fighting for equal treatment of those who were marginalized, although I wouldn’t have used that term at the time. I probably would have said second-class citizens. Because that’s what it felt like – all the students of a certain race, or sexual orientation, or religion were of first class, and here we were, the second class. Three-fifths of a person. Looked over, like we were not even there sometimes. Not treated with respect. Not not because we were different – the guy with the tattoo and the girl with the Boston accent were different – but because we were them, those people, their kind, the Others.
And I thought back to friends I’d made in college. Most of whom were surface-level. Non-threatening conversations such as I’m having a party toorrow, you should come by. Then there were a few that were deep and meaningful friendships, where we shared experiences shared of abusive fathers, tumultuous families, even cancer. The drug addictions that rocked my family, being broke as a joke (when it seemed that everyone around me had money to burn), raised by a single mom. With my closest of friends whenever we discussed these matters, I remember feeling comforted knowing that even though my friends who were White didn’t know what it was like to be black, and thus, marginalized or second-class, they never downplayed my experiences. That even if they were ignorant about certain matters dealing with unequal treatment of Black and Brown people, at the very least, they were willing to listen and learn about those experiences. Even though I could not connect with most of my friends on a racial level, I connected with them over shared experiences of feeling like an outcast (for different reasons). I remember my friends allowing me to be myself: “I talk like I walk, with a fucked up pivot”, a line from a song I’d listened to a thousand times describes it pretty well.
But probably the one sentiment that stuck with me the most from that student event, is the sense of not being able to put down my weight not for any kind of brief reprieve, not even for a second. I can’t undo the color of my skin, nor would I want to. I can’t undo the unjust treatment of my ancestors, no matter how much I wish I could. Similarly, I can’t stop myself from thinking, breathing, and seeing the world through a lens that tells me I am an Other, no matter how clearly the Declaration of Independence reads all men are treated equal.
From a pragmatic perspective, this means I can’t not help but feel the stares and glares I receive in certain communities, when I’m just trying to buy a pack of gum. I can’t not express frustration over the senseless killing of Black and Brown folks, not only by police officers, but also by other Black and Brown folk. I can’t not speak up about president candidates who fail to recognize the systematic discriminatory treatment of people of color, women, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, and how their slogans may as well be, Working for a Whiter America. I can’t not do all of those things, and countless others, because I live them, on a daily basis. See, every day I’m reminding that I’m black, and that I don’t quite belong, and that is part of the pressure, or weight, that I feel.
So I thank my college friends for letting me be me, and listening to my stories and for sharing their journeys with me. For accepting and celebrating my plight, just I accepted and celebrated theirs. For standing by me (and even sticking up for me when necessary), and all of my Blackness, just as I stood beside them.
But like a game of tennis, I can’t help but go back and forth. I can’t help think how I might react if some punk assaults my daughter. Rage. Or how I might respond if some coward with a gun shoots my son, for no other reason than being a Black man. Fire. Or how I might spiral out of control if some cop throws my daughter across a classroom. Wrath.
I wish I didn’t think about these things, but I do. The reality is… no, my reality is these instances could happen to me because of the color of my skin. But, they may not happen to someone else for that same reason. Which, on the one hand, is great. It’s utterly fantastic and progressive that someone can go to school, be disobedient, and even disrespectful, and not have to worry about being Tased, or thrown, or killed. On the other than, as a responsible parent, I have to have those conversations with my children. About how the mere color of their skin will determine the unjust treatment they receive.
No, I don’t want to think about how I might react if someone harms my children, or my wife, or my family simply because they are one of the Others. But I do. It’s become part of my weight. That which fills my conscious, casting aside happier thoughts I could have about vacationing in Hawaii, on a beach, under the blue skies, on a perfect day.
It’s my weight, and it means when I speak with my realtor about finding a place to live, we have to talk about diversity. While I can’t protect my family from all the evils of life, I’ll be damned if I live in a community where neighbors bear, wave, or otherwise celebrate the Confederate flag. My weight also means nurturing those friendships that are deep and meaningful, and include tough conversations like one I had with my best friend – the double whammy I felt years ago when I was jobless. Being Black AND unemployed. All the rhetoric of country says that you should be able to get a job. But, for the life of me, for a six month period of time, I could not. The rhetoric also says that Black folks who can’t find work are lazy parasites, mooching of the system. No matter how hard I tried to shake those thoughts, I could not. They reminded me daily that I was a failure.
But that’s my weight, and I accept it. Like the students who organized the event, I am not searching for someone with a magic pill to take the weight away, or even shoulder it from me while I catch my breath. Instead, I’m hoping that when I struggle from the weight of the weight, that my friends will ask how I’m doing, and not demand that I just need to catch up. Because it’s my weight. And if we’re going to be friends, I need more from you.
There’s nothing wrong with having Facebook friends – those people you rarely see, and even when you do, it’s surface level, how are you, knowing you really don’t want to know. But for my friends who want to really be friends with me – that is, a deep, meaningful connection – you can’t be scared to conversations simply because they are tough. Whether it’s about my drug-dealing step-father who was murdered, the terror and anger I feel every time another Black man is killed by a White cop, or even about how I am struggling, on a daily basis, to become more aware of my own male privileges. No, we must have those conversations if we are to be friends. Those are the thoughts running through my mind. I’m not asking that you agree with them. But, what I am asking, is that you learn to understand why it rocks me on my heels and shakes me to my core whenever another black man if killed by a White cop, or another teenage girl is sent home from the prom because her dress is too distracting, or another presidential candidate talks about deportation, or the woman who wouldn’t grant marriage licenses to LGBT couples. These are my realities. They’re weight that I cannot put down. Not even for a moment.
If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t walk, our friendship would mean sitting on your couch. If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t drink alcohol, our friendship would center around diet cokes and limes. Similarly, if we’re going to be friends, and I hope that we will be, I want you to know that you have to become comfortable letting my Blackness play out in whatever way that feels organic to me, comfortable discussing things that most people don’t want to talk about, and comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because that’s what I live, on a daily basis.
I still find the college life enchanting. All these years later, when people ask if you could go back to any time in your life, what would you choose?
My response – almost automatic at this point – is my college years.
You see, I both adore and appreciate what the college experience has to offer, what my college experience offered.
Adore in the sense of infatuation. The way I was completely infatuated with a girl during my senior year, and never told her. She was cute, sassy, and sexy. I always wanted to ask her out, but never summoned up the gumption. I adore the college experience for the surface-level, superficial reasons: Having had the freedom to stay up until 12am, 2am, even 4am, with no recursions – either academically or physically. When I’d go to the gym, I lived there; working out for at least an hour, most times 1.5 – 2 hours. Never living with regret, knowing there was always tomorrow. Like many college students, I felt invincible!
At the same time, I appreciate the college experience, similar to (but on a much scaled-down version of) the way I appreciate my wife (my senior-year crush!) for being a mother of two, working all sorts of crazy hours, cooking and cleaning on her days off from work, walking our dog when I’m stuck late at work, baking birthday cakes for our children, working out, being a fabulous sister/aunt/friend/daughter, and still being ultra sexy! (Take that Hollywood actress, songstress, celebrity, reality TV star who needs a personal chef, trainer, caregiver – and sometimes plastic surgery – to be sexy!)
But a recent trip to the Adirondacks helped me appreciate the college experience in a way I had never considered before. Unlike adulthood, the college experience encourages, hell almost forces, students to take vacations.
When it comes to vacationing, adulthood says all of the right things. Four Personal Days per year, to use as you wish. Twelve Vacation Days per year, merely requiring your supervisor’s approval. Sick days, bereavement days. When you first start a job, the new-hire meeting can make it sound as if the agency/institution/company will practically beg you to use the time off you’re entitled to.
But in adulthood, vacationing comes at a price.
Unless you’re with the right company (and how many of us are with the right company), taking vacation days can almost feel dirty or shameful. Something to feel guilty about – as in, because you’re vacationing, and your colleagues are working, you ought to check in with a phone call, or respond to just a few emails, or send a quick text to see how the office is holding up. I had a former co-worker who was replying and responding to emails while she was vacationing on her honeymoon! As if we shouldn’t have boundaries between our work and personal lives, and if we do, we should feel ashamed.
