Margit Note’s: We are so thrilled to have Sloane Davidson guest-curate TueNight’s Welcome issue. As the founder of Hello Neighbor, Sloane works tirelessly for the needs of refugee families, helping them acclimate to their everyday lives here in the U.S., by connecting them with neighbors and mentors in their new neighborhoods. So she is particularly apt to edit this edition all about the many paths and journeys to becoming an American citizen. Here’s Sloane:
I have the immense privilege to spend a lot of time with refugee families. As the founder of a nonprofit that supports recently resettled refugees through mentorship, I can often find myself sitting on the floor playing with children, profusely thanking moms for their tea and hospitality, or shaking hands and showing my respect to elders.
But my life wasn’t always like this.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I felt a draw for my unborn child to be around extended family. And so after 16 years of living away, I moved back to Pittsburgh, my beloved hometown, and was of course readily wrapped in my family’s embrace. In my highly hormonal state, I started obsessing over the dichotomy between my experience and those of refugees who are forced to flee their homes, often leaving behind their own extended family support system.
I’ve been a lifelong volunteer and donor to causes I championed; I’ve worked for non profits and sat on boards. I had thought nothing of donating to support women and girls across the world for years—but what about those global citizens who are living right around the corner? How had I not yet had my eyes open to them?
That’s how I became in many ways “patient zero” for the program I run today, inviting a refugee family home for dinner. The meal, aside from changing my life, became the framework for what we do at Hello Neighbor, the organization I founded in 2017. I In two years we’ve matched 95 refugee families from 13 different countries with caring neighbors who guide and support them in their new lives. I often hear that Hello Neighbor is a beacon of hope for those seeking something good in the world.
I’m here to share with you stories of five women who are beacons as well. Women whose families could have been your neighbors. Some who came to this country as small children, or decided to seek American citizenship later in life, or struggled once they were here to simply fit in.
Welcoming can mean a lot of things. And you certainly don’t need permission from anyone to get started. Hold space for those who pray, look, and dress differently than yourself. Push your local schools, hospitals, employers and landlords to value diversity and inclusion, instead of brushing aside people with an accent. Be the kind of neighbor you’d want to have if you were forced to leave everything behind and start anew.
Shh… Sometimes our stories are for select ears only. But for this Spring edition of TueNight Live we were ready to reveal our most clandestine tales. Our theme was “Secret” and we had six readers tell all.
As part of the Invisible Dog Art Center’s Open Studios week, we were proud to pack the house with more than 100 “grown-ass women” and feature artwork by many of the ID’s women artists.
Here are some fabulous photos from the evening’s festivities.
MIngling before the show.
With wine and snacks in hand and friends met, we were ready to start.
Margit kicks us off.
Hitha Hertzog disclosed the first secret of the night: as a closet conservative, she was reconsidering her loyalties.
Sara with older brother. (Photo courtesy of Sara Gilliam)
I wrote this essay several years ago, but I’m struck by how much it still resonates. In fact, I believe our divides—even within families—are deeper and more painful now than ever. More than a handful of people I know have severed communication with their parents or siblings over political beliefs. One friend pointed out to his family, “I’m gay and I’m married to a Black man. If you voted for Trump, you are supporting a racist who is determined to strip away our civil rights.” It’s hard to argue with that logic.
Of less significance: I composed but did not send perhaps a dozen texts to my politically conservative niece, inviting her to watch Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, which I found inspiring. I hoped it might help her understand me a little better. But I never sent those texts; I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable or start an argument.
Since I wrote this article, I have relocated to Canada with my husband and sons. We are two flights or a 15-hour-drive from “home,” and I have been reminded in countless ways of the importance of family. We no longer have doting grandparents nearby who are eager to babysit. My boys miss Wrestlemania with their uncle and card games with their cousins. I long to sit by the fireplace with my beloved sister-in-law, drinking wine and talking about books. Separated by a closed border, I think of them every day. Recently, I randomly texted my brother to tell him how much I love him.
Is he a good person?
Am I a good person?
I try to be.
Do I love him?
Do I like him?
What, like all the time? It’s complicated.
This is us, 38 years ago. Look at those smiles. They aren’t forced. There’s love there, connection. We were born six years apart, too far to be peers or really even friends. This photo may have been snapped during our happiest time as siblings. Once I started talking, I became annoying. I’d belt out the Annie Soundtrack at the top of my lungs and he’d grit his teeth, knowing complaints wouldn’t get him anywhere. I would rat him out for the tiniest indiscretions. He’d kick me in the back seat of our VW Vanagon camper then smile innocently and shrug when my dad met his eyes in the rearview mirror.
We were essentially two only children living in the same household. One handsome, athletic and wildly popular. The other chubby, musical and an abysmal social failure. I do not remember us as close. Only decades later has it occurred to me that, given our differences, it was unrealistic to expect closeness.
It still is.
There are stark differences between my older brother and myself: he’s an evangelical preacher at a rural megachurch who relaxes by bowhunting deer. I’m a tofu-consuming socialist who believes that we really have no way of knowing what’s “out there.”
However, there is plenty that unites us. We both love nature and Van Morrison. He is one of a handful of people on earth who can make me laugh so hard I pee my pants. We share the bond of time that all siblings do. He’s a great dad and a great uncle to my boys. Tired after a long workday, he’ll crawl around playing monster purely to elicit squeals from my kindergartner. His heart is as big as his pick-up truck. He married a woman who may actually be more conservative than him, and I adore her and am constantly reminded that I hit the sister-in-law jackpot. A few years ago I witnessed his frankly spectacular pastoral counseling skills when he lovingly coached me through a life crisis. About four times a year, he sends me a random text so perfectly timed and witty, it blows my mind.
But in some ways, as a duo of siblings, we are broken. A rift runs between us and it cannot be broached with good will alone. It is our continental divide: impassible, resolute, unchanging.
He and I may not be screaming at each other on 24-hour news channels, but neither are we compromising, changing our minds…
Fifteen years ago, I wrote about my relationship with my brother for Hope magazine, focusing on the positive aspects of our relationship. This essay is harder to write. It’s more challenging to confront difficult truths than to spout relentless cheer. Yet I feel compelled to be honest with myself, and I feel that some sort of writerly karma compels me to come clean with readers of that essay, to let them know that my brother and I have never stopped struggling.
Without a doubt, social media has exacerbated family and cultural strife. We no longer live in a world of abstract ideas. What we believe, who we associate with, and how we act on our values is the stuff of Tweets and Vines. In a ridiculous and unchoreographed online dance, my brother adeptly matches every Common Dreams article I share with photos of dead wildlife. My Jon Stewart video clips hover in my Facebook feed right below his passionate defenses of unborn babies. When it comes to social media, we two are a living, breathing zero sum game.
My latest bout of discomfort may have begun when I stumbled upon an album of photos of my brother’s children picketing outside a Planned Parenthood. Or perhaps it was a few months earlier, when Sarah Palin promoted his blog on her Facebook page. (Fair’s fair. I know a link my husband shared to a scathing article on the Museum of Creationism — something about humans riding dinosaurs—did serious damage to our credibility as open-minded people.)
Open-minded. What does that even mean, in a practical sense? In my heart, I’m not open-minded. I’m not going to change my stance on most key political issues. I’m solidly committed to my belief in the science of global climate change. I think our justice system is racist and we need massive restrictions on gun ownership and gays should have all the fabulous legal weddings they want. If someone disagrees with me on, say, education policy, and wants to convince me that privatization of schools is a good idea, will I listen? Am I likely to change my mind? No and no. Therefore, I cannot reasonably expect different behavior from my brother. The best we can do is grin and bear it. I tune out the noise that makes me uncomfortable, fidgety or downright furious. Without a doubt, he must do the same.
On a profound level, my brother and I are a microcosm of this country and its potentially irreparable flaws. The idea of middle ground is ephemeral; in reality we can’t find much. He and I may not be screaming at each other on 24-hour news channels, but neither are we compromising, changing our minds or, if I’m being honest, listening to each other. We are the word polarized expressed in two middle-aged bodies.
As another election season looms, candidates shout over each other espousing that we must fix our broken political system. I’m no pundit and my degree is in creative writing, not political science, but I suspect such a fix is unrealistic and unlikely. I base my assertion on my relationship with my brother. Here we are, two people who have every reason to make it work and who share an extended circle of caring. We grew up in the same state, in the same socio-economic bracket, educated by the same public schools and raised by the same parents. And we have a list of about 30 items that we simply can’t discuss with each other.
To a certain extent, families like ours have lost a sense of “us” as a collective identity. So has our country. Yard signs and profile pictures and bumper stickers no longer represent one aspect of our selves; they are the tools by which we isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us. Extrapolate this to a national level and suddenly we’re staring down future presidential debates in which the only common ground acknowledged by the candidates is support for our troops and disdain of illegals and welfare moms.
The mythical re-visioning of our country will require more than compromise; it will necessitate the changing of hearts and minds. The ability to say, “You know what? I’ve listened to you, I’ve thought it over, and I’m going to reconsider.” Or to a lesser extent, “Let’s agree to disagree, but I’m going to let you win this one. It’s important to you. I respect you. I’ll step back and let you have this.”
The card-carrying optimist in my heart wants to believe this is possible, on a political level as well as in my personal life. I want to believe that we can find commonalities that run deeper than cheap shots and talking points. I want to believe in politicians who give a shit, and as soon as I meet one, I will. Meantime, plans are in the works for our extended family Thanksgiving. The food will be superb. The children will be goofy. The conversation will be safe. When the evening ends, I’ll leave feeling at once content and sad, loved and lonely. And so will he.
Every month (almost) Nina Lorez Collins of The Woolfer and Margit Detweiler (of this here thing, TueNight) get together for a chat about anything and everything pop culture. On the regular they talk about what they’re reading, watching, listening to and loving. Here are this month’s recommendations:
(In my backyard, late May in Rochester, NY, a week or two before my book launched)
Bio:Sejal Shah‘s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, was published by University of Georgia Press in June 2020. Publishers Weekly says, “Shah forcefully tackles the complicated intersection of ‘identity, language, movement, family, place, and race’…[she] has created a striking self-portrait.”
Beyond the Bio: I love caring much less about what other people think. Books matter more to me than clothes. Since the pandemic, I’m not coloring my hair and it’s sometimes shocking to see the grey, but also freeing. This is me.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? Knowing I’d rather stay in than go out and being good with that. Joy of missing out (JOMO!). Understanding that when other people behave badly, it’s about them. To not take it personally. Also: boundaries. Knowing them, enforcing them.
Here’s her TueNight 10:
1. On the nightstand: CBD Balm with arnica and ginger, pens, books, lilac-scented lotion.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Alone time is a necessity.
Welcome to Grandma’s house. We understand this was not your first choice for a week away from the toxic San Francisco air, especially when the air down here in Central California is even worse. We are aware that this week-long vacation puts both you and Grandma at risk, COVID-wise. We appreciate your business.
Because this is not a standard vacation rental, we hope you will spend some time reading these warnings and suggestions so that your stay will be comfortable, or at least tolerable.
Volume and noises
Grandma is deaf as hell and refuses to get a hearing aid. When you enter the house, make sure to slam the door hard enough to make the whole house rattle. Shout her name as loud as you possibly can. Several times. You will get no response, and you will dread what you will find in the TV room where she spends most of her time. The TV, of course, will be at maximum volume, and you will see her sitting upright, eyes closed, motionless. You will wonder who you should call first. Like, do you even call 911 for a dead body, or should you call a funeral home instead, and why didn’t you already put that number into your phone? But then she will open her eyes and emit a little shriek before exclaiming, “I didn’t hear you come in!”
If you want to get any work done, you will need noise-canceling headphones because of said TV (unless you enjoy the sound of game shows and theTwo and a Half Men chorus). If you didn’t bring headphones with you, there is a Costco half an hour north of here. You will see the big display of last year’s Bose model. The price tag may give you pause, but once you realize that every TV in the electronics department is broadcasting our Hitler-in-chief spewing lies and violence-inducing hate, you will grab that card for the headphones and practically run to the check-out line. On the drive back, you will wonder if this – buying a product that makes you as deaf as Grandma – counts as irony.
