Standards for Living

It has now been nearly two weeks since I’ve entered my forty-first year.

Or, as I’d like to call it, “Forty won.”

In a year marked by so much death – from ones intimately close, to strangers known and unknown, not to mention the brutal murder of democracy – I end my fortieth year with an even stronger zest and appreciation for life. Especially my own.

Because, in spite of all the tragedy and turmoil that 2016 embodied for most of the world – admittedly the first half was brutal for me as well – I somehow managed to ride out the rest of it with one of the strongest years I’ve had in nearly a decade on a personal and professional level. I made uncomfortable choices, found more of my voice, embraced the unknown, and found freedom in letting go of things that weren’t right for me. I’ve knowingly disappointed some, and unknowingly inspired others.

What resulted was the universe opening up a world of opportunity in the form of more love, support and fellowship from new and unexpected sources. Ones that allowed and, at times, insisted on, finding acceptance that I once sought from relationships – both familial and romantic – within myself.

So I took those trips. Went to those shows. Saw those movies. Booked those therapy appointments. And so on.

…and didn’t wait for that call to do any of it. And also didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it.

In the spirit of keeping that momentum going, and in honor of all the fucks I’ve lost during this year, here’s a list of my standard for living for 2017 and beyond:

Stop Hesitating (“Take the trip!” “Buy the shoes!” “Go to the fucking doctor!”) When you have gainful employment, insurance, decent credit, and a shit-ton of people in your life who are in your corner, there are no excuses. Life is too fucking short…and it can all be gone tomorrow. I say this 7 months after my father’s passing, and over a year after the sudden loss of a very dear friend who lived his life fully and generously, so it’s not exactly an epiphany. Death has a way of putting you in “YOLO” mode; forcing you to face your own mortality and, subsequently, your “bucket list.” And the savagery of this year has been the biggest wakeup call of all.

Speak my mind. Anyone who really knows me might be like “When have you NOT?” To them, I say “Hush.” But recently, someone I was once close to, told me that I didn’t communicate with them during the time we spent together. In this instance, I no longer trusted them or had faith in their ability to act in my best interests, but they had a point. It is best to speak one’s mind, for better or worse, that way everyone can move accordingly.

Refuse to spend any of my hard-earned cash on the following: Hip Hop albums from most of this era’s artists (although anderson.Paak might get my money for a live show). Rihanna concert tickets. Anything with the Kardashian name. Poor-quality shoes, clothing and undergarments. Events where most of the demographic is under 35, or frequently uses the word “lit” with more intention than sarcasm, and/or people who like to invite you to functions/dinners/trips/etc. with the expectation that you’ll be bankrolling them or their friend’s portion of it. If we’re not in a long-term partnership, and I have not given birth to you…you’re paying your own way. I am not Angelina Jolie or Mia Farrow. Call Tyrone.

Don’t take anything in life for granted. Not to be mistaken with “not complaining.” While I try to avoid the other c-word, there are gonna be times in life when things aren’t perfect and something needs to be said in order to address and improve it. (See “Speaking my mind.”) That doesn’t mean everything is shit – it just means it’s important enough to me to be made better. But at the end of the day, even the lessons from failures are appreciated.

Do not entertain the idea of a long-term relationship with any man who isn’t equipped to be my best friend. New rule for 2017: “If he doesn’t make plans, doesn’t keep plans, doesn’t respect my time, doesn’t respect what I say, doesn’t respect my gender, doesn’t respect my family or friends (or – as my sister-girl once said after an ex spent two days at her home but never engaged in one-on-one conversation with her – “doesn’t find out who they are to you“), doesn’t show any interest in spending time knowing or building upon mutual interests…I’m not wasting any time with him. My desire for an honest, selfless, interactive and collaborative partnership supersedes my desire to have a proper lay any day. I believe “Stronger Together” isn’t just a nice and sunny political slogan. I’ve seen too many solid relationships where couples travel, party, and make plans and important decisions together. They respect each other’s input and rely on each other for mutually beneficial contentment and growth. They also have each other’s backs when times are hard for either of them. This is what I aspire to be and have in return. And because I’d rather be alone than feel alone…nothing else will do.

