hope chest, Writing Craft

Go with the guilt. Go with the fear. Go anyway.

Some of us are fearless. I am not fearless. I’ve never been fearless. My mother knew this when I was a young girl. She’d ask me to recite 2 Timothy 1:7 aloud to her, in the morning before school or at night, just before bed:

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I said it often enough to memorize it. I said, but my heart still stuttered in the dark. I said it but still trembled at unexpected sounds. It helped me through my fear of monsters and demons and all many of imagined or invisible perils when I was a kid. But I didn’t repeat it as often when I grew up. And it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve always had to bite back the palpable terror I feel over any success I perceive as undeserved or any failure I think is inevitable.

I used to be better at this — or it seems that way with the benefit of hindsight. I used to find it slightly easier to brave the unknown, to court an unconventional life, to find opportunities that suited my “How are you going to get a good job with that?” degrees. Oh, I felt fear chasing dreams when I was younger and childfree. But not guilt.  I felt conflicted about wanting extravagant experiences when there are so many people out here struggling to afford basic needs — when I’m often struggling to afford basic needs, precisely because my dreams are extravagant — but I never reached a point, in my teens and 20s, when I felt like it was inherently selfish to want big, personally-enriching things, before I’d mastered small, workaday obligations.

In my 30s, which will be ending later this year, fear has marked most of my experiences. I had my daughter about four months before turning 31 and this entire decade, I’ve been making decisions I thought were safe. Decisions I’d hope would result in better income or more stability or, at the very least, less panic or bewilderment or debt. But as it turns out, my idea of safe is small and dispiriting. As it turns out, my idea of safe doesn’t result in greater stability, just a different kind of debt, a different kind of discomfort. And though my decisions have, thus far, managed to result in a safe and nurturing home life for her, they haven’t taught her much about how to go hard after what fills you with enough joy and peace to provide joy and peace to others.  Though I’ve navigated all the heartache I felt, over failed love or under-realized potential and whatever else, without it spilling too much into her experience of childhood, I haven’t modeled for her often enough what it is to want and to chase the things you can’t see, instead of running away from them.

I haven’t completely cowered. I’ve accomplished a lot in our first 9 years together (She’ll be 9 in August, which astounds me), and I’ve been able to take her with me for some of it. She’s seen me studying, trying to grow professionally, teaching college courses, reading, writing, recording, field-producing, participating in an entrepreneurial accelerator. She’s seen me seeking.

But rarely has she seen me unafraid. Rarely has she known the woman I was before I became responsible for her and convinced myself that my desires should become incremental, that they shouldn’t disrupt whatever chrysalis I could weave her, that they needed to be an under-earning woman’s desires, that they should strive to transform themselves into more reasonable wants. She doesn’t know me at the height of my power, guided by my most courageous love, governed by a total soundness of mind.

She’s old enough now to have lapped me, when it comes to courage. I’ve watched her navigate her own fears and push past the soft, but firm boundaries those fears imposed on her. While I was making my body and mind and aspirations a kind of sentient bubble-wrap, trying to insulate her from everything I or anyone else might do that would cause her distress, she finally grew exasperated enough with me to begin asserting herself as the independent person she’d be even closer to becoming if the weight of my worry weren’t slowing her down.

I’ve been fighting myself so fiercely in the past two years. I’ve been shoving myself aside to clear my way. It’s a battle that’s made me far less available to others. I haven’t advocated or assisted or been nearly as present for anyone as I’ve wanted to. If you’ve ever had to do that work, if you’ve ever woken up and realized you’re still so much further from who you know you could be than you are, then you know how difficult a fight it is, how noisy and all-encompassing.

If you’ve ever been here, you know there’s nowhere to go — after you’ve tried everywhere except where you believe you’re meant to be — but toward your dreams. You know you have to let the guilt come with you, if it must, but you can’t let it anchor you. You know how tiring it is, talking yourself out of the life you really want.

I’m trying for a big thing again. I’ve been accepted to a summer writing program in Paris (Longtime readers of this blog or, perhaps, listeners to my podcast Hope Chest know how I feel about Paris). I’m afraid of trying to go back, because I’ve tried before. Quite a few times. And they all fell through. I couldn’t muster enough courage to risk the travel. Maybe it’s easier this time, because I have a concrete purpose for going. There’s something waiting for me, something that may make me a better writer, a more expansive woman, a dreamier parent. Maybe it’s just easier because more than a few people told me I should try this time; it wasn’t just me trying to talk over myself.

