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On Fire

by Amanda Enayati

There is a pile here: two big boxes and three large envelopes. The boxes are stamped Penguin Random House and the envelopes are from Simon Schuster. The boxes contain my first book, due to be released in early March. The envelopes contain a book I contributed a chapter to, alongside a slew of well-known and bestselling authors.

They’ve been sitting in the corner for weeks now, unopened.

“Why won’t you open them?” My ten-year-old daughter has asked me more than once.

“I don’t know. I’m waiting for a sign,” I’ve said more than once.

Truth is, I’m terrified.

I spent so many years bum-rushing the gate that it never occurred to me to think through what would happen if it ever opened.

What if I made mistakes? What if it sucks? What if everyone hates my book? What if everyone hates me? What if what if what if what if …

I snatched my book, which is about stress and what it can teach us about how to live, from the jaws of time. I wrote it while taking care of two kids, dropping off, picking up, helping with homework, buying groceries, making dinner, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, vacuuming, working part-time at a consulting gig — and without hired help because, shit, that’s expensive and it’s either childcare or the kids’ music classes. I know most of you won’t bat an eyelash at any of this, because you’re doing exactly the same thing (and much more) yourselves.

So why don’t I feel like I’m enough? Why am I spending so much of what should be a glorious moment of triumph huddled in an imaginary corner, biting my nails, envisioning worst-case scenarios, fearing disaster? What if what if what if …

I suspect my stories. I do. I think we get these stories early on. They are handed to us by our parents, our families, our communities, our ancestors, our friends, our media. And we walk through our entire lives, sticking to these scripts. Often blindly. And if your stories are not good ones, if they don’t serve you, well …

At this point, I have a pretty good sense of my script. And in many ways I have managed to flip it. The past is just a story we tell ourselves. I have learned how to create better stories—great stories sometimes—stories that help me, that serve me. Being a child refugee from a revolution; living for years without a country or your immediate family; not fitting in; being called ugly over and over again because you’re too dark, too foreign; suffering from PTSD after 9/11; almost dying from cancer—in my new stories, all of these are strengths. They are superpowers. They make me special. They make me different. They make my book different than the scores written by the supremely privileged whose advice I just. can’t. relate. to.

But I also know that I have to remain conscious, in the moment, mindful, on guard, because the old stories, the toxic ones, are there, ready to kick me down and keep me there.

I think of how my kids move through the world sometimes. I marvel at them. How they own the moments; how they relish the joys and successes; how they examine the failures; how they don’t take any of it personally; how they keep a sense of humor about most things. I raised these two. I told them about the bad stories. Warned them not to believe the bullshit. To hand it back to where it came from and say: “No, thank you.” To write their own stories. I want so badly to be like my children.

The book, Seeking Serenity, comes out in two weeks. It’s time: the best of times, the worst of times. It’s now.

I am out there battling the dragons, quieting voices of defeat, countering them with new narratives. And I know I’m winning because these lands I find myself in are new. I have never ever seen them before.

Yesterday I had a companion. And as battle raged, she sang to me.

“She’s living in a world and it’s on fire,” she sang.

“She’s got both feet on the ground … She got her head in the clouds. And she’s not backing down.”

Yes, I replied, yes, Ms. Alicia Keys.

This girl is on fire, we sang together, she’s on fire. She is she is she is she is she is.

Today. Maybe today is the day I will open the boxes.

Amanda Enayati is a columnist, author and speaker whose essays about stress, happiness, creativity, technology and identity have appeared widely. Her book, Seeking Serenity, will be published in March 2015. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter.

On black children, black history, and the good life

Watching Ava DuVernay talk about Selma. Seeing black bodies beaten by white police officers.

“That was the past. They should get over it.”

You might think that these words came from the mouth of a conservative white male who is tired of talking about slavery, tired of talking about Jim Crow, and more focused on modern-day theories of black cultural pathology to explain today’s disparities (someone like him). But you would be wrong.

