Tag Archives: personal musings

Predictable and Purged

Two people dear to me received bad news this week.  The issue for one was professional; for the other, medical.

Bad news produces a predictable response for me.  I feel angry and know that emotion will last a while.  I feel self-pity and immediately try to will that response away as quickly as possible, because it simply produces more anger.  (Self-pity makes me feel weak; the Marine father is responsible for that.)

I do my best to get a prayer out as quickly as I can, even if it’s one of complaint.  It serves to remind me that most things are beyond my control and that they always will be.

Depending on the news, I probably shed some tears or at least feel the sting of salt from the ones that don’t fall.  Then, I make a call or send a text to Merle, because being loved makes all things bad better.

Finally, I do some kung fu: a volley of triple straight punches into the elevator air, as if the bad news has taken physical form that I can strike.  A couple of sidekicks against the wall of the handicapped bathroom stall – gently, so as not to damage a knee or be heard by others.  The release is cathartic and just enough to get me to the next class, where I can thoroughly purge it all out and take the next right step to the next best thing.

Neither of my friends do kung fu, but they have their equivalents.  We all do, I believe, even if not recognized as such.  Whatever returns one to center, provides assurance that all will be right at some point, even if “right” looks different than initially imagined, that’s the best bet for getting to the other side of bad news.

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Seems Like Minutia

My son doesn’t believe in free will.  He’s a philosophy buff with strong analytical skills that serve him well most of the time, but he may be overthinking things on this one.  By contrast, my daughter acts as if she thinks free will is the end all and be all, and there should be nothing but personal choice.

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Sitting in front of the flower stand in Philadelphia’s South Street today, scarfing down a snack before an author interview, I was feeling pretty philosophical.  That’s what got me thinking about my children and choices.  I wondered if the very campus I was headed to for a work assignment would be Aaron’s home by this time next year.  He would then spend a fair amount of time in the very station I was sitting in, catching trains home for… kung fu.

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Will he be chosen by the school(s) of his choice?  What will he choose to do if not? I wondered.

What if my own first and second choices for colleges had been reversed and I’d gone to Boston instead of D.C.?  I wouldn’t have been in D.C. to choose to help a co-worker drive from Washington to Austin for graduate school.  Aaron and Ava wouldn’t be here, then.  I wouldn’t have met the Texan ex-husband without those choices.

Choices and the consequences thereof can be wild and crazy things.  Even the ones that seem like minutia can be game changers. I thought as I sipped from a soda.

As I gathered my equipment to head to the taxi stand, I could feel a headache coming on.  It was time to give philosophical musings a rest.  So I chose to do just that.


The Honest Answer

It feels like I’ve been a student of communication forever.  The thing I tend to catch pretty easily – probably because it’s a pet peeve as much as it can be a professional liability – is when an answer to a question I’ve asked is nonresponsive.  Politicians are great at that: telling an interviewer whatever sound bites they want repeated, rather than actually answering the question that was asked.  People who aren’t big fans of direct communication or who simply have their own reasons for avoiding the truth are good at it, too.

I thought of Sifu as good at being nonresponsive, after our communication catastrophe earlier in the year, which effectively ended with a demand for my silence.  But after six months of squelching my natural impulse to simply ask for the information I want, an overflowing class of first-timers on Saturday compelled me to offer to teach again at the guan and ask Sifu if he’d allow it.  If ever there were a time to call in the teaching cavalry, it would have been with Saturday’s motley crew; so I was surprised and upset not to have been tapped.

When I first read his emailed response, all I could see was this: “I appreciate the offer to help.  But it’s not necessary at this time.”  You didn’t answer my question! I thought.  But I received the email right before having to give my attention to a group of friends for a couple of hours.  The time spent not thinking about the nonresponsive nature of his answer was a godsend.  For when I reread the exchange later in the evening, I saw more than I had upon initial reading.

He’d also told me that he understood I was willing to help and would keep me in mind in the future.  I was still a possible substitute somewhere down the line.  I just didn’t know when.  He might not know either.