As always, everyone I’ve asked to help, all those people I was scared I’d be inconveniencing or annoying or disappointing, have been gracious and encouraging and, as far as I can tell, utterly nonjudgmental.

It’s an affirmation. It’s a reminder. Go with guilt. Go with fear and trepidation. Just go. Go with faith. Go, amplifying the voices that wish you well. Raise their volume above the sound of your own reasons-why-not. Those reasons will be ever with you. But opportunities won’t. Opportunities come and they go and the ones that you deeply desire and don’t at least try to attain will absolutely haunt you.

Soooo many thanks to all the friends, both known and unknown, who always come to my aid when I’m adrift and wandering and doubtful that I should want what I want. Thank you for your patience with me and for your generosity. My family is better for it. I’m better for it. Know that no matter how quiet it is here — how quiet I am –I am wishing you an overabundance of what you’ve given me, tenfold the bravery, one-hundred-fold the dream-realization.

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Faith, Nonfiction, Writing Craft

Wild Swings at Opportunity and What It’s Like to Land One.

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“Every now and then, you should land one of those.”

When I was expecting my daughter, I wrote prolifically — mostly about the experience of first-time pregnancy and how alone I felt while I was carrying her. I posted a lot of that writing here, then pulled some of it because I thought I might shop a memoir about it (What’s left of the published posts can be found here. If you choose to read any of that, it works best to read chronologically, which means starting at the bottom, with this post).

I continued to write as much as I could after her birth and, for a number of reasons, ranging from my part-time job as an adjunct instructor, which took me away from home for a few hours a day, to my quickly-acquired proficiency at composing drafts exclusively on my cell phone, I was able to maintain decent output.

She’ll be five in a few months and I definitely feel like I’m hitting a wall. I decided last spring to take first a semester, then a year away from teaching. I’d scored a fellowship with Colorlines.com, where I was responsible for managing their social media and engaging their rapidly growing readership. It was basically a one-year position with the company and it paid much more than I would’ve made teaching and allowed me to stay home with my daughter more, so the teaching hiatus was a no-brainer.

When that job ended last November, I interviewed either by phone or in person with several impressive publications (sometimes for more than one position) and figured my odds of being hired full-time with one of them were pretty high. Five months later, however, and I’m still without a full-time job as a writer or editor — a circumstance, I’ve learned, is fairly common, even among much stronger writing and editing candidates than I. My only income at this point is as a freelance writer — which wouldn’t be a problem at all, if I were writing at the output I used to be able to and if any of the writing I’m able to do paid more.

Something happens when you’re home all the time with a four-year-old who only attends school two hours a day and you don’t have the freedom to leave her in someone else’s care nearly as often as you’d need to, in order to attain the kind of silence you require to generate ideas worth pitching, to actually pitch them, and then to write the piece as quickly as you’d have to in order to win the assignment and keep current with the news cycle.

The mind dulls — and you have to be increasingly inventive about sharpening it. Now that I have no job to escape to (Trust: a job is definitely an escape for a parent-writer.), and home is full of preoccupations, I’m physically tenser and less agile, creatively.

My daughter has special needs and, often, I vacillate between the temptation to homeschool her (which would result in even less writing time and, by extension, even less income) and finding more extracurricular programs for her to attend that will aid in her development in the many hours she spends outside of school. The latter option would also mean less dedicated writing time, but at least I could steal the moments she’d spend in a class or in a social group to try thumbing out a few essays on my phone.

It’s difficult to explain this sort of life to people with traditional jobs, pristine time management skills, and the luxury of undivided work attention. But the short of it is that life with a small child and without a full- or even part-time, out-of-home job is a trial-error, hook-crook, catch-as-catch-can existence. I’m rarely able to get away and the less time I spend in a childfree, silent environment, the harder it is for me to sharpen my writing — or even to maintain its current quality.

A few months ago, I did something I always do when I feel trapped. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who feels backed into a corner. Indeed, it’s the only way I’ve ever gotten out of a corner — and I’ve been pressed into many.

