Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Can't Complain

Not long ago when I was in Nashville for a book signing, my sister-in-law and I were driving frantically around town to complete some last minute errands in preparation for a dinner she was hosting later that evening. We were both exhausted and ready to go back to her house and rest for a little while before her friends arrived. Unfortunately we didn't have that luxury because there was just too much to do! Since I was leaving for Chattanooga the next morning to attend my son's football game, I needed to buy snacks. I was already suffering from working mother guilt because I had been too busy to bake cookies, but that's another story...To make matters worse, the temperature had plummeted and I was trying to figure out a way to get to the mall in order to buy warmer clothes. My sister-in-law was feeling overwhelmed, too. She still had to find the perfect wine to complement dinner and she wanted to make some last minute adjustments to her menu.

We pulled up to a stoplight and out of the corner of my eye I saw a homeless woman standing on the corner of the busy intersection selling newspapers. Her face was red from the cold wind and her clothes were slightly dirty although it looked as if she had tried to make herself as presentable as possible considering her circumstances. My sister-in-law maneuvered so that she could be in the lane closest to the woman and explained to me that she always purchased a paper because the organization the woman was selling papers for helped provide housing, employment, and other resources for homeless men and women in the area.

When the car came to a stop, I rolled down the window and the woman limped slowly to the car. She finally approached the car and took the single dollar from my hand. Her smile was a genuine one of gratitude. It lit up her face and reached her eyes, making them sparkle. 

 "How are you today?" she asked.

My sister-in-law and I said we were fine although we had spent the last half hour bitching about all we still needed to do and how tired and cold we were.

 "How are you?" was our obligatory response.

I had no idea the homeless woman's response would change my life. Here was this woman who was disabled, without permanent housing, dirty, cold and probably tireder than I could ever imagine being and when asked how she was she replied,

"I can't complain."

The reality was that she had a great deal to complain about, but she chose NOT to complain.

My sister-in-law and I drove away in silence, each of us grateful for this gentle reminder. You see, God could have easily taught us a lesson of gratitude by having us lose everything and stand on that corner with the woman peddling newspapers for a buck. But by the grace of God that could have been us! Instead, He reminded us that we had so much to be grateful for without stripping us of everything we had to teach the lesson.

That brief encounter reminded me that I have the choice to complain or to give thanks. Although I had never put much thought into my "little moanings," I suddenly realized what I must have sounded like to God. A spoiled, ungrateful  brat! Here I was in a designer suit and shoes with a trendy bag resting on the back seat of a luxury car. I had a full stomach, a healthy body, money to buy the things I needed and a warm comfortable bed to come home to. Yet, I had the nerve to complain.

My angel selling newspapers that day taught me that it was my choice whether or not I complained. Yes, there will always be things that bother me, but instead of groaning and moaning I can just stay silent or give thanks, instead, for all of the things that are going my way!

Friday, October 14, 2011

"He says he hits me because he loves me..."

Several years ago a friend called me because she had decided to leave her husband. Although he had been verbally abusive for many years, she never really saw herself as a victim of domestic violence. In her mind, that was something that happened to those women. However, it was when he threw the puppy against the wall in a violent rage and then pulled his gun on her that she realized she had to get out of the situation. Immediately. When she arrived at my house, she had her purse slung across one shoulder and her young son bundled in her arms. She looked so young and vulnerable it made me want to cry. As we sat in the comfort and relative safety of my living room drinking coffee, we explored her options. The only problem was that she had few. Like many women she had given her husband  complete control over their finances and he rationed out an allowance to her although she worked full-time outside of the house. Additionally she had allowed him to poison her relationships so that she had very few friends left. 

While she attended to her son, I called domestic abuse shelters and organizations in our area from my home phone. My husband placed calls from his cellphone. The more calls we made the grimmer the situation seemed. The reality was that she would have to leave her home and most of her belongings behind in order to go to a shelter, and it would only be a temporary fix. In the shelter she would live, for a while, with other women whose plight was similar to hers. She was completely defenseless: no clothes, no money, no security. She couldn't even go to work because she knew that eventually he would show up there.

Thankfully the shelter was an option, but a dreaded one.

