Background music, anyone? Played it out of my head. Just tap and go about your business, browsing blogs or sipping tea. I hope this piece adds joy and reverence to your holiday.
We had recently moved to a better part of London to ensure that my brother and I could attend a decent school. Dad was a London cabbie, the kind that drove one of those large black London taxis in the era before the Uber invasion. He would usually drive off early in the morning and return home well after dark. After dinner, I remember that he and my mother would frequently close the frosted glass door to the kitchen and talk earnestly in hushed, worried tones. I sometimes sat silently at the top of the stairs, straining to catch any intelligible words that seeped through the kitchen door. When I did hear them, they usually had something to do with money: bank, bob, savings, tanner, tip, quid, fiver. The down payment on the house had exhausted my parents’ savings and the mortgage was a heavy burden, so my father’s tips determined our daily solvency.
These financial worries made a lasting impression on me. It was as if my new school, my new friends, the new house, all could disappear at a stroke. However, one evening my slipper fell down the stairs and as I skipped down to retrieve it, I felt a small lump under the carpet I had not noticed before. After carefully pulling out a flat package wrapped in a brown paper bag, I tore it open to find a thick wad of five pound notes, a king’s ransom to a seven-year-old boy with a vivid imagination and a penchant for adventure stories.
It was, I speculated, accidentally left there by the previous owners, maybe the proceeds of white slave trading. Or the sale of goods on the black market. A grin spread over my face and a glow suffused my body as I imagined the delight on my parents’ face when I announced that I had discovered a hidden treasure, the solution to our family’s problems.
I leapt to the floor and rushed into the kitchen breathless with excitement, screaming, “Look what I found!” and threw the paper bag onto the table. My mum and dad looked at the bag, looked at each other, looked at me, and then burst into laughter. The money was simply Dad’s earnings for the week, tucked away until he had time to go and deposit them in the bank.
I have never forgotten that things are not always what they seem and that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. I also have never completely shaken off the fear of losing everything. It has shaped my life subtly in different ways. I regularly go backpacking in the wilderness for days on end, not only for solitude and enjoyment, but also to prove just how little I need to survive. I practice stoicism to inure myself against unforeseen losses, and try to arrange personal and business affairs to limit risk while still allowing for upside surprises. Sometimes I still sit on the stairs and listen.
Malcolm Greenhill at Malcolm’s Corner
Last week my father told me that his local Safeway had closed down, soon to be replaced with a Whole Foods. Normally this news would’ve tickled me – I’m a Whole Foods addict – but I was inexplicably sad. He now scans the weekly store flyers and shops the best deals.
Why did this conversation leave me feeling so tender, so emotional? I realized it was the first time I thought, I want to be like that. Like my father. Careful, methodical. Good with money.
The money story has always been big for me. As a small child I constantly compared myself to others – me often holding the short end of the stick. Everyone else got the best toys, the best food (hot dogs and sugary cereals), the best clothes. I got a dad who seemed to say ‘no’ to everything.
It made me angry. It made me sad. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The really cool things were reserved for other people, and I didn’t belong in that world. I let my money stories form the reality that is my life now. I rebelled against my father’s practical ways, to the point where I’m in major financial debt. I’ve been on a hamster wheel, running to catch up to some elusive ‘there’. And the older I get, the further away ‘there’ seems.
But I’m getting that no one is responsible for this, but me.
I’m the one who’s chosen to interpret my life events as I have. I’m the one who’s assigned deep meaning to old memories…and this meaning no longer serves. For years, I viewed my dad in a certain way because I’d trained myself to see only what supported my stories.
Yeah yeah, he put food on the table and clothed me. Yeah yeah, he was expelled from his homeland of Uganda and lost everything he owned. Yeah yeah, his own father didn’t talk about money.
So what? He should have known better. Been more successful. Given me more. Showed me how to manage my finances.
These past few months have been transformative. I’ve really felt the emotional impact of my judgment and resentment. And I don’t want to carry them anymore. I know we’re not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves; shame is so disempowering. But I am ashamed of how I’ve held others responsible for the situations I’ve created. I’m now seeing the power I have to choose and to create differently.