Here’s what I did: I swung wildly at opportunity, giving no thought to the cost or logistics. I launched myself toward anything that looked remotely like a life raft, reasoning: This could turn out to be sinking flotsam or it could be the very thing that will bear me up and carry me toward a new shore, the right shore, a more permanent solution. 

I got into grad school that way. I was living back home in Baltimore, working a job that barely supported me and my mother, who was living with me. I began to feel trapped by the burden of rent on a two-bedroom apartment and all the other costs associated with living and supporting two people. And then, Sarah Lawrence accepted me. It was the only school of the three to which I applied — all outside of Maryland — that did. That made my decision for me. I needed move to New York. This was 2004. I tried hard — so hard, in fact, that when I didn’t find off-campus housing (SLC doesn’t offer graduate housing), I resolved to take Amtrak from Baltimore to Penn Station in New York, then Metro-North from Grand Central two times a week for classes.

I was so desperate for a big, life-changing leap toward relief that I’d convinced myself this was doable. Then, the first day of classes, it rained. The storm waylaid my train somewhere between Delaware and Philadelphia, and I got to the Bronxville Metro-North Station, a mile or so away from campus, just as my second-ever class as a grad student was beginning in one of the many Tudor cottages on the school’s rolling greens. I’d missed my first class entirely. I walked the mile in the rain with a flimsy hooded windbreaker bearing the college’s name as my only shield from the downpour. I got to class completely drenched and introduced myself in a small voice, shaky with tears.

I knew then — and not a moment before — that it wasn’t going to work. I’d been so tenacious. I had leapt. A door had opened. I had run toward it. I’d followed the prescription of every easy aphorism we hear in life. And I’d gotten my feet on dry ground. Sarah Lawrence was everything I knew I needed then: an escape from years of compound responsibility, a chance to qualify myself for better work, a life of independence and solitude.

But the timing was off. That first day, with its rain delays and its mile-long foot trek at the end of a five-hour commute, let me know in no uncertain terms that this was the dream I was meant to realize, but not under such treacherous conditions. If I moved at that level of haste and desperation, I’d rob myself of the respite I was seeking. I’d merely be trading one type of nerve-fraying stress for another.

The next day, I talked to admissions about deferring enrollment for a year and they granted my request. Those were dark days; I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at my job (where my coworkers had already thrown me a going-away party and my supervisor had granted my request to telecommute while I studied out of state). Returning to the office was humiliating and demoralizing, even though everyone there was supportive and polite and patient with my daily, nonstop moping.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

I was basically like ^this^ for a year.

For the next 12 months, I focused on getting out of that apartment, getting out of Baltimore, moving to lower Westchester, and attending the classes I’d dreamed about, with the people I’d met at orientation the year before (who’d all be second-years by the time I returned, graduating during the spring of my first year).

It happened for me — and it was much easier the second time around, in some respects, but it was still difficult to leave my mother without the apartment I’d been providing for us both. That was the thing I couldn’t allow myself consider if I wanted, at last, to escape.

Single motherhood, over time, has backed me into the same kind of corner. I’m financially supporting a child and my mother again. I don’t have enough income to adequately do so. It often feels like I’ve only qualified myself for the kind of work that doesn’t pay regularly, quickly, or sufficiently. I’ve enough credentials to adjunct, but after six years at that, I’m not a competitive candidate for a full-time professorship. I’m good enough to write short essays for part-time income, but not quite desirable enough a candidate for full-time hire at a major publication.

And I still haven’t written the right manuscript — the one I want to send out into the world, the one some generous reviewer will dub, “a promising work from an important new voice.” Doing that often feels fairly far away while I’m parenting, stressing over money, trying to be thoughtful and incisive in all my for-hire writing about the news and trends of the day.

So I did something I’ve been putting off in all the eight years since I graduated from Sarah Lawrence and certainly in the nearly six years between pregnancy and now: I started applying for bigger, broader things. I applied for Code for Progress’ minorities in code fellowship, in hopes that I might acquire a new skill and the chance at earning a livable wage from a single company. I applied for several summer fellowships and retreats. And I applied for a program at Yale that would teach me how to be a better journalistic storyteller.

