Returning to Fearless Living and the Child Within

“You have to stop thinking you’re not worthy or qualified. You already have what you need.” – My Granny, Annie Lee McKinney

“God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” – Somebody’s saved, sanctified, and fire-baptized grandmomma somewhere

Created by Kaylee Andrea

Created by Kaylee Andrea

 

As a little girl, I wanted to be a writer. I would sit on my porch and read books. Or, I’d write poetry in those little black and white composition notebooks – books I still have. I wanted to be a poet like Phillis Wheatley, an African woman who had been enslaved in Boston, and who published her first book of poetry as a teenager. In junior high school, I worked in the library and was in the drama club (although I never appeared in a play; that’s a different story for a different day). My drama coach, Mr. Murray, encouraged me to write and let me type all my poems up on his office computer. That was my first attempt to write a book – before self-publishing became popular.

“Think about how amazing it would be for you to write a book as a kid,” he said to me as I beamed up at him with a sparkle of excitement in my eyes. Who knows where that computer file is now?

In high school, I continued to write and my teachers continued to encourage my writing. One English teacher sent me to a poetry workshop on Saturdays in the city. Another constantly complimented why writing and commented on my papers that I should consider publishing my work. I think my previous teachers would be quite surprised that I did not become the writer I had planned. I wanted to be the next Susan Taylor, the regal and beautiful former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine.

In college, I resurrected a defunct student literary magazine for Black women called Soul Sisters. I didn’t know anything about running a magazine and had never done so before. I simply solicited writers from across campus. The previous summer, I had worked with a woman whose son was my age and a really good artist. He provided most of the artwork for the magazine. I wanted to write and run a magazine, and I did it. I didn’t stop to think about whether I could do it, knew how to do it, or would do it correctly. And I even met my publication deadline. And then something happened over the years.

I was overtaken by more practical goals, like becoming an attorney – although I have never practiced law a day in my life. I stopped writing and didn’t begin writing again until I started this blog as a way to cope with Granny’s Alzheimer’s. But, I didn’t blog regularly and my writing goals were still put on hold or I simply procrastinated or got distracted by life. Not only had I abandoned my childhood dreams of becoming a writer, a dream that still lingers, but I lost the fearless confidence of my youth. The “I can do anything and be anything I want” attitude. My fearless inner child gave way to the grown-up world of self-doubt and procrastination.

That self-doubt and procrastination have stymied some of my dreams and affect me daily. In The Now Habit: a Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, author Neil A. Fiore, Ph.D. talks about the habit of procrastination and its underlying causes. One definition of procrastination is that it is “a neurotic form of self-defensive behavior aimed at protecting one’s self worth. That is, we procrastinate when we fear a threat to our sense of worth and independence.” He goes on to write that we procrastinate to “temporarily relieve deep inner fear” – that is, the fear of failure, the fear of being imperfect, and the fear of impossible expectations. He then posits that rooted in such a defense mechanism is the belief that we ourselves, and not just our work, will be judged as unworthy if we don’t feel we can do something perfectly. Dr. Fiore recalled a client who was a chronic procrastinator and suffered work performance issues as a result. She procrastinated because she was paralyzed by the fear of being “just average.” For her, to be average was to be bad or unworthy. She also saw her work performance as a reflection of her self-worth. Dr. Fiore asked this client, “Where did you learn to talk to yourself that way?”

I then asked myself, where did I learn that I was unworthy if I didn’t know it all and have all the answers and do everything perfectly? I thought of the stories I’ve been told and stories I repeated to myself over and over again. And how that doubt crept into other parts of my life, such as my career and fear of taking on new responsibilities. How was it that, despite having some measure of professional success, I still questioned my abilities and had succumbed to “the imposter syndrome” that businesswoman Joyce M. Roché talks about in her memoir/self-help book The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success?

