New Spaces for New Growth

15 03 2018

“I have, in the past, seen settling down as a deterrent to growth.
It doesn’t have to be, though. It can be the launching of new growth.”
— Jan Denise

I am adopting this perspective as we settle into our new home. Since we started this journey of putting a deposit down, packing, and moving, I have been stretched in a variety of ways—some difficult, some welcome. The stretching continues, as we settle down in a new part of town, with new roads, and ultimately new challenges.

First to the good growth. It is a pleasure to have coffee while enjoying this view. The view at our old place was supposed privacy bushes that the birds built their nests in; which alternatively attracted flies and other bugs. They still did not hide the neighbor’s cinder block wall, or block out their “tenant’s” noise.

We were sometimes bothered by the landlord’s intrusive wife, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and neighborhood wanderers—the bane of being directly off a major strip. So the shades were always drawn, which only added to my depression and the feeling of the walls closing in. I am a light and space girl, and I cannot tell you what seeing this every morning has done for my soul.

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I am thrilled that the dogs have space and comfy pillows on which to perch. Puppet, in particular, is all about the comfy pillows and is trying them out in every room.

 

And for a mold-free bedroom that also has lots of light, and that I can decorate and fix up.

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After 11 years that comforter needs to be replaced and our wood needs some help. That’s what 4 dogs will do for you, but I wouldn’t trade it!

And now, to the discomfort. We still have essentials to get: like a refrigerator, which means we are spending way more on takeout and delivery than I want. We are full-time workers, so the unpacking and the final cleaning and polish is slow. We moved in with the knowledge that it is an old space, and some things have been neglected; so it is also navigating the waiting and the logistics of having those items repaired or replaced. We have been gifted with a washer-dryer, but have to wait until our benefactor moves next month; so weekly laundromat visits are back on the agenda for now.

My challenge is not to fixate on either the pleasurable growth or the uncomfortable parts. My job is to just be present in the process, learn to be patient with the process, and take things as they come without stressing myself out and wishing for something different.

It’s also allowing for gaps, mess, and imperfection, because even that is a form of growth and beautiful in its own way.

I am also thrilled with this full length mirror so I can make sure my outfits are on point.

Today’s couture is my favorite Yoga shirt and leggings: perfect for the day’s agenda of teaching the Yoga, and training new teachers!

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All the Things…

28 02 2018

“There is no royal road to anything. One thing at a time, all things in succession. That which grows fast, withers as rapidly. That which grows slowly, endures.”
– Josiah Gilbert Holland

Ain’t it the truth, Josiah. Last week and this week have been crammed full of all the things, in a good way. I have the privilege of leading another Teacher Training with CorePower Yoga Pasadena, and my team of coaches and our faithful instructors has recruited a really awesome group of Yogis that are diverse, mature, and hungry to give and receive knowledge. We are heading into Week 2, and I am so looking forward to what I will learn from them, while presenting all that I know (sometimes, not much!)

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We are also moving. Moving is an evil word for me. Since leaving my childhood home at 19, I have probably moved about 40 times in my 51 years. Various circumstances: finances, bad roommate situations, roommates getting married or moving, the list goes on. My heart has always longed to settle and lay down roots in one place, and I thought with my marriage in 2007 and actually buying a house, that I was finally at that place where I wouldn’t have to move again for a long time.

As John Lennon said, Life is what happens when you’re making plans. Suffice to say, we lost that house, and ended up moving two times before being plopped in Atwater Village in 2011. The actual city of Los Angeles was the last place we thought we would find ourselves, and we both assumed it was a “make do” place, just a place where we could—hopefully quickly—get back on our feet.

Quickly didn’t happen. We have been here almost 7 years; but despite the hardships, fits and starts, and living among boxes and toxicity (a blog post for another day), something was being built. We loved the new Northeast Los Angeles community and all the fun haunts, events, and eating places that made this city seem less plastic and more human and community-oriented. We found a wonderful new church where we could get to know others more regularly and let them get to know us. Thanks to CorePower Yoga opening a studio in Pasadena, I found a location close to home where I didn’t have to hop a freeway to practice Yoga or to teach. So lots of wins in the midst of what was a hard season of waiting and testing.

So now, we get to move again. Another place where we never saw ourselves: the city of Pasadena! Our address is on Wesley; named after the theologian Charles Wesley, but also the name of one of my favorite nephews—so that’s a good sign.

