Sunday, December 9, 2012

Special Guest Blogger: Palabra Smith

Here's a poem written by a friend of mine, who asked me to post it on my blog.  Since it's a celebration of women, I totally said yes!  Enjoy!


It’s an undeniable rhythm. An enticing chorus of sounds and motion, both unique distinct.
 It turns heads and stops traffic. Equal parts natural beauty and black magic.
Some call it a gait, some call it a strut or the harmonious mechanics of female motion.
Is it the natural grace of her feminine form?
A poetic fluid dance that she subconsciously performs.
Is it a secret of her ancestors? A silver string unbroken.
Mama and Auntie taught her in a whispered language unspoken.
Every man knows the sound. Young and old respond the same.
Allow me to give this anonymous female phenomenon an appropriate name.
It’s called the Click, Clack, Sway, Swing.
As she walks you hear her heels striking the pavement, leaving her mark on the world and awakening the desires and ambitions of those in her wake. Click, Clack!
Each step she takes is engineered and measured by the dynamic and graceful locomotion of her shapely calves, her supple thighs and her curvaceous hips. Sway!
From the “melancholy stroll” to the “can’t be late march”. The speed and purposefulness is controlled by her arm. A pendulum of feminine power and simple elegance. Swing!
Each woman has her own signature motion. Each man loves one more than the other. Undeniable, unmistakable poetry in motion. Click, clack, sway, swing.
By: Palabra Smith

Saturday, November 10, 2012


For most people, vacations are a time to get away and have fun, and even get their "groove back".  For me, vacations have a different purpose.  I live a very busy life working, going to school, and coordinating a women's leadership program.  Most of the hours of my day are dedicated to something or someone else, and the little bit of time I have for myself is usually spent exercising, cooking, eating, studying, and sleeping. There is little left for the things I LOVE to do, such as writing, singing, reading for fun, and introspection.  When I go on vacation, it is usually so that I can get away from the demands of life much like it is for everyone else, but it is also so that I can retreat and have some peace and quiet to reflect on who I am, where I am, who I am becoming, and what lessons life wants to teach me.

Most times, I take these vacations alone.  Sometimes, I go with a friend.  The friend I most often go with  is someone who has been in my life most consistently in the past few years, but I've known him since I was ten years old.  Although our reunion almost four years ago originally occurred with the idea of dating and developing a relationship, this did not work out.  Blog post upon blog post refers to the story of our relationship, which ends on one level and begins again on another.  To put it bluntly, we can't seem to let each other go for good.  While the feelings and interactions aren't always the greatest, I've come to understand that there is something we need to learn from one another, and although I sometimes feel weak and, frankly, stupid for continuing this undefined relationship, I trust that I always know when something must end and when God closes a door.  

Our last trip was just a few weeks ago.  It was a few days after my 41st birthday and I honestly had planned to go away alone to spend time reflecting on another year of life, but in the planning stage of this trip, my friend offered to go with me.  I couldn't understand why he wanted to travel with me, since the last time we traveled together I was extremely hateful towards him (see my blog post about that here).  His response was that I had "vented" all of my feelings already, so he figured I would be fine.  This was kind of true, actually.  So we went to Orlando for a few days and I was prepared to be as nice as possible, especially because all of my "venting" the last time I saw him wore me out.  

While my expectation was that things would be calm because I was calm, that wasn't necessarily the case.  He has a really subdued demeanor so he never really gets out of control, but he's very sarcastic and blunt.  In the first few hours of our trip he asked me a couple of sarcastic questions regarding other men, and decided that he was going to point out something he didn't like about me.  I ignored these things because I was trying to be peaceable and decided these statements were not worth pursuing.  But the next day, when I asked a question as a joke, he sharply told to me to stop asking rhetorical questions and that he really doesn't like when I do that.  He was more than irritated.  I told him that he should really let it go because it's not that important, and that I wasn't going to spend my time on vacation arguing about something so trivial.  But in the back of my mind I understood that his irritation wasn't really about my habit of asking rhetorical, sarcastic questions to be funny.  It was "his turn" to be mean to me.  

Later that night, we were at dinner and somehow the conversation turned to us spending time together.  I asked him, "If you really don't like me as a person, why are you here with me?"  He responded that he knows who I really am and he loves who I really am, but that I am always in protection mode because of my past experiences and having been taken advantage of by other men.  He urged me to be myself and stop trying to protect myself all the time, because when I'm protecting myself, I am keeping others at arm's length. 

I took in this feedback with complete understanding about what he was experiencing with me.  However, because part of this conversation referred to my ugly actions during our last trip (which he claimed to have forgiven me for), I began to internalize our entire interaction that day as hurtful. We argued in the car on the way home, and later that night I said, "Let's agree that the next few days we will try to be ourselves and let go of the things we don't like about each other, because these next few days will be the last few days we'll ever spend together."  (Italics emphasize where I spoke out of hurt.) 

The next day, we went to the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and had a really nice time.  The environment was pretty, he had never been there before, and experiencing it with him helped me see things with new eyes.  We had tons of food and drinks, took pictures, sat and enjoyed each other's company in a way we hadn't in a very long time.  In other words, we kept our agreement.  

The next day was our last full day together, and it was kind of somber.  It was low-key, and while we were together, we each did our own thing - he was working on his computer and I was reading by the pool for class.  We are both writers, and I was reading one of his screenplays about his relationship with his mother.  What I read helped me to understand him a lot better, and why our relationship was so difficult.  He is always in protection mode because of his past experiences.  He does not show who he really is, and he keeps others, including me, at arm's length.  The more I point out to him the things I don't like about him, the more he shuts me out.  The more he points things out to me what he doesn't like about me, the more I push him away (refer to the italicized statement above).  

I share all this at the risk of sharing too much information about myself and this person to illustrate that our relationships - especially the ones we don't necessarily ask for - provide mirrors for self-reflection.  After the trip, I sent him a text with a nugget of wisdom I heard from Iyanla Vanzant, a spiritual guide who has a show on the OWN channel.  She said, "The deeper you fall in love, the more unloving you will behave."  His response?  "Yeah that sounds like you."  My response?  "You too! We are mirrors for each other."

One of the most influential people in my life, a professor in my counselor education program, once told me that we are mirrors for each other.  That statement opened my eyes and helped me understand my relationships.  We are drawn to those who are like us at the soul level, whether we like it or not.  And we are drawn to each other because we need that mirror to show us what we need to change about ourselves.  

It is the brave one who can look in the mirror and be completely honest about what needs to change.  It is the courageous one who will not behave unlovingly towards the one who serves as a mirror.  When we are unloving towards each other, we are unloving towards ourselves.  Look at the person who serves as a mirror in your life and say, "Thank you.  I love you for showing me, me."  And do the work so that the next time you look in the mirror, you absolutely love what you see.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What IS Love, Really?

