Past is Prologue?

Listening to talk radio today, host Warren Ballentine, made a statement that made me think, then shiver. In talking about the prison industrial complex  he mentioned that young people are allowed to drive at 16 but that they are unable to rent cars until they are 25. He cited a study done by automobile rental companies that the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for complex decision making, ability to delay gratification) is not fully mature until age 25. So in order to reduce the likelihood of damage to their fleets, most car rental companies err on the side of caution and don’t rent to those between 16 -25. Mr. Ballentine’s point was that car rental companies recognize that more mistakes are made by this group (as drivers), but that, as a society, we have decided that mistakes made at 17 or 21 should follow a person for the rest of their lives. The mistakes he was referencing in particular are non-violent felonies.

Convicted felons, in general, have a very tough time re-entering the workforce. There are certain career choices that will NEVER be open to them (lawyer, real estate agent, any position having fiduciary responsibility). This severely limits their income earning potential, and subsequently, their ability to adequately support themselves or their families. Of course this inability decreases the stability of communities that are disproportionately represented in the prison/parole system.  Which community is that? You get 1 guess.

As a mother of a teenaged boy I worry much more about him becoming involved with the legal system than drugs. We have gone over how to interact with the police should he have to (invoke his right to remain silent and then shut up. The end.). But let’s say he is convicted of having a bag of marijuana on his person (that he was *holding for a friend*) at 18. Does that conviction mean that he shouldn’t ever be able to pursue a career as a lawyer (his current aspiration)? Should checking that “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” box on a job application automatically rule him out of opportunities when he’s 30? The way the current criminal justice system works that conviction is a forever indictment of his character, potential and livelihood.

Should it be? For non-violent criminal offenders, should their records be stricken after a prescribed period – 2, 5, 10 years? How would this impact society? All I see is upside – the ability for people to support themselves, be productive members of society.

For the prison industrial complex there is incentive in maintain the incarceration status quo, and the post-jail system we have in place doesn’t discourage recidivism. Private companies that run jails need prisoners to be profitable so the trend over the past 20 years has been to increase ways become a criminal and, once identified as such, to maintain that status.

As a community I think that we should really give some serious attention and energy to how convicted felons are marginalized. Even if the kids of the CocoaMamas never set foot in jail, somebody else’s child needs us to advocate so that they can live productively after the fact.

Growing Pains

I am nursing a sore shoulder and back today (let’s observe a moment of silent thanks for prescription painkillers) after spending the evening at a skate party in celebration of my daughter’s 11th birthday. Even though no one in our family skates, she had a great time tiptoeing around the rink with her friends while her 3 year old sister pulled my shoulder out of the socket.  I loved the fact that the party was actually fundraiser for her school’s PTA so all the kids were already there (yay for no actual coordination required from me!).  My daughter was absolutely thrilled that her whole family was there, trying to stay on our feet.

The painkillers helped my shoulder for sure but there isn’t really an antidote to the pain that can accompany the blending of families and lives. Taking a look at our line up I sometimes wonder, always give thanks that we’ve managed to blend as well as we have.

Who is in the family? Her oldest half-sister (a freshman in college, cleared her busy schedule), her baby half-sister and my (almost) ex-husband were all on skates. My sister, niece and nephew were there and at home we had my mother and grandmother, ready for birthday cake. I almost forgot my oldest child, her big brother who was too cool to skate. On the surface it might seem odd that all these relationships that didn’t end exactly right can produce a family fun night.

In the beginning there were challenges for sure. The mom of my big girl (the college freshman) wasn’t very warm to the idea of me spending time with her daughter even after 2 years of being with my ex. After I had a child with him the relationship between the she & I improved and our kids spent more time together.  Maybe she was waiting till I knew what her suffering (in re: him) was about! And then I had baby number 2, and my big girl was so happy to have a little sister that we couldn’t have kept them apart if we tried.

For my daughters, my husband is the only dad they’ve known. The fact that our marriage didn’t work out doesn’t change that fact. So he will be here for birthdays and holidays. Hopefully people that he & I have relationships with in the future will understand that and be accepting. My point is that it can work, even when puzzle pieces don’t seem like they’ll fit. With patience and perseverance (and the occasional painkiller) anything is possible


Careless Whispers

The sound of her fingertips was staccato on the keyboard and the breathless muttering was barely audible over the tapping
“…stupid…Ugh! Not again!…”
tap tap tap tap tap
“G, you are such an idiot!”

