The artist in me…finding light in the darkness

I’ve been trying to write this blog entry for about a week. I mean, I have literally started it like four times. Each time I was planning to write about a different topic, and each time I stopped. I do plan to get back to those topics, but I decided I wanted to write about this…

(So yes, the “nice guys” blog entry is coming…but not today.)

This is about me as an artist.

The worst things an artist can be are unclear about their vision for their work, and afraid of what it takes to make that vision a reality. Now artists may multitask and do many different things (example: I write, perform, record, etc.), but no matter that they do, the vision for their work, for their creative voice, has to have some kind of consistency. It has to be strong, and focused, and it has to have purpose. Even if the purpose is fucked up, the purpose has to exist, the artist must be committed to it, and whatever the artist does should support the vision. The vision can change over time, and probably will, but whatever it is, the artist work has to support it.

Only recently have I figured out my vision for myself, and my work as an artist. I finally understand my purpose creatively. And the crazy thing is that I came to understand it at one of the most painful times of my life.

I have lost a lot of things recently. Things that I valued at one time. Unfortunately no one else valued them, and that was my downfall. It was like trying to spend Monopoly money at the mall – just because I thought it was worth a lot didn’t mean anyone else did. The things I’ve valued the most for years have proven to be worthless to me in recent months. It’s been very tumultuous, and has caused me to literally uproot and restructure my day to day existence.  It has hurt. A lot. I’ve shed a lot of tears behind it, and continue to some days. But in the middle of the upheaval, I found my purpose as an artist. I should probably say “purposes” because I do have more than one, but they all tie together into one consistent theme. The fact that I’m seeing it at one of the darkest times in my life is really making me crazy, but it’s a good thing. As unhappy as I am in so many ways, the one thing that is bringing me through is the fact that I can see my see the light of my purposes shining in front of me, and when I focus on that light I just know I’m going to be okay. For the first time I really know I can do this, even though I have fewer resources than I did a few months ago. I don’t have resources, but I have purpose. I believe in me, finally, totally and completely. I’ve finally gotten really clear about what I want to do with everything in my life, and I know I can do everything I want to do. I have never been as sure of myself, of my talent, of my abilities, of myself. Even in my weakest moments right now when I’m crying into my pillow in the middle of the night, I still feel my strength flowing through me and sustaining me – leading me back to my purpose.

It’s crazy how you have to lose so much to gain even more. But it’s true. This is what my life is about right now – finding clarity in the midst of my pain. You really to have to give up everything that makes you feel even a little bit secure to get what you want in life, especially if what makes you secure is keeping you from what you want — and if you don’t have what you want, chances are its because of something you’re holding on to too tightly and not allowing to grow. Everything has to grow, or it dies, and as soon as something that wants to grow isn’t allowed to, progress stops. There is even a line in the Bible that says “he who loseth his life shall gain it”. And you really do have to lose everything that you consider to be “your life” to gain “your life”, the life you want. That’s been the hardest lesson for me in this, that to grow I had to let go. I didn’t want to. It was scary. I’d be alone. But when I’ve done it, the focus and clarity I’ve gotten have been staggering, and I’ve actually made progress towards my goals.

But its not just losing that gives you greater things in return. How you lose what you lose is important too. You have to give it up willingly, you have to not fight it, and you have to let it hurt. You can’t hold on. It really is a process, and if you do anything to try to subvert the process, or make it go faster, or if you try to skip any of the steps, it doesn’t work.  The biggest obstacle for me is that I’ve had to embrace the pain. I’ve had to let losing what I’ve lost hurt. I had to let it bleed. I had to let the pain have its way with me and not try to stop it or fight it. Whenever I tried to minimize the hurt, to act like I didn’t care, or like it didn’t matter, I set myself back. I had to own every bit of my feelings and process them out. I had to acknowledge my hurt, and not try to push it aside like it was unimportant. That has meant crying some days, screaming, calling friends and venting, blogging, writing poems that will never see the light of day, and on and on. And I haven’t liked doing any of it, as much as I know I must.

But in the middle of all that I found what I really want to do with myself, and my work.

