What's your Legacy?
I had an appointment with my GP on Friday. He is a pretty straight shooter who seems to know exactly what to say to get his point across. In recent weeks, he has given me a stern talking to for rescheduling meetings with him in favor of work related needs. In my last few visits, he noticed that I usually yawn and lose my focus when explaining details. When he asked about work-life-balance, I, supposedly, laughed and looked away. He doesn't approve of these things. He told me so.
He was talking me through the next steps for some health stuff, and in that process he just stopped, mid-sentence, and said: "What do want your legacy to be?"
Me: My legacy? (Internal dialogue: I thought I was visiting my GP?)
Amazing GP with a strong British accent which sounds very authoritative:
Your legacy. We've been working on your health, and you're making considerable progress, but now I have to ask you, what's the legacy you want to leave? Why are we doing all of this? To put it in context, I had a patient who was the picture of perfect health- cyclist, runner, triathalon. Strong career development. 5o years old. And I just diagnosed him with a massive brain tumor. Pretty much terminal. And his first response was: "This messes up my legacy. I was supposed to get to my legacy from 50-65." To which I said: "Life doesn't have guaranteed timelines." And so he said: "Make sure your other patients have that reminder." So, I am committed to asking my patients: what do you want your legacy to be? Your life is limited so how do you want those minutes to be invested?
What followed was a pretty fantastic conversation that somehow included talks about boundaries and Mari Kondo and travel. I am not sure how that all unfolded, but it did and all in 25 minutes. Those minutes led to a weekend of processing.
What do I want my legacy to be?
I have snippets of my answers, wrapped into a few key adjectives: social justice warrior; child advocate; well-being educator; community builder. Edem motherer. Author. School owner. Visionary. Inspirirer.
I am not sure that I have a full answer to that question, though. I somehow think there's a great power in just the asking. And a great awakening in realizing that I might be off track in my process of living the answer to that question.
What about you? Do you have an answer for the legacy question? If not, do you have snippets of the answer? What are they?
I spent a great deal of my twenties and thirties on a quest to understand what it means to be happy and at peace. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices, healthy eating, wellness retreats therapy session, life coaches and pursuing my purpose and passions all led the groundwork for a life of happiness. I was traveling the world, working throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Different countries brought different lessons, different life stages such as marriage and motherhood added layers of understanding. Even my divorce brought the opportunity to dive deeper into the quest of understanding what it means to be happy at the core, and at peace with myself and the world around me. When the opportunity to live on Bali arose, I felt that I had arrived at the perfect place to solidify and anchor my habits for happiness, and develop a life anchored in well-being.
Though the island of Bali presents with its own challenges, (it is often said that Bali will chew you up and spit you out until you arrived at your most polished self) Bali is also a place where it is easy to establish a life centered around well-being. On an island deeply rooted in spiritual practices, lush with natural beauty and rife with spas, yoga centers, ancient healing remedies and hidden sanctuaries, escape from chaos seems to be the raison d’etre for this Island of the Gods. Bali also felt like it was the place where I was receiving my PhD in living a happy life, and I thought I had graduated with honors. I was ready, I believed, to leave my life university and re-enter New York City, the land of opportunity, completely zenned out and ready to handle anything.
I was, after all, the “happiness teacher.”
When I first arrived, settling in seemed a bit easier for me than it does for most people new to the city which never sleeps. Not only did I find a beautiful apartment easily (and without brokerage fees) my landlord lowered my rent to make it more attainable. Old friends welcomed me home with open arms. The city seemed to be abuzz with excitement over my arrival.
For about a week.
Then reality set in.
After ten years of living abroad in collectivist cultures set in landscapes alive with natural beauty, I had moved my then six year old son and I to the concrete jungle. To a place that never settles down. To chaos and long commutes and insanely high grocery bills. Nanniless, to piles of laundry and cleaning my own apartment and noise and high crime. My senses felt that they were being bombarded at every level, with no reprieve. My new work environment was challenging in entirely new ways. My friends all had commutes and work and busy lives, too, and loneliness started to creep in. I was no longer thriving, I was surviving, and just barely.
