For The Motherless or Unmothered

mom and dad

Mom & Dad & Me & Mom

I live at the center of an odd emotional Venn diagram that falls around this time each spring. I learned of my father’s suicide on Earth Day in 2010. My mother died from cervical cancer in early 2012.

It is my mother who I miss most because insofar as I knew either of my parents, I knew her or tried to and she sometimes let me.

I am a word person but I increasingly love numbers as I get older. They are specific and neat. They offer a clarity words can obscure.

It has been five years since I commemorated Mother’s Day without my mother’s physical presence, without her outside voice shouting at me on the phone to wish her a happy mother’s day, or the arrival of a card she’d sent to me as if to say, “This is how you send a Mother’s Day card…see?”

It has been five months since I moved home to the Bronx, the place I left because my mother was here, insistent and ever-present and manic in a way that made it difficult to be close.

Before I returned, it had been 17 years since I had been a New Yorker. Every day that I was away, I missed being here: The noise, the dirt, the crowds. The possibility, the energy the light pollution that shames darkness and makes visible stars seem like survivors.

I left poor and afraid, following pragmatic versions of my dreams to Texas and the West. I came back successful by some measures, with enough experience to give back what the world had given to me, still battling survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome, writing through it in this new, shiny life of freedom.

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Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

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Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

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Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.

 

 

Learning to be Big

I left work completely devastated and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in a season of severe self-doubt, mired in worry. This was about business, about a professional transition, but it was more than that. I was feeling like I was doing something and I had done something that is all too familiar and damaging to my writing life.

I was in so much pain because I was trying to be small.

As it usually does, it took my best friend’s observation to get me to stop with the ugly crying and chest heaving.

“You are always trying to be small and I don’t understand it,” she said. “But literally nothing about you is small.”

Nothing about me is small.

I have a big laugh, a big smile. I have big feet, a big heart, and a big gift.

This is obvious to so many people, but until now, it has not been at all obvious to me. I don’t take these things for granted as much as I have been so busy thinking of other things that I haven’t allowed myself space to think about this.

My first thought was of Marianne Williamson, because this quote has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. It was my dear friend Portia, when we were pen pals (remember those?) 20 years ago who transcribed it in her remarkably beautiful penmanship in purple ink:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These are nice words and I like them and I loved to read them. I read them many times over the years. Each time, I felt the recognition of their truth but I didn’t  own being a child of God. Not really. I talked about it. I wanted desperately to believe it. But I also wanted to hide my lamp under a bushel, even if Scripture is pretty plain about why that’s not a good Standard Operating Procedure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. When I was a kid, I was literally smaller. Well, thinner. But I longed to have girth and heft, to be seen, to be a force like my mother, who was physically solid, strong.

The thing about visibility for women, for black women and girls, is that when you are seen, you are also a target. My bookish nerd brain decided, once in the Bronx, where most of us are invisible by default, and again when I entered the workforce, that the best way to keep from being a target of anything was to shrink.

This is where being mildly introverted comes in handy. It allowed me to fold myself and my personality up and tuck it quietly between the pages of a book. This presents to others as a feminine virtue, I think, as modesty and humility. Perhaps I also have some of that, but primarily, this was about survival.

Because God has a sense of humor, my height was always the main inconvenience on this front. Except for the random times when they were lining us up in reverse size order during elementary school — once a year! — I was the last or second to last person in a size order line.

Always visible from the front.

Always subject to someone’s question about my nonexistent basketball-playing ability.

Never ready for the attention.

I think some of this comes from not being used to having things. I wonder if that’s why it has taken so long to accept and to grow into the power of presence that my height has given me or the gift of writing. After all, the natural reaction to being unaccustomed to having things is to give them away.

I gave my power and gifts away in so many ways as a girl and a younger woman that it is impossible to recount them all, and merciless to try. The main reason I wanted to shrink is because of a feeling of deep guilt about succeeding in my life where my mother had failed. She wanted so much for her dreams to come to fruition she repeated them daily until she got sick. She chased them until she decided she was ready to move on to the ultimate dream.

I carried, while Mom was alive, this feeling of both wanting her to have everything that I earned and knowing that I needed to keep what was mine. She had raised me, she had given me this wellspring of compassion and empathy — for all of the difficulty that had come with it. Someone should compensate her for the hard life she had lived, I thought, even though I realized that some of the hard living was her choice.

She said she was jealous and that she wanted me to soar. What I took from those two statements was a rejection of anything I did because she couldn’t have the things she wanted most.

So to believe in my own expansion or expansiveness felt like a betrayal of her. Our mother is the beacon whose every word and action sets our moral and emotional compass. I found myself longing to move out from under my discomfort by undermining and sabotaging myself. Becoming flat. Quiet. Discreet. It seemed there could be only one big woman between us.

I let her be the sun and the sky. I was content to be a shadow, even a few years after her death.

