Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The (Not So Smart) Art of Storytelling

Everyone who knows me, knows how much I love the sitcom "Good Times." In fact, if I don't catch at least one episode per week, I'm probably ill or dead. What has always intrigued me about the 70s classic, is how its themes have managed to stay relevant despite the changing times. And to pair them with perfect comedic timing was close to genius. One episode I re-watched (for the zillionth time) last week was a perfect example of a conversation I recently had with my beautician. It was the episode where the Evans' couch caught fire and everyone had a story to tell about how it occurred; oddly, each story put the storytellers in a favorable light, even when some of the "colorful" details had nothing to do with the actual incident. In the end, Penny held the truth, told the facts, and put everyone to shame.

The truth. The facts. The storytelling. And the irony of how often the three can have nothing to do with each other, which leads back to my conversation with my beautician, who is as great at offering reality checks as she is at offering styling advice. Our topic of conversation during my last visit: your story is not necessarily THE story. In other words, there are times (and most often in relationships) when we have interpreted, internalized, and damn near "copy written" a situation as truth when the other person has also done the same but--most likely--with a completely different story. And, then, somewhere between the two stories lies the truth that does not concern itself with making anyone look good. Yet, it is often our own story that we cling to and file away that keeps us unable to forgive others but sometimes unable to forgive ourselves. 

I experienced this after I had re-connected with a friend I hadn't hung out with in years. There was an incident that had occurred to which I felt I deserved an apology. It didn't come when I thought it should, so I decided to work around the situation, even though I hadn't really gotten over the situation, if you will. Yet a sporting event put us in each other's company and gave us real, uninterrupted time to talk. And what I discovered is that my remembering of what happened was so incredibly different from what they remembered, it was mind blowing. Even laughable. And in that conversation, the person even shared a dark period they were going through during that time that would have totally overshadowed them recognizing the infraction I was holding on to. In the end, the person offered a heartfelt apology and I wholeheartedly accepted it. We shook on it (literally), and have been back to our regular routine of authentically talking, as if time stood still. 

It was a perfect reminder that we must be careful not to be so married to our version of any story that we keep ourselves stuck and, in turn, imprison others. Everyone's truth is indeed THEIR own truth. But in order to get to a shared truth, we have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to have those honest conversations with ourselves and with others about the hurt we're carrying in order to create a space of awareness, healing, and always growth. I'm not saying that's always easy. Often times, we are just fine living with our own version of the "truth." But for those relationships worth mending, being open to a better understanding can be invaluable, which is why I'm so grateful to my beautician for getting my hair AND my attitude right while I sat in her chair, because a reality check is always a "good look." 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Judgment: The Hardest Blow of All

As much good as social media can do, its one inherent flaw has always been presenting information in a microcosm that is quickly shared, dissected, and scrutinized by the masses, sometimes to a fault. Everyone has an opinion to offer. A vestige of knowledge to share. And most times a ton of criticism to deliver, often, without any direct relation to or inherent understanding of the topic at hand. Such is becoming the case of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice and Janay Palmer, whose domestic squabble turned physical on a secluded elevator in Atlantic City that, thanks to modern technology, did not stay secluded for long. And once it did, so did the questions: "What did she say? How long has this been going on? Why did she marry him? Why doesn't she leave?" And those questions were quickly followed by statements and labels attributed to him: "He's an abuser. He should never play in the league again. He's crazy."

Well, I neither have answer to those questions or proof to verify any of those statements. But one thing I do know is that we've all become very comfortable sitting in our judgment seats. The first feeling I felt when I first saw the video was shock, but it was quickly followed by pity: for both of them. No one comes into this world an abuser or a victim. Excluding mental issues, most times what's layered beneath the fabric of both parties involved are histories that include more abuse--whether it's how to deliver it or how to tolerate it. Many of us will be blessed to never know the physical pain involved in either, but to say none of us have experienced abuse of some kind in relationships would be a stretch.

I often hear women (and sometimes men) run down the list of things they've tolerated in relationships, yet feel super empowered in saying, "But if he/she ever put their hands on me, I am gone!" Which lends one to believe that physical abuse is the only "blow" that should not be accepted or tolerated. Yet many of us have been in relationships where hurtful language; mistrust; and emotional battery became the norm. Where partners took rather than gave; lied rather than loved; and broke us down as opposed to built us up. Yet, we somehow feel comfortable deciding when and how Janay Palmer should have reacted to what is probably the most horrific experience in her life, all the while not realizing that in our moments of confusion, we were probably being silently judged as well for what we accepted as the norm, whether it was because we found a way to rationalize our staying or because we simply weren't ready for a new experience.