My financial situation is a reflection of my inner state. The more I willingly, authentically release blame, the more I find space in my heart, and in my finances. Blame doesn’t have my money in a chokehold anymore. There is room for me to move, to grow, to be free, and to allow the possibility for new, loving relationships with those most dear to me.
Aleya at alohaleya
One sunny afternoon I went to a family and friends’ celebration, and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I’d that very week been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; nobody there knew. Those at the gathering were celebrating religious and political beliefs that were virtually opposite to my markedly less conservative views. I was invited as a relative, and never knew if they really thought I shared their views or if it just didn’t matter. There was a lot of Bible reading, text interpreted to support favorite right-wing politicians. Many emotional speeches on the rightness and beauty of the group’s beliefs also implied that divergent views were stupid, evil or both. I wished I could disappear.
Mental health problems are inconvenient, messy, embarrassing. Incompatible philosophies and tastes, maybe even political or religious views, are sometimes socially acceptable as matters of personal leanings. But being exceedingly depressed or anxious? Lots of people would rather avoid or deny such things, and wish that mental-health patients, even functional ones like me, would keep quiet about it and get over ourselves.
Instead, I got help. I’m very lucky. I have terrific supporters, good doctors and meds. I’ve also recognized that I was already on the fringe before feeling so excluded at that long-ago party; that week’s personal crisis merely magnified it.
Feeling like such a misfit at the party simply exaggerated the real reasons I was miserable: severe depression and anxiety. Apparently I don’t have the balanced body chemistry that lets most people cope rather casually with everyday life. I think that every car on the road is about to crash into me; I have panic attacks in utterly benign situations; I believe everyone around me will reject me if they find out I’m so broken. My logic argues with my anxiety that this is all absolutely ridiculous, yet doesn’t always win.
The support and treatment have been great. I’m not ‘cured’ of being different this way, but for the most part I manage fine. Still, there will always be another odd-one-out party, another trial that seems gigantic though logic reminds me that being odd or upset is inconsequential.
What saved the day for me was to join the children. I discovered a wonderful kind of grace there: the littlest kids don’t care who believes what or who seems left out. While the adults bonded over joys I could never share, I wanted to escape to the car to nurse the emotional paralysis of my terrors in private. Instead, I slipped out to the front porch and sat on the swing in the safer company of kids, and we chattered aimlessly about how much cake and ice cream we all planned to eat. They didn’t care whether I seemed normal or grown-up, or not. Next party, I’ll be heading straight for the porch.
Kathryn at Art-Colored Glasses
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of!
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of!
What the heck are “snips”? Sounds like what’s leftover after the barber cuts hair. Snails? Ew! And the dog’s tails? As a child, this poem made me squirm. When I grew older, I heard another one:
A son is a son until he takes a wife. But a daughter is your daughter for the rest of her life.
Really? Sons equal desertion? And there’s the famous “Boys will be boys.” Often said to justify inappropriate or violent behavior.
All these unfortunate rhymes (prophecies?) disturbed and saddened me. You see, I was already blessed with a son, whom I adored. But back in my twenties, I watched my mother lament that I was the only sibling who ever kept in touch with her. My brothers gave her the equivalent of an over-the-shoulder nonchalant wave, “See ya! It’s been fun!” after college and poof…..were gone. I vowed to maintain a close relationship with my own little guy so history would not repeat itself.
Three years later I was pregnant again and (not admitting to anyone how much I was hoping for a girl this time) was ecstatic to be told that I was carrying twins. A boy and a girl! The doctors were certain. How wonderful! Another boy so my son would have a brother (and a playmate!) and now a daughter so I could experience motherhood from the other side of the coin. Like any mother, I began to fantasize and make preparations.
Fast-forward to delivery day. “Congratulations! It’s a boy!” Long pause. And finally one brave nurse ventured, “And…it’s another boy.” The silence was as sterile as the droning of the metal hospital equipment. Nobody understood the loss I felt. She had been real in my head and heart. Her name was Cassandra. And now she was gone. It felt like a death. The death of a long-time dream. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be happy with what I had?
“We are done having children,” my husband said adamantly. That was that. No more chances. His words sucked oxygen from air. And then to seal his decision, he promptly made an appointment for a vasectomy the day of the twin births. I heard a door slowly close with a creak, then slam itself shut, and finally deadbolt, echoing the finality of the verdict.
