For the Mothers: This is the Realist Thing I’ve Ever Written

Photo by sergio salamanca on Unsplash

“Dedicated to my mom and I swear my word is bond \ Everything will be OK and it won’t even take that long” The Calm x Drake

I.

Silence.

Then: “I’m sorry I missed your birthday again, son.” 

The treetops are waving like wacky wailing arm flailing tube men you see when driving past car dealerships. A Virgin Mobile flip phone rests down by my knee and restless shaking leg as I stare out my second floor bedroom window. This old house used to be a monastery and sits across from a small parish. While we painted every inch of wall, our home remains unassuming. The air is still and the space can be unnervingly quiet when no one else is here and your CD mix-tape has ended. 

At some point, silver clouds meet my misty-eyed gaze.

Rain might follow, but who can tell on a day like this, in a lush green state with a sky that hangs lower than anywhere else?

I’ve been doing a year of service for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in Gresham, Oregon for some time now, and have begun a reconciliation process with my parents after having an emotional spiritual advising session with a pastor at East Hill Church, because those are the type of ways you challenge yourself in this particular program in addition to training for half-marathons, living on $100 of disposable income per month, being what my grandfather called “a speck of pepper in a bowl of milk”, and living with four other people you’d never chose to live with otherwise but who will eventually become life-long friends.

It’s a reality show with no script, an experiment in solidarity, community, spirituality, and faith. 

The economy is a disaster. Obama is months into his first term. Teach for America received a record high of applications. Honduras is surviving earthquakes and coups. Many of the 20-somethings with whom I graduated from Saint Peter’s University are drowning in doubt and debt, and I’m here trying to mend things with my mother while living in voluntary poverty and dressed like I’m headed to Woodstock. 

“Hello…you there?” my mom asks. Her southern accent familiar as she curls her “r”. 

“I’m here,” I whisper back with a mix of frustration and sorrow. “It’s okay, mom. Don’t worry about it.”

“I really am sorry.” 

II.

Vulnerability wasn’t always in my friend group. Rather, I was quick to lead with humor or anger. But leading with the heart, my mother’s a master at that. 

For all the times I’ve been disappointed with my parents, I can think of a myriad of positive traits they’ve unknowingly passed along to me. My mom gave me her wide smile, her curiosity, her creative spirit, her love of dance, her propensity to try new things, her lack of patience with unethical leadership, and her thirst for life. She’s been praying for me in ways I’m recently learning to speak with God, and been working to actualize her dreams similar to how I’ve been hungry to craft a life for myself as a writer and a speaker.

If I were writing this 11 years ago when we were facing a different set of crises I’d have nothing but terrible things to say about my mother. I was a Black boy lost at sea, swimming in the infancy of budding grief. I wouldn’t tell you about countless soup kitchen counters she’s served behind, or about how much she’s ministered to complete strangers – often giving them a shoulder to cry on, or how she can easily see color and light in the most dire circumstances. I wouldn’t tell you about how bright she is, about her humility, about how seriously she takes her relationship with the Lord.

Younger me couldn’t see past the pain. And when he could, at times he chose not to. I was reluctant to carry a shred of grace because grace could put a cap on my anger. I didn’t want a salve for my resentment. If we’re being honest, I’d really only share about the places my mother fell short. “Way way way short,” I’d say with a punch of judgment in my tone. 

But healing can takes us places, especially when we work it (and I’m finally working it with God). I’m in a different, better place where nuance and gray areas live, where breathing is easier and less strenuous like when you finally take your mask off after leaving Target.

Where I can’t shout: “WHY weren’t you there all those years!” without considering: my mother’s struggles; the places where she still slips; the sad little girl within her needing restoration. I can’t complain without considering how a lot of parents are far from feeling (or being) prepared to care for a new life. How scary and complicated that can be whether your child was rescued from a dangerous living situation, or born with a compromised immune system, or was initially raised by your sibling but can no longer live there. And now, you’re their mother, a giant in their eyes. 