Women so often don’t get to be who they are. They’re never good enough. And because so often they feel they aren’t good enough because of the particular burdens they carry as women, they can’t find their purposes. I want women to find their purposes. In every way. Their serious meaningful purposes like wanting to bring peace to the Middle East, and their less serious ones like wanting to find a pair of stilettos that don’t pinch their pinkie toes. I want women to find peace in themselves, no matter what pain is in their pasts, or presents. I don’t want to tell them what that peace should look like, or who they should find it with (as long as they are happy and healthy in what they choose). I want women to find themselves, and it is so important for us to, because we lead the families, we raise and teach the babies, we direct the men in our lives. Most of what a man does is for some woman in some way, so we MUST be able to point them in the right direction. Most importantly, I want people in general to know that we are all struggling in the exact same ways, and sharing our struggles openly without shame is one way to take the power away from what we fear. I live an extraordinarily ordinary life. BUT I live my extraordinarily ordinary life in plain sight of the world with little shame. I shine light on the secrets in me, so others can embrace the secrets in themselves. Every thing I expose to the public in my work, be it trivial or deeply important is what is going on in every person in the world living an extraordinarily ordinary life like me. But because I expose it, people know they aren’t the only ones in the struggle. And that knowledge can give people courage to find ways to move past their struggles. This is my purpose ultimately – to remind people that we all are living extraordinarily ordinary lives, and its okay to do that right up until the moment when you want to do more.

Now there are days when I can’t see my purpose. I let the darkness surrounding it frighten me and make me sad. I feel alone in the blackness, like its swallowing me up and drowning me. Its hard to find the light when you deep under an ocean of pain. But luckily for me, on those days people have appeared in my life to remind me of my purpose. Some even dove in to get me. They have said kind, heartfelt, uplifting words to me, and more importantly, about me. People who I wouldn’t have thought paid me any mind have somehow shown up in my life to say to me “I see you, and I see your purpose…why don’t you?” People have told me that they admire me, work I’ve done, things I’ve accomplished. They feel there is something in me that impacts them in a positive way. And it’s not as if I do things seeking the approval of others, but obviously if you do things in the public eye like I do, they aren’t just done for your personal amusement. They’re done so that they can impact others. And it’s been good for me to find out that me, who I am, what I do, matters to people. And if I can impact one, or five, or ten, why not a thousand, ten thousand, a million? If one woman can hear “Sex Shoes”, and go out a buy a pair of heels, and take them home and put them on for her husband, and he sees her in them and remembers all the reasons why he fell for her in the first place, that’s a good thing. If one woman hears “In This Dress” and takes her favorite dress out of the closet, the one he brought her but now they’ve broken up so she doesn’t wear it anymore, and she puts it on and feels good and meets a new man, that’s a good thing. I want those small victories, because ultimately I believe they lead to the bigger ones. And I share these things with others so they can get those small victories. This is what an artist does. An artist is a person who has the courage to live their fucked up lives before the world through their work without caring what anyone says. The minute an artist cares about what someone else thinks of their joy, their pain, their hurt, their weak moments and big mistakes, they will never get better at their craft. They will remain stuck wherever they are at that moment when they became ashamed of their humanity and die. And they should die, because creativity is not for punks.

I have felt more sure and certain about what I want to do creatively than ever. I am doing more with less, but I feel more confident about my success and how to get there. To finally see my light, I guess I had to engulf my life in total darkness. Every day I wake up now in so much pain but so excited to move towards the life I want. It sounds crazy and conflicted, but it’s great at the same time. I’m elated and depressed, I feel fulfilled and empty and strong and weary all at the same time. I am confident even when I’m down and low. I feel lonely, but like the entire world is reaching out to me with love and admiration and respect. But I embrace all of it, the wheat and the chaff, and I hope you do too. Because when it’s all said and done, we’re all in this together.

Peace!

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MAKE SOME S**T UP!