So what’s the big deal, one may ask?  The episode made me wonder if I need to reconsider what constitutes nonresponsive.  Perhaps questions of mine that I think have a definitive black or white answer actually don’t.  Maybe instead of yes or no, the honest answer is I don’t know.  Maybe the question itself isn’t as clear as I think it should be to the reader or listener.  Maybe, just maybe, I misread or misinterpret the answer simply because it doesn’t contain what I want it to.

Sifu may have just been letting me down easy.  I have no way to know.  But the questions his answer made me ask myself were a worthwhile lesson for this student of communication.


Drive Time

Twice a month I drive to work.  That’s about an hour and fifteen minutes of one-way driving in rush hour traffic.  Unlike driving to and from the grocery store or kung fu or college visits, that bi-monthly drive has become the time that I listen to music that’s special to me without the interruption of family conversation.

Driving up the highway last night, on my way to kung fu training at the gym, I just had to hear a song from a CD my son gave me for my birthday.  It’s a great collection of tunes I loved back in my twenties and songs he loves today that are similar to the old Nineties “alternative music” hits.  My need to hear the song was a direct result of a cool photo of the extended family that he sent me from his grandparents house, where he’s the photographer for a change.

Courtesy of YouTube, of course, here’s the song the picture put in my head.  The studio version is one of my new favorites of 2014, thanks to a kid who knows me pretty well, but the live version is pretty good, too!

 


Quiet in the Kung Fu House

I am alone in my own home.  The children are at their grandparents’ house, and my better half is out of town for a Monday funeral.  The last time I went to sleep and woke up at my address with no one else in the building, I didn’t have a daughter yet and my two-year-old son had a weekend’s head start on Christmas vacation with his dad and grandparents, while I was finishing up the work week.

The quiet in my house was disquieting once I wound down from a good class and training session.   Without a family meal to cook or laundry to fold, I noticed for the first time that there’s a kung fu item of some sort in pretty much every room of the house.  Not that I didn’t know they were there.  I just didn’t realize that my entire living space contains kung fu items, until there was nothing to distract me from the realization.

There’s the 100-pound bag in my bedroom, and the adjustable bag in the family room.

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There’s the inability to use the first-floor stairway or the kitchen without passing the collection of workout bags and gear in front of the basement door.

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There’s the virtual staff store we pass when leaving the house, and the sashes and medals hanging on walls, mirrors and doors.

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This is a martial arts house – period.  Even when I’m the only person home.

I have to smile at that fact…even while I’m shaking my head. 🙂


Who Knows?

“You were right!”  If I had a dollar for every moment since moving into my freshman dorm that I had that thought about my mother, I could have a first-class vacation abroad every year.  It’s one of the more painful aspects of her not being around anymore: the inability to give her the satisfaction of hearing that from me.   And of course, what she was most correct about – countless times in any given week – was the simple assertion that I didn’t know everything.

I was very young when it became apparent that I was a pretty good student.  I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten the first time I heard Mom say, “You don’t know everything,” in the low voice that use to indicate her annoyance.  Several years later, in the middle of my frequently-exasperating teens, she flat out yelled it at me.  I remember thinking, I’m ashamed to say, I know more than you do.

Segregation left my mother and countless other African Americans under-educated.  And she didn’t go to college until after I’d gone to graduate school.  So in a purely academic sense, the stellar education she made available to me undoubtedly gave me more book learning, as my grandmother would say, than Mom had back when I graduated from high school.  But then, there was what she learned just by living — which I hadn’t really begun to do.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that her learning was at least as valuable as mine.

Twenty years ago, no one could have convinced me that the older, more experienced, more educated, more attentive and better read I became, the more I’d a) realize how little I actually know and b) find that fact thrilling.  But that is the current state of affairs.

My work with and around a lot of the country’s movers and shakers and my passion for a martial art steeped in a tradition of instructor infallibility often leave me feeling suffocated by the very attitude I’m so happy to have shed.  So today, as an often-exhausted parent and an excited teacher with a new class, I take a moment to celebrate the willingness to be taught, even by those who allegedly know less… and to acknowledge how unbelievably often my mother was right!


