Saturday, October 1, 2016

On teaching, blessings and stiff spines....

I love the fall. It officially launches my new year. Feels like new beginnings. I get all reflective and start setting goals. This week I thought about how I started my journey in the world of education and how many fall seasons I made transitions--AT&T to lateral entry teacher, to district grant writer, to project developer, to freelance consultant, back to teaching. All fall changes....

So now I teach, but I don't really call myself an educator. It's what I do--not what I am. What it is is that I enjoy working with kids who need a leg up. Never knew how much I would until I stopped working at AT&T a couple of decades ago and had to choose something else to do besides writing stories (since there was no life-sustaining check attached to that vocation).

So I taught for two years in a tiny NYC public school for kids with severe handicaps. And I loved it. I bonded with all these hard-partying teachers and administrators who loved the hell out of our population of teens with cerebral palsy, life-threatening seizures, Downs Syndrome, and diseases you only hear about in movies and medical journals. Many had started their lives in Willowbrook--the asylum Geraldo Rivera exposed and got shut down for inhumane conditions.

Fall reminds me that we're as lucky as we realize. Fall says to me plant your feet, take stock, and get ready for what's coming. Whether it's kids coming back to school, hurricane season, or frost and the ensuing ice and snow. Life can be tough, but mostly it's merciful if you get your mind right. If you know better than to get "down in your cups" and fall into self pity about how hard your life is right now. Jobs aren't perfect, we don't always get what we want, people don't act the way we want them to, not to mention the weather......


It always behooves me to remember the kids I met in that small school when I first entered the world of education. And to remember their parents who wished their kids had homework or that they could do anything at all on their own. Parents who were grateful for nonprofit organizations who provided a night of respite so they could actually have a normal night's sleep. A night when they didn't have to listen out for a medically-fragile kid. 

So with this change of season, be mindful of your mindset. Keep your spine straight and your eyes peeled on the many ways that you're fortunate. There are so many who suffer in ways that are beyond what you'd even imagine. 

People often say I'm always smiling and that I'm so cheerful. But I've seen what suffering is, so in my heart I know I've nothing to frown about.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Casting the Dark Shadows Aside

Sometimes I think about something from my past that makes me cringe. I imagine most people have similar memories that make them want to cover their eyes and wish they could go back and undo that episode or chapter in their lives. 

When I was in my 30s, I spent a lot of time recovering from my 20s! :>) I had a scroll of regrets that shook my confidence and made me feel less than I should have. I didn't want to send out my stories--didn't want to call attention to myself for fear the past would creep up and bite me in the butt.

Then I realized everybody's got their own stuff. The self-centeredness of youth made me think my mistakes were of interest to anybody else. (Since I'm not a politician.) We all have our less-than-optimal moments: as children, students, lovers, spouses, parents, employees, siblings, and family members. Many of us have had our dark hours and wicked phases. 

Now and then I'll still have a random memory that makes me suck in my breath and wish I could take it back. But this morning I decided to embrace it all. Might be because I'm reading a LOT of good fiction, and good fiction introduces us to characters who show us all sides of their personalities and history. And that's what makes them come alive and makes us root for them.

So I challenge you to reconsider your dark shadows. To let them reside comfortably among the finer moments. To do so is to accept all of you--all parts of yourself. Last year I read Learning to Love Yourself: A guide to becoming centered by Gay Hendricks. It was the first time I'd encountered the notion of immediate acceptance of our flaws and mistakes as they happen. That becomes the way to truly meet your potential. Iyanla Vanzant is a perfect example with her boat load of hardships and a past that could've choked the life out of her.

I realize now that it makes perfect sense to accept it all. I have been a fool many many times, and I'm sure there are many more foolish episodes to come. But the energy spent regretting takes away the positive power from the moment I'm living.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In the throes of disturbing news....

When horrible things happen, I go in overdrive to find a positive. I'm not a Pollyanna. Yes, bad things happen to good people all the time. Reality is.