In recent weeks, a lot of graduations have taken place – from pre-Kindergarteners to high school and college graduates making their way into “the real world”. This time of year is when you hear those graduation speeches, you know the ones…the ones that tell you how to conquer the world. You hear a lot of platitudes about working hard, formally educating yourself, keeping out of the way of bad company, being focused and driven and motivated. All of these things are good things, BUT there is one thing I want to add. It is something that is a crucial element to being successful in these uncertain days and times, and it is something that young people these days especially need to be willing to do.

My advice to graduates: “don’t be afraid to make shit up.”

Graduates — hell, people in general, have been told for years that there is a particular path to success in life. That path looks like this (more or less): graduating high school, graduating college, starting your career/business, marrying (ideally in that college/career space), buying a home/raising a family, working in your field and gaining power, increased authority and recognition through promotions gained through hard work and the respect of your colleagues, sending your own kids off to college, retirement…and somewhere after retirement death happens. This was the path everyone was supposed to be on. There could be some deviations from the path of course, but the ideal path was this one, or something closely resembling it. It is the path everyone points you to when you graduate, which is a time when you tend not to be entirely sure what to do next. Almost everyone gets pointed to this path (or some variation of it) regardless of their talents, abilities, or the desires of their hearts. If you find yourself pulled off this path by life and its circumstances, you must get back on it ASAP. This was the path I was directed to, especially since I was considered to be extremely intelligent. So of course it was the path I tried.

But it didn’t work for me. What I wanted, what I really wanted just wasn’t going to happen for me by being on that path. I wanted to write. I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve always known it. I’m an artist, God help me. I wanted to write and find creative ways to present what I wrote to audiences. I wanted to write poems, and short stories, and novels, and plays, and essays. I wanted to publish books, record my work, present my work on stages in creative ways. But no one told me to step off the path, or that it was okay to step off it. Stepping off the path would lead to failure. But the more I learned about me, the more I came to understand that I couldn’t stay on that path. My ideas were too strange. My manner of presenting myself wasn’t “conventional”. My values and what mattered to me didn’t line up with the things on “the path”. And I felt like a failure when I couldn’t make myself comfortable or successful on that path, even though it wasn’t necessarily my fault. No one told me it was okay to “make shit up”, that it was okay to create the life I wanted to have for myself. No one told me it was okay to find my own path, a path that made sense to me, a path that worked for me, a path that brought me fulfillment, contentment, and allowed me to be my best possible self. No one told me my path didn’t have to look like everyone else’s. No one told me my path didn’t have to make me rich or famous and I still could live a fabulously blessed and contented life. No one told me, really encouraged me to “make shit up.” I couldn’t just “make shit up”. Who did I think I was anyway? I had to get a degree, get a job, make money, get married, buy stuff. None of that could be accomplished by “making shit up”. If you tried to “make shit up” you’d end up poor and alone and ostracized by society. But if you stayed on the path, you’d be successful and rich and glorious and happy.

Bullshit.

Those who dedicate themselves and their lives to “making shit up” and work hard at it are often the most successful. Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs. These are people “made shit up.” These are people that ignored “the path” at some point, at least for a while. Hell, MZ dropped out of HARVARD for God’s sakes. Can you imagine how his family and friends felt about that? But he had something he wanted to “make up”. So he did. And now he owns and runs the third largest “country” (in terms of population) in the world – Facebook. The days of depending on a “good job” and a solid, upwardly mobile career are gone. Companies are learning to do more with less. No matter what traditional method you may find to earn a paycheck, chances are it isn’t going to be enough at some point. And at that point, you may have to seriously consider “making some shit up”. Or you will wake up one day and realize how much you gave up because you stayed on the path someone else directed you to, and you’ll regret never straying from the path to “make some shit up”. And that is equally tragic.

“Making shit up” isn’t just about making shit up of course. You have to have skills, talents, a plan, support, a method to make the shit you make up work. You still may need some kind of formalized education OR some real intensive training in something so you can know some things that will help whatever it is you make up work. Even though MZ dropped out of Harvard, he’s still a HARVARD dropout, and a Harvard dropout is probably better educated than some doctoral graduates at other universities – plus he was surrounded by other people who had similar passions and intellect.  At Harvard he got to be around a bunch of really smart people who all were looking to make shit up, and that had to help encourage him to make up the most amazing shit he could come up with. So even if you “making shit up”, if you want the shit you make up to blow up (in a good way), you still need to implement a plan behind it.

