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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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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