And, perhaps, Janay is not ready yet either. And maybe exiting her marriage will not be her final swan song. We never know what plans ultimately lie in store for us; what temporary martyrs we sometimes become for a greater lesson for others. Perhaps what could be waiting at the end of the road for both Ray and Janay is an opportunity to heal, grow, and be both delivered and a deliverer for others that will be far more astounding than any play that could ever be made on a football field. What she needs now is what some of us needed during those times we wandered in our own valleys of uncertainty: compassion and grace to figure it out, whatever "figuring it out means" for her. And while we're doing so, we need to offer the same to Ray because, as is often said, "Hurt people hurt people." And his actions show that he too is a hurt soul.

If we're going to spend this time critiquing, judging, and examining every fiber of this unfortunate situation, perhaps we can take a few of those minutes to put ourselves in the shoes of others and be thankful--not critical--for our own deliverance that may not have left physical scars but indeed, in some way, wounded our souls. The grace we received is the grace we need to give to those still in their valleys.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Tangled Web of Racism

I killed a spider the other day. It was where it didn't belong. More precisely, where I didn't want it to be: in my personal space. It posed no real threat that I couldn't manage. Clearly, I'm bigger and more powerful than it was. And even though it, too, was a living creature, I guess I didn't place as much value on its life as I did mine. Not saying that's right; it's how I've been conditioned. In fact, most people fear spiders, right? I'm sure they serve some purpose. What that purpose is, I have no idea. Never have been interested enough to discover what that is. So, without much thought, I killed it and moved on. I'm sure they'll be others and I'll probably eliminate them too. After all, in my rationale, they simply do not belong around me and I have no patience for "creepy things" that make me uncomfortable. And perhaps this is also the mindset of some white Americans and its view of black Americans.

Perhaps that's how white law enforcement officers saw Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ramarley Graham, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, now Mike Brown, and so many other countless unarmed black men and women who lost their lives during an officer's "line of duty" or at the hands of a "concerned citizen." Perhaps that's why findings indicate that in a six-year span, a black man was murdered by a police officer on an average of twice a week in this country. Perhaps much like journalist Melissa Harris-Perry reminded us--in a piece chronicling this epidemic--that in 1857 Chief Justice Roger Tanney declared in the Supreme Court that Dred Scott had no right to sue for his freedom because, as a black man, he was never intended to be an American. Perhaps the black man was never intended to be seen as human either. And so, much like that spider, he, too, has become just another insignificant, annoyance that must be eliminated. Perhaps...


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Objects (and Success) May Be Closer Than They Appear

If you own a car, have seen a car, or have ridden in one at some point in your life then, yes, you've seen this message on objectification written on a side-view mirror. It's there to help us calculate the distance between vehicles and objects for our best possible safety; to help us gauge how to better proceed. But I recently was reminded how that same message can be applied to our quest for success as well.

If you know me, you know I'm all about planning. Be it as simple as a party or as elaborate as a European vacation, you better believe I've done my homework and mapped out a beginning, middle, and end--and everything in between those--in order to guarantee a (near) perfect outcome. As a Virgo, I'm certainly not one who likes to "fly by the seat of my pants." In fact, on a trip to Barcelona once with a friend, I had read up on the city and studied its layout so well that by the time I put down my bags, I was sashaying down streets and hoping on and off its transit system as if I'd been living there my entire life. (It's also the reason that when it comes to travel, most family and friends are just fine letting me handle all the details. But I digress). And the less questions I have to ask anyone, the better. Not because I'm above being assisted but because I never like to feel I'm a burden to anyone. But on a recent business trip, going against my habits turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

As usual, I had studied the city to which I was traveling; located my hotel on Google maps; calculated the walking distance between the hotel and the meeting location; and  packed the shoes I would need to make my commute between both locations comfortable. The night before the first day of my meeting--now having a more close-up view of my surroundings--I calculated a new route; decided to take the sky walk versus the street; and. planned in more travel time to allow for any wrong turns along the way. Needless to say, I was pleased with my plan. However, something continued to nag me. I realized from my hotel's window view I still wasn't 100% sure what direction I was facing and which exit I would take out of the hotel to begin my journey. But I had a plan and, dag nabbit, I was sticking with it. However, more travel weary than I expected to be, the morning found me running a bit behind schedule, which made my accuracy in calculating my commute even more important. Luckily, I made up for time and was out the door. But I still had a nagging feeling that my plan wasn't as perfect as I convinced myself it was. And, so, I bit the bullet and did the unthinkable: I stopped at the front desk and asked for directions. The exchange with the concierge went something like this:

Me: Good morning. I'm heading to a meeting at Deloitte.What's the best way to get there?
Clerk: Wait. You said Deloitte?
Me: Yes. You think I should just jump in a cab or take the sky walk? I have to be there at 10.
Clerk: Actually, ma'am, I think the location you're looking practically right next door.
Me: *blank stare*

Well, the location was not right next door but only a half a block down. In fact, I was so focused on MY plan, I had passed the location during a leisurely walk the day before and I didn't even know it. I was both relieved and ticklishly embarrassed. But, most importantly, I was reminded of two simple facts: 1) most people are more than happy to help others; to feel a sense of accomplishment in knowing they made a small difference in someone's day; and 2) the person in our own way most of the times is our own selves.

Often times, help is available, but we don't take it. Answers are waiting, but we don't ask. Opportunities arise, yet we don't grab hold of them. Whether driven by fear, shame, or "independent" pride, often times we miss our moments and thus our blessings, and create stumbling blocks toward our own success. Just as those objects in a mirror may be closer than they appear, so may our proximity to the things and people that can help take us to that next level. All we have to do is make the first step and ask. As Nobel Prize winning surgeon Alexis Carrel once said, "All of us, at certain moments of our lives, need to take advice and to receive help from other people." I was more than grateful for that reminder that day followed by what was a very successful meeting. And I also learned Google maps is definitely not drawn to scale. Go figure.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Playing the Hand You're Dealt

My oldest sister is a rehabilitative counselor at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Arizona. She's one of few people I know that actually loves her job. Whether she was drawn to her profession by her (loving yet) no nonsense attitude or developed such an attitude because of it, one thing she doesn't allow her roster of patients to do is wallow; a roster that includes patients of all ages and ethnicity and, most notably, all circumstances from car accident victims to stroke victims to victims of simple illnesses that unfortunately took life-altering turns. Her job? Help them assess the situation, accept the situation, and develop a plan to toward a "new normal" situation, in spite of their circumstances.

In order to do so, discussing her patient's past is often a part of her understanding how they got where they are and in figuring out what their next move should be. Recently, on one of our many daily phone calls, she shared the details of her day, which included a patient who was more focused on all of her life's past ills as opposed to the future she needed to be working toward. Again, something that goes against everything my sister believes in. And so her words to the patient at the end of their discussion were simple and profound: "Life is just a deck of cards. We're all given a stack when we get here. But how you play them is up to you and the only thing that matters in the end." Her words were not words we've never heard before, yet, reflecting on them often is something we could certainly benefit from.

Anyone that knows me knows I love the card game "Spades." In fact, I've often bragged about making it all the way to the Spades Tournament championship round my freshman year at Howard University (oh how I wanted that gold trophy adorned with a hand-holding card spread at the top, but I digress). However, anyone who has ever played the game knows the sentiments of "playing the hand you're dealt" could not be more accurate, for you could give two players the exact same hand in two different rounds and the outcome would be completely different. And those differences can be based on anything from one's ability to predict their opponent's move to the ability to accurately recall which cards were already played to simple confidence, acute skill, and gutsy risk taking. A ten of Spades could be a won book for one person and a wasted Spade for another, which made me think about how we could all be more empowered in navigating our lives down successful paths using the same strategies.

Sure, there are those who are given almost every "Spade in the deck" in the game of life, i.e., those born into extreme wealth and opportunity. Then there are those born with a decent hand of a few Spades and high face cards i.e., stable families and educational opportunities with a few of life's ups and downs factored in. In other words, just enough of the right cards to win some rounds and lose some yet stay afloat all the same. And then there unfortunately are those who seem to have been born with a hand full of low cards, i.e., extreme poverty, illness, and abandonment; a hand seemingly worth tossing into the middle of the table and giving up on.

However, what is so magical about both the game of Spades and the "game of life," is there is never a guarantee of how either will end. I've seen players with a hand full of Spades be out played just as I've seen players with a hand full of seemingly no good cards make their books plus some. For some no amount of opportunity given can be a match for poor execution and a lack of confidence just as for others no obstacle can keep them from achieving victory. Which begs the question, how are you playing your hand? Are you dwelling over broken relationships, absentee parents or partners, lost jobs, or financial setbacks in your life or have you sat at the table ready to accept the cards you were dealt and arrange them into a hand you can facilitate into a great win?