Remember the noise Grandma used to make, the periodic “EHH!” that conveyed pain or frustration, the sound that made you get up to see what the problem was, because she obviously needed help with something? That noise has been replaced with a steady, quieter “ehh… ehh… ehh…” This is not a cause for alarm; it simply happens now with every step, exertion, and movement. Especially in the morning as she pushes her walker down the hall, soiled underwear in the attached basket, headed for the garage where said underwear will sit in a bucket of water until there are enough pairs to justify doing a whole load of laundry.
(When you mention to her that the bathroom of this 1970s ranch house is – you counted – at least 70 steps away from the kitchen, at the opposite end of the house, and wouldn’t it be easier if she could live in a smaller place, she shakes her head vehemently. “Sometimes, I don’t make it to the bathroom,” she will tell you. “And then I have to clean it up.” She will pause for a moment before saying, adamantly, “And I’m not having anyone else clean it up!”)
You will hear an occasional “chirp” coming from inside the chimney, so you will email Grandma’s other family members about it. Like, she sure as hell can’t hear it, so is it worth the disruption of having someone come out here to deal with it? The email response comes back: “Even if it is a bird, it does not pose a problem as long as the flue is closed. I once had an accumulation of 12 dead flying squirrels in my living room chimney. They posed no problem other than a bad smell.”
There is white wine in the refrigerator.
Do not be alarmed when a very large man enters the house without knocking. This is the Meals on Wheels guy, whose name is Floyd even though Grandma calls him Alfred. He knows what he’s doing and will be out of here shortly.
Please help yourself to anything in the fridge, including the multiple cartons of expired-last-month Nob Hill pastries that were “on special,” cookies, candy, cheese, juice, and leftover Meals on Wheels fruit cups. If you notice a sea of ants on the counter, or piles of dead ants on the floor, you can slide the refrigerator away from the wall. The dustpan is in the garage and the scrubber is under the sink.
There will be several dinner rituals. The first involves tacos. These must come from Taco Bell, not any of the actual taquerias in this town, which is home to a large population of Mexican farm workers. But Grandma will be so happy, and that second taco will sit wrapped in her fridge for two weeks before she jams it down the garbage disposal.
A better person would volunteer for this job. And you will feel like the world’s worst granddaughter. . . You will worry that this is your future.
Another ritual is Chinese food. Grandma will insist on pork chow mein, and then she will be terribly disappointed with it. Because in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1930s, when all the Chinese people were forced to live on the other side of the railroad tracks that their own parents and grandparents built, there was a Chinese restaurant that served amazing pork chow mein. Modern pork chow mein will always suck in comparison. But it must still be ordered. And fed to the garbage disposal next week.
Grandma will enjoy the egg roll, though, and save that magenta sauce in the Styrofoam cup for a few weeks, before its eventual date with the garbage disposal.
We took your negative Yelp reviews to heart, so we finally called the Spectrum cable people. When you arrive, you will need to ask Grandma for the network name and password. She will say, “Yyes, right here,” and hand you the return mailing label for the router. (Please be advised that she can’t see, either.) The next hour will be full of confusion, where your computer support guy will accidentally FaceTime you with his Apple Watch and then get angry at you for FaceTiming him, while you wait on hold with Spectrum (“Yyour estimated waiting time is 54 minutes”) as you download an app onto your phone to make some magic happen. Once you agree to have all the internet bills sent to you, you can get into the app to see that someone has, in fact, already set up a network and password; they just neglected to write it down.
This is mostly on you. Grandma’s house used to be impeccably clean and could have passed any surprise white-glove test. Now, because much of her vision is gone, you will notice encrusted food on plates in the cabinets, a film of dirt on every surface, and stains on her wall-to-wall white carpet. Remember that by other people’s standards, this is not such a big deal. Most single men live in much greater filth.
But be careful with the dishwasher. Grandma has developed a few hacks to make her life easier. Most of which involve paper plates, presumably because regular plates are too heavy, or possibly because she worries about her water bill. Anyway, she stores her dirty paper plates in the dishwasher so she can pull them out easily to use them for the next meal. The point here: Before you actually run the dishwasher, you will need to remove all the dirty paper plates, and also spend some time picking out the soggy paper bits that are clogging the dishwasher’s drain, and peel off the bits of paper that have heat-fused onto the racks and inside walls of the appliance. Do what you can and hope for the best.
You will have a number of recurring emotions and thoughts, including but not limited to:
Horror. This is really bad. She is 98 years old and can’t see, hear, or walk. She needs someone here all day every day, if not living here. You will imagine countless scenarios in which she is alone and suffering because she has fallen and refuses to use the emergency button on the thing she wears around her neck.
Guilt. You will think you should move in with her. Because she needs you, and she trusts you, and you know her routines and her impossible quirks. Because no one else would be willing to do it. But you know that even with internet, you’d probably be miserable and angry here. A better person would volunteer for this job. And you will feel like the world’s worst granddaughter.
Fear. You will worry that this is your future. Living alone, and being so cheap, stubborn, and resistant to any sort of change that you will drive everyone away from you, then die alone on a floor, hours or days before anyone finds you, just like your own mother did.
Rage. You will wonder: Where the FUCK is the rest of her extended family, her daughter-in-law and her daughter-in-law’s two sisters and their husbands and their children and their grandchildren, all of whom live an hour or less away???
Frustration, helplessness, and despair. You do not have the legal, financial, or moral authority to force anything on this tiny, proud, stubborn person 50 years your senior. And even if you did – what, put her in a nursing home where COVID would kill her in a week? This is a lose-lose situation.
We recommend bringing your cell phone and taking your weekly therapist call in the back bedroom.
We’re sure you have some suggestions for future guests. These may include things such as, “Jesus Christ, you heartless fucking monsters, get her some fucking help!” We have forwarded those concerns to management. (Hi, Dad.)
We have also heard your suggestions about moving the box of Kleenex from the drawer in the corner of the kitchen to someplace more easily accessible, so that Grandma doesn’t have to get up five times during each meal to get a tissue. And the suggestions about moving the bottle of maple syrup from the cabinet under the microwave to next to the toaster, in order to minimize the number of times she has to walk across the kitchen every morning (sans walker because the walker must never enter the kitchen), risking a catastrophic fall. And at least 20 other similar obvious-as-shit suggestions that will continue to fall on deaf (literal and figurative) ears.
Bio: Desiree is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, essayist and award winning author of the flash fiction collection, Know the Mother. Her latest essay, “Arrest Record,” about her troubling conversation with her adult son, is now available on The Rumpus.
Beyond the Bio: Four years ago—the same year that I published my first book—I moved in with my aging parents who have Alzheimer’s. At the time, I was also a primary caregiver for my grandchildren. Since then, I’ve been living the contradiction of menopause: A time of breathtaking self-actualization, a time of soul-crushing family demands. The good news is that I’ve discovered the magic of boundaries. I don’t have 56 years to publish my second book. Each day that I get up, I write.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? I have finally figured out that when folks say, “It could be worse,” it actually can be worse. I know that now because I’ve been through worse. Worse has taught me how little it takes to be happy. Worse has taught me to rely on my coven of girlfriends. It has given me my crown of silver.
Here’s her TueNight 10:
1. On the nightstand: Skinny Pop, Amazon Echo Dot, a small painting that I did when I was trying my hand at visual art, a copy of Rumi’s poetry.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Writing my truth.
3. Jam of the minute: “Lockdown” by Andersen .Paak.
4. Thing I miss: My grandchildren in my arms (fuck you, COVID).
Join TueNight, PERSISTICON and Murray Hill on October 6th at 8pm to Get Out the Motherf@#$ing Vote! A virtual night of fun, solidarity, and making a difference in this election.
Get Your Ticket
Buy a ticket by clicking the “save my spot” button on the ticket page displayed below. A portion of all proceeds will go to FairFight, a national voting rights organization promoting fair elections nationwide.
You can register with Postcards to Voters by texting JOIN to 484-275-2229. Make sure to follow the steps and complete your sample postcard by October 5th so you’re all set to party with us at the event!
Gather Your Supplies Before the Event
Since this is a virtual shindig, you’ll want to gather your supplies before the event. Think favorite pens, blank postcards, comfy pants and tasty beverages.
**TN EXCLUSIVE: A limited quantity of printed postcards featuring Johanna Goodman’s original art are available to order. If you’d like postcards mailed to you, please fill out this Google form before September 25th.
Get Ready to Party on October 6th!
Our goal is to each write 5+ postcards with laughs and stories from Murray Hill, Ophira Eisenberg, Marina Franklin, Jo Firestone. We’ll have live tunes from DJ LaFrae, plus giveaways, surprise guests, and much more.
Election analysts have determined that personal notes, from real people, at key moments really make a huge difference, so let’s DO IT.
Meet Our Fabulous Talent
MURRAY HILL — Legendary comedian and entertainer who has toured with Bridget Everett and Dita Von Teese and starred in his own shows at Joe’s Pub and Caroline’s and on MTV.
OPHIRA EISENBERG — Host of NPR’s Ask Me Another, host and storyteller with The Moth, internationally headlining comic. Her comedy special, Inside Joke, is on Amazon and iTunes.
MARINA FRANKLIN — Veteran comedian, actor, writer, and host, with performing and writing credits including HBO, Colbert, Larry Wilmore, Conan, Jim Gaffigan, and Chappelle.
JO FIRESTONE — Seen on The Tonight Show, Shrill, The Chris Gethard Show, and more; heard on her podcasts Dr. Gameshow and Everyday Decisions, and on her album, “The Hits.”
LAFRAE SCI — Award-winning multi-instrumentalist, educator, composer, bandleader, and DJ. Founder/founding member of numerous New York and international youth music projects.
When I turned 50, I rediscovered the splendid stretch of my own bed. Marriage-free after 25 years, children grown and gone, no pets with their whiny demands, I could haunt the night without fear of rousing man, child, or beast.
There are those who long for the late-night solace of someone else’s arms. But solitude cracked the night open for me, and my bed became my sanctuary, my spa, my office, my library, my snack bar. On my nightstand, Alexa played Esperanza Spalding when I was writing, or read me Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed as a bedtime story. Next to Alexa was a lavender-scented candle, and usually a glass of red wine or a cup of strong, black coffee. The marriage bed, the birthing bed, the family bed, was finally the ark of my own joy.
Then in the summer of 2016, I abandoned my Detroit home of thirty years, put my belongings in storage and moved to coastal Virginia to live with my parents. They were in their 80s, their minds fading much faster than their bodies. If they were going to stay in their home, somebody had to be there with them. I arrived on the front porch of their ‘70s ranch to find that they didn’t understand why I was there, nor that I was staying for good. Not exactly welcome, I tried to stay small, disrupting their lives as little as possible, insinuating myself into the role of caregiver.
When I tell people that I moved home to take care of my parents, they often say something infuriating like, “They took care of you, now it’s your turn to take care of them.” The statement ignores the giant deposit I’ve already made to my own karma: I took care of my children the way my mother took care of me. By these people’s logic, I am locked into endless selflessness, always owing my existence to the benefit of someone else, never living for myself. It’s as if my spirit has been sharecropped, and I am doomed to tirelessly, patiently sow the seeds that others will reap.
Struggling with anger, loss, and lack of control, I squeezed into the guest bedroom crammed with my parents’ dusty belongings and bulky, antique furniture. Each night, I curled sadly on the sagging twin bed. Without my nighttime nest, I was lost.
* * *
One Christmas night, Mom came into the kitchen and beckoned me to follow her. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of sentences, so she pulled me to her bedroom door, then threw her arm out like a model unveiling a game show prize. Peering into her room, I beheld her peach-colored comforter nicely turned down, her pillows fluffed.
“You want me to sleep with you?” I asked, resentment windmilling in my chest.
As long as she’s quiet, I pretend she doesn’t need me. It reminds me of the definition of a “good baby’: one that sleeps and stays out of your way.