Never apologize for being who I am, and take zero shit from any “friend” or family member who has opinions on how I should behave. I’m single, childless, live in a city bursting with culture and vices, and I’ve survived four decades of life that consisted of  events that have broken many. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told.) And for the most part, I’ve done it solo. That I continue to maintain a sense of humor, optimism, desire and enjoyment of intimate connection and only have a marginal social media addiction – I’d say I’m doing okay. Not Oprah okay…but you never know what the future holds.

Stop doubting my abilities and gut. That I still do this on occasion means there’s more room for improvement, but I’d like to think I’m headed in the right direction.

If I’ve taken nothing else from this year, it is that there is no reward for playing it safe. Those who’ve impacted our lives most – in both life and death – have been the most extreme risk takers. The rogues. The controversial ones. The ones who colored outside the lines and bulldozed their comfort zones to fit big dreams (and in some cases even bigger egos). The ones who set a standard for the way they lived, and fulfilled it to the best of their ability, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how others said they were supposed to live.

If we all set standards in our lives, then we’ll do anything to preserve it for our own well-being and joy. Our jobs, relationships, finances, living conditions and even our political leanings are a reflection of those standards. Or lack thereof. I mean, how else can you achieve a “gold standard” without actual standards?

We owe it to ourselves to have them. We owe it to each other to honor them. If, for no other reason, for our own self-respect, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we did all we could to make the world a better place by being a better person in it while we could.

Those are my standards for 2017 and beyond.

What are yours?

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Taking Care

It can be said with great certainty that 2016 is likely going down in history as one of the shittiest years on record, and there are still 4 1/2 more months to go before it’s officially over.

Full disclosure: I’m making this declaration while laying on one of the softest beds, donning a terry-cloth robe etched with the majestic “lion head” logo of the Ritz-Carlton, following a nice hot bath taken upon returning to a sexy room – with its stunning view of Philadelphia’s City Hall – after an amazing scallop dinner at one of the most charming and kitschy restaurants I’ve seen in some time. Bottom line is: I’m not exactly suffering at this moment.

And yet here I am bitching about this shitty year.

Why is it so shitty, you ask? Where do I come off making such statements when I’m in a position not many folks will have an opportunity to experience? What’s made me take such a strong stance so prematurely?

To put it “Blountly,” this year has seen more death, more injustice, more ignorance and more animosity among the human race, and that has shaken my comfort level to its core and threatens the peace I’ve strived to maintain in my later years. Prior to holing myself up in this luxurious abode for a self-care timeout, I was angry with everyone; white people, black people, police, pundits, politicians and Pokémon players.

I’m sure there are many of you, who share similar frustrations with some – or all – of the above, and have reeled from the passings of notable, iconic and influential people such as Prince, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel and Muhammad Ali amongst so many others. Each were heroes in their own right, who weren’t afraid to stick up for themselves and for those who didn’t have the privilege of their platforms. They took care of us – even though we couldn’t take care of them.

But one loss that has affected me the most is one in which the care was mutual and reciprocal. Two months ago today…I lost my father.

While this loss wasn’t unexpected…it still fucking hurts.

Sure, I can say that he’s not suffering anymore. That Alzheimer’s took him long before the day his body lost its desire to fight. That I no longer have to suppress the urge to burst into tears in front of him when he couldn’t remember who I was. It’s what I’m supposed to say, right?

But for every vacant gaze, there’s a moment of recollection that brought an unbreakable smile and a glimmer of hope. And that’s why it hurts. Because that hope is now gone…along with my very first love.

And, in spite of everything, I’m just here trying to get that hope back within the realm of reason. That lust for life and “joie de vie” that’ll get me through the rest of what’s turning out to be an absolute shit-show of a year. Because, with everything that’s happening – and I do mean everything – it is now more important than ever that we all find our joy and our strength to get through the rough waters of violence, racial and global tensions and divisive banter across all party lines. Because, hopefully, at some point, the love and care we have for ourselves and others will drown out the hate.

