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Book 2: Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person-Shonda Rhimes

I just finished Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, and it took me all of a week to do so. I probably could’ve sat down and read it in a couple days if it weren’t for those pesky responsibilities like classes, running errands, walking the dog…But the point is, IT WAS EVERYTHING!

I read this book at just the right time, as I’m just starting my own “year of yes” of sorts. It’s not really the same thing, but I decided to make the end of my twenties a journey to the start of my thirties, and I set some benchmarks for myself. So really, it’s nothing at all like Shonda’s “year of yes,” except in the regard of saying ‘yes’ to myself more often–as in prioritizing myself and the things I want and need.

But one of these benchmarks is to read 30 books by 30, all Black women authors, hence the title of this post (I should probably go back and write something about Book 1, because it too was excellent).

Anyway, I know I’m late to the party, but if anyone else is later than me and you haven’t read this book yet, go get a copy now! I could probably blather on about this book for pages and pages, because as an introverted, nerdy, thoughts-running-a-mile-a-minute Black girl, I felt like this book was written for me…Shonda Rhimes was in my head writing my thoughts.

The way she wrote this book felt like sitting in a room with your girlfriends talking. She writes the way me and my best friend would talk to each other: every rhetorical question, every repetition of the same phrase in order to emphasize your point, all the internal dialogues had during awkward encounters.

At every page I was like, Shonda gets me! (Side note: I don’t usually fan-girl, but I want to be besties with Shonda Rhimes. I want to sit in a room and just chat about nothing and everything.)

But also, what I loved about this book was having an inside look at the genius that created Grey’s Anatomy, which is one of the only television shows I could watch every single episode of from start to finish and then start all over again, and not get tired of. And that’s saying a lot, because I don’t really re-watch things.

Learning how characters and storylines were developed from her personal quirks, aspirations, and thoughts made it so much clearer why I love her shows. I’d just accepted that I was a little bit (very much so) strange given that I imagine everyone at Grey/Sloan hospital to be my actual friend; that I swear Christina & Meredith’s relationship is friend goals: someone who will be my person, who can relate to my ‘dark and twisty,’ who will dance it out with me when it gets to be too much, who will remind me to stand in the sun…or rather, that I am the sun. Their power monologues were my power monologues; Christina’s “badassery” was (and still is) personal goals.

Anyway, let me stop, because like I said, I could go on and on. I dog-eared so many pages and passages that rang so true that it was as if I were hearing an uninhibited version of me talking to me: her reminiscing about the intense and solo games of make believe as a child, her spinning of reality to be something she wanted it to be even though it was anything but, her randomly timed and highly inappropriate outbursts when the inner dialogue slips into actual dialogue, her lived paradox of being highly insecure in her personal life but very confident in the quality of her professional work, her unconventional beliefs and fear of ridicule hindering her living her best life, her ability to do amazing things but inability to acknowledge how amazing–how badass–they truly are…

Shonda was talking about my life. I didn’t appreciate it. But I totally appreciated it!

Needless to say, I took away a lot from reading this book. From feeling completely validated in my slight obsession with Grey’s characters/plot lines, to feeling invigorated to apply some of these nuggets she discovered in her ‘year of yes’ to my own life and my own journey to 30, and every year after that.

The number one long-term goal: Badassery. Excuse me while I go stand in Wonder Woman pose…

Badassery:

1. (noun) the practice of knowing one’s own accomplishments and gifts, accepting one’s own accomplishments and gifts and celebrating one’s own accomplishments and gifts; 2. (noun) the practice of living life with swagger: SWAGGER (noun or verb) a state of being that involves loving oneself, waking up “like this” and not giving a crap what anyone else thinks about you. Term first coined by William Shakespeare. (p. 195)

Badassery, I’m discovering, is a new level of confidence–in both yourself and those around you. I now feel like I can see so many amazing things about myself and the people around me. It’s as if before, by hiding and worrying and being unahppy, I was not looking at the people around me and seeing how truly gifted and amazing they are There was certainly nothing in me that could have been positive and uplifting or inspiring to them. Not when I was so busy hiding and trying to be smaller and a nothing.

