Faith… especially when it scares me.

On this day in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., one quote that kept jumping out to me as I scrolled through my Instagram timeline was: “faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the entire staircase”. Please understand, though, it’s not that these particular words were the most posted quote of the day, it’s just that it’s the one that stood out to me.  And as I laid my head down to finally go to sleep, I couldn’t get it out of my head…

The concept felt as though it had been an overarching theme in my life for the past few months.  Most recently, I had a very honest conversation with my cousin about what I’m starting to believe is my life’s dream and why I have taken zero steps towards accomplishing it.  Trained as a transactional lawyer, my most marketable skill-set is to contemplate every possible scenario – good or bad – from a potential decision, and to plan an appropriate safety net for if the unthinkable happens. I help my clients protect their interests before entering into any venture by preparing them for the worst, and as helpful as that is for them, it has become a serious hurdle in my own ambition. For every great idea I come up with, and every possibility my heartbeat skips for, there are twice as many red flags that go up. In the legal world it’s referred to as “the parade of terribles,” as we think of one worst case scenario after another. So in my personal life, by the time I’m done brainstorming, I’ve actually talked myself out of pursuing whatever it is that I was contemplating.

For a while I thought that it was a “millennial” thing. I’ve been heard in numerous conversations trying to lump all twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings into my own sphere of indecisiveness. My boyfriend is working on an artistic piece centered around black millennials in relationships, and I can be heard in my interview saying that we are a generation of too many options. There, I concluded that since there’s no rule book for us anymore, so many of us find ourselves trapped at crossroads between what was the norm of prior generations and what is the unchartered course of this generation. However, when I re-listened to my interview tonight a light-bulb went off as I heard my voice explaining the theory. It isn’t all millennials, it’s me.

I don’t know at what point in my life I became so scared to make a decision. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the embodiment of that children’s book Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman. I remember that Grace wanted to play Peter Pan in her school’s play, but one of the other students told her she couldn’t because she was black and a girl – I don’t remember all of the details but the takeaway from that book that always stuck with me was Grace’s nana saying “you can do anything you set your mind to.” And for as far back as my memory serves, I have done just that. In grade school I wanted to play basketball but there was only a boys’ team, so I was one of the founders of my school’s first middle school basketball team for girls. When it came time to pick a college, certain people in my life – very important ones – told me that passing on a scholarship to a nationally ranked, predominantly white university in order to go to a historically black college (regardless of its preeminence in that sphere) would be a mistake; but, I trusted that the way I felt when I walked on Spelman’s campus was indicative of a life-changing experience that I wouldn’t ever get otherwise, and I was right. And when I decided to apply to Columbia Law School knowing that the likelihood of getting in was slim, not one bone in my body hesitated.

So why, as my 30th birthday inches closer and closer, has the overarching theme in my life as of late been to avoid any form of risk-taking? If nothing else, the last 20 years should be proof enough that “I can do anything I set my mind to.” Yet somehow every time a hard decision comes up about my career, my relationships, my dreams and desires, I let the parade of terribles reign over my mind to such an extent that I literally become paralyzed – afraid to move forward or backwards, just stuck wherever I am. Thinking about that made me recall the sermon I had listened to earlier this morning.

Yes, I was bedside-Baptist today and watched a sermon that my pastor in New York gave last week instead of going to a church here in Atlanta. So I re-watched it and, you guessed it, I got my answer.  Pastor Mike asked us: “can you let go of the life you planned for the life that’s waiting for you?” He said that when you “lean in to new beginnings it’s not about whether you can chart the course or craft the script, it’s whether you can lean into a space where the only thing you’re sure of is that this space is inhabited by God.” He went on to say:

“I know there’s a part of you who cannot handle that because you need to know, you have to understand. You wish that God had a way of telling you the story before it began… But here’s the good thing, what God gives you to get you started has nothing to do with the journey or the destination, it has to do with you trusting in God’s presence…to begin your new journey!” [See the full sermon here]

And I can’t deny it, Pastor is right. I’m paralyzed because the ideas in my head and the dreams that fill my heart, are not the life I planned for myself. It’s easy to take risks when you have the world at your fingertips, but when you start to get settled into a comfortable lifestyle and start feeling the benefits of years of hard work and sweat, it’s hard to think about sacrificing it all for a plan that may not work. I did everything I said I would do, got to where I wanted to get to, and now I’m supposed to just give it all up? What if it doesn’t work? What if I lose everything I’ve worked for and can’t get it back? For some, the question might be what if I lose him? What if I end up alone? But what I realized today is the part I was forgetting to remember is that I know who I am. That no matter what comes my way, I have a strong will, a strong support system, and a strong faith in God and in myself.