I can’t preach to my mom about the long term consequences of abandonment or divorce on a child without thinking about how much my father put her through. Without considering that no matter how distant she might have been in the past, I have her in my life now, in a time where so many have lost their mothers to cancer, stress, dementia, addiction, environmental racism, domestic violence, overdose, mental illness, or the hard thing of being a woman (especially a Black woman) in this world. 

While my hurts and wounds are very much present and valid, so is the truth that God healsGod can, and God will. He’s brought me to a place where I can talk with my mother about her new multi-level marketing venture without becoming incensed or condescending. I can be happy for her while disagreeing with her decisions. I can look at her through my own brokenness the same way she viewed me during the year after my mind malfunctioned. 

My Verizon phone bill reflects daily calls to her and from her. 2019 calls filled with prayer, new perspectives, stories from her present life as a private taxi driver, laughter, and reminders that I still had a shot at life. That she still loved her son even though he felt so unlovable. That she was continually praying for his marriage, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter. 

I smile at the memories of my mom showing up to every graduation. At how proud she looked during the entire Mother’s Day brunch following my grad school commencement. At how lovely she looked walking me down the aisle at my wedding on the most gorgeous July day you’ve ever seen. At how loving and playful she is when talking to my 16-month-old on speakerphone. 

Yes, I still hold resentment. I’ve woken up crying, reaching for someone who wasn’t there when I faced 5th grade bullies or had 7th grade basketball games. For someone who lived several states away. Who forgot birthdays and milestones. Who had enough of a challenge raising her other, younger, four children. 

There are cracks in this Black man who’s still learning what it means to love a Black woman when he didn’t see it done in healthy ways as a child. Still, I’m inspired by Maya Angelou’s words: “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better do better.” 

III.

I hold appreciation for all the moms that have “adopted” me along the way. For the aunties, grandmas, cousins, teachers, youth group leaders, tv moms (I see you season one Aunt Viv), friend’s moms who took me in, church mothers, all of them. 

I salute the moms in your life – no matter what side of life or joy they are on. 

Much love to the soccer moms, the accidental moms, the single moms, the step-moms, the baby-mamas, the moms grieving their baby, the moms who say, “Just call me, Tracey. I’ll always be here for you and your brother and I know I’m new in your life and I have to earn your trust,” the moms who feel like they’re in a constant fumbling motion and are messing everything up when their kids are just glad to be loved, to the moms in active duty overseas, to the moms in rehab, to the moms trying to get their children back, to the moms working nights and weekends and all day as well. 

I hold an ever present awareness that days like yesterday can be complicated. That they’re happy for some and dreadful for some and just another Sunday for others. That tear soaked flowers were left on cold tombstones, and some bouquets weren’t even purchased. I’m aware that being a new mother while not having your own mother can be a hollow chamber of devastation all it’s own. 

I invite you to join me this week as I take time thinking about the ones who took care of me. Who did the best they could. Who – whether there in person or spirit or otherwise – sought to protect us, teach us, raise us, and/or encourage us. And if this is too painful for you to do, well as with anything, take care of yourself. This might not be the time, and that’s alright

I’m off to call my mom.

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There’s Absolutely Nothing to Smile About Right Now & Other Lies

Photo of a young Black girl smiling and standing in front of a gate. She's wearing a blue dress.
Photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash

“I smile, even though I hurt see I smile / I know God is working so I smile / Even though I’ve been here for a while / I smile, smile”  Smile x Kirk Franklin


 

“I really hope I didn’t mess that whole thing up!”  This is me straight trippin’ last week. I had a final round interview for a full-time master’s level salaried position. I haven’t worked 40+ hours a week since I left my previous higher ed position in 2018 due to mental realness.

Since then, my quasi professional life has been working retail on weekends, and being a stay-at-home dad during the week (pre-corona).

Would I ever get my groove back? 