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Me, before I realized I’d messed up my donation-funds-collection timeline. (And me now — because I’m still hysterically, burstingly grateful to all of you. :))

Some of you know that I got into the Yale program, because you helped me fund it via Indiegogo*. I also just learned that I received a single mother’s fellowship to the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s summer retreat in New Mexico, which covers the costs of registration and housing, but not travel. Do I know how I’ll get there yet? No. No, I do not. But that’s my process. Swing. Miss. Connect. Cross every bridge I possibly can — even the most rickety and unstable among them — just as I approach it. Sometimes, a foot falls through a rotted slat, other times, an entire leg. But I’ve always made it across — or I’ve veered toward a stabler bridge.

Dreams are never neatly wrapped. They don’t arrive already assembled. But you do not achieve them by wringing your hands. You can only lay hold to them by reaching. And your reach must always, always exceed your grasp. Your dreams should leave you storm-drenched and weary. They should make you sob over their seeming impossibility. They should render you sleepless. You should want to throw all the disparate boards and cogs that you thought might interlock and simply don’t. And, if you’re a person of faith, you will always find yourself begging and bargaining with the God you serve. You’ll fling yourself at His feet in surrender.

That way, when you hold the finished thing in your hand, when you arrive at the end result — the brighter shore, the other side of the canyon, you will never be able to say that you got there alone. You’ll understand acutely the limits of your own imagination, your own tenacity, your own income, your own insight. Something a little extra, a little beyond your pale, a little miraculous transpired while you railed and while you rallied.

By God, by jove, by the myriad wonders of risk itself, here you are.

* I can’t thank everyone enough for funding my trip to Yale in June! Everyone who contributed did so so quickly, it humbled, awed, and staggered me. I appreciate it so much and hope I’m able to continue maintaining whatever quality it is that inspired you all to help me. I hope I’m able to continue being, not only the kind of writer you want to read, but the kind of writer who encourages you to write for yourself. If you’ve noticed, that campaign, though fully funded, is still open. That’s because — in true messy-dream-delivery fashion — Indiegogo won’t let me close the account or withdraw funds until after June 13. I selected a 60-day campaign, completely underestimating the generosity of friends and strangers. And now I’m being forced to keep the campaign live and the money in a holding pattern until that 60 days are up.

I haven’t submitted my deposit for Thread at Yale yet, because it will need to come out of my very limited bill-paying money, until I can reimburse myself at the end of June. But I will before the first of May. (Don’t worry, givers! I’m going — and I’m frequently updating you via social media while I’m gone.)

In the meantime, I’m placing the link here, in case anyone who hasn’t yet contributed might feel compelled to make my life slightly easier by giving through Paypal and not via Indiegogo’s credit card form. Apparently funds contributed through Paypal can be immediately disbursed (yet another fact I wish I’d known beforehand).

I’ve already asked a lot and you’ve given beyond my wildest dreams, simply because I worked up the boldness to ask. So I hope it doesn’t hurt or wear on anyone’s patience or kindness if I ask again.

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

A Crazy Half-Week and a Today Show Appearance.

2014-12-16On Monday night, I recorded a segment for The Today Show. But that wasn’t even the craziest part of that day. I’d spent much of the morning and afternoon in a job interview (of the type where you have to actively fight the urge to pinch yourself to ensure that you’re even there and also fight the urge to take photos of the building front like a tourist). The next day, I had a phone interview for a different job. And today, as I type this post, I’m headed to New York to interview for yet another position.

I’m not someone with a history of multiple job interviews at once. I’m someone who doggedly applies to things for months at a time without many bites — or with bites that never make it past the first or second round of “quick chats,” tests, and interviews. I’m the person who cobbles together a living, out of multiple part-time or freelance gigs, painstakingly chosen to allow for the most time I can spent with my kid. This? This is new air for me. And it is a mighty, rushing wind.

I don’t know what will come of any of this. But I know that it bears out all those adages you hear about there being no overnight successes and how slow and steady wins the race and what happens when consistent practice meets opportunity.

I never get used to succeeding at things. I always enter new opportunities a bit uncertainly, more than a little awestruck, even as I carry with me all my previous wins. That’s because, alongside those wins, are the more vivid memories of losses. Risks that didn’t pay off. The job offer I wished I hadn’t taken, the poorly-timed personal life choices. The Am I capable? whisper never entirely fades.