We are further east from all that we have known in the past, but still close to some of the things that we hold dear: our church, my work, and new adventures in a new community.  It is a place of blessing, from the way it was delivered to us, to the favor we have received from the landlord, to our church communities and friends rallying around to help us in a multitude of ways, financial and physical.

It is a place that we can hopefully settle for a spell. I have no idea how long that spell will be—I learned to stop putting time frames on things after the horrors of 2008-2011. But what is true, and what I can count on, is that it is a place of space (two bedrooms and storage–whoo hoo!); a place of ease (4 miles to my Yoga studio, less than 2 blocks from the Pasadena campus of our church); and a place where we can find peace and quiet in our surroundings, yet still have the hum of community, events, and some city amenities. In the two weeks that we have been packing and moving, I am quickly falling in love with Hastings Ranch, since we’ve spent so much time there finding the things we need for the new home, as well as some of our favorite casual dining haunts.

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What I am enjoying now as we move boxes, paint the new house, and close out the old, is this view. The San Gabriel mountains are right at my backyard. My friend Joyce wrote on her Facebook page: “The mountains can teach us so much about our lives, our faith, ourselves. Think on what you’ve learned from your mountain adventures and feel free to share. Ready? Go!”

I replied to her post, not about a mountain adventure, but a mountain focus from Psalm 121-1-4:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”

There are no coincidences in our lives. The fact that I have a mountain view is part and parcel of God’s reminder for me to continue to look to him for help. It is also a comfort that he will keep our footing in this new territory and watch over us here, no matter how long or short the spell will last.

We still have some odds and ends and large furniture to move, and I am knackered beyond belief. Week 2 of Teacher Training begins today, so I am still on and working hard to ensure these great Yogis are set up for success. But I am grateful for God’s hand in all the things; and that despite my desire for speed and efficiency, he is building something more enduring than I could imagine.





50 Days to 50 Years: Day 23, Griffith Observatory with the Velas!

9 07 2016

“Beautiful memories are like old friends. They may not always be on your mind, but they are forever in your heart.” — Susan Gale

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Hermione and Samuel Vela are longtime and lifetime friends. Hermione and I met at The Church on the Way back in the mid-90s. While we knew each other, our relationship was mostly seeing each other on Sundays and at college and single’s group activities. I started attending a particular single’s group at the megachurch, and met a unique and stellar young man named Kelly Rivers. He invited me to his “Breakfast Club” early on Thursday mornings, and I discovered that Hermione and several other friends I knew were a part of it. That helped to change the nature of our relationship, and we started building a friendship outside of the group. However, when she asked if I wanted to meet one-on-one for accountability and prayer, well that pretty transformed us individually and corporately.

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Charles Finney said, “Nothing tends more to cement the hearts of Christians than praying together. Never do they love one another so well as when they witness the outpouring of each other’s hearts in prayer.”

He is right. Hermione is a sister of my heart, as well as my family, and much of that is a result of the time we have spent together in prayer. The older I get, the more I understand how rare and how precious this bond is, and I am grateful to have it.

Hermione has seen and prayed me through depression, family reconciliation, loneliness, financial stress, faith struggles—the highs and the lows over two decades. I saw her come together with Samuel, and she and Samuel saw my coming together with Lynn.

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She was there to welcome my sister June and niece Gabi to California, and she was there to support me as June battled illness after illness, left to go back to Chicago, then returned to ultimately pass away. Hermione and Samuel grieved with us when June went to glory, and was there to support us as we navigated that grief.

Through upheavals, moves, and times of inertia we have maintained a quality friendship and a prayer partnership, and I am thankful and blessed that the quality of the friendship gets richer as we advance in years.

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One of the great privileges of lifelong friendship is to see the growth of family and relationships. Over the last several years, Samuel and Hermione have chosen to foster and then adopt two children: Jaxin and Yolanda. They are brother and sister, and as is the plight of many foster children, their lives have not been easy and their hurdles are often high. It takes a special heart to not only welcome these children into your family, but to work and fight to help them leap those hurdles and become who God created them to be; not what hard circumstances deformed them to be. Samuel and Hermione have those beautiful hearts, and I admire and revere them for this.

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Juggling schedules with children takes a certain type of art, but we were able to get together to celebrate their contribution to my 50 Days to 50 Years. We spent the evening at Griffith Observatory for their “Star Party”. Once a month, the observatory encourages amateur astronomers to bring their telescopes, and the staff have their own set up to assist interested parties in seeing constellations, the moon, and even some of the planets.

