The World is Her Oyster

About two weeks ago I was on a pretty epic and much needed vacay. First stop was Miami. Some girlfriends and I spent 5 gloriously drunken days in one of my favorite U.S. cities.  Point of the trip?  Just because.  Our days were filled with pool parties, brunches and South Beach lounging while our nights had a life of their own, consisting of bottle service at the iconic LIV on Sundays where we found ourselves in the midst of a spontaneous Lil’ Wayne concert, watching the sun come up while eating steak and eggs, an interesting-to-say-the-least night at King of Diamonds and a surprisingly lit bar hopping experience in the Art-Deco district.  Even when we spent one morning on a boat riding around Star Island recovering from hangovers, somehow mimosas and Beyoncé twerk sessions were still involved.  I felt like I was 21 again, partying all night and relaxing all day – not a care in the world.

The next stop was Atlanta for a bachelorette weekend… And rumor has it that the first night ended with me letting an armed police officer at Waffle House know that I was an officer of the court, so you already know that there was an extremely high level of intoxication involved and an equally high sense of feeling carefree (maybe even too much of both).  And even though I was completely exhausted when I returned to New York, I also felt thoroughly rejuvenated.  I was inspired to pick up some hobbies that I had let fall to the wayside, and I decided to bite the bullet and splurge on a trip out to LA to celebrate a friend’s “flirty thirty” weekend that is scheduled to take place in a few weeks.  I had had such a great time during my travels that I wanted it all to just keep on going.

But then that first week back to work was a complete 180-degree turn. It was back to the life of conference calls and meetings, reports and deadlines. I was up bright and early to mix and mingle with clients at a breakfast panel one morning and stayed late to finish reviewing a draft joint venture agreement.  The only remnants left of my glorious days of freedom were my hairstyle and skin tone: Senegalese twists flowing down my back and milk chocolate skin freshly sun-kissed with the tan lines to prove it.

Luckily, my firm is great in that I didn’t have to deal with weird looks or sly innuendos about the new look, and even the few co-workers who follow me on social media praised me for having what they could tell was an amazing time off.  I obviously didn’t give all of the juicy details to my bosses but had no shame in letting them know that I was largely drunk the entire time I was away, and most of them just laughed and told me they were glad I had fun.  So albeit a different environment and not as carefree, I was still me; not hiding or trying to conform to what I thought people expected of me – and it was OK.

I found an old post from about 3 years ago, where I described myself as a chameleon, writing:

“I’m blessed to be able to blend well in many settings. But, I am so busy changing red, and blue, and purple that sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what my true color is…”

And as I thought about writing this, that post just kept popping into my mind. Was I the real me when I was inappropriately intoxicated at Waffle House?  Or am I the real me when I’m going back and forth with opposing counsel about the sunset provision of an environmental indemnity agreement?  Is the real Marissa the person who spends her weekends binge watching trashy TV, or the person who volunteers at the local community center on Saturdays to host economic empowerment workshops?  Is she meant to be a lawyer, or is she the hat maker? I thought she was a writer? No, she’s a photographer, right?

Despite my chameleon complex, I am learning that I am all of those things wrapped up in one. The serious, intelligent lawyer can also be the idiotic drunken girl sometimes, or the creative writer. I can be the lazy girl who sits in her pajamas all day or I can museum-hop around New York City for fun.  This Marissa does not like to be boxed into certain stereotypes or categories; I am everything you expect me to be and everything you don’t.  So whenever someone thinks they have me pegged, I just laugh and sharpen my oyster knife…

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Simple Words; Hard Truths

I don’t know about you, but I rely pretty heavily on my friends to keep me up on the latest happenings in various social circles – let’s face it, there’s way too many for me to keep track of on my own. And, most recently, two of them were telling me about a book of poetry that was the newest craze and that I absolutely had to get. I asked them, “who just sits and reads a book of poems for fun? Do you read just one poem and put the book down, or are there chapters so that you’re reading mad poems back to back?” I was completely confused.  Although I love reading and even majored in English in college, my experience with poetry up to this point has been limited to specific works suggested by professors to spark classroom discussion – I’d never had or wanted a book of poems for leisurely reading (unless you count Dr. Seuss, who obviously was robbed of the Nobel Prize).  But their response was simple: “No chapters; you can read whatever you want – read one and think about it or read a bunch and see how you feel.”

