Monday, June 19, 2017

White Environments Aren’t Better. They’re Just Whiter.

Back in 1975 when my mother was pregnant with me, she caught the bus to visit a white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. Integration had finally trickled down to the South, and my mother was ready. She was Baptist, but she had heard that this school was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My mother was 40 years old, poor and determined. She was determined to give her baby every opportunity she did not have.

My father did not want me to go to this white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. My father didn’t have much faith in integration, and he sure didn’t have faith in white folks. He had heard that there was a black Catholic school in a black Catholic neighborhood, and it was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My father was 53 years old, poor and proud. He was proud of his people and too proud to let white folks play games with his baby’s head.

The argument between my mother and father was legendary in my family. My mother told it and retold every time I made the honor roll and every time one of my many white teachers told her how exceptional I was. My father, who had not finished sixth grade (or was it ninth grade), reluctantly accepted this white school, but he warned me. “White people say one thing and mean another,” he said. “They think they’re God,” and “No matter what, don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”

I often think about that argument and how it helped determine the trajectory of my life. I attended comfortably middle-class colleges where I attained comfortably middle-class degrees, I work a comfortably middle-class job, I am married to a comfortably middle-class white man and I am painfully aware that my parents’ lives were so much harder than mine.

I remember when I was 10 years old, my mother spread white mayonnaise over white bread with the slow, sacramental precision of a priest wiping the inside of a chalice that once held the blood of Christ. We thanked God for our meal and ate mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner. We ate silently. We ate in reverence because we had nothing else. We had to eat mayonnaise sandwiches at the end of the month every month for 18 months because how else would my mother pay my father’s hospital and in-home care bills? How else would she cover the cost of hospice and a proper funeral? There was no way in hell my mother was going to ask my white principal for a scholarship to cover part of my tuition because she wasn’t gone have white folks treating her little girl like some welfare case. I remember when I was in high school, my mother cried behind the closed door of her office because she had been passed over for yet another promotion. Her boss had told her she wasn’t qualified; she had scarcely finished the tenth grade. She was, however, qualified to train all the white people who were hired in her stead. That day in her office, my mother stood by the cork board on her wall and fingered the ribbons and newspaper articles that displayed my name. With tears in her eyes, she told me for the um-teenth time how she started out washing dirty commodes in that hospital and how she had worked her way up to be a supervisor with her own office, with her own computer and her own staff.

My mother said, “The only difference between then and now is that white folks smile and call me Mrs. D where before that just called me a nigger to my face. But you gone get that piece of paper no matter what. They ain’t gone treat you like shit. They ain’t gone be able to ignore you. You gone make ’em know who you are. You gone make ’em know you somebody. You gone make ’em know where you come from. You gone make ’em know we ain’t stupid. You understand me?”

This was not a rhetorical question. It was a military command, and I answered in accordance to military protocol, “Yes, Ma’am.”

I almost always did what I was told. I almost always did what was expected until my father’s first, second, third, fourth stroke. I lost count. My A’s dropped to B’s then to C’s. My mother begged me to try harder. My many white teachers did what they had always done; they told me what a smart student I was and what a bright future I had ahead of me. My C’s dropped to D’s then to F’s. I was still doing all my homework. I was still studying every night. My brain simply stopped working. I pushed myself through those years of grief for my mother. I forced myself to do better in school because that is what she wanted.  She had been through enough. She had endured 18 grueling months of working full-time, going to parent-teacher conferences, spending time with me, doing laundry, ironing, going grocery shopping, cooking, feeding my half-paralyzed father one spoonful at a time, and washing away his feces while his emaciated body slumped over hers, and she never uttered as much as a, “Damn, life sure is hard.”     