I brought a picnic of hot dogs, potato salad, vegetarian casserole, tacos, and brownies, and we knoshed, talked and watched all the buzz around the telescopes. We got a few views through telescopes of the moon, but for the most part we just spent time enjoying each other’s company and getting to know Jaxin and Yolanda a bit better.

Griffith Observatory is awesome for 360 degree views of Los Angeles, from Pasadena to the beach. We were able to take in the entire city from sun up to sunset, and enjoy the lights of the city that make Los Angeles look stunning.





In My Orbit: Yoga Life

5 05 2014

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” — BKS Iyengar

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This week, my Yoga class theme will be on endurance. I had a lovely weekend, but also had some really ugly things occur that I had to endure. I am so grateful for my Yoga practice, which allows me to not only put it all into perspective (God is in control), but gives space for cure to occur or endurance to be strengthened.

Feet

In the cure category, I have plantar fasciitis, which is inflammation of the thick tissue on the bottom of my foot that connects the heel bone to the toes and creates the arch. I have no arch–I was born with flat feet, so I’m sure that contributed to development of this common malady. Yoga has not only helped me endure this condition, but it has been a curative aid, alleviating the inflammation and eliminating the pain.

So, what are you enduring that could be cured? Or where do you need more endurance for an incurable situation? If you are in the Los Angeles area, I teach six times this week, and CorePower Yoga–my studio–offers a free week to new students.

Cure or endurance? Perhaps time on the mat could lead you to answers.

Here’s my schedule. CorePower’s global schedule for all studios can be found at the corepoweryoga.com website:

Every Tuesday, 7:30 a.m.: C-2 at CorePower Yoga Sherman Oaks, 13920 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
This Tuesday, May 6 at 4:30 p.m. C-2 at CorePower Yoga Studio City, 3575 Cahuenga Boulevard West, Universal City, CA 90068

Every Wednesday, 7:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. C-2; and 3:00 p.m. C-1.5. CorePower Yoga Sherman Oaks.

This Friday, May 9 at 4:30 p.m. C-2 at CorePower Yoga Studio City.

I would love to see you on the mat! You can keep abreast of more of my Yoga goings-on at my Soul Flow Yoga Meetup Page.





Reinvention

23 02 2011
Dramatic Sky
Vera Kratochvil/Public Domain Pictures.net

If there’s one thing you can count on…
if there’s on thing you can know for sure.
If there’s one thing you can count on…
things are gonna change.

Bryan Duncan, “Things are Gonna Change”

All change is inevitable, but not all change is welcome. Two years ago, I did not like the change of being downsized from a job I thought I would possibly retire from. But me being me, I wasn’t immobilized for long, using the now-free time as an opportunity to reinvent on many levels, and craft a different career path.

I’m still on that path of Reinvention, and a new part of the journey is assisting others with theirs.  Today, I will be taking my wonderfully healing practice of Yoga and deepening it through a Power Yoga Teacher Training at CorePower Yoga-Sherman Oaks.  The commitment: eight weeks of intensive physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation–an endeavor that will not only benefit my Orbit–but the worlds that orbit around me.

For the past two years, I have led Tuesdays with Transitioners, a career resource and support group. The beauty of being in the midst of such a group is seeing people transform and reinvent in terms of the way they view their lives and vocation. Some have moved on to full-time work again, others have decided that transitioning to a new career or their own entrepreneurial pursuits is the right thing to do. In all of this, Reinvention is at work, in large and small ways.  With encouragement from marketing success coach Marla Dennis, I am honing my focus and increasing the work of helping others Reinvent.

Early this year, my friend Douglas E. Welch invited me to blog and talk about this very subject at his Career Opportunities site. Give it a read or listen to “No Better Time to Reinvent“, and consider whether it may be your time!

It’s amazing what happens when you make a decision and set an intention. Those opportunities that match that intention begin coming across your path.  I’ll be writing about some of those in this space, so stay tuned…





In My Orbit…

2 03 2010

Digital Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What’s the expression?  Never talk about politics and religion?  Well, I’m playing with fire on both counts.  As  a person of faith, I feel we don’t talk about it enough–at least with any real degree of meaning.  If we did, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have today.  But I digress…

We’ll kick it off with religion and… entertainment, of all things.  Seems everyone is getting in on the award show action, including Beliefnet, which lists its favorites for “spiritual and inspirational themes”.  The Blind Side, Up, and Precious get high marks:  Beliefnet Film Awards.

USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog also covers Beliefnet’s awards, but more interestingly, focuses on Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle, blasting the movie Avatar.  A pull quote from Mark’s sermon:

“[…A]nd if you don’t believe me, go see Avatar, the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen. That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me.”

I haven’t seen the film because I think James Cameron, while I wouldn’t classify him as a demon, is an egomaniacal blowhard who doesn’t deserve my money–but once again, I digress….  Read it in Mark’s own words, if you’re interested:  Mars Hill Sermon.

And now we mix religion and politics!  Former President George W. Bush spoke at a banquet hosted by Fort Worth Christian School in Fort Worth, Texas.  He spoke to over 1,000 attendees, and part of his talk included how faith and prayer helped him through the eight years of his presidency:

“I don’t see how I could be president without prayer. The prayers of the people … sustained me, comforted me and strengthened me in a way I could have never predicted before becoming president, and for that I am extremely grateful.”

President Bush is writing his memoirs about his years as president, so that people can draw their own conclusions. I have come to the conclusion that George W. Bush has done more good for this country and the world than he is given credit, and I look forward to history rectifying the deliberate character assassination done during his administration.

George Bush says faith helped in tough times as president.





Sister Glue

28 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

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I could never love anyone as I love my sisters!
Jo March, Little Women 1994

My relationship with my sisters has been as individual as we are.  Often complicated, sometimes overly dramatic, but no less enriching and essential to my life.  The glue of faith, prayer, and family honor has held us together, when at times I felt we were irreparably parted.

These excepts are from different chapters of Fried Chicken and Sympathy.

Chapter 7:  Sister Interrupted.

During my young adult years, my contact with Barbara waxed and waned throughout the years as I sought to find myself and my life.  But I will never forget her constant love and worship of God, her childlike trusting faith, and her adherence to truth.

When I was a child, if you had told me I could get close to God if I stood on my head three times a day, I would have broken my neck trying.  During my time in Catholic school, I learned different forms of prayer, to saints and to Mary, that I used to say along with the other forms of praying I had learned at New Hope.  Barbara was walking past my room one day, and she heard me praying the Hail Mary.  She barreled into the room, in her blustery fashion, and demanded I stop.

Startled, I looked up at her.  “But I’m only praying,” I excused.

“You don’t have to pray to anyone but Jesus!  He is the only true God.”

That made an impression.  As loopy as other’s deemed her, and as convoluted as her thoughts sometimes could be, she was secure in who the Source was.  Despite the faulty teachings, and false hopes, she never lost faith in God that she would be healed, and she never got angry with God because it never manifested in this life.  She didn’t understand the whys, but it never stopped her from continuing to seek answers, ask questions, and trust God’s will and heart toward her.  I model much of my relationship with God from her example:  Unyielding faith, eternal trust, yet never afraid to be fully human.

Even when I thought I had stopped following her life, she was still committed to following mine.  Like Gerry, she loved her family, and was loyal to a fault.  When I would phone the Ferdinand house to speak with Bay, I would hear her excited voice in the background,

“Jennifer!  Oh yes—let me speak to my sister!”  Bay would surrender the phone, and she would ramble on about Lil Mike, Joshuah, Aimee, her job, or about nothing in particular; she just enjoyed the process of connecting with me.

I made a conscientious effort to be the “auntie” to my nephews and niece, particularly at Christmastime.  I made sure that Lil’ Mike, Joshuah and Aimee (who had the misfortune of being born on December 24) had something, even if it was only coloring books.  Barbara would exclaim, and ooh and ahh over the little gifts, as if I had given them college scholarships.  She was grateful for kindness, especially toward her children.

I didn’t understand the depths of her love for me until after she died.  At Barbara’s repast, a very thin and agitated young girl walked into the church hall where it was being held.  Joan greeted her, then brought her over to where I was sitting.  The woman was a coworker of Barbara’s, and she had traveled two hours by bus to pay her respects.  She was very apologetic, because she had gotten lost and missed the wake.  When Joan introduced her to me, her face lit up with recognition.

“You’re Jennifer!”  she exclaimed.

“Yes,” I replied, extremely puzzled at her highly familiar exclamation.