Those words came out of the mouth of my nine-year-old son.

My black nine year old son.

At first, I was simply stunned. Is he seeing what I’m seeing? We’re watching black people — black people like us — being bitten by dogs, assaulted with fire hoses, beaten by cops.  But all he saw was “history,” something unconnected to him and his life.

In some ways, his response should please me. Paula Giddings once told me that one of the best ways middle class blacks can be a part of the struggle is to enjoy the lives we have. Because successful black people were killed for enjoying their lives.

My boy lives a good life. He goes to a good school. He’s never been called a nigger or a porch monkey. He’s never been stopped by the police. He’s only encountered officers there to protect him. He leads a good life.

And I’ve successfully protected him. Every school year, there is something and someone new waiting to knock him down. To deny his intelligence. To stereotype him as a troublemaker. And every year, I’ve fought for him. I fought for them to simply leave my boy alone. I continue to fight for him and all black boys in our district.

But maybe I did too good of a job. Because he has no idea that there were fights to be had.

Yes, we’ve talked about Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner and Mike Brown. We’ve attended rallies against the death penalty, and the state-sanctioned murder of black men. He is surrounded by our black “family,” the close friends that are at every birthday and school play, no matter what. He attends what we call “black camp” when he visits his grandparents on the East Coast for two months every summer, like our folks spent summers down South. We constantly talk about black people, past and present. I point out that they are black. We talk about race in our house.

But somehow, he’s not connecting these “lessons” to him and his life.

Maybe because he lives surrounded by black excellence. He lives on a college campus. All our family friends are black professionals — lawyers, doctors, PhD students, PhD holders. His mama has a PhD. Black people being great is what he sees. He hasn’t learned first hand the barriers one must overcome to be where many of us are.

But our children are more likely to experience downward mobility than other folks. As much as we’d hoped it would, all we — the collective we – have worked for is often not enough to shield them from the realities of blackness. As Chris Rock said, most white people would never change places with him and become a black man. And he’s rich. Although my boy doesn’t get it now, life will make him understand what it means to be black.

Back to our conversation — I hope I quickly recovered from my original shock. I explained to him that he lives a good life quite unlike many black people. That the reason he is the only black boy in his grade at school is because not many black people live here because not many black people can afford to do so. That mama went to an all black school when I was a kid because policies made it such that black people lived in a different place than where white people lived. That black people go to prison more often than white folks, that black people go to colleges like Stanford less than white people, that black people make less money than white people. That even though we aren’t being beaten in the street on national TV, black men are being killed by police officers because they look scary — and that they are afraid of us simply because we are black. That even though we have a black president, the president has a limited role in making things better for people. That black people still aren’t thought to be as smart as white folks. That black people are not respected like other people.

That’s when he looked at me. “Well, I’m going to be an engineer when I grow up, and I’ll show them.” Pause. “I mean, all I want is to be respected. I just want to be respected.”

That response soothed my soul for a little while. But I want him to know he should be respected whether he is an engineer or an artist or an athlete or a teacher or lawyer or homeless. He shouldn’t — and he doesn’t — have to do anything to “gain” respect. He should be respected because he is a human being, just like everyone else. I want him to have a sense of the linked fate that I feel towards other black people, other disrespected people, other people considered “less than.”

That’s going to take many more conversations. But next time, I’m gonna be ready.

“Which One is Yours?”

By Amanda Frye Leinhos

“So, which one is yours?”

I was sitting in the front row, amiably chatting with the woman next to me at the middle school’s Geography Bee finals.  My daughter Mimi, a 7th grader, was one of the 40 finalists, and she’d been a little nervous, so I’d found seats up front for my two other daughters and myself, so that we could catch her eye and make faces and try to help her relax. I had just collected our belongings and sacrificed the seat I’d been saving for my husband, who was late getting out of a meeting, so that the couple next to me could sit down.  The white women in this affluent Silicon Valley community generally seem to fall into two types, and the woman next to me was more like a techie mom than a trophy mom – one who did programming instead of Pilates, who’d married late, had a kid in her early forties, and was spoiling the heck out of him.  She’d been telling me all about her son, and how excited he was to be here, and how they’d always known he had a gift for learning and retaining these kinds of facts, and how incredibly smart and talented he was.  I could see the moment that she remembered — if I was sitting in the front row, it was most likely because I had a kid in the competition, too.