The weird thing about grief is that it can set off in you a series of unconscious reactions. When you lose your footing, when you lose ground, the first thing God sends you is a reminder of what is familiar. You can chose to cling to the blanket or toss it aside for more discomfort in order to grow.

I clung to the blanket. I met people who reminded me so much of my mother; they displayed her ambivalence about how I should be in the world more than anything else. It happened in friendships, new and old, that had run their course for too long. It happened at work and in love, when I was least aware of how my playing small was at the core of so much suffering.

They assured me in one breath that they could nurture me and help me shine. In another, they helped me sabotage myself with manipulation and envy. Even when I was trying so desperately to be small, I was still, apparently, a threat.

It took falling apart in my best friend’s kitchen for me remember myself, to begin to see myself as others see me.

It has always been unfortunately comfortable for me to feel as though my success as a writer has come at the expense and inconvenience of others; That by becoming bigger, becoming my full self, unfolding the fullness of God’s gift to me, I would somehow be stepping on someone else, taking more than I am worthy to have. Being what the world often tells black women we are: Too big for my own britches.

It turns out that I have, in this way, been my own worst enemy. I’m forgiving myself for that, for the fact that I have never really loved myself enough to believe that it is enough to believe in my own expansion.

It is enough to give yourself permission to divest yourself of the opinions and reactions and feelings of others. You can feel and be as limitless as the horizon if you are willing to allow yourself to have all that you are capable of having and become all you are capable of becoming.

I am stepping into the big shoes that have always been mine to fill, at least I am working toward that. Life is too short to settle for a corner, for a side part, a dark shadow. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and it’s what I’ve seen. It is scary but beautiful and necessary to stand in the light or — even better — to become a brighter sun.

Up to here with trolls? Tips for navigating online drama

The Internet is now an essential part of academic life, but anyone who has ever spent hours arguing with anonymous commenters or days managing positive or negative responses to his or her work knows cultivating a presence in cyberspace isn’t without serious drawbacks. Just like in real life, there’s always more than enough online drama to go around.

For women, though, things can quickly shift into dangerous territory offline. “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” journalist Amanda Hess describes rape threats directed at her for simply being a woman with an Internet connection. She notes that 72.5 percent of people who reported being stalked or harassed online between 2000 and 2012 in one study were women. For women of color, the online complexities are even worse.

Two of the most extreme cases involved high profile women of color providing commentary on controversial topics. In February, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper received death threats and an onslaught of racist, sexist vitriol in response to a piece she wrote at Salon about a Florida jury’s failure to convict Michael Dunn, a white man who was charged with shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Last summer, Salamishah Tillet was attacked even more viciously after she appeared as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and talked about the intersection of racism and the anti-abortion movement.

Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, was mentioned in a segment on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” — and then the first wave of attacks started. “I was flooded by letters, emails and phone calls all the way up to the Provost of my University,” Tillet says. “My faculty colleagues and president were all contacted, and then we heard from alumni and television viewers. (Bill O’Reilly’s) viewership, at least the people who contact you, is a machine. It’s really a lot.”

The strangest manifestation of the attacks on Tillet, though, might have been the 80 magazine subscriptions that she had to individually write and cancel, she said. “Because my credit was involved, that was more effective than the harassment. But online, people were calling me a wench, and I had to contact the police and on campus security. At least when people go after you on Twitter, you experience that as a norm,” Tillet says. “But I was unprepared for both. It was really frightening.”

Sometimes the scale at which women of color are attacked is not as visible. In October, biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University Danielle N. Lee declined an editor’s request to blog at his site for free and was subsequently called an “urban whore.” Lee contributes to Scientific American where her Urban Scientist blog amplifies diverse aspects of the sciences and offers the rare perspective of a black woman conducting research while also drawing on hip hop culture. In the wake of her interaction with the editor, identified only as Ofek, Scientific American deleted her blog post about the interaction, then restored it to the site with a lengthy explanation of why it was removed. Lee also made a YouTube video in response to the incident and posted a response blog on her personal site.

“The whole thing got conflated,” Lee says. As for what academics might learn from her experience, she says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring that out. What I’ve learned so far is that the crap doesn’t end because you reach some level of success. The crap continues.”

University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong has also noticed that the more visible her work has become, the more of a target she has become for all kinds of online drama. When Leong writes about online harassment leveled at women, as she did in a four-part series of blogs at Feminist Law Professors, she points out that “Internet harassers focus on identity rather than on ideas as a specific strategy for excluding women and people of color from online discourse.” (Leong has also created a Cyberharrassment Bibliography as a resource for others and further discussion.)