Courtesy of
Love.  We all talk about it, think about it, sing about it, write about it, dream about it.  It is something that we all believe we have experienced.  I love my mother, I love children, I love my job, I love shoes, I love pizza.  We use the term love to express admiration, care, respect, connection; any emotion that is positive, really.  But do we really know what love is?

I had been pondering this question for awhile because of a recent experience.  It actually goes back months, maybe even years.  For many years I had shut down emotionally because of several losses I'd experienced, and it got to the point where I felt nothing.  Then someone I had known for almost my whole life came back into the picture.  As soon as I would use my best "put your guard up" techniques, he went to work dismantling them.  I was in shock and taken aback because he didn't take what I said at face value and walk away, like many had done before, and like I was secretly hoping he would do so that I could blame him for not wanting to develop a relationship with me (like I had done many times before).  I'm a talker, and sometimes I would just have to be quiet and process what was happening.  This person was not accepting my emotional unavailability.  He was forcing me to be uncomfortable with my comfort zone.

Throughout the years, we went through good times and bad times.  In the good times, I felt very much at home and safe.  In the bad times, I felt angry, taken for granted, and taken advantage of.  If I shared details, you would probably agree that many times those negative feelings were justified.  However, that doesn't really matter.  What matters is that I was actually feeling something.  When I woke up one morning after months of stomach aches that I attributed to anxiety and fear and realized, "I love him", the fear and the anxious stomach aches went away and I felt peace.  It was never easy with him, but I was actually feeling, and for some reason, that gave me great joy.

The last time I saw him, I had pretty much decided that there was no future for us.  I spent a lot of time lashing out at him, telling him that he was incapable of loving me, and eventually the words (that I tried to hold back even as they were tumbling out) "I hate you" came out of my mouth.  I'm not gonna lie, I'd had a couple of drinks and hadn't eaten, but that still doesn't justify those words.  After I realized that my words helped end my marriage many years ago and were now going to end this relationship, I started to cry as if someone died.  I went to the person who I'd just said "I hate you" to, and he held me while I cried uncontrollably.  He just held me and let me cry for what seemed like the longest time.  Then I said to him, "I love you more than anyone I've ever loved".  It was then we both agreed that there is a very thin line between love and hate, and within that line dwell our deepest fears about being abandoned and rejected.

I left that particular exchange wondering how powerful love is; so powerful that it could turn into hate.  Then I wondered about how we use the word love and make it so trivial.  We think we know what love is.  People say that love is never hard, but I knew my experience had been difficult and challenging.  I knew that anyone who could hold me after I had told them "I hate you" was clearly more capable of loving me at that moment than I could ever be.  I came home and thought about what the Bible says about love:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.

- 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 ("The Message" version)

After all these years of not allowing myself to feel, I learned what love really is from being in this very hard, very emotionally challenging relationship.  I wanted what I thought I deserved (because of my "swelled head").  I kept score and very eloquently relayed all the details of his wrongs.  I forced my way of doing things on him, and when he wouldn't accept them, threatened him many times with "losing me".  And God knows I flew off the handle.

So how can I say that I learned what love really is?  Because I did all of the things love is NOT, and he accepted me anyway.

To be continued...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Working Towards Your Bucket List

Edgartown Lighthouse, Edgartown MA
In the movie "The Bucket List" (2007), two terminally ill men (played by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson) decided to make a list of things they'd always wanted to do before they "kick the bucket".  "The Bucket List" chronicled these two men's adventures as they crossed off the various items on their bucket lists, and how those adventures helped the two men value what was truly important in their lives.  Since then, I've heard people talk about their bucket lists.  It seems as if the bucket list became something everyone should have.  I'm familiar with goal setting and the importance of achieving your greatest desires, but from the movie as well as others' lists, I got the sense that you either have to have a lot of money or be willing to give something up (e.g.: family, career, etc.) in order to fulfill your most personal desires.

During one of our meetings, our women's group decided to compose our own bucket lists.  As I read through my list, I thought about the possibilities of attaining my desires.  I thought about whether I could possibly live in St. Maarten and have a house with a wraparound porch and live next door to my best friend (who, as far as I know, has no desire to live in St. Maarten) and be a mother and travel to all of the various countries I want to travel to and write books that make people cry, laugh, think, and grow and start a non-profit, among other things.  As it hangs on my fridge, I sometimes wonder if my bucket list is supposed to be realistic, or if the act of creating a bucket list is supposed to teach you something about what you really want in life.  I wonder if I'll be disappointed if some of those things don't get crossed off.

My Vision Board
My bucket list is similar to my vision board - it's basically all of those things I wish to have in my life, without a time assigned to them or a plan for how to attain them.  However, one of the things I've learned about making a vision board, or a bucket list, is that the first step to accomplishing a goal or fulfilling a desire is to visualize it - speak it into existence, put the intention out into the universe - however you want to view it.  Just view it!

One of the items on my bucket list is to stay in Martha's Vineyard for two weeks a year to write books.  Last year was my first visit to Martha's Vineyard.  It was a last minute invitation from a friend who was there for a film festival, and I was there only one full day.  Needless to say, my main goals were to go to the beach, visit a lighthouse, and eat a lobster roll, and none of those things happened.  However, I did try fried chicken and waffles for the first time, and I fell in love.

The entire month of July, I participate in an intensive summer program to transition incoming college freshmen to our opportunity program and the College.  I have to plan my vacations around this program.  This year, I planned a week in Orlando to visit Disney World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Upon returning from that vacation, our planning for the program began in earnest, and the relaxation I felt immediately dissipated.  I've learned that I need to have a relaxing vacation after the program as well.  This year, I remembered my short time in Martha's Vineyard, thought about my bucket list, and decided to go ahead and book a four-day stay in a bed and breakfast on the Island.  This time, I would have the time to do those things I'd wanted to do last year, but simply did not have time for.  In addition, I packed my computer so that I could write if I felt inclined to do so, and if I had time.  

I got in my car, drove to Massachusetts, and took the ferry to the island.  I had my lobster roll.  I went to the beach.  I visited a lighthouse.  And although I did not stay for two weeks, nor write a book in the four days I was there, I started working towards those things on my bucket list.  I was able to attend the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival, where I met many people who are creating and producing stories about the African diaspora.  At the bed and breakfast, I met this funny and adventurous woman who came to the Vineyard from Abu Dhabi for the festival.  She told me stories while we had our coffee and breakfast, and we made each other laugh.  I was able to spend time with my friend, who is doing something he'd dreamed of for many years, and see him in his element, where he is most happy.  I even met one of the stars of a TV series I'd watched for years, and rode the ferry back to Massachusetts with him, talking and joking and laughing.  In that short four-day stay, I felt compelled to write this blog post less than 24 hours after leaving the Island, and I was invigorated and inspired to go back to writing my book.  It was a challenging but relaxing trip, one that helped me grow in many ways and expand my perspective. 

