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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Finding My Magic

I’ve always thought “Black Girls Rock” and “Black Girl Magic” were cute phrases and catchy hashtags, but never really took them seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I do think Black women are freaking rock stars and that we have an unexplainable magic when we put our minds to something; however, I didn’t and don’t necessarily expect them to invoke any meaningful change. Rather I see them more as an ode to ourselves – our way of supporting ourselves and the people who look like us because no one else is going to. But something about sitting and watching the entire Black Girls Rock award show the other night actually did remind me of my own spark to do better – to be better.

I’ve been struggling with finding my passion for a few years now.  First, I wanted to learn to play guitar and write music, then I was convinced I should be a milliner and change the world one big-headed hat at a time.  I had a stint in economic empowerment where I brought in financial experts to offer trainings to low- and middle-class black folks in Harlem, I’ve helped promote black owned businesses by creating an Instagram page focused on just that and I’ve dabbled in photography. And now, as you can see, my passion project is blogging to work through my own personal stuff (and hopefully help someone else along the way).  But really, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been struggling with this my entire life.

The earliest career goal of mine that I can remember was to be a teacher. I was all about it and at the age of about 8 or 9 I even started tutoring younger kids. I prepared lesson plans and made worksheets for them to practice their writing and simple math problems – you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t already “Ms. Coleman, kindergarten teacher.” But that eventually morphed into wanting to be a writer, then a doctor, then a sports agent and eventually I settled on being an attorney.

One thing you’ve probably noticed about my back-story is that none of my supposed “interests” have anything in common!  Hence, my enrollment in a liberal arts college… I think I knew, at least subconsciously, that I needed time to figure it out. I started college as a political science major, but I quickly ruled that out when I realized I have no patience for politics.  I was required to take courses in the sciences, humanities, in the arts and in business. Having no idea what my major should be, I appreciated the diversity of courses.

My advisor/mentor at Spelman, Dean Baxter, had also been my English 101 professor and suggested that I switch my major to English. I had always loved reading and writing (remember, at one point I even wanted to be a writer) so I made the switch, and the rest is history. Not only did we explore Shakespeare, Dickens and Wharton, but I was exposed to Hurston, Baldwin, Toomer and Ellison. I fell in love with reading again and learned so much about myself in the process. But even then, my heart didn’t skip a beat at the thought of pursuing writing creatively on my own. I had made up my mind to be an attorney at that point so that was my passion — or so I thought.

See, I envy people who wake up every morning and chase after dreams of acting or singing or becoming a doctor or teacher. People who know what their calling is and have no choice but to follow it. They remind me of that chant you sing in church when you feel the spirit moving: “I, I’ve got a praise, I’ve got a praise and I’ve gotta get out! I’ve got a praaaaaaaise!!” Like it’s a compulsion and you have no control — all you know is that that thing is what you want to do; is what you have to do.

I don’t have that. I don’t feel like that when it comes to my legal practice. I do like what I do and I think it’s important and impactful in different respects — I just don’t feel like it’s my calling. And what’s worse is that I have no clue what my calling actually is.  But what I do know is that, if nothing else, I’m compelled to keep looking.  I cannot be one of those people who settles into a career she doesn’t love just because it’s what she knows and is good at it.

I watched a TED Talk the other day from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist who studies “originals”, and he argued that one of the reasons why original thinkers are successful is because they don’t get deterred by bad ideas.  He said that “you need a few bad ideas before you can get to the good ones.”  Those who stop trying after a few failures will never see their full potential… So I’ll keep my day job for now. But I can guaranty that my list of interests/hobbies/passion projects will continue to get longer and more diverse in the interim.

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…

Promised Land

On a cold Sunday evening in January I was walking home from a meeting with a fellow board member of the NY chapter of Spelman’s alumnae association and we were casually chatting, catching each other up on life since we last spoke. We talked about family and love lives and had the inevitable “state-of-the-career” conversation.

As a late twenty-something woman, one theme that seems to be recurring most amongst myself and my peers is a yearning to figure out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives.  But I don’t mean that in a panicked, soon to be college graduate kind of way which breeds anxiety and uncharted stress levels about the first move in a chess game – we’ve been there, done that already. Rather, our existentialism is in an “I’ve done everything I said I would do, I’ve made it but it doesn’t feel right” kind of way.

We’ve gone to medical school and business school, we’ve worked elbow-to-elbow with top executives and industry big shots, we’ve earned M.A.’s, J.D.’s and D.D.S’s, we are in residencies, at top firms and Fortune 500 companies – yet something feels off. Something is missing.

At this age we had expected to be like those cool older cousins who at family reunions would awe us with their life experiences, fly clothes and deep conversation. We hoped we would feel like Carrie Bradshaw living a fabulous life of partying with celebs and having an epic love story.  We thought making good money and driving nice cars was the end-all and be-all.  Yet, for many of us, the grass doesn’t seem much greener on this side of things.  We’ve taken to finding hobbies, starting businesses, traveling the world, and writing blogs as our outlet, our last ditch effort to figure out what is that thing that makes us tick.

And I don’t know about you, but I see my friends getting married, having kids and settling in their “real” lives, and although I am so happy for them the thought of it happening to me comes with mixed feelings. I think to myself, “hurry, quick, figure out what will make you happy because when you have a husband and kids you won’t have time to play this guessing game. Playing Russian roulette with your life is one thing but playing it with theirs will have much bigger consequences.” The pressure of figuring this thing out ASAP is nerve-wrecking.

So what’s my advice to my fellow late twenty-somethings who are yearning for more but not sure how to get to the Promised Land? I’ll let you know when I find out.

From Her Lenox Stoop…

I had a little pep in my step as I trotted down the steps of my new 4th floor walk-up, out the brownstone’s vestibule doors, and onto what the locals call “The Avenue”.  On this particular late December day, Lenox was alive with tweens just out of school, college kids with suitcases headed to the subway, and the new age corner entrepreneurs asking if I wanted my hair braided.  I turned onto 125th street to find even more hustle and bustle as old ladies boarded express buses, street vendors called out sales, and tour guides rounded up their flock.  The heart of Harlem was my new neighborhood and I felt like my own personal Renaissance was about to commence…