When I was a kid, my Air Force father was assigned temporary duty for months — even a year —to places like the Philippines, Germany, and Thailand. He’d barely be out of the door before my mother would sweetly ask me that same question: “Are you going to sleep with me?” It was special to be in her pretty room with the big bed. As we snuggled together, I never felt more loved. But even then, her neediness made it feel more like a favor to her, than a treat for me. I was both her teddy bear and her protector.
As I stood there in her bedroom doorway decades later, it felt cruel to pick Christmas to claim my existentialist ground. I think we both were astonished when I said, “No, Mom. I don’t sleep well at night. I need to be in my own bed.” There was a heartbeat of awkwardness, as if she had proposed marriage and I had refused the diamond ring.
She nodded and said, “OK.”
Bravely disguising her disappointment, she lay down fully dressed, and pulled up the covers. I kissed her gently and fled into the night.
* * *
This morning has been slow. Outside, there’s a haze of warm, spring drizzle. My mother is sleeping in, and I’ve been making the most of the quiet time. I brew my father’s coffee and settle him in front of the television with a piece of broiled cheese toast. Then I turn to my laptop to face the emailed forms, the insurance questions, the Medicaid follow-up, and maybe the writing that I supposedly have so much time for these days during the pandemic.
Soon, it’s a little after 10. I feel guilty for leaving mom in the bed so late despite her pressing bladder, her growling stomach. As long as she’s quiet, I pretend she doesn’t need me. It reminds me of the definition of a “good baby’: one that sleeps and stays out of your way.
Finally, I relent and creep past her door. She is awake, looking up at the ceiling, playing with her hands. But when she catches my movement, her face becomes a sunrise.
“Hey!” she calls out to me, scooting happily toward the middle of her queen-sized bed and throwing open the covers. She wants me to spend the rainy morning in the bed with her.
I have resisted her bed for three years now. But the months-long stretch of isolation has rounded my sharp edges, ground me down. Drawing boundaries and building walls to defend my space is a useless exercise. My parents need what they need, and I give what I must. All I can. So, this morning when my mother asks, I creep into her arms. As the rain thrums, she holds me and babbles lowly in a dialect that is no longer speech. I melt against her softness.
She pats me rhythmically and time disappears. We are old and young at once. She is my mother and my baby; I am her baby and her mother. We hold on to each other in the cloud of sheets, she humming a tuneless lullaby, me crying a memory.
Basic Bio: Maya is the founder of Suburban Women for Kamala Harris, a Facebook page that started the day after Harris was announced as VP, and now has 185,000 members (and counting!). Maya’s proudest role is that of housewife, but she’s worked as a property and restaurant manager, realtor and corrections officer.
Beyond the Bio: I launched ”Suburban Women” on a whim after reading a quote from a White House staffer who was like, “Kamala will scare the shit out of suburban women.” A few days before that, Trump had said some stuff about suburban housewives. I’m both of those demographics but I’m the opposite of what they were envisioning, and I knew others like me.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I’m tired of suppressing my voice and opinions publicly so others aren’t uncomfortable. I’ve made myself smaller and my voice quieter too not play into the angry Black woman stereotype. I’ve decided to celebrate my own voice, to speak up and make sure I’m heard. And if I’m labeled angry, so be it, but I won’t be quiet. My desire is to do everything on my own terms. If I sink or if I swim, flop or fly, it’s going to be done my way. No one is changing for me so I’m not changing for them. I refuse to budge.
1. On the nightstand: A glass of wine and the latest book from Addison Cain. I got to meet this author at a NAACP protest this summer and I just fell in love with her kindness and spirit. It’s awesome when you like someone and you’re a fan and then you meet them in real life and they are actually gracious and kind.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Thinking about P. Diddy when I hear this phrase. I’m a 90s hip hop head! But seriously, this is my daily mantra as a mom to Black children. We don’t have time to be complacent with anything, school, sports, service to our community. They need to be the best at whatever they do so they can at least get a fair chance at anything. It is so important that they excel at the things that matter in life and for that to occur, I can’t stop. Won’t stop.
3. Jam of the minute: “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. I know it’s old but it’s my jam! It’s positive, it’s about reinventing yourself, and growing up, she was what I looked up to.
4. Thing I miss: I miss my kids all being young. The transition from mothering a house full of kids to having four kids in college is bittersweet. I miss the days when they all thought I was so cool and the smartest person in the room.
5. ’80s crush: Original MJ. He was handsome and funny and so talented.
6. Current crush: Idris Elba & Keanu Reeves. I’ve got a lot of love to give! They are my perfect yin and yang.
7. Latest fave find: Couture Brew coffee! It is ah-maz-ing! It’s a special Ethiopian blend and the package says it’s got chocolate, grapes, and strawberry taste. Well I thought I didn’t like chocolate but apparently I love it in coffee!
8. Last thing you lost: My spare time! Due to COVID I had to stop working to stay home and help my two school-age children with virtual school. My high schooler doesn’t need much but my second grader needs me every step of the way.
9. Best thing that happened recently: The candidacy of Kamala Harris and the start of the group. Somehow, someway, the most caring, kind, fun loving, hilarious, and opinionated women found my group and I get to revel in their midst every day and I love it!
10. Looking forward to: A vacation. I miss my husband. I miss our time alone and just being out together. COVID has reshaped our lives and we are still thriving but I look forward to a real vacation when we can leave the country and just be Mike and Maya again.
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(Hope live-painting a collaborative mural at LetterWest conference. Photo by Matt McDowell.)
Basic bio: Hope is a designer and artist who believes in the power of letters to communicate through both their content and their form. She is the designer behind Monogram Project, and the artist behind TEXT/TILE Studio.
Beyond the bio: I have experimented with many different interests, sports, and hobbies. For whatever reason, I tend to compartmentalize – never letting my passion for typography and design intersect with my passion for sewing (for example). As I get older, I see those walls breaking down and combining into an expression that is uniquely my own.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? Taking responsibility for my emotions. No one else makes me feel anything, and I know how to honor and process my feelings without being unproductive about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t get grumpy or lose my temper or feel sorry for myself sometimes, but that I understand those emotions are my choice. There is real power in that.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Puzzling. Since the pandemic started, I have completed 19 (and counting) 1000-piece puzzles. When the world feels uncertain and out of control, there is great comfort in puzzles. The little endorphin hit you get after finding the rightful home for a piece and clicking it into place – a puzzle is not just an activity, it is 1000 tiny accomplishments.
3. Jam of the minute: Not exactly current, but I just introduced my 6yo daughter to Salt-N- Pepa’s “Push It” and she’s obsessed. I’m obsessed with how obsessed she is with this song.
4. Thing I miss: Hanging out with friends indoors. Dinner parties.
5. ’80s crush: River Phoenix.
6. Current crush: Any woman who has found her voice and isn’t afraid to use it. Famous examples include AOC, Sarah Cooper, Padma Lakshmi – but there are plenty of lesser-known women who are quietly going around leading extraordinary lives.
7. Latest fave find: Pomelo-flavored San Pellegrino.
8. Last thing I lost: The notion that liberals are not complicit in the preservation of white supremacy.
9. Best thing that happened recently: Right before shelter-in-place began, I completed a mural at The Progress using my TEXT/TILE alphabet. TEXT/TILE feels like my unique artistic contribution to the world, and the mural was a huge validation of that project.
10. Looking forward to: The day when I don’t have to worry about germs all the time.
I felt all the sound, light, air — everything — leave the room; only the weight of those words remained. I was standing at the side of his bed, lightly stroking his forehead. Mom was exhausted, slumped in a chair in a dark corner. He was dying and wanted to know when it would be over. He had seen so much life and death on the farm — animal life and death — for 40 years, he knew when death was near and he was ready for it. But for him to ask me… that took me a minute. I was the youngest and a girl. You didn’t reveal this kind of vulnerability to your youngest daughter.
Four months earlier, I’d come home for a visit and it had been clear to me: Dad was not going to make it. It was upsetting to see him so much thinner and weaker than just a month ago. It was before the dialysis. Before the hospitalization. That January afternoon, he sat in the back room in his fake leather reclining chair next to the big picture window. He wasn’t the thick-muscled, cheerful, red-cheeked farmer I expected to see; he was a thin, frail, sunken man. It was such a shock, I welled up instantly. Before I could disguise my tears, he saw me and said, “It’s nice to have someone cry over me.” Although it was a poignant moment, I felt a fierce, protective rush. What was happening here? Was everyone pretending he was going to be okay?
The next day, a good friend of Dad’s came to take him for a ride. Doug had one of those over-sized, huge-wheeled pickups with a steel step to give a boost up. Dad had done hard physical work his entire life — he stacked hay bales, put cows in their stanchions, hauled firewood, fixed fences, fixed tractors, and twice a day carried and lifted dozens of 70-lbs milk pails without spilling a drop. He was strong and undaunted by challenges, but this day, Doug and I had to lift him into the pickup. Dad, always one to joke around with his friends, said, “Why’d you buy something nobody can get into?” Even so, I felt my father surrender to our help and thought I saw embarrassment on his face. It made me feel sick to see his loss of pride when he’d been so physically strong and independent.
Before I could disguise my tears, he saw me and said, “It’s nice to have someone cry over me.”
Dad had been a farmer for 40 years and a school bus driver for 35. He fit the bus runs in around the milking. His routine: up at 5 a.m., first milking, breakfast, bus run, farm chores, second bus run, “supper” at 5 p.m., second milking, and in bed by 11 p.m. For 35 years. Although a grueling schedule, it wasn’t all drudgery, at least not from my perspective. From eight to 18, I helped “with chores” every night. We all did, Lee, Ann, and I, but I was the youngest by six years so there was a stretch of time — age 12 through high school — when it was just Dad and me. With my older siblings gone, I wanted to prove to my father that I was fully capable farm help, despite being the youngest and a girl. There was an old, dirty radio on an overhead shelf that we listened to while we worked. I’d clean out water troughs; feed the cows, horses, cats and dog; throw hay bales down from the mow; sweep floors and clean gutters. Near the end of the milking, Dad would say teasingly, “You can’t go in until your chores are done.” I would groan, and he’d give me something else to do. This nightly routine of work and playfulness connected us.
Every summer while Lee and Ann were still at home, the family would take a two-week vacation towing a tent camper. We’d drive from New York to Colorado or New Mexico or Vermont – lots of driving – and use the campground guides to rule out any place that didn’t have swimming. Dad kept the swimsuits right inside the camper door so we could immediately go for a swim when we arrived. He always swam with us, and we loved that. On the long drives, we’d listen to 8-track tapes. Dad liked Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs and Janis Joplin(!). Ann and I knew all the words to “Me and Bobby McGee.” To hear a nine-year-old and 15-year-old belt out a bluesy duet always got a good reaction. Lee would try to read and ignore his little sisters, and Mom would usually be chattering to Dad about where we should stop for the lunch she’d packed. Between bus driving and vacations, Dad did a lot of driving — in all kinds of hazardous conditions — and liked it.
By my next visit home, it was late-February. Dad’s kidneys had failed, and he was getting dialysis treatments twice a week. Mom, Lee and Ann were doing the driving these days. A few weeks later, Dad was in the hospital. A grief counselor had met with us. Mom, me, Lee, Ann and their spouses had been taking turns staying with Dad.
It was an evening when just Mom and I were in the room when he asked me that pivotal question: How long does it take? In that moment, I felt our relationship expand and my understanding deepen. During the eight months I had witnessed my father dying, the child-parent roles had reversed. On the verge of death, I saw my father as a man — with fears, aspirations, regrets — and not just as my father. Maybe for the first time, I had some understanding of the person he was.
The grief counselor had said one of the kindest things you can do for a dying loved one is give him permission to go. I had no answer to my father’s question, other than to tell him it was okay to leave us. I said, “Mom and I will be okay. You go when you’re ready. We love you.” My father died the next day.
Eve is the founder & chief storyteller at Eve Simon Creative in the Washington, DC area. She is also the brains and voice behind the GenX Stories podcast (new season starts August 26!) about how the so-called “lost generation” found itself at midlife.
(I do everything in my little home office: design, craft, podcast, Zoom with friends and especially hide from COVID/the outdoors. That’s probably why I’m so damn pale.)