It Talks, We Construe

Thursday afternoon, I’m anxious.  Then, he’s home.   He gets off the plane taller, more philosophical, more fluent in Spanish…

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and psyched to go to kung fu.

Friday afternoon, I’m frazzled.  I’m going to multiple stores for a slew of necessary shopping and a medical emergency.  Then, it’s time to go to work.  It’s the moment I’ve been waiting on since mid-April: the return to teaching.

Friday night, I’m dejected.  There’s only one sign-up for the Friday class and the 7-year-old is a no show.  I tell Aaron about the class that wasn’t when he gets home from work and ask absentmindedly while climbing the stairs, “You think the universe is trying to tell me something?”

“I think the universe is just speaking,” answers the president of the philosophy club.  “It just talks and we construe things however we want.”

“Well said.  I’m going to have to steal that.”

Long day, disappointing night, and one thought remains: I’m so glad he’s home.


The Box on My Desk

I own a crystal ball.  My better half gave it to me about ten years ago.  It was a gift that needed no explanation, a joke that I got right away.  Within the first two years of our relationship, she tired of me asking her to go find a magic wand to zap success over my larger life decisions, like returning to school and selling and buying houses, etc.  So she just gave me a crystal ball and effectively told me I was on my own with the magic.  I knew I had to keep her.

I always know that change is coming when my eyes regularly wander over to the box on my desk where my crystal ball lives.  The vast majority of the time, I put a healthy and honest amount of effort into working for what’s needed and wanted.  The brain only breaks for tea and biscuits, subconsciously peeking over at the fairytale item that should tell me if my work and choices will pay off, when I’ve multitasked my way into too much to do and too little sleep.  I only remember there’s a crystal ball when I need to collapse, need to do something different, and need to have a voice outside of my own tell me what that something is.

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I’ve had two good friends in two consecutive days tell me to get more sleep – even if I have to use vacation days to do it.  With my son returning home tomorrow, my kung fu instruction beginning on Friday, college visits with my boy next week and the week after, and substituting on the weekend shift for a colleague in mid-August, now would be a good time for more rest.  It’s also quite clearly a time of change.  No crystal ball really needed to see that.

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Remembrance

            I can’t believe it was only a month ago that she was standing tall, dressed in a navy blue pants ensemble with a cream-colored silk blouse, looking as elegant as always as she sent me off to the airport to return home.  “We’ll see each other again,” she told me, with her gold Nephritides necklace hanging from her neck, as it had most days of her life for more than a decade.

            Her matching navy blue sandals had a two-inch heel that restored her height to the stature I remembered her having when I was a child.  I wondered: had she begun shrinking through the normal aging process, or was it the illness that had shortened her?  Perhaps she was no shorter at all; she simply seemed that way to a daughter moving up the ladder of mortality.

            Her make-up was flawless, I remember, and conservative: a light application of base to even out the pecan complexion that was just slightly darker under her eyes, and a wine shaded lipstick that left its imprint on my cheek.  Her signature headwear completed the picture imprinted on my mind. 

            That day she chose a beret – cream-colored to match her blouse.  It was her favorite kind of hat, the one she wore most often if she could get away with it.  It was fitting that a beret was the last hat I saw her in. 

            There is no hat now.  There’s barely hair since Tony came in and cut off the soft, shiny, wavy curls of her mixed African- and Native-American heritage.   I miss the curls as I stare at her, remembering her look of dismay two weeks earlier when I said her hair looked good grown out.  It had been long and enviable throughout my life until the Florida heat inspired her to crop it close to her scalp. 

            I run my hand across the fresh-cut, hoping she can feel my touch.  My other hand is wrapped around her own, squeezing, willing her to open her eyes.


Money Under the Door

I slipped the last ten dollars in my wallet under Sifu’s office door before leaving the school on Saturday, then fought back resentment all the way home.  I’m nevertheless glad I gave.

The money was a donation for movie night at the guan.  Unlike movie nights of old, it wasn’t simply a social gathering opportunity.  It was a fundraiser – one of three currently running – to help pay for Sifu’s travel and testing materials to become a certified judge for wushu competitions.  He’s using paid private lessons, a new student’s services as a massage therapist and a movie night to pay for it.