They say we are born fearless and only develop apprehension over time as we experience the world. As we mature from children to adults, life’s lessons help develop our consciousness but can also cripple us if we let them. So I choose today to not only trust in God and the desires that God placed within me, but to remember to trust in myself. To trust that I can do all things I set my mind to… especially if they scare me.

How much trust do you have in God?

This past Sunday, I was proud of myself for getting up and out bright and early to try a new church. As many of you know I moved to Atlanta a few months ago, but what you probably don’t know is that I have yet to find a space that is as fulfilling as my home church, First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, NYC. So, with a new recommendation in-hand, I was excited to try out this potential church – even if it was a 45 minute drive. As I told my friend the night before (in my best southern accent): “I’ll travel for a good Word, now.” However, to make a long story short, I did not have the name of the church completely right, and I ended up being what seemed like the only American-born African-American in the room. Part of the service was even in another language! I was very uncomfortable and wanted to run out immediately after I realized the situation. But it was too late – the way the rows were set up, I’d have to make the entire row of 30 or so people get up to let me out. So I took a deep breath, and thought to myself: you’re here now, might as well give it a chance. And I kid you not, the very next song that the choir sang was one of my favorites (I’m Chasing After You) so I was up out of my seat dancing and praising just like I would back at FCBC.

Then, when the guest preacher came up, one of the first things out of his mouth was “I believe each and every one of you is here for a reason.” And when I tell you that hit my soul like a baseball bat, chile! I was no longer focused on finding the exit, and instead was focused on hearing the Word – and I was not disappointed. I failed to write down the scripture, but the message was basically if you’ve given it to God, then let God have it. There’s no point in stressing about it, dwelling in it, or talking it to death. God said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). And that Word was on [pause for dramatic effect] time! I had been stressing like crazy the past few days because I knew that the coming Friday would be the day that I found out whether or not I passed the Georgia bar exam. Normally I don’t stress about things like that because I try to go into them well prepared, but that was not the case this time. While studying for the test, I had been working full time while also trying to explore and enjoy life in a new city, balance the demands of being in a long-distance relationship and fit in opportunities for much-desired time with my nieces and nephews. So when I sat for the test and the very first question stumped me, I knew it would be a long road to the finish line. I kept my head up and finished as best I could, but “as best I could” was different than “my best” – so I’ve been quietly panicking inside ever since. I prayed before and after the test, but was beating myself up because to some extent the blame was on me for not making studying the priority it needed to be – and if I didn’t pass I knew I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone but myself. Still, I prayed. And prayed. And prayed some more. Because I was still stressing about it.

Then the last nail was placed in the coffin…The preacher said that what confused him the most was that we are so willing to put our trust in other people yet not willing to have any trust in God. He said “think about it, every time you step foot on an airplane you are literally and physically putting your life in the hands of another person – and it’s normally a person you don’t know and haven’t even seen.” With that, I was on my feet. Anyone who knows me knows that whenever I take a flight, I’m sleep before the flight attendants even give the safety instructions and I don’t wake up until I feel the wheels hit the ground. So how is it that I am so willing to load onto a man-made machine, walk past a closed-door cockpit without questioning who is behind the controls, settle into my seat and fall asleep (i.e., the ultimate sign of trust and relaxation) without questioning for a second that I will get safely to my destination, yet stress about what God has in store for my life? The same God who promised never to harm me but to see me prosper.

My head was spinning! I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to find the peace that God desired of me. Then, like clockwork, the preacher reminded us that God is always with us. He told us that often times when we feel like God has abandoned us, God isn’t the one who pulled away – it was us. And that made perfect sense given my personal situation. Ever since I moved to Atlanta, I haven’t been going to church, I haven’t been going to bible study, I haven’t been praying and communicating with God like I used to. I am the one who pulled away. And then I wonder why I don’t feel his protection? I haven’t been holding up my end of the bargain! To find the peace I was looking for (and that God wants for me), I needed a way to rebuild my relationship with God. I needed to commune with God again. I needed to ask God to guide my feet and learn to trust again in where the Spirit leads me. I needed to board God’s flight.