“Excuse me”
She looked up, a little exasperated at the intrusion. her eyes wanted to know why I interrupted but her mouth didn’t move.
“Would you let someone else do that?”
“Call you stupid” And I took a sip of coffee, waiting for the answer that I already knew.
She was adamant. “Of course not!”
“Then why is it OK for you to do it?”

And so began my conversation with a co-worker about negative self talk. So often we are unaware of the things that we say to ourselves. She might not have been made aware if I hadn’t listened to her go on and on as we temporarily shared an office.
“I didn’t realize I’d been talking out loud, that was the running commentary in my head…just pointing out my own mistakes, so that I can fix them and improve.”

Many of us would never smoke, knowing the damage it can do to our bodies. We protect ourselves from physical harm and try to make choices that are positive & beneficial…for ourselves and for our children.

Think of negative self talk  as second-hand smoke. We’d never let a co-worker criticize us so blatantly, calling names and making personal judgements. But somehow it’s alright to criticize ourselves and use words that we wouldn’t tolerate from others. Just as second-hand smoke gets into our lungs and weakens them, those cutting words get into our heads and feed doubts and insecurities. The damage may not be as acute as with smoking directly but the lungs are never the same.

Just An Innocent Question

I was born and raised in America, have a college degree and English is my first language. My 3rd grade educated grandfather felt that grammar and enunciation were important so I am, in fact, articulate. Thanks to a flat iron my natural hair is often straight and when it isn’t my fro earns me the exotic label more often than not. Perhaps the straightness of my nose contributes to that characterization; I guess I owe that and my love of a good drink to my Scottish heritage.

Why is origin of my genes a pressing concern in 2011? Why is the “Mixed” question asked with a tinge of hopefulness, as if a certain combination of racial pieces will somehow unlock a treasure trove of American post-racial goodies? It is so tiring to hear people run down the list of bits and pieces that comprise a broken whole. We are all brown Americans at varying levels of consciousness (or lack thereof). Investigating my ancestry in an attempt to reconcile my face with your perception of beauty makes me feel tired and sad for your limited vision. Maybe it’s just innocent curiosity, and you are a student of faces, an artist. It’s just that I’ve been a Black woman in America for decades so I’m skeptical/jaded/over it.

I’ll answer the question though…
I’m mixed with
Angst & fury
Melanin & moxie
Tenderness & tenacity
Hardheaded sensibility and cool logic
Fiery passions and childlike wonder
By turns memorable and able to move without being seen
All of these traits and the unspeakable longing of my ancestors
Combine in the greatest chemistry experiment ever.
                                                Transformation of the highest order has taken place…
Every time I do not respond to provocation.
             Each tear that I hold back when I witness a hungry child.
             As I stifle screams, knowing that Black men are jailed for profit
             When I don’t give in to the lightheadedness that washes over me when I hear a mother’s screams, her child a victim of circumstance.
The fact that I am able to sit still and appreciate the color variations of a flower’s petals
Experience it with all my senses, and pick up on music playing softly in the background
…while Rome, in the form of my community, burns to a crisp
Is a testament to the perfection that is possibility
And what is a remix but a combination of possibilities?
So yeah, I’m mixed…

Holiday Time!

I’m just regular and plain, Black people brown #3. My hair is natural though my curls are inconsistent. I don’t have light eyes or big breasts, not overweight or thin. I am really just average and normal and unremarkable. I dress conservatively, though I love a sexy shoe. The only thing that might grab your attention if you passed me on the street is my height, which I had nothing to do with. My teeth aren’t perfectly straight nor have they been professionally whitened. While I’d love to have First Lady Obama arms I do nothing to tone mine. I’m sure I had a waist before becoming a mom, now a muffin top is my reality. I’m not down playing any attributes I have; only confirming the simplicity of my existence and my complete alrightness with it. I haven’t always been so accepting.

Like many people, I played the compare & contrast game relentlessly, oftentimes coming up short. Even though everybody does it, self-judgment is a wickedly personal game – without a winner. The feeling of not measuring up is certainly easy to luxuriate in as there are so many opportunities to learn how to improve yourself or get the latest on who has it better than you. TV shows and magazines bombard us with information about who is wearing what, what her trinket cost, how many cars he has. We get advice 24/7 on where to shop, vacation, get educated…how to have sex, when to have sex, what kind of socks keep you warmest….no matter the topic there is always a better (possible) way.