“Making shit up” is more that just thinking of something that is different in some way to what is the norm, or what people expect of you or someone like you. To make “making shit up” work, you have to launch and execute the shit you make up. It can’t just live in your head forever; at some point it has to be more than an idea. It has to become such a powerful idea that it just CAN’T stay in your head anymore. It consumes you and just has to come out. This was how it was with me. I was directed to “the path”, in part because my family was afraid of the idea of me becoming a “starving artist”. But even as I went to college, the part of me that wanted to write found its way into everything I did. Even when I went into the work force, I got into public relations, which did allow me to write, even though it was just press releases and media alerts instead of stories and poems. I did grant writing on the side for a time. I was still trying to write. I spent time around writers and other creative types, inhaling their energy and passion. I always wrote as a hobby and shared my work with friends and family, perhaps thinking at some point someone would encourage me to leave my path. No one did. Even the men I dated wanted me to stay on “the path”, or to support and help them as they stepped off their paths. Most of them didn’t really like the idea of me as a writer and weren’t encouraging at all. Some were even discouraging, and in the end I sent them all out of my life. And I stepped off the path, alone and afraid and unsure of what was going to happen next. What happened was that I started to “make shit up”.

I found that “making shit up” didn’t just mean creating something totally new and original that the world had never ever seen before. “Making shit up” could mean taking something that’s already here and making it a thousand times better, so much better you have essentially reinvented it. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but the phones we have now barely resemble his original invention. But they are still phones. Entertainers don’t usually do things that haven’t been done somewhere in some form or fashion. BUT the most successful ones do whatever they do in ways that are so outstanding, so unusual, or with so much energy, courage, fearlessness, dedication and passion that they become superstars. Chefs don’t invent the ingredients for their recipes, but the best chefs can combine those ingredients in ways that are different from what most people would do. They made shit up. They brought together everything they knew, and saw, and were good at, and brought themselves to that, and made shit up, and it worked. So for me, making shit up was taking things that already existed, and bringing my unique, hard working self to them to create something totally new and different.

And what is your reward for “making shit up”? In the beginning, nothing. In fact more often than not you’ll be punished in some way or another for leaving “the path”, which is the most difficult thing about doing it. You really have to determine for yourself what your goals are, what you’re trying to do, and what success looks like for yourself when you make shit up. This is especially true if what you make up is supposed to make money, and doesn’t – and NOTHING makes money in the beginning. You have to decide if what you made up is just meant to make you happy and bring some enjoyment to your personal life, or if it is meant to go further than that. Making shit up is a journey to an unspecified destination, with very few if any directions, and oftentimes you have no map or GPS. Fear of the unknown is powerful, and it is the main reason people stay on “the path” – because they feel they can be pretty sure of where it will take them. To make matters worse, making shit up can often be time and resource consuming. For a lot of people, making shit up means they have no time or desire to get “regular” jobs or earn a steady paycheck, even if they have people depending on them doing just that like children or spouses. That’s never a good thing, ever. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find ways to “make shit up”. It does mean you have to find a way to strike a balance between your real world responsibilities and the shit you’ve made up. It may mean that the shit you make up may not manifest itself the way you envision it. You can’t judge the success of the shit you make up the way you judge the success “the path” gives you. Just like “making shit up” is highly personal, determining the value and worth of the shit you make up is just as personal. For quite a while I managed to “make shit up” as a freelance writer, and I managed to support myself and my kids. I did the recording and performing thing, and that added some extra dollars. But when my writing markets dried up for me, I took on a part-time job and continued to write and look for other ways to make my writing financially lucrative. So “making shit up” is an ongoing process for me.

So to the graduates out there – life is probably more uncertain today than it has ever been in recent history. The job market is barely stable at best. Education and training are great things, valuable things. But looking for a “job” as the only means of using your assets and talents is not the wisest thing. At some point in your life you will find yourself having to supplement your life with other things, be it for financial reasons, or just for the joy and pleasure it gives you in a hard, a stressful world.