It’s interesting how stories creep into our consciousness, replaying over and over in our heads: Like the story Granny often told with pride about how my White kindergarten teacher told Granny I was “borderline retarded” and should be left back and placed in a special education class. Reportedly, this teacher had told Granny that a certain number of first-grade seats had been reserved for children of other races – non-Black children. Granny threatened to call the NAACP and sue my school, thus ensuring that I wouldn’t languish in an educational system that failed to adequately address my needs. Instead, I subsequently received speech therapy and other supportive services. I remembered a White college advisor and psychology professor who once told me, “I know you got an A on this exam. But, we have to see how you do on the next exam to see whether it’s a true indication of your ability.” At a college luncheon for parents, I remember talking to a White classmate’s father and mentioning to him that I had wanted to attend my college so badly that I applied through the early decision process and only applied to one other college. “You must have gotten in when the SAT scores required for admission were lower,” he told me with a smile on his face, as if successfully masking his insult and conclusion that I didn’t really deserve to be at this predominantly-White Ivy-league school. While in law school, I tried out for moot court (a school club in which you compete by arguing mock court cases before a panel of judges). One of the judges, a White upperclassman and moot court member, told me, “You bordered between arrogance and confidence.” Arrogance. That word caused me to question myself; it reminded me of the stereotype of the loud, angry, aggressive, “ghetto” Black woman that I am always trying to escape. The idea that in order to make others feel comfortable, I couldn’t appear too sure of myself. I wondered whether he would have made the same comment to a White or male student. And then there’s the old adage Granny and Black parents everywhere tell their children: “If you’re Black, you have to be twice as good to get half as far;” or “If you’re Black, you have to do everything better than Whites; you can’t do what they do; you can’t afford to mess up.” Along the way, I had internalized messages that I wasn’t enough – not good enough or smart enough or qualified enough. I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of just being or existing in all of my youthful, indecisive, inconsistent, still-trying-to-figure-things-out, I’m-just-human glory. I developed this idea that my performance at any given moment is not only a reflection of my worth as a person, but a reflection of my race. Whether real or imagined, that’s a lot of pressure to live up to.

I thought about how this fear shows up in my life today. It shows up as procrastination and feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities. I feel as if I am on a never-ending merry-go-round to prove myself. The fear that I must do everything perfectly and that I won’t measure up often leads to delays in my starting things – both big projects and the more mundane, such as responding to emails. If I can’t be superwoman and solve the melodrama of the day in one fell swoop, then I often marinate in my self-doubt or procrastinate by analyzing and researching the matter until I feel adequately secure in my superwoman-ness.

Ain’t nobody got time for that. Things must get done. The Now Habit reminds me to return to the confident fearless child within me – the little girl who knows she can be a writer or magazine editor or anything else she wants to be. The fearless being who doesn’t suffer from “analysis paralysis” or question whether she is qualified or how she will get the job done. The child who just does it and enjoys the journey. While reading segments of Oprah Winfrey’s journals online today, I came across this entry:

“Right now I’m wrestling with the notion of how, when, where to teach . . . under a structured setting. Stedman says just do it – and you’ll learn how to do it. Too many people wait for things to be ideal before trying . . . Me waiting to get thin before living my life.”

How profound. “Just do it – and you’ll learn how to do it.” Make the road by walking. You don’t have to have all the answers today, or know exactly what the end product will look like. You don’t have to be perfect or do it perfectly. Despite the façades others show the world, no one is perfect or knows it all. Everyone’s got their “stuff” to deal with. Everyone has had to try new things and embrace new challenges. No matter what the source of your fear may be, just start now, right where you are. Be that fearless confident kid who just goes for it. You’ll be one step closer to doing the things that need doing.

How will you return to the fearless child within?

The Honesty Revolution

Honesty Hour

“To thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare

A new year is usually a time for new beginnings. It’s the time of year when the well-intentioned make New Year’s resolutions they end up breaking by February. Each year, I usually join a gym (or pledge to start going to the one at which I am already a member), join a dating website (or log back on to the one on which I am already a member), promise to finish my memoir (this deserves its own blog post; keep hope alive), lose 20 or 30 pounds (this number has now increased to 50 pounds), write “thank you” and “request” letters to God (a tradition I began with Granny; I still need to do this because Granny would be mad if I didn’t), and make a long list of other things I will start or stop doing (I can’t seem to find last year’s list). But, my track record is pathetic. I never met a New Year’s resolution I didn’t break.

This year, I made only one New Year’s resolution: to be honest with myself. To be honest about the people, behaviors, things and activities I like and dislike. To be honest about what’s important to me and about the things I couldn’t give two cents about. To be honest about how I want to be treated. To be honest about why I have or have not achieved certain things in my life. To be honest about my faults and flaws. To be honest about my strengths and blessings.

All other goals flow from our ability to first be honest with ourselves. How honest we are with others; the types of relationships we have and the integrity of those relationships; the goals we set and achieve; the type of life we lead; what we accept or refuse to tolerate in life; and the degree of harmony between what we feel and how we live – all of these are influenced by how honest we are with ourselves.