“Barbara talked about you all the time—how smart you were, and your clothes—and she used to tell me you wore these wild earrings!”  We all laughed, then she continued to go on and on about how Barbara talked about me.  I sat there and listened, and cried over this precious gift from a total stranger: a part of my sister that I never knew existed, and unfortunately, realized too late.  I mattered much to her, and was thought of, even in my chosen 3,000 mile exile.

Chapter 16:  The Law of Reflection.

Everyone has people who are mirrors in their lives; some render true reflections, others do not.  June’s mirror is a solid plane that has rendered an accurate reflection, allowing me to view myself and my world with some degree of normalcy.  I have never felt reduced in her presence, and I have never been made to feel as if I were “less than” in her eyes.  I know that I would not have had the courage to believe in myself, pursue my dreams, or move away from our family dysfunction had June not been in my life.  The mere fact of her acting as that solid plane has caused the direction of my “light” to change for the better.

Yet, while we share similar values, beliefs, and preferences, we are definitely opposites.  I’m more of a social butterfly, and she’s a homebody, preferring to sit in her place and read, or play her beloved computer games, than be in a roomful of people.  I’m extremely creative and innovative, enjoying projects that have a defined beginning and then moving on to the next task.  June is more analytical—she enjoys maintenance, and the mundane details and redundant tasks involved in it, where this type of work drives me insane.  She will often listen to my view on something, and she’ll say, “You know what, you’re a strange kid!”  But she means this with no malice, and it’s usually expressed with her dry wit.  The mirror defines our kinship.  Her positive reflection of me when I was younger helped me navigate what, for the most part, was a troubling and confusing childhood.  And now that I’m an adult, she still reflects a clear image, confirming who I have become and affirming who I can continue to be.  There are a handful of people who I know will love me no matter what I do, and she is at the top of the list.  She adores me and is among my true fans—always encouraging me to be true to who I am, to write, to not give up on my creativity.  Always reminding me that the dreams that I dream can, and will, come true.  She’s a great source of inspiration, an emotional support, and the epitome of what family means.

Chapter 15:  Enigma.

The intervening years had seen their share of divisiveness and rancor, and they has taken their toll on all of us as sisters.  June was always faithful to pray and hang on to hope of a restoration, when I had simply resigned myself to the fact that I lived on a different planet than the balance of my siblings, and had no expectation of any common ground for continued peaceable relations.

Two weeks before June died, Adrienne and Joan flew in from Chicago and took care for her.  This, as well as their concern for mine and Gabi’s welfare, reflected a stark contrast to the disregard and battling that had occurred in the past.  June was able to see us agree on ways to best care for her, and to see them reach out and sacrifice to ensure her health and well-being.  That was her prayer answered, and a promise fulfilled.

It was in 2006, that I began sensing the first thaw to the cold front that existed between me, Adrienne and Joan.

I received an email from Joan, inviting me to participate in this online movie site where you rate movies and chat with other people who have similar cinematic tastes.  I saw this as a hand through the door that I have left open, so I extended back and responded.  She’s shared snippets of her life (new cat, new job), then fully opened the dam, releasing a floodgate.  Sister is back in full swing, and we have chatted for hours on over instant messenger and on the phone, catching up on each others’ lives.  After June’s death, we have committed to spend at least one Holiday together each year, and so far that has gone well.

This recent development is as bittersweet as all the others—who knows when or if division may rear its ugly head.  But, I continue to hope that maybe this time, we are ready to actually be Sisters and that this will remain; no matter where we disagree, or what goes on with us.

With Adrienne, it began after a serious illness where she almost died.  June phoned me to let me know that she was in the hospital, so I tracked down the phone number and immediately called.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Adrienne, it’s Jennifer.”

“Well, hello!  How come you haven’t given me your new address?  I wanted to send you a birthday card!  It’s your 40th, right?

“Wow!  What a good memory you have,” I said.

“I have everyone’s birthday written down in my Bible, but I always remember yours.  Maybe because you were the last.”

“Well, thanks for remembering.”

“I have a pen and paper, so go ahead.”

I gave her my information, and we chatted for about twenty minutes about what happened at the Foxx Family Reunion, her condition, and what was going on in my life.

“Joan said she saw your writings on the Internet.”  I was initially shocked, then realized between my blogspot and my writing coach’s website, I could now be Googled.

“She must have happened on my writing coach’s website.  I’m finishing up my novel.”