During the church announcements it was mentioned that the church was planning to fast during the coming week and to meet periodically for communal prayer. So I decided I would also fast that week, and try to figure out a way to replace food with spiritual nourishment. I hoped to rejuvenate my relationship with God, find the peace my spirit desired and perhaps learn a little bit about the path God wants me to be on. So on my 45-minute drive back into the city, I called my health-conscious, vegan sister and we figured out a game plan for my 5-day fast. I was nervous but excited at the same time!

She wasn’t quite convinced that I could do it, though. She knows that I have no self-control when it comes to food – I want what I want when I want it. She said, “plus you literally get hangry. Imagine if you can’t eat for 5 days. You have coworkers and a new puppy to think about! They are going to meet a side of you they may not want to meet.” And she wasn’t wrong. This was absolutely going to be one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but I reminded her that fasting is about sacrifice. If I want God to move in my life, I have to be willing to sacrifice something to get there. So she wished me luck and I pulled into Target for supplies… excited to board my flight with God.

I’m Good on Engagement Rings…

I want to revisit a topic covered in one of my original HLS posts, “Glitter vs Gold.” A little over a year ago, I met my now-boyfriend and wrote Glitter as an outlet to think through the issue that was confronting me at the time: standards set by me (with some help from our friend, society) that were grounded in wants rather than needs. Fast forward to present day, the same issue continues to transform and plague us as we move through the different stages of our relationship.

And, as a side note, I think it’s so very important to talk about the struggles in life as well as the good things because social media has a way of creating perceptions of false euphoria… Our natural tendency is to post and share only the good things that happen in our lives, and as a result people don’t always see or understand the not-so-good things that we go through. To the world, our lives our perfect! A woman who posts cute pictures of her newborn might never signal to her followers that she is actually struggling for the first time with not living in the same city as her larger family; similarly, a man who posts amazing group brotherhood photos at his best friend’s wedding may not tell you that he’s sleeping on that same friend’s couch while he tries to figure out his job situation; and a couple that shares pictures of their new house may show no signs of the stress they are under to continue to make ends meet. So I never want people to read Glitter or see bae and I holding hands on IG and think, “they have it figured out,” because we definitely don’t. But what I want you to know is, that’s Ok!! We don’t need to have it all figured out, we just have to be willing to be honest and put in the work… Anyway, I’ll step off my soap box and get back to the regularly scheduled program.

I realized today that I don’t want an engagement ring. Not that I don’t want to get engaged, just that I don’t want the diamond. As many of you may know, the coveted “diamond engagement ring” is a concept that was actually created from a marketing campaign run by the DeBeers diamond company in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The strategic plan included not only traditional advertisements (where they coined the slogan “a diamond is forever”), but also a meticulously planned campaign to show diamond rings in romance films, highlight diamond purchases by celebrities in local newspapers, and even send lecturers to speak to high school students across the country! The entire effort was designed to make women believe that no courtship was adequate unless a diamond was involved and to indoctrinate men with the belief that romance requires a diamond ring, the bigger the better. And guess what? They succeeded. Before this campaign, diamonds were seen more as gems for aristocrats and the uber-wealthy, but this effort brought the diamond market to the living rooms of main street America — where 80 years later the impression remains.

And while this was a genius move for their bottom line, the effect has been not so great on the pockets of the everyday person. There’s even a rule of thumb that suggests a man should spend an entire month’s salary on a diamond ring – Oh, OK.

