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Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 4: Risks

I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking. How I make few risks that are uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I’m a confessional writer and making myself vulnerable that way can be considered risky, making myself vulnerable on paper is very comfortable. It’s what I do. On paper, I can bare my soul, so to speak, and still hold something back. I don’t think I take any risks, however, where I don’t hold anything back.

I am not conscious of being fearful of risk-taking. I think, however, that is only because that fear is habitual, reflexive. It was sown into me as a child so I don’t really recognize it as something apart from me, something foreign.

When I was a kid, for a couple of summers, my mom sent my sister and me—accompanied by our Granny Eutrice—to stay with friends of hers who lived in Orlando. We did the usual things: watched all of the soaps on CBS as well as pro wrestling, “bathed” by playing in the lawn sprinkler (my grandmother’s idea so we didn’t waste water), and went to (the now-defunct) Circus World, which at the time was a theme park that doubled as the winter home of the (now also defunct) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.  I remember one particular demonstration by the trapeze artists during which they asked for kid volunteers to try the trapeze. I went to raise my hand, and my grandmother slapped it down. She didn’t explain why—Trinidadian grandmothers are not known for being great explainers of their motives—but somehow I intuited that the risk was too great. I also absorbed—rightly or not—that it wasn’t the physical risk that was problematic, but rather there was something unseemly and unsafe about being in the spotlight like that. What if I couldn’t get it right? What if instead of soaring magnificently, my pre-adolescent body just dangled there, leaden and incapable of flight? Why would I want to fail so publicly? Better to keep one’s hand down, and not even try to be the chosen one.

Even earlier than that, my mother had inculcated in me that public failure was unacceptable. Each night, she would check my homework. Even if all my answers were correct, if there was even a hint of an eraser mark, I had to rewrite the whole thing. I can’t even imagine the number of looseleaf sheets I went through, striving to hide the evidence that in the process of learning I had made mistakes. What mattered was neither the learning process nor the correct answer; evidence of having made a mistake was the paramount shame.

It is not possible, of course, to get through life without taking risks. Every job interview is a risk; you’re taking a risk every time you pursue a new friendship or a new romance. And you can’t be a poet who has endured dozens of workshops, not to mention hundreds of rejection letters, without being comfortable with the idea of failure. But therein lies the problem—I’m okay with the comfortable failures, the ones I’ve experienced time and time again, the ones that many people I know can relate to. These failures hurt my pride, but other than that, I stay mostly intact.

But what about risks that might end in extraordinary failure? The kind of failure that can turn your entire world upside down. The kind of failure that can undo who you think you are. The kind of discomfort that doesn’t dissipate in an hour or a day or a month. The kind of failure that can near-drown you as you fight your way through it. What do those risks look like for me? What do I give up by not searching them out? What level of discomfort am I willing to bear if taking those possibly soul-wrenching risks are the only way to activate my gifts at a deeper level?

Which is not to say I’m advocating for recklessness. Or impulsivity. What I’m trying to work out is how to think (and pray) myself into a state of preparation for transformative risk. I need to get to the place where I can not only see the questions I need to ask myself, but I’m willing to ask those questions. I have to get to a place where the fear of making a spectacle of myself—by changing careers or writing the book no one including myself would expect me to write or whatever my risk is—is not more important, more valuable than my unwillingness to live a nice but mediocre (compared to what it could be) life.


Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 1: Drifting



This is the banana bread I made using Ruth Reichl’s recipe so it feels appropriate for this post.

I have just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In it she writes about the many characters she took on—wig and dress and makeup and voice included—in order to eat at the restaurants she needed to review for the New York Times without the establishments figuring out who she really was. It’s a fascinating study in how you get treated one way if people know you wield power and another way when you look like you do anything but. (This isn’t news now nor was it news when Reichl wrote the book in 2005, but it’s still interesting to see how it plays out in the life of someone who is quite different from me.)

What really struck me was how Reichl felt as she slipped in and out of her different personas, how they brought out the best in her and the worst in her. How she so clearly understood what made a woman invisible (which made a great disguise but an emotionally wearing experience), and how one disguise as a red finger-tipped, long-haired blonde named Chloe taught her—as she put it—“that I did know how to take advantage of a man after all. When had I learned this? And what was I going to do about it?”

In the end, Reich wearies of rarely eating dinner with her son—who’s still in single digits—and of dipping in and out of personas. So she finds a new job, and there is—at least for a decade or so—a happy ending.

As I think of how different hair and clothes made Reichl feel, I’m thinking about how my hair has changed radically over the last few years and how I visit store after store and website after website hunting for “my look.” It’s starting to dawn on me that I’m a little lost. I say a “little lost” but it’s also possible that I’m completely off track. It’s easy to change the little things (especially if you start going to a barber so it no longer costs a fortune to change you hairstyle, and you also make piece with a certain credit card bill by praising yourself for paying off a number of other credit card bills), but there are larger questions to be asked, larger changes to be made. I just don’t know what they are.

I hate it when someone describes me as impulsive, yet, if I’m honest, there’s something that’s comforting about impulsivity. Join a gym! Join Weight Watchers! Join this Meet-Up group (that you never go to!) Go blonde again! Embrace your latent goth/punk side! Get a new tattoo! Join an online dating site! Vow to get up 1/2 hour early every day to go exercise!