She was impressed by this, and said she looked forward to when it was finished.  We talked a bit more, and then I decided to end the call.

“Do call me any time,” I said.  Again, she may never bother, but I still refuse to slam the door.

From the Epilogue: The Destination is There.

During their visit to care for June, I talked with Adrienne about things that we never shared in the past: challenges at their church, marriage, being a spouse and running a household.  In writing my memoir, I had collected many of the old photos of the Foxx and Oliver families, and Adrienne wanted a disc. Looking at the pictures together, we both noticed how our Aunts Allene and Everette had aged, then calculated how old our mother would be if she had lived.  It was 2008, so she would have been 77.  Adrienne marveled at this, then said, “Sometimes, I wish she were still here.”

I was quiet, as I had no immediate response.  In reflecting on this later, I realized what I did miss—the possibility of what might have been.  Surely the restoration and alteration of relationship would have extended to us as mother and daughter.  But that will never be in this life, though I am sure it will be in the next.





My Brother’s Keeper

19 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 4: My Brother’s Keeper

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“This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether or not God will show them favor in this life.”

Ecclesiastes 9:1

Death truly does comes in many forms, which don’t necessarily involve a dead body.  There are economic, psychological and emotional deaths as well.  Oliver was the sole economic provider for our family, and when he died, that element died with him too.  Bay now found herself burdened with providing for seven children, along with bearing the weight of our various struggles and illnesses, and the inevitable hardships that followed.  Oliver’s death changed our lives irrevocably.

But next to Bay, I think Gerry was affected the most deeply.

Gerry was supposed to have been the “baby” of the family; then I came along and usurped his place.  Because we were the closest in age of the siblings, we were often stuck together, while the others were off at school or doing the teenage thing.  The one family picture where I actually got to see myself as an infant was the one I described earlier, with Bay, the six older siblings, and me on her lap.  The other picture of me from early childhood was with Gerry; I was probably about one and a half, and he was about eight.  It had been a professionally-done black and white print, overlaid and enhanced with colored oil paint.  I am in a cute yellow dress, and Gerry is in a fine blue suit.  The photographer posed us with me sitting on his lap, and one of his arms draped around my waist, holding me securely in place.  We are both all smiles and glow, my milk teeth showing, his a sunny grin with tiny teeth, reflecting a closeness that became damaged and diminished.

When I was six, and Gerry twelve, my favorite T.V. show was Speed Racer, and his, Batman. The problem was, the shows aired at the same time on different channels, and these were the days of one TV per home, and no TiVo™.  We would have “good-natured” battles over who would watch what.

“I don’t want to watch Batman!  He’s stupid!” I’d whine.

“Is not! You got to see Speed Racer yesterday – so I’m watchin’ Batman!”

“No, you’re not!” I’d yell, stamping my foot.

“Yes, I am!”  he’d yell back, turning the knob on the TV and shoving me to the floor.  I would then hop on his neck and start punching him.

“Oww!” he screamed, trying to get me off his back.  “Leggo!”

“No!  I wanna watch Speed Racer!”  He attempted to topple me off his back, while I reached toward the channel knob.  I pretty much had him in a chokehold until Bay stepped in to arbitrate the mini-war.  Most of the time, I ended up watching Speed Racer, while Gerry pouted and fumed.  But with those he loved, Gerry rarely got ugly or violent—and I knew he loved me.

Our favorite game was hanging upside down on the couch with our heads toward the floor and our feet skyward.

“I’m falling down Niagara Falls!” Gerry would yell, pretending to drop.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” I’d scream, letting the blood rush to my head.  Then we’d roll off the couch, feet over head, and walk around woozy for a bit, before getting back on the couch and doing it again.

So my being born really didn’t cause any huge sibling tension, or affect Gerry’s place in the family.  He was still the baby boy, and Oliver’s little prince.  He was spoiled rotten, and got away with acts that would have been unacceptable with the older siblings: being able to stay up past bedtime, talking back, and eating whatever he wanted, even if it was bad for him.  This distinction was not lost on Teddy, Adrienne, Barbara, June and Joan, so they did what they could to put him in his place.  Any of his infractions of household behavior was gleefully reported to Bay or Oliver, in the hope of his getting a beating, or at least a scolding.  It mostly backfired, because in Oliver’s eyes, Gerry could do no wrong.