Understanding that personal debt is one of the top causes of stress for us millennials, I think that we are the perfect generation to start challenging this supposed “life requirement”. Why bend over backwards to reach outside our means for a material object that can be lost or stolen, will make rich people richer at our expense, and that may not even increase in value over time?? Personally, I would much rather my potential fiancé take that $3,000-$5,000 (which is just the average cost!) and surprise me with plane tickets to an awesome adventure that will give us memories for a lifetime. I’d even take a deposit slip for our “saving for a house fund”! Anything that is thoughtful, from a heartfelt place, and designed to enhance our connection with each other or our position in life would suffice in my opinion. In fact, unless he’s wealthy and sees it as “that little ‘ol thang”, proposing to me with an extravagant ring would actually have the opposite effect and make me question his judgment. Especially since what we often fail to realize is that once you get married, his debts are essentially yours and vice versa – so there’s no better way to start a marriage than by making better financial choices for ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, until this point I have never questioned my own expectation of getting a diamond ring one day – and in full disclosure, it’s only coming up now because I understand the financial limitations of my significant other. But after thinking long and hard about it, I came to the conclusion that the point of the engagement ring is to symbolize commitment. It represents an unconditional love that yields the desire to spend an entire lifetime with another person. And if that’s really and truly what the purpose is, then there is no right or wrong way to make that commitment to someone.  Simply put, as much as I would love to have a nice shiny rock on my finger, forcing someone (either explicitly or implicitly) to reach beyond their means to prove to me their willingness to make that commitment just does not sit well with me. So I have made the decision – for myself and where I am in life – to not require an engagement ring. In my opinion, that is unnecessary glitz that I would happily sacrifice for the right person…

Keep in mind, though, that this post is not intended to shade those women out there who do have or want an engagement ring (whether extravagant or not). As always, I just simply encourage you to think critically about why you want whatever it is and what you think you’re getting out of it. And I can only hope that if it’s simply the glitter, that you aren’t sacrificing the gold.

Wake Up Call

Last week I received one of those calls no one ever wants to get. At 6:19 am on a Monday, I woke up to “your brother is in the hospital.”  You could replace “brother” with child, parent, grandparent, best friend, or any loved one and your heart will drop just as fast.  It’s never a good feeling to think that someone you care for is in pain – and an even worse feeling to know that their life could be in danger.  In this case it was diabetes, or what I am now calling the silent killer.

My brother had been experiencing certain symptoms for a few weeks – namely, constant thirst and urination, but also a lack of desire for his favorite food: snacks. And because it runs through our family, he immediately thought he might be developing diabetes. When I spoke to him the Saturday before he promised me he would be making a doctor’s appointment first thing on Monday.  So to find out that he never made it to the doctor on his own, a different kind of alarm bell was going off for me that morning.

In the early hours of Monday morning he had experienced dizziness and started losing his vision. So he went to the emergency room around 5 am and when they measured his blood glucose level it was 861. The normal range for a non-diabetic person’s blood glucose is between 70 and 130, and since his was so high his body was bordering on a complete lack of insulin and he was instead developing ketones in his blood, so they diagnosed him with diabetic ketoacidosis.  With blood sugar levels that high, they said he could have slipped into a coma or worse.  So they gave him IV’s of saline, potassium and insulin, and moved him to the ICU on a 24-hour watch until his levels normalized. Needless to say it was a rough 24 hours.

The American Diabetes Association asserts that, compared to the general population, African Americans are disproportionately affected by Diabetes, and estimates that 13.2% of African Americans are diagnosed with diabetes as compared to 7.6% of whites. Hispanic Americans are up there too, with 12.8%. The ADA also reports that diabetes kills more Americans every year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. So to find out that my brother could have died when really the only symptoms he had were thirst and frequent urination not only brings tears to my eyes but also sends panic through my entire body.

You’d think a disease so serious would have more serious symptoms, but it doesn’t – so many people go about their daily lives never even knowing that they have it or are developing it. Normal “blood work” during annual physical examinations doesn’t usually measure blood glucose and unless you have a relative or other loved one who has experienced it, you may never think to ask to have your blood tested.  Even as someone who has a history of diabetes within my immediate family, I never thought about either.  To me it always felt like something I may have to deal with when I’m 50, 60 or 70 years old – but my brother will be turning only 43 next week.  So this has rocked my world almost as much as it has rocked his.

So what does this mean for me and other black and brown twenty-somethings out there? If there’s one thing I know about us, we like convenience. Unfortunately, that can mean fast food restaurants and other quick meal solutions that could just end up pushing us even further down the path to diabetes.  And being someone whose weekly menu consists of bagels, burgers, cakes and cookies, nobody knows better than me how difficult it is going to be to shake those habits.  But the other thing I know about myself and us as Millennials, is that we know how to be informed. Small changes as simple as reading labels and cooking at home rather than eating out can make a huge difference on your health (and on your wallet). Knowing that it isn’t just sugar in the traditional sense that can cause a problem, but rather carbohydrates overall as being potentially harmful when consumed in excess, also helps us to make more informed choices out of the food options available to us.