I forced myself to get back on the honor roll and to play sports and to join clubs and to ignore the white and black girls who said I was too black or wasn’t black enough. I forced myself to smile and contain my rage. I forced myself to pummel those girls with my words instead of pummeling them with my fists. I forced myself to be a charming, well-behaved daughter because my mother needed to believe I was okay. I forced myself to go to college because that is what my mother wanted. And if she could endure Jim-Crow racism and watching the love of her life waste away to nothing, I could endure taking 15-credit hours each semester at the whitest white school known to man while being depressed.

My mother was the reason I graduated from college. This comfortably middle class life in this comfortably middle-class whiter-than-white state is the life my mother wanted. If I had it all to do again, I would go back to my senior year in high school and choose to go to an HBCU then move to a city with a half-way decent sized black population instead of going to a PWI and being brainwashed into thinking that white environments were superior environments. I would go back 15 years to when I met my husband and stop my heart from beating, and if that didn’t work, I would extract my heart and stump it to a pulp because the agony of not having my loving, beautiful husband in my life is equal only to not having my loving, beautiful people in my life. I would go back to my 30’s and marry a loving, beautiful black man, and we’d live in a black city where I could buy hair products in an actual store instead of having to order them online. I would attend black festivals and go to black dinner parties and have more than one black Catholic church to choose from, and I wouldn’t feel so excruciatingly isolated in this white homogeneous environment. I would go back to when I was eight and somehow stop my father from having a stroke. I would go back to when I was 10 and somehow stop my father from dying. I would tell my mother and my many white teachers to stop treating me like I’m an academic automaton—stop telling me how smart I am, stop saying how exceptional I am. Just let me mourn my father’s death. I would go back to being a fetus and bend the universe, so my father would win that argument. I would go to that black Catholic school in that black Catholic neighborhood and live an entirely different life, a thoroughly black life.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Anything for Mama

“For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.”
     ~ Psalm 40:12

I practice Hindu meditation and yoga four to five times a week. When I tell some Christians this, a look of fear comes over their faces. They warn me that meditation and yoga are dangerous because Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. They believe meditation and yoga is a form of deity worship. I always want to tell them that Shiva, Shakti and other Hindu deities do not threaten my relationship with God any more than Yoruba or Greek deities do. What threatens my relationship with God is maternal worship. From adolescence to 36 years old, I unconsciously fashioned my mother into my very own golden calf. I even sculpted a golden altar, so I could sacrifice my hopes and dreams at her feet. My mother was my raison d’etre. She was my god, and I didn’t even know it.

By placing my mother before God, I violated the first three Commandments. I idolized my mother since I have had a memory. The man who abused me said he would kill my mother if I ever told her what he had done. He had been to prison before he met my sister—a felony charge, I don’t know what crime specifically. When I spent the weekends by my sister’s house, I watched as he took out his “special” box, rolled joints and smoked marijuana; I watched as he cut lines of coke on a mirror, rolled a twenty-dollar bill and snorted them; I watched as he punched my sister until blood flowed from her nose like water from a faucet. So, when he threatened to kill my mother if I told, I believed him. I absorbed the shock waves of trauma he imposed on me, and I did it without complaint. While he destroyed fragments of my spirit, I repeated two things in my head over and over again: the “Our Father” and “For mama. Anything for my mama.”

I may have been powerless to protect myself, but I could protect the most important person in the world. I had the rational of a child—that’s all I knew to do, but I continued these unhealthy, enmeshed patterns well into adulthood after I knew better. As an adult, the sin of placing my mother before God manifested in anger, rage, resentment and disconnection from God and my non-familial loved ones. I have pushed my husband and best friends away so many times, I have lost count. I have started to use tools to mitigate this unhealthy habit, but every day is a challenge. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Opposite of Enmeshment

I am in denial about the depth of co-dependency I feel toward my mother. Of course, I didn’t know this until I was in my late 20s when I started going to couple’s counseling with my then-boyfriend (now-husband). I suggested therapy because I have a history of childhood trauma, the effects of which manifested in unpredictable psychological ways, e.g., inexplicable nausea, panic attacks, emotional withdrawal, unwarranted relationship abandonment, etc. (I didn’t use the word depression back then because I was in denial about being depressed.)