I continued to teach my students the habits for happiness: build into relationships, reflect on happy memories, spread kindness, practice mindfulness, express gratitude, and take care of our bodies. But on some levels, I felt like a fraud.
My reserves of “well-being” were being tapped into and consumed at a rate faster than I could replenish, and I quickly started to worry that I had not, in fact, developed these habits for well-being, rather, I had simply lived well in an environment conducive to happiness. If Bali was the place where I was earning my PhD, New York was my final residency- that big test that, if I passed, I could truly say that I knew how to be happy. If I failed… Well, I was just another grumpy New Yorker.
Though I was doing everything I could to practice my habits, I was struggling.
I was not alone in this experience. According to the UN Report on Happiness, about 10% of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or crippling anxiety disorders. Globally, children are reporting epidemic numbers of depression and debilitating stress. Suicide rates are at an all time high amongst youth and adolescents. According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, in 2012, an estimated 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in that year. This represented 9.1 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17. In the same year, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode This represented 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults.
Globally, it is recognized that these trends are not sustainable; we need to make a shift.
In July of 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared March 20 as the “International Day of Happiness,” recognizing the importance of happiness and well-being as universal goals that should be driving public policy decisions. Inspired by the government of Bhutan’s decision to measure Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product, it is recognized that measuring and working towards a nation’s happiness will also lead to greater economic growth and stability. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the world “needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”
Personally, if I took any measure for happiness-economically or otherwise- I would fail.
What was I to do? My new lifestyle, with its daily 2 hours of commuting, unaffordable child-care, and life chores did not leave time for self-care. But if I didn’t make time, I was at risk of slipping into a version of myself that I didn’t care to be. And so I hunkered down. Perhaps I couldn’t practice all of the habits all of the time, but I could do at least one- maybe two things each day that could serve as my happiness buoys and tether me to a sense of well-being.
As it had been in the past, my camera became a tool that kept me grounded. My rough commutes became easier as I practiced the mindfulness strategy of looking for the wow. I built yoga into my life, and even the walk on the commute became less of a burden and was instead viewed as a strategy for taking care of my body. The more I made the habits a part of routines, the more I drew opportunities for well-being into my life, such as the time I was offered a scholarship to receive training from the David Lynch Foundation for the life changing experience of Transcendental Meditation. Opportunities to speak about and share Happiness 101 grew, with me being invited to India and Mexico and conferences throughout the US. The Happiness routines were becoming so much a part of my day that were no longer add-ons, they were the things I just did in the same way that I took a shower or brushed my teeth every day.
I also started to evaluate every aspect of my life to see what was and wasn't working and with the support of a coach and therapist, started to systematically enact an approach for anything and everything that wasn't working.
To alleviate financial stress, I took on consulting and moved from the classroom into leadership. I approached building relationships (both romantic and friendship) with determination and focus, and constantly brought focus and effort to ensuring that my son and I could thrive.
And still , in spite of all that, life as a single mom in my beloved NY was hard. Really hard. Unsustainably hard. Just read the above description and the key words within it: focus, effort, systematically enact... It was all WORK-constant effort. Eventually, I Mari Kondoed my entire life by asking: What sparks joy? What serves me? What needs to go? Once everything was rooted out and life still seemed too hard, I took the clue that it was time to make a big change; it was time to leave my beloved city. New York no longer sparked joy.
For two years, I looked for the right next fit. I finally found it in a place that is the polar opposite of NYC: Lausanne, Switzerland. And so yet again, we packed up our lives and landed in a new home. This time, things felt so much easier.
Life does still have its ups and downs, and over the last two years I have had my fair share of challenges, only now I do not feel as if I am battling the energy and routines of a city as I deal with life's usual trials and tribulations. My son can be a 13 year old with greater ease and independence. Despite having a demanding job and a tween at home, when the rhythm of life is hectic, I am in a natural environment with a rhythm that reminds me to slow down and breathe. My focus has been on settling in, my job, and my son.
Along the way, Happiness 101 has fallen to the wayside, along with teaching yoga and meditation and many of the things that I love to do. I enjoy what I do at work, and feel at peace with our home, don't get me wrong. And still, something has been missing. Something very important.
