Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To My Baby Boy in the Hoodie (To Trayvon Martin)

I am a mother of a 19- year- old son whom I love fiercely. From the first moment I held him in my arms, I knew that my only job on this earth was to protect him and make sure that he grew to be the type of man that his father and I knew he could be. As he matured, I watched as society tried to set limits for him. Once in middle school, during a parent-teacher conference, the arrogant young teacher told me that she had high expectations. I had to explain to her, in no uncertain terms, that whatever her expectations were, they were no where near the ones I had for my son.

Every time he and his friends get in the car and drive away, I pray that every person who deals with them sees them as young black men with bright futures and not just some black boys in hoodies.

To some, my son, Matt is a big black man standing at 6'2" and 205 lbs, but to me he is my baby.  Just, as I'm sure, Trayvon was his mother's baby.

Like many of you, when I learned the details of the Trayvon Martin case here  in Sanford, literally my own backyard, my heart broke because I felt for that mother and for every black mother who has had her hopes and dreams buried along with her son's body. We love our daughters, but our sons are precious, too, because it is through them our story continues. Daughters have a way of marrying and assimilating into their husband's families, but it is our sons who continue the destiny in addition to carrying the name.

There are many places where I am supposed to be tomorrow afternoon, but I feel compelled to be in Sanford. I, along with so many other mothers, need to know why our son Trayvon Martin was brutally gunned down on his way home carrying only Skittles and an iced tea. More importantly, however, we need to know how his death is not considered a homicide in Florida.

My son Matt and I talk about everything and thankfully he feels comfortable  confiding in me. When we last spoke, we discussed the Trayvon case and my son said, "Mom, isn't it funny that the black man is one of the most despised things in America, but the most often duplicated?" He went on to say that others try to imitate the way the black man walks, talks, dresses, etc. but he is still considered to be less than.

My Matt will be home from college on Spring Break next week and I will have the luxury of hugging and kissing him. A luxury that Trayvon Martin's mother will never have again. Although I will be happy to see him, it will be bittersweet because I know that he will not be able to stay in my sight forever. He will want to go and hang out with his friends dressed in jeans and his favorite hoodie. I can no longer protect him as he moves about in the world. I can only pray that he be protected.

It is not much, but it is all I have.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Only Way Out is Through

