Monday, April 18, 2011

Oops, I Did It Again!

Over the past weekend, I attended the Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation conference in Baltimore, MD for the second year in a row.  This time, I brought a group of young women from the women's leadership group I advise.  During last year's conference, the keynote speaker talked about securing our own oxygen masks before assisting others.  I promptly came home from the conference and wrote a blog post about how much that concept resonated with me and how I was going to make some changes so that I could be more effective as a counselor, beginning with learning how to care for myself. (You can read that blog post here.)

A year has passed, and in that time, I have accomplished some things that indicate that I am moving forward in my life.  I began to write more, which is not a hobby, but as much a necessity for me as breathing.  I took some time off from ministry, which had become more like something I had to do than something I got to do.  I moved, and in the process of moving I purged things from my past that no longer had any place in my life.  I stopped trying to hold on to a relationship where we were obviously both on different pages.  I helped plan a successful women's leadership conference for the third year in a row, this time with Michelle Obama's former chief of staff as our keynote speaker.  I attended a leadership institute for directors and aspiring directors of college opportunity programs.  I applied for a doctoral program and was accepted.  Just in the past week, I helped plan activities for two groups of high school students who came to visit our college on the same day.  I also completed the arrangements for the trip to Baltimore with eleven young women from the leadership group.  All of this planning occurred in the midst of my regular job duties and my plans for implementing a new student initiative.  Moving forward.  Full steam ahead.

If you're reading this, I would expect that you would be tired by now.  Or have a headache.  Or you might be thinking about all of the things you have gotten done, or need to do.  It's okay!  I have a paradigm shift for you!

First, let me acknowledge that I'm not sure I ever kept the promises I made to myself to take care of myself before trying to take care of others.  Okay, I know I didn't.  I know this because in the past year, in the midst of accomplishing so much, I cried so much.  It was never more evident than two weeks ago, when I found out I'd been accepted to a Ph.D. program in Higher Education.  I was so happy on the day I found out, then two days later, I freaked out.  I thought about how close I am to achieving this dream I've had my whole life, and how at this point in my life I thought I would have had a husband and children, and going back to school would be the icing on the cake.  In reality, I was feeling like school was going to be the cake, and might keep me from having the family I want more than anything.  Freaking out. 

As I was sitting in the workshops and listening to the panel discussion at the Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation conference, every once in awhile tears would well up in my eyes.  Every time the tears came, I stopped to ask why they were there.  And every time the answer was the same: I had done it again.  I had put everything and everyone before myself.  I had adopted the fighter's stance once again, striving to hold on to everything I had worked so hard for.

During one of those high school visits I mentioned above, I gave an impromptu testimony of my life to local high school students.  I talked about how my family lived in a shack in Puerto Rico, and my mother had never been allowed to go to school, so she couldn't read or write.  I recalled being in the first grade, walking to my home in the housing projects in Brooklyn thinking, "I am going to do well in school because I don't want to live in the projects for the rest of my life."  I knew that I had to be the best and that I had to work harder than anyone I knew in order to succeed.  I told the students that my parents were on welfare and disability, that I could not even afford college, but that I made it, and that I am starting a doctoral program in the fall.  They applauded.  Applauded.  All the while, I was thinking, "This is for them. This is so that they know they can make it too."  All of my accomplishments, especially those of the past year, have been applauded by others. Two things came out of that testimony for me: I fight because I grew up thinking I had to, and I don't do it for me, I do it for others to know that nothing is impossible.  But all of my accomplishments, while moving me forward professionally and personally, haven't brought me happiness.

Then I heard the words I needed to hear at the conference.  Right before lunch, a short documentary about successful African-American relationships called "Black Love Lives" was screened.  Although I didn't have the opportunity to watch the entire documentary, I heard a phrase from the film repeated several times by the visionary director of Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation, Inc.:  "Before you find your soulmate, you must find your own soul." 

In the last six words of that phrase, I had found the cause of my discontent.  I need to find my own soul.  Not my purpose; my purpose gets lived out every day.  Not my spirit; my spirit has been revived and shines brightly in me as a reflection of my relationship with God.  Not my heart; my heart has been opened up and I've learned to genuinely, unconditionally love others.  My soul has been lost.  My soul is that place within me that is only mine.  The place where only one or two others speak the same language.  The place where I celebrate myself, and know that I am not my accomplishments.  I'm not my failures.  I'm just me. 

Last fall, when I made the decision to cut back on ministry, I automatically looked for something to take its place.  I looked at the books I'd started to write but hadn't finished.  I asked my writer friend for advice, because I wasn't sure that I even wanted to go back to those books I'd started.  He said that I needed to do nothing for awhile so that I could hear from my soul.  I asked him, "Do you mean my spirit?  Because I hear from God all the time in my spirit."  He said something to the effect of, "No. Your soul. Your spirit is where God speaks to you.  Your soul is where you speak to yourself."