Sooo…whatever your method: Vacation…staycation…meditation…medication (kidding) – remember that self-care is essential for the duration. Roads can be bumpy, and trips can take longer than we expect. But if we’re trying to navigate in a broken-down vessel, our destinations become damn-near impossible to reach.

Take care.

 

Beggars and Choosers

A tale of 3 beggars:
Beggar #1 holds the door outside the local Chinese restaurant’s take-out extension; greeting and holding out their hand for tips from exiting patrons who have just bought a meal or accessed their money from the ATM. After securing a satisfactory amount of money for themselves, they then stroll over to the restaurant’s dine-in portion, where they order take-out…and then jump into a cab with a friend. At first it seems outrageous, but then you realize they’ve just redistributed the handouts from others hard-earned cash to the restaurant and the cab driver. (But they still didn’t work for anything – they just subsist on a principle akin to “the circle of life.”)

This person has created an opportunity for themselves and others by seeking handouts for their survival.

Beggar #2 is holding a cardboard sign that says “Need money for weed.”

This person isn’t pretending their situation is bleak, but their addiction is dire (to them), and they feel entitled to your assistance. They’re telling you up front that you’re financially supporting their end goal. They don’t want to harm anyone, they just want everyone to be happy, and they’re giving you the power of choice at all times – as good salespeople do. Emboldened by this empowerment, you approve their self-serving and occasionally counterintuitive desires, with the understanding that they’ll be nice to you…but will ultimately do what’s in their best interests.

Beggar #3 is offensive and aggressive; loudly rattling a cup of change they already had in pursuit of more from others to build their wealth. They slam subway doors, pushing or frightening people as they make their way through the car, make snide and/or threatening comments if you haven’t given them anything, and shamelessly impose on your commute, peace of mind and loose coins. 

Although you fear this person a little, you give them what they want in hopes they’ll make good, leave you and your loved ones in peace and you can say you supported a winner. It’s also simultaneously off-putting and mesmerizing how brazen this person is in their quest to get what they want. You’d have some respect for them…if they weren’t stinking up the place and giving your hometown a bad reputation with the rest of the world.

In the end, they all just want to win at life – and run your life – on your dime. Either way…your gonna lose something in the process of giving them what they want.

Question is, what are you gaining in the process?

Ladies and gentlemen…

The current state of our election year.

Huzzah.

Mirror, Mirror

Forgive me for the unusually long hiatus.

It’s not that I’ve been extremely busy (although I kinda was), nor was it the absence of a topic of discussion. I think we all can agree that over the last few months, there’s been nothing but discussions.

Yet, every time I sat down to write about it, I found myself in that unenviable position every one of us has suffered at one point or another, where I just could not.

But now, I’ve been inspired by — of all things — television.

Unlike my younger days, where I sat for hours transfixed to a television with the intensity of a One Direction fan, these days I’m often out of the loop on most things that show up on most-watched lists, and the equivalent of “water-cooler” conversations.

Like a number of people from my generation, I watched TV not only to pass the time, but to transport myself to imaginary worlds where people had money, adventures, superpowers and even cool, talking cars. As a kid in a single parent home, I also got comfort from seeing the family comedies, where there was a mom and a dad who worked together to teach their kids valuable lessons in comedic ways.

As time passed, those shows – “Dynasty” “MacGuyver” “Wonder Woman” “Knight Rider” “Good Times” “The Brady Bunch” “The Cosby Show” “Family Ties” et al – disappeared, and in their place were shows where real people engaged in shameless acts of desperation for attention, exposure and seemingly lucrative payoffs.

That’s when I tuned out. The fantasy of my childhood shows at least gave me hope of a better life than the one I was currently living. The “reality” was just a depressing commentary on the extreme measures people will take to make their own fantasies come true.

And then Shonda Rhimes came on the scene… Making both history, and shows I could somewhat relate to or, at the very least, enjoy.