I did not spend two weeks at Martha's Vineyard, but the way I see it, I spent four times the amount of time I spent on the Island last year.  That brings me almost half way to my goal of spending two weeks there.  It gives me a goal to work towards, and I am already making connections and planning how I will achieve that goal in the near future.

Edgartown Lighthouse in Martha's Vineyard helps to illustrate my point.  I could see the lighthouse from far away, but it took me some time to get right up to it.  However, the entire way to it, I was captivated by the beauty of the lighthouse from far away, as well as the foliage around it.  The blue sky, the boats, and the sun glinting off of the water added to the beauty of the actual lighthouse.  Truthfully, it was the big picture that made this lighthouse a sight to see, not the lighthouse in and of itself. 

We all have our goals, our desires, and our dreams.  Whether we write them down, or cut pictures out of a magazine,  it is important to visualize what we want, but not to feel as if we didn't do what we set out to do if it's not exactly what is written on our bucket list verbatim.  I realized that working towards my bucket list is just as rewarding.  As the saying goes, "Focus on the journey, not the destination.  Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it". (Greg Anderson)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I'm Single, Not Invisible! (Yep, I Said It!)

I am a very family-oriented person.  I love my family.  Although I live at least six hours away from most of my immediate family members, I try to see them as often as possible, despite the wear and tear on my little car and on me.

Most times when I visit family, I enjoy the time I spend with them.  However, sometimes I do not necessarily feel as if my presence is considered valuable or relevant, even when I make the sacrifice to travel so far.  I'm sure my family doesn't deliberately try to make me feel this way; I'm sure they don't even think about it.  It's difficult to relate to someone who isn't around all the time, and they often treat me as the person who left New York City back in 2000.  Actually, sometimes it seems as if they treat me as the child they grew up with, not the woman I have become.

As the youngest in my family, I was often known for "needing attention" and for being a "drama queen".  Truthfully, depending on whether you see those traits as negative or positive, I could possibly be both.  Growing up, I often was told to be quiet when everyone else was sharing their opinion, and as I grew older, I learned that my opinion was valuable and valued by others.  As a child, I loved to sing and dance, and if there was a play or talent show, I made sure to be part of it.  I wanted to be an actress, but I was told by my father that I couldn't make money doing that (it wasn't that he tried to kill my dreams; he merely expressed the concern of the underprivileged everywhere). It is possible that I "need attention" because my opinion was often ignored or repressed, and that I am a "drama queen" because I love to be creative and animated.  Unfortunately, for some in my family (and others I'm sure), those traits are negative.

Back in 2000, I left New York City to pursue a Master's degree in Counselor Education in western New York.  I was also going through separation and an impending divorce.  While it was a difficult time emotionally, I decided to pursue a goal I had put off while I was married and could not make decisions on my own.  Throughout the last ten years, I have gained that degree, as well as confidence, self-sufficiency, and faith that I did not have before I left New York City and my family.  In addition, I have been able to work in my chosen field of study, and have begun a doctoral program that is quite difficult to get into.  I have good credit, a good reputation both professionally and personally, and I have friends and students who often show me they care about me.

Not always so with family.  Often, I am ignored.  While others are celebrated for bearing children or bringing a significant other to family events, it is rare that I will hear from my family that I am doing a good job taking care of myself and accomplishing goals that not many people achieve.  I don't say that as an indictment against my family, however.  What I've noticed is that most of society spends time, energy, and attention on women who get married and have children.  It's as if we are not valuable or visible if we are not sacrificing our own needs to take care of others.

I may not be married or have children, but on top of my professional and personal accomplishments, I take care of many others.  When I am with my family, I shower my little nieces and nephews with love.  I play with them, I hug them, and I tell them I love them; something I rarely heard as a child.  I try to show my disabled mother I care by caring for her physical needs when I visit; even watching her crazy television shows with her.  My students know that I will go above and beyond to help them in whatever way I can, sometimes sacrificing personal time and energy (even money) to show them that someone cares.  Anyone who I spend quality time with gets my complete attention.  I don't text or email or call anyone when I'm with someone.  I believe that whoever I'm with deserves for me to be completely present.  

Lastly, I have learned to take care of myself.  I write, I read, I work out, I pray, I attend church, I take vacations, I go on mini-adventures, I treat myself, I try not to judge myself, and I tell myself I love myself.  I pat myself on the back, because I don't take for granted the fruit of my own labor.  I also don't take for granted the blessings I have received from my Heavenly Father, to Whom I am not invisible. 

Women who do not have husbands or children still work hard, still make sacrifices, still take care of others, and at the end of the day, we have to take care of ourselves because there's no one to take care of us.  Being a wife or mother might be a thankless job, but being a self-sufficient, strong and powerful woman is not only thankless job, but one that receives no value or credit.  The next time you come across a single woman who is taking care of business, don't pity her or act as if she's not visible or relevant.  Instead, congratulate her and let her know you see her.

Yep, I said it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Courtesy of
Many times either in passing conversation or on the social networks, I often come across people complaining. People complain about the weather, other people, and poor Monday gets the shaft every single week.  Now, I'm not going to lie, I can be one of the biggest perpetrators.  Aches and pains are my complaints of choice, closely followed by other people's (lack of) work ethic.  I understand that complaining, or expressing negative emotions, is sometimes necessary and even cleansing, but constant complaining only feeds negativity into our spirits that can lead to a bitter outlook on life.

I haven't had the easiest life; sometimes I feel like I never win.  But I've learned that complaining makes me look and feel ugly.  I still do it because I'm human.  However, I've decided to pay more attention to the good things in my life, no matter how small they might seem, because they are what brings me joy.  For a year, I sat down to breakfast with my Bible and a little notebook.  I would read a passage and then write down five things I was grateful for, and I would attempt to find different things to be grateful for within a particular week, so that I would stretch my perception of what was good in my life.  I would be grateful for my mother's improving health, or that I got a full night's sleep, or that I got a compliment on my looks or job performance.  Then I would read over the week's lists and feel happy.  It was a practice I needed at the time, as I had been struggling with depression and anxiety, and I realized that the only way to change my feelings was to change my thoughts.