Basic bio: A lapsed Philosophy major with an MFA in theatrical lighting design and 25 years’ experience in the web industry, Eve is the founder & chief storyteller at Eve Simon Creative in the Washington, DC area. She is also the brains and voice behind the GenX Stories podcast (new season starts August 26!) about how the so-called “lost generation” found itself at midlife.
Beyond the bio: Being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at age 39 changed everything for me. I stopped sweating the small stuff and it made me grateful for every second because life goes on. While turning 50 last November was a bit of a shock on paper, I’m definitely enjoying letting my freak flag fly.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? I don’t give a shit what people think of me anymore. I think that’s the biggest shift from when I was younger: trying to be what’s “expected” is really a race against yourself in the end. It’s my life and I decide how to live it.
1. On the nightstand: Several flavors of EOS lip balm (because you never know your mood!), a stack of halfway read books, fake sunflowers, melatonin, 1.0+ readers from Whole Foods, iPad, and the shiny dinosaur that was the zero-gravity indicator on SpaceX Dragon.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: It may be idealistic to always think the best in people, but I’ll never give that up. While it’s gotten me in trouble plenty of times, it’s also made me who I am – someone curious, hopeful & positive. It’s no coincidence that I choose the screenname “NaiEve” on social media!
4. Things I miss: Max & Zoe, my twin Bernese Mountain Dog furry babies who passed years ago. Nothing beats the unconditional love and fuzzy snuggles from a 125-pound pup.
5. ’80s crush: The actor who played Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Who is now 60. FFS.
6. Current crush: Brad Pitt, always and forever.
7. Latest fave find: Oui yogurt glass jars (and OMG ALL THE THINGS I can do with them).
8. Last thing I lost: Radishes. Seriously. They came from my CSA, I prepped them for pickling and then they were just … gone. I looked for them everywhere for days, but nothing has started to stink yet so I’m hoping that’s a good sign.
9. Best thing that happened recently: I love that my 82-year-old father has been FaceTiming me from suburban Philly every day since the pandemic started. Sometimes it’s for 2 minute, sometimes 20, but it’s so great to see his face and hear his voice. I always hang up smiling (well, when we don’t talk about politics) and saying that he’s the absolute cutest human alive. I am the only child of parents who have been together over 56 years, so this is a daily reminder of how much I love them and am lucky to have them both in my life.
10. Looking forward to: Electing someone who isn’t morally compromised, a douchebag or an idiot.
“You know, don’t you, that Cleo chewed on your hair while you were sleeping last night.”
Kent, my beloved, is speaking to me from across the kitchen counter about the irascible pandemic Bernedoodle puppy we adopted together six months ago.
And no, I didn’t know that.
“Yeah,” he continues. “I took her out to pee because she was barking frantically at 2 a.m. and when we got back to the bedroom, she jumped up on the bed and went straight for you.”
I never heard the barks. I never felt the chews. I am a 56-year-old menopausal woman and I was sleeping as if I were dead.
It wasn’t always this way.
For as long as I can remember, I have been an incurable insomniac.
As an anxious 23 year old who felt inadequate to the task of grownup life, in lieu of sleep, I’d stand by the stove late at night cooking the only thing I knew how to make — — tapioca pudding — and eating it warm right out of the pot, calling it dinner. A decade later I was on high-alert for toddler children — mine — calling out for pre-dawn comfort and cuddles. In another life chapter I chalked my insomnia up to being the only adult in a post-marriage household that now needed keen protection against middle-of-the-night home invaders who never materialized.
One phase of sleeplessness always folded into another. And no amount of flaxseed eye masks, lavender oil bubble baths, silicone ear plugs, pre-slumber cups of golden milk and white-noise machine sounds of falling rain ever seemed to help.
Under the covers in the darkness, my mid-life sweetheart snoring softly beside me and the brightness on my phone turned down as low as it will go so as not to disturb him, I’ve been known to google:
“Where is Kristy McNichol now?”
“Orlando Bloom Miranda Kerr what went wrong”
By my phone’s faint glow, I’ve checked my bank accounts, read the first few paragraphs of a dozen New York Times stories, deleted emails, scanned Facebook, indulged my Zillow obsession, and blocked yet another self-professed military general seeking to follow me on Instagram. “Keeping the night company” all these years has brought deep exhaustion, yes — and a strange fellowship with solitude when blanketed by darkness.
I’ve given myself the freedom to go quiet, to let go of ambition, to experiment, to not know.
And then this past spring, COVID-19 turned the world as we all knew it on its head. In mid-March, I found myself standing in line at Trader Joe’s as wild-eyed shoppers swept entire categories of food into their carts. The rental income I’d long used to support myself — earned from welcoming international travelers to my Prospect Heights garden apartment — dropped to zero in a matter of days. The stock market cratered, my 24-year-old daughter moved back home from her apartment in nearby Crown Heights to shelter with us, her 21-year-old sister drove out to Los Angeles with her girlfriend and an unknown date of return and my parents, both in their mid-80’s were down in Florida all by themselves. I worried daily about whether I’d ever see them again, about whether my unsteady-of-gait father might take a fall while walking the dog or fetching the paper, and what my siblings and I would do if such an event were to occur.
By day, I was quaking in my boots. And — what do ya know? — by night I was sleeping like a baby, maybe for the first time since I was a baby.
Night after night, within six seconds of my head hitting the pillow, I was practically unconscious. Like I was drugged. Like a puppy could eat my hair and I’d never know it.
Why sleep now, and finally?
For starters, there’s less — literally — to keep me up at night. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to call New York City home for 34 years, and/but its 24/7 dazzle means that no matter how fast one dances, it’s been all but impossible to not to feel an vague and ephemeral sense of missing out.
Now there’s nothing and no one to be jealous of. My travels to the fridge to fetch a mid-afternoon snack, to my feet to tie my sneakers, to my front door at 7 pm to cheer on essential workers, to my bathroom to stare in the mirror at my uncut hair, to wherever it is in the next room that I’ve left my facemask — why, they’re pretty much the same trips you’ve been taking.
Also: as the world continues to implode, I’ve also come to realize that ambivalence and self-doubt can be the strange result of an abundance of choices. When the lens is narrowed and survival is in the balance, it lends focus. I’ve given myself the freedom to go quiet, to let go of ambition, to experiment, to not know.
There’s a quote I’ve long loved by Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you have, with what you can, where you are.”
With so much I — and we — can’t do now, and so much we can’t control, what I can do feels clearer. These days, I make dinner without rushing, chop vegetables slowly, clean the kitchen counter with care. I read actual books. I think of Anne Frank, and Nelson Mandela and the hard things that humans before us have had to endure. When birds call out in my little backyard, I give them notice. I’ve never appreciated the sky so much.
“When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” So said the Zen master.
I think I may finally be getting it.
What will the world look like when this is behind us?
I hope what’s ahead for us is a world made kinder, fairer and more just for the gross inequities this time is laying bare for us — and I’ll be rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting to work in the service of that hope.
In the meantime, we’re in a bit of a free-fall. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some sleep to catch up on.
(LaFrae Sci a.k.a Frae-Frae: Daughter of Drexciya)
Basic bio:LaFrae Sci is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and electronic musician who performs under the moniker, Frae-Frae: Daughter of Drexciya. She is also the Co-Executive Director of Willie Mae Rock Camp and creator of Willie Mae Future Sounds, a suite of year round programming rooted in Afrofuturism and combining S.T.E.A.M./ music technology with social justice.
Beyond the bio: The pandemic suspended everything that was fun and necessary about living in the city for me, and I am grateful that I was able to fulfill my bucket list dream of moving by the beach in Rockaway. I bought roller skates and I enjoy 7 a.m. skating on the boardwalk. I still have some of my signature moves developed when I was eleven years old; I just don’t fall as often. What I have learned being over 50 is how to make courage and gratitude my default settings instead of fear.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? My curves.
1. On the nightstand: Inspirational book absconded from my mother’s collection with her fave passages highlighted.
I woke up this morning in my hotel room wearing a bra and beautiful purple flowered Rachel Roy dress, one that always makes me feel beautiful and yields compliments. It’s the dress I’ve worn recently to an important business meeting and am gearing up to wear at a talk at a library. It’s made of polyester (in China, of course), but feels elegant and classy. It is not the kind of dress one should sleep in, but the kind that should be treated with the utmost care so that it lasts as long as possible. It’s a dress I’d be sad to have disappear from my wardrobe, and yet…I still didn’t take the time to remove it from my body and hang it up, or at the very least, drape it from a chair.
But alas, that is part of my vice: sleeping in my clothes, alongside sleeping in my glasses (or having them fall haphazardly onto the floor), sleeping with the lights on, not brushing my teeth or using moisturizer before bed, and generally treating sleep like an annoying chore rather than a vital part of staying healthy. The fancy (for me) dress isn’t alone; as with so much of my clothing, many, if not most nights find me passing out in utter disarray, whatever I wore that day tangled around me, surely getting ruined by my restlessness. It doesn’t matter if my outfit is a beloved favorite, tight or loose, delicate or not. It’s the principle; I don’t want to have to take those precious seconds to unzip or step out of my dress or skirt. In those grouchy, late night, worn down minutes when I am making the decision.
“You slept with the lights on again,” my boyfriend will often tell me, surely grateful we have separate rooms. So? is my immediate mental response, but what I usually say is more along the lines of, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again” — even though we both know it will.
I am not too much of a rebel in my daily life. I take at least eight vitamins, and am always tempted to buy more (it can’t hurt, right?). I eat breakfast every day, walk on the sidewalk, regularly call my parents and grandparents. I don’t drink or do drugs, and while I do indulge in sweets and salty snacks, the food that makes me happiest to see on a menu is kale. Plus I want to be a mom, and that idea has made me want to be even more responsible — most of the time, anyway.
Yet when I think of how my life has changed since the days when I’d stay out until four a.m., swing home and conk out for a few hours, then head off to work, even though I don’t envy that lifestyle or wish to recreate it. I live in suburbia now, and follow many routines by choice: I drink out of the same Minolta coffee mug every day, even though I have much cooler mugs (one has brass knuckles for a handle), walk the same routes in my small town, sit in the same spot to work. Neither my personal nor professional life is boring, exactly, but compared to the drama I seemed to crave and create at will in my 20s, it is. A part of me wants to pretend I’m still that young and irresponsible, even as I have conversations with friends about what turning 40 means and how viable my eggs are.
When it comes to how I sleep, it’s my little refuge from responsibility. In addition to how I sleep, when I sleep is another little act of rebellion. I worked 9 to 5 jobs for most of my life after dropping out of law school, so ever since I became a full-time freelancer in fall 2011, I’ve loved the idea of making my own hours, being able to stay up as late as I want. Even when my body is aching for sleep, I’ll tell myself “just a few more pages” of whatever cozy mystery I’m devouring. I simply don’t want to admit it’s time to go to sleep, like a regular adult.
It’s not that I don’t want to do them — my idealized version of myself is the one where I floss twice, eat way more than the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, run five miles and write several thousand words daily. I wish I was that seemingly perfect person, but at night, when I’m tired, I actually want to be her bratty little sister. I want to not care about convention or what anyone else thinks I should do. I want to be utterly lazy and slothful. I want to sleep like there’s no tomorrow, and that mindset extends to the period of time before I actually admit defeat and shut my eyes.
Yet as I pack that Rachel Roy dress, I’m fully aware of the irony. As with many vices, the only one I’m hurting is myself. I know that, and yet the allure of pretending sleep is an evil plot to get me to stop doing whatever it is I want to be doing at 11, midnight, one a.m., persists. On the other hand, I do have the most comfortable pair of sweatpants that are divine to sleep in, so much so that I’m thinking of ordering several more pairs to stave off the inevitable day mine disintegrate from overuse. Maybe I can find a way to make the sweatpants more of a regular practice. As for the rest — the lights, the teeth, the glasses — they can wait. I need some kind of vice to cling to, at least for a few more years.
(Karrie: “That time I realized it was me all along.”)