Our counselor asked us to write about our families of origin, so we could discuss this in our next session. She assigned books for us to read—Toxic Parents for him and Boundaries for me. I thought those book referrals somewhat extreme. The very title, Toxic Parents, is so incendiary! And my boundaries were fine. But as the weeks progressed, my boyfriend and I read and discussed our books and our family cultures, and I came to believe that these books were perfect for us. My boyfriend agreed that his parents were toxic, and I told him that I learned a new word that perfectly described my relationship with my mother: enmeshed.

en-mesh (verb): to catch, as in a net; entangle

Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated [when an]other family member does as well.

That was the first adult acknowledgement I had made that something was wrong with my relationship with my mother. For months after reading Boundaries, I kept thinking of Newton’s law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And I kept wondering, “What is the opposite of enmeshment?”

My mother and I hated to be apart. When I was 18, I went to an out-of-state college. I was so proud that I had been accepted and awarded a posh scholarship. All my hard work had paid off. Within a few days of starting college, I felt excruciatingly homesick. I called my mother crying every day. My mother cried too. My long-distance bill was astronomical. Two weeks into the semester my mother said, “Baby, why don’t you just come on home?” So I did. I left behind the scholarship and the college I had been dreaming about since junior year in high school.

The moment I stepped into my old room back in New Orleans, I knew I had made a mistake leaving school. I had to sit out a semester, and when I did start school again, I went to a state college with the same classmates I so desperately wanted to escape. I eventually learned that most people who go away to college are excruciatingly homesick even if they come from the unhealthiest home in the world. The homesickness passes as one develops new relationships and begins to self-identify, but because I was so enmeshed with my mother, I didn’t believe I could exist without her.

When I was 22, I left New Orleans for a study abroad in Europe. After I returned from Europe, something changed. I was no longer just my mother’s daughter. I was the world traveler.  I had finally created a granule of self that was independent from my mother and my home life.

I eventually returned to the same out-of-state college that I had left a couple of years prior. I was even awarded the same scholarship. Yes, I was homesick, but I was also flourishing. I was doing well in my classes, my instructors loved me and I had lots of friends. I volunteered at a local school, got great work-studies and was selected to be on hiring committees for new professors, all of which helped me to build a strong professional résumé. Eventually, I was selected for and completed internships in The Netherlands and Kenya.

I graduated and moved back home. My sister (yes, the abusive one) was terminally ill. My mother, understandably, was struggling with seeing her oldest child die. My mother asked me to come home, so I did. My old boss from the internship in The Netherlands had asked me to come back to Europe to help him establish a new office in Belgium. I turned him down without a second thought. My mother needed me—that was more important that a fly job in Europe, with great pay and easy access to some of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nine months after my sister died, I moved to the city where I currently live.

I spoke to my mother three to five times a week for most of my adulthood. By southern, Christian standards, this is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s expected. We talked about everything: my boyfriend, how much she missed my father, my sex life, her sex life before my father died, my work experiences, her work experiences, her childhood, my childhood, the child abuse she had experienced, the child abuse I had experienced. During any given conversation, my mother would apologize for not protecting me more then in a subsequent conversation, she would tell me to let the past be the past. Slowly, over several years, I found that I could not abide the sound of her voice. The sound of her voice felt like a noose around my neck. I stopped calling her, and I wouldn’t return her calls. That was the beginning of nine years of our off-again/on-again relationship.

After my mother died, I kept trying to convince myself that I had wasted valuable time because I didn’t speak to her for years at a time. I told myself I should feel remorseful now that she’s dead. The truth is I do not feel remorseful. I do not feel ashamed. I feel that I am precisely what my mother and father taught me to be: a survivor.