Sometimes bad things happen:
People we love get sick and die; people break the promises they’ve made to us; our dreams get deferred, and all too often people who we trust betray us.
          When we are going through these things- in the midst of our despair- the first, probably most natural reaction , is to flail. To kick our legs about wildly and to scream. To try desperately to escape the agony which surely feels like it will be the death of us.
During these times we panic and don’t take a true assessment of the situation. We go into full survival mode.
         When I was a small child, my mother and I were at a wedding reception at the clubhouse of an apartment complex in Indianapolis . The other kids and I had grown bored so we decided to go outside and play by the pool. Since some of my cousins were teenagers the adults didn’t hesitate to let us smaller kids tag along as long as the big kids promised to watch us.
         A group of us were running around and one of my male cousins, who was a year younger than me but much larger, thought it would be funny to push me into the pool. Either he assumed that I knew how to swim or in his immaturity he just didn’t think it all the way through.
         People say that when you’re dying your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that everything seemed to be happening in slow motion  and even to this day I can vividly remember the details of those moments as if they were time-lapse photographs showing each action  moment by moment.
What I remember most vividly was thrashing about desperately in a vain attempt to get my head above water. My legs, though long, were not quite long enough to reach the bottom of the pool and I kicked frantically hoping that I would be able stand on my tiptoes and crane my head up toward the blue sky. I had never thought about the air I breathed before, but as I gasped for it, I realized how beautiful it was and how much I had taken it for granted.
         When one of the older cousins realized what was going on, he threw in a life preserver, but in my panic I accidently pushed it away.  Had I calmed down I would have been able to hold on to the buoy and he could have dragged me over to the side of the pool. Finally my cousin tore off his suit jacket and jumped into the pool fully clothed. It was necessary for him to wrap his arm around me from the back or I would have hurt him in my attempt to save myself.
         Later when I was in flight attendant school and we learned water drills. Since I worked for Eastern Airlines and was based out of Miami a possible crash in the Everglades was always a possibility. At any rate,  I was instructed that in the event of an emergency landing, I was  to always subdue the person first and if that didn’t work to basically put them  in a headlock so they wouldn’t knock me out as I attempted to save their life.
         It’s interesting how that happens in real life. When we are going through something we sometimes hurt those very people who are trying to save us. We are so desperate to get our head above water that we lash out, often striking and sometimes hurting those who love us most.
         There is an expression that hurting people hurt people and it’s true. In my novel The Other Side of Through the readers see it with Edgar who is hurting from his own abusive childhood and hurts his wife Claire and later their daughter Jessie.  We see it also in Claire who is trying so desperately to hold it together that she hurts Edgar, Daphne and unintentionally Jessie. And of course Jessie hurts David, Marcus and potentially Shayla should the story continue.
         It seems the older I get the more the wisdom of my older relatives speaks to me. Growing up I often heard that the only way out is through. Had I not gone through the ordeal of nearly drowning I probably would never have learned to swim which would have kept me from water and prevented me from having some of the experiences I’ve had. For one I probably would have never moved to Florida-too much water-no one ever said fear was rational. I also wouldn’t have been adamant about my children learning to swim and I don’t dare think about what could have happened if they  hadn’t learned at an early age.
         Those first days at the YMCA learning to swim were not easy. I was afraid but I had to keep pushing.
         The only way out is through because on the other side there is freedom. Not
 necessarily in a physical  sense, although some may infer that, and not just in  a physical sense, though that’s true too.
That’s what the old woman in the woods was trying to explain to Jessie. Push, baby, push! Push even when it hurts and it seems easier just to give up because it hurts too much.
         There’s a story that you may have heard before. It’s about a man who prayed to God because he wanted to be closer to Him. God spoke to the man and said “See that enormous boulder over there? I want you to push it.” The man was so excited that he had gotten a word from God that he immediately went out and began pushing. He really put his back into it and used all of his physical strength to try to move that huge boulder. Hours went by and sweat was dripping from his face. His body ached from the strain but he didn’t give up. Hours passed and then weeks. Still no progress. Before he knew it years had passed and finally after ten whole years he cried out to God: “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you making me suffer Lord? For ten whole years I’ve been pushing that boulder like you told me to and it still hasn’t moved.”
The man heard a gentle voice that said “I told you to push it. I didn’t ask you to move it. Moving it is my job! But look at yourself now. Notice how beautiful your body has become. Look at how strong you are today as a result of pushing. You were so weak ten years ago but look at what you’ve now become.
         Like that man, like the characters in my novel, we all face boulders in life. The boulder may be regret, fear, anger, doubt, jealousy  or temptation but to get to the place where we need to be we have to push. We have to push through to the other side.
         People ask me all the time what is my novel about and that’s it: I think it’s really about pushing through no matter how badly we want to give up          There’s another expression that I heard the old folks use and that’s “I’m through” as they would throw their hands up in surrender. Unfortunately they were sometimes doing that in response to something outrageous I had done.
But like the man with the boulder and me in the water once we surrendered and accepted help and the reality of the situation-not as a punishment but a lesson-  there is an understanding that the process of struggling is necessary to get to the product of who we are supposed to be. 
         It’s all necessary because the only way out is through.
         Not long ago I was talking to a friend who told me about some one of the horrible things he had experienced in his life. When I asked him how he  had managed to keep on going when most people would have given up because the odds were stacked against him. He said that he realized that those negative events were commas and not periods.
         As a writer and a teacher of English, that really resonated in my spirit. Commas. Not periods. Commas you see are a place to pause and then you continue on with the rest of the story. In life those setbacks, those commas, are places for us to reassess what we are pushing for.
         The writing process is very lonely. We writers spend hours sitting alone at a computer screen or with a pen and pad of paper pouring our souls onto the page.  Never knowing if this painful work will produce something beautiful, but we keep pushing.
There are so many times when we want to give up. Nathaniel Hawthorne said easy reading is damn hard writing and anyone who claims otherwise is a liar. Writing is hardwork because it comes from a place deep inside of us. I know I agonize over every word hoping that I’m saying exactly what it is I mean to say and I grow frustrated because my medium is words. My mother is an artist and she has the luxury of choosing between oils or watercolors. I just  have words and words can only do so much. But I keep pushing. Every discarded draft ultimately brought me to this place.
         And to hear people tell me that Claire’s story, Jessie’s story, Edgar’s story, David’s story and Marcus’s story helped them push through to the other side has been worth it.
Thank you