“So, which one is your daughter?”

“She’s just there, in the front row.  There are two girls sitting together? She’s the one on the right.”

She shifted and began to gush about what an achievement it was that our kids had made it to the finals and what an accomplishment it was in a school of this size to be among the finalists and how proud I should be, clearly thinking that as a black mother I must have no idea about how important education was to my child’s success and that I should be encouraged to value this experience.  She smiled at me, pleased with herself for doing her liberal duty on behalf of the less fortunate.  I closed my eyes briefly and took a breath, my usual coping strategy when I’m getting racially read as inferior, condescended to, and underestimated.  I was really glad she didn’t try to pat me on the hand.  Actually, she should be glad.

“So where is she? I don’t see her.”

I turned to look at the woman next to me.  What more could I say?  You can’t pick out the two girls in the front row? You don’t know your right from left?  I tried one more time, just to be nice.

“Front row. Fourth from the left. One. Two. Three. Four.  Ponytail. Glasses.”

“Huh.”

The woman looked away, turned toward her husband, and started telling him about how there were snacks on the table in the back of the room, if he wanted some.  Apparently, that was the end of our conversation.

I’m a brown-skinned woman, I’ve loc’d my hair, people clearly read me as African American.  But my husband is white, and we have three daughters who vary in hue from golden brown to pale.  Nadia, our oldest, is dark enough that people assume she’s related to me, but that doesn’t always happen with our younger two girls.  Mimi was evidently light enough by this woman’s measure that she couldn’t see my daughter as mine.  My presence at this event was already slightly illegitimate in her eyes; she’d already behaved as though she believed black families aren’t supposed to value education.  But in that moment we went from illegitimate to invisible, because we didn’t fit her idea of what a family should look like.  I’m not mad about it.  It happens often enough that I don’t often get angry anymore.  Instead I thought, “How sad for you.”

How sad, because no black woman has ever questioned whether my kids belonged to me.  And how sad, because our ability to define family broadly and with love is one of the ways black folks have survived in this country.  Being able to lean on each other, to care for each other’s children, and to rely on each other for support and advice builds the resilience of black women and black families.  My kids have so many ‘cousins’ because of all the friends we claim as family, and these relationships ground them and connect them to a collective identity that carries them through the inevitable challenges they face.  There are so many people in our lives who’d have claimed my baby as theirs, and been just as proud of her as I was.  And having just come off of a week of vacation and visits filled with the experience of kinship, I wasn’t all that mad about her ignorance.  I was just grateful for what we have.

As it turned out, her son and my daughter washed out on the same question, which three-quarters of the finalists weren’t able to answer correctly.  No shame there – they all did well.  Mimi had regained her cool after the first question was asked, and she genuinely enjoyed herself. At the end, we celebrated and clapped and cheered, and they all received an official certificate and pin for their participation.  And I left feeling some compassion for that woman, whose definition of family was so narrow that she couldn’t see my daughter was mine.

Amanda Frye Leinhos is a mother of three daughters and a doctoral candidate in sociology of education at Stanford, where she studies race, inequality, and language and the role they play in schools.  She holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Harvard and was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Photo courtesy of Vox Efx via Flickr

(Black) Boys 2 (Black) Men

By Annie Holmes

About a year ago, my husband and I were talking about disciplining our children. We are raising three boys (11, 8 and 8 months). During the conversation, my husband stated, “You are raising boys. I am raising men.” As we unpacked this statement, I found that he was not diminishing my approach to parenting, but that he was drawing upon his experiences as a black man growing up in the Unites States.