I don't know if its this new environment or this stage of being a woman in her 40s... Whatever it is, I am better able to see parts of myself that I carry with me no matter where I am. I have come to see that I am a woman with drive who always needs to be working towards something, and to feel I am contributing in areas aligned with my passions and purpose. I am also clear that a part of my purpose is sharing everything that I have learned about well-being, healing, achieving self awareness and actualization- all of which I encapsulate in what it means to be happy.
Fast forward two years in, and I now write to you from my home office during the great Pandemic of 2020. In the third week of a government imposed lockdown, this writing right now is a healthy process for me: it's cathartic and helpful. A way to deal with the racing mind that comes with days on end of working remotely, alone with my child at home in a time of anxiousness and uncertainty. In this time of harboring safe at home, I am tuning into a nagging voice that is asking me to pay attention to the part of my life that feels unfulfilled, to the parts where I am not living out my purpose. I keep coming back to my neglected Happiness 101 project. In a way that I have never before seen, as we sit in the eye of a well-being storm, the world seems to be collectively looking for strategies for Happiness and well-being. And I feel called to action.
Our wound can be our source of light. Over the coming weeks, I will share my journey towards being a PTSD survivor and thriver. While it is nerve wracking to imagine doing this, it also feels right. I know that I have learned a great deal when others are brave and vulnerable with their stories, and so if even just one person benefits from my telling, I will share my own with the aim of supporting others. I don't know what it will look like. I can predict some messiness and clumsiness along the way, so I ask for some grace with the process.
If you've stuck with this long reading, thank you. I hope you are safe and healthy and surrounded with love in this time of uncertainty.
Yours in growth and discovery,
February 23rd, 2020
I think about writing. About the release that comes with it. As I walk along, I think about the things I have to say. Before I know it, scribed in my mind is an entry to a blog post, or a chapter to a book, or a delicious sentence that aches to find its way somewhere connected to other sentences. These "writings" stay in my mind. Restless. Noisily bouncing around with all of the other unwritten things: the book on Happiness 101; the memoir that others often tell me I should write; my ponderings on education. All unwritten. It isn't writer's block, or having something that wants to be written that hinders me from getting to writing, so what is it?
My number one excuse these days is time. Not having enough of it. Then I see other single parents who wake at the pre-dawn hours to create the moments and I realize that this excuse doesn't fly. We find the time for the things that matter to us. The same holds true for my other excuses of brain fatigue, lack of inspiration, lack of focus, lack of.... I could provide a robust list of the things I claim to lack that keeping me from writing. And it would all be utter rubbish. What I am realizing is my true stopper is a lack of courage.
What I want to write about is personal. It would require vulnerability and a willingness to put myself on the line. I want to write about life. About rising up and rising over. I want to share the lessons that life has taught me about happiness and embracing the adventures that lie ahead. Ironically one of those lessons was on the beauty of overcoming fear, and yet, here I am sharing that fear is stopping me from doing something I feel called to do. Because writing about all of that would also include writing about (and exposing) all of the ugly that comes with growth.
Lately, though, that longing for expression, creative or otherwise, is growing bigger than the fear. I am restless. Bored with my own excuses. Bored enough, I would dare say, that I left my work to the side and came over here to process some of these thoughts. It has been almost four years since I wrote more than a Facebook rant. Along the way, I quieted my creative voice. In part, I believe, because I was so worked up and then numbed by the current state of things that I didn't want to just write about the day to day and yet, I didn't feel safe to say what I felt needed to be said. I am sorting out how to regain that part of myself and cultivate opportunities for creative expression. I am eager to be back in the game, and to see what my 45 year old self has to say.
Have you ever felt that you got so swept up in the day to day of life that you lost a part of yourself? What did you do to regain the parts of you that make you feel alive?
That’s what I’m allotted to describe the learners in my care, three times over under Language Arts, Math, and Unit Studies. Somehow, in that limited arena, I have to carefully illustrate how well I know these precious people. How well I understand their strengths and areas for growth, their obstacles and victories. In the span of a school year, they’ve anchored their place in my heart. How can I possibly convey the nuances that I understand in the small box granted to me?