From “Grey’s Anatomy” to my current addictions “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder”, Rhimes and her team of writers created stories that teetered on both lines of fantasy and reality. In the case of Grey’s and Scandal, the shows would mix raw and genuine human emotions with the fantasy of teasing happily ever after scenarios that often go horribly awry. A couple who pined for each other after parting ways would reunite, only to have one die in a plane crash. A taboo love affair with the President of the United States gets the bizarre blessing from his wife.

I mean, really, how the fuck is that real life?

But this past Thursday, Shonda and her team outdid themselves, when “Scandal” took a much-needed turn from a nonsensical plot line to deliver the most heavy-hitting episode in its history. In it, they tackled a subject that had gripped the country — myself included — for the last six months: The Ferguson incident.

For anyone who’s been living in a self-imposed bubble, the story of unarmed teenager Mike Brown being gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has been widespread news. What had already began as a tragedy with the death of an unarmed youth, escalated further by the police department’s refusal to discuss the case until they had found evidence — which would later reveal to be false — that the victim had committed a criminal act which, in their opinion, justified the shooting. The public’s frustration with the police and media seemingly depicting minority victims as criminals had reached its peak, sparking riots in Ferguson and a wave of protests around the country. Everyone from pundits to presidents in other countries sounded off on what had become a firestorm and a black-eye (literally) for the United States of America.

…So Shonda and her team took every sound bite, every perspective and every character and caricature that has lent a voice to this chapter in American history, and lumped it into one very emotional hour of television drama.

In her version, the father of a slain son becomes his protector by sitting with the body while holding a shotgun until justice has been served to clear his son’s name. The police chief hires a black crisis control consultant to mediate the situation before it escalated to chaos. The president, still reeling from the death of his own son, agonized over the shooting, but is advised not to make any public statements due to the hotbed issue.  The crisis consultant has her team investigate the truth, which revealed the shooting officer’s guilt. The officer is then arrested and the victim is cleared. The father is then taken to the White House by the crisis consultant to meet the president and weep in his arms. Credits roll as the episode is neatly tied up with a bow.

In between all the fantasy, there were bits of reality: The anger of the community over another unjustified physical and character assassination. The charismatic, boisterous and occasionally manipulative black activist who uses rhetoric under the guise of good intentions, which ultimately encourage further destructive and counterproductive crowd behavior. The politician who jumps in to give their two cents in hopes of bolstering their presence and agenda with the fifteen minutes of media fame they’ve been allotted. The police chief who’s more concerned with the image of his department than the situation at hand, or the respect and trust of the people he’s supposed to protect and serve by resolving things peacefully and professionally. A crowd of people who are justifiably angry over their mistreatment, but unaware of how their own actions and reactions further alienate them from the sympathies of society and, sadly, justice. The police officer whose resentment over the attitudes of the community and his own deep-seeded disdain for their ethnicity severely clouds his judgement and makes him a ticking time-bomb in a job he clearly should not have. And a president who’s damned if he does say something, and damned if he doesn’t.

As stated before, I’ve had difficulty putting into words what I’ve been feeling over the last few months. As I’ve listened and watched people sound off on this, the Bill Cosby allegations and even stupid shit like a reality show based on sorority girls, I’ve wondered — sometimes out loud — how African-Americans pick and choose what they’re outraged about.

For instance: Why is it hilarious when women act a damn fool for ratings and lauded for their ambition in one show, but dragged to hell and “read to filth” because they wore letters in another? Why is it funny when Kanye West slut-shames Amber Rose for being an exotic dancer, when his wife had sex on camera with another man and built a fucking family empire from it? Speaking of “Empire,” why are people up in arms over the character depictions on a show that is a fictional scripted drama, when we grew up watching soap operas with absurd and borderline psychotic plot lines? Why is it okay for rap artists to spit lyrics about putting “molly” in a woman’s drink, but when it’s revealed that everyone’s favorite TV dad did it in real life, suddenly the women are liars? Where is that same outrage that prompted the now famous #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, when a video of black people fighting goes viral? Where is the same call for action when another black youth or innocent bystander falls victim to revenge and/or gang violence, or just a kid with anger management issues from being abused at home or school?