Basic bio: Karrie Myers Taylor is an astrologer and video producer and editor. She is currently HBIC of KM Taylor Astrology & Wellness, running social media platforms on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram.
Beyond the bio: Being in my 40s means freedom from the conformity bullshit. That’s why I became an astrologer; I wanted a job that I could do from anywhere in the world, that has no rules except what’s happening “up there” and that I would honestly do for free, I enjoy it that much.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? I ask A LOT of questions and I question the answers. I choose oatmeal over pancakes for breakfast, and I wear sunscreen to preserve my sexy. Grown-ass ladies follow their curiosities, protect their mindsets, and put self-care first.
7. Latest fave find: Air Plant Earrings by @lushlobes.
8. Last thing I lost: Probably my lip chap… I stay losing my lip chap.
9. Best thing that happened recently: We decided to buy land and start a vegetable farm & wellness center for traumatized folks. And since this year has traumatized everyone, I’ll be seeing you all there very soon.
Growing up, I was a good kid. Forever on honor roll, obedient, well-mannered, and respectful. The kind of kid teachers in the late 70s and early 80s left in charge of the classroom when they had to step out for a moment. The kid who wielded that piece of chalk like a weapon and wouldn’t hesitate to write your name on the board if you made a sound or got out of your seat, in the teacher’s absence.
So I guess it would be more accurate to say I was a full-fledged goodie two shoes back then. Rules were meant to be followed. And I learned early on in elementary school that following the rules and getting good grades was an easy way to stay in the teachers’ good graces. And staying in teachers’ good graces was important to me — until sixth grade when I had a teacher who had disdain for the kids who got good grades.
Some of us overheard Mrs. K* tell another teacher that she didn’t like the weekly gifted-and-talented pull-out program because it was disruptive and because it made the smart kids think we were better than everyone else. But Mrs. K had no problem telling the class long-winded stories about her college-aged sons and how brilliant they were. So I guess being smart was fine as long as she’d given birth to you.
If a riot is the language of the unheard, then a prank call is the language of the grade school goodie two shoes falsely accused.
Mrs. K thought being in the gifted program made me feel superior, when in reality, being smart was the only thing that kept me from feeling inferior. I didn’t think I was cute, and I’d already learned that there was currency in being cute. Being smart was the only thing I felt good about. And after having been bussed from my all-black neighborhood to integrate an all-white school in the suburbs for five years of elementary school, I needed to feel good about myself. And I really needed my first Black teacher since Mrs. Nelson (my goddess of a kindergarten teacher, she of the glorious ‘fro) to be in my corner.
But Mrs. K was not who I needed her to be. Her rules had rules, and even my goodie two shoes ass couldn’t keep up with all of them. Like the rule about not leaving your bookbag next to your desk because it might fall into the aisle, and she might trip over it. I forgot one day. And of course that day my bookbag did fall into the aisle. And of course Mrs. K tripped over it and almost did a faceplant. And of course some of my classmates laughed.
I was sent to the office. This would be only my second time in the principal’s office; the first time was in elementary school when I’d been called down to give a witness statement regarding a playground fight. This time, I was in trouble. I had never been in trouble before. Yes, I had broken a rule, and yes, Mrs. K almost fell. And I was sorry about those things, but also angry because I felt like Mrs. K only sent me to the principal’s office because the other kids laughed and she was embarrassed.
I was also angry that Mrs. K got away with being biased against the smart kids. I couldn’t prove it, but I felt that Mrs. K’s reaction to my bookbag was driven by this bias. My mother was called into the school because Mrs. K was convinced that I’d left my bookbag in the aisle on purpose, to trip her and cause a scene in the classroom. My mother, my advocate, successfully argued that nonsense away, and ultimately, I wasn’t punished. I just had to apologize to Mrs. K. And I did so, genuinely. But I seethed at the injustice of Mrs. K attempting to malign my character and fuck up my permanent record. I seethed at being powerless, at the mercy of an adult who did not have good intentions.
By summer break, my seething had hardened into a plan for retribution. If a riot is the language of the unheard, then a prank call is the language of the grade school goodie two shoes falsely accused.
I had limited prior experience with pranking. At sleepovers, my friends and I would prank call a boy that at least one of us liked, pretending to be a mysterious girl from school who just had to know who he liked in our grade. The hardest part of prank calling (or “crank calling,” as some folks call it, a la the TV show Crank Yankers) was not laughing in the background.
But the stakes were higher when it came time for me to settle the score with Mrs. K.
I had everything I needed: A phonebook, a phone, and Mrs. K’s husband’s first name. And I had an accomplice. My friend Lana and I had rolled our eyes throughout the school year at Mrs. K’s long, proud monologues about her husband and sons. For revenge purposes, we figured Mrs. K’s family to be her Achilles’ heel for our prank calls.
“Hi, Margaret. This is Candy,” Lana or I would say in our most sultry summer-before-seventh-grade voice. “Is Raymond there?”
“Who is this?” Mrs. K would demand to know.
“Candy. Please ask Raymond to bring milk and Pampers for our baby when he comes over tonight . . .”
And we made variations of this call multiple times, always with a fake name we hoped conjured thoughts of a stripper.
If Mrs. K knew it was Lana and me calling, she never let on. Before slamming down the phone, she would tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that we should be in summer camp somewhere to occupy our idle minds.
And of course Goodie Two Shoes Me was ashamed. We were awful. What we did was awful. And exhilarating. We hit Mrs. K where she lived, right in her respectability, right in her picture perfect family. We hit back in the only way we knew how.
Years later, when I was in my finishing up my first year of college, I received a care package and note wishing me well on my final exams — from Mrs. K. When she’d heard through the grapevine that I’d gotten accepted to Yale, she tracked my mom down to get my campus address. And, she wrote, she was very proud of me.
As I ate the goodies from the care package, I wondered what had caused Mrs. K’s disdain for smart kids to fade. I’ll never know. Mrs. K reached out to me a few years ago via email, full of nostalgia and maybe a little early onset dementia. I thought about confessing to the prank calls from that long-ago summer. I thought about asking Mrs. K why she had a chip on her shoulder about the gifted program and those of us who benefited from it. Eventually, I decided that all of it was water under the bridge. Maybe both of us had learned a lesson or two in the ensuing years.
For sure, I never made another prank call after that summer. Pranking felt a bit like chaos. A small bit, but still too much for me to engage in on a regular basis, especially because it came with that side order of shame. But prank calling had been useful chaos, an equalizer of sorts. For summer-before-seventh-grade me, for still-figuring-out-my-worth me, that momentary power was exactly what I needed.
This one promises to be a snooze fest. No, really.
For our 8/18 edition our theme is Slumber Party and we’re putting on the pjs, making the prank calls and we might even levitate someone. As always, our evening includes storytellers, music and more. Join host, Margit Detweiler and friends for an evening of fun, chat and true stories.
A portion of the evening’s proceeds will go to Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls which provides music education and mentoring that empowers cisgender and trans girls, women and/or gender non-binary youth and adults
Our guests include:
Ada Calhoun : Author of Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis”
Karrie Myers – Astrologer & Wellness Guide
Deesha Philyaw: TueNight editor and the author of“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”
Basic bio: Margaret Crandall is TueNight’s new newsletter editor, a native East Coaster who has lived in San Francisco for almost 20 years. Her roommate is a silver mannequin named Svetlana.
Beyond the bio: I keep coming back to the words “achieve” and “contribute.” I spent most of my life thinking I was supposed to achieve, but finally realized I’m happiest and at my best when I contribute to larger efforts from behind the scenes.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? Recognizing how much I still have to learn (and being excited to learn it).
1. On the nightstand: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, a box of Kleenex, my glasses, and Emerita Pro-Gest and Phytoestrogen creams, which someone insisted I try, but I don’t notice any difference re: mood/energy level.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Browsing Etsy for the perfect vintage caftan. (I just ordered a 70s “summer house coat” for the TueNight Slumber Party!)
3. Jam of the minute: I mostly listen to old reggae and rocksteady on Pandora. Stuff like Delroy Wilson’s “Better Must Come.”
4. Thing I miss: My dog. She died a year ago. The neighbors think I’m taking care of Daisy (above) two days a week, but really it’s the other way around.
5. ’80s crush: Don Johnson. I even went to Miami to look for him.
6. Current crush: Billy Porter, for his talent, his confidence, his voice. I would listen to him read the dictionary. #THECATEGORYIS
7. Latest fave find: The Kristoff candle from Lita+Ro which reminds me of Christmas as a kid and doesn’t overpower my apartment, and these Monrow linen blend jogger pants when they were on sale. I wear them all day and sleep in them too. They are basically pajamas you can wear outside.
8. Last thing I lost: My reading glasses, which were, of course, on top of my head.
9. Best thing that happened recently: After a 33-year break, I started playing tennis again. I’m back at a beginner level, but it’s so fun I don’t care if I hit the ball over the fence.
10. Looking forward to: A COVID-19 vaccine, seeing East Coast family and friends, and getting my hair cut.
“I just don’t know what I should be doing right now!”, one of my clients lamented recently. “The world is so messed up, there’s so much I should be doing, but I don’t know what to do!”
“Get some sleep,” I said.
“Sleep? There’s literally a protest going on outside my window!”
“So, go join it. And when you get home, take a nap. Neptune is in Retrograde right now, which means all your illusions are being stripped away. Now, you have the space to dream big, without the limits of money, patriarchy, racism or age-ism. But you can’t dream if you don’t sleep.”
As an astrologer, I deal every day in the area of dreams.
In the beginning, I thought becoming an astrologer meant I would be reading symbols that helped people discover their true, radical, unapologetic selves, so that they could stop trying to live the lives of others and fully embrace the life they were born to live. Astrology had helped me do that in my own life, and I wanted to help others do it, too.
And I was coasting along, thinking that’s what astrology was all about. Until I learned about Neptune and the importance of dreams.
Every sign in the zodiac represents a different energy that we can call upon and embody at different times throughout our lives, when we need it. Need to find the focus and drive to warrior through a project? Call on your Aries energy. Need to transform your life like a phoenix rising? Call on your Scorpio. But, when the outside world is crumbling all around you, and you need the space to think about what the new world will look like, that’s when you call upon your inner Pisces, otherwise known as Neptune.
When you sleep, your unconscious mind gives you the answers you’ve been looking for, to make your dreams a reality.
Each of us has a placement of Neptune on our astrological charts, an area of our lives where we wear rose-colored glasses, live in comfortable delusion and are not seeing the full picture. Where we are asleep, basically.
But Neptune is also the place where our deepest, seemingly impossible dreams lie. Because when we sleep, we dream, and when we’re dreaming, there is no limit to what we can do. The boundaries and constrictions of the real world fall away. And when we wake up, we have the tools to make those dreams into reality.
Again, Neptune is Pisces energy, and if you know a Pisces, you know they are prone to escapism through drugs, alcohol, daydreaming or simply sleeping. I live with a Pisces; his favorite thing to do is sleep. Neptune and Pisces energy is one of the most confusing energies we experience in the zodiac. Every other sign has a function, it seems. Every other sign has something to do. With Neptune, the only way out of the puzzle is to get more sleep. Sleep is imagination. Sleep is regeneration. Sleep is where we get the energy to bring our dreams into reality in the first place.
My client never did take a nap. But when we talked again, she told me she wished she had.
“I get what you’re saying now,” she said. If I don’t sleep, I’m stuck on the hamster wheel. If I get some sleep, I can dream up a way to get off of it.”
So, now’s the time I should tell you, that this conversation with a client never happened in real life. It was a dream I had, just me talking to myself, trying to work something out in my head that I wouldn’t have been able to if I was awake and dealing with the distractions of my everyday life. But the moral of the story is, when you sleep, your unconscious mind gives you the answers you’ve been looking for, to make your dreams a reality.
I know what you’re thinking: “If all I’m supposed to do right now, amidst all this chaos, is sleep, why is it so hard to get some right now?”