I’ve started to think we are like mirrors. What you are gets reflected back to you. What you see in yourself, you may see in others, and what others see in you, they may see in themselves.

That’s deep.

Or it’s stupid.

Whatever it is, it still all comes down to Wonder Woman. You stand like that, in that pose, and after a while, you start to feel like Wonder Woman and people start to look at you and SEE Wonder Woman and oddly, that makes them feel better when they are around you.

People like being around whole, healthy, happy people. (p. 201)

-Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes

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Don Miguel Ruiz, Agreement Two

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering

-Don Miguel Ruiz, from The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book)

Certainly words to live by…if only they were so easy to embody.

That time I KonMari’d My Life…

In February 2016 I came across The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, aka the KonMari Method, reading it during my ample daily down time. I don’t remember now what compelled me to try it, but doing it was absolutely worth it.

First of all, I don’t think I realized how many things I had. I live in a pretty small house and it’s not as if my belongings were all over the place, but I still had far more things than I actually used, and many that I really didn’t like once I had to actually consider her central philosophy: does this bring me joy?

I followed the directions almost exactly as they were laid out: looking through clothes first, then books, papers, and miscellany/komono in the designated order  (CDs/DVDs, skin care, makeup, accessories, valuables, electronics, household equipment, household supplies, kitchen goods, other).  And I also did as told, to collect all the spare change I find and put it one spot to count later.

The discard/donate process went fairly quickly, it was reorganizing and designating the optimal place for each item that took long.

What I realized during this process was how easy it is to attach significance to things. I don’t mean memories attached to keepsakes like old notes and photos, I mean things kept around for the express purpose of instilling guilt. Especially clothes. I don’t know why we think that keeping clothing items around that no longer fit us is somehow going to be motivation to lose weight. Maybe it works for some people, but I’m sure (through no scientific testing whatsoever) that it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people. If anything it just serves as a constant reminder that you should feel bad about yourself, or that you’ve failed, because one more year has passed and you still can’t wear that dress/pair of pants.

I also kept a lot of stuff around from painful periods of time in the past. Why? I think part of me felt like I was supposed to hang on to these “souvenirs.” Old club t-shirts, letters, programs–could remind me of all the activities that I participated in, my accomplishments, but they also remind me of how much I hated high school, how poorly I was treated by classmates, teachers, and administrators. I do not interact with a single person (well maybe one) that I went to high school with for good reason, so why hang on to items that represent achievements I’ve far surpassed, and that really have no significance other than to dredge up emotional baggage?

Hmm.

For sure there were things that I had kept that were funny to look at 15 years later–like those origami notes from middle school written in gel pen that narrated all of the drama and politics that exist between 12-13 year old girls. But the vast majority of things I realized I hung onto were symbols of guilt: not getting back to my ballet body, not producing this show, not finishing that second/third major in college, not writing a masterpiece paper, not telling someone (who really needed to be told) about themselves, and so on.

So I picked up each item, I looked at it/read through it, I thanked it for serving its purpose, and then I got rid of it. You can’t get rid of emotional baggage if you’re still sitting on a pile of actual baggage.

A year and a half later, all of the suggestion that were given for how to organize your clothes, household, papers, etc., are still in place. My closet and drawers are still organized, I still fold my socks, all of my important documents are still neatly organized and easy to find–including the fifty million warranties and instruction guides for every gadget and appliance–AND, we regularly have a practice of putting all of our extra change in jars, which is a really nice bonus check every year (the last time we emptied them there was over $200).