Maybe it’s just too hard to see ourselves, or own our hurtful behavior, beliefs and habits when they’re reflected in so-called “art” for public consumption and scrutiny. It’s easier to point fingers and talk about what any other race but our own have done to embarrass or degrade our culture.

We spend a short month reminding ourselves how wonderful and majestic our history is; how many people of color changed the world by inventing groundbreaking medical and scientific techniques and countless household items, and blazed trails that have set legal and human rights precedents. How important it is to recognize and support black achievement. We quickly — and loudly — derided the Academy Awards for “snubbing” the movie “Selma”and its director, Ava DuVernay, citing the monumental impact of the event on which the film is based.

But for all the pomp and circumstance we built around the historical significance of honoring the movie on the fiftieth anniversary of the march itself, upon closer inspection, we failed to notice that the box office take of “Selma” was significantly less than the average Kevin Hart movie. Meaning we also snubbed the movie by not supporting it in the theaters!! In fact, we snubbed it more by not doing so, sending a far more dangerous message about our hypocrisy than an Oscar nod ever could.

As much as it makes people uncomfortable, I’m happy there are now shows that rip the band-aid off of the once taboo subject of talking about race and the issues we all face. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Jewish. African. Arabic. All. Of. Us. Be it discrimination, or even quiet-as-kept subjects like sexual abuse and incest — which was covered in a searing episode of “How To Get Away With Murder” (and may earn Cicely Tyson another award) — we need to see ourselves and our stories so we can maybe… hopefully… start the conversations and actions that create necessary changes.

Understandably, people get rattled when the lines between fantasy and reality get a little blurry, when all they want is to escape to a world where they can be entertained. But more and more, society is showing us that we can no longer look away or tune out when something doesn’t appease us.

If we can hold sports, entertainment and political figures accountable for their “scandals”, surely we can do the same for our own… Can’t we?

It all starts by looking in the mirror…

Lost and Found in Newark

Last Friday and Saturday, a mass of thousands gathered in Newark, New Jersey, for Oprah’s “Life You Want” weekend.

I was one of them.

Along with Madame O, Mark Nepo, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rob Bell and Iyanla Vanzant united to share insights and stories that were sometimes humorous and oftentimes heart-wrenching — all for the purpose of guiding us to discover our true callings.

Having only watched a handful of her talk show, barely reading my “O” magazine subscription, and catching just a few programs on her OWN network, it would seem utterly confusing as to why I would sign up for this, but that’s precisely why I did.

I had spent a good portion of my life avoiding Oprah’s influence, yet admiring the results of it. That she had reached this status of mogul/actor/entrepreneur/philanthropist from humble and terrifying beginnings made her more of a mythical figure to me as opposed to someone I could relate to, so I never fully invested in seeing her work full on.

Being so averse to seeking or acknowledging a need for help at the time, it never occurred to me to indulge in something that could bring me comfort, joy or at least help me understand that what I’d gone through was not something that was exclusive to my story. Millions of women (and a smattering of men) understood more than I did that Oprah Winfrey hadn’t just built a media empire, but a fellowship of people who all wanted to improve their circumstances, and at least be uplifted and entertained while discovering they weren’t as alone as they thought they were.

And so I joined them… and it turned out to be a pretty damn good decision.

As she took the stage of the Prudential Center on Friday night — resplendent in a royal purple gown that flowed with her every step and voice booming with confidence — this woman, affectionately (and appropriately) called “the queen of all media”, shared with her adoring subjects stories that excited and disturbed us. She peppered her accounts of personal, academic and professional achievements with painful truths of being raped, pregnant, discriminated against, insecure about her body and her desperation to get what turned out to be an Oscar-nominated part in “The Color Purple”. The more she spoke, the more this “mythical” creature became a human being to me — even becoming more so when she admitted to wanting people to think she’s nice while her man, Stedman, reminds her that she is not. (I think I loved that part more than most of her reveals.)