We began to talk about the conversations he had with his father, that as a black daughter I was not privy to. We have had to talk with them about engaging with police. We talked about our desire to see them be strong and independent with sky high dreams and a strong education to back that up, while at the same time being vulnerable, caring, kind, social justice minded and honest. We talked about appearance, how they should carry themselves and setting priorities. We both want the same things, but our lenses are very different.

We are consciously raising black boys to be black men. We talk about it. We pray about it. And we prepare them for it. Because, we know that no matter how hard we try, how much wealth we have or what kind of car we drive, when people see our boys, they won’t see the values that have been instilled. Nor will they see their intelligence. But, Dr. King’s vision has not been realized. They will yet be judged by the color of their skin. So, while I try to do my part to change this great big world, we will continue to raise our black boys to be black men.

Annie Holmes is a wife, mother of three amazing brown boys and higher education administrator. Her work involves access, equity and inclusion in learning and workplace environments. Her true passions are family, social justice, and singing. She tends to find ways to do them all. 

Oops

Hi all —

I didn’t mean to post that last blog post here!

Look for a post by Annie this afternoon! Sorry!

Decisions, Decisions: On Teenagers

By Andrea M.

Parenting is joyful confusion 80% of the time; a multitude of if-then propositions. From preconception to college planning, we are making decisions about someone else’s life, health, happiness, actions and future. If you stop to think about the volume of decisions parents make in the span of an average childhood – even one without significant health challenges and with relative stability – it’s pretty mind boggling that we manage to get dressed and go to work, much less participate in civic and social activities.

As children get older then they’re allowed to stretch their reasoning and spread their wings, make some decisions of their own. Rather than being active in the deciding, parents of older kids tend to take on more of a teammate role, hopeful that previous examples will serve as helpful directions on the path forward. When children want to make decisions that don’t always align with our perceptions of what’s right or in long term best interests then we often want to be substituted into the game of life, confident that our experience will bring about the best outcome. It’s hard to not jump in and fix (or at least rearrange) especially when you feel that the choices your child makes will increase their chances of being hurt or disappointed. We all talk about tough love and the value of shows like” Beyond Scared Straight” but deep down? We’d all trade out next breath if it would secure a pain-free existence for our kids.

Continuing with the parent as teammate thinking, sometimes we have to show leadership by allowing our kids to know they’re supported even in decisions that we don’t necessarily agree with. Your teenager wants to travel to Ferguson in support of the ongoing protests there. As a parent, you see the potential for arrest, physical danger, and general discomfort. You want answers to practical questions – where will you sleep? What if it snows? Your idealistic son wants to change the world and he swears he’ll wear layers, knows to invoke his right to remain silent (and then shut up!) should the need arise. Your daughter is anemic and wants to be a vegetarian because slaughtering animals is inhumane. She feels strongly about this even though she’s fainted as a result of her imbalanced diet of flavored water, Takis and salad.

We want our kids to pursue their dreams! We also want them to turn in homework and bring dishes out of their bedrooms before mold grows. It’s frustrating sometimes to be reasonable and understanding when you’ve said the same thing 10 times – this month. We also have to recognize that their decision making abilities aren’t the same as ours. Not because they don’t listen or are hardheaded or willful or stubborn…but because they are at different stages of development. They don’t have the benefit of having made the (many!) mistakes we have recovered from. It’s worth remembering that physiologically, different parts of the brain mature at different times. We have to be mindful of looking at children’s decisions through adult eyes because even as they may grow physically to tower over us, children are still growing intellectually and in their ability to reason and view situations from various angles is limited. More information on teenage brains can be found here.

That’s parenthood…feeding and clothing and protecting a living embodiment our of hearts, leaving us vulnerable to exquisite pain and infinite joy as shown in a single tear or hear in a tiny giggle.