Life is too short to perseverate on our ills. In the end, it all comes down to what you'll do with those cards you're dealt; how you'll play each one; and--just like in the game of Spades--utilizing those "partners" placed in your life, be it family or friends, to help you on your road to success. So, the next time you find yourself exuding too much energy wallowing over the situation you're in or even what got you there, turn that misery into the strategy you need to create a winning hand for yourself. You only get one deal in life. Make sure you do you best to run a Boston with it. (That'll make perfect sense to my true Spades players...(wink).)

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Silence Isn't Always Golden

We were taught it early and have heard it a million times since: if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all. Simple enough. Seemingly harmless enough. But what about those times when you could say something nice, yet choose to stay silent?

I was reminded of that recently while watching a reality show reunion and was astounded over the number of mindless, senseless arguments that had reached explosive level when a simple "I'm sorry"; "I hear you"; or "I understand" could have been extended and peace could have been restored. There was monologue after monologue of one person having the courage to tell another "You hurt me..." and, sadly, all that was returned was a blank stare. Or, if an apology was uttered, it was done with such disregard, it almost demanded a second apology.

Now, we're all smart enough to know the "powers that be" encourage some of this type of behavior on reality TV for the sake of ratings, but in the absence of cameras and within our every day reality, are we displaying just as selfish behavior? And if so, why? Do we feel we're giving away our power by offering someone else the grace that we need each and every day? Or, by even accepting an apology from someone else, do we feel that in some way we're telling the other person that what they did to us is okay? Neither. 

As Iyanla Vanzant often states, forgiveness isn't synonymous with acceptance; it's a freeing. And is often more for the one that offers it than for the one who receives it. Apologies set us and, thus, others free: free to be human; free to learn and grow; free to understand and be understood; free to embrace how to better treat one another; free to exhale. Things we should all be striving for daily.

However, withholding forgiveness is not the only way we keep ourselves stuck with silence. Unfortunately, another all too common culprit is withholding praise. Just like gray is the new black, silence seems to becoming the new "hate." That inability to say "great job"; "I'm so proud of you"; or "girl, you are wearing that dress" is a silence that is often deafening and, sadly, has even taken a comfortable seat among friends. For somewhere along the way, many of us have let our insecurities convince us that in celebrating another, we're diminishing our own shine. When in fact, being able to give that to another only makes one shine brighter and illuminates everything in their presence. Just as Proverbs 18:21 says, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit," we must ask ourselves, are we using our words to uplift? Are we using our words to offer forgiveness? Or are we being negative or purposely keeping silent and missing opportunities to change a life or brighten someone's day? The choice is always ours and the reaping will be also. What we give to world will come back. It's up to us to decide what we're creating and, thus, giving "permission" to be returned.

As the revered Saint Francis of Assisi once said, "For it is in giving that we receive." Is there someone you need to forgive? Do it. Talk to a friend who could benefit from a kind word? Give it. See someone in the elevator who looks like they could stand a compliment? Offer it. I guarantee when you start to give these "gifts" to others, your joy and blessings will be multiplied and returned to you as well. So be blessed...and be a blessing. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are We Still Slaves to the Industry?

On February 23, 2012, I wrote one of my first blog posts highlighting my lack of support for the Oscar-buzzed "The Help." Many did not share my views, which was both not surprising or of concern to me. For many, simply seeing "us" celebrated for our work on the big screen was enough. It was not for me then and it's not enough for me now.

Fast forward to March 2, 2014 and I realize I could have simply done a "search and replace" in my blog post, inserting "12 Years a Slave" where "The Help" appeared; replaced "Lupita Nyong'o" where "Viola Davis'" name was written. Let me start by saying, I've seen both movies; I see almost all movies that highlight some form of the African-American experience, be it a comedy, romance, drama, or thriller. So, I'm not speaking from the sidelines when I express my frustration. I also want to state both movies I've referenced--again, much like a lot of our movies--were indeed well acted, well directed, and well written. 

My angst is also not in the highlighting of the slave experience. There is no shame in that. It's very much a strong fiber woven into this country's fabric that has also created the strength and fortitude that many of us depend on to rise each morning, God bless our ancestors. And it's not the depiction of us in domestic roles that make me uncomfortable. The very shoulders on which I stand were once bent at times to scrub many a floor or toil in the fields picking cotton. And not generations removed; more like one generation before me as in my own parents. I am very much in touch with our diverse experiences and will always celebrate every facet of that. So, what is my frustration? That when it comes to those diverse experiences, it appears that it is those that show our people in our most toiling, subservient, troubled, and painful periods of history that are most often chosen to be highlighted and "awarded" the highest honor. And, almost as if on cue, "we" celebrate. Well, not I, because there is simply far more to us to than just that. Far more triumphs; far more periods in history; far more pioneers; far more "game changers," for which the surface of these stories have not even been scratched or given the opportunity to be told.