My only caution: if you’re broke you may not want to be so thorough in discarding the clothes that don’t “bring you joy.” I’m looking at these pictures of the things I donated and wondering what the hell I was thinking giving away so many things that I could wear to school–I don’t have any dresses in this hot New Orleans weather! But then again, because they didn’t bring me joy, I barely ever wore them anyway, so… 🙃

Bottom line: if you haven’t read the book, read it. And then go do it. It has absolutely simplified my life and changed my mentality on consumption and retention:

  • cleaning is faster: you don’t have to dust off extra junk
  • it’s easier to get dressed in the morning because you can see everything in your drawers, and your closet isn’t cluttered with things you think you should wear because it’s there but you don’t really want to because you don’t like it
  • I’m much less likely to impulse shop and buy cheaply made clothing that doesn’t hold up through one wash cycle–but I do wear the same five things over and over until I can afford the thing that I really want
  • having a clean, clutter free house, really does facilitate getting other goals achieved–like working out every morning 😏

And most importantly, her central philosophy has other applications beyond your physical environment. You can just as easily reframe it to apply to the people you keep around in your life; which is just as, if not more, important for curating a happier life: Does this person bring me joy? No? *Discard*

Excerpt: “Shifting, Chapter 3”

Much of the shifting that Black women do is motivated by a wish, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, to confront, transcend, and hopefully defeat the ugly myths and stereotypes that so many in society continue to hold about them. Many women have developed ways of acting, talking, and dressing that conform to White middle-class norms of behavior and thus may help debunk and unravel discriminatory myths. Many feel pressure not just to meet White cultural codes but to exceed them. A number of women, for instance, talk about how educational achievement is a way of reversing the myths of inferiority. They say that they constantly emphasize their academic and professional achievements in order to be taken seriously by White people.

Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, pp. 67-68; Charisse Jones & Kumea Shorter-Gooden, PhD

Letting Go of “I’ll Show You!”

Being an overachiever often means an inescapable feeling of inadequacy. Couple that with being a Black woman in the US, and you’ve got a recipe for pathologically setting unrealistically high expectations followed by harsh self-criticism when you inevitably don’t meet those expectations.

As a kid, being an overachiever usually meant reaching a predetermined goal that everyone insists is the most important thing to focus on: get a high GPA, get a grade level ahead in certain subjects, get high scores on the state test, get involved in extracurricular activities and become the leader of at least one of them…I could go on. And the way to achieve those goals were straightforward: you read this book, memorize those facts, learn that equation, conjugate that verb, study for that test, etc. etc.

There was no mystery, one step followed the next. There was pretty much only one path forward. Is this a gross oversimplification? Sure, but for me, this was as uncomplicated as it got. Do ABC and get XYZ.

But, the feelings of inadequacy always came, because I couldn’t just do well, I had to be the best. I had to achieve near perfection. Not because I actually wanted to be the best—I don’t particularly like the spotlight—but  because being the best meant ending that racially driven debate about whether I was even capable of doing well.

From school to extracurricular activities, someone was always putting up a barrier to my progress where they thought I didn’t belong. Being sent to the principal’s office at 5 to prove that I actually could read and wasn’t just memorizing books being read to me. Fighting with teachers who gave me low grades because they didn’t believe I really did the work–‘She must’ve cheated.’ Learning a year’s worth of math in a semester to “catch up” after being forced into the wrong class because they thought I was lying about being a grade ahead despite what my transcripts said. Listening to people speak to me the way ignorant people talk to folks who speak English as a second language, as if I couldn’t understand their instructions.

The bullshit was never ending.

I constantly felt the need to prove someone wrong. I lived in the headspace of “I’ll show you!” And I usually did. I excelled and defied expectations all throughout childhood and adolescence. But as soon as I didn’t do something perfect, as soon as I made a mistake, I was kicking myself in the ass.

I failed. They’re going to think they were right all along, I’m not supposed to be here. So I’d double down and push myself even harder and not sleep or take care of myself.

But that’s a failing endeavor. No matter how well you do at one level, at some point you go to a new class, new grade, new place, new school, and start all over again at having to prove yourself. It’s a vicious cycle.