For me, this was definitely a wake up call to change my eating and lifestyle choices while I still have the chance. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but at least I will no longer be able to feign ignorance – from here on out the choices I make will be conscious, and I hope yours will, too.

This Little Light of Mine…

Last weekend my cousin came to visit and one of the things I love most about our times together is that we talk about very real things. She’s one of those people who is simply insightful – and blunt about it! Of course she’s respectful and thoughtful about HOW she delivers the message, but you will walk away knowing exactly what she thinks about the situation, and I love her for that. But I digress…

So after we did the whole life-updates thing, we talked about families and friends, bounced around ideas about our big business venture, and then somehow got on the subject of churches. Both of us shared a pastor when we lived in NYC but now that we’ve both moved to other cities we feel like there’s a void that still needs to be filled. I won’t speak for her, but for me my church in New York was a part of me. It literally turned me into not only the God-fearing Christian I am today but also the autonomous, free-thinking, daring to dream woman who challenges preconceived notions, asks questions and seeks to always be a visionary.

And, if I’m being honest, I don’t think that any other pastor on the planet would be able to connect with me on the level that my current pastor does. That’s the appeal of his church, I think, and why people from around the world flock to First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC) and tune in each week to hear him speak. Ashley (that’s my cousin) thinks that Pastor Mike (that’s our pastor) is so effective because he is a teacher first. He has a way of breaking down the text to make it relatable and, more than that, to make you question everything! To make YOU come to your own conclusion; to make you take ownership of not only your relationship with God but also of your life and your decisions. So I don’t care what anybody says, in my mind the likelihood of me finding another pastor to do that for me is pretty slim.

The cherry on top of this whole situation is that I’m back in the south — the “Bible Belt”, as it’s called. Down here there’s no buying liquor before a certain time on Sunday, homosexuality is still very much a taboo topic and you better be wearing Sunday’s best when you walk through those church doors. So I told Ashley that rather than look for a church home here, I was planning to simply stream FCBC’s services online every Sunday and leave it at that. And she agreed!  But then Ashley started to recall something that Pastor Mike had said at a bible study one night. When asked by another member as to what his advice would be for finding a church home when moving to another city, he told her something along the lines of “not to worry too much about it because if you believe in the God that moves in FCBC, then you have to believe that the same God exists in other places”… I told you he was good.

But more than that, God is working! It was in that moment that, through Pastor Mike’s words, God actually put something on my heart: maybe now it’s on each of us to spread Jesus’s teachings the way Pastor Mike did it for us! I’m not saying to open or pastor a church or go door-to-door spreading the good news (not even close to what I’m saying), rather maybe it’s on me to take these new ways of thinking about God and religion that FCBC instilled in me and share them with others. For me (and those who feel similar to the way I do) to go into those other churches, become members and challenge the things that we don’t agree with. If we see discrimination towards people with non-traditional beliefs or ways of life, it’s on us to speak up and it’s on us to show what it looks like to still love them despite their difference. If a preacher explains a message in a way that we don’t agree with, maybe the correct reaction is to go up to him or her afterwards and talk it through rather than leave the church altogether.  It’s only after we start to walk in love, ask the difficult questions and challenge the lessons we are taught that we will start to break the subtle (and the not so subtle) biases and metaphoric chains that have been indoctrinated in religion – Christianity in particular – and which have served as polarizing forces over the years.

Maybe then we will start to see the freedom in others that has already been let loose in us… “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” (Matthew 5:15, KJV)

Did I do it for the ‘Gram?

A few months ago, a poet made me wonder if I would “still want to travel to that country if [I] could not take [my] camera with [me]” (see “Simple Words; Hard Truths”). And I feel so relieved because currently I am sitting on a patio in the neighborhood of Imerovigli on the island of Santorini, Greece (which is serving as my Lenox Stoop for the time-being) and the last thing on my mind is where my camera is. Instead, I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun in my face and the freedom to write whatever comes to mind.