In the 182 days that comprise a school year, I learn to watch their body language, how they enter a room, how they answer a question, how they sit when working. It becomes an instamatic evaluation: she’s had a rough morning, and needs some lead way; he needs to be reigned in before he spirals; she needs a hug; he needs to laugh. They all just need free time/extra support/a challenge. Sometimes the knowing is so instant, it feels as if I have developed psychic powers, other times I agonize over evidence to sort out where a child is, what they need in order to thrive.
I’ve lost sleep on more evenings than I care to recount; school time insomnia is my diagnosis. My mind reels with questions: how did that lesson go? Why did he/she struggle so much over that question? Are they getting what they need? What should I do differently? I dream about lessons, wake up to jot down ideas or gather resources to make it all happen. My learners become a plague to any other line of thought.
I study the evidence of their learning, determine plans for next steps, and consult with others when I am at a loss. I see their struggles as my struggles, their obstacles as a personal challenge. Their successes become a point to celebrate, with me walking through the halls wanting to tell anyone who will listen: THEY GOT IT! He gets the pattern! She spoke out loud! He doesn’t cry through lessons anymore!
They take over my life so much that I find myself picking up books thrown out on the sidewalk because so and so will enjoy this, or talking about such-and-such when on dinner dates. I enter the realm of the dreaded one-track mind where my learners are concerned.
This is what we do, we teachers. The children become our lives. People say it is a thankless job, one of giving and not receiving. I couldn’t disagree more.
As a teacher, I have the opportunity to constantly stretch and grow. I’ve learned about my weaknesses and my powers. Discovered myself as a Mama Bear advocate more times than I care to count, finding a voice and conviction that far outweighs any power I imagined I contained.
I’ve learned about things I never knew to even ask about, because I didn’t know it was a thing. I’ve had guest speakers who exposed me to new worlds, field trips that stretched my experiences, and children who introduced opportunities for learning because I needed to know how best to serve them. Children, in their extreme honesty, have given me fashion tips, character recommendations, and teaching feedback so brutally honest I had no choice but to find ways to improve. They constantly demand that I chisel away at who I currently am so that I might uncover my better self.
1,0000 characters to capture all that. Over 16 years, 1,000 characters allotted under three subjects, twice a year, for the 887 students who have been under my charge. For those of you like me who see everything as a potential math problem, how many character has Ms. Threlfall--- I’ll stop myself. That’s 42,576,000 characters.
And I just wrote the last of mine.
I am entering into a new phase of my career, stepping out of the classroom so that I might serve education in a different way while also having more energy available for a laundry list of important things, not the least of which is my very own learner- the one who, not as a student-to-teacher endearment, but through birthright, calls me Mama.
It’s often the duality of truth that makes transitions so electric, charged with emotions, and this is no exception. While I am thrilled about this new step, and see my opportunity to have an impact expanding, I am also feeling deeply emotional about this transition. And so it was with great pause and procrastination that I wrote my last sentences in the last report card, to arrive at the last 1,000 words I will write under the title of Classroom Teacher.
That sentence says it all…
She consistently demonstrates the attributes of a global citizen; I look forward to seeing how she will make the world a better place. I know I am a better person through serving as her teacher.
Day 3: The Great Bike Ride
This finally happened.
Edem received a bike with training wheels when we first arrived in the states. It was a gift from my parents. We couldn't get him off the bike at first, and then one of the training wheels broke off. I thought that it was time for him to learn how to go on a two wheeler without support. He thought it was time to avoid the bike altogether and move on to the scooter. I cajoled in every way possible to get him up on that bike, even bribed him with ice cream over the summer, but that child can seriously dig in his heels when he doesn't want to do something.
I recently suggested that we sell the bike if he wasn't interested in riding it. He shrugged in a way that let me know that his heart wasn't in alignment with his physical action, so I held off. I pretty much just let the whole bike thing go. I didn't hear a word about it for months, and then, suddenly, as we were heading out to walk over the Brooklyn bridge, I told him to grab the scooter and these words actually came out of his mouth: I want to ride the bike.