Our dining room table was covered in an assortment of neon colored flash cards, a notepad, and my $10 tripod which was atop the thickest books we own so I could have the best angle for Zoom. I felt exhausted with so much on the line. My nerves were a wreck.

Job searches, am I right?

What’s worse was doubt that attempted to interrupt my rehearsed sentences. The sinking feeling that had (and still has) me believing I’m not worth being hired.

They can’t hire someone like me. The kid whose life was completely upended by a hijacked mind, who still has students and colleagues and professors he didn’t get to say goodbye to, who’s worn pajamas more than he’s worn suits, who damaged credit and lost all credibility, who’s sifting through relationships to see which ones still stick, who doesn’t smile because he’s used to (and far more comfortable) wearing a frown.

Sometimes grief feels like the forever home you never meant to purchase. The rooms are low lit and small. It’s a place you don’t want to leave because it’s all you know now. 

Thank God for the prayer warriors in my life and for the love of my life.

Where would I be? Fortunately it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve had many reasons to smile, to rejoice, to take my mind off the ashes, and I’m working on being humble enough to know that my joy doesn’t come from things of this world – there’s another, everlasting source.

Joy isn’t a comet. At times it’s a sun faintly shimmering in a gray sky.  

Let’s be real.

You’ve had your own doubts. Doubts about: where your next meal will come from, when your check will arrive or clear, if your kids will act right/come back, if your new relationship (borne on a dating website and continued via Facetime) will even make it out of this quarantine alive, if you can cover those medical fees, if people actually care as much as they say they do with their “hope your family is well during all of this” messages, if God even exists (and if He is real, does He even care?). 

And when you’ve felt a smile creeping up, you too, at times, have withstood joy. 

Let me tell you, sometimes it seems better to wallow in pity, regret, frustration, and disappointment, than let light flow through you. Because what if, right?

What if I let this positive feeling wash over me, does that mean all my suffering was in vain? What if I smile for no reason except for respite from sadness? Then what? It’s not like everything will suddenly be okay. 

A friend once told me: “Sometimes I feel like if I smile during heartache, God will think I’m trivializing the trial He’s allowing. But I need to think more highly of God.”

Whew. 

I used to constantly make cases for optimism. Part of that was to be contrarian in what felt like a world of trolls and haters, people out to make lives worse just because.

But now I know it’s essential. It’s essential to not only go searching for hope, but to nourish the joy that – at times – sweeps over us in our darkest moments. Our genuine joy – the kind that’s not easily killed or diminished – is essential.

In short, it’s necessary to let yourself smile.

Take it like a pill. Follow the doctor’s orders this time and do a new thing for your body, for your family, for your sanity, for your soul. 

You know me. You know I’ll invite you to cry until your eyes burn if that’s what you need. But as with most things, life is very much both/and. We have the capacity to carry hope and still be drowning in high water. 

Can you do it?

Can you stand before a mirror and practice a smile for no one to see? Your heart needs to witness this. 

It’s time to be a walking contradiction. Go against the tide of your indignant nature. Relish in some gratitude.

Take apart a good memory: 

where were you

who were you with

what can you hear and see and smell

what did the space look like

how good did you feel 

deep breath

let it all sink in

are you smiling 

 

I dare you to. 

God is still working for your good and the good of those you love. Let Him shine through you this week. It’s not a fake or forced thing. It’s what you’ve been needing. Medicine. But not a panacea. Courage. But not a cure. Do the brave thing, beloved. 

I’ll be smiling back…this time.

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What I Did During the Loneliest Time in My Life

Photo by CW on Unsplash

“Sittin here with my tears/ All alone with my fears / I’m wonderin if I have to do / Withoutcha” – I Get Lonely x Janet Jackson 

“How are you feeling today?” I asked the young lady while I scanned the last of her items. 

“Really alone,” she whispered. 

Beat.

“What’s that?” I asked.

I knew what she said but for some reason I asked again. I thought about validating her response with: “I get it, I really do. I’ve been to hell and back when it comes to isolation. There are some useful online resources out there for mental health though.”