They had sufficiently piqued my curiosity so I went on Amazon later that night, found Salt by Nayyirah Waheed and hit the checkout button.

I can’t lie to you, though, for the first few days after it arrived the book sat on my dresser untouched. Something about it was just daunting to me. I once read that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful” (Rita Dove)– and as beautiful as that concept seems, poems have historically had a way of either going completely over my head or being so literal that I didn’t see them as interesting.

When I finally sat down to read I found myself flipping pages extremely quickly – for me it was a page turner of a different sort. Each poem barely filled a page, and some were only one line!  Like, bruh, really?  They were interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but honestly I just felt silly.  Then, around 10 pages in, right as I was about to give up and put the book down, I read this:

would

you still want to travel to

that

country

if

you could not take a camera with you.

 — a question of appropriation

And then I did have to put the book down. Not because I was over it or because I thought reading a book of poetry for fun was pointless.  Rather, I had to put it down because that messed with my spirit.

I have been the proud holder of a U.S. Passport for only a few years and as a result have accumulated only a few stamps so far, but in that short time and from only few experiences I have literally fallen in love with travelling – even if where I’m headed doesn’t require a passport. I went to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for Thanksgiving one year and got to experience both a larger African city where there were tourists galore and a population of locals more diverse than I had expected, as well as a more rural town where I ate game-meat such as zebra and wildebeest and where electricity was completely shut off every day in the middle of the day to conserve energy (you read that right: during the hottest part of the day – in AFRICA of all places – there was no electricity for a few hours anywhere in town).  I also spent a spring break in Barbados with a group of classmates and we explored caves, rode jet skis and often danced the night away with the locals.  And when my sister and I went to Puerto Rico last fall we literally spent all day every day at the beach and did little to nothing else – and it was glorious.

Travel has afforded me a variety of experiences in a short amount of time and I am fortunate to have made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve made it my personal mission to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year, to drag my sister and my friends to as many places as I can, and to not-so-subtly nudge my extended family members into planning family trips as well (I haven’t yet been successful at the last one, but I’ll break them one day!).

I often post my adventures to Instagram and Facebook, share them in photo albums and group chats, and talk about them to whoever is willing to listen. But I never once thought that my actions could potentially be assisting in the further appropriation or commodification of local cultures and people. I am obviously familiar with these phenomena on a conceptual level, but the thought that I might be personally contributing to their occurrence truly escaped me — there was no feigned ignorance here, just a young woman with a genuine excitement for travel birthed from having the time and the means.

So that very simple question posed by Waheed hit me hard; it slapped me right across the face, and the intentions and implications behind my newfound love were immediately questioned. Had I been blind to my own actions?  Do I want to go to these places just to say that I was there? Is it about bragging? Is it about curiosity? Am I embracing a sense of freedom that my parents didn’t have or am I only chasing after one? Do I care to learn more about the people and cultures I visit?  Or is my focus instead on how many likes my pictures get on Instagram?

Simply put: would I go if I couldn’t take my camera? And as I was sitting there reading, I honestly could not answer that question… and it freaked me out.

After days of having it on my mind, I still cannot answer the question fully. However, what I can say is that studies show that Millennials (which I learned is defined by most scholars as today’s 18 to 34 year olds, although I think it’s more accurate to describe us as those aged 25 to 34, but what do I know?) are more likely than any other demographic to travel for leisure.  Some might say we are less likely to have children and other major responsibilities at this age so we are in a better position to be able to travel, but at least one article that I read suggested that Millennials with families are even more likely to travel than those of us who do not have those responsibilities.  So I think that at the end of the day we simply have different priorities for our lives than older generations, and travel is one area that we see value in – it factors heavily into the “work-life balance” concept that reigns supreme in our eyes and governs everything that we do.  The question that I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself is what exactly that value is.

I’m planning a trip to Greece this summer, though, so now that my eyes have been opened hopefully I’ll be more cognizant of how I experience my travels and what I ultimately aspire take away from each trip – as well as what it is that I would hope to leave behind. So this conversation is to be continued…

Needless to say, I’m hesitant to pick up that book again – but for different reasons this time. Simple words. Hard truths.