The same was true of Bay.  Her reactions to Gerry’s bratty behavior and outbursts were based on fear that he would do serious harm to himself; and in his case, her fears had a legitimate basis.  June said that when Gerry would throw a temper tantrum, it involved a lot of thrashing and crying, and three times it resulted in Gerry’s getting a head injury.  The first time Gerry pitched a fit, it was because Bay wouldn’t stop washing dishes to give him some sweets.  She tried to get him to wait, but he first tugged at her skirt, then eventually started hitting his head against the wall.  He did this with such force that he busted the skin above his brow, at his scalp.  Bay rushed him to the emergency-room at Cook County, and he had to have stitches.  Another time when he was upset, he ran into a table and gashed open his head, also requiring an emergency room visit and more stitches.  So it was no wonder that she gave in each time he became demanding, to avoid any more injuries or medical bills.

The coddling given by Bay and Oliver did nothing to improve his short attention span, or his even shorter temper, but I have always felt Gerry’s behavioral patterns had a deeper-seated cause that had little to do with lack of discipline.  From my own personal studies and observations, I suspect my brother suffered from one of the Autism Spectral Disorders (ASD), perhaps Asperger Syndrome.  Many of the behaviors outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) fit Gerry’s behavioral and social dysfunction.  From his difficulty communicating or perceiving what has been related to him, to repetitive behavior and motion, to the inability to interact and lack of sensory response, Gerry lacked the necessary frame of reference to be able to navigate in the outside world.  My curiosity and study led me to seek out a professional opinion.  So a friend referred me to Dr. David A. Reisbord, a Los Angeles neurologist who treats many cases of Autism and its related illnesses.  “The temper tantrums and self-injury are typical in Asperger patients,” says Dr. Reisbord.  “So are all of his other symptoms.”

If Gerry had been born today, and I had had a mother who were willing to seek help, he might have been appropriately diagnosed and treated.  Even if his condition had been recognized and attended to in his teens (during the mid-‘70s, when Autism was being recognized as a serious developmental disorder), some of his pain, and much of ours, might have been assuaged.  But back in the 1960s such syndromes were not commonly known, or were simply dismissed among “plain” folk like us.  Bay’s desire for privacy also tied into her myopic approach to Gerry’s problems.  What happened in the home, stayed in the home, and it was nobody’s business how it was handled.  Even if the appropriate help and treatment had been available then, Bay would never have sought it.





Oliver’s Twist

10 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 2:  Oliver’s Twist: The Father I Barely Knew

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“People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a snare, people are often caught by sudden tragedy.”

Ecclesiastes 9:12

I only have two memories of my father: The first one was in life, the second in death. The first was of a family trip to Brookfield Zoo in 1969. I consider June the unofficial family historian, and even she is surprised that I remember it so well. After the nine of us had spent our day at the zoo, we ambled single-file through the parking lot, to get into our lovely green four-door Oldsmobile with the chrome bumpers and the white-green interior, and head back to Cabrini-Green.

I was a vision of two-year-old cuteness, in a sky-blue pinafore with little embroidered flowers, blue socks with frilly borders, and braids that were contacting Mars; to this day my hair still has a life of its own. I distinctly remember Oliver (as most people, including us kids, called him) swooped me up with one large hand, and tucked me in his arm, holding me in the crook, while he used his other hand to retrieve the car keys from his pocket and open the door for the rest of the family. Oliver was stylish, in his button-down shirt, suspenders and tweed slacks. He had on one of his classic wide-brimmed hats, and I attempted to grab it off his head—an attempt which amazingly he dodged—seeing that his arms and hands were full.

He whispered something in my ear, but at that age I didn’t understand or care about words. All I cared about was his arm around me, holding me close, and the feeling of contentment it gave me.

My second memory of him is not really about him, but about his funeral. We were at Burr Oak Cemetery in Worth, Illinois on July 12, 1970. By today’s standards it’s a ghetto cemetery, but back then, it was one of the few options for people of color. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Annie had been laid to rest there, so it was in keeping with tradition.

So there we were, all seven of us kids standing around the gravesite in the rain, like strong little soldiers in black. I was holding onto Bay’s black-gloved hand, and something struck me so suddenly that I began to urgently tug on her arm. She looked down at me, her head wrapped in a black scarf, eyes shielded by the dark glasses she wore.

“Is Oliver coming back?” I asked. I didn’t get an answer. Just silence, with all eyes plastered on the hole in the ground. My first lesson in family dynamics. When faced with a hard question, pretend it was never asked.