Being in an enmeshed (i.e., co-dependent) relationship is the emotional equivalent of standing still while a 13-foot boa constrictor slowly coils around your body and crushes your bones until your lungs collapse and your heart explodes. A survivor would never allow herself to be so powerless; she would not remain in such a deadly situation. Maintaining ongoing communication with my mother was a deadly situation for me. Some like to categorize elderly people as inherently harmlessness. I beg to differ. Enmeshment is a form of abuse. A person who uses enmeshment as a means of control is an abuser, regardless of his/her age.

The opposite of enmeshment is self-identification. Enmeshment requires the melding of the self into another person’s selfhood. When I allowed my selfhood to be fused to my mother’s, I could not think my own thoughts, connect well with other people or grow my own spirit; thus, my relationship with God was compromised. I actively started to self-identify when I got on a plane and flew to Europe. It was a baby step, but it was my baby step. Once I started to self-identify, I would not allow myself to stop. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

No More Delusions

Denver has been weighing heavily on my mind—not the city, but the character in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  Denver’s insightful and feisty as hell, like when she asks Sethe and Paul D, “How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talking about it?  Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed.”

When Beloved comes, Denver kinda likes having someone her age in the house, but then she sees that Sethe is consumed with Beloved, far more than she was ever consumed with Denver.  How lonely that must be, to see your mother’s face light up for someone but not for you?  But Denver’s a scrapper.  She doesn’t feel sorry for herself nor does she reside in delusions.  Instead, she mobilizes herself and starts problem-solving.  She gets a job and starts to open herself up for a life and a love of her own.  I need to be more like Denver.

After communicating with my family for the last six months I’ve come to the same conclusion that I came to so many times before: These mu’fuckers are crazy!  Communicating with crazy people is exhausting!  And I’m equally crazy because I keep trying to make it work.  
I keep thinking about the family members whom I actually want in my life.  I miss them, and I tell myself that I can tolerate the other crazies if I can maintain a relationship with these people.  But that is a delusion; enmeshed families don’t work like that.  You can’t communicate with persons D, E and F without communicating with persons A, B and C.

I feel so terribly sad.  I love my family despite everything.  I keep trying to re-write the past and make it less painful.  I keep trying to make myself over (which is the ultimate delusion), so I can be whatever it is I would have to be to maintain a relationship with them.
  • Delusional Attempt #1: Brain-Dead Angèle
    Willing to pretend I don’t know all the fucked up shit about my family that I actually know.
  • Delusional Attempt #2: Docile Angèle
    Willing to eat the massive mounds of shit my family flings at me and never complain!
  • Delusional Attempt #3: Woman of Steal
    Willing to allow my family’s emotional ammunition to explode all around me and pretend that it doesn’t faze me in the least. (Oh! Is that shrapnel in my flesh?!)  
I can’t do it.  It’s simply not possible for me to be an active member in this family and lead a sane life.  From now on, I’m channeling my inner-Denver.  I’m not going to feel sorry for myself nor will I reside in delusions.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Brioche…I Mean Withdrawal

For the last four days, I’ve limited my sugar consumption to ≤ 24 grams per day, which is the recommended daily allowance for women.  That is significantly less than what I usually consume. I keep telling myself that a low-sugar diet is better for my mental acumen, my physical health and my creative process.   But I’ve been dreaming about French-toast style brioche with extra maple syrup.   

I cannot eat brioche this weekend.  Addicts never adhere to boundaries.  They spiral out of control.  If I eat brioche this weekend, it’ll be cookies next weekend and pie the week after that and pizza the week after that then it’ll become cookies, pie and pizza in one week.

Fuck boundaries!  Fuck health!  Withdrawal sucks!