But no matter what the reason, at some point in your life, MAKE SOME SHIT UP!

Fighting the wave…

I was coming out of Walmart, my cart full of groceries and stuff. I looked up and looked for his car. I looked a full three minutes before I realized it wasn’t there. Because he wasn’t there. You see, he always took me to the market, and we always got a kick out of rolling up and down the aisles and making fun of the people we came across and the stuff they were buying. I’m not sure why I’d forgotten in that moment that he wasn’t there with me. He hasn’t taken me to the market in months. But for a full three minutes I forgot that he wasn’t there and looked for him and his car. But I finally remembered that I’d driven myself there, and went to my car. Tears started welling in my eyes as I put the bags in my trunk. By the time I got in the car and drove off, I was crying.

Suddenly it was as if I was on the shore of a beach under a cloudy and scary looking sky. I looked out onto the horizon, and I could see the waves of absolute despair rushing towards me. They were wide, tall, gray, fearful-looking waves headed straight at me.  The tide pushed them to the shore at breakneck speed, and they came crashing into me.

 But this time I didn’t try to escape the waves.

I didn’t try to lessen their impact in any way. I didn’t try to escape. Because you have to face things — even your hurt. Especially your hurt. Facing your pain is how you get over it. And I had been afraid of my pain, had been trying to lessen it somehow. But no more. I faced it, and braced myself for the impact.  I gathered up every positive thought I could find, every sobering realization I’d come to since we parted company, every bit of clarity about him and myself and us I’d gained since I left him and I turned them all into a huge sturdy, ages-old boulder in my head. I grabbed on with my arms, my legs, my whole body, and held tight. Those waves wanted to carry me out to sea, the sea of regret and bitterness and resentment and anger. Those waves wanted to drown me there, in an unmarked grave, never to rise again and find myself; find my life; find my joy.  And I didn’t want to go. I would not go. I held on while that first huge wave of hurt and bitterness and loneliness and loss hit me, enveloped me, and tried to drown me.

I didn’t beat myself up for missing him. Of course I missed him I reminded myself. It was okay to miss him, okay to feel bad about it all, okay to be upset still. It had been years literally that he’d been as much of a part of my day to day existence as the sun rising in the east. It hadn’t been that long, and I was making progress in moving past it. But there had to be days like this sometimes. Denying my emotions regarding him was part of what got me in this mess, I reminded myself. I had every right to feel how I felt. Our closeness wasn’t a figment of my imagination, no matter how much he tried to act as if it was. It was real, and me finally acknowledging it was important.

As the waves pulled at me I reminded myself why it had to end like it did and when it did. I reminded myself that I really wasn’t happy with him, especially at the end. I reminded myself that all along I knew that the possibility of it ending well wasn’t good, especially given the horrible place he was in emotionally. And worst of all, he seemed to enjoy that awful place he was in, seemed prepared to live there the rest of his days and didn’t want to ever leave it. And I knew I couldn’t stay there with him. I didn’t want to. And as the waves grew stronger, rolled in faster, and tried to loosen my grip on the rock and carry me away to that sea of regret and bitterness, I even forgave myself for letting my heart lead me this time. I forgave myself for not being the usual pessimistic sarcastic woman I tend to be. I EVEN forgave myself for loving someone and wanting to be loved. I forgave myself for letting him in, for letting him close to me. After all, that was what he’d said he wanted, in so many words. I forgave myself for being human. And I held onto the rock tighter and screamed at the waves “you can’t have me! I did nothing wrong, and I cannot let you take who I am away!”

The waves beat at me for almost 2 hours, doing their best to take me under.  I cried buckets of tears. The waves spoke to me, trying to tell me I was stupid, a fool, a jerk, that I didn’t deserved to be loved, that he didn’t care about me because I wasn’t good enough to be cared about, that I wasn’t good enough to be fully and openly embraced. The waves filled my ears with dark freezing cold waters that stabbed me with little pricks of pain that grew in intensity, whispering that I hadn’t meant anything at all to him, that I had wasted my time with him. That he never cared at all, that he was just using me. The waves filled my mouth with cold, awful tasting water, trying to get me to swallow the belief that it had all been lies, that I had imagined it all. And I spit the water out screaming, “no! You won’t take me down!” and I shook my head back and forth to keep the water from settling into my eardrums.