After that I was deemed “severely postpartum” and promptly drugged out of my mind with Prozac.
My mother came over to our home while I was still in the maternity ward to systematically dismantle the pink parts of the decorated nursery. She returned all the delicate, lacy dresses and hair bows to the boutiques and discreetly replaced them with yet more overalls and Lil’ Slugger pants. Welcome Home! Friends preached that I should just be happy that my sons were healthy. “You ungrateful bitch,” I thought I heard them whisper when I turned around. “Some people cannot have any children at all.” This was true.
I did everything a new mother does (nursed, sang lullabies, cuddled them) but still I couldn’t shake it. I was judged and condemned for not loving my little boys. Which was not it, not at all. Nobody got it. Nobody got me. I was alone with my thoughts and the pictures in my head of how things were supposed to be. Expectations. Expectations kill reality. I would rid myself of them all. Never look forward to the future, lest I be disappointed. Stay in the present moment. That’s the only thing they say we have, right?
Five years passed. And then it came to me. I had a little girl. I really did! She was already here, just waiting for me. All I had to do was locate her. I would adopt. International adoption gave me back my hope. Adoption held the tiny silver key that just might open a window of opportunity where that door had been shut. A door that I thought had come completely off its hinges, along with my sanity, a long time ago.
And finally there could be some acceptance, compassion and understanding. But it had to come from me as I bestowed it on all four of my little blessings – three sons and a daughter.
Little Miss Menopause at Once Upon Your Prime
“Change is the only constant in life.” ~ Heraclitus
Change. It happens every day to each and every one of us. People we know change, situations change, life changes. But what happens when, without warning, you are the one who changes?
In the fall of 2008, I was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition called Meniere’s Disease. I could no longer perform at the job I loved, drive a vehicle, or make plans without planning to cancel them. The diagnosis not only changed my life, it changed who I was. It took a long time before I could accept the changes I needed to make in my life. But it took longer to accept the changes that were happening inside of me.
My memory was something I had always prided myself in. I could remember dates, phone numbers, names, places. Imagine my horror in returning to work after several months, walking into the office and struggling to place a co-worker’s name. It was humiliating. I could no longer concentrate for longer than a few minutes and became easily distracted. Where I once felt able to handle any conversation, I now struggled to keep it flowing. I missed important appointments I’d noted by memory only to have it fail time and time again. For the first time in my life, I had to use a scheduler. I also needed to use reminder alarms to check the scheduler on a daily basis.
I looked in the mirror and recognised the face, but no longer knew that person. The person who had been there was gone. It felt like I had been shut out from my own self. Why was this happening? Why was my own mind alienating me? The feelings of intense frustration, anger and helplessness were overwhelming. It was difficult enough to live with other people looking at me differently, but to have my own consciousness do this to me? It was the worst form of betrayal I had ever felt.
It wasn’t easy to get to know the new me. In fact, I didn’t like her at all. Mentally, I felt dumb and slow. Emotionally, I was angry and bitter. The new me was a very unhappy person. I was miserable much of the time despite the brave face I put on. I was also in denial that this was even happening. I spent a good deal of time angry with myself. Why couldn’t I remember like I used to? Why did I need someone to explain things to me? I asked myself again and again why I was making myself feel different.
It took me several years to realize the answer. I was making myself feel different because I was different. I had to accept that. For my own sanity, I needed to accept that. I was no longer the person I was before my illness. It wasn’t my fault. Why was I blaming myself for something I’d had no control over?
I needed to learn to love myself again, and I began to do just that. Taking it moment by moment, I became mindful of my thoughts. I ensured that my thoughts remained on a positive track and I would no longer do any mental or emotional self-harm.
I can now say I am in love with myself again. There are still tough moments. But it is, and always will be, a process.
I invite you to read more of my struggle with Meniere’s Disease in the post How Living With A Chronic Illness Improved My Life.