But, I figured that was too much and might come off as insincere from a neighborhood cashier.

I gulped my words and looked at her lowered amber eyes as she dryly replied:

“It’s just really hard these days.” 


That      b   r   o   k   e    me. 
 

Ding. 

Time was up.

I handed her the bags and kicked myself a little.

Her friend had the same melancholy tone as I scanned her few items. Both long-haired women were clad in gray sweatpants and over sized hoodies. Their faces sullen, pale. They appeared to have missed a few showers. They looked wholly troubled.

I wondered if they at least hugged each other or if the resounding ache of loneliness had reached their bones and joints. If they had run out of love to give in a world overflowing with fear. 

I still think about them. About the mom who got laid off from her job at the spa (she and her husband are raising three kids and burning through their savings account).

About the elderly couple that comes through my lane each week. They’re always kind and have helped me refine my small talk skills with every conversation about canned soup.

I think about the people who still haven’t found toilet paper and miss out every time we get a new shipment of hand sanitizer.

I want to help them all, console them all, meet them with an embrace unencumbered by protective barriers because my bones don’t ache. Not anymore. Not today.

I was self-quarantined long before this crisis – one of the small blessings from having had a manic episode.

I’ve mastered crafting worlds within the confines of eggshell colored apartment walls. I’ve had too much time to revisit every mistake I’ve ever made, to go so deep into wounds that I choke.

Too much time to swear at God. To cry myself to sleep. 

Isolation can do this to you, even if you live with people who fiercely love you.

And so, I feel the pain of the person I’ve never met, who’s lonely and unsure and full of shame over losing their job or worried about life after graduation or anxious about how they’ll support their undocumented family members or really missing their grandparents they can’t even travel to visit. But in no way does this mean I know exactly what they’re going through because suffering varies like snowflakes and it’s cold out here. 

One thing I’ve learned about the wintry mix of heartbreak and uncertainty is that we can get caught up with hourglasses. Time becomes an enemy because we spend so much of it wishing things would return back to normal, or trying to adjust to a new normal.

There is no right answer but there are plenty of unhelpful answers.

It’s unhelpful to beat ourselves up. It’s unhelpful to further isolate. It’s unhelpful to stuff hope in the back of the fridge. Unhelpful isn’t wrong, but it sinks you. It fools you into thinking you’re helping when you’re hurting. 

On the flip, reaching out seems like a chore and like something ineffective. How does connecting with someone else improve anything when they’re going through what I’m going through? 

Positive self-talk feels empty. It’s not putting food on the table! 

Hope? Where was hope when my friend died? 

Do you see the spiral, the caught-up-ness of it all? It becomes a perpetual nightmare and we begin to implode – not all at once – slowly, on our own, but in plain sight. 

I don’t want that for you

I want you to overcome and get through this and know this midnight isn’t forever. We cannot turn this car around, there’s no going back, but we will get through this.

Prom still happened. We will get through this. 

A couple got married over Facetime. We will get through this.

Several animal shelters are emptying. We will get through this. 

Mom and hero, Donna Shaw, sent nurses masks and gloves. We will get through this. 

This fine gentleman sang to his girlfriend from outside her nursing home window. We will get through this. 

There is value in every single healthy thing you do to ease your ache and connect in a time of 5G this and NWO that. In a time of fake news and real blues. Don’t get too swept up. Pull away from the drama.

We’re all searching for answers, refreshing for updates, grasping for straws where there aren’t any.

ALL of us. 

And yet, you were never alone (1 Corinthians 3:16). I pray you be reminded of this. Keep praying for my family and I too. 

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When You Just Can’t Stop Stress Eating

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

“How about some chicken wings / Do you want some fish and grits / I’ll hurry and go get it / Whatever” – Whatever x Jill Scott

1.

Here’s a positive memory of me and my pops:

We’re sitting in front of the living room TV. It’s so hot outside that the fake grass mat on the front stoop is melting. We’ve got two fans sending us warm air as we feast on lunch.