I forgave myself and held on, and on, and on. And finally the waves grew weaker, and weaker, and finally went back out to sea.

And my journey forward continues…

 

 

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YOU MADE IT IN SPITE OF IT ALL — to my son, who graduates high school tomorrow!

Dear Noah,

 

It is the eve before you graduate from high school.

 

We’ve come a long way together, you and me. A long, long way. A way that stretches back to even before you were born, when you and your brother were in my belly and I was struggling to bring you both into this world.

 

When you were born, there were splashes of sadness and drops of bitterness in the cup of joy that you brought to me. Your brother died inside me when I was 7 months along, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t been strong enough to bring you both into the world. You were barely five pounds when we brought you home from the hospital, and I remember how I wouldn’t even hold you as the post partum depression and the despair of all my body and spirit had endured during the pregnancy consumed me. I remember the pain after the C-section, me lying in bed, unable to lift myself out, not even to use the bathroom. I remember turning my face away from your little brown face when your grandmother or your dad would bring you to my bedside. Weakly I’d cry out, “I don’t want to see him. He’s just going to die anyway, just like his brother. Just like me.”

 

But I didn’t die. And neither did you. Finally, after about 4 months, I asked my mom to bring you to me. And I held you. And you looked at me and smiled this weird little crooked smile – and with that smile, I thought maybe, just maybe, we’d manage to be okay.

 

I remember how you were such a good baby, just like your sister. Never stayed up crying, always slept through the night. Whenever you did cry, something was really wrong. And I remember how you got to be 2 years old and still weren’t walking or talking and the pediatricians kept saying “well different kids develop at different rates” when I knew something was wrong with you. I remember when I finally got you to a neurologist and they told me you had cerebral palsy and was autistic. I remember them telling me that, while there were things they could do for you, it was quite possible you would never be fully functional on your own. You would most likely never walk normally, or talk normally. You would probably go to a “special” school and would struggle with ADLs – activities of daily living – your entire life. Your left side was much weaker than your right, and your left arm and leg were shorter than your right.

 

But I ignored them all.

 

You didn’t walk until you were 3, and never really got the hang of using the bathroom until you were almost 10 (and still had the occasional overnight accident until you were 13 or so). You didn’t talk fluently until 4. When it was finally time to go to school, you were violent, and would rage at the slightest provocation. You would throw chairs and desks, and even would hit your classmates sometimes. They even tried to expel you when you were in 4th grade, saying you were impossible to educate. But when I took you to the “special” schools you said “mommy, I’m not like these kids. I don’t think I need to be here.”

 

So we shouldered on. At least 3 times a week I was called to your school for some behavior issue. I took you to doctors, to psychologists, to psychiatrists. Orthopedic surgeons operated on your leg and foot, trying to ease the pronounced limp you had started to develop because one leg was shorter than the other. Kids wouldn’t play with you because they didn’t know what you might do to them. Your outbursts were totally unpredictable. We moved you from one school to another. I lived in Baltimore City, but got a Baltimore County address for a while so I could take advantage of the more ample and available services I could get for you there. Eventually I moved into the County. Things got a bit better for a while – though you still had your outbursts you were learning to control yourself a bit better. I got you a one-on-one aid through your IEP to help you manage your classwork and behaviors in the classroom. I got you into a small school and got every kind of support that your IEP would allow.