And while those things—well, most of them—are beneficial, they’re kind of like putting Spanx on my life. They smooth out the bumps for a while, but only for a while. There are deep changes to be made. I don’t know what they are, but I do know they require deep thinking. Which I’m terrified of. It’s one thing to think deeply about the things that happened in my past, which offer fine fodder for poems, and also have the benefit that I don’t really have to DO much because it’s all in the past.

But to think deeply about the present, to admit how damned comfortable I am, and how it’s preferable to complain lunch after lunch, and journal entry after journal entry about my job than to actually face the fact that I’m bored but don’t know what to do next because next has always magically arrived and I’ve not really ever had to set any goals…

I was talking to someone the other day about how I have never really wanted to be a writer, which may seem odd because I am a writer. But that’s the thing, I am a writer. Just like I’m Afro-Caribbean and a cis-gendered woman and the oldest of four and brown-eyed. Being a writer has always just been something I was born with, a pre-existing condition.

This is possibly the part of the conversation where you say, “Well, what is your passion?” And I don’t know if I have one of those, nothing long-term anyway. I’m not short of enthusiasms, but they wax and wane, and the thread that runs through them eludes me. I think it’s there, waiting on the tip of my tongue for me to articulate it, but for now I’m tongue-tied and lost.

I’ve been quite content to just drift along in life. And I have to be honest, it’s worked. I’ve been able to earn my way out of poverty*; I’ve published two chapbooks and numerous poems in magazine; I’ve interviewed countless people I never expected to call on a telephone or sit across from like Liesl Tommy, George Lucas, Josh Groban, John Barrowman; I’ve been to Paris and several times to London, and I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve manage to get promoted up four grade levels in the same department, and—since I’m not being modest—I—with help, of course—founded the social media program for a federal agency. Which is all great, but none of this was a goal. I’ve been smart enough to recognize opportunity—which I realize can be its own gift—but as I look out into the great unknown (my agency possibly closing down, life at 50, etc etc etc), I don’t want to drift anymore. I want to have something to work toward. I want to know who I really am, what I’m really made of. At least I think I do. Cause, let’s face it, drifting is not just easier, it’s more comfortable, and most likely I won’t have to give up a thing. But goals are better, right?

To be continued…
*I mean my own personal poverty, since fully taking on full financial responsibility for myself once I graduated college.

43 Promises to Myself on the Occasion of My 43rd Birthday

1. I will be kind and loving, not judgmental or regretful, when I happen to meet the me from 20 years ago, or ten years ago, or even last year in old journals or photographs or poems or memories.

2. I will consciously work to be open.

3. I will not continue to overpromise and under-deliver because I haven’t correctly estimated the amount of time for a particular task or because of health issues, and I will forgive myself every time I break this promise and overpromise and under-deliver anyway.

4. I will get out of bed when the alarm goes off, or when I naturally wake up—whichever comes first.

5. I will forgive my parents for not calling me more often after I left home and call them much more frequently than I currently do.

6. When I feel myself gaining weight, I will not buy more comfortable pants. Instead, I’ll figure out how to do what I need to do to get the pants I already own to feel more comfortable again. I will do this all without judgment.

7. I will be my own beloved.

8. I will write every day—whether that’s a blog post or a poem or a journal entry or a note telling someone I love how much I love them.

9. I will tell the people I love just how much I love them, loudly and more often.

10. I will kick Zuckerberg’s ass the next time he makes a change I don’t like on Facebook.

11. I will network out of a desire for community not advancement.

12. I will live in a way that even if the coffers are low, I can still give out of the abundance of my heart and spirit.

13. I will not break up with God no matter how often I feel like taking a break.

14. I will write more poems that make me nervous when I have to read them out loud to an audience.

15. I will dare.

16. I will speak up even if I’m not sure anyone’s listening.

17. I will remember to say please when I ask for something not just in my tone but with my actual words.

18. I will read more than one book of contemporary fiction this year.

19. I will not spend too much time apart from Mrs. Woolf.

20.  I will not suffer “buyers remorse” from saying yes when I should have said no.

21. I will remember to send birthday cards.

22. I will drink more water; I will drink more champagne.

23. I will break up with my blue-and-white couch on a regular basis.

24. I will not keep Netflix DVDs for months at a time hoping I’ll eventually watch them.

25. I will do the impossible at least once, and maybe even twice.

26. I will read War and Peace.

27. I will use my vacuum cleaner.

28. I will accomplish the things I put on my to do lists.

29. I will end the year with a surplus in my savings account, even it it’s only one dollar, and even if by savings account I mean the old flour tin where I sometimes hoard dollar bills.

30. I will sing in the shower more.

31. I will try to get through the entirety of Pretty in Pink.

32. I will buy a TV antenna so I can watch the Golden Globes and the Oscars and the old British sitcoms that air on Maryland Public Television.

33. I will dance more.

34. I will learn the words to Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

35. I will play the piano every once in a while to prove I still can.

36. I will forgive all those who’ve left me behind and I will celebrate all those who’ve stayed.

37. I will put things in perspective.

38. I will be kind to my body even when it’s not being very kind to me.

39. I will cry as often as I need to for as long as I need to.

40. I will not be ashamed to let someone see me cry.

41. I will read more Walt Whitman.

42. I will buy some of the albums I like rather than endlessly streaming them for free.

43. I will keep the promises I can and not hold on too hard to the ones I can’t.

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