I left that night feeling both energized from her truths… and a little freaked out by seeing my baby picture among the hundreds floating across the screen behind her. In a sea of thousands, that small acknowledgement endeared her — and her team — to me more.

When Saturday morning arrived, Mark was ready to help us clear our racing minds, and guide us through a meditation that left a hush in a room with thousands of women. (Let that sink in… this crowd came to work!!) And while he had our attention that morning, he had our full respect and admiration later, when he was asked to reveal something in his life he will never regret and — without missing a beat — answered “Susan” as he gestured to her in the audience. Yes, there was a collective and audible sigh.

When Elizabeth came to the stage, it was clear she was a rock star to the throngs of screaming women who had read her book “Eat, Pray, Love”, and instantly contemplated leaving everything behind to discover themselves by spending a year globetrotting. It also didn’t hurt that she was played by Julia Roberts in the movie adaptation. Basically, she was the woman everyone wanted to be if they felt Oprah was too high a standard. At least, until they spent the weekend realizing they could be whichever one they wanted to.

Liz shared her journey from being in a “picture-perfect” but unfulfilled marriage, losing everything she had in the divorce, feeling desperate, hopeless, and taking a leap of faith by spending a year finding her passion and purpose and never looking back. Being one of the few who hadn’t read the book or watched her on OWN’s “Super Soul Sunday”, I found her story and candor refreshing and oddly familiar, having walked away from something similar to marriage, losing everything and making discoveries of my own… albeit with less stamps in my passport. Or, for that matter, a book deal.

Rob Bell came to the stage using his humble and unorthodox spiritual charm to explain how expansive the universe was and how we each contributed to it, and I found myself wondering if he and Neil DeGrasse Tyson collaborated. When our minds weren’t being blown by the math and science used in comprising the distance and speed of planets, we were putting our lives into perspective after stories about his late grandmother and his family life gave us pause to appreciate the value of each moment and breath… and Montblanc pens.

What Gilbert is to the dreamers, Iyanla is to those (like me) who live in a “dream-like” state.  Those who fall under that category ignore or fail to grasp reality and/or anything that requires work to create or maintain something of true value. Given that she spoke from experience — having gone deep into debt after refusing to pay her bills and being left by her husband — it only seemed natural and logical to explore some crucial life choices after that talk!

It all brought me back to my last post, where I shared a list born from personal mistakes, and the takeaways that I’ve just recently begun putting into perspective and practice in the last year and a half. The events of this past weekend not only validated the importance of those lessons, it mandated my need to fully embrace them with an open, authentic and uncluttered heart and mind every day.

It helps to know there are people in my corner committed to making sure I do. A lot.

Coming off of seeing Audra McDonald’s heartbreaking portrayal of Billie Holiday during her final days in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”, and looking into a crowd including many older than myself, it was strangely comforting knowing that there’s no statute of limitations on dealing with demons, and conversely, it is never too late to change or improve your life. It’s also okay if you don’t have your shit together by a certain age, as long as you consistently make the effort to actually have it together.

All clever marketing, cool light shows, dance parties, abbreviated exercise classes, crying jags and feel-good missives aside, this experience genuinely renewed my appreciation for life and all its quirks, blessings and benefits. It also reinforced the importance of putting my own happiness and peace of mind first in order to be the kind of person who can ultimately contribute something more helpful than harmful to others.

Kinda like that analogy about putting on your oxygen mask first before helping others during a plane emergency.

Or… you know… becoming a beloved television and movie star who encourages people to read by starting a book club and founding a magazine, build schools and funds scholarships for underprivileged kids, and runs a network and a tour that encourages people to be their best selves.

Kind of a no-brainer which life I choose…

Life Choices

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Robin Williams, but when news spread yesterday of his death, I — like millions of other people around the world — felt the loss.

In an age where increased celebrity access give admirers a false sense of connection, it was never a tabloid magazine, countless gossip items, or a reality program that ingratiated Robin to fans young and old.

It was him.

For decades, his body of work was only eclipsed by his larger-than-life personality and generous, childlike and lightning-quick spirit. His energy and ability to transform from one character to another in the blink of an eye was not only mind-blowing, it was at times daunting. One was always left with a sense of wonder after watching him perform. Not to mention a hurting stomach from laughing so hard.

He was an alien, a sailor, a struggling dad reinventing himself as a beloved nanny, a teacher, a poet, a soldier’s reminder of home away from home, an aspiring doctor with a humorous bedside manner, a refugee from Neverland, a comic reliever who raised money for the homeless and others in need, and an all-around stand-up guy.

Sadly, he had demons he couldn’t conquer, and this is where he became more familiar and connected to the world. This is when he became a human being… and just like us.

The tragedy struck me not only as a fan of his work, but also as someone who is familiar with what it’s like to struggle with depression.

From a confused and angry youth peppered with abuse and abandonment, to a confused and simply frustrated adulthood, my most recent bout was a little over three years ago. At the time, I was struggling to find steady work and income — having been part of a massive layoff one year prior — and a permanent place to live after ending a toxic long-term live-in relationship months before. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after losing both his and my late grandmother’s house, and I was now responsible for his financial affairs and welfare in addition to my own — using what was left of my savings to pay his debts since he had no money left to pay them. As my savings dried out, I was forced to use my retirement fund to supplement my income when temp jobs weren’t enough, and was subsequently hit with a massive tax bill.

An incredible sister-friend generously gave me her room to stay in while I got back on my feet, and it would be where you could find me on any given day… sobbing uncontrollably and contemplating taking my own life.

In spite of those circumstances, I chose to continue my life, and became more curious to find out where it would all lead. Eventually, leads from friends led me to more consistent, and permanent, work — which allowed me to afford a room in a great apartment in Harlem, where I live to this day with a few spirited women. Over time, I’ve settled into my role as my father’s “caretaker”, but every now and then his disease finds ways to remind me of the inevitable. I consciously took action to create a life that had value beyond the tangible kind; one where I had more control of — and accountability for — my personal joy. 

Things got better from there.

We now return to the year 2014, where I’ve now discovered a fulfilling career that feeds my passion, a relationship that’s beyond anything I’d imagined, and a new and improved lease on life. 

In the last month and a half, I’ve experienced my first cruise, my first trip to New Orleans (and introduction to its cuisine), my first Essence Music Festival (which is where I had my first live Prince experience), and this past weekend I finally went skydiving for the first — and only — time. I also got a promotion at work, which led to my first bouquet of roses — ever — via my boyfriend.

In a way, this Summer of “firsts” signifies the beginning of a new life… a “rebirth” in a sense… one that never would have been possible had I chosen to end it only a few short years ago.

Which brings me back to Robin. While I cannot imagine what he was going through (or maybe I can) when he chose to take his life, it is my hope that in doing so, he has saved the lives of others who live in silence… dangerously close to making the same choice.

The sad truth is, it usually takes a tragedy to spark a necessary conversation. Amongst the tremendous outpour of emotion over the past 24 hours from those still grappling to understand how someone who brought so much joy could be in so much pain, there have also been an increasing number of those speaking out about their own demons.

If I’ve learned anything in the last few years, it is that there is always another choice. A better one.

I wish he’d made that one…

Let Freedom Ring

On Monday, the world paid tribute to the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose legacy will forever be linked to his tireless pursuit of equal rights for not only African Americans — but for anyone who suffered injustice and discrimination based on race, gender or social standing.

As a child, I recalled every year in my elementary school being encouraged to read and recite his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and obsessing more on my classmate Yvonne — who, along with her sisters, would always nail the recitation in the grade level school-wide contests — than on the speech’s contents. The rest of us in the class didn’t even try to beat her; we just basked in the bragging rights of having her in our class.

It would take years for me to fully understand and appreciate the sacrifice and struggle of Dr. King and his fellow “freedom fighters”. In retrospect, the work of these incredible men and women didn’t resonate as strongly as the holiday from school. To this day, I’m not certain if it’s a testament to my refusal to digest the horror of history, or if the school system failed to emphasize the importance of the movement that, at the time, was still freshly woven into the fabric of this country.

To be fair, the subject matter calls for complicated — and sometimes uncomfortable — conversation that is tough to grasp at an age where you can barely put sentences together.

In any case, recalling this bit of information helps me understand why the youth of today aren’t fully informed or sympathetic to Dr. King’s fight.

But what I don’t understand, is how in this era — where most kids who don’t have jobs somehow possess expensive smartphones that easily access information, and two year-olds can navigate applications on iPads — is it possible that people choose to not research the story of King and all freedom fighters, and instead use his image to promote “twerking” parties?

This thought came to me while attending Monday’s annual tribute to Dr. King at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which this year included tributes to Nelson Mandela and Amiri Baraka . While standing on line early that morning waiting to be seated, the presence of parents with young children en mass was a welcome and heartwarming sight to my sleepy eyes.

During the tribute, we heard the voices and messages of borough presidents, senators, congressmen, various elected officials and the new mayor and first lady of New York. We also heard the old/new police commissioner — a man clearly out of his comfort zone — who kept gratingly referring to Dr. King as “Mr. King”.

Once the political agendas and awkward moments commenced, we listened to the melodic voices of the Christian Cultural Center Chorus (who unfortunately included an R. Kelly song in their set list) and the jazzy brilliance of José James.

But the high note was the event’s keynote speaker… Angela Davis.

The indomitable fist-hoisting poster child for “Black Power” in the ’60’s and 70’s. She of the famous gap-toothed smile that beams through a face shrouded by a mushroom cloud of an afro (now graying and only slightly tamed), with a razor sharp mind and an undeniable ability to capture a room or gathering crowd with her eloquence.

Decades after being acquitted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges, and semi-quietly resigned to a life of minimal fanfare, the woman still electrifies an audience. In a packed to capacity venue, the former FBI fugitive stood onstage for several minutes basking humbly in the applause and cheers of an emotional crowd that continued to stand even after she told us her time to speak was limited.

She was the most natural choice to pay tribute to the men who collectively created profound ripples in the seas of change. Having spent years being vilified, persecuted, threatened and incarcerated for her outspoken support of human rights, Davis has emerged as one of the rare survivors and success stories of that era. Following her powerful  — and, not surprisingly, controversial — speech, the crowd made their way to the cinema to view the documentary “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners“. Generations young and old were introduced to Angela the fighter, the woman, the scapegoat and finally the vanquished. Even though we knew how the story ended, there still wasn’t a dry eye or an un-clapped hand in the audience at the film’s conclusion.

With last month’s passing of Mandela (along with the perfectly/eerily timed release of the “Long Walk to Freedom” film depicting his life), and the recent PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross“, there’s a resurgence of interest surrounding those who risked their lives and their livelihood in order for future generations to enjoy the freedom and luxury of choice.

Personally, I believe this recognition couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

Speaking for myself, it is often easy to take for granted the physical and psychological warfare that was endured for centuries prior to this day and age where it has now become okay to publicly demean each other on television, in music and via social media, but cry racism when someone from another ethnicity says or utters anything even in ignorance.

Sometimes a wound needs to be reopened in order to heal properly. The recent spate of racially themed movies in the past year, while garnering some vitriol from African Americans tiring of seeing “another film about slavery, etc.”, are necessary reminders of the struggles of ancestors past. If nothing else, they should embolden generations that now have more opportunities and resources than ever to make even greater strides and more groundbreaking accomplishments that unite and rebuild broken communities.

Because what’s the point of people fighting and dying for freedom, if we end up allowing anger, resentment and fear to imprison our thoughts and actions and keep us from ultimately living Dr. King’s dream? Or for that matter… simply living our own dreams?

Let freedom ring… indeed.