The past academic year was very tough for me.  I felt as if I was working harder than ever and not seeing positive results.  I became angry, sad, and disillusioned with the work I was doing.  There were several times when I would even mention to students that I didn't want to be a counselor any more.  It was that bad.  However, after a little vacation time and some space from an overwhelming amount of work, I was able to breathe and get perspective on some things.  Just over the past week, I began to consistently play the good interactions I've had with others over in my mind, rather than focusing on the negative.  Here are some examples:
  • During  my vacation last week, I spent time with some former students at Disney World. Embracing our "inner child" with each other was not only personally joyful, it was something that would bond us together.  The following day, one of them received terrible news, and we were there to comfort and support her.  Being able to have fun together helped us to grieve together.  Through this experience we became vulnerable with each other and developed a relationship that goes far beyond that of student-counselor; we are now family.
  • Two days this week, a student who is taking summer classes treated me to Starbucks.  He knew that I was really tired and suffering from post-vacation withdrawal (that's a real ailment as far as I'm concerned).  Not only did this help me stay awake and alert, the conversations I had with him brought some energy into my current work routine.
  • I received an email from one of my students saying she missed me and asking me for an update on my life.  I had been thinking about her, and didn't want to reach out to her because honestly, sometimes I think my students might think I'm a little too intrusive.  Even though we had spent a lot of time together over the course of the school year, I was trying to give her space.  For me, receiving that email meant that she valued the time we spent together as much as I did.  It also helped me reflect on what quality time can do to build relationships.  
  • I got a text from another student on the same day, saying that he missed our department and asking how things were going.  We caught up on our work and internship happenings, and I mentioned that I had been to New York City.  He's home in NYC on break, so he asked why I didn't call him so we could get together.  I told him I thought he'd outgrown me.  He's a very independent young man with such a strong head on his shoulders and he doesn't need me in the same ways other students do.  His response was, "You can't outgrow love, Patricia."  That statement spoke volumes to me.  Even as I sit here and reflect on it, it brings tears to my eyes.  It summed up all of the good that is in my life, and made me realize that when I have the love of others in my life, I lack absolutely nothing.  
I could give more examples, such as the time I spent in New York City with friends, family and some of my former colleagues as well as former students, or the various Facebook posts and comments I've received recently, or those new people in my life who I've come to know through varying circumstances.  All of these good experiences have come at a time when I found myself saying a final goodbye to a relationship that was not good for me, and after a year of incredibly draining work.  It was as if God knew that my heart and soul needed to be filled, and He sent many, many people to fill me with love and happiness.

We can get into a rut when we live a life that is all routine and don't stop to reflect on the little interactions that we have with others.  Although I don't write down all of the things I'm grateful for as I used to do, I make an effort to stop and say, "thank you" for all of the things, big and small, that inject joy into my life.  Try it, you might like it! 

Courtesy of

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Good" versus "Good Enough"

It's been a little while since I wrote on the topic of relationships.

Perhaps it's because I allowed the disillusionment and disappointment that has developed over the past three years to shut my heart up, nice and tight.  The wall that comes down little by little when someone works his way into your heart also goes back up little by little, practically unnoticed, with each promise that is unkept, each word that is not followed up with action.

I struggled over the past three years on and off in a relationship with someone who claimed to love me, but couldn't seem to do anything about it.  I've written about him in various posts, often in relation to some life lesson I'd learned.  The lessons were all necessary, because for many years I journeyed through life without being fully present.  My heart was closed off due to the betrayal I'd experienced as a result of divorce.  I turned  to religion and spiritually to protect me from people.  I retreated into my pain and became distrusting of all people, and I came to expect that I would be disappointed if I engaged in meaningful relationships.

Three years ago, this old friend of mine came back into my life and insisted on being a part of it.  I never saw this coming.  I could tell that he was interested in me, much as he had been when we were children, and he was just as persistent as he had been when he would ask me to be his girlfriend every day in the sixth grade.  I wasn't into it back then, but after the last few years of dealing with men who beat around the bush and couldn't commit to even a day, time and place for a date, I came to appreciate the directness with which he asked for my number and made plans to visit.  Through our phone conversations and subsequent dates, I was enjoying myself more and more.  However, I lived in constant anxiety.  We would have great times together, and I would fight it the entire way.  I was enjoying myself and telling myself that I shouldn't have been having so much fun with this person.  I told myself that the next time I saw him would be the last, because it was obvious that he wasn't good enough for me.  He wasn't as Christian as me.  He wasn't thoughtful and didn't buy me gifts.  He liked to drink and party too much. He flirted with other women.  He wore his hair in braids for God's sake!  Here I was, going to church, singing in the choir, working and building my women's leadership program to empower young women, with a Master's degree and planning on obtaining a doctorate, and I was dating an almost middle-aged man with braids?  Who sometimes wore sunglasses indoors?  Was I that desperate for male attention?  Was I settling for less?

My friends would say, "He doesn't deserve you."  "He's not good enough for you."  "He's wasting your time."  My church indoctrinated me to believe that if he wasn't "saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues", then I should not even let him have my phone number, much less go out on a date with him.  My mother made it clear that any man who didn't want to meet her would never be good enough for our family.  Honestly, I wasn't sure I wanted my family to meet him.  Even my little great-niece, not yet four years old when she met him, called him "The Little Boy".  Out of the mouths of babes.

Here's the thing.  He's brilliant.  He's one of the most intelligent people I know.  On top of that, he wasn't threatened by my intelligence; he was just as attracted to my brains as he was to my body.  It was the first time in a long time that I didn't feel objectified by a man.  I felt like a human being, understood and appreciated for something other than my physical appearance.  It was this person who talked about his writing with so much passion that awakened my desire to begin writing again.  It was this person who helped me work on issues that I'd refused to address.  He challenged me to stop acting like a victim and take control of my life.  He encouraged me to be myself and accept myself, the good and the bad.  In accepting myself, I realized that I needed to accept others.  Even him.  I became less judgmental and more forgiving.  I stopped measuring others' relationships with God by how often they went to church or how much they talked about God.  I started opening my eyes and allowing myself to see the world through others' perspectives, and little by little, my heart opened up as well.  I had him to thank for that, and I was grateful; so grateful that I couldn't let him go.

Throughout our entire relationship, it was clear that we were walking two different paths.  Every time I mentioned it, he reminded me that he loved me and that I knew and understood him.  I told him that it was because I knew him so well that I knew he couldn't give me what I wanted most in life - a family.  I told him that it was because I loved him so much that I couldn't ask him to do something he didn't want to do.  He told me that because I was a great woman and he didn't want to lose me, he would think about trying to give me what I wanted.  He told me that he's loved me since we met in the sixth grade, but he needed time to follow his own path before even thinking about including me in his world on a permanent basis.  In other words, he wanted me to wait for him to accomplish his goals before he would even think about the possibility of partnering with me to achieve my dream of having a family.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to let go, not because he wasn't good enough for me, as I'd previously thought, but because he wasn't good for me.  A person who is good for you wants you to achieve your goals.  A person who is good for you doesn't stop you from moving towards your deepest desires.  A person who is good for you will challenge you, yes, but will accept you,  love you, and try to understand you.  A person who is good for you will help you grow and, as a result, your heart will be open to love all people.  A person who is good for you will support you and be happy for you as you move forward, with or without him.