Well, remember all of that illusion I told you Neptune brings? Right now, Neptune is in retrograde. A retrograde feels like being suspended in air, like watching the spokes of a bicycle seemingly spin backwards, as the bicycle moves forward. It means we are being called to rethink, review, and re-imagine our dreams and why we had certain dreams in the first place. In retrograde, the veil of Neptune has been lifted from our eyes for these next few months. This is the time where we can get real about who we are and what we actually wanted in life, before the restrictions of society, corporate advertising and market research told us what we wanted.
During this Retrograde, which began June 22 and ends November 28, you may be re-evaluating your career, your goals, even your partner, and wondering if something else would be a better fit… or maybe things are fine just as they are? You might use dreams, hypnosis, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or flower essences to reveal ideas and information that have been sitting there in plain sight the whole time. You may be considering a new place to live, or a new way to live, that you had always dreamed about before, but never thought would be possible. You may be revisiting the past, looking over your present life before moving ahead into your new one.
But you’re also seeing the truth of your lifelong illusions. Turns out, your favorite celebrities are just regular, flawed people when the studio lights aren’t around. This is why we love movies and celebrities so much. Deep down, we know it’s not real, but we pay good money to escape from reality for a little while. Turns out, you kinda like life without so many rules. You may be experiencing nostalgia right now, for the way things used to be. But Neptune in Retrograde is showing you they never actually were that way. That was just Neptune, helping you escape in order to survive.
There’s a lot going on in your head, so it’s hard to get some sleep…but that’s exactly what you should be doing right now.
Make time for dreaming. Turns out it is an action item, after all.
Tiffany and Kayvonne on their way to pick up candle wax and jars in Pennsylvania. (Photo: Lita+Ro)
Ages: 41 and 45
Basic bios: Washington, DC life and business partners Tiffany Coln and Kayvone Harvey are the founders of Lita+Ro, a line of candles and scents inspired by family members, customers, celebrities, fictional characters, and historical figures. They just released the last of their summer fragrances and are working on creating incense and goat milk soap for winter gift sets.
Beyond the bios:
Tiffany: I’m realizing more that my path has taken many turns but always heading in the same direction: I spent my whole life eagerly anticipating my 40s and I’m coming to the understanding that everything I have learned and accomplished was building to this moment.
Kayvone: I am looking forward to the journey beyond the age of 45. I am a mom to two beautiful grown kids and a nana to two handsome grandsons. And I am blessed to have a beautiful and loving partner in my life.
What makes you grown-ass ladies?
Tiffany: I don’t have many f*cks left to give. The well of f*cks is dry.
Kayvone: Knowing you don’t have to give a flying f**! ….and it’s ok to say no at times.
Here are their TueNight 10s:
1. On the nightstand:
Tiffany: A lamp with two bubble-gum machine thingies from my nephew (a rubber duck and a lizard), the old iPad, Six Months Laterby Natalie D. Richards, Madame Bovary, The Introvert Entrepreneur by Beth L. Buelow, a Puerto Rico travel book, a Moleskine, an issue of the Washingtonian, an issue of Real Simple.
Kayvone: 2 stuffed bears, a lamp, old TV remote.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop:
Tiffany: Learning. I LOVE learning. If I could go back to high school, college, MBA again, I would. I’m pretty sure design school is in my future.
Kayvone: Being an essential worker and maintaining cell phone service during the pandemic. Continuing to work keeps me mindful of COVID-19 protocols, because it goes beyond work and fellow co-workers. You have to think about your family.
A few years ago, I was talking with a relative and the talk turned to douches. I don’t remember how we got on this subject, but there we were, biding our time at the grownup table of a kid’s laser tag birthday party, talking about vaginal cleanliness. I was saying that while I had previously douched every month at the end of my period, I had stopped because it gave me a fire crotch of yeast infections. I had even given up the long, super-hot baths that I loved.
“Wait…you don’t douche?” my relative asked, her voice full of judgment. She side-eyed me. She might have even sniffed the air in my vicinity; I couldn’t be sure. She’s only about seven years older, but suddenly I felt like I was talking to my mother or my grandmother, the women who raised me.
Growing up, a hot water bottle with a hose and applicator attached always hung inside the shower in our bathroom. At some point, I must’ve asked what it was for and was told “douching, washing in there,” with no further explanation. I looked at the thing, but had no idea how that process was supposed to work. I also noticed boxes of something called Summer’s Eve, or sometimes Massengill, on the back of the toilet. I read the instructions and was promptly horrified.
But years later when my mother explained to teenaged me that douching at the end of your period helped keep things fresh down there, I was game. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I learned that douching got rid of the good bacteria in a healthy vagina and could cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Douching messes up the acidity that helps keep the vagina free from infection and irritation. Basically, the vagina is a self-cleaning oven. When I stopped douching (and taking those super-hot baths), I stopped getting raging yeast infections.
A few years ago, I also learned that Black women are twice as likely to douche and deodorize as white women. And researchers trace the roots of this to Emancipation: Newly freed African Americans focused on personal and household cleanliness to signify progress and assimilation.
I also noticed boxes of something called Summer’s Eve on the back of the toilet. I read the instructions and was promptly horrified.
Sadly, this holdover from our past could have dire consequences for us today. After sprinkling baby powder in her panties every day for almost 40 years, a Black woman named Jacqueline Fox became the first plaintiff to be awarded damages — $72 million — in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The award was made posthumously; Fox died of ovarian cancer in October 2015. It wasn’t until her diagnosis in 2013 that she found out that talcum powder could be a carcinogen. In a deposition, Fox said, “I was raised up on [talcum powder]…to help you stay fresh and clean.…We ladies have to take care of ourselves.”
As early as 1979, Johnson & Johnson knew about the potential cancer risks. Not only did the company fail to put warnings on its talcum-based products, they acknowledged the cancer risk and recommended more aggressive marketing to African American women in an internal memo.
I explained all of this to my relative.
This time, she definitely sniffed in my direction.
I guess old habits die hard.
I was reminded of this conversation recently when I read about the now-trendy ancient art of vaginal steaming (“v-steam”). This health practice originated with traditional healers around the world, including those in Korean, Mayan and various African cultures. At a spa or holistic health center, you can pay someone to steam your vagina with 11 herbs and spices (okay, it’s mugwort, basic calendula, oregano, marshmallow root, wormwood and rosemary) or you can DIY at home.
And, generally speaking, I don’t care what you do with your vagina. It’s yours. Steam it with Old Bay and call it a crab boil, for all I care. But can we stop with the lie that vaginas require more than soap and water for basic hygiene? Or that steaming removes “bad energy” or “trauma” that a penis can leave inside of a vagina? Or that a “v-steam” is necessary to “cleanse” your uterus and balance your hormone levels? Or that you need to douche ever?
Sprays and scented wipes? Also enemies of your vagina.
Again, if you use these products without problems, more power to your pussy. But don’t go around turning your nose up at people who don’t. And if you’re turning your nose up because you can actually smell someone’s nether regions, Summer’s Eve still isn’t the answer. Soap and water, or maybe a trip to the gynecologist, is.
Basic bio: Marcelle Heath is a fiction writer and editor. She is the curator of Apparel for Authors on Instagram, an interview series on writers, fashion, and the public sphere. Her short story collection, Is that all there is?, will be published by Awst Press in 2022.
Beyond the bio: I grew up moving around a lot, so I’m pretty adaptable to new environments. As I get older, I appreciate this ability more and more. Embracing change is my superpower.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? Wearing a goddamn mask!
My last year in college, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was everywhere. All we listened to, all we sang. The strains of it wafted on the wind across campus. As a Black girl from the hoods of Baltimore, I played Miseducation as much as anyone else. So much, that now, more than 20 years later, I can still sing/rap every note, every word.
Lauryn’s epic 1998 LP was groundbreaking, but the woman herself wasn’t new to me. I’d watched her on As the World Turns and in Sister Act II. I’d head-nodded along with her flow when she was a member of the Fugees. But there was something about Lauryn singing and being on her own that spoke to my young heart. Slender, dark, loc’d, full-lipped, rocking her Northern accent and what felt to me like matching aggression. Something about her beautiful Blackness that looked nothing like mine.
College is the time when kids go away just Black and come home BLACK. Before college, my concept of Blackness was home. West Baltimore. Relaxed hair teased into up-dos tall enough to look Jesus in the eye. Gold teeth. Neon colors. Club music and church choir. I didn’t have to think about Blackness. Black is all I’d ever known. It came in a package I understood. The steady rock and rhythm of my years. Emphasis on the “American” in African American. Yes, I knew that there were Black people elsewhere, but wasn’t their Black just like mine?
The first people I met on campus weren’t my kinda Black folks. I didn’t come from money; they did. I had a single mother who sometimes worked three jobs. We thrived because of the support and energy of our extended family. All of my friends at home were like me — not fortunate in the finances department. I went to college on scholarship and prayer. That first weekend introduced me to Prince George’s County, honey. To the Silver Spoon Blacks. I approached them with sunny hellos, and they paid me dust.
These PG County women, my then-classmates, wouldn’t admit to it now because the years have dulled the sharpness of the shade, and adulthood has made us friendly, but they judged me. Or, at least, I felt they did. I saw their noses turn up, as if I reeked of the hood. Apparently, the purples, oranges, reds, greens, fuchsias, and fluorescents popular with my crew back home were faux pas to folks who hailed from towns less than an hour away from mine.
How did my city mouse ass become the country mouse?
In the midst of this rejection, I found solace in Lauryn Hill. Lauryn was different from me andalso everything I was. Black. Young. Full of love scorned and unfulfilled. Angry. Soft. Defiant, but longing. Her music pulled from our collective Black Americanness, but was full of the rhythms of the Caribbean. I’d never thought of us that way before.
I mean, it’s not like I’d never heard of Bob Marley or reggae, but the idea that Black folks lived all over and were Black all over was just an amorphous idea in the back of my head. In my mind, we all went from the shores of Africa right to the shores of the American South, and that’s where we stopped. Yeah, the Great Migration, but again, vague. My people had only traveled a few states up the East Coast and never even made it past the Mason-Dixon Line. We couldn’t be anywhere that wasn’t South.
As a born and bred Baltimorean, I still consider myself a Southern woman. I was raised in the bosom of a South Carolina household. My grandparents – who are yet living at 100 and 96, bless them — never left the Carolinas behind, and my little life marinated in the crab, tomato, and rice-filled stew they made of a family. Even my accent isn’t quite the same as others from Baltimore. The lilt of Bishopville sneaks through the twang of Southwest Baltimore.
While I did make women friends in college — one of whom is still among my best friends to this day, I felt alone on campus. Somehow, my big hair + big mouth + big color = whore and boyfriend stealer to the Black girl majority. They called me what I came to know as the ultimate insult: a “bamma.” Countrified. In turn, I called them the “Gray Ladies” because, for some reason, gray sweatpants and matching New Balance sneakers seemed to be all the rage among them.
Somehow, in my Baltimore, I had become the outsider. But defiance has always been my lot and my strength. So I held my shellacked hair high, rolled back my purple-clad shoulders, and acted like I didn’t feel like the poor relation, the country cousin to the folks from the affluent suburbs. How did my city mouse ass become the country mouse?
There is no one way to be Black. And when Lauryn doo-wopped and hip-hopped her way into my consciousness, she reinforced the lesson.
The closest friend I made across the Silver Spoon line was a dude (we’ll call him Marcus) — and that sure didn’t help my cause with the girls who claimed I dressed up only to entice away the guys, who by rights belonged to them. In hindsight, I have to admit, I get it. There was the time Marcus streaked down the hallway outside my dorm room at 3 AM, stark naked and screaming his head off. But there was no sex involved! We’d been playing Strip Blackjack, and he’d lost a million times. Okay, I don’t think Strip Blackjack is a thing, and it still isn’t great for a taken dude to be naked in front of a girl who isn’t his girlfriend under any circumstances, but still. No sex!
After a while, my burgeoning friendship with Marcus — filled with sexual tension on his side, mind you — couldn’t stand any longer, and the Gray Ladies had to deal with me.