~ Hours Later ~

Dear God,

Thank you for my health.  Although I would give my left tit for some brioche right now, please know that it’s just the sugar addiction talking.  Thank you for my liver, kidneys and gall bladder, which detoxed all the shit I have consumed throughout my years of hedonism. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Name Is Angèle, and I’m an Addict

One of my friends was in town last weekend.  Even though we speak on the phone every week, she doesn’t come to town often, so I was excited to see her.  I suggested that we meet at this little breakfast place that serves great French-toast-style brioche.  While we waited for the waiter, she told me about her latest therapy appointment and some revelations she had made.

The waiter asked if we were ready to order. My friend went first, but when I asked for maple syrup with my brioche, the waiter said, “I’m sorry.  We’re out of maple syrup.  We only have the regular kind.”

My mouth fell open.  I clasped my heart.  My friend gave me a sympathetic look.  All of my closest friends know that I abhor imitation syrup.  These so-called “regular” syrups are made primarily of corn syrup, and they taste like sugar-flavored ass.  I was in such a state of shock that I could not even speak.  What kind of breakfast restaurant runs out of maple syrup on a fucking Sunday?  

I had been rationing my sugar intake all week!  The only reason I didn’t eat ice cream or pizza or cake or pie or cookies or fresh-baked bread or any of the other high-sugar dishes I could subsist on was because I was holding off for my Sunday reward!  I went to the gym four times last week as opposed to three (Have I mentioned how much I hate working out?), so I could eat my French-toast style brioche!  Goddamnit!!

Finally the waiter said, “I apologize.  Would you like to order something else?”

I still couldn’t speak.  I was too busy calculating the distance between the restaurant and the nearest grocery store.

“No,” I said.

The waiter left to put in the order.  I fumbled through my bag for my wallet and keys.  I looked at my friend.  “I have to go buy some maple syrup.”

My friend looked stunned, but I could tell she was trying to hide it.

“The store’s not far.  I’m sorry,” I said scooting out of the booth. “I know this is extreme. I know I have problems.  I can’t do cheap syrup.  I been dreaming about this brioche all week.  All week.  I just can’t.  I need my maple syrup.”

“I understand,” she said.

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she reassured me.

I rushed out of the restaurant, ran to my car and sped to the grocery store.  I ran at least two red lights. I sometimes speed through a yellow light, but I scarcely ever run red lights.  Did I mention that my friend doesn’t come to town often?  Did I mention that she was talking about her therapy appointment?  She wasn’t crying or anything, but she was talking about something that was emotionally difficult.  God, maple syrup is love in a bottle.  Did I mention that I’m a fucking asshole?

I was gone 24 minutes.  On the way back to the restaurant, I realized that I am worse than an asshole. I’m Gator!

Yes, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) from Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. The main differences between me and Gator as addicts are: 1) our preferred addictive substance, 2) sugar and sugar-addiction are socially-acceptable and 3) I’ve never stolen for sugar.  But the other symptoms of addiction align pretty damn well.  According to Mayo Clinic drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

        ·         Using the drug regularly—this can mean daily use or even using several times a day
        ·         Having intense urges for the drug
        ·         Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
        ·         Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
        ·         Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational  
         activities because of drug use
        ·         Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
        ·         Focusing more and more time and energy on getting and using the drug
        ·         Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
        ·         Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug

They forgot to mention the tell-tale symptom of addiction: Prioritizing the substance above your personal relationships.  So there you have it—My name is Angele, and I’m an addict.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Notes on Shatter Me

I finished Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi not too long ago. Shatter Me is a young adult (YA) novel about Juliette a 17 year-old female protagonist who can kill people by touching them. Juliette’s parents don’t want her because who would want a kid who can kill you if you tried to hold her, and she’s spent most of her life being ostracized and thinking she’s a monster.

When the book opens, Juliette is in a mental institution/prison. She’s been institutionalized for three years ever since the Reestablishment (the dystopian authorities) found out about her power. The outside world is a hot mess. Normal people are eating some kind of processed food substance that expands in their stomach, the Reestablishment keeps popping people off, there are a shit load of orphans because murder/execution is so commonplace, the ecosystems are all off balance, and, of course, there is the Resistance, the people who are trying to fight back. The plot is, for the most part, cliché, but the writing pulled me in.