I’ve often been dishonest with myself for various reasons – because being honest meant hurting someone’s feelings or upsetting them; rocking the boat; or living below others’ expectations of me. But, I’m not living my best and most authentic life if my words and actions don’t match my feelings and thoughts. Being dishonest with oneself is also quite exhausting.

I got a head start on my honesty revolution by breaking up with one of my two gyms on New Year’s Eve (had to beat the automatic membership renewal clock). Yes, one of two gyms. Let’s be honest: in the past year, I have gone to the gym exactly two times – once to join and once to work out with a friend. Let’s be even more honest: I’m giving my gyms free money each month, I still haven’t dropped those 20, 30 or 50 pounds, and I have no intention of (or interest in) going regularly. Besides, walking my dog Buster counts as exercise. I resisted the gym manager’s attempts to convince me to keep my membership or at least freeze it until I become more motivated in the future. Honesty check: I haven’t been motivated to go to the gym since 2002, with a gym binge once or twice since then.

Being honest with myself just gave me an extra $100 in my bank account each month. Next up: cancelling my membership at Gym Number 2 (baby steps, folks).

Cheers to the honesty revolution! How will you start being more honest with yourself?

Twenty Lessons on Letting Go and New Beginnings

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell

new beginnings

After living in my childhood home for the past 35 years, I finally sold it. Leaving the home granny had brought me to as an infant was bittersweet. Since her death more than two years ago, I have vacillated countless times between a resolve to die there of old age with my collected stray cats and the urge to walk out and leave it for the squatters to ramble through. Well-meaning friends offered sage advice in my times of indecision.

“Girl, you own real estate! In New York! Shoot, you know how many people wish they had a house? In New York?”

“You’ll regret it if you sell it.”

“It’s an investment. You shouldn’t sell.”

“It’s a money pit. The needed repairs will bankrupt you.”

“You need to start over.”

“You should fix it up and then sell it so you can get more money for it.”

In the end, my decision to sell was as much an emotional one, as it was an economic one. Moving was a necessary step in helping me to heal, move on, and create my own life and happiness.

The process of moving also required me to finally sift through 3 floors and more than 3 generations of stuff, some of which I never knew existed. My house was a treasure trove of memories, and I was constantly getting sidetracked by new discoveries as I tried to beat the real estate closing clock. I cried ugly-girl, anti-sexy, headache-inducing tears as I read letters my estranged mother had written to my grandmother as a teenager, a college freshman a few months after my birth, and a prison inmate years later. It was the first time I saw my mother as someone other than a woman who had chosen drugs and her own whims over being a mother and daughter. Like me and my grandmother, she was a little girl who wanted to be loved by her mother. I laughed as I read a letter granny’s twin brother had written to her more than fifty years ago, in which he lamented, “I don’t have too much to say, because I have so many problems I can’t think straight.” Nestled between pictures and old Hallmark cards was a letter written by one of granny’s friends, asking granny for forgiveness about some perceived slight. In retrospect, the disagreement seemed trivial and this friend would later become part of the village that helped me care for granny after she developed Alzheimer’s. In another letter to granny, her best friend wrote that she had enclosed money to thank granny for her help with something. I also found a letter granny had written to the neighbor who used to stand in his backyard and cuss God out when it rained, in which granny commented that she had enclosed money in appreciation for his kindness during her illness. I discovered a list granny had written of the more than fifteen places she’d lived in since moving to New York over fifty years ago. And here I was complaining about moving for the first time in my life. Granny’s journal from 1969 reminded me that she had bestowed me with her writer’s spirit and I wondered whether our shared struggles were embedded in our DNA. A church booklet that contained a picture of a teenage minister we now know as civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, a fellow church parishioner of granny’s years ago, made me smile. Pictures of the great-grandmother I never knew made me wonder what she was like. Granny’s old bills and bank account statements from as far back as 1978 made me grateful for electronic billing and my job. I found granny’s fifth-grade report card and a school picture. She even looked like a granny at 10 years old. I wondered what the non-smiling, tough-looking little girl was thinking. I wondered if she felt loved. These items gave me a greater insight into myself, my mother and my grandmother and taught me that there is so much I do not know about our stories. Had I not decided to move, I never would have taken the time to sort through these things, always promising to get around to it “someday.” As I examined, catalogued, photographed, and packed granny’s belongings, I realized:

20. Letter writing is a lost art.

19. People in this world are very generous.

18. Granny was a hoarder (and so am I).

17. Change is necessary in order to move forward in life.

16. We are all flawed, vulnerable, and want to be loved.

15. If you take the first step, God will do the rest.

14. Paper is evil. Electronic statements and bill payment are divine.

13. Real friendships can survive misunderstandings and conflicts.

12. I am stronger than I thought.

11. Everyone has a story. Our story does not begin with us.

10. When in doubt, choose happiness.

9. It’s okay to want something different in life and to change course.

8. We are all imperfect and doing the best we can.

7. Be humbled by your elders’ struggles and grateful for their sacrifices.

6. Perspective begets compassion.

5. Letting go of some things allows you to discover and more fully embrace greater things.

4. Everything is about timing.

3. My picture of what happiness looks like is the only one that matters.

2. I am not 25 anymore and Epsom salt is my new best friend.

1. Everyone deserves to be happy. Even me.

Wednesday’s Word

We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects. –  Alexis de Tocqueville

Memory Mondays: Gangsta Granny

During my time in law school, granny used to meet me at the train station when I came home at night because she thought it was too dangerous for me to walk alone (late or not so late) at night. Whenever she was unable to meet me, she’d “walk me home” by talking to me on the telephone as I walked from the train station. Although her actions seemed a little extreme in my twenties, I was used to her overprotective ways. In junior high school, she’d wait with me at the bus stop every morning. “Granny, the bus stop is right across from the police station,” I often pled. “So? You can still get kidnapped from in front of the precinct,” she’d answer. When is the last time you heard of someone getting abducted right across the street from a police station? In high school, she spared me the embarrassment of her presence at the train station, but gave me a very early curfew. “School lets out at 3 o’clock, so you ought to be home by 3:30!” she’d tell me. By the time I reached law school, both she and I reverted back to junior high. She’d be standing by the stairs behind the token booth, wearing a tough look on her face – no smile and her lips poking out like a pouting child. She looked rather intimidating – or as intimidating as an elderly woman wearing a wig that’s seen better days and a long black oversized down feather-stuffed coat with her legs stretched apart and leaning on a cane can look. “Granny, you’re not afraid someone’s gonna try to  rob you,” I once asked her, thinking that her cane might make her a target to neighborhood thugs. “No,” she answered. “I’ll just start swinging my cane and speaking in tongues or talking to myself. They won’t mess with me cus they’ll think I’m crazy.” That made plenty of sense to me. No one ever messed with gangsta granny.

Wednesday’s Word

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
― Joseph Campbell

Wednesday’s Word

“We can either watch life from the sidelines, or actively participate . . . . Either we let self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy prevent us from realizing our potential, or embrace the fact that when we turn our attention away from ourselves, our potential is limitless.” – Christopher Reeve

On The Power of Experience

The determination to outwit one’s situation means that one has no models, only object lessons. – James Baldwin

All Aboard! Happiness Is a Journey

While rummaging through old papers today, I found this very inspiring note from Professor Paula Franzese, one of my favorite law school professors:

Dear Property Connoisseurs,

 Life will always be filled with challenges. It’s best to admit this to yourself and decide to be happy anyway. One of my favorite quotes, “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, debts to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

This perspective has helped me to see that there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So, treasure every moment you have. And treasure it more because you shared it with someone special, and remember that time waits for no one . . . . .  

So STOP waiting until you finish school, until you go back to school, until you lose ten pounds, until you gain ten pounds, until you start your dream job, until you get married, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, until you are rich and famous, until you get a new home or car, until spring, until summer, until fall, until you die, to decide that there is no better time than right now to be HAPPY . . . . . HAPPINESS is a journey, not a destination.

Thought for the day:

                “Work like you don’t need the money,

                LOVE like you’ll never get hurt,

                And dance like there’s no one watching!”

 

What will you do TODAY to be HAPPY?     

Operation Clean House

Operation Clean House is in full effect. The bed in which granny’s home attendants slept is filled with more than a hundred books slated for donation, with four boxes of books scattered on the floor. It’s amazing how many books we’ve accumulated over the years. It’s time to start using the public library and buying more e-books. A friend suggested that I clean out one room at a time in order to avoid getting overwhelmed.  I’m still working on one hallway, and had to go take a nap to regroup. I finally bought a new shredder. Paper is the devil. Onward and upward!