But I do feel more capable than I did when I made those choices or took those risks or accepted the first offer of employment, because I really didn’t know what else would come or how long it would take. A willingness to bet on yourself, a refusal to undersell your skill set, doesn’t emerge from the ether one day. Self-confidence doesn’t come solely through outward affirmation (though that helps and certainly, it’s helped me, when it’s come in the form of readers like you, who leave sweet, honest, encouraging comments on this blog). But ultimately, that kind of temerity comes best in the form of work. It comes simply through proving yourself to yourself. It comes from questioning yourself until your “yes” is less mumble than shout. yes, i am capable. Yes, I can do this. Yes, I have the clips to back this up! YES; I AM CAPABLE!

Life is a loom at 35, all loops and snags and corrective weaving, brake pedals. Once patterns come together or reveal themselves to be ill-advised, it seems obvious, and I unravel, cut, stop, change pace, begin again. But at this point I know how the loom works. I know what it takes to make something sturdy and beautiful.

The loom is still large and intimidating, every new idea comes with a yard-length of questions, of doubts. But now, there is less hesitation. Accomplishment is becoming part of my muscle memory — even if it doesn’t reoccur as often or as quickly as I’d like. Even when I don’t feel ready, I’m confident that I can get ready. Fast.

The Today Show producer called around 6pm. I’d barely made it back to town after my job interview. She asked if I could come to the studio at 30 Rock. I called back and said I lived in Baltimore. I can’t. Without any hesitation, she said I could tape here in town. In 90 minutes. To discuss news that’s broken while I’d been stuck in traffic. Did I have an off-the-cuff opinion? Could I process potential implications and parse problems — right then? Yes, I said right away, remembering a time when I would’ve been too intimidated not to just echo my previous can’t. Yes, I repeated through a few more logistical phone calls, I can.

It’s the briefest clip and I know I have a tendency to romanticize small and fleeting moments, but I’m there. In it: the moment, that clip. Ready in a way I would not have a been two or three years ago. Ready, even now, traveling north on a train, in hopes to present my most competent self to potential (amazing) employer, and reminding myself all the way: I can, I can, I can. .

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Nonfiction

The Air at the Top: On Fear of Exposure

What they do not tell you is that the air at the top is all but unbreathable; this is why, when you get there, you are most likely alone. Neither intimidated by the height nor so awed by the view that you believe yourself unworthy of it, you are a coil of stamina, your body, with its raised and rounded scars, a rosary of wounds. Sometimes, you can feel the fingers of God grazing each one like a sanguine bead. He knows what still hurts. Faith is the height of reason here; there is no one left to contest you. At the top, where even breath is begrudging, it is clear how little mankind controls.

You understand that you are not just blessed but also someone who will always be earning her air. This is your rightful place; soon you’ll stop apologizing for it. Success is not what sets you a-tremble. Planting the conquering flag does not frighten you. No, you are apprehensive of the attention its waving will attract.

Leaving your writing in the crevices of caves, in the craters of wailing walls, is one thing. It is simple to be entirely honest with only the ether as audience. On the side of a mountain there is anonymity; to remain unknown is to be left to oneself. This is tempting, but it does not gratify.

Still, what will you do about these new encampments, these people who are looking up from the bases of boulders and watching to see how conquerors comport themselves? What of the voyeurs and the vultures? Now, someone will always be circling.

Accept the evidence that you’d always prepared yourself to be here today. You pined for it, placing so many pieces of yourself in corners and creeks so that someday, enough of them were bound to be found. Piece together the leafs and there is the book you have always been destined to write, collect the watery daguerrotypes embedded in ditches and there is your photonarrative. There was enough of you here for a retrospective, even if the climb killed you, there may have been some posthumous acclaim.

You pretended to others it wouldn’t matter; climbing is its own recompense, the work its own reward. But this was a mere insulation. You’ve always wanted to be known. Recognition holds the same rush as rappelling and readership is the same as a rope: you cannot reach the top without it.

Your fear is to be poorly received, to become known not for the beautiful boom of your voice from the top of a great height, but for the tinny emptiness it may echo when it reaches the ground.