 

Unfortunately I lost my job, which meant moving back into the City. Which meant you’d have to suffer the poor excuse for a school system that is in Baltimore City. I worried that the progress you made would evaporate. You were supposed to attend Patterson High School – and a young person with fewer issues than you would be hard pressed to thrive there, academically or otherwise. I spent days at a time on North Avenue at the Board of Education, visiting every office in the building, your IEP in hand, trying to explain why you couldn’t go to Patterson, that the school was too big, physically and in terms of population for you with your autism. I wrote letters up and down the chain of command. Even when they insisted that you had to go there, I still kept working with ombudsman and other advocates, determined to make them honor your IEP.  And this went on until you threw a huge table in the middle of class and punched your one-on-one (you hated her because she wouldn’t help you with your work you said) in the eye. I came up to the school to find you in the office, terrified, being watched by a Baltimore City Police officer.

 

I left the school with you. I told them I was not bringing you back, and if they felt the need to take some kind of action against me, they knew where to find me. I never heard from them again.

 

Before I left the building I talked to the Special Education coordinator at the school. He was very sympathetic, though there wasn’t much he could do to help me. But he did say “look, I know a charter school in the city…a small one. Maybe you can take Noah there. The principal is a friend of mine, and I think Noah could do well there if he works hard.”

 

I went back to the Board of Education with my son in tow. I ranted and raved up and down the halls of that place, totally showing out. I got an appointment with one of the deputy superintendents, who finally agreed to let me transfer you if I could find a placement for you. I went to the school that the Special Education coordinator had recommended. It was Friendship Academy of Science and Technology. I’d read about the school, and the principal. I was impressed. I went to the school – it was small, and though it was a school day and students were changing classes, there wasn’t total anarchy in the halls. I met with the principal, and threw myself on his mercy. I begged him to take you and help you. He told me the school was full and he had no more space. I begged again. He looked at you, then at me. He opened your file and read for about 15 minutes as I sat there. Then he said, “do you mind if I talk to your son for a few minutes?”

 

I left the office.

 

He called me back ten minutes later and said, “I think we can help your son. Welcome to Friendship Academy.”

 

And 3 and a half years later, you are graduating. You made the Dean’s list at the school for an average of 90 or above. You have been accepted to The Community College of Baltimore County. You have become a young man…IN SPITE OF IT ALL. Or maybe because of it all.

 

Like I said, the road was long. I didn’t know how it was going to be. We’ve had some dark days, and still do every now and then. But tomorrow is a celebration of you my son, of you and all you had to overcome to get to your high school graduation day.

 

I love you. I am proud of you. I admire you and I rejoice in  your achievements. I respect the hard work that was required of you. You didn’t give up, you didn’t give in, and tomorrow you will take your place as a high school graduate – you, who weren’t supposed to live, to walk, to talk, to read, to write. You…who weren’t supposed to be anything but barely alive…you who weren’t supposed to have a life anything like what most people have. But you didn’t give up, and I didn’t give up.

 

Tomorrow will be a great day for you, and for me!

 

MUCH LOVE MY SON, AND CONGRATULATIONS!

 

Your mom.

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What can you do to help yourself? (How my corporate America days help me now…)

How my past life prepared me for my present life.

In 1993 I worked in corporate America. In the most corporate of corporate American settings in fact – I worked in finance. I was an asset manager at a company called Financial Conservators, a subsidiary of a larger institution called the Resolution Trust Corporation (“RTC”). I was one of 23 asset managers in the company, one of only three women in the position, and the only asset manager of color.  A great deal of my job involved creating and implementing strategies for dispersing assets that, for various reasons, were depreciating the overall value of the portfolios they were a part of. The assets were mostly real estate, sometimes single family homes, some multi-family properties like apartment buildings but mostly  commercial real estate, both developed and undeveloped. (Occasionally there were valuables like gold coins, gemstones, expensive jewelry, etc., but mostly real estate.) I had to do everything from having the properties appraised to enlisting auctioneers to sell the properties if I couldn’t maintain or increase their value any other way. And when I solicited sub-contractors to perform these tasks like real estate appraisals and such, I had to take at least 5 bids, and I always had to make sure I took bids from at least two MWOB companies (minority/women owned businesses – at least 51% of the company had to be owned by a minority or a woman to have that status) that were approved by the RTC. Contracts under $10,000 I could award at my discretion, and contracts more than $10,000 but less than $50,000 had to go to a committee, which usually followed the asset manager’s lead regarding who should get the contract. It was a strange job for someone with an English degree to have, and I was surrounded by MBAs and other finance/business people. BUT I had taken a lot of business courses in school, and I’d gotten a recommendation from one of the senior asset managers. I scored really well on all their tests, so they hired me. I wore suits to work every day, and I kept my matching low-heeled pumps in my leather briefcase and wore my New Balance tennis shoes to work. I often walked to work if the weather was nice since I lived not too far from downtown. My straightened and trimmed bob brushed against my shoulders and bounced when I walked.