Here's the paradigm shift: I propose that we are not our accomplishments, though they make us feel better about ourselves.  We are not even our purpose, although that is how we are used by God to impact others.  I propose that we stop to listen to our own souls, because if we don't, we are ignoring the very place God created for us to become our authentic selves; the true place of happiness.

So I ask myself now, "When will I commit to finding my own soul?"  Because as long as I don't, I will strive and fight for everything I have and everything that I want.  And I will cry, because the tears are my soul's message to me that it longs to be found.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

And Ain't I A Feminist?

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  I don't claim to know anything about feminist theory.  However, it's starting to feel like I'd better learn.

It all began with a few incidents.  A few months ago, I'd heard that a male student was talking about me, and among the negative things he said, he mentioned that I was a "feminist".  Of course, no one would tell me the worst things he said, but the underlying idea was that calling me a feminist was a really, really bad thing.

Then one morning a colleague mentioned that, regardless of her planning ahead and packing the night before, his wife will repack her bags the morning of a trip.  I responded that he just needs to accept that women will plan, but think about what they might need or forgot throughout the night, so they need to repack in the morning.  He said, "Wait, I thought you said you were all for gender equality and no gender roles and all that."  I asked, "When did I ever say that?"  He didn't know; he just assumed that was how I thought because I'm the advisor for the women's leadership group on campus.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I got a phone call from someone who claims to love me.  He called me a nickname, which I asked him to repeat because it was a new one.  I remarked that people are always giving me nicknames, and he flippantly asked, "What about bitch?"  I replied, "No one calls me that", to which he responded, "Not to your face."

All of those incidents, especially the last one, kept replaying in my mind.  All night in my sleep, I could literally hear him calling me "Bitch" (Bitch...Bitch...Bitch).  (Okay, sometimes I think my life is a television show.) Granted, my friend's humor is usually pretty crude and tasteless, but I don't allow anyone to call me that word, even as a joke.  I just can't comprehend how any man who says he loves a woman would call her anything with such a negative connotation.  We could debate the word bitch, and how some women have redefined it to mean something positive, but this is my blog, and for me, it's completely unacceptable.

I recall an incident years ago with a male student who worked for me.  We were discussing something I was knowledgeable about, and I spoke with confidence in my knowledge on the subject.  He asked me why I was becoming so aggressive.  I never raised my voice, but I wasn't tentative and I wasn't giggling or smiling as I spoke.  (If you know me, you know I'm prone to laughing and smiling A LOT.)  I told him I wasn't being aggressive, I was just stating my opinion, and he continued to accuse me of being aggressive and getting angry.  Nothing about my tone or affect changed; but his face was turning red and he was obviously offended.  By my confidence, knowledge, and serious demeanor.  Hmmm.

I have been described as a strong, assertive woman. I wasn't always that way, but I've always been fascinated with learning, and as I grew older I gained the ability to learn quickly and apply whatever I learned successfully.  With knowledge and experience, I have become the kind of woman I never really knew I could be when I was a child.  Why wouldn't I be confident?  After working so hard all of my life to achieve many of my goals, why wouldn't I be strong?  After dealing with the adversity that comes with the territory of being a Puerto Rican woman, growing up in the projects of New York City, subsisting on food stamps and getting the ugly eyeglasses that Medicaid paid for, why wouldn't I become assertive enough to go out and get what I want?

I struggle with calling myself a feminist because of the negative stereotypes that have come along with the term.  However, I find myself reaching for whatever feminism means, because I've been feeling slapped in the face by sexism and chauvinistic assumptions about who I am, what I think, and what I'm supposed to accept. If a feminist is someone who is confident, I'm a feminist.  If a feminist is someone who believes she should have the right to be called what she wants to be called, then I'm a feminist.  If a feminist is someone whose life has given her no option but to be strong, then I'm a feminist.  If a feminist is someone who is proud of her achievements, then I'm a feminist.  If a feminist is someone who doesn't wait for anyone to give her anything, but goes out and gets it for herself, then damn it, I'm a feminist.

Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist and women's rights activist, in her 1851 address at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention, said,
"That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?"

Then she stated,

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them."

I truly believe that my purpose is that which I was created to do on this earth, though I assist my Creator in designing how I carry it out.  I believe that my purpose is to empower myself and those who come behind me to turn this world upside down and get it right side up again.  As I watch the young women I work with burn with the passion and the compassion to change the world, I ask myself the very thing I am accused of being. "Am I a feminist?"

Well, ain't I?

*"Ain't I A Woman?" address by Sojourner Truth to the Ohio Women's Rights Convention borrowed from the Modern History Sourcebook of Fordham University.