In the past, you have protected yourself from chilly reception by behaving as though you shouldn’t be where you are at all, that your presence at one pinnacle or the next is all but miraculous, that talent is a mere sleight of hand.

You understand, now that you can see the true distance of a descent, how unwise it is to pretend your own unworthiness for so long. You will convince yourself of it, and even now, from time to time, you are still beguiled by the idea of flinging yourself down.

From this height, you can see other far off climbers, standing atop higher peaks, dancing, so deep-breathed and darling, their beckoning calls a kind of dare to those still below.

There is room for us all, they are calling. But we never really know if this is true. We do not know who will tug at our harnesses and tethers, endangering us to leverage themselves. We remain unsure who comes not to build but to topple. It can make you uneasy, being watched and clambered toward, a bastion to expectation. You do not have your own advice to offer down the mountain — not really — but you give some anyway, as often as you’re asked, and you hope it works. You hope you work. With every rising sun, you tamp down your deprecation and reacclimate yourself to this air.

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Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction

Stacia L. Brown on HuffPost Live! Sept. 7, 12:50 pm EST!

Apologies, friends. I’ve got to make a temporary departure from thoughtful, decently crafted posts to geek out for a moment.

I’M GONNA BE ON THE NEWLY LAUNCHED HUFFPOST LIVE TOMORROW!!!

excelsior!

Excuse the all caps, but this is pretty wild.

A little over two months ago, I wrote this. And this afternoon I got an email inviting me to discuss black mental health on HuffPost Live tomorrow, Sept. 7 at 12:50pm. It’s a twenty-minute segment, hosted by Marc Lamont Hill, and I’m really honored to have been asked.

It isn’t just the show (although that’s an amazing opportunity); it’s about what it represents for me.

2012 has been a crazy year. I started it by stating that I had expectations for it. I don’t often do that, make grand declarations at the top of a year, prognosticating a favorable future and actually hoping I’m right. But I did it this year. And, if God wills, I’ll keep being right.

From May until the end of August, I was a daily contributor at Clutch magazine, which led to my work being republished at The Root and, one dizzying time, at Salon. Needless to say, my visibility as a writer increased, which has always been one of the deeper desires of my heart. It’s a heady, blissful sensation, working really hard on a piece of writing and watching it land with a large cross-section of people. But I’ve always stopped short of pursuing the “brass ring” kind of opportunities. National mag pitches. Spec TV/film script pitching. The aggressive pursuit of a book sale. Speaking engagements. Personal branding.

It’s been too easy for me to psych myself out, to tell myself the market’s oversaturated and too many people are already doing work similar to the kind I do. Or I’m not as good or as smart as I want to believe I am (good enough, smart enough). Or I’m going to be eviscerated by critics. Or the audience I court will find me patently underwhelming. I’ve always been afraid to cast my wings toward the sun, for fear of singeing them, of falling. (See my previously-written faith issues.)

Concurrent with those issues, though, my ideas about possibility and self-worth and self-acceptance have been expanding. It’s the kind of work you should ideally do in your teens and twenties, and work that some women (and men, really) count themselves blessed to accomplish at all. My work began when I had my daughter. I started believing I could inhabit a much larger space than that which I’ve allowed myself till now, because I’ve promised her as much for herself, and in order for her to trust me, she has to see me do it. But believing and bulldozing the cement walls are different endeavors.

Coming up with an approach to the latter remained a mystery.

Sometimes the approach finds you.

This is probably the first year of my decade-plus career as a writer that people have sought me out to write or to discuss things I’ve written, rather than me frantically searching for outlets willing to publish me. And more than any other time in my life, my work has been resonating with a large cross-section of readers, people from different walks of life, people with wildly divergent philosophies, people who I wouldn’t have ever imagined taking notice of the work I do. It’s also been met with far more criticism than it’s been before (in part because it’s been more widely published). And I’ve had ideas. Oh, the ideas. Grand, sprawling, lavish, daring ideas, which for the first time ever, I feel capable of implementing.

All these experiences have converged at just the right moment. It’s the moment I’m finally, mercifully prepared to handle them.

At any rate, if you can, tune in to HuffPost Live tomorrow at 12:50pm EST and watch the 20-min panel discussion on mental health in the black community. I’ll be there.

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