Those of you who know me, or who have seen me perform onstage, or have heard my recordings or even talked to me for more than 5 minutes know how absolutely ridiculous this sounds. But that was me. And believe it or not, I was really good at my job, though it was very stressful. And of course as a Black woman I was catching a kind of hell that was different from my other co-workers. I had to make absolutely sure my work was perfect. There was no margin for error for me. I watched the other two female asset managers blink, smile and flirt their way out of huge messes that cost the company time and money that I never would have gotten away with. And I watched the males drink and golf their way to promotions that I would have never gotten by behaving that way.

Fortunately for me I got pregnant with my son in 1994, and became really ill during the pregnancy – I nearly died actually. This forced me to leave my job at the RTC, and I never went back to hardcore corporate America after that. My next ‘straight’ jobs were in public relations, which was a little closer to my heart in that it did encourage my creativity and did make more use of my English degree, because I was writing a lot. Working in PR was as much of an education for my current pursuits as working in finance was, because it taught me about presenting myself, my words, my “product” as it were. I learned to write press releases and media alerts. I learned about marketing plans, about corporate communications, print and online media and such. And since much of my PR work was at non-profits, I learned about grant writing, budget management (they were always counting the pennies), and things like that. I also learned a lot about fundraising and development (my last PR job was in higher education). I learned about major giving, the importance of unrestricted funds, donor intent, boards of directors, leadership gifts, the stages of giving campaigns, how to frame the story of an organization to solicit gifts from donors, and on and on and on.

Strangely enough, my business/finance background AND my public relations/development background have been the BEST training for what I do now creatively. My creative talents have always been there and never been questioned, but managing them and making them make money and pay bills has always been the challenge. But my background has made that a bit easier. That’s not to say I’ve made a massive fortune, but considering I’ve had NO “steady” paycheck for the past seven years, and I’ve raised two kids on my own all the while, I feel I’ve done reasonably well.  Most importantly, I’ve had a good time, and gained a wealth of experiences and many friends and colleagues who are just as wildly creative as me.

I had forgotten how much I actually know about these things until a few days ago when I read a post by spoken word living legend Taalam Acey. He had posted on Facebook a bit about the types of business organizations that exist and how they function, and I actually knew most of what he was talking about, which got me to thinking about how much I actually know about a LOT of things that I don’t put to use to benefit myself.

And you probably have a ton of stuff that you aren’t using as effectively as you should. It could be a talent or a skill. It could be something you possess. But whatever it is, it’s just lying there, gathering dust, and you’re not using it. You’re so used to it being there you’ve forgotten how useful it could be if you picked it up, dusted it off and used it. It’s time to apply what I’d forgotten that I know how to do to help myself.

So look at the things around you. In your home. In your office. In your brain. In your past experiences. Things you’ve learned from good experiences, from bad experiences, from teachers, mentors, your kids, your bosses. But don’t just think about them – think about how to APPLY them. How to apply them to reach specific goals you want to reach. Use them to plan aspects of your life you need to improve.  You know if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

For me, I am about to write a business plan for the three creative endeavors I am about to really focus my attention on. In 4 years, I need all three to be self-sustaining, and at least ONE to be profitable enough to keep me and my loved ones comfortable materially. Those are the basic goals, though of course my strategies will cause me to exceed all of them. I had to write these things all the time at Financial Conservators, and in PR I was always strategizing about this or that. So I know how to do it, but it never occurred to me to do it for myself. But now I am.

What do YOU know how to do that you need to do FOR YOU?

Peace!