I think the relatively new practice of project and charity fundraising through social media is phenomenal, and I’m all for it. I myself have benefitted from the kindness of friends and acquaintances who, some twenty years ago, pitched in to get me a plane ticket home from school in Texas when my mother had to have a sudden operation.  I have nothing against making a pitch to the masses when money is needed for a worthy cause.  But Sifu’s fundraising has rubbed me the wrong way because of…let’s just say…inconsistencies in philosophy and behavior.

When announcing his need in an email, he suggested that private lessons could be used to learn more of one’s form or a new one entirely.  This from a man insistent that forms should be learned very slowly, in sections that are repeatedly practiced before new moves are introduced.  Apparently, that deeply held principle can be irrelevant at times of his choosing.  Additionally, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of our Sifu, which I’ve written about in this previous post, is even more apparent when he wants something more from his students than he already demands.

Two hours before bowing out of the building with a big smile on his face, warmly proclaiming his desire to see everyone at movie night, he barked angrily at a student, saying: “It doesn’t matter what you thought; all that matters is what I’m telling you now!”  He was in the process of changing a move that it seemed everyone in upper sash class had learned a different way, and we were all a bit confused and slower than he wanted us to be.  This tension was after a return-from-banishment Friday night class (the aftermath of which is pictured below) that was surprisingly easygoing – which made his Saturday morning mood all the more jarring!  In short, Sifu’s demeanor can give one whiplash and dampen any inspiration to assist in his ambitions.  And yet….

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What could I accomplish by being an obvious abstainer to the fundraising effort?  As the saying goes, resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

I want good things for this person whose instruction has visibly changed a lot about me and my life.  I want to be at peace in this relationship that can be so trying, with this person who can be so disappointing.  I want peace, so I must offer the very thing I want.  I wasn’t going to give him my Saturday night, but I could at least slip my money under the door.


Almost Nothing

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This was my mother’s house.  I was there today for the first time in almost seven years, visiting a stepfather to whom I was never close.

To my surprise, almost nothing has changed.  The furniture is the same and in the same place.  The pictures, both on the walls and side tables, are unchanged as well.  None of the rooms have been painted a different color.  None of the drapes have been replaced for more stylish patterns.  The only thing that’s different is the woman walking through the front door, using her own key.

 


The Inventory on the Shelf

Over the weekend I was subjected to folks offering an enthusiastic assessment of what they consider to be my flaws.  It was not a pleasant experience, but truth be told, it’s an exercise I used to be painfully good at.  In one of the circles I run in, we call it taking somebody’s inventory – a fancy way of saying being openly judgmental for little reason other than that we can.  For years I was told that’s something we humans are not supposed to do.  But my experience this weekend reminded me of the importance of inventory taking and the ground rules it should carry.

When I look back twenty-five years on the know-it-all, loud mouth I was, I cringe deeply and for a good minute or so.  I was the worst kind of inventory taker: I gave opinions without being asked, and I wasn’t the least bit mindful of whether I was hurting someone.  It took a few years in the real world to figure out that people didn’t care what I thought about anything and expressing my opinion made me very easy to dislike.  Once I got that lesson, though, I made the mistake that many converts make: I went too far the other direction.  I started feeling like I needed to find a confessional every time I had a less-than-flattering thought about the words or actions of others.

Then I made the very fortunate move of mentioning my guilt over continuing to be judgmental to an older and wiser friend.  She set me straight once and for all.

“People have to take each other’s inventory,” she began.  “How else are we going to know whether a person is a healthy, positive addition to our lives or someone that we should keep our distance from?  To be completely accepting of what people do and say is just not very smart.  Taking somebody’s inventory isn’t wrong, but sharing that inventory with them is!”

I’m grateful to have that fifteen-year-old mini-lecture to remember and hold onto.  It empowered me this weekend to politely point out to the person judging me that I hadn’t asked for her opinion.  It also empowers me daily to hold my emotional distance from folks with behavior on their storeroom shelves that can be damaging to me.