Does this obsessive focus inward serve us? I think not. America seems to have a national do-it-yourself psychosis where the number one project is self. We spend so much time and energy focused on getting better that our time spent BEING

  • happy that your plant is still alive
  • excited about getting a close parking space
  • comfortable in a bed with fresh, clean sheets
  • relaxed, enjoying a glass of wine
  • enchanted with snowflakes

    is limited.

Of course I understand that not every day is giggle worthy and that people can be a pain in the ass. I could certainly lose weight, eat healthier, meditate and rearrange my closet. There is so much improvement possible!

Right now though? I’m declaring myself satisfied. On this day, I’m good. I’m giving myself a break from the pursuit of possibility, the wonderings of what if. I am exactly what I need right now and my offering to the world is complete in this package, nary a bell nor whistle in sight. I accept my regular self and invite you to give it a rest and just BE.
Celebrate with me! December 9th is I’m Good Day.

Inspired by an excellent article on the price of the (obsessive) pursuit of happiness, found here

What the Holy Hell?!

When should you “know better”? How old is too old to lose innocence? I’ve been thinking about these things and the coercion that I feel was involved with the young men who were involved with Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Mostly because I know that those four young men are not the only ones harmed in this manner on a daily basis.

The summer after my freshman year in college my mother thought it would a great idea for me to volunteer at our church, helping out in the office. Since she’d already said I would, what choice did I have? I’d pledged my sorority during the spring of that year and the Sr. Pastor was a member of our brother fraternity. He was delighted with my neophyte self! We also had two junior pastors who were pledging grad chapter of his fraternity. Rev. Sr. took great delight in having my “little brothers” greet me and do little tasks. One of them took his pledging quite seriously; let’s call him Rev. Jr. – the youth minister. He was handsome and not too much older than me, funny and liked to flirt (in a church appropriate way of course). I didn’t take it too seriously but I was flattered and assumed his attention meant he was …interested in me. As a person.

We were in an office on the 2nd floor of the church that had a long countertop with selves above it. He asked me to sit on the countertop and talk to him. So we talked about school, being in the sorority, dating. I was sitting on the counter and he stood up, right in front of me, leaning on my knees. So I sat up straighter. In the movies, this is where the guy kisses the girl. But he didn’t kiss me. He moved my knees apart and grabbed my hips, pulling me forward.

 “What if your boyfriend did this? How would you react?”

I couldn’t move because there were cabinets behind me so I was stuck between him and wooden doors. I didn’t know how to answer his question or where to put my hands. I guess he read the confusion on my face, because he laughed as he let go and took a step back.

“I’m just looking out for you, little Big Sister… letting you know what men think about when they see you. You better get back down to the office.”

And so I was dismissed. And utterly confused. After that he took every opportunity to touch me when he saw me. I tried to make sure that I wasn’t alone with him upstairs anymore but he managed a hug or a squeeze quite frequently. I‘d had one boyfriend in high school, was a nerd to my heart (with great clothes, shoutout to my shopaholic mom) so my experience with dating and men was quite limited. I read a lot into the attention that was paid to me so when he said he wanted to take me to lunch for my birthday of course I accepted.

There was a Red Lobster near the church so we decided to go there. He wanted to stop by his apartment first, to get something. I didn’t want to be trapped there (ha!) so I followed in my car. We got there, he ran in then came right back out.

“Can you come in for a  second? It’s gonna take a minute to do what I need to do but we’ll still have time for lunch”

So I followed him in. He asked me to have a seat, went down the hall and was back a few minutes later. With champagne glasses in one hand and a bottle of something. Did I mention that this was my 18th birthday?

“Surprise! I thought we’d start celebrating here, and then get something to eat later”

“Oh, well…” and I didn’t know what to say. So I reached for the glass that was being offered and got pulled into a hug.

“Happy birthday to you…happy birthday to you…Happy birthday Dear Andrea…Happy birthday to you”, as sung in my ear.

“Let me pour you some bubbly”

I guess I looked at my watch one time too many, or sat too stiffly on the couch. At some point it became apparent that I wasn’t going to lunch and he wasn’t getting what he’d anticipated either. I declined the second glass and made a hasty exit. Now my mind was occupied with going back to work (at the church!) with alcohol on my breath and whether I would still smell like it by the time I saw my mom.

So nothing terrible happened, thankfully. Just some confusion, a little anger, mixed with the hopes of an 18 year old girl thinking she’d being pursued by a handsome older man. I never told anyone about it, went back to work that day, then school later that month. I skipped church for a few years (maybe a decade, don’t judge). But imagine that my relationship had become physical. Imagine that I’d known Rev. Jr. for more than a few months, shared intimate talks of hopes and dreams, fears and wishes. Imagine that he told me how special and chosen I was, showed his concern and support by listening and buying gifts…how devastating would it have been to learn that I was disposable?