The bike? The one without training wheels? The one that has been in the basement, collecting dust, for two years????? OH HALLELUJAH ! 2016 really was off to a great start!!!
I had to act all nonchalant- if this child knew how excited I was, he might back down. Inside I was dancing a victory dance: I CAN FINALLY RIDE BIKES WITH MY CHILD!!!!!!!!
Unfortunately, the abandoned cycle had two. very. flat. tires. The look of disappointment was intense, so we threw the bike in the trunk of the car to take it to a gas station the next day, and then off we went to the bridge- him talking about the bike the whole way there.
That brings us to today. THE DAY that will forever go down in history as "The very best day of my entire whole life," as said by Edem James Threlfall Kwashie.
My child, the great bike resister, woke up and the first words I heard as he pried my eyes open were: "Today I ride the bike. Let's go!"
We borrowed a bike pump from the folks down stairs so we could fix those deflated tires. After a few goes, little man was laughing, exclaiming: "It sounds like FARTS!! THIS IS AWESOME!" ( I really truly don't know where my child disappeared to!)
Tires full, I turned to return the pump, when I heard: "I GOT IT! I GOT IT! I CAN DO IT!!"
I turned around and there he was, just riding away on that bike like it was no big thing at all. The next two hours were filled with pleas for me to take his picture, and him asking: "Are you proud of me mom? Can you believe it? "
As we pedalled home, Edem beamed. "Mom, This is the very best day of my entire whole life. I bet I am good at other things, too!."
Little man grew big today, full of pride and accomplishment, It's been a while since I saw him smile that big- the last time may have been when he learned to ride his first bike with training wheels. It feels incredible as a parent to see your child finally overcome a fear and experience success. I feel as if I just saw a little light of confidence kick on in my child's head, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.
And so that concludes Day 3 in this diary of little joys, only this one feels pretty big. I hope you also had something to make you smile today!
Day 2, Back on the Mat
I got back on my mat today.
It's been a minute (okay, months) since I heard that flicker and assumed the stance for my yoga practice. As may have been evident by the two abysmal posts from 2015, that was a year that saw me on the whelmed side of things. Though 2015 had some great highlights-Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Mexico come to mind, over-all, I was incredibly happy to kiss 2015 good-bye. It was just a year filled with strife and grief in the world, and one where I struggled to maintain balance. So it is not without surprise that I am kickstarting 2016 off with a heavy dose of the practices which help to stay centred, open-hearted, and capable of dealing with stress. Namely: meditation and yoga.
Today's yoga session was, not surprisingly, exactly what I needed. A therapeutic class intended to open up tired muscles and detox the organs, our teacher also dropped in words that I needed to hear. She spoke about surrendering; breathing; releasing tension; bowing to ourselves; listening to our needs; opening our hearts. Again and again, as she spoke of our bodies, I heard only: let go; stretch; release. SURRENDER. I could feel myself relaxing, my edges getting a bit softer. In a way that has become almost foreign to me in the last few months, by the end of the session, I felt grounded. Aware. Full of vitality. I felt... alive again.
My word for 2016 is PRESENCE. By this, I mean that I want to be tuned into those around me, able to enjoy the moment, free from past stories that might colour an experience. Free of distractions Ultimately, it is a call to be mindfully aware. As I have given it some thought, it also comes with a mandate to SURRENDER to the now. This historically has been a challenge for me, as my nature is to ideate and problem solve, always thinking 10 steps ahead. When I am on the mat, I am able to let all of that go, and just tune into the practice. Similarly to what happens when I meditate, I usually walk away with answers to questions that had been plaguing me. As simple as that, put the problem aside and answers will arise!
So here we go. Day two into this new year and I'm feeling great about what lies ahead: 363 more days of deep breathing, surrendering, and embracing the moment that is before me.
May 2016 be a year that we all look back on and remember fondly. Whatever comes your way, know that I am here to be with you, present, aware, and ready to breathe beside you.
What's your word for 2016?
I wanted to walk across the Brooklyn bridge today. Not sure why, exactly, it's just what came to me the moment I opened my eyes. But damn if it wasn't cold today...
"Just say yes.... " my spirit whispered. "Everything that's ever been good in your life started with yes..."