This weekend a group of young people organized a peace rally downtown. They were young adults--from late teens to early 20s. One of the chants they bellowed as they marched was, "This is what democracy looks like!" And indeed it does. All races and genders were represented--a true  rainbow of young folks planning, collaborating, and linking arms. I was heartened.

E.L. Doctorow was my mentor back at NYU. Even though I was a committed writer, like many of my peers, I was both wild and clueless. During one of our sessions, I remember he said he was disheartened by the lack of student advocacy on American campuses. That the Civil Rights' momentum gained much-needed traction when young people in communities and on campuses showed commitment and support. Likewise with Vietnam. He was basically saying young people had to be actively involved in the shaping of their future.

On Saturday, his words came back to me, and I understood what he meant. Although I plan to be around for a long time, young people now are different from my generation, and their future will, hopefully, be different from ours. I have always said that racism and gender bias never surprise me because many of the same people who fought vehemently to maintain segregation and the status quo are still alive and well. And many who aren't did a fine job of indoctrinating their offspring.

But those who are now coming of age (at least those in larger, more urbanized areas) have a different history. Many, if not most, have not lived in fear of differences. Interracial dating and marriage, gender choices, biracial children, interracial and interethnic adoptions, interfaith communities have existed during their entire lifetimes. Many of their neighborhoods, classrooms, sports teams, transportation systems, workplaces, etc. have  exposed them continually to differences. From my perspective, they've grown up in a world that, I hope, minimizes the fear factor.

There will always be outliers,. But I (optimist that I am) truly believe that sometimes when bad things happen, it casts a much-needed light beneath putrid underbellies requiring exposure and healing. I sometimes view the victims as souls whose lives become symbolic of change and enlightenment. Change generally happens slowly, and sometimes very painfully.

When there's violence, hatred, ignorance, I believe fear (in one of its many guises) is the true motivation. On Saturday, it was good to see young people putting themselves out there saying they are not afraid--especially not of each other.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How to Bless Your Heart

One of the happiest, most content women I've ever known had a hand-to-mouth existence. Her days were unpredictable and often filled with the appearance of dark and random events. Three of her sons were killed in their 30s and 40s. Grandchildren, great-grands, nephews, nieces and even cousins of ill-repute continually found their way to her door in their hours of distress. Their eyes were frequently hungry for whatever she could provide: a couch for a few days, weeks, or months; a pallet in the corner if the couch was taken; a few dollars till payday; or a bowl of whatever simmered on the stove in the tiny kitchen of her two-bedroom, Brooklyn apartment.

No matter.

She was always laughing, always hugging. Even if she was chastising. Even as she was saying she was "flat broke"-- and she meant it. She was telling the truth when she said she had just five dollars to last till her social security check came in the mail. And it was usually because she had helped somebody else keep their lights on or bought somebody's baby some Pampers.

When I was a young woman, I spent lots of time in her apartment. I was fortunate enough not to need anything from her. And her ways certainly were not mine. Folks would have been blinking in the dark, and their babies would have been bare-bottomed if it was up to me. But from time to time, I think about her and realize how much she taught me.

Her way was to love, and she lived to be an old woman who was loved fiercely by an entire community beyond her own family. She lived by her own rules-- untainted by the opinion or judgment of others. She was exceptional at loving, making do, spreading cheer, and modeling that one can thrive-- no matter the circumstances. I imagine that her rooms were packed to the rafters with angels who kept her lights on, kept her rent paid and provided something to fix for dinner.

Her unspoken lesson to me was to have the courage to find my path and keep to it. The best path for each of us is the one that suits us. We ultimately don't need anyone to tell us who we are, what we should do, and how we should handle the situations that come into our lives. We have to figure it out for ourselves, learn not to need approval, and begin to value the power of living an authentic life. Once we can do that, we will have actually blessed our hearts.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Love, choices and the power of parents

I'm working on the expanded version of Salt in the Sugar Bowl. So I'm thinking pretty hard about motivations, choices, mistakes, atonement, etc. Several weeks ago, a group of NC State students included me in a project focused on local authors. They asked me the following question:

What were you hoping Sophia Sawyer's actions say about women's role in society and in family life?