The other major problem with being an overachiever and living in the space of “I’ll show you!,” is that your life becomes overly structured and rigid, and it prevents you from figuring out what you actually want or what actually makes you happy. My mindset was to do everything “right,” and that all the pieces would fall into place and I would be “successful.”

But what is success? What does that even mean?

I consumed this idea that following a proscribed set of steps would lead me to this nebulous milestone of being “successful” but I never questioned what that meant, and no one ever really talked about it either. Having life framed as if there is only one logical step after another puts your anxiety level at 100 when you reach a point where there either isn’t a clear or logical next step OR there’s an abundance of logical next steps that are all appealing (or maybe they just seem appealing because it presents an option that you’d never considered within your narrow framework).

So what then, do you deviate and risk the choir of “I told you so’s” that only feed into your anxiety of being a (relative) failure? Or do you stay in this predetermined lane that you’re not even sure you want to be in, but are sure doesn’t really bring you any joy?

I can’t say that I never took risks or deviated from the “plan,” but they were always very calculated risks, like changing majors or moving from one health related field to another. I have, on rare occasion, taken less calculated risks and some of them have been highly rewarding, but when they’re highly disappointing it’s like two steps forward and three steps back: I become paralyzed in my self-criticism.

Within the confines of an academic setting, where excellence is narrowly defined, I have thrived. As an adult, where there isn’t as much clarity, the feelings of inadequacy can be all consuming. When I finished my master’s degree I realized I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. I started questioning if I had failed, if I went left when I should’ve went right, if I did the wrong thing. I saw peers who had done other things and gone on to have financially lucrative positions, I had classmates who were just as broke as I was but were clear about what they were passionate about and how to plug into and be adept leaders in their fields, and then there were others who were perfectly comfortable just hustling and doing their thing—traveling the world, being creative, advocating for their communities, and so on. But  what was I doing and why?

Even now I have to admit that I took the easy way out (for me) and went back to school, started a doctoral program, rather than having to confront what I really wanted to do. And while I am trying to do this experience differently–prioritizing myself for once rather than just getting swept up in the grind of trying to prove something, not getting so tightly wound and stressed when something isn’t supposedly going the right way–I can’t help but notice that I did it again. That being called “Dr.” will somehow be life altering (it won’t).

Obviously comparing yourself to what you think other people are doing, through the window that is social media, is always a bad idea. I know that. I also know that what I catch myself feeling is a reaction to an online façade; it’s not real. These same people I’ve convinced myself of having it together really don’t, any more or less than I do, I know that. But I feel like they do, and that perception is often all that matters in terms of feeling like a relative failure…the failure of being an average adult, because I’m supposed to be exceptional.

Thankfully, I’ve had grounded friends and family members, who quickly remind me that I trash talk myself more than any other person would and that I minimize my accomplishments just because I don’t see them as extraordinary. And I need to stop.

Living in the space of “I’ll show you!” is a trap that so many people of color, especially women of color, easily fall into when living in a society that automatically underestimates you. All that time spent pursuing the goal of proving someone wrong–proving I’m exceptional, that I belong somewhere–is time that could have been better spent actively pursuing myself, discovering what I want, and reminding myself of the joy that an activity brought me as the reason for why I started doing it in the first place rather than getting caught up in the drama of being perfect at it.

I don’t know who said it first, or who said it in the context of Black womanhood in particular, but the act of self-love, self-prioritization, and self-compassion is radical and difficult. But I think it’s the antidote to habitually operating within this headspace of rigid perfectionism and demonstration. For that reason, I decided that in this last year of my twenties, my gift to myself is to work on breaking the cycle of setting unrealistic expectations for myself and then living in intense self-loathing when I don’t meet them. Instead I’m going to 1) acknowledge what I’ve accomplished (often), 2) set goals for myself that are intrinsically motivated, and 3) show compassion for myself when things inevitably don’t go as planned, and letting it go.

Today is my 29th birthday, and I am already taking action on these goals of shifting my priorities and am looking forward to seeing where they take me. Happy Birthday to me!

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good