Leong teaches constitutional rights, criminal procedure and judicial behavior, among other things. But the fact that she’s photogenic combined with her Native Hawaiian heritage has set off self-identified men on the Internet. This was amplified after she wrote an article published in the Harvard Law Review entitled “Racial Capitalism” but it got even worse when she started to blog about the other things that were happening, including someone creating a fake Twitter account using her name, her cell phone number and address being posted publicly and the address of her parents being posted online.

Instead of garnering her colleagues’ support, Leong said that she experienced a lot of victim blaming, particularly from white men. Her experience was so far beyond anything they experienced, she said, that they weren’t able to empathize. “A lot of my colleagues said stuff to me like, ‘You made this worse by speaking out about it,'” Leong said. “In other words, ‘If you had just gone about your business, then a lot of things that happened on the Internet wouldn’t have happened.’ As academics who work in the world of ideas and presumably care about what we research beyond what academics think about it, I thought it was important to raise awareness about the harassment.”

What else should academics facing online drama do?

Decide how you will manage the situation.

Tillet, who is a sexual assault survivor, said it’s important to understand that for women, the barrage of attacks can be a trigger for re-experiencing other violence – particularly for women of color. “The victim blaming that happens…you start going through that cycle again. On a personal level, it was important for me to shut down communication for two days. I was communicating with people who were helping, but I didn’t take any phone calls.”

Online attacks, excessive trolling or worse can take up huge chunks of time and energy that should be devoted to your work. Christopher Gandin Le, chief executive officer of Emotion Technology, which works with policymakers and web companies to promote mental health online, says it’s important to know how you’re going to handle yourself during and after online drama. “I haven’t found anyone who has created something for after something blows up on the Internet. It just goes away. There’s no learning experience for anyone.” In the absence of online mediators, targets of online harassment or attacks can seek short-term therapy on or off- campus in order to process the event. “Even when you create something really amazing people love, what do you do next, managing expectations and understanding that this stuff happens — basically, living your life is really all we can do.”

Delegate monitoring your professional presence online.

Though every individual case will differ, Leong says it is helpful to have a friend, ally or colleague who is not going through the same thing to help remove some of the emotional and practical burdens that come with being targeted online. That person can set up a Google Alert for your name to give you a heads up when something derogatory or defamatory shows up under your name. “You don’t have to be the person who sees that and putting forth the emotional energy to deal with that every single day,” she adds. Tillet said that she was helped greatly by supportive colleagues and friends. It helped that she gave over email access to the head of campus security to sort through to determine if any physical threats had been sent to her. She also kept a file of emails that were harassing and threatening.

Take screen shots of everything.

Both Lee and Leong documented their experiences extensively because misconduct online and other potentially controversial exchanges can easily be unpublished or deleted. Lee was wise to have screen shots of her exchange with the Biology Online editor; Leong has documented some of the online harassment on her blog. “Sometimes convincing a law enforcement officer requires handing them a stack of papers and saying, ‘It’s in here.’ I file everything in a folder in my computer, buried so that I don’t see it every time I log on to do research,” Leong says.

Remember that sometimes silence is better than a response.

Lee says that the weekend the incident with the Biology Online editor became public she went into radio silence. A number of people emailed her to tell her that by doing so, she taught them how to deal with a situation well, but she says she didn’t do it intentionally. “I was at home unable to eat. I was a mess privately. I don’t know what else I could have done. I was in no position to make a public statement,” Lee says. Instead, because she didn’t publicly react to the fall out from her exchange, she found that she was able to keep herself from saying something rash. “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself and live with the aftermath of what happens next. I didn’t want anything out there that I couldn’t manage later. It’s easier to put something out that you can’t come back from.” Tillet also says of the two days when she didn’t engage with the public that “It was important for me to shut out the noise and come up with a strategy for a plan of attack.”

If you’re not experiencing the harassment but know someone who is, try being supportive.

Leong says: “When people say to a woman who has been harassed and decides to speak up about it that she’s making things worse, it’s not a supportive thing to say. A better thing to say is, “It’s unfortunate that the harassment intensified, but it’s an important social issue and it was brave of you to do that.” Tillet said that her colleague Anthea Butler supported her by offering more strategies to decrease her visibility — or “create a more complicated path to me” — like changing her email address. Because online drama can be relentless, Tillet says go into your advocacy or writing on controversial topics “knowing who you’re standing with and with an infrastructure put in place to protect you and keep you safe.”

 

Salon: When leaning in isn’t enough

“…Economic status has a huge impact on whether women are willing or able to take risks at work. Generally, women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Things are unsurprisingly worse for women of color: African American and Hispanic women make 64 cents and 54 cents to every dollar made by a non-Hispanic white man, respectively.

Right now, economic progress also seems concentrated in the ranks of women who have working, well-paid partners — women who can afford to take risks like leaning in so far in that they might fall flat on their fired faces. Were they to get fired, after all, they have the money to fight discrimination and bias — or to tide them over while they look for another job.”

Salon: When leaning in isn’t enough