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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, I was asked to take part in a social-media driven campaign known as the Gratitude Challenge. I accepted the offer and as directed, over the next 5 days, I posted several entities for which I am grateful. The entities ranged from family and friends (the usual suspects) to my college experience and the knee surgeries I had, way back when.
Now, however, as I reflect on gratitude – from a distant perspective, where I’m not challenged to reflect on it – I have a sort of different approach. It would be too cliché to simply say, I am grateful for everything that I have. Because, really, am I grateful that I had a mouse dart across my kitchen floor one morning, while my dog sat in the other room, looking at me, as if he were saying, What? What’d I do? Wanna play? No, okay. Maybe later. Or what about the cobwebs in the shed? Or the dust bunnies under my couch?
Clearly, not all of our possessions or attributes are worthy of gratitude.
So, what does it mean to be grateful? That I cannot complain when the batteries in my remote control die, because complaining would somehow take away from the luxury of owning a television. That I cannot scream when the person driving in front me cuts me off, because screaming would somehow take away from the comfort of having a reliable car to get me from place to place. Or that I cannot get frustrated with automated telephone prompts, because bearing frustration would somehow take away from the privilege of having a credit card, when many people don’t even have good credit.
I’ve come to this place, this house really, like the one Robert Frost wrote about in his famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. A house that I own, but don’t have to relegate myself to. I can venture outside of the house, knowing that I can return anytime I want. I can yell and scream about the batteries in my remote dying, or the lady cutting me off, or the annoying telephone prompts, because, when night falls – just like I will return home – I will see how trivial these annoyances truly are. That doesn’t mean I cannot get annoyed, it only means that I will not let such annoyances taint my perspective and blur my vision of the world. That I will not let dead batteries ruin the game of Monopoly I’ll play with my wife. That I will not let that woman who cut me off enrage me to the point that I speed out of control and put other drivers in jeopardy. That I will not let the automated telephone prompts stop me from getting my questions answered or paying my credit card bill on time.
I’ll admit it – I don’t wake up with a smile on my face every morning, I don’t wave hello when someone flips me off (although, sarcastically speaking, maybe I should!), and I don’t scream in excited when my dog won’t catch the mouse in my kitchen. But, but – there’s a big fat, hoooowever. I’ve also made up my mind to not let daily challenges, frustrations, annoyances (or whatever you want to call them) stop me from seeing and appreciating treasures such as this great September weather (which I’ve been looking forward to, since June), and football season being back (which I’ve been looking forward to, since February), and the house that I own (which gives me a place to finally call home).
So, maybe gratitude is a mindset, instead of a possession. A mindset of not allowing yourself to be defeated, consumed, or jaded by life. Life can be stressful, there’s no doubt about that. But perhaps gratitude demands that we adjust to life and remain flexible; and that we accept alternatives and remain open for new possibilities; and that we make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of everything we have, everything we have worked for, and everything we’ve grown out of. That we be show gratitude whenever we can, however long we can, for as often as we can.
All in all, gratitude is like the house in the Robert Frost poem, that you can come back to, when the temperature drops and a frigid chill takes over the air. Gratitude, my friend, is a place where you can live, but not feel confined to. The glass may be half-empty or half-full, and it’s okay to see it either way. So as long as you remember that when your glass is completely empty, at least you have your dog, staring at you and wagging his tail, as if he’s trying to say, Ready to play?
You’ve been great. Now enjoy “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Ever since A Matter of Semantics was published, I’ve always wanted to see it on a bookshelf, holding its weight against other titles. A few weeks ago, I got that chance when I took a trip to the school where I used to teach – Sussex County Community College (or “Harvard on the hill”, how locals refer to it) – to see my book, on the bookshelf, of the bookstore.
It was a breathtaking experience, one that proves dreams do come true. Teaching there was fun and rewarding. Not fun in the sense of belly laughs or random fits of the giggles, but fun in a manner of being enjoyable and touching, which is what work should be. And rewarding in the sense that it stirred something inside of me, something that fueled and motivated me, something that helped give me a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
The students are what stood out the most, though. Even if I forget some of their names, I will never forget what I learned from them, even if it was how to alter the inflection in my voice, to help them stay away for an 8:00am class!
There are more than a few, however, that will I remember. Who I probably will never see again or will probably never hear from, unless they need a letter of recommendation. (And that’s okay, because that’s what I signed up for, when I signed up to teach!) But, those are the students I wish I could thank, personally…for letting me help them, in their journey to create success. So this is my letter to those students. With social media being the way that it is, I’m hoping each one of them will get this message in a bottle.
Dear Brie – Thanks for the wonderful email you sent me, that semester after you took my class. I never could quite read your facial expressions, so it means a lot to know that you enjoyed our class and (selfishly) that you liked my teaching style! Even though you discovered that college was not for you, I hope you see the value in education – even if it takes downing a can of Red Bull (like you did for our 8:00am class!) to get you through lectures and seminars! I wish you much success in your pursuit of a career in cosmetology and I know you’ll do fabulously. I don’t like giving advice, but if I can even be of any help, please reach out. My sister owns her own salon!
Dear Kali – You were another person whose facial expression I could never quite read. With all you had going on personally, I never knew if you were going to show up to class, so I’m glad you always did. During that semester you spent in my class, when you told me that you didn’t have much family or support in the area, I remember saying to my wife how I wanted to invite you to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. But I was too cautious and wary of the social stigma and mixed message that would have sent. My wish for you is that you dare to dream! Even without a support system, you can accomplish anything that you want! But first, you have to dare to dream it, in order to make it your reality! And don’t lose your positive attitude. It’ll serve you well in the years to come. I’d like to hear all about your endeavors; I wish we could have kept in contact.
Dear Colleen – People often say things like, there is no such thing as perfection, and I laugh. From the moment my son was born, he has always been, in my eyes, perfect. He cried himself to sleep some nights, or threw temper tantrums, or wouldn’t eat his vegetables, but he was always, perfect. Likewise, you were perfect. Whenever I need an image of how I’d like students to approach my course, I think of you – always being on time, always taking notes, always giving your best effort. (Surely, if I could have given you a grade higher than an A, I would have.) The way you carried yourself was even more impressive – leading by example, displaying patience and flexibility, accepting challenges and never taking the easy road. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. If I had attended SCCC, you would have been one person I’d want to be friends with, and have in my circle of friends and support system. By now, I hope you’re pursuing your dreams of becoming a social worker. I have no doubt you will get there. I’d love to hear from you, someday, and catch up over lunch. Stay perfect.
Dear John – One day you’re going to wake up and find yourself living the life you have dreamed about for so long. Trust me, but more than that, trust yourself! Your passion and drive reminds me of myself, once upon a time. I’m sure we could be cousins, somewhere down a family line. I know you’re always seeking advice, and I always talk in circles because, well, there’s nothing I can say to you (in some contrived fashion) that will instantly change the way you see and approach the world. So I will say to you, what I wish I had known during my first year of college – First, the way you see things is just a reflection of your background and upbringing. It doesn’t make you right or wrong, it’s just your perspective. Harm comes when you hold people to your standards, like how I used to think girls were sluts and hoes simply because they wore short shorts. If that were true, that would have made most women I knew, and even my wife, a hoe. So be open to expanding your perspective. Secondly, the world isn’t small, it’s big. So dream big. Dream bigger than New Jersey or Florida, dream about sipping wine atop the Eiffel Tower or going sightseeing in the Serengeti. Dream bigger than what you have experienced, like writing that book you never thought you could. Then, use the college experience to help you achieve those dreams. And don’t let anyone rob you of your dreams!
Dear Haley – Even though were just a student, there were times you felt more like the little sister I never had. On those days where it was a struggle for you to be in class, all I wanted to do was caution you to the carnal nature of men (or boys!), and help you bring light to your dreams that had been trapped in darkness, and give you a hug and tell you everything would be okay. A big, burly, comforting bear hug. To show you that a man’s touch could be supportive and nurturing, without being at all sexual. But I couldn’t show favoritism. I pray that you’re doing well, wherever your journey has taken you. Now that you’re no longer the pupil, don’t hesitate to reach out should you ever be in need. I hope we get to have lunch sometime soon, and that I get to meet your son, Caleb!
Dear Kim – You’d probably never guess, but my favorite singer is Alanis Morissette and she has a song entitled, “So-Called Chaos”, the theme of which fits you perfectly. I know you’re wracking your brain over majors, schools, careers and the like. But what if I told you that you will find answers as soon as you stopped looking? I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this notion, I just have anecdotal stories. Like the time the guy was searching so hard for a girlfriend because he didn’t want to be alone. Yet, when he decided to embrace being single and concentrate on himself, magically, a girl walked right into his life, as if she already had the key to his heart. Fret not about what major you’ll pursue or what career you’ll end up having. What’s most important now is YOU. I almost wish you would leave the community college and go to a four-year school. There, you’ll have a greater exposure to different majors (you could choose between Molecular Biology, Emergency Medicine or Physical Therapy, but at SCCC your choices are Bio, Chem, and that’s it!); professors (who can help you distinguish/differentiate between all of those majors); and students (who can share with you the cool things they are doing, so you can formulate your own career path). Things are not supposed to be perfect right now, because you’re still figuring it all out. They’re supposed to be nerve wracking and chaotic, and that chaos is what’s going to help you get where you want to be. So embrace it. Kick off your shoes. Take a leap of faith and enjoy the chaos.
I sit here, on a post-Alanis Morissette-concert high! I spent the day singing all her songs that got me through the tough times. Letting her voice sooth my never-ending, quasi-pessimistic, quasi-irrational thoughts. Feeling free, finally, like it was the first time, albeit, all over again.
Alanis has to be my favorite artist, ever. Sure, there have been others who have moved me, but through her music, Alanis has touched a part of me that nothing else ever had. As if through her music, she became my spiritual adviser. Like the time I learned to shed the stereotypes I once held as truth, or the time I was finally able to encapsulate the anger and rage I had for my father, for not being a father.
Each time I go to an Alanis concert, I tell myself, “this time, it’ll be different”. That I will take the inspiration and do something with it, like move to California, just to start anew. Just for the hell of it. Just to free myself, of my Jersey comfort zone.
Until that time comes to pass, I’ve let her music move me to dream about leaving my comfort zone. Like a fluttering butterfly, here’s my attempt to flap my wings:
“The Hill Sitting Below the Sun”
On a road
Leading to a castle
On a hill
Sitting below the sun
And behind a tree.
Running to the moment
That is my tomorrow,
Fleeing the morbid monotony
Of my present,
Dodging the acidic downpour
Of my today.
Running to the moment
Racing never-ending thoughts
Of my past.
Running to the moment
Forgiving myself for the myriad of excuses,
Of my yesterday.
Must I hate myself
And my thoughts
Bringing me back to this place?
Where each breath I take
And each singular moment in time
And each opportunity
Is already lost.
Where I am the black sheep
In a field of cottony-plush lambs,
Giving into the command of the supposed shepherd,
Anguishing not, over the skinning ahead,
And without dreams to free them.
And without souls to guide them.
On that road, to the castle,
On the hill, sitting below the sun.
Leaving everything behind.
Running to the moment,
Ready to create new realities
Where sunsets are adored,
And the hills lead to the heavens,
And the toasty castle warms the spirit.
Leaping into the winds,
With no safety net to catch my fall.
Into a version they’ll no longer recognize,
Into a version I’ve only dreamt of becoming,
Artistic and active,
Spontaneous and sensual,
Like the fluttering butterfly,
Tattooed on my wife’s back.
The calendar may read almost-February, but it still feels like New Year’s to me. We still see vivid, inspiring pictures of the possibilities that lie ahead, and not those dark, uninspiring portraits of opportunities lost.
So in honor of the year still feeling new, I wanted to share a short clip of something I find inspirational – the work that I do with high school and college students. I can already see some people cringing at how they would rather work with any population than a bunch of kids who think they have the world figured out, yet can’t get out of their own way. I’ve heard it before. I’ve seen the eye rolls when I tell people that I love working with high school and college students. During those conversations, I bring up one of my co-workers…
She wears so much makeup that she kind of resembles the Joker from The Dark Knight. Lipstick running up to her cheeks, eye shadow extending to her ears. She rarely has anything pleasant to say. When I offer “good morning”, she responds with, “yeah, what’s so good about it.” And, when I say, “at least it’s Friday”, she looks at my blankly and says, “I have so much to do this weekend, I don’t even know if I’ll have time to breathe”. She is the complete antithesis of what high school and college students are about – She sees a world that has already passed her by. Students see a world where possibilities are endless. She emits negative energy just riding the elevator with her. Students exude positive energy, even when they’re having a silly conversation about their favorite concerts. She goes through life as if she’d rather be alone. Students want to experience life with everyone around them.
Maybe you know my ornery, jaded co-worker. Or maybe you have one of your own. It might even be a friend or family member, who sucks the life right out of you, whenever you cross paths.
So, yes, I’d rather work with high school and college students, and even though it’s a different kind of a challenge than working with adult populations, here is how I approach the work I do with this fun-loving bunch! This is what has worked for me. Feel free to adapt it, and see if it can work for you! Just remember, don’t preach.