Here's my response-- which I think provokes thought about the extreme power of parenting. We're all on a journey, so there's no real "getting it right." And the sexual revolution that started in the 60s and 70s led to more options that are, historically speaking, still relatively new. So really we're just starting to understand and experience a lot of fallout from the choices that weren't always available to us. So I think we can learn from what we're seeing and start to tread lightly!

         Sophia represents what happens when a woman doesn't know who she is, and she constructs a life based on pretense, superficiality, and the expectations of others. Instead of conspiring with her mother to meet the marriage milestone with a man who fit a certain criteria, Sophia would have fared better if she'd taken time to understand herself as an individual living in a world that offers many options. There is no evidence that Sophia actually knew Hunt enough to either love him or make an informed choice to create a lasting relationship and family with him. Their coupling focused primarily on the value of societally-established physical attributes. Had she developed greater self-awareness about her personality, strengths, and needs, the entire trajectory of her life would have been different. She  would not have married a man who'd been infatuated with her but didn't take the opportunity to actually know her or love her. And she would not have had six children who would ultimately be negatively impacted by her initial wrong move

         I hope she pushes women to think about the incredible power their life choices have on future generations. The actions of mothers (and fathers) set the stage for the issues that their offspring will contend with for perhaps decades, or even a lifetime. Nobody is perfect, and parents will do the best they can. In too many cases, however, impulsive decisions severely harm both parents' lives and those of their children. 

So Sophia teaches us to
1) truly consider the relationships we sign up for, and 
2) value our uniqueness because we are not cookie cutter, media-inspired creations who can live successfully by following a general script for life. 

(Unfortunately, I ran into the following survey. Rather depressing, but I thought I'd include it to underscore the importance of choosing well.) Jeeze!

Haven't read my novella, Salt in the Sugar Bowl? You can still get a copy (and see what readers have said about it):

If you've read it and have an opinion, take a minute and write a review. (I'd appreciate it!)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Start the new year without that awful codependence....

As we start plotting the course for doing things differently in the new year, I dissected one of the core tendencies that creeps up and consumes many people who have abandonment issues: Codependence. Codependence can take a fine life and tear it all to pieces. It can happen to anybody-- given the right suboptimal circumstances at a crucial stage of development. So to help both define codependence and provide some coping strategies, I'm quoting some valuable insights expressed by Dan Millman in his book The Life You Were Born to Live. The excerpt that follows is taken from the section titled "The Law of Responsibility."

          "Those of us who feel a strong drive to support, serve, and assist others can, in our need to give, sometimes overcooperate to the extent that debilitates both us and those we serve. In extreme cases, this tendency to overhelp degenerates into codependency, where we lose ourselves in obsessive focus on other people's lives, pouring out without receiving in return. Codependents assume responsibility for other people's lives far beyond the normal duties of parents or friends or employees. They base their value, self-worth, and even their identities on their ability to help other people, always (rather than sometimes) focusing on others' needs before their own ....
          The overcooperation that lies at the core of codependency involves a distorted or exaggerated sense of responsibility, leading us to try to "fix" others' mistakes rather than allowing them to learn from the consequences of their own behaviors. ...
          In applying the Law of Responsibility, we support others, but we also accept support; we find a balance between what we think we 'should' do or be and what our heart really desires. We do what we can feel good about inside; if we don't feel good inside, we state our feelings and reach a compromise: I'll do this much, but you'll have to do the rest." That's the heart of responsibility and the soul of cooperation."

'nuff said! In 2016, give yourself permission to keep track of what you need to be healthy and happy!

And if your mind and energy is too often spent on other people's situations, remember something I heard a long time ago (can't remember who said it): When codependents die, other people's lives flash before their eyes.