I struggled to let go for so long because I thought I was being guarded and judgmental, thinking he wasn't good enough for me.  For awhile, I was.  Then I realized that there was a difference between someone being  good enough for you and being good for you.  This person, who never says "I can't" when it comes to what he wants and needs, said "I can't" to a commitment with me.  When I heard those two words, I understood. In my life, I never want to partner with someone who doesn't believe he can walk this journey called life with me.  In a sense, he himself doesn't think he's good enough.  And for me, that's just not good.  Period.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Protons & Electrons!" (Or is it Neutrons?)

Last week was an amalgam of emotions.

Wait.  The last YEAR has been one of the most emotional of my life.  That statement might be a tad dramatic, but that's how I feel right now.  I think of years in terms of academic years, and this academic year is drawing to a close.  My reaction to that news?  GOOD RIDDANCE, 2011-12 academic year.  Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.  You ain't got to go home, but you got to get the heck up outta here.  You get the point.

But as the academic year comes to an end, something put a smile on my face and filled my heart to the overflowing.  The students from the classes of 2010 and 2011 decided to converge back to our campus for an unofficial alumni weekend.  It was as if the universe knew what I needed and gave it to me in the form of about 10-15 young men and women with whom I had developed personal relationships that fulfilled me, probably more than I had ever helped them in my profession as a counselor and academic advisor.  I hosted a gathering for them at my apartment, and one of the young women decided we should play a game called Protons and Electrons.  She kept mistaking electrons for neutrons, and after a quick physics lesson from several of her former classmates, we started the game.  The most common proton - or positive comment - was that everyone was happy to be back on campus spending time with their college friends.  The electrons varied. Most of them had to do with a job, whether it was the reality check given at their jobs about how the "real world" functions, or not having a job.  There was a cynicism that had crept into these young people's lives - and these were the ones who wanted to (and still want to) change the world.

At one point, I realized that what they had learned after one or two years post-undergrad, I was really learning now, after almost twenty years working in education.  It's not that I never saw these things.  It's not that I hadn't had terrible experiences in my various jobs.  Believe me, I've had my share.  It's just that this past academic year had such an effect on me that others have mentioned that I've changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Things have changed.  I don't know if it's me, or the students I work with now.  I've been working for the same program for five years.  This was a dream job for me, and I truly loved it until this year.  Yes, I'd started a Ph.D. program.  Yes, I was already coordinating a women's leadership program in addition to my actual counseling/academic advising job.  Yes, half way through the year we lost a staff member who was badly hurt.  And yes, our director had to take time off for educational purposes.  But I'm not sure it was any of those things that made a difference.  In my mind, the biggest difference was the kind of students we now serve.

Case in point.  (Disclaimer: I do really care about my students, sometimes to a fault.)  One of my students came to see me last week, and when I asked about her classes, she said that she knew she wouldn't get a very good grade point average; in fact, she knew she was going to fail at least one class.  I asked if there was any way she could pull off the minimum grade that would keep her in good standing, and she said it wasn't possible because she'd missed every class since the mid-point of the semester.  She had a 3.0 grade point average coming into this semester, and after we estimated and calculated her grades for this semester, I showed her that she would be well below the minimum g.p.a. and could potentially be put on academic probation.  Again, she had a 3.0 g.p.a. in her first semester, which is great, especially at our college.  Since she is interested in the medical field, I asked her what she thought she would need in order to get into med school.  She imagined she would need a 3.7 grade point average, so we calculated how many perfect semesters she would need.  FIVE.  Five semesters of no less than a 4.0 g.p.a.  I gave her that piece of paper to take with her so that she could ponder how ONE semester of letting her academics go will affect the majority of her college career, and her life-long goals.

This year, helping students transition to college became less of a dream job and more emotionally draining.  Along with the personal issues that I had to deal with, including several losses in my family, this work that I'd always enjoyed getting up to do every morning became a chore.  I'd lost my passion and was definitely burned out.  This academic year, for sure, was my ELECTRON.

Last Friday, the women's leadership program I coordinate and advise had its final recognition ceremony.  It was, as always, a beautiful event, with the participants sharing their experiences of the program in a transparent and emotional manner.  As I stood to give an address to the group that was gathered, I mechanically went through the speech I had written, but felt there was more to share.  At that moment, I shared how the organization was now five years old, and how when my nephew was five, I took him to school.  His class would line up in the cafeteria to go to their classroom, and as I moved to take him directly to the cafeteria, he said, "I can go by myself."  I watched as he walked down the hall away from me, and walked confidently towards the cafeteria, and I cried.  I cried because he didn't need me in that moment.

I told the group that this year, the program seemed like my five year old nephew, walking confidently away from me while I stood there mourning how much it didn't need me any more.  And while I am still here, and still find it difficult to let go, I know that one day it will finally move away from me confidently, but I will still be watching it, just as I'd watched my little nephew walk towards his independence.

I only realized it then, in that moment, that the pain I'd experienced with my five year old "baby" - this program - was part of the growth process of an organization and those who run it.  It was my own growth moment; realizing that I could let go and trust that the legacy I'd helped build would continue, especially as the women gave their testimonies about what the program meant to them.  At the end of such a difficult year,  I'd found my PROTON.

Somehow, I couldn't reach this perspective without the alumni sharing their "electrons" and "protons".  Their love, their hugs, their words of comfort and support, opened my heart enough to see what felt like an "electron" in my life as a "proton".  

And if you know me, you know I'm not much of a "neutron" woman.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Boundaries: Honoring Your Self

Whenever I write about a particular topic, I usually like to look up some information about it before starting to write.  I have a habit of wanting to intellectualize whatever it is I'm writing about, even if it's personal and from the heart.  I often share what I've looked up, and I'm famous for quoting the dictionary or Wikipedia.

I started to do that this time, but then I stopped.  What I'm writing about today is too personal and doesn't need to be validated by outside sources.  I reserve the right to create my own discourse about this particular topic.  I'm referring to the concept of boundaries.

Boundaries are personal limitations - the so-called "invisible line" that we draw - that we have decided others may not cross.  The interesting thing about boundaries is that others continually believe they can judge our personal boundaries even though they do not set them for us.  The other interesting thing about boundaries is that we usually don't set them until someone has crossed the "invisible line" within us.