There are always many (seemingly reasonable) reasons not to do something the moment the inspiration strikes. You're not prepared, it's not the right time, it would be better when planned out... Or like today, it's damn cold out there! "Perhaps tomorrow..." becomes an easy refrain. The problem with the stall is it can keep you from experiencing something you actually were fully prepared to experience- maybe something you NEEDED to experience.
So the next time inspiration strikes, maybe try saying this: "YES." That's it, nothing more, and then just get up and do it. I'm always grateful when I do. #yes#nofilter #Brooklynbridge
It's a busy time, and I am finding myself feeling overwhelmed with my never ending to-do list and the bills and the reports and the online course and the workshop leading and the teaching and the mothering and the cooking and the speech lessons and the homework and the cleaning and the laundry and the trying-to-be-but-failing-good friend and the flights to book and logistics to sort and the writing deadlines and the second/third/fourth jobs and mail to get out or open and the laundry. That damn laundry that just. won't. stop.
Someone said to me today: "I know, it's too much for you as a single parent. You can only take care of your son so much, you will drop some of it."
This in response to why I hadn't set him up with daily tutoring support after school, and why I had him in aftercare. "You are doing a good job for a single parent," she said.
For a single parent.
That line right there nearly made me snap. But not in two. Wide freakin' open. I was engulfed with a sort of something that I am not sure I have ever felt before. Let's just call it rage. Because right there, in those 4 little words, I felt like it was being said that everything I am breaking my back to do for my son just wasn't enough. And that feeling made me want to open up and roar. Roar with the exhaustion and the frustration, but mostly, with the fear that maybe that is right.
In reflection, I know that isn't what was meant. But the response has lingered with me all evening.
It was there at the back of my mind while cooking. While cleaning up. While putting the little guy to bed. While reading to him. While responding to parent emails for my teacher job, and while working on the online course that I lead so we can (barely) afford this NYC life.
And what bothers me the most is this idea that I am exhausted to the core, and yet...
I keep thinking about my inner response. About how I had to walk away quickly for fear of what I might unleash on this well meaning supporter. What I am realizing is that the response is the result of an empty well. There has been zero self care;I have not been filling myself up so that I am able to give more. My tolerance levels are low, I am not as energetic as I like to be, and I am easily irritated. I can feel the negativity goggles slipping on over my worldly view. This is not at all how I want to be showing up in the world.
And so now it is time to reach back into that bag of tricks and bring out the tools for happiness. I am going to commit to at least 20 minutes every day for myself. Twenty. That sounds like a tall order right now, at 12:36 a.m. but I am going to find a way to make that happen. It's oxygen mask time, and I need to get mine on before I can assist anyone else. Twenty minutes and daily WOW seeking mixed in with a little gratitude. I can do that... baby steps...
How about you? What are you doing for self-care? How do you avoid feeling exhausted to the core, or do you?
Here's a little soundtrack to get me started; maybe you need to hear this, too.
Finally solo yet still tethered to me with the chord of life, my son was placed on my belly. He squirmed and inched towards my heart.
I, having moments before unleashed a deeply grand and primal sound, could barely make my words audible.
"What... What should I do?"
Laughing, my Ghanaian midwife held wide her arms.
"Oh, Madam! You hold him! Take him in your arms and let him feel you. Let him know he’s safe."
I've asked that question at least daily since the day my son was born.
What should I do when he...
throws a tantrum?
won't eat vegetables?
breaks a rule?
cries from missing his father and friends in distant lands?
What should I do???
A refrain familiar to all parents as we seek counsel from books, friends, blogs and magazines. For the longest while, my quest for advice felt like a natural part of the rhythm of things. I was just like all of my friends, doing my best to raise my child so that he could be a happy, thriving, thoughtful citizen of the world.
I fit in with my peers- most everyone I knew was an expat, living outside their birth country, raising the child as a "third culture kid." Most of those children were living, breathing evidence of cross-cultural love. The playground hues were an endless mix of Japanese-Italian, Ghanaian-American, Indonesian-Dutch, Vietnamese-Swiss, German-Thai, Nigerian-Canadian.