For about 10 days now, a group of girlfriends and I have been island-hopping throughout Greece and it has been an amazing experience of fellowship, exploration, fun and relaxation. We have laughed, I have cried, and we’ve met so many people, tried new foods and seen the sights, that it has truly been one of the best experiences of my life.

If you follow me on Instagram, then you might be thinking: “But you are taking a lot of pictures and posting them to social media; is that not the point Waheed was making?” And, honestly, at the time I wrote “Simple Words; Hard Truths” that’s what I thought, too. But I’ve realized that simply posting pictures does not mean that you are appropriating a culture – it means that you are instantly sharing your experiences with others in a way that was not possible 10-15 years ago. The number of likes you get is simply evidence that other people appreciate and support what you’re doing, seeing and experiencing, and that they are happy that you shared it with them.  You may even be sparking something in them to go visit these places (or any place at all) when they might not otherwise have thought to do so.

Add to that the point that Greece in particular is currently dealing with an economic crisis and they are largely dependent on the revenue from tourism to help them climb out of debt. So the fact that I’m spending my Euros to have a great time here when I could have gone anywhere is not taken for granted by the locals.  They are so appreciative of the business and they hope I’ll spread the word and tell everyone I know to come visit their country.

Still, the point Waheed was making is not lost on me, and I can truthfully say that learning more about the people and local cultures in Greece has been a sincere desire of mine and everyone else on this trip with me. Everything from understanding how the volcanic acid in the soil causes the wine to have a unique taste to trying local foods like Fava and hearing how to say Greek words properly, are all things that we were intentional about learning (and if you’re wondering, “gyro” is actually pronounced “hero”, but not like a New Yorker talking about Superman; rather the “h” is breathy and has more of a Spanish “qui” sound like “key-ro” – which probably still sounds really confusing so you should just go ahead and make plans to visit Greece yourself and hear it first hand!).

And not only did I learn a lot while on this trip, but I think we also left an impact as well. Four Black girls from the States are hard to miss around here, and we’ve been chatting with locals and tourists alike, having fun and bringing up the energy around us on a regular basis. We also spoke our mind when we didn’t agree with how we were being treated.  So I have to believe that those who encountered us have also been affected by our visit, and I hope that we’ve left an overall positive impact on them as well.

Another reason why I love to travel is because of the distance it puts between me and my everyday life. When I’m in a different environment, a different country and a different time zone I’m forced to truly check-out of all the things that were stressing me out or clouding my thoughts back home. It lets me hit the reset button and I become open to new inspiration and ideas without even realizing. So many of us get caught up in work and family life that we make excuses for why we can’t or shouldn’t take time off.  But we all get a certain amount of vacation days every year for a reason! Why are you saving yours??

My parents (my dad in particular) didn’t really put much emphasis on taking time off when we were growing up, and to this day still don’t “vacation” at all. I can recall hearing about them taking a cruise to the Caribbean when I was really young, and they took us to Disney World when I was about 8 or 9 years old, but otherwise I cannot think of a time when my parents took a trip for the sole purpose of being on vacation. They do travel often for family reunions and visiting their parents and grandchildren, but those are normally weekend trips and some are even just overnight! So when I tell my dad that I’m going to Barbados or South Africa or Greece for no reason at all other than to get away for a week or two, I get a reaction that, at least initially, feels like judgment. Those types of reactions from family, friends, and even a boss or co-worker can be just enough to deter us from doing the thing we actually need the most: rejuvenating ourselves.

But after talking about it with my sister and the other girls on this trip, I realized that it may actually be misunderstanding rather than judgment. My father is the type to never take time off from work, but he also truly loves what he does and would probably do it for free if he could.  And for him, relaxation is reading the newspaper, gardening or spending a weekend at his parents’ house watching the game with his dad. So in his mind he may not understand why I need to go to a completely different country for a week or two in order to truly relax.  But I do think that he is proud to have raised children who have those opportunities; children who are capable of discerning what makes them happiest and are strong enough to pursue those things despite what others may say or think. And I even believe that after seeing us explore the world, he is now more open to the idea as well…

So to answer the question, yes I would still go if I couldn’t take my camera with me – but I think that having my camera brings another level of impact that is sometimes lost in translation: lighting subtle fires of curiosity in others.

And for that reason, you’ll continue to see my trip all up on Instagram…

 

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…

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.

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.

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…