I wondered why Bill Clinton’s and Michelle Obama’s tribute to Maya Angelou sounded so familiar. The eulogies were beautiful and compelling, but it felt like I was hearing the speakers replay a long conversation I’d just had with them on color, courage, and identity. It hit me. They were talking like contributors to my Race Around the World. I grinned thinking Yeah, Michelle would’ve written for the Race. Anyone have access to her for my next series? I felt awe seeing the ripples of Maya’s influence upon people who would become pillars of the most powerful nation in the world. When Maya was a little girl she was afraid her voice had killed a man after the rapist she’d named was found dead. She quit talking for six years. Maya didn’t know she would find it again, a voice that would bring life and healing to those who listened.
Here’s Bill: I first encountered Maya Angelou as a young man when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It was written in 1970 about the time I started law school, and shortly after it came out, I read it and I was the one who was struck dumb. She called our attention to things that really matter — dignity, work, love and kindness — things we can all share and don’t cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power, of strength and beauty, of intellect. All that is nice if you put it to the right use, but nothing is more powerful than giving honor to the things we share.
I got chills hearing Michelle. I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy, they were powerful and sexual and boastful..but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. And oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head. Her message was very simple. She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said each of us comes from the Creator, trailing wisps of glory.
Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where, at times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned…Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House. She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.
As a kid, I kept to peers who were bicultural and shied from those more Asian than I out of a sense of superiority. Not thinking that I myself was above those who were more traditionally Asian but because I had bought into the myth that white culture was superior. The blonde on TV was cooler than my parents. I’m obviously over that. I wish I were the measure of my mother.
When Oprah took her turn to speak at the memorial service, I saw more clearly than ever the power and need of role models for all children. Being able to see ourself in the mirror of a hero gives us hope to dream bigger than our circumstances. I marvel at God. I am just in awe that I, a little colored then Negro girl, growing up in Mississippi, having read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for the first time, read a story about someone who was like me. I was that girl who loved to read. I was that girl who was raised by my southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine.
I remember when I opened my school in South Africa and I said to her, oh Maya, this is going to be my greatest legacy. And she said, not so fast. Your legacy is every woman who ever watched your show and decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father…Your legacy is every person you ever touched. Your legacy is how you lived and what you did and what you said every day. So true, sister Maya. I want to live your legacy…Each of us who knew her, those only touched by her words or those who were able to be blessed to sit at the kitchen table, we are next in line to be a Maya Angelou to someone else. It’s a challenge that I embrace with my whole heart.
I caught philosopher Stephen Cave on radio last month when he maintained that all fears, like those of flying or driving, really come down to the fear of death. He said we can’t imagine not being. In the post What If You Weren’t Afraid?, readers brought up the matter of healthy fears, what some consider necessary survival mechanisms. We’d better be afraid of anything twice our size wielding a weapon – fangs or knife. I’m no evolutionist but oh yes, we do want to live and keep living. I believe our wish to leave a worthy legacy is the desire to live on beyond death. Our afterlife.
What a trip. England, Turkey, India, Africa, China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia.
That’s not counting North America, where we hit Canada and Hawaii, trekked across western United States through the Midwest and Texas to the Eastern seaboard. We glimpsed Native American culture, the WASP world, New Zealand Maoris. We spoke with the daughter of a picture bride, a young Arab in North Africa, an American who chose life in an Indian ashram over the noise and ease of the States. We learned of the genocide of Armenians 100 years ago and the civil wars in Liberia, caught sight of the KKK.
I learned as much from the discussions as I did from the posts, more history than I did in a year of high school. I did not know “Tejanos are land-owning Mexicans who were farming and ranching before the Germans, Czechs, Irish, and Scottish settled in Texas. They speak with the same drawl the Caucasians do, but still get treated like border crossing migrants.” Mark, our American Gypsy, taught us so much.
Seems race is often the color others paint of us. Paul, not a blogger but a wonderful reader and writer, said to Sreejit, American in India:
I found it delightful that in America you are black and in India you are white. That is amazing and completely counter to conventional wisdom. It reminds me of an interview I watched with Barak Obama and his wife Michele before he was elected to the first term. The interviewer asked Barak what his response was to those who said he wasn’t really black, as one of his parents was white. Michelle jumped in and said he was black and if they needed any proof all they had to do was watch when Barak tried to wave down a taxi on a street curb. If there was a white man farther down the block, the taxi would go right past Barak and pick up the white man. That put an end to race questions. Michele is a lawyer and it shows: she picked an example that clearly showed that discrimination determined race.