I have worked with students in various capacities throughout my almost-twenty year career, and boundaries are an issue that continuously needs to be addressed.  For example, as a first-year teacher, I made the "mistake" of buying a student a sandwich (with his money) when I went out for lunch.  My assistant principal told me never to do that, because it was unfair to the other students who had to eat school lunch (which is still terrible), and because it was impossible for me to be able to keep up that behavior.  I learned quickly from this mistake, and never did it again.  However, my assistant principal also told me it wasn't a good idea to allow students to spend their lunch period in my classroom, and in that case, I didn't agree with that boundary.  I knew that my classroom was a safe place for some of those students, and it avoided conflicts that could arise in a crowded cafeteria.  Eventually, I had to decide what boundaries needed to be in place and which ones really weren't necessary.  Students were allowed to remain in my classroom during their lunch period, unless I had something else I wanted or needed to do.

After two years at that school, I worked at a small high school where boundaries were much more lax.  Students called us by our first names, and you would often see teachers (or "facilitators", as we were called) and students spending informal moments together during and after school.  My students kissed me on the cheek and hugged me, and I often spent time with them and their families.  It was a loving environment, but I had a difficult time with how flexible the boundaries were.  I didn't know when my work life ended and my personal life began, because it seemed a part of that school's culture to spend time with students outside of school.

I worked in a residence hall for three years.  Can you imagine the difficulty in maintaining boundaries there?  I would have to wake up in the middle of the night to discipline students and write full incident reports in my pajamas while half asleep.  It was truly a blend of my personal and professional lives.

Recently, I experienced a test of both my professional and personal boundaries.  Being a counselor is definitely not an easy vocation.  Counseling is a very personal relationship within the confines of a professional environment.  Over the past year, several students have made the comment that they love our counseling relationship because, and I quote, "It's so personal."  Some of my colleagues don't approach the counseling relationship in the same way.  Some frown upon the fact that some students have my cell phone number, which I only give out for specific work reasons.  If my women's group is holding an event on a Saturday, the students may need to reach me, so the easiest way to do so is to contact me via phone.  Some colleagues choose not to engage in that way, and I respect that.  I learned in my counseling program that I am a counselor; it's not just what I do but who I AM.  Therefore, my counseling style is person-centered, and with the particular population I serve, being intrusive is effective.  In addition, I connect with others on an emotional level, and my empathy for others creates a close, personal relationship.

While I recognize that being authentic and having unconditional positive regard are keys to a good counseling relationship (according to Carl Rogers' Person-Centered Theory), I learned that I can't expect every student to understand my boundaries if I don't make them abundantly clear.  I allow my students to disagree with me, and to challenge and question what I say, however, I experienced a moment when a student went too far.  Both my emotional and physical boundaries felt threatened.  While we had previously had discussions about how this student mistreats, and even abuses, people she cares about (including me), this time I realized that I could no longer engage with her personally or professionally, and suggested that she request a counselor change.  Although I want the student to work through the problem, I also refuse to be emotionally and verbally abused by her.  My hope is that the student learns, through the termination of our counseling relationship, to manage her emotions so as not to alienate others to the point of destroying her most valued relationships.  My lesson is a difficult one to learn.  Most people respond well to my counseling approach, but I will have to make sure that my boundaries are clear - that while I welcome students to question and challenge me, they must do so in a respectful manner, especially because I take great care to show my students respect first.

Personally, I realized that my emotional boundaries were being repeatedly crossed by the same person over the course of the past three years.  This was a pattern with most of my personal relationships with men; I was allowing them to expect more from me than they were willing to give.  This particular person is my "Mr. Biggs" (along the lines of the Ron Isley persona rather than the "Mr. Big" of Sex and the City fame; Mr. Biggs just sounds funnier).  It's obvious that we are strongly connected and that, in the smallest, most pure place in his heart, he loves me very much.  However, much like Mr. Big in Sex and the City, he has a habit of both pulling me into his world and forgetting me at his convenience.  I've spent most of the past three years trying to convince him (and myself) of how we want very different things in life and how love requires commitment, action and follow through.  Most recently, it finally occurred to me that it wasn't him I needed to cut off, despite the veritable choir of voices advising me to do so.  It was ME.  I had to set a boundary within myself that I would no longer allow myself to cross.  As much as my heart wanted to reach out to him to show him I cared, showing him love was an invitation for him to make empty promises and continue to disappoint me.  I had to realize that what I expected of myself - integrity, accountability and authenticity - were exactly what I expect from the person I choose to partner with in life.  Whenever he demonstrated the opposite of those traits, I was allowing him to cross the most valuable boundaries - those I had set up for myself.  Whenever I allowed him to cross those boundaries, I was violating my own boundaries.  Now, because he won't stop contacting me any time soon, and I don't need to be dramatic about it, I can respond to him from a place of empowerment.  The very boundaries I created for myself are those no one else will ever be able to cross.

People will want to see how far they can go, how much they can take you for granted, or how little effort they can put into getting what they want from you.  You can't control them.   It is up to YOU to make clear to yourself what you are willing to tolerate, and what is unacceptable.  Boundaries are very personal.  In the end, you have to live with yourself, and no one else.  I know that I want to live with my self-respect intact, and so I will honor my personal boundaries.  In doing so, I honor my deepest self.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who Is Trayvon?

Trayvon Martin, murdered on February 26, 2012
Everyone knows about the 17 year-old boy from Florida walking to his father's girlfriend's house from the store with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.  Trayvon Martin. Everyone with a conscience, a heart, and half a brain understands that Trayvon's death was a tragedy, that it was unnecessary, cruel, and inhumane.  Everyone knows that the killer has yet to be brought to justice, and like the coward he is, he is currently hiding because he is afraid for his own life.  (Funny how he's not even giving someone an opportunity to chase him down any streets, huh?)

Over the past week, many people have spoken out about the case, the motive, the murderer, and the investigation, but President Obama verbalized what many of us have thought, but maybe didn't articulate so eloquently: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."  President Obama reminded us that Trayvon Martin is a person, and he could have been someone we all know and care about.

I work with  students at a four-year public residential college.  The assumption some might make is that, if these students are making it to college, they are safe.  This assumption could not be further from the truth.