I’m a mom of teenagers…and a 7 year old who, according to her testimony, went to medical school for 9 years. I didn’t have to pay for it so I’m cool with Dr. O. She loves science and surgery and I love her. My teens keep me thinking about the future, possibilities…and just how much limits can stretch. I’m a consultant and business person and volunteer. I hope that all those dimensions shine through as I share my singular Cocoa Mama experience. 

Signing off . . . On Leaving the Navy and Still Feeling Guilty

By Kia Dunbar-Harris

Guilt (n):

(1) responsibility for a crime or for doing something bad or wrong; or

(2) a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.

For a long time I’ve struggled to find the words to describe how, on most days, I feel. Then I stumbled upon a great article describing a term I had never heard of before: “mommy guilt.” Everything in the article explained the feelings I’ve had ever since my daughter was born. I know I’m probably late, but, well, whatever.

My daughter is the most charismatic, energetic and pleasant little girl you will ever meet. She is wise beyond her years and has the biggest heart. I can’t imagine my life without her, but before I had her I didn’t even want her.

Let me explain.

As a college student, having a baby was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I remember telling my mother that I did not want to get married and I was probably never having any children.

As a young twenty something woman, I was well on my way to having a successful career as a nurse and a naval officer. I had dreams of traveling the world and being promoted up the ranks to someday being a Navy Captain, an Admiral even. My priorities changed when I met my husband, and at 27 years old, was actually married.

Soon after we got married, I found out I was pregnant. I wondered: Do I re-enlist for another commitment with the US Navy? Or do I get out with an honorable discharge? It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

You see, when I was four months pregnant, I was ordered to go to Guantanamo Bay to give chemotherapy to Iraqi detainees. I remember boarding the small plane thinking of nothing but the safety of my child. I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the plane. What kind of danger or harm would come to my baby or me?

At that moment I realized that being a mom was more important to me than being a sailor, as much as I loved it. I owed it to my child to provide her a stable home and environment. I did not want to leave her on while I was on deployment or force her to leave her family and friends every four years. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to create a home for her. Somewhere safe and comforting like the home my mom created for me.

But although I resigned from the Navy, it did not stop my ambition as a nurse. I finished grad school and was blessed to receive promotion after promotion, my own version of the Jeffersons’ “moving on up.” But the higher the position, the more responsibility. And the more responsibility, the more time spent working.

Even though I’m not in the Navy anymore, I still feel guilty.

I spend many hours at work. Some evenings, I have to bring work home and it is not unusual for me to put in a few hours on the weekends. While I am trying to be a role model of a successful woman and make a better life for her, at times, I feel like I am missing out. There have been days when I’ve come home from work only in time to tuck her in at night. When I’m not at work, I feel like all of my time should be devoted to her to make up for all of the hours I am away from home. That time adds up, but yet I still feel like it just isn’t enough.

I’m sure some people, my husband included, feel that I over indulge my daughter. It’s probably true — it’s my way of compensating for the time I’m not with her. But is there really anything wrong with that? Am I wrong to make her think the world revolves around her when we are together because I want her to know how important she is to me? I want her to know that I am present in the moment.

Because no matter how many times she tells me she loves me and that “I’m the best mom ever,” I doubt the truth of those words.

It’s likely a part of who I am; I always feel the need to be better and do better. But, in the end, I always feel guilty because, in my eyes, I am still not doing enough. With each field trip I can’t chaperone, each morning I am not able to drop her off at school, each day I am not available to greet her after school, my heart sinks lower and lower in my chest.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. The article I read is a testament to that. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling bad. Because, truth be told, I still wish about “what if:” “I would be further in my career if I wasn’t a mom” or “I wish I was still in the Navy.” Of course, I love my daughter with all my heart and I love being a mom.

Still…

Sigh.

Signing off . . . and feeling guilty.

Kia Dunbar- Harris, RN, MSN, ACM, was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA and is a graduate of Temple University and Walden University. Kia is married with two children, one daughter and a stepson. Kia was commissioned as a US Naval Officer in 2004 and served four years active duty as a Nurse Corps officer and four more years as a reservist. She currently resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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