I still have a knack for asking hard questions that have no answers.

I felt about as confused, and cheated as I sometimes feel now. At the age of three, I was not mature enough to wrap my heart around death’s finality. The little girl now buried within the adult still doesn’t.

It puzzles me how you can ache and long for someone you didn’t really know. I’m still that little girl in the blue dress at the zoo—except now, I long for my daddy’s arms instead of enjoying being in them. It’s a gaping hole—no matter how hard you try to fill it, it remains a bottomless pit. I pinpoint a lot of my emotional problems to the fact that my father was stolen from me. The depression I struggle with, my choosing emotionally-, and physically-unavailable men, and the subsequent lack of trust which has resulted from all those dead-end relationships.

As part of my own therapy to get a handle on the past, I’ve attempted to piece together Oliver’s life, like shards of a shattered plate. A delicate and painful exercise, with the end result being bloodied hands, and a piece that lacks the beauty, function and worth of the original. To some, it might serve little use except as a reminder of what used to be; but, painstakingly, I continue with the task. With each piece that comes together, and every little bit of new knowledge I acquire about him, I get a sense that I’m doing something significant and important—even if it’s for no one else but me.





For Fantasy Book Lovers, and others…

24 09 2009

Angel Fall Book CoverColeman Luck advances the tradition of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle in writing a fantasy novel that speaks to modern-day reality and values.  Angel Fall takes the reader on a journey with its three main characters, Alex, Amanda, and Tori Lancaster.

Sixteen-year-old Alex covers his deep pain of rejection and loneliness under a veil of cynicism and seemed world-weary wisdom.

Thirteen-year-old Amanda cowers from the world, buried under the weight of her own fears, and the fears others have placed upon her.

Nine-year-old Tori adopts the role of the perfect child in order to not stir up more pain in her imperfect world.

On a flight to Europe to live with their estranged father, the children’s plane is caught up in an unearthly wind and crashes into the Atlantic Ocean.  From there, they enter another-worldly realm of ancient cities, mysterious creatures called Worwil, and a distinct mission—to carry an innocent baby back to the Great Mountain.  On their journey they encounter catastrophe and depravity from without and within, and are caught in a calamitous battle to save Alex’s soul, and the life of the baby.

Each child’s inner thoughts, fears, and pain is laid bare, and they are faced with choices that teach them the nature of a world that sacrifices its children on the altar of convenience, and discover the result of these sacrifices: twisted truth, and destruction of life and innocence.  In their desire to release their pain and find peace and freedom, each character must make the choice of life or death for themselves, and the other inhabitants of the world.

Luck’s ear for the language and attitude of this generation is quite exceptional, and he alternates from the voice and thought patterns of teen, to tween to child with great precision.  Many modern writers make children and teens sound older and wiser than they really are, creating unrealistic and unrelatable characters.  From page one, Alex, Amanda, and Tori are believable and touchable, and the reader is fully engaged in their subsequent pain and struggles .

Luck uses visual and illustrative language, painting an illuminative portrait of the Earthly world, the Internal world, and the Otherworld.  Sandalban, Bellwind, Lammortan, Melania, Rindzac, and Mirick–the Worwil that interact with the youngsters on their journey, are equally distinctive, engaging, frightening and awe-inspiring in their presence and essence.

Luck also weaves the tension of escalating darkness, starting out in typical teen-story fashion of young people left to themselves and poised for light-hearted trouble.  Then the shadows deepen and the darkness intensifies with each character’s struggle with their decisions and deceptions.   The author makes no bones that evil exists and gains power through our apathy, arrogance, and appetites.  Yet, even with the darkness of the situation, he manages to insert humor in playful, cynical, and sometimes snarky ways.

Luck’s use of cliffhangers is craftily done, and you are carried along with the force of each child’s situation. He conjures a braided parity between illusion and reality: starting out subtlely, then cycling more rapidly with each chapter, until you, the reader, are unaware of which is which.  The book reflects an evil that is insidious, comforting and even innocent in appearance, but which ultimately leads to great pain and dire consequences.

Because of Luck’s stark portrayal of darkness and violent situations, I would not recommend this book for children younger than eleven.   But for tweens, teens and adults, the book offers a riveting tale that upholds life and redemption, with an emphasis on the high cost of both.  Angel Fall is an essential addition to any reading list.

Published by Zondervan.

Available in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.








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