We were writing our own cultural norms as we raised the tribe of global citizens. Their skin tones and gorgeously exotic eyes made our children something people were fascinated by, and though there was the odd occasional judgment, for the most part, these beautiful children were doted on for their beauty and uniqueness.
When I asked "what should I do?" I was seeking advice that could get me through to the next phase- or at least, hour- before I was baffled again by this never ending craziness of parenthood. I worried about my sanity and my son's well being, often wondering how on Earth I was going to survive the teenage years. I worried that his naughty actions might get him into a bit of trouble, or his struggles with academics might impact his grades.
But never, not once, did I worry about the color of his skin, and what that would do to impact his survival.
Until I moved to America.
Let's get something out of the way. I am a white woman. As a white woman raised in America, I didn't grow up thinking so much about the color of my skin. As far as I knew, it had little bearing on how I was treated. My smallish stature, my womanhood, my hippy phase- those things all impacted how I was treated because, let's be honest some more, America is a land run by white men who like to be in control and for things to fall in a certain kind of norm. So yes, smallish hippyish womanhood brought some issues, but not my skin tone. Whiteness brought privilege, and though I didn't even realize what that meant until I moved to Africa, I benefitted from it.
Now this white woman is raising a black boy in America. Let's get one more thing out of the way: being black in America is not an innocuous way to be. One has only to turn on the nightly news to learn that, in many neighborhoods, this is an automatic indictment that just might get you killed.
Suddenly, my "What should I do?" has a whole new weight.
What should I do to...
keep him safe when he walks out the door?
ensure he knows how to talk to police in a way that won't get him unjustly arrested?
rally my white peers to make a stand against what could happen to my boy?
On the topic of keeping our children safe, some might say: just stay away from trouble. That's the advice we would give our kids, right? Stay away from the edge of the pool, don't run out into traffic, avoid stray dogs, buckle your seatbelt...
But what advice is there to give to our sons and daughters when just walking down the street in the "safe" suburbs wearing the wrong jacket could get you shot? When the police who are meant to protect and serve are sometimes the ones snapping the spines of innocent boys? When a water gun in the hands of a 7 year old becomes imminent danger?
I'm not entirely naive- I knew from the moment I learned I was pregnant that we would face some difficulties. But I thought we had made progress. I thought our culture had shifted so that at least the police didn't behave like the clan members of the 1960s... Maybe I didn't see it because my white privilege kept this from being a part of my daily sphere of fear. Maybe what's always been there is just rising up to the surface. Either way. It is now a part of my day-to-day reality. Something I must be keenly aware of.
As I write this, my son lies sleeping in the room next to me, his now 8-year-old body reaching towards manhood. Safe. Loved. Hoped for. Just like every other child asleep in their beds.
In the background, the nightly news flashes tales of our latest failures in America, this time made evident on the streets of Baltimore. I'm at a loss. I don't know how to usher my son safely into manhood, and I don't know who to turn to for advice, because it seems that, when black in America, survival is more luck of the draw and good fortune over carefully laid plans and wise choices. There is no claiming of a third culture, no curiosity and awe over my son's gorgeous tones. Because in America, he is black. In America, to many, black means trouble.
And so, like millions of mothers whose boys are black in America, I am left wondering...
What should I do?
I've been thinking a lot about my time in India. The trip had a deep impact on me, and has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to me, to ask: what are my core values?
When I strip away the thrill of travel, the beauty of seeing something new, and the opportunity to be an adventurer, I'm left with an an essence of connection. More specifically, human connection.
There I was, in a place very different from my own culture, with people whose life experiences were vastly different, yet we were able to connect. We shared ideas, had similar hopes and dreams, talked about love, and shared our vision for making the world a better place.
Since returning to the states, I've had this deep craving for quality connections, for a tribe I can call my own. My trip helped me to remember how important human connections are, how important community is to me. And so, my goal is to establish the same kind of global tribe here in NY that I always had when living abroad. Because, at the end of the day, when we strip everything else away, it's connecting with the hearts of others that matters most. Today, I'm grateful that I know this to be true.
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 13th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world Theater and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo, Bali, and US have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Switzerland home.