I remember being cornered in the dormitory lobby, where we all gathered to watch TV, have Spades tournaments, and shoot the shit. A group of the PG girls — they were too bourgie to be called a gang — surrounded me, accusing me of sleeping with Marcus. His girlfriend stood front and center, trembling with rage and humiliation, flanked by her entourage, all wearing gray sweats and unkempt hair, snarling at the Baltimorean with the shiny French roll. Saying, “Your man wouldn’t be looking my way if you combed your damn hair and put some lipstick on” probably wasn’t the best response. But it made them back off, and I lived to snark another day.
I didn’t know it then, but the Gray Ladies and the rest of the bourgie folks taught me an important lesson. There is no one way to be Black. And when Lauryn doo-wopped and hip-hopped her way into my consciousness, she reinforced the lesson.
Since college, I’ve met more people. I’ve traveled. I’ve seen the rainbow of Black with my own eyes, danced it with my own hips, and heard the music of it with my own ears. I am river baptized into a faith tradition that made the ghoulish trip of the Middle Passage and survived the Maafa with my ancestors. Twenty plus years later, my Black doesn’t look like it did in 1998. My hood honey aesthetic has been mixed with the neo-soul hotep hippiness I discovered in college. Dashikis and stretch jeans. Wild afro and fake lashes. Incense and rhinestoned nails. Twerking and altars. Church choir replaced by Orisha oriki. Erykah Badu and Club music. My Black is evolution, and like Lauryn sang, everything is everything.
Bio: Randi Redmond Oster is the author of Questioning Protocol, an award-winning book about navigating the healthcare system as she advocated for her chronically ill son in the hospital. She is also the President of Help Me Health, where she helps healthcare organizations transform the patient experience.
Beyond the bio: When my son underwent multiple operations from Crohn’s disease, I discovered cracks in the healthcare system. When my book was published, the hospital implemented many of my ideas. I have seen how the power of positive intention can make what seems impossible become reality.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? I listen, learn, and then lead. I value input from different perspectives and am able to bring people together to implement plans that are fair for all.
Here’s her TueNight 10:
1. On the nightstand: The Crate, an award-winning book by my dear friend Deb Levison.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: Smiling. Even under a COVID mask.
3. Jam of the minute: Anything that gets me dancing.
4. Thing I miss: Going out to a crowded restaurant with my gal pals.
5. 80s crush: Jon Bon Jovi
6. Current crush: Still, my husband. We have been married 31 years.
7. Latest fave find: A box of old family pictures, some from 1910.
8. Last thing you lost: The ability to visit my mom in the nursing home. I miss her.
9. Best thing that happened recently: 10 weeks of home isolation. It forced me to have time to reflect.
10. Looking forward to: A new normal where we cherish our time together.
We’re giving one lucky winner a $100 Amazon gift card and two “literary fans” book packages that feature three titles from Penguin Random House: Mary Gaitskill’s This is Pleasure, Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside and Nazanine Hozar’s Aria.
Contestants must be over 18 and from the United States. To enter, you must log into the Sweepwidget module below, and sign up, visit, follow or share before the contest closes on July 30, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
Update: This giveaway is now over and the winner has been notified.
Sexual education in my conservative, southern, Christian upbringing was strictly on a need-to-know basis: I needed to know what I should avoid. An entire sexual revolution swirled around me, giving not thought at all to my existence, yet it was I, I, who madly sought it. My curriculum was carefully curated so that I might be informed, but still avoid the rising tide of desire. Too much information would no doubt trigger the awakening of the wanton sexual temptress hell bent on besmirching my family name with gonorrhea and out-of-wedlock children that ignorance had allowed to lay dormant. I dubbed my sexual curiosity my white whale — an obsession that consumed every waking moment I spent away from the Bible or Knight Rider, sure to lead to my undoing. I had to use context clues for everything else. I asked my parents where babies came from when I was six. They gave me a splendidly clinical “a-man’s-sperm-meets-a-woman’s-egg” spiel.
“How? They rub stomachs or something? Does he feed it to her?”
It wasn’t until a year later, when my parents shared what a man had “done” to my piano teacher’s daughter, that I did my own math. “He stuck his penis in her vagina.” It was presented as such a horrific concept. I couldn’t figure out how it was any of my business until months later, when I saw my visibly pregnant friend, that I figured that this must be how the old sperm-egg tango happened.
Sex was something that men enjoyed and women endured. “It” would happen to me; not with me, and definitely not for me. I would offer my virginity to my husband. My offering (and my ability to cook more than just spaghetti) would satisfy my man, and in turn, and he would respond to that with love and support.
But as I got older, this concept was summarily dismissed, as I realized that everyone’s marriage – including my parents’ – sucked.
So, I took matters into my own hands. Literally. I masturbated enough to enjoy, without going over the edge into whatever that building, unknown feeling was. Since masturbation was verboten, the tide that would rise and fall beneath my belly could not be trusted.
I fell in love with a boy, and we played a game I called “almost, but not quite.” This game is known in more common circles as “getting fingered any time you find five spare minutes — and no prying eyes — followed by abysmally clumsy cunnilingus.” I was curious, and he was just happy that a cute girl was letting him touch her. Despite being taught that my enjoyment didn’t matter, I liked his well-intentioned fumbling. It was new and revolutionary. Pleasure by someone else’s hand was the gateway I had been warned about.
Our game unfortunately got old. He still wanted to wait to have actual intercourse until we were married. Meanwhile, my hymen was becoming the sofa that the aunt you don’t really like gives you when you’re moving into your first apartment. It sounds like a gift since you don’t know any better. But after thinking it over, you realize it’s clunky, always in the way, and you could really be doing something much cooler with the space.
In an effort to offload my “sofa,” I developed a close friendship with a guy who had great cocktail conversation and a bent moral compass. I’d grown tired of virginity as a concept, and he seemed up to the task of relieving me of the burden known as my hymen. So I had ten minutes of unceremonious sex.
I reject the notion of “losing my virginity.” I didn’t “lose” anything. I, in fact, got things. I got the dick, got pregnant, got ostracized, got married, got hit, got cheated on, got pregnant again, got separated TWICE, and finally, got a divorce.
In this list of things that I was getting, the one thing I never got was an orgasm. When I would couple with Mr. Bent Moral Compass, I could feel something rising, and then: nothing. Since he was my only sexual partner, I didn’t have a metric by which to compare him. I wasn’t confident enough to just bring the matter up with my girlfriends, and even if I were, how? “Hey girl. Cute boots. Also, how do I know if I’m busting nuts?”
Once again, I took matters into my own hands and used those hands to grab men, in search of my own Moby Dick. There were Ethans, and Raymonds, and so many Chris’s, my secret garden could be nicknamed the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I read Cosmo and erotica and watched porn. I tried direction. Encouragement. Moaning. I tried directive encouraging moans. That building feeling would rise: relaxed toes, weak knees, a promising pelvic crescendo and then disappointment. The men would cum. They would always cum. And then go. One gentleman, after three wildly unnecessary (and I would wager cocaine-induced) hours, left my vagina feeling like a skinned kneecap.
And then he emerged from the sea of horny Black Planet private messages with an easy smile, and eyes like emerald hellfire. He was 5’7 and weighed no more than 145 pounds captured my attention. I will spare you the intimate details, but I believe the words “THERE SHE BLOWS” should suffice. So dickmatized was I by this man, that it wasn’t until my sixth trip to his home, as we lay in repose and post-coital bliss, watching Frazier reruns (as was our custom), that I realized he didn’t have a kitchen sink.
To date, I don’t know if I am more troubled by him managing to find a kitchen with no sink, or that I had been in that kitchen countless times and never realized there was no sink there.
As an aside, I was a good sport about it and acted like it didn’t matter but guys, the bacterial implications of washing your balls and your bowls in the same place were overwhelming, so we developed a strictly take-out relationship. I did not immediately stop seeing him because, as you may recall, he was responsible for my first orgasm. It also garnered him the nickname “Everything But the Kitchen Sink.”
Though that relationship didn’t last, the pursuit of my pleasure endured. What rose within me was to see it as my responsibility to have that orgasm. I owed it to myself to follow that building feeling and see where it carried me. With each year, I become more impenitent about my body, what it enjoys, and with whom. I don’t get shamed into or out of relationships.
Sex happens with me.
Sex happens for me.
My white whale didn’t drag me down into the deep. It sparked the ascension of my complete self. After I had my first orgasm, the church of me said amen and refused to take shorts. I get mine. And if you’re not interested in making sure that I get it, I’ll do it myself until I find someone who is. My ecstasy matters and I only take lovers who share this philosophy. And how do I stack up for them?
Beyond the bio: Like so many of us, at this point I’ve had more than my share of jobs, love relationships, even kids. I’m definitely seasoned, whatever that means. At 50, I finally feel at peace with the zigs and zags, the good decisions, the bad decisions, the mistakes, the triumphs. There’s a sense of acceptance and a huge amount of gratitude for having come through so much.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? My calm in the face of adversity.
Black women are like flowers in a field of kudzu. Beautiful, bright and colorful, we fight our way to the light so we are not overcome by society’s demands that climb and shade, smother and constrict our true selves.
There are so many ways to be Black and so many ways to be a woman.
Oh, to throw our arms wide and embrace the expansiveness of Black womanhood!
Hundreds of years of misogynoir* — misogyny directed at Black women — have made that harder than it should be, though. Slavers insisted our foremothers were bestial, fractious and over-sexed natural-born servants. They said so in order to commodify our gifts and shame the ones who loved us.
Good White America told Black women we are emancipated, yet still believes what the men and women, who once held our chains, said about us: Too hard. Too mad. Too untameable. Too loose. Too ugly. Too far from fine womanhood. Too contrary to whiteness. After years of terror and trauma and brainwashing, Good Black America believes some of these things, too. And so Black women forever must negotiate our humanity. We must always be proving that we are not who they say we are. We can never just be.
This is a narrow existence — living to disprove someone else’s delusions about you. Not being an angry Black woman when we ought to be fucking outraged. Not being a matriarch when we have the skill, knowledge and heart to lead. Not being sexually liberated when our bodies yearn to be pleasured. Being forced to save everyone while we slowly bleed out. It is harder still to be unapologetically angry, aggressive, promiscuous or liberated. Black women who dare to embrace these things are roundly judged and punished.
Imagine what we could do if the world let us breathe and let us be.
What a tangle. Black women can easily find ourselves unable to move authentically. Instead we lurch along in response to other folks’ biases and hatred, never knowing our true selves and living out loud. This too is bondage.
It is a wonder that Black women are able to accomplish all that we do, bound as we are. We love. We fight. We raise our babies. We raise other people’s babies. We create. We laugh. We are your style icons. We stand in the middle of city streets raging against a system that consumes Black lives. We remind the world that our people can’t breathe. All this while struggling for oxygen ourselves.
Imagine what we could do if the world let us breathe and let us be.
Let us be loud. Demanding. Let us chastise and shriek our displeasure like banshees.
Let us be quiet. Meek. Let us keep our tongues and thoughts for only ourselves.
Let us be wanton. Let us sweat and grind. Let us give our love freely, legs akimbo and hips thrusting.
Let us be chaste. Let us love only Jesus. Or let us save ourselves for Boaz. Or Malcolm. Or Malikah..
Let us lead the way. Let us guide our families and communities. Let us sit in boardrooms, corner offices and the Oval.
Let us follow. Let us rest. Give us a capable shoulder to carry the burden for a while. And do not make the cost of relaxing our vigilance another foot on our necks.
Let us give you our beauty uncut — brown skin glistening, lips full, ass sitting and kinky hair reaching toward the sun.
Let us serve our flyest artifice — dagger nails, Bambi lashes and the finest lace-fronts.
Let us care and nurture. Let us cook nourishing meals and kiss scars. Let us part kinks, oil scalps and make plaits with loving hands.
Let us be cared for. Somebody worry about us. Somebody hold us. Somebody love us.
Let us find the gray between this black and white. That is where humanness lies. That is where we flower, unimpeded. Let us be whole.
This is how you free Black women.
Let us live in the fullness of our humanity.
Let Black women be.
Let us be free.
*A concept coined by queer Black femnist Moya Bailey in 2010
(“I was told, growing up, that Black girls could not wear red lipstick, ever. Today, I have at least 20 shades of red. And am always looking for a new one.”)