  • My students come to this rural, conservative, largely Caucasian community and feel out of place. 
  • They are noticed because they look different.
  • They are either greeted by phony friendliness or just completely ignored.
  • They are treated differently by some of their professors, as if they are not as intelligent as the other students.
  • Some of their peers assume they got into college because of affirmative action.
  • They are arrested and given excessive charges for making dumb decisions most teenagers make.
  • They are given the run-around by people who don't want to be bothered to help them navigate the system of undergraduate education.
  • Although they speak English, they come into an environment that speaks a language of privilege and cultural capital they have not learned.  
  • They might be the first in their family to go to college.  They might even be the first in their family to graduate high school.
  • They are scared that they will fail.  And they are scared that if they fail, they have not only failed themselves, but their families and friends.
  • Many of them chose this rural, small community hours from home because it is safer than the streets where they live; yet, this environment is almost as frightening if not more so.  

I didn't know Trayvon Martin, but I know countless teenagers and young adults who have lived a life running and hiding because they did not feel safe anywhere.  Those are the ones who ask me, "Why is my life so hard?"  They look at me and wonder, "Why do I continue to fail no matter how hard I try?"  "Why did I get picked out of the crowd and blamed for something I didn't do?"  And sometimes I tell them the truth: This system wasn't created for you to succeed, so you have to work harder; you have to study more; you have to watch every decision you make and never make a mistake that will get you noticed by the wrong people.  Sometimes I have to tell them: Your race is a factor whether you like it or not, or your gender is a factor no matter what anyone says about how far society has come.  Because the truth is what they need to hear so that they can empower themselves with the tools to cope, and to succeed.

Who is Trayvon?  All of our youth are Trayvon.  Our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our students, and yes, even the boy walking down the street with a hoodie that you might not know.  And we, as adults, need to care enough to tell them the truth, and to be there for them so that they have a place to feel safe.  

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Whitney In Me

Whitney Houston (August 9, 1963-February 11, 2012)

Last night, I was at a dinner for one of the student organizations I advise.  The cultural club dinners always include a performance with acting and dancing, and sometimes singing.  Watching my students perform always makes me feel so proud, and after the show I hugged them and told them what a great job they did.  In the midst of celebrating the accomplishments of the organization and the students involved in the performance, I was given the news.  Whitney Houston had died.

I felt my heart drop.  After I heard the news, there were still students to congratulate and I still tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside I was feeling shaken.  I never knew Whitney Houston, but she had such an impact on me as I was growing up.  When I heard she died, I immediately went back to the age of thirteen when I heard "Saving All My Love for You", and all of the feelings that came along with that song.

When I was a child, my first dream job was to be an artist.  I lived out those fantasies at school, drawing my little heart out in the first grade.  It was a drawing of my best friend and me that confirmed my creative talent.  The drawing was chosen to be displayed at A & S (Abraham & Strauss), a department store along the lines of Macy's, in downtown Brooklyn.  My mom and sister went to see the drawing on display.  I didn't get to see it myself, but I knew it was kind of a big deal because my mom and sister actually got on a bus to go see it.  I continued to draw both at school and at home, drawing whatever my little mind conjured up, and finally creating my own fashions as a teenager in several notebooks.

In addition to drawing, I loved to sing.  The first song I remember singing was "Emotions" by the Bee-Gees ("It's just emotions taking me over, caught up in sorrow, lost in my soul").  I didn't know the words, but I remember how my heart felt when I sang it.  I was probably about four or five.  Any time I was able to participate in talent shows at school, I did.  I joined the chorus both in junior high and high school, as well as the church choir.  Singing became my way of releasing what was in my heart; especially what I had no words to express.

When I was thirteen, Whitney Houston came into my life.  I had a boyfriend, and we were in love.  I didn't get the meaning of all of the words in "Saving All My Love for You", but I sure felt like I was saving all my love for my little boyfriend at the time.  A few months later, I broke up with him.  Being in two different high schools put a strain on our relationship.  He would pick me up after school sometimes, which was so nice until it began to feel constraining. I was developing new friendships and it felt weird to try to bring him into that circle.  So we broke up.  Whitney was there with "All At Once".  "All at once...I finally took a moment, and I'm realizing're not coming back...and it finally hit me all at once."  I was young, but I had developed feelings for this person, and even though I broke up with him, the feelings didn't automatically disappear.  Whitney helped me understand and gave words to what was happening in my heart.

Whitney also gave me hope.  With "The Greatest Love of All", Whitney was the first person to teach me about self-love.  I didn't understand it when she first sang, "I decided long ago/never to walk in anyone's shadow/if I fail, if I succeed/at least I live as I believe/no matter what they take from me/they can't take away my dignity...The greatest love of all/is happening to me/I found the greatest love of all inside of me."  However, as I grew older, life taught me that I had to walk my own path and love myself regardless of whether I failed or succeeded, that I had to love myself enough not to beat myself up.  Whitney taught me that, and continues to teach me that. 

Whitney taught me about honoring the gifts God gave me.  Singing was very important to me, but I was afraid to do it.  My stage fright began in the fourth grade when I auditioned for the lead role in Annie and didn't get it.  My classmates had to vote between my best friend and me, and only one person voted for me. I found out later that they planned it that way (kids really can be cruel), because I was class vice president and a cheerleader, had already been class president and was the smartest student in the class, so they wanted to give someone else another chance.  From then on, as much as I loved singing, my solo voice was only heard at home until I was an adult and encouraged by a former member of the band Chic.  She and her husband taught me some things about singing, and I finally felt like I could sing.  I went on to sing in my church choir, singing a few solos, but more importantly I realized that this was a gift God gave me and that I should honor Him by using it.  Watching Whitney Houston in "The Preacher's Wife" solidified my realization.  At that time, we knew she had been struggling with drugs and alcohol and that her relationship with Bobby Brown was harmful and violent.  But when she sang songs like "I Love the Lord" and "Who Would Imagine a King", her God-given talent shone through as if angels were singing.  She showed me that I didn't have to be perfect to honor God.  

And now, though I'm not quite the artist or singer that I may have hoped to be as a child, I try to honor the creativity within me by writing.  My life experiences and my love of telling stories have combined to give birth to the desire to write.  I have loved writing since I was a child as well, and remember writing stories and poems and loving those particular assignments at school more than anything.  Now, I write here and there, but I have recently made a commitment to write daily, even if it's in my journal or a simple sentence that speaks what's in my heart.  If I don't write, my soul will die.

Whitney has left us, and I'm sad.  Many of us are sad.  But what I cannot do - what I promise to Whitney, who gave me beautiful and emotional memories and inspired me - is allow the creativity in me to die. Thank you, Whitney Houston, for reminding me to live my dreams and never to walk in anyone's shadow.

Rest In Peace, Whitney Houston.  

Saturday, February 11, 2012


A wound is an injury that is caused by external forces as opposed to disease.  Wikipedia distinguishes between open wounds, caused by tearing or puncturing, and closed wounds, or contusions, which occur due to blunt force trauma.  Wounds are usually visible and always painful, although pain levels vary with the impact of the external force, the depth of the wound, and the wounded person's pain threshold.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone say that wounds are unable to heal if they are covered up.  He said that they must be exposed to air in order to heal faster.  I don't know if that's always the case, but I understood what he meant.