Adulthood also make vacations feel as if it’s for the weak-minded. As in, hard workers don’t need a reprieve or a break from the daily grind. How many of us stay in the office well past quitting time, not wanting to leave because our supervisors are still working, because we want to be like them (that is, in their roles, one day). We see our supervisors as the pinnacle of hard work, so we work longer hours, more hours, just to to show the same level of commitment.
When you’re an adult, vacationing feels like something you have to work for, not something you’re entitled to. As in, you have to work your ass off, until you’re damn near burned out, before you can take a vacation. Or, as another former co-worker wrote me as to why she couldn’t attend a meeting I was scheduling: I’m taking a much needed vacation. It felt as if, she felt she had to justify using her time off. As if she wasn’t supposed to take a vacation, unless there was a good, damn, reason. And working like a dog for twelve months straight, had constituted that good reason.
So, what’s the point? Of course we know adults are overworked, while the college experience has ample opportunities for respite. Well, since vacationing in adulthood is not as free as it was in college, as professionals, it’s time that we redefine vacationing.
Instead of using time off to take care of household chores and errands, how about vacationing to accomplish your goals and aspirations? Take time off from work to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, join a reading group, or cross off something on your bucket list. Use your vacation time to accomplish all those things you tell yourself you don’t have time for; not necessarily the stuff you have to do, more the things you want to do. I was working on a book, and it felt like I was never going to finish. After work, I had to take care of the kids, walk the dog, help tidy up the house, spend time with my wife, and then find me time to relax from my day. I was usually in bed by 10pm. When I did make time to work on my book, it was 30 or 40 minutes; just enough time to get a groove going, then I’d have to stop and get ready for the next day. With my wife’s support, I decided to use a couple of vacation days to work on my book. Having 8 hours of freedom to read, write, and edit allowed me to finish my book. Not only in a shorter timeframe, but also a less stressful one too. I wasn’t writing in short bursts, I was pacing myself, so I was able to give more of myself (my creativity and ingenuity) to my book, which ultimately, left me more satisfied. That’s what vacationing should do, leave us feeling satisfied.
We could also use vacation time strategically. When do you fill your car with gas? When you’re running on empty and your car is cruising on fumes? Or do you fill up when you have ¼ tank left? Maybe it’s just before you get on the highway, before a long trip. Or on Wednesday mornings, because you pass a gas station that always has the least expensive fuel. Hopefully, you fill up at strategic times, taking control of when you put gas into your car. Similar, you have the ability (in some cases) to take control of your vacation time. Don’t wait until the end of the calendar year to use your vacation, simply because you’ve received an email from human resources that you are going to lose your PTO days if you don’t use them. Decide when you’ll vacation, instead of letting it be the other way around. If not, you might be left with two weeks off, chauffeuring relatives back and forth to the airport, for their Christmas-Kwanzaa-Hanukkah visits! Nothing wrong with it, but hardly does it feel like a vacation.
Redefine vacation too, as something that actually makes you feel relaxed. Sure, the yearly family trip to Disney is enjoyable, in a certain kind of way. But those kinds of vacations often leave us needing a vacation, from our vacation. On the other hand, using a personal day for an impromptu day at the beach can leave you feeling as refreshed as you’ve been in months. Vacationing doesn’t have to be the contrived, the stale, the things you always do, just because. That’s what makes a vacation feel like work, and not a vacation. I introduced my wife to spontaneous days. I’m not sure where I got the idea. But somehow I got the idea of a one-day reprieve – call out of work, and do something completely random. Something that was never planned. One day we went to the casino. Another day we took a trip to a breach town. It was fun. Being on vacation, enjoying the beautiful weather. People watching. My wife even got a facial. It wasn’t what we did; rather, that we were spending time together, in ways that weren’t forced or contrived. Doing things that helped us feel relaxed, and able to tackle the grind of our jobs, the next day.
Just like we learn from the college experience, change can start with just one person, who performs a single act, that is but one ripple in a sea of monotony. College students get to choose how they’ll spend their time. If they want to take more classes, that’s supported. If they choose to work and save money, that’s commended. And if they decide to sit on the beach all summer, that’s applauded all the same. No pressures or obligations. College allows students to live life on their terms. Like taking the necessary time off to recharge their batteries and de-stress from the grueling workload. It’s time vacationing in adulthood to mean the same.