At the center of much of this year's Oscar buzz was "12 Years a Slave," but more so, its breakout star Lupita Amondi Nyong'o, a gorgeous, Kenyan, Yale School of Drama graduate and, from what we've seen on the big screen, a phenomenal actress. Whether or not she earned her award is not in question. Whether or not we'll see her honored in such a way again for more diverse roles, could be. And that, too, is where even more of my frustration lies. Viola Davis--herself a student of Julliard--has over eight theater credits; 30 television credits; and 30 motion pictures credits under her belt and, yet, "the world" first took major notice of her for her performance as maid Aibileen Clark in "The Help." Although it was her co-star Octavia Spencer who walked away with the prize that year for portraying her in-your-face best friend, Minny Jackson, she too has been in the television and movie game since 1996. Same for "12 Years" star Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose education in the arts, and television and film credits span 17 years and are just as varied as the roles he's played and alas. If you're still "asleep at the wheel" in light of these parallels, it might be time to wake up. 

At the recent Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, Lupita gave a heartfelt, poignant speech about color in Hollywood, but more so about how she saw herself as not beautiful until feeling validated by the images of supermodel Alek Wek and the praise lavished on Alek by Oprah Winfrey. She also spoke about herself receiving a letter from a young lady who, too, did not feel beautiful until finding validation in seeing Lupita herself shine. (See speech in its entirety here) Standing as such a beacon of light and hope for those who've felt unseen in the shadows was enough for many to celebrate her Oscar win, and I in no way will diminish that immeasurable impact. But many of us know Lupita was beautiful long before those covering the red carpet "told us" she was or before the magazines considered her a thing of beauty. And she was talented long before she draped herself in the role of Patsey. And so, it is with reservation that I celebrate because buried in the thunderous applause is still Hollywood's quiet whisper that that kind of beauty is only accepted when portrayed a certain way. That is not how I want Lupita to be celebrated. Let her play lead detective in a mystery; let her be the love interest in a romantic drama; let her be the CIA agent in a thriller and then be awarded for it, for in doing so, she will truly show those looking up to her that not only is her beauty valid, it can capture and mesmerize every camera angle and bring to life any script.

Sadly, in a sit down interview with Oprah about race in Hollywood, Viola Davis painfully admitted no one would ever call her to play the romantic lead in a film and, so, a lot of actors like herself have to take the kind of roles like that of Aibileen and Minny. I disagree. There is nothing that ever HAS to be done, especially if your purpose is rooted in being a part of a catalyst of change that is greater and longer than 15 minutes of fame. I suspect Viola had her own "come to Jesus" moment after that interview with Oprah and after a year of convincing anyone that would listen that there was nothing wrong with characters like hers portrayed in "The Help." In a CNN interview last year she stated the following:

"I’m tired of that,” Davis told CNN of playing housekeeper roles. “We played – me and Octavia [Spencer], Aunjanue Ellis, Roslyn Ruff – we all played maids in ‘The Help’ and it was fabulous, it’s a fabulous story because we were personalized and all of those things, but I think that people need to see an African-American in the 21st century integrated in the life of this town and family who’s not in servitude."

I'm happy that Viola is tired. So am I. I just wish a few more of us were as well. If we want Hollywood to start noticing--and recognizing--us for the diversity that we bring to the screen, then we first must collectively get away from the "I gotta work" mentality and reignite the spirit of those before us who effectively created change in this country by standing together such as during the Civil Rights era. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott "rolled out" in Alabama, it rode free of one face of color until change rained down on everyone. And the same can be done again if actors and actresses would be less focused on their personal destinations and instead was focused on moving us forward collectively. 

A friend recently made me aware of the 1973 Academy Awards in which Marlon Brando was nominated and ultimately won the Oscar for his performance as Vito Corleone in the critically-acclaimed "The Godfather." He did not come to the Oscars nor did he accept his award. Why? Because he chose to protest the treatment of American Indians by the film industry instead, for in 1973, Native Americans had virtually no representation in the film industry and were primarily used as extras whereas leading roles depicting Indians in several generations of Westerns were almost always given to white actors. Brando felt they were not only neglected or replaced in film; he felt they were disrespected as well, and that crippled his image of the industry. But his protest was not a silent one, for in his place, he sent little-known actress and then-president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Sacheen Littlefeather, in his place to deliver his words. Were they well received? No. Did he care that they weren't? I'm sure he knew they wouldn't be. And yes his act is considered one of the most powerful moments in Oscar history, as it did awaken a consciousness that resulted in eventual change. For Brando, taking a stand for something that he believed in was far greater and more impacting than that 13.5-inch, 24-karat gold symbol that screams "I've arrived" any screens necessary. That was in 1973. It's 2014. The question remains, is there anyone willing to take a similar stand?