And yes, feast is the correct word. My dad ordered an Italian sub with the works – including hots. Plus a large bottle of Coke.

Plus a Tastykake butterscotch krimpet.

Plus some chips.

Teenage me has the same except for Mountain Dew and far less ingredients on my sandwich. 

In South Jersey, our subs came on off-white butcher paper that takes up way more space than it should when spread out. So, there we are, eating food atop too much paper, and stuffing ourselves with way too many carbs while watching B.E.T.

This was our fishing trip.

Our hike in the woods. Our playing catch in the front yard.

I really miss afternoons like that.

Devoid of any elements of our troubled and tumultuous relationship that would land me in years of rehabilitation. I miss that version of my father. 

2.

My wife and I are putting our grocery list together. These days food shopping is met with a lot of anger and frustration because shelves are bare and everybody and their uncle is on a french toast binge (like what else are people doing with all that bread, milk, and eggs?).

I’m perusing the healthy items on our list and smiling at how proud I’d be making my nutritionist. But, there are many sides to hunger, just like there are many sides to coping.

Despair has really set in at this point. As far as staying updated goes, I only listen to short NPR snippets a few times a day, but working retail reminds me of how bleak things are out in these streets.

I’ve grown more and more accustomed to strangers appearing to be dressed in cheap ninja costumes, but my fear has grown as well.

So, when it’s time to fill our fridge again, I’m adding the things I turn to when anxiety is winning. Give me chips, salsa, queso, pop tarts, Eggos, fried everything, greasy everything, the sugary of the sugariest.

It’s been two weeks of this.

Of me hitting up the store every other day and grabbing just a few more items we didn’t need. Me blowing through those tiny boxes of sugary cereal that come in a pack, because it’s what “Ineed to get through nights like this.”

Because of my meds, alcohol isn’t an option. I don’t do drugs or smoke. So, I make up for all that with food. I fill in the gaps of uncertainty with bacon, eggs, cheese, and seconds of that.

It’s my undoing. 

And let me be clear, drugs, food, and alcohol aren’t the only ways we humans cope with hard things. You know your thing.

3.

The morning of me writing all this, I checked my blood sugar. It was up 10 points. It’s still in a decent range, but it’s certainly spiked enough to have me food prepping in earnest and easing back into more mindful eating. I bagged grapes and raisins, rinsed chopped and roasted vegetables, and pre-made sandwiches and tuna salad. I want to be ready for the cravings.

The ones that come when I’m already full. The ones that tell me, “If you indulge, you’ll be distracted and you won’t feel so afraid of the world ending.” 

The ones that bring me back to childhood moments that included the same exact food-filled solutions. 

How about you? How are you coping? 

What are you turning to?

What do you attempt to replace fear with? 

Look, this is one of those times where we’ll all collectively fall off the horse at some point. Our budgets will be in shambles, our emergency funds decimated, our relationships strained, our feelings wrecked, and our faith challenged.

Even in my recovery-after-a-manic-episode season of life, I still hold enough privileges to have the lights on and secure housing. We’re set up. But, everyone isn’t and that’s just extra worry on top of it all. 

All this to say, we really really need to give ourselves extra room to be less than perfect right now. 

I’m not advising we intentionally tank our nest eggs to order pizza and Disney+ subscriptions for the entire neighborhood, but something’s bound to go wrong when we’re holding our breath for this long. And, we’re going to fall back into less than healthy habits. 

This is also prime time to be praying even harder, asking for help, serving others, and delegating.

Seriously, hop off the productivity train for a while and sit down somewhere.

I’m personally praying for and feeling thankful for all the medical professionals dealing with a plethora of challenges, lack of sleep and funding, and something worse at every turn. 

I’m personally praying for you and meditating on Philippians 4:6-7.

Revisit how you’ve been coping and invite yourself to make some small adjustments if you can. 

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