This is what I thought of when I saw the young man talking about taking showers for hours, never being able to forget the scent of Long’s cologne. How alone and confused and heartbroken he must have been. Just as I’m confident that others knew of Long’s activities, I’m sure Rev. Jr. showed his “special interest” to other girls. What do you do as a teenager or young adult, charged with making your own decisions, being mature…when those you respect and admire give you terrible choices?

I owe my Twitter BFF @aaw1976 another round of drinks for her editing help 🙂

The F Word

I like to think of fall as a season for renewal and this year I am focused on making it fabulous.

The word I’m referring to is FIRST. That’s the position I’m putting myself in and I encourage you to do the same. CocoaMamas readers are some of the more self-actualized folks I know. I’m proud of the way we share, inspire and support each other. As a CocoaMama, it is easy to find something to do. Between work, school, being a wife/partner, daughter, sister, boss, employee, and 100 other things there is always opportunity for engagement. I’ve decided that I need to do more for me.

 The change of seasons is inspiring to me this year. The transformation of the leaves is beautiful and the chill in the air means a change in fashion too. I like to think of fall as a season for renewal and this year I am focused on making it fabulous. Since I skipped the summer shape up I’ve decided to get fit for fall. I don’t make time to go to the gym but I am able to squeeze in some plies when I go to the bathroom. Since I’m drinking more water, I make frequent trips. TMI? Perhaps. I’m learning (finally!) that little things add up to big improvements over time.

I’m also taking a closer look at my diet, working hard to eat less processed food and be mindful that 40 may be the new 20…but physically it’s still 40, and things have changed. That one little hair that popped up on my chin in my 30s? Now it is GRAY and has company! Glowing skin? No problem – as long as I follow the multi-product system my drier 42 year old skin requires. I had a blood pressure scare last month and I want to do my part to make sure there are no repeats. I make sure that my kids drink organic milk and always have fruit available, but I eat on the run, drink sodas and don’t sleep enough. I’m sure that the stress of knowing what to do and not doing it doesn’t help my blood pressure. As I’ve gotten older I also feel a certain anxiety about what I haven’t done, often failing to acknowledge my accomplishments. This of course produces more stress, which leads to ice cream and potato chips, high blood pressure and sleeplessness. Enough of that! I have a plan…

My Focused on First plan includes:

  • Going to the doctor (internal medicine and GYN) and dentist
  • Buying fabulous glasses, giving my eyes a rest from contacts
  • Listening to live music
  • Saving money, getting fiscally fit
  • Updating my fall wardrobe so I can look as fabulous as I feel
  • Sleeping more

What does your me first plan look like?

First focused links:

Woman First – great song by Kindred the Family Soul

Need beauty info? Check out AfroBella

DASH diet ebook

DASH diet overview

*I have to give a shout out to one of  my Twitter BFFs, the lovely & talented @aaw1976 for her feedback and encouragement (turn off the TV!).

Growing Up Too Fast

I was in the car with my 10 year old daughter listening to a segment on a morning radio show in which a listener asks the host for advice. In this particular letter the listener was a young lady who was in an abusive relationship, had been taken advantage of as a pre-teen.

I took it as an opportunity to discuss a few things with my daughter; first & most importantly she will NOT be dating anyone at age 12 (as had the young lady who wrote the letter). Secondly, if she ever, at any age, found herself in a position where a man was hurting her physically then she was immediately to tell someone. Perhaps the subject matter was a little strong for a 10 year old, perhaps not. I need her to know that there is no reason to ever be physically abused by someone. I needed her to know today and forever that that is the case.

As a person who was in a violent relationship it is especially important to me that women and girls understand that there is no normalcy, no rationalizing and no expectation that they be understanding or patient in these situations. Make a plan and GET OUT.

Things I didn’t discuss with my daughter but need some attention:

  1. Why is a 12 year old allowed to be alone with a high school boy?
  2. How do you have 4 children before age 23?
  3. What kind of people allow a 27 year old man to date a 12 year old? I don’t care how young he looked and how old she looked, somebody knew how old they actually were and should have said something!
  4. As a community, how can we make it clear what is acceptable to us, for our children. It seems that shame is non-existent these days

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic; how you have addressed or plan to address the issues brought forth.

Related links:

RAINN Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

Love Is Respect – National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline