Category Archives: Living with Intention

The Key

In less than two weeks, I’ll cross the threshold from 49 to 50. This year, and this blog, have flown by. I haven’t written much of late because I’ve been fervently and joyfully working night and day on the things I intended to do to make myself ready for this new decade!

To approach my fiftieth birthday with intention and attention has been a great gift to myself. I’ve shed both the limiting habit of self-doubt, and fifteen unwanted pounds. It’s been no secret to anyone but me that I’m exceptionally smart, but for the first time *I* am fully confident that my tremendous intellect, imperfect creativity and bold curiosity have an important place in this world.

In reflection, a few things have been key to this “training up” for turning toward my decade of power.

One has been recognizing the things that drive me, and putting them to work on my own behalf. I have always been someone who carefully calculates, then takes, profitable risks. Once I recognized this, I intentionally cultivated that risk-taking into entrepreneurial savvy, creating both a successful small business and a growing social history project, right in the middle of this economic recession.

Another  key has been learning to treat my self – especially my embodied self — with kindness. This has led to greater patience with pain, and more energy. It’s also had the unusual side-effect of putting my most serious illness, a fatal tendency to take myself too seriously, into remission.

But the key that matters most isn’t metaphorical; it’s a literal key. It’s the door key to a place called The Writer’s Mill, a co-working space for serious writers. It’s a place full of people who are, in the words of Mary Heaton Vorse, “applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” every day to write  articles, and blogs, stories and books. It’s a place for people who say without mumbling “writer” when asked who they are in the world. It’s the place I’ve been too afraid to say that I belong. Until now.

I plan to unlock my fiftieth year with the key to that front door.

Change

I spent last night talking with a group of hopeful, eager young women at a progressive, elite college in the northeast. I talked with them about my life’s work, helping to shape a world that makes possible well-being for black women, and the many shapes that work has taken. Over dinner we talked about the difference between doing work that feels good and helps people, and work that makes social change.

They want to be activists, yet feel helpless and hopeless. They were born in 1990, and wondered if social change can really happen quickly enough for them to see it.  I talked about the impacts of social movements during my lifetime, which began as a passenger on northern buses that were segregated by fear and violence, not law. I reminded them that sexism has not ended, and yet American women now routinely leave their homes without heels and a head covering. They gasped when I explained that when I began my work in domestic violence 30 years ago, it had just become illegal to beat your wife. They pondered having “change that takes a lifetime” simply means a lifetime longer than the one they have lived.

And I felt my journey toward Intentional Fifty as potentially dangerous, with the risk of becoming closed and preachy.

Afterward, we walked to an auditorium, where I gave a speech. When the faculty had offered their congratulations and the line of eager-to-impress students had drifted away, three young women of color waited to speak to me alone. They described the brutal open hand of racism in their lives on this peaceful, leafy campus with its intercultural dialogues and student multi-cultural center. They told me about being disrespected and abused even during the small group breakout session in the workshop I had just lead. We talked for a long time about how much this hurts. We considered what part of addressing that hurt is the work of intercultural groups, and what part is not.

And I felt the weight of  the stereotypes of fifty-year-old women. One such stereotype is that I should become an   ever-giving, wise, big-bosomed mama who wants to take care of other people’s feelings.Now, I am both wise and buxom, but I actually don’t hold much truck with gushing feelings, especially among strangers. I save  emotional intimacy for trusted friends.  I am a hearty hand-shaker, not a hugger.

So I surprised myself by standing fully on my threshold of fifty-wisdom and reaching out my hands to three strangers on the threshold of  twenty-one. I asked them to take exquisite care of their hearts, for I know that hearts can grow numb from living in this kind of place. I confessed my longing for them to be in the world as brilliant and joyful and thoughtful and whole.

And my own  fear of standing in the place of my deepest knowledge and desire fell away from me as I welcomed my young sisters, weeping,  into my arms.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I was fretful all last night and half of today, trying to decide if MasterCard and I should register for the singing workshop with Dr. Barnwell So, I asked my sisterfriends for counsel. You know, those wise friends without whom the journey through this mid-life passage toward 50 is dangerous and rough.

Here’s what they told me

It has been my experience that when I submit to something that I can intellectually repudiate but still covet, magic happens. Go.

Go! Your soul’s voice is asking for what you can’t deny.

A former choir mate said: Go! You gotta sing so your soul can be nourished by cool, melodic notes sung from the depths of your heart and mind that reach your ancestral roots.

Another reminded me that my intention in arriving matters more than my assumptions about who else might show up. She described a similar circumstance where the one person who targeted her for mistreatment was the one face she was happiest to see walk in, because it looked like hers.

But the clincher was my no-nonsense friend Lynn, who said “Ok…be practical…YOU NEED THIS EXPERIENCE. It isn’t about the white people or the cost or living in a place of lack. It’s your personal celebration of an Intentional 50!

So, I won’t be blogging on my 50th birthday this October. I’ll be up in the Berkshire Mountains with Dr. Barnwell and a hundred strangers, belting out my intention to be a powerful voice in this world, singing from my soul.

And I’m gonna have to trust that MasterCard and I will work this one out, somehow.

Singing, with Strings

Sometimes the thing your heart wants, perhaps the very thing your soul most needs, falls right into your lap. It comes to you beautifully wrapped, an unexpected gift. But on closer inspection, you discover that those decorative ribbons are really strings attached. Do you accept the gift? Or reject the possibility because it carries unknown risk?

Yesterday I discovered that the phenomenal Ysaye Maria Barnwell is offering her workshop Building a Vocal Community:Singing in the African American Tradition at the Rowe Conference Center,  a place not far from my home.  On my fiftieth birthday.

I love to sing. I came to singing late in life, not until my forties. Growing up in a family of prodigiously talented singers and self-taught professional musicians, I always thought my modest voice was broken, better suited to poetry than song: “Poor thing. That child couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag.” But when I was home alone doing ancient womanly tasks, like tending my garden, or  ironing,  my throat would open and overflow with my mother’s Baptist hymns  and my grandmother’s  quavering spirituals and Lady Day’s blues.

Nine years ago, I found my voice in a community choir. I was persistently invited to join Joyful Noise Gospel Choir even though I explained that I “couldn’t” sing.  For five years, I found my proper place in that choir– no longer a misplaced alto or soprano, I found my seat between the tenors and the baritones. I learned to sing out loud, in the choir and in the world. I became bolder in my work and more willing to take risks in my art. Joyful Noise dreamed of us collectively attending a workshop with Dr. Barnwell, because singing gospel and spirituals with others was a profound gathering home.  That gathering taught me that singing is a dialogue between the song you raise, the support of my response, and our shared listening for the possibility of harmony. This is a deep spiritual practice, one that healed my broken falsetto, leaving a strong, honest tenor in its place. When our choirmaster, and many members of Joyful Noise moved away, I cried for months.

And yesterday I discovered that Ysaye Maria Barnwell – the scholar and  bari/tenor from Sweet Honey on the Rock, the organizer of great Community Sings — is offering her workshop. In a place not far from my home.  On October 28th –  my fiftieth birthday.

And

This workshop costs hundreds of dollars, at a time when money’s too tight to mention. OK, not as tight as a long-line girdle, but definitely Spanx-tight.

And I don’t know if I can open my tender voice and heart in a room full of strangers to my culture, who are likely to treat it, and me, with some degree of unintentional disrespect. (I live in rural New England. Not exactly a bastion of racial diversity.)

If my intention is to act more powerfully in the world, how do I discern when something is an empowering but emotionally risky opportunity , or just another place to get deeper in debt and hogtied in somebody else’s  strings?

Triangle

On this day in 1911, 146 women burned or leaped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  fire. Without the right to organize to demand  safe working conditions, these immigrant  sweatshop garment workers were locked inside when the building caught fire.  It took until this year for the official record to record all of their names.

The building still stands at 29 Washington Square in Greenwich Village, as part of the NYU campus. I wrote the following poem three years ago, while sitting in that very building.  I post it here to remind myself  that my assurance of reaching fifty, and of having choices, is governed by history, circumstance, privilege and the suffering of women who came before me.


Triangle

When they fell like angels
winged in fire, god was
watching the clock. Gates

locked, he stood by meting out justice:
the mechanical hell of stitch and brown lung
or the hunger. What’s worse now,

to leap or to burn? Some hope of heaven
must have tugged their garments upward,
immodest ohs of mouth and eyes

reflected in grimy windows as they passed.
Others took the long way down dark
chutes for elevated freight. One survived

the passage to America, the Uprising and then
the burning and the falling and the drowning.
Her sister’s bodies held her head afloat.

The bodies are still there, crushed
violets on the lawn. They wait for us
to claim them. Each one has a name.

— Mistinguette Smith



Perigree Moon

Last night I witnessed the moon at perigree, the “super moon”. The close lunar orbit revealed the dark seas and impact craters on that celestial body more clearly than I have ever seen them.  Three of us stood shivering  out on my stoop, hours past moonrise. We gazed up with wonder at a light so bright that a nimbus glowed around it. It was hard to remember that light was just a reflection, a dim repetition of the light from our sun.

Writing Intentional 50 cultivates in me a similar heightened state of reflection. Closely observing how I want to move forward in life surprises me: I find new satisfaction, and deeper appreciation for the life I have made.  This reflective approach toward marking my fifth decade is its own kind of perigree – an occasional chance to look at things close up that I would otherwise take for granted.

And perhaps this capacity for reflection is why our culture insists that we should fear turning fifty. Getting close enough to mortality that we can see its features clearly could render us fearless and bold. If we are not afraid, we may grow into autonomy and no longer need the approval of others to light our way.

They say that a perigree moon is a good night to set new intentions: much is revealed by moonlight that is invisible in the harsh light of the sun.  The power of that reflected light was something I could not have fully witnessed when I was young enough to sleep soundly through the night.

Now, this is going to hurt a little bit

I’ve never been very good at this part. I have no tolerance for pain, little sufferance for suffering . I was the child who needed the lollipop before I got the shot. Anaesthetic is my favorite Triple Word Score move in Scrabble.  Raised on ibuprofen and OxyContin, discomfort has always been optional in this life. Mostly, it’s an option I’ve not taken.

But for two weeks, I have been sick with the flu. The real influenza, not some 24-hour bug.  As it turns out, the real flu is a debilitating and painful viral infection. What’s worse, it’s one of these $%^&*  Character Building Learning Experiences.

When you are in your latest-possible-forties and have the flu, you get limited sympathy for your troubles. Friends are sorry and offer advice, but they generally expect you to have grown accustomed to a few physical aches and twinges by now.  For a discomfort as temporary as the flu, they expect you to buck up and carry on.

Learning to bear suffering with grace is so … grownup. So dignified. So beyond my ken. Apparently, learning this discipline is part of my transition to this new place in life. Full womanhood includes accepting discomfort and bearing pain while staying focused on my intentions to be  awake and alive.

It seems that to be grown up is to know the difference between analgesia and anesthesia. It’s fine to slug down NyQuil for the flu, but there are no Band-Aids for the boo-boo of discovering a parent is losing his ability to communicate. There are no fizzy tablets that will ease the pain of a sibling’s sudden, but not unexpected, death. It’s undeniably mature to wake up to that old, familiar ache in the ankle or a hip and realize that this morning’s need for pain relief isn’t  a temporary situation, it’s the way you’ll wake up for the rest of your life . Difficulty  becomes an old friend we can count on to show up every day.

Pain is part of the way life is. Its presence does not diminish joy, unless I let it. We’ll never be friends, pain and I, but I’m resigned to learn to walk alongside it. Ignore me if I limp and whine for a little while. I’m only beginning  to learn how to take this in stride.

Values

Recently, I heard two people talking.

One said: “I wish people lived their values.”

The other responded: “They do.”

– Gibran X. Rivera

Community

The first month  of a new year awakens my deepest  longings. As January draws to a frigid close, and North Africa awakens in the streets, I realize that one of those longings is a hunger for community.

I grew up in a place where relationships were woven as densely as underbrush. The separation between extended family and the network of close friends and near-relatives was indistinguishable; “Auntie” was a title bestowed  on any number of elders who could be trusted to look out for my well-being.

As a young adult, my tendrils extended further and wrapped themselves around friends, people who worked beside me on community projects and were companions in constructing the kind of lives we wanted to lead. I matured in the thorny shelter of family of choice, my gang of friends, and an assortment of teachers, coworkers, and neighbors who made space for me.

At some point, I discovered I didn’t need so much support and protection.  I wanted to live out in the open, far from the thicket of in-laws and cousins and committee volunteers. In my 30s and 40s, I traveled often. I found deep contentment in being alone. Estrangement became my friend.  It helped me to know who I was, without others to define my attributes and attitudes. The self-knowledge that comes from being a stranger was productive. I dreamed big, and wrote poems and plays. I moved away from the place where I was born. I lived for awhile in new cities: Paris, Geneva, Manhattan.  I settled down in a small college town. I grew strong in new ways, and learned to make space for myself.

So I am perplexed to find myself here, in my Latest Possible Forties, feeling rootless and without connection to a community. Adventure and estrangement have their costs, and I am paying them now. My closest friends are far flung; I can call or email them daily, but a hug is still a plane ride away. My nuclear family resembles Chernobyl, with the attendant intergenerational radioactive waste. Casual friends and colleagues are busy — parenting, succeeding at the peaks of their careers, or leading important community endeavors. And, like my younger self, the people around me are transient. I have learned to wait and see if someone plans to stick around before I offer them my heart.

But  there’s the rub. If I intend to live a life of significance, rich in relationship and meaningful engagement, I must begin it now. But where? And how? And most importantly, with whom?

Witness

Last week there was an attempted  political assassination in Tucson, Arizona.  This event opened   debate about the tone of public discourse, and whether violent political metaphors contributed to this violent act.

Like most folks, I had my share of things to say about this. Some of the statements I made were thoughtful; others were just part of the feast of avid conjecture.

But I was particularly surprised by the opinion of someone who advised me to stay neutral. She thought I should withhold judgment about whether the violent rhetoric that passes for political speech was responsible for this bloody act. She counseled me to draw no conclusions and to refrain from analysis until all the details about the individual shooter were known.

She asked me to stop making sense of what I see.

But I am old enough to have seen some things. I have lived in this country during other eras of violent rhetoric, and I have lived through its aftermath. I have watched verbal assaults escalate into political  violence before.  I have watched the illusion of comfort and neutrality go up in smoke. I have seen my city burn.

I don’t need a TV news analyst to tell me that there are a thousand reasons why someone might want to kill a member of Congress. I don’t need a police investigation to know there are as many reasons for shooting eighteen people in a Safeway as there are civilians who feel a need to own handguns. I know that a single shot fired by an “unstable” person is no more an individual act than is a riot, and I know that his bullet seeks to kill something greater than the human being within its sights.

So, I am surprised to find my journey toward  awakeness includes discovering things to which I am not open.

I’ve grown comfortable being my own witness, staying open to the claims of others while being deeply rooted in what I have experienced and what I have  seen.

Being a grown-up means believing myself when I’ve seen something happen enough times that I can call it by name.  I am old enough to be the author of my own history.  I am strong enough to have compassion for folks who get uncomfortable at the way the world looks when seen through my eyes without disbelieving myself.  I am learning to take myself seriously as a witness

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