Sometimes I shave my legs…

I was 12 years old when India Arie’s song “Video” first debuted. Given the time period, I’m sure I caught its premier on 106 & Park and I am equally sure that I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the lyrics or message of the song at the time. But it randomly popped up on a playlist I was listening to today and it just validated my soul in a way that I wasn’t anticipating.

I’ve never really been a “girly girl” – unless you count the 5-year-old me who would only wear skirts and refused to go anywhere without a purse. But at some point in middle school I discovered baggy pants and comfy sweatshirts and the rest was history. (But, then again let’s be real, it was the age of TLC and Aaliyah by that time so it’s probably safe to say that every little Black girl in the world was a tomboy.) And to make matters worse, my mother had no patience for doing my and my sister’s hair so we usually had some combination of braids and beads that let us run, swim and play uninhibited.  We were kids and didn’t care if we got dirty or plain and simply looked a straight-up mess. It wasn’t until junior high school that I started getting my hair done and learned what wonders makeup could do to the average face – but, still, by that point I had started playing basketball pretty regularly so my hair was often pulled into some kind of pony tail, and sweatpants with Adidas flip-flops and socks became my outfit of choice.

Even when I graduated from high school and went on to my illustrious alma mater, Spelman College, the first two years you could still catch me in class and walking around campus in hoodies, basketball shorts and, you guessed it, flip flops and socks. But then, almost overnight, at some point during my sophomore year I went from being flip-flop-wearing-Marissa to tight-dress-whipped-hair-Marissa.  Some might attribute it to pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (skee wee!) that year, or perhaps it was because I turned 20 years old and finally grew out of my childish ways. Whatever the reason, the new me had arrived.  I was fresh out of a relationship, had a new social circle and was one year closer to being drinking age. All the necessary fixings for a make-over.

I started to care about wearing designer labels, having a bathroom sink full of makeup and beauty products, ensuring my hair was laid before I stepped foot outside my dorm and always being caught up on the latest issue of Cosmo. But along with that new sense of style and beauty came a yearning for color contacts and hair extensions, an unhealthy jealousy of women who I thought were more attractive than me, and a hatred for all things nappy. It was truly perplexing. Somehow, on a campus full of women of all shapes and sizes and representing the full spectrum of hair texture and skin-tones, one definition of “beauty” remained pervasive in my eyes. And although I often received affirmation of my attractiveness from men and even other women, rather than boosting my self-esteem hindsight suggests that it actually had the opposite effect – it created a dependence on external validation of my beauty.

It wasn’t until I came to what has become my personal mecca, New York City, that I started to recognize and believe that beauty cannot be defined by, or confined to, mainstream standards. I know Atlanta is the self-proclaimed mecca for Black folks, but there’s something that happens when you come to New York. The Black people (and really all people) here are so varied and interesting, representing the eclectic mix of the African diaspora around the world and, most importantly, exuding a freedom and confidence to be their true selves.  Once you’re here you can’t help but embark on your own path of self-discovery. And at every turn, no matter what road you opt to take on that journey, you are greeted by people who understand you; people who truly see you.

A year after moving here I walked into a hair salon in Brooklyn and told them to cut it all off. I was nervous, scared, worried and plain and simply freaked out – but there was also a sense of calm that came over me as I saw my tresses start to hit the floor.  I think in the back of my mind I knew that there were more than a few women who I would see in class the next day who were going to fawn over my natural curl pattern and tell me all the products and techniques that were going to work so well on my hair type.  I knew I had people.  I no longer cared whether others thought I was cute or stylish or if I was measuring up to mainstream ideals of beauty and style.  I was wearing the clothes I wanted to wear, and loving the deep brown of my eyes and chocolate hues of my skin — and, most of all, I was loving my natural kinks and coils.  As I walked out of that hair salon, that need I had had for external validation quickly converted to an internal confidence as I realized that I was finally going to be seen. If my life was a movie, it would be at that point that “Video” would have been cued so that as the camera spans out above me walking down the street the audience would hear India singing beautifully: “every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be, and I know my Creator didn’t make no mistakes on me.”

Well said India, well said.

A Different World

By the time they were my age my dad had taken a job with the city of Buffalo and my mom with a local bank, they were married with two children, had two cars and had already bought their first home.  By comparison, right now I am renting an apartment that’s too expensive to be so small and require me to walk up four flights of stairs (but is in a really great Harlem location and has a washer and dryer in the unit, amen), and I’ve been single with little to no prospects for longer than I’m willing to admit in public, and I either walk or rely on the subway, buses and Uber to get me wherever I need to go – but I also brunch frequently, have way too many clothes, and I make it a point to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year.