Therefore, while I can acknowledge these winners' personal triumphs--and even more importantly, the triumph of our ancestors like Solomon Northrup's (the subject of "12 Years")--I'm not ready to celebrate wholeheartedly just yet. Our experiences are as diverse, beautiful, and complex as we are as a people. Not saying that in the Academy Award's 86-year history we have not been recognized for roles that showed some of that diversity, but it has been way too far and few between for any of us to think the battle has been won. And until that diversity can be consistently highlighted, celebrated, and awarded, the fight for equality in Hollywood is far from over and cannot be properly measured or dismissed when one of us gets to hold that cold medal in our trembling hands. Our place in Hollywood has always been and continues to be about more than just a paycheck or how many zeroes we can negotiate because we place the auspicious title of "Oscar-nominated" or "Oscar-winning" before our names. As Helen Martin told Robert Townsend in "Hollywood Shuffle," "There's work at the post office." And if that's where our actors and actresses have to find themselves standing until they're given fair opportunities to showcase the wide range of their acting ability and are properly recognized and celebrated for it, it might be time to buy some comfortable shoes.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Loving on You - A Valentine's Day Message for My Singles

It's that time of year again. The time most either love or hate. When jewelry store commercials are in abundance and you can't walk into your local convenience store without tripping over boxes of candy, bow-tie wearing teddy bears, and jumbo cards that scream, "I LOVE YOU." And that usually creates tons of emotions and expectations of not only what to expect but also what to give. Some even create inauthentic relationships in anticipation of being appreciated on that day and others find clever ways to exit relationships for fear of failing miserably in the "delivery" department or sending the wrong message. And if you're in a "single" phase of life, forget about it! Cue the bemoaning and complaining.

I, on the other hand, have loved the day for as long as I could remember. Not because it was designed for "romantic" love but because it was about "sharing and showing love" in general. As far back as I can remember, my parents gave their children Valentine's cards and candy, and we did the same amongst each other (you can only imagine how much candy there was in the house after the 14th with six kids!) And that general love for others carried over even in school when--Charlie Brown-style--we'd share cards with every classmate (not just that one person you thought was super cute).

However, as we've grown older, that "carefree" expression of love has seemed to become a bit heavier, and a bit more contrived and convoluted around this time of year. Face it: the day for most has become nothing more than a tangible measurement of how much we love and are being loved, whether it's a fair measurement or not. But I was recently reminded of something even more important we need to think about as this day approaches: Do we love ourselves--and love ON ourselves--as much as we expect others to? And are we showing ourselves a continuous expression of that love beyond just one day?

I was recently out to brunch with some beautiful, intelligent, successful women. And we didn't waste one minute complimenting each other on everything from our hair to our clothes; congratulating each other on our recent accomplishments; imparting support regarding upcoming ventures. But a few clicks of our Iphone cameras later to capture the occasion and the criticism began...of ourselves. "Ugh. I need to lose weight...what is up with my hair...what was I thinking wearing this outfit." And that opened the door to other criticisms: "I'm not doing enough with my talents...I just feel so lazy these days." Of course, our gripes were negated by positive reinforcement; that reinforcement that, oddly, we are so quick to give another but not so quick to give ourselves. That self love. Seemingly such a little thing but, in fact, a huge thing. And that's where it must begin. Today.

Whether it's speaking more kindly to yourself; treating yourself to those diamond earrings or that sports watch you've always wanted (but have been secretly waiting for someone else to buy you); indulging in that full spa day you've been waiting for a special occasion to engage in; taking that long weekend getaway you've been stacking up novels for; or even simply buying that box of chocolate-covered strawberries, popping that Cabernet, and catching up on must-see movies, do it. And be bold enough to do it on the 14th of February. And then do it every chance you get. Take the focus of what others are doing for you and take inventory of how well you're treating yourself.

When you love on yourself real good, the anticipation of others doing so is lessened and your standards for how you want to be loved take more shape. And if you've already mastered loving on yourself real good, use the 14th to unselfishly love on somebody else that day. Send roses to the elderly neighbor that no one visits or put a box of candy in the break room at work for everyone to enjoy or just call up your aunt that loves to talk and let her have your ear for as long as she wants.