I could feel the fear pulsating off my friend. I shared with her the information that my husband and I had gathered while making the phone calls. She listened still unsure of what she was going to do. And then something broke in my spirit and I told her my story. I told her about the boyfriend from years ago before I married who managed to place seeds of doubt in my mind about the trustworthiness of my friends and family. I told her about the time he and I were on the freeway and I said something he didn't agree with that made him hit me so hard that my head knocked violently against the glass in the passenger side window causing the semi-driver in the next lane to lean on his horn and yell something at my boyfriend that I could not hear because of the buzzing in my ears and the throbbing in my sore head. 

I told her about the courage I finally summoned to break up with him, but when he showed up on my doorstep with two dozen long stem red roses and a sheepish smile saying how sorry he was I foolishly opened the door. And it was only when he had wrapped his massive hands around my neck and squeezed did I realize he was going to kill me. It  was the look in his eyes as he looked into mine that left no doubt that I was taking my final breaths. 

I told her that it was only God that made him get up and walk back out the door leaving me gasping on the ground with a black eye, bruises and roses strewn everywhere. He had come to kill me and I had gotten lucky-that time. 

Like I picked up the destroyed roses that day, my friend ended up having to pick up the pieces of her own life. I won't lie. It was hard. There were tears, doubts, anger and mourning for the relationship, but she survived. I survived.

There are many survivors of domestic violence and then there are those who don't. There are those women who the system fails. Women who get restraining orders and who are later murdered when he chooses to ignore the law. Then there are those women who foolishly go back home thinking that the situation will get better. Unfortunately according to the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, an average of three women die as a result of domestic violence each day in America and one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Keep in mind that statistic only includes the women who share their experiences.

Each of us must work to end violence against women in all forms. We have to speak up when we hear young men objectify women and call them outside their names and we must remind our beautiful young women that it's what they answer to that matters. He might just be calling them a bitch now, but if he is disrespecting her like this today, what will he do tomorrow? If we suspect domestic violence we have to find ways to help without making the situation worse. We must provide financial support to shelters in our communities who open their doors to abused women and children.

We also have to get past the belief that "he only does this because he loves me" or "a woman's place is..." This logic is idiotic and we have to call it out. If he hits you, belittles you, or threatens you he does not love you in the true sense of the word because love is "patient and kind."

Further, women must have their own resources. There's absolutely no getting around this. I know my mother, aunts, and godmother always told me to have enough money to get my own place even if I never needed it. Even Billie chimed in at times when she sang, "God bless the child that's got [her] own."

Recently my heart leaped for joy when a young student came to my office. Anthony had just finished reading The Other Side of Through and told me that he had truly been moved by it. When I asked him what it was that affected him, he said it was Claire's story. The way she suffered at the hand's of her husband and how it ultimately affected their daughter, Jessie, the protagonist. 

I guess that is what this month is about. Making sure that people, like Anthony, become aware of the reality of domestic violence because it's more pervasive than we realize. It truly is not just those women's problem. According to the DVAP website, this month is about connecting "advocates across the nation who [are] working to end violence against women and their children."

Please do not think that I have forgotten my American brothers, one in every thirteen who is victimized in his lifetime at the hands of a loved one. I feel his pain, just as I felt the pain of my situation so many years ago and the pain of my terrified friend who had fled an abusive marriage. Perhaps I feel my abused brother's pain even more because he may not be able to speak up because of the added embarrassment of being an abused man. 

This issue is so big and we have so much work to do that I fear that the month of October just isn't long enough. Nevertheless, will you join me this month in making others aware?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Do You Possess Your Power