So what’s the difference? My parents were toddlers as the Jim Crow era came to an end and teenagers when MLK prophesied of his trip to the mountaintop.  They are from a generation where the sting of segregation and institutionalized racism still permeated every aspect of their lives.  I, on the other hand, came into this world in the late ‘80s when all the hard work of prior generations was beginning to show some impact.  Also, by that time my parents were established in their careers and, although not wealthy in any sense of the word, were comfortable in the life they had built.  I had the privilege and pleasure of growing up in the house my father built with his own hands in a middle class neighborhood, went to a magnet high school that was ranked #4 in the nation at the time, and at the age of 20 I saw a Black family move into the White House.  And although I was (and continue to be) very aware of the struggles of being Black and a woman in this country, I was never made to feel inhibited by those labels.  As my favorite author once said, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all” (Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me).

Don’t misunderstand, my parents had strong role models as they grew up and they truly believed that they could do anything that they set their mind to, but they were also taught that they’d have to work twice as hard just to get half as much.  They put themselves through college, and because they had big responsibilities at relatively young ages they weren’t able to take advantage of what they would call the more lavish lifestyle choices I’ve made for myself.  My father was 1 of only 3 Black students in his class at Cornell and my mother ultimately had to switch to night school so she could balance her time working and raising young children. Further, they were raised in a time where the Black “family unit” was an important symbol – it represented stability, civility and, in some ways, protection.  As a result, their focus at my age was doing whatever they had to do in order to build a strong foundation for their family and to give their children the best opportunities for survival.  My primary focus at this point in my life, however, is simply building a strong me

My generation seems, more than any before us, to have moved away from our parents and our hometowns without looking back, and we are instead taking up residence in some of the busiest metropolitan centers of the world. We stand ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us as we figure out what exactly we want our lives to ultimately look like – even taking destiny into our own hands at times to create the opportunities we want without concern for how we might be perceived by others.  There are many of us who are indeed buying homes, getting married and settling into the stereotypical “adult life”, but it seems like most late-twenty-somethings these days are still weighing their options, thinking 3 moves ahead before deciding when and where to put down roots.  Even those who maybe never left their hometowns remain hesitant to simply accept the lives their parents had because they can’t seem to shake an internal yearning for more.  We are still exploring ourselves emotionally, creatively, financially, religiously, and professionally.  We are unapologetically selfish and resolved to immerse ourselves in any and every single thing that we so desire without any feeling of shame, remorse or inadequacy.

We, Black and Brown Millennials, have the audacity to throw on blinders as we consider that job promotion, career move or new business idea such that the issues of whether we want to be in a serious relationship, get married or have kids become secondary (and sometimes tertiary) concerns.  We are too busy dropping a few thousand on that trip to Phuket or Dubai to think about if it’s the right time to own rather than rent our homes. We aren’t spending time researching which are the best school districts to live in because we are researching best brunch spots instead.  Some may call it naïveté or recklessness, but I choose to see it as the freedom to find my happiness. And not my happiness as a “Black woman,” but rather my happiness as Marissa Coleman.

And while my maternal clock does often cause me to compare my life to what my parents had at this same age, what I’ve realized is that I have something my parents didn’t: the luxury of time and the autonomy it fosters.  Today, people are living longer and having kids later in life so I can take this time to leisurely weigh career goals, travel prospects and ideal proximity to family and friends.  I don’t have any major responsibilities or external pressures influencing what I do with my life or when I should do it, and that’s a freedom that I am now learning to appreciate.

So although I envy what my parents had and continue to have (they’ve been married for 42 years, talk about pressure!), I really wouldn’t change a single aspect of my life so far.  I’ve been blessed with opportunities that my parents and grandparents prayed I’d one day have, and I am going to do everything in my power not to let their sacrifices be in vain. Besides, they love being able to come visit me in “the big city”, and they view it as their opportunity to try restaurants they’ve seen on TV, visit the Schomburg and shop for vintage furniture in Brooklyn.  Between NYC and visiting my brothers in Atlanta, they now have places to go and things to do.  And my brothers have already given them grandchildren so they seem content to let me be for now…