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Need to Disconnect In Order to Connect

     When we whittle it all down to the very core of each of us, it all becomes very simple. We want to be loved. Somewhere along this path we call life we've learned to become defensive and fearful. Instead of walking with our arms reaching outward in order to embrace all that life has to offer, we fold our arms across our chests to protect where we are most vulnerable-our hearts. We've become so afraid that we no longer talk to each other. It's easier to hide behind the latest technology. We ask ourselves: How many friends do I have on Facebook? What's their status update? Who's tweeting? Who's currently trending? Because we are often too afraid to ask the hard questions about what really matters in our lives.

     It's much easier to disconnect with the illusion of being connected. Human interaction is messy when we have to move from behind the gadgets and look into the eyes of another human being. it forces us to be In the moment and to focus fully on the person who is in front of us. Not only do we have to answer the questions they may ask. We also are often forced to face the questions we've been too afraid to ask ourselves: Am I happy? Is this all there is to life? Is God what I imagine? Have I found my purpose?

     We are all so desperate for love that we pretend that we no longer need it. Instead we focus on things that really don't matter at all because those things are safe. There's no threat of getting hurt. We pretend that we want everything but what we most crave. We fill our days with activities to keep us busy. To fill the void of longing that exists deep within each of us. We spend our lives like runners on a treadmill. Constantly running, faster and faster, but never getting anywhere. We've mistaken movement for progress. When we exhaust ourselves and want off, the world may not understand why we would choose serenity over madness. After all, the movement and speed is exhilarating. At least that is what we tell ourselves. 

    But it's not just the world that pushes each of us into this hyper active mode. Often we are frantically serving God. So busy moving from this service to that meeting that we fail to hear that still, small voice that beckons us "Come away my beloved. Spend a moment with me."

   The paradox of fearing what we need most -connection with another human being- keeps us disconnected. We are often so afraid of being hurt, misunderstood or rejected we don't reach out for that touch from another person. We pretend to be cool,  unaffected, unfazed.  When really what we want is someone to sit in silence with us holding tightly to our hand. Someone to give us a hug when nothing seems to be going our way, or someone who looks into our eye and truly sees who we are. Not who we pretend to be.  
     There is not one of us, no matter how tough we may act, who does not want to be loved. Of course we want to be loved by mankind, but we also want to know that there is something bigger than us that loves us in spite of our unloveliness. After all we see ourselves in the mirror everyday and we know our flaws and inadequacies. We know what's really behind the facade we put on for others. What terrifies us more than anything is the idea that we haven't fooled God and are, therefore, unlovable. 

    It's all just a vicious cycle really. The busier we keep ourselves the less likely we are to hear the whispering in our soul that tells us who we are and why we are. We crowd out the words of love with music (sometimes praise music), TV, anything that will fill up the silence because we are afraid of the silence. Because it is in that silence where we will get the answers to the questions we most want answered. Oh, but we are so afraid.