We take for granted this luxury we call empowerment. Rarely do we even question what it means to be empowered. We buy the t-shirt and wear it and shout at the top of our lungs to whoever is listening. Through the years it’s gone from "I am Woman" to "Girl Power" and now it's "Black Girls Rock!" Regardless of the slogan, the message has always been the same: Look at me. I am beautiful ; I’m special; I’m powerful and I have every right to be here.Like the water we drink and the air we breathe, most of us cannot imagine a world without this feminine power.
We enjoy the privilege of living in a country where women have so many rights although this is not the case around the world. We have…the right to  vote...the right to change our minds...we have the right to marry…or not…to procreate…or not….and regardless of our faith or our politics, we all benefit from current laws that say we have the right to our own bodies. At least for now.
Although women are not paid quite as much as their male counterparts, we are still represented in the marketplace and when we see a woman headed to work-outside of the home- we don’t immediately assume she is a nurse, teacher or secretary.
When I was younger, there was a saying and it went like this: “we’ve come a long way, baby!” Yes, we have come a long way but…We’ve come so far that many of us have taken our power for granted and we now are willingly giving it away. Oftentimes giving it to those who are unworthy.
I teach. I teach English and creative writing at a college in Florida and I volunteer so I’ve worked with young women for a long time. Everyday I come across women of all ages who take their power and wrap it up beautifully and then hand it over to someone who rips it open and then devours it and leaves her bruised and  bleeding. I guess my question is do you possess your power?
If empowerment is a process that fosters power in one’s life and then enables one to impact the community and then society, then I really, really need to know whether or not you have fully embraced your own power because if you are powerful, then you make me powerful, and then we make the world better.
I am often saddened by the young women who don’t recognize their own power and diminishthemselves by playing down their abilities, intelligence, or natural beauty.Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to intimidate their man…or outshine their friends because heaven forbid someone think they are trying to act cute  or be better than the rest of them.
Sometimes these young women don’t hand over their power to anyone in particular but instead let it evaporate spending years in limbo too afraid to move outside of their comfort zone.Then there are those young women who mistake movement for progress and dilute their power by being on this committee and in that club. They are so frazzled and frustrated that they don’t do any real good.
I guess the luxury of getting older is you stop  caring what anyone thinks about you and you’re no longer infected with the disease to please, but more importantly those of us who have some mileage on us have  lived through some stuff and we’re able to speak from a place of experience and hopefully wisdom.
We may remember a time when we willing handed over our power to anyone who would take it as long as they agreed to be the designated driver in our lives.  Admittedly it’s nice to have someone else be in charge for a while but the problem is once you give your power a way it’s hard as hell to get it back.
You have to fight for it.
That’s what the protagonist, Jessie Winters, in my novel The Other Side of Through faces. She has lived as a passive observer in her own life. Basically she is sleep walking through life because it is too difficult for her to face the anger that is seething within her. She is mad at her mother, she is mad at her mother-in-law, she is mad at her husband, she is mad at the church, she’s mad at God and she’s mad at herself.
In the novel, Jessie willingly gives what little power she has left to a sexy stranger named Marcus whom she meets in a coffee shop one day and she follows him down a path of despair and quiet desperation. She makes the mistake of confusing pleasure with happiness.
It takes the guidance of an older woman to get Jessie back on a path to herself, a path to empowerment. A path to self-love.
Those are the words that change it all.
When we get to that place where we love ourselves unconditionally and free ourselves from the dogma, the doctrine and the negative internal dialogue, we get to a place where we are powerful beyond our wildest imaginations.
We don’t have to run from ourselves because we love ourselves.
We realize we can do anything,
be anything,
love everything!
This self- love frees us from picking at ourselves and criticizing every thing we see as an imperfection or hindrance.
So what if I’m a size 26 or a size 6 my love is still the same.
Who cares if my hair is natural or if I’m in the salon every week. It’s what’s in my head that matters.
I might have a hummer or a hooptie-whichever it is it can get me there.
And the beauty is that when we stop tearing ourselves a part we stop tearing each other apart.
There’s no place for the cattiness and the bitchiness and backstabbing and fighting. We see that our empowerment is dependent upon our sister’s empowerment, and this happens with the simple, revolutionary act of loving one self completely.
Jessie realizes that she is powerless to face her life until she learns to love herself, and that in order to love herself she must realize that she is alright just as she is.
She’s enough.
Not only does Jessie have the wisdom of the woman who has walked the path before her, she also has her friends Lydia and Crystal who are doing life right along with her and she has her husband David who truly loves her.
 These loved ones  encourage her to self-empowerment through artistic expression. They remind her that she was created to be a creator, each of us was, and whether we paint like Jessie, or write like me, or cook amazing dinners or crochet or knit or sew…whatever… we don’t feel the fullness of life if we deny what we were created to do…
So Jessie painted.
What do you do?
What longing do you have deep in your soul?
Is it to get that poem published? Is it to write the next great American novel?
Is it to paint a masterpiece or just your bedroom?
Could it be to begin a journal to write down all of those life experiences if for no
other reason than to see just how far you’ve come.
Because you know, after all, you’ve come a long way, baby.
So she takes her power back, as small and fragile as it may be, and she gives it to herself so, hopefully later she can give it to the world.