Juliette is the most interesting character in the book. It’s obvious that Mafi put lots of time into developing her character. Unfortunately, the other characters are two-dimensional and cliché. Adam, Juliette’s love interest, was abused by his father when he was a child, and there is no mention of a positive adult influence in his life, yet somehow, he becomes well-adjusted, kind man. This is highly unlikely and disregards the basic principles of psychology, but whatever, Adam is pretty and fine and Juliette needs somebody to make out with. Warner is the novel’s antagonist, and he’s a sinister fucker. He’s the head of a division of the Reestablishment’s army even though he’s only a teenager, and he’s obsessed with Juliette. He wants to possess her and coax her into his plot for world domination. Warner is also cliché, but he has good fashion sense.

My 3C’s rating is below:

Competent Writing: 3
This book is well-written for a YA book. Mafi doesn’t use much challenging language nor does she patronize her audience. The writing is quite accessible for YA readers. Mafi has an impressive command of metaphors and similes. I don’t know how she came up with so many! I think she over used these literary devices, but that, I’m sure, has to do with the fact that I am an adult. Kissing is nice, but honestly, it ain’t all that! Mafi’s writing for teens and people in their early 20’s. When I was in that age group, I wanted emotions to be on full blast all the time because I was frustrated, and I had so little control over life. I hadn’t experienced much, so reading about a 17 year old having explosive kisses was…well, explosive! Mafi’s abundant use of metaphors and similes allows readers who have never or have rarely experienced things like uncontained power or a steamy, kick-ass kiss feel Juliette’s intensity. It also suits Juliette’s character perfectly because Juliette has been denied human interaction for about 99% of her life. For poor Juliette, a conversation with Adam is not only jaw-dropping because he’s lonely, it’s also jaw-dropping because people have detested her and avoided her for much of her life. She’s not used to people looking her in the eyes, listening to her ideas and being kind to her.

Character Development: 2
As I stated before, Juliette is the only well-developed character in the text. All the other characters are surface at best. If this rating were for Juliette’s character development alone, I would give Mafi a 4.5. Of course, Juliette thinks she’s crazy! She’s been neglected for her entire life. Of course, she wants to be different. She can kill a motherfucker by touching him! Also, I love that Mafi developed a diverse group of characters. She’s given us an Asian-American character, a black character and white characters. Sadly, that’s a rare occurrence in the writing world. I also like that Mafi points out everyone’s racial features rather than referring to the white people as “man” or “woman” and the ethnic people as “black” or “African-American” or “Asian.” My only racial complaints are that, 1) Mafi refers to Castle’s skin as “chocolate,” as if he’s a candy bar not a human; and 2) that there are no Muslim or Iranian/Iranian-American characters in the book, and if there are, they weren’t revealed.

Content: 2
Again, the plot is basic. Can’t say that I was surprised by any of the developments in the book, except the scene in the white experiment room (that was awesome!) and when I realized that Castle was black. I am, however, surprised at how suggestive yet obfuscating the kissing scenes were. They read more like sex scenes. If you’re kissing in the shower, you’ve entered the realm of making out.

Total 3C’s Score: 7/12
Shatter Me is a well-written YA novel with a compelling protagonist. I read this book because: 1) I want to explore YA since I usually read literary and adult mainstream fiction or non-fiction; and 2) I want to read more texts by marginalized (ethnic) authors. Mafi is Iranian-American and Muslim and comes for a middle-class, possibly upper-class, family. This is the first book I have ever read that was written by an Iranian-American or a Muslim although no one in the book falls into either of these identities.

Shatter Me is Mafi’s first published novel. Although I enjoyed the book, it isn’t indicative of what she’s capable of. It’s is just her warm up. My guess is, she’ll grow and get better and better with time.