In other words, make the day about "love" in general and not just about how you're being loved by others. Don't get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong or so sweet as someone taking time to shower that love on you. But if you're waiting for it, you're missing a ton of opportunities to give it to yourself. And when you start with self, that love and joy has no choice but to spread and be returned to you in due time.

Happy Valentine's YEAR, everyone!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Keep on Pushin'

I would never call myself a quitter. However, I am someone who doesn't often push beyond the word "no." I suspect this is why I was never a Girl Scout. The first time someone turned down my sales pitch for must-have Trefoils, I would simply move on. No cute smile; no batting of the eyelashes. Just how I've always been wired. I also realize how, as an adult, this lack of persistence in some situations could be the very wedge standing in between "dreams" and "realities." And it took a simple trip to the airport to teach me that lesson.

I'm a Virgo. If you know us, we're all about planning and organization. So, mark my record unblemished when it comes to never forgetting to pack an item or missing a flight. That almost changed today and, in the process, it's changing me. Having left my home in sufficient time, I was mortified when I jumped on the main highway out of my city and all four lanes were at a standstill. Foregoing my natural reaction to panic and become frustrated, I focused on the victims involved in the accident instead (having counted five emergency vehicles heading in their direction), and reminded myself that their ordeal was far more serious than mine. I kept the faith that traffic would soon move, but I was ready to accept defeat. In fact, after :30 minutes of not much progress, I was already searching for the number to US Airways to inquire about other available flights heading to Sarasota, Florida. But something in me stopped myself and I said, "Erica, don't give up. Just keep going. You can make it." And so traffic opened up and I was on my way. I picked up speed, regained some hope, but it would not be long before I was back in stand-still traffic on another major highway and, again, the doubt crept in and I felt defeat hovering. This back-and-forth conflict on the highway and in my mind would continue for several more miles, down another major highway, and inside the airport parking garage but, ultimately, I had made it! Or so I thought.

Reaching check-in, I was informed that I was FIVE minutes too late to make my flight. Not literally, but according to the system that requires you to check in :30 minutes before flight time. Asking what could they do for me, the kiosk agent simply replied "nothing" and that I'd need to book another flight at the main ticketing counter. Having fought against defeat for an hour before, I truly felt it was time to give up hope. But again there was some, unrecognizable tiny fire in me that kept whispering "keep trying"; there was something in me that wouldn't allow me to accept "no." I took that tiny hope to the main ticketing counter and assured the agent there was something she could do. She said there was not and instead began looking at other flights for me--even flights out of other nearby airports. But I couldn't accept her consolation either. I wanted--needed--to be on my flight. It was as simple as that.

Seeing that I wasn't ready to acquiesce, the agent gave me a boarding pass for a later flight but suggested I use it to get through security in an attempt to make my original flight. At this point, it was 8:37 a.m.; my flight was departing at 8:45. And, yet, I kept pushing: past the boarding agent and through security (although three TSA agents told me I would not make it, and further complicated matters by re-scanning one of my carry-on items). One agent even informed me that he was sure the airplane door was already closed by then so trying to make it was pointless. Starting to finally accept I had done the best I could, even I had slowed my pace when putting back on my shoes and coat, my mind already beginning to settle on the fact that I would have to return home and try to depart later. But that tiny spark of hope was STILL flickering ever so faintly and, so, I picked up my pace and headed to Gate 29 anyway. As I rounded the corner, the boarding area was completely empty--but flight 3346 was still sitting on the tarmac! I asked the boarding area agent about the flight and told her I was supposed to be on it but was told it was simply too late to board it. 

"That flight behind me?" she asked, looking over her shoulder and out of the window. 
"Yes!" I replied. 
"It's still fueling," she stated matter of factly.
"Does that mean there's a possibility I can get on it?" I asked in desperation.
"Hold on," she nonchalantly replied while dialing the ramp agent. 
I felt my hope growing. 
"Hey. I have Ms. Kennedy up here. She's supposed to be on that flight. Uh huh. Yeah. Okay. I'm sending her down." 
And with that, the agent told me to follow her, popped the gate door, and down the ramp I went! My bag was gate checked and I was told to take any available seat. Ten minutes later, I was in the air.

After I caught my breath and gathered myself on what turned out to be a super smooth flight, I could not overlook the fact that at any one of those numerous "roadblocks" from the traffic jams to the security gate hold up, I could have simply given up. That at any time someone's "no" could have become my "okay." That if I simply would have stopped pushing, my outcome--and even destination (as one alternative was to fly me into Tampa)--would have been completely different. Which begged a deeper question about our destinations in life when it comes to going for what we want. Are we settling too quick? Allowing others to direct our course? Accepting "no's" too easily? Giving up mid stream? Whatever it may be, I was reminded today that what separates the "haves" and "have nots" often times is simply resilience and not accepting defeat. 