White people in America told Sreejit he was white, blacks insisted he was black. And he wasn’t the only blogger on this journey to have been told what he was.
I said to Sreejit: That is something – plain funny and sad – how people kept imposing their own background on you. Projection? I’ve always said we see what we want to see. And you were chameleon enough, with enough black and enough white for others to pull you to themselves in the attempt to categorize you.
Julie, whose contribution did not make it into the race, shared some thoughts as an adoptive parent:
My husband and I are Caucasian; we adopted our daughter from China when she was ten months old. We are a mixed-raced family. This fact is both irrelevant on a day-to-day basis, and the thing that defines us. A while back, I read an article about a person who got in trouble for saying that she had forgotten that her adopted Chinese daughter was Chinese. I think what she was trying to say was that she simply thought of (let’s call her) Ann as “Ann.” Her “foreignness” was removed by familiarity, and she had for all intents and purposes blended into mainstream white America. Just an ordinary child, her child. And this is what offended people, the very denying of her ethnicity, the removal of her birthright of Chinese heritage and culture.
And while I don’t feel particularly inclined to join in the condemnation, I must say that I never forget that my daughter is Chinese, for that is part of her very essence. What I often forget is that there is anything out of the ordinary for a young Chinese girl to be parented by middle-age white parents.
Ann’s mother obviously meant she did not see her girl as being other. What does it mean to belong in this situation? To be full-blooded Chinese and part of a white family? What I hear from this mom is a deep acceptance of a child that did away with any self-consciousness about color. The way I might talk with a dear friend and, while appreciating the wisdom she brings to our relationship, forget she is old enough to be my mother. Because it feels natural, like we were meant to be together. Can we just say what we feel about race? Of course we can. And of course we can’t. I am so glad we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct in this series. Navigator echoed sentiments Jenni and Elizabeth had expressed: “Perhaps there is an unconscious luxury of being white.” I found the point-blank confession refreshing.
Paul recently said to me, “When you started the Race series, you were obviously exploring asymmetry – how do we each create value in our lives given the different starting places and circumstances? Quite a few of the interviewees identified seeking commonness as the means of success. And yet if you looked deeper, they actually leveraged their unique personal circumstances to be successful.” Any thoughts? Many of our articulate writers felt race didn’t matter. I think it most certainly does but we need to clarify the not mattering. Race does not determine worth and should not affect opportunity. Sadly it does both these things in many places and where this happens, race should not matter. Can we instead take healthy pride in the culture of our lineage, and be neither overweening nor ashamed? My God made strawberries red and lemons yellow. And He delights in their color. Imagine strawberries looking to erase their ruby signature or trying hard not to be so red. Interestingly, every color of the farm fields and gardens offers its own irreplaceable nutrients. Why have I at times felt apologetic about being Korean? Why did I feel looking back at where I came from, talking about my past, would be a waste of your time – until you said otherwise? It was out of your response to my story that I gave myself permission to keep going with The Measure of a Woman. Remarkable that the immigrant tale would make its way up my Top 10, second only to my About which had over a year’s running start.
We had more than discussion and history lessons in our race around the world. There were personal history and conviction and fears. In my virtual travel around the globe, there wasn’t one tour guide of a contributor who has not opened these small Asian eyes. I’ve decided people who don’t travel or at least open themselves to cultures outside their own short themselves.
Sreejit put it well and sufficiently in reply to a comment: “I think the more we see of the world, the less we are stymied by race issues. But since most people don’t leave their own backyard, it is easy for stereotypes and prejudices to persist. Though I think the internet is also helping to break down the walls as well. The world is becoming a little smaller everyday.”
I was nevertheless reminded in conversations with the Race participants who live in a far and different time zone just how grand our world is. Even instant email could not keep our long-distance exchange going at the pace I wanted. When I was up, my fellow writers were in bed. There is a sunrise every hour throughout this world. I am consumed by the affairs of my day but my light is someone’s darkness. We do well to grow a bigger heart.