This year has not begun the way most people hope a new year would.  I don't want to go into details, but this year so far has involved the loss of an innocent life, family illness, rejection, and a lot of stress.  After the loss my family experienced, I took a few days to myself, stayed home and rejected invitations to socialize.  I did little more than talk to my family, make plans to return home for the service, sleep, and of course, cry.  I went to work, but I wasn't there.  I was not present.  As a counselor, it is of utmost importance to be present for your clients or students.  While I was able to do my job competently, I wasn't doing it with the passion my students expect from me.  However, that doesn't stop people from demanding what they usually expect from you.  The pain that I was experiencing was irrelevant to those around me, mostly because they didn't know about my pain, but also because whatever they were experiencing and needing help with was foremost in their minds.  And while I continued to attempt to help others, covering my personal wounds, underneath there was festering an infection of sorts.

Personal pain seems to cause a shock to the system.  It's like time freezes for you while it moves along  for others.  You are stuck in a world that no one seems to understand.  In those moments, you feel most alone.  Time continues, and people will want to continue with it, but inside, you are screaming for it to STOP.  For me, the mere fact that people wanted my help while I was in a cocoon of pain felt like an imposition.  I just wanted to tell everyone to LEAVE ME ALONE.  I started seeing the people around me as insensitive and demanding. I felt knots in my stomach every time I had to go to work.  It eventually became too much, and I blew up.  No band-aid or gauze could hide my pain any longer.

The problem with wounds is that we barely address them directly.  We cover them so that we don't have to look at how ugly they are.  We don't want to see the bleeding because it's too scary for most of us.  We stop using the part that's wounded and rely on other parts of ourselves to function.  The wounded part of ourselves becomes weaker when we don't use it.  We become more fearful of utilizing parts of ourselves that have been wounded, afraid that the area is so vulnerable that it will become wounded again.  Every time I discussed what made me blow up, it was unrelated to my actual wound, but somehow, the thing that caused me pain kept coming up.  My wound was calling for me to address it directly.

There is a time to cover our wounds; when that external force first impacts us and we are reeling in pain, we should probably retreat.  But there comes a time when the wound needs to be uncovered in order for us to heal.

For the first time in many, many years, I asked a friend for the name of a counselor.  I have the information, but I haven't used it yet.  The wounds are still too fresh.  I know, though, that as I desire to heal and move forward, I must uncover my wounds and address them directly.  While the thought of baring all - the open, bleeding, and painful - scares me, I find it more frightening to imagine what life would be like if I keep my wounds covered forever.  So I will expose them, not only for me, but for those around me who need me to be the open, loving, caring person I had been before I was wounded.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Rise of My Strong Personality

"I'm strong, not because I want to be, but because I have to be."  In a rare moment of vulnerability, I shared this insight about myself with a male colleague.  There had been some issues between us because he wasn't comfortable with my "strong personality".  Most of the time, when I meet a man under any circumstance, we get along well, until we're thrown into a situation where we may have to demonstrate competence or achievement; then, I usually hear that my personality is "too strong", or that I'm trying to "take charge" or "take over", and my relationship with that man becomes strained.  In those situations, I usually stand out, not because I'm better than anyone, but because my mother taught me, through her life, to work harder than anyone, to do everything to the best of my ability, and to push myself to be better.  My mother was not allowed to go to school, so she does not know how to read or write.  I remember asking her as she walked me to my class during one of my first few days of school (at least I think I said this):  "Mami, why do I have to go to school?  You didn't go to school, and you're okay."  However, I also vividly recall walking towards my home in the housing projects in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the first grade or so, and thinking, "I have to do well in school, so I don't have to live here for the rest of my life."  This is where I gave birth to my so-called "strong personality".

My "strong personality" developed as I grew up.  Puberty hit me early, and hard.  At the age of nine I had to slam our apartment door in the faces of teenage boys who would knock on the door to tell me they loved me, and at the age of twelve I had to curse out grown men who catcalled as I walked by.  My "strong personality" was tested every day  in the sixth grade when I was chased by boys after school who thought it was cute to grab my butt; who equated sexual assault with puppy love.

My "strong personality" evolved during my first weekend in college, when my friends and I were standing on the sidewalk trying to decide what our next adventure would be, and we were called "nigger girls".  It was that first vivid experience with racism that led me to learn about my cultural identity and eventually shaped my career path as well as my activist spirit.

My "strong personality" almost died when my husband said he wanted a divorce.  And yet, my "strong personality" did not die; it demonstrated its resilience by immediately driving me to get my Master's degree, find a place to live, a job (that provided me that place to live), and buy my own car, 350 miles from everyone I knew and loved.

My "strong personality" developed its assertive nature when I was repeatedly belittled and sexually harassed by a supervisor until I eventually stood up to him, ending the abuse.

My "strong personality" took me through the interview process for the only job I'd applied for while I was doing an internship, a graduate assistantship, studying for the National Counselor Exam, and writing an 80 page Master's thesis.  And my "strong personality" got that job.

My "strong personality" taught me to step outside of my comfort zone and help develop a women's leadership program when I neither considered myself a leader or an expert on "women's issues" (as if living all of the above experiences didn't make me an expert).

My "strong personality" continues to grow as I take care of all of my needs, clean my own home, pay all of my own bills, suffer the consequences of my own poor decisions, struggle with every life decision, and try to be the best daughter I can be (from so far away), the best counselor, the best role model for the ladies in the leadership program, the best "second mom" to my students, the best, best, best of what I need to be for me and everyone else in my sphere of influence.

I'm not strong because I want to be.  I want to be taken care of sometimes.  I want someone to ask me what I need sometimes, and I don't always want to be the person who people come to only when they need something.  I want men to stop blaming me and my "strong personality" for their own insecurities.  I want men to take responsibility for their own actions, and not expect me to let them get away with being less than the best person they can be.  I want men to stop acting as if I'm supposed to accommodate them and "adjust" to them, when they won't do so for me (and yes, I've been told this by a few men).  I want to hear the words "I'm sorry" come from more men's mouths when they know they're wrong.  I want to know that, when my moments of weakness come (and they often do), there will be someone there who can, and wants to, hold me up and allow me to lean on him without feeling like I'm "draining" him.  And I want men to be vulnerable enough to tell me when they need me to be strong, and not feel like I'm "intimidating" because I am capable of being strong for myself and everyone else around me.

I'm not strong because I want to be.  I'm strong because I have to be.  And I cannot wait until the day I don't always have to be strong anymore.