Bio: Aliya S. King is a writer and podcast producer (Good Talk, Writing Practice). Her podcast network, Good Talk Productions, launches this summer. Her latest book, Keep Your Head Up, will be out from Denene Millner Books | Simon and Schuster in 2021.
Beyond the Bio: I’ve been sober for nine years. And in 2016, I worked with a team of folks to get my mental health in check. Now in full remission from Bipolar 2 for four years. Thanks to both of those things, I’m on my seventh book and doing all the fun professional things. I have two babies who are not babies but are still amazing. And I have a partner who completes me in the corniest of ways.
What makes you a grown-ass lady? I wear caftans, un-ironically. Like, full-on Mrs. Roper-steeze. I wear long-ass stiletto nails with matte polish. In general, I do things because I want to and because I can. Last year, I joined a dating site, created a too-long list of what I wanted. The person who appeared? We’ve been joined at the hip for a year. He asked me to marry him last month. Grown-grown.
Here’s her TueNight 10:
1. On the nightstand: Too many chargers, (watch, phone, headphones), notebook for daily morning musings, Uniball pens, (and ONLY Uniballs). I have a tiny brass sparrow, to remind me of the song His Eye Is On The Sparrow, a tiny jar of mustard seeds, to remind me to have the faith of just a single mustard seed, makeup remover wipes, a photo of me and my youngest daughter—and four coffee cups with a tiny bit of coffee left in each. To drive my partner crazy.
2. Can’t stop/won’t stop: I just bought a bike. Haven’t been on one in decades. It’s exhilarating. Also hurts like hell. I just learned I have to go at least 50 miles before it stops hurting. I’m on mile 5.
3. Jam of the minute: Issues/Hold On by Teyana Taylor. I love her raspy voice and the lyrics are a perfect fit when I’m feeling guilty about fussing with my partner.
4. Thing I miss: My daughter. She’s 23 years old and moved to Los Angeles right before the pandemic. I haven’t gone this long without seeing her since, ever.
5. ’80s crush: Ralph Tresvant and Raphael Saddiq.
6. Current crush: Young M.A. I’m straight. But if she gives me a call, I’m just saying.
7. Latest fave find: It’s not latest. I’ve loved this line for ages. A new outfit from Onion by Whitney Mero can bring me to actual tears. I have three on the way.
8. Last thing you lost: MY PLANNER. I am serious about my planners. During the pandemic, I didn’t need one so I stored it somewhere. And now I can’t find it. It pains me to no end. I finally broke down yesterday and designed another. I know the lost planner will now resurface and I will want to throw things.
9. Best thing that happened recently: I guess the easy answer is that I got engaged. I feel weird about saying that because it’s like, eye roll. But this man is the best. I’m so proud of our growth in the past year.
10. Looking forward to: I’m restarting with my personal trainer this weekend. I’m petrified.
In this January 31, 2017 interview, shortly after the Women’s March, journalist Angela Bronner Helm spoke with activist and singer Abby Dobson about protest, the persistent disconnect between women of different races and backgrounds, and the importance of amplifying Black women’s voices. In Abby’s words, we find powerful insights and calls to action that are relevant and necessary right now.
The night before Donald Trump’s inauguration, two black feminist icons — Alice Walker and Angela Davis — spoke at the annual Peace Ball in Washington, D.C. offering two key messages about the intersection of art and activism. Walker revealed that the creation of art was one of her five tools of resistance. Davis noted that right now, “We need art, we need music, we need poetry.” Davis and Walker both understand the healing power of art, especially for women who feel under assault under the current administration.
Jamaican-born Abby Dobson is a vocalist who carries with her both the activism of Angela and the art of Alice in her song. Dobson says she uses her gifts to birth powerful “genre-nonconforming” music, which is deeply resonant, at times mournful, in turns joyful, but always authentic.
Dobson is currently Artist in Residence for the African American Policy Forum, a gender-equity organization founded by the “mother of intersectionality,” Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw. Dobson was featured in Crenshaw’s TED Talk (see below) singing as part of the #SayHerName campaign, a movement to bring awareness to police violence against women of color.
Dobson, who says she often hums her way to healing, offers great insight on protest, how we can use our gifts to fight the power and why symbolism is never enough for truly transformative politics. We recently spoke to Abby by phone in New York City.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Women’s March since it’s so fresh in everyone’s minds. Did you participate? What were your overall thoughts?
I did participate in the Women’s March. [Initially] I wasn’t going to go to DC but the African-American Policy Forum asked if I would join them, and so I did.
It was an awesome experience to see so many different types of women congregating in one space and having all this energy and all this intention to make a statement in a unified voice. That was very heartening. I was happy to participate [and] be a part of this historic event in some small way.
But what I’m struck by is this — how is that going to transfer in real life and in real time going forward? What is coalition, ally-ship or working together going to mean outside of this symbolic moment? Coming after Obama, we know that symbolism only goes but so far. So I’m just looking forward to seeing how women treat each other and support each other going forward.
What would you like to see happen?
I would like to see real sisterhood, not just sisterhood that is theoretical. I’d like to see the sisterhood that transfers. So I’m walking together with you on the march, so we can laugh and talk and check out each other’s signs. But, you know, when we’re in McDonald’s a couple hours later, we don’t look at each other.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for women of different races, ethnicities, perhaps even socioeconomic backgrounds, to forge genuine friendships in America?
Well, I think friendships take work, like everything else, you know? I think it’s difficult because even in 2017 – with so many great things happening in New York, it’s still a very segregated city in terms of where people live, schools and who you interact with.
And so I think that making the intention and actively seeking to engage with people who may seem different from you and trying to see what the commonalities are on an everyday basis [is key] … and not in a moment where we congratulate ourselves for coming together.. We are women. We share certain things. But apart from that, we have to support each other in practice.
I’m walking together with you on the march, so we can laugh and talk and check out each other’s signs. But when we’re in McDonald’s a couple hours later, we don’t look at each other.
Why is it important to center black women’s voices in your music and in general? What role do black women play in the modern feminist movement?
It’s important to center black women’s voices in my music because I’m particularly interested in the potential and role of our voices (raised individually and collectively) to help bring about our own liberation. The black woman’s individual and collective voices are constantly misunderstood and misread in our streets, places of work, schools, government and even in our own homes. I consider it a privilege and a responsibility to center black female voices because our perspectives and stories, our timbres and our tonality, our desires and our rages need to be heard, appreciated and tapped for policy, legal, political, economic, social and philanthropic approaches to bringing about real change in our lives. I center our voices because I want to use my voice to help people understand what it feels like to move in this world with my skin.
I know it’s important for you to build bridges through what you call “empathy cultivation” in your music. How do you expect to do that?
We make and respond to sounds from the day we are born. As human beings, music is as natural to us as breathing. Music is porous and gets over and under things that seem static and unmovable. I am a sonic conceptual artist trying to use music to leap over micro aggressions in a single bound; to use the sonic and my vocal waves to create force fields to help buffer black women against a multitude of isms; to create portals out of sound and lyrics to subvert and undermine closed mindedness. In all seriousness, in and through my work I’m wrestling with how to create and inspire empathy for black women’s lives through interpretation, creation and performance of song.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I can or will do this in practice. But I hope my voice and lyrics will continue to serve as a bridge of sorts across a listeners hearts, spirits and nervous systems. I use my music to break people open to prepare them to connect with the stories and humanity of another human being. It will take getting in front of as many people as possible and sharing my music in person as often as possible. There isn’t a precise science to my method and I don’t have a formula. I know, however, that it will take intention, constant attention, repetition, focus, and an open heart.
So what did your parents say when you, the highly educated immigrant daughter, Williams undergrad, Gerogetown Law, chose to do art?
I actually never practiced law. I went to law school and I got my degree, but decided early on that I wanted to pursue a career in music. But I’ve worked in law firms for a long time and still do right now. And, my mom wasn’t happy, but she’s always been my number one supporter. My uncle used to beg me to take the bar every time he saw me for maybe the first three years after I graduated. I think they were just fearful for me, wanting me to benefit from the American Dream in a certain way. But after my family began to see me perform in different spaces, I’ve had a number of them come back to me and say, you know, “I totally understand why you’ve done this now.”
Talk a bit about your work as an artist-in-residence for the African-American Policy Forum.
I started working with AAPF in December of 2015. I had been inspired by a couple of campaigns: Why We Can’t Wait and the Say Her Name campaign. Initially I was inspired by the call they put out for people to write the president, talking about the My Brother’s Keeper initiatives that focused on black and brown boys. I was really inspired by AAPF’s campaign to remind people that girls live in those same communities and go to the same schools and travel in the same circles. And so if there is an issue, there’s an issue for all and we should be looking for solutions for all, not one before the other.
I gravitate towards music that I refer to as genre non-conforming. It is rooted in the spiritual.
I was also really inspired by the Say Her Name campaign. AAPF was seeking to change the narrative around police brutality against black bodies. So often the names that we hear are the names of our black male bodies. We know Tamir Rice’s name, we know Mike Brown’s name, we know Trayvon Martin’s name.
But we don’t know the women who also met a similar fate. We don’t know Michelle Cusseaux. We don’t know Mya Hall. We don’t know Kayla Moore. We don’t know Aiyana Stanley-Jones. We don’t know Tanisha Anderson. We don’t know Natasha McKenna. Their lives are no less worthy of honoring and remembering and mourning. We have to think about the violence against black female bodies in the same breath that we think about the violence against black men and boys. And so I wrote a song called Say Her Name, inspired by the hashtag campaign. And I began singing it. And I’ve been working with AAPF ever since, and became their artist-in-residence.
Was there a spark for you? Like, in college did something happen that led to your activism?
I think the way I was raised — my mother, my grandmother — it was always important for you to give back to people. And that can happen in really small ways. You know, how do you treat the people who come into your home, how do you treat the people that you go to church with, people that you may meet that might need assistance in some way? And so it started that way for me.
But I’ve always had an interest in social justice work, public interest work. If I had become a practicing lawyer, I would have become a public district attorney of some sort. In college I was very active in the Black Student Union. I started a Women of Color group and directed a gospel choir, which for me was more than about the music because I went to predominantly white institutions in Massachusetts. It meant so much more. It was a place where people of different backgrounds came together and created something beautiful that uplifted each other in a space that wasn’t always sympathetic or supportive. The gospel choir was made up of black students, white students, Asian students, Latino students. And so that work wasn’t just about music.
What are the ways in which your art actually enhances the work that you do?
Social justice work, either actively as part of an organization or people who are trying to lend their voice or skills to a cause that they care about, that can be very daunting and it can be very draining on their spirit. As we’re doing good, doing something that’s important, it can also deplete you.
I gravitate towards music that I refer to as genre non-conforming. It is rooted in the spiritual. And I’m very much into humming. Humming is how I start the song Say Her Name, as a way to both center you and lift you and soothe you as we deal with the difficulty, as we say names, as we mourn, as we remember, as we lift up others. And so the joy for me is to be able to serve. And then the joy for me is to be soothed myself. So for me, music and singing and humming in a very meditative way is joyful.
If there was a young woman who was inspired by the march or angry about the election and wants to get involved, what would you tell her?
That’s a great question. I would encourage that young woman always listen to her voice on the inside and be directed by that, to surround herself with great women who are as aspirational as she is, and surround herself with a community of womenfolk and be in communication with them. Because you learn from your circle, or at least you should. And I’d say volunteer with an organization that inspires you in ways big and small. I’d also encourage that young woman to write her thoughts down and to document her process as an interesting thing.
If you could wave your justice magic wand and get three wishes, what would they be?
One is that every child, every person seeking an education would be able to get one that is of quality, regardless of where they lived. The second, I would wish that every person when they see a black woman or girl will feel as if they’re looking at family member that they loved and cared about, and treat her accordingly.
And then third — I’d have everyone have all the money they needed to live a life of quality without having to work just to live so they could live and work to make a significant contribution to their communities. In so doing everyone would have the leisure time needed to think, create and properly care for themselves and others.