Have you applied for that dream job but got no response? Apply again! Competed in an event and lost? Compete again! Denied a loan for that business you've always wanted to start? Ask a different lender! Started school but dropped out? Re-enroll! Whatever your dream is; whatever it is you want, go for it and don't quit! In the words of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn." I learned that today in the simplest of ways and was grateful for the reminder! So to you, I say be bold. Be brazen. Be steadfast and unmovable. And remember to go for what you want as if your life depended on it because, ultimately, it does! For our destiny lies in the palm of our hands and in the power of our persistence!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How An Old Pair of Jeans Set the Course for My New Year

It started as routinely as it usually does. That is, my annual end-of-year closet purge that, although it takes me a while to get started, I actually look forward to for two reasons: 1) because I finally get to rid myself of clothing I've pushed around and past all year that I've either outgrown in size or in style and 2) to help increase my tax refund. And so, without much thought, I began the process of picking, tossing, folding, piling, and stuffing into bags all of those once "hot to death" outfits that at some point are simply deemed the "what was I thinking" outfits. (I'll happily note, I'm having less and less of those revelations as I get older (smile)).

There were a few laughs as I tried to squeeze into ensembles that were more revered for the events they were purchased for than for the ensemble itself. And then there were the pieces that I didn't even waste time going down memory lane for as I was never too fond of them when they were first purchased. You know how we do, ladies? "Hey, I may need this mermaid wool skirt if I ever find the right olive green boots to match!" Right. Never gonna happen. And so this process continued throughout four closets and over two days only interrupted by favorite TV shows and impromptu "refueling" naps. And then, much to my surprise, it happened: I got stuck.

Among shoes, blouses, dresses, coats, and hats, lied a pair of jeans. Now, let me say, I love jeans but of all of the parts of clothing I buy, finding the right pair is often the most challenging and often times I simply give up and give in to those that come the closest to bringing me the "denim nirvana" I'm in continuous search of. And this inconspicuous pair was no exception. Other pairs that had made their way into overflowing bags were easier to toss for unless I brought in a team of friends and a vat of Crisco, they weren't going to make it past my thighs. But these were different. They didn't quite fit well but they didn't fit too bad either. They weren't too short and not too long, and I still found its bold stitching unique, which I recall was what drew me to them when I first purchased them some years back.

There was really no major reason to discard them, and so I put them back in the closet and continued to dig for those items that didn't require any major contemplation in ditching. But every so often I'd look over at those jeans and the contemplation would begin all over again. I'd take them off the hanger; try them on; walk back and forth in the mirror; pull them up; stretch them back down; then decide they weren't worth keeping and throw them in the pile...only to circle back and place them back in the closet. This alone was beginning to zap my energy--and slow my progress--thus calling forth one of those impromptu naps. So down I went. But before drifting off to sleep I was hit with a revelation that woke me up--literally and figuratively. My attitude towards what to do with those jeans was a living metaphor of how I--along with so many of us--approach situations in life, be it relationships, jobs, careers, or maybe even friendships. That is, we know when we've outgrown them; when they're no longer working for us, and yet we make excuses to continue in situations that simply no longer serve us. We hang on to the old instead of reaching forth for the new. Much like those jeans, perhaps it's because we fear not ever finding that "perfect fit" or because we try to convince ourselves that in time, perhaps, we'll simply learn to be comfortable in them. But, as often is the case, we're simply just left feeling stuck and uncomfortable, until we make the hard decision to shed the old and step boldly into the new.

And that's when I knew what I had to do. Not just with those jeans but in my approach to any of life's offerings heading my way. In other words--and to remix the great late Johnnie Cochran's famous quote-- "If it don't fit, it's time to split." That's when I sprung up from the bed, yanked the jeans from across its hanger, and tossed them atop some Hefty bags. Was there a tiny bit of apprehension still lingering in doing so? Of course, as there will be with anything we leave behind in making the decision to press forward toward something new. But the joy I felt in knowing my actions were actually a part of a bigger picture and a greater awareness, let me know it was worth it! And more importantly, as I embark on a new year that I pray presents me with more opportunities for growth and discovery, it was the perfect reminder to shake of the dust of complacency and begin to make room for genuine gratification, which can only be found when we dare to step out of what feels "just okay" and search for our "perfect fit." Happy New Year, everyone!