Saturday, February 15, 2014

That Time I Chose Racial Taunting Over Rape

It was broad daylight.  I was headed from a meeting at a local coffee shop and decided to take the alleyway behind my office back to work.  I had walked that road a million times without incident, but today my gut was telling me something different.   I tell women all the time that they should listen to their instincts.  I don't always take my own advice.  As I approached the alleyway, I saw two men walking towards me.  They happened to be African-American.  At that precise moment an epic internal battle erupted in my head.  You are NOT turning around and walking the other way. You are NOT perpetuating every stereotype about black men in dark alleyways.  You are NOT going to let on to these men that you are approaching them with unfounded, media-induced fear.  You are NOT going to clutch on to your handbag.  But, you are going to subtly take your cell phone out of it and hold it in your hands.....just in case.  The funny thing is, if these men were white, and hadn't been subjected to centuries of racial profiling and stigmatizing, I would've turned the other way, guilt-free, within seconds. 
And so, with a confident smile, I began walking towards my office, and towards the two men.  I smile and say hello.  You know, the kind of hello that we, as women have been trained to say, so that we don't get ourselves in "trouble".  The kind of hello that is devoid of any hint of flirtation, sexuality, but exudes matter-of-fact professionalism, and has that huge unspoken, invisible, wall of protection built all around it.  You know, the kind of hello that someone conducting a job interview would say.  And that's when it started.  60 seconds of pure, non-stop racial epithets.
Ching, chong, chang.
Me love you long time.
Show me your ninja moves.
They seemed to like those last three a lot.
So for some reason, at that moment, I wasn't scared.  I actually paused, wanting more than ever to have a conversation with these men, who were probably just misinformed, lacking experience being around "my kind".  I played it all out in my head.  I would say, "Gentlemen, my name is Mae and I work right over here in this community, in this neighborhood.  Do you live around here?  You know, I'm not really Hawaiian, or Japanese, or Chinese and those words can be pretty hurtful."  I wanted to use this opportunity to perhaps, break down racial and cultural divides, maybe even foster community relationships with the residents who surround my office.  And just as I was about to extend my hand with a conciliatory handshake, this French video popped into my head.  The piece is a brilliant depiction of a world where gender roles are reversed and women hold all the power.  I had just watched it two days earlier.  The one scene in particular that I just couldn't get out of my mind was a scene when the oppressed male spoke up to his street harassers, and was violently sexual assaulted in a dark alleyway. 
And so I remained silent.  And walked on by them, even as the racial taunting continued the entire time, until the two men were clear down the street.  I knew in my heart that I was missing a rare opportunity to dialog, to repair and reconnect with people outside my race.  But my desire to break down racial barriers was silenced, reluctantly quelled, because my vulnerability as a lone woman, in a quiet alleyway, in the presence of aggressive men, trumped everything.  I had to choose not to provoke. I had to choose not to "ask for it".  Like so many of the women that I work with every single day, I had to choose silence, so that I could walk away with only a bruised soul.

Friday, February 7, 2014

How We Survived Our Seven Year Itch

A love story about monotony, depression, and dead flowers
Yesterday, I walked into my bathroom and found a beautiful bowl of dried flower petals just sitting there on my counter, near my sink.  I recognized the black ceramic bowl from my kitchen, but I couldn’t really understand what on earth this bowl from my kitchen was doing there on my bathroom sink.  It was filled to the rim with fragrant dried rose petals, leaves, and other flower parts that I did not recognize.  And lying gently on top, right in the middle of the bowl, was a single fresh, bright yellow daisy.  I later came to find out that my husband, Adam, had taken the dying bouquet of fresh flowers he had bought me a week ago for our seven year wedding anniversary, and painstakingly picked out those flower petals that somehow remained perfectly preserved and intact.  His thought was to surprise me with homemade potpourri and to extend the life of the bouquet, or rather the joy that it brought me on the day he first handed it to me.  In the process of weeding out the rotting from the perfectly preserved, he managed to salvage that one fresh yellow daisy that became the centerpiece for this rare love offering to me.
Why would I, or anyone for that matter, make such a big deal about something so ordinary, so “done”, such as the act of a husband bringing his wife flowers?  I hear that’s what a lot of couples do for anniversaries. 

You see, the thing is, I wouldn’t know. 
Because for the first seven years of my marriage, my husband never once brought me flowers.  Now, you should know, that I am married to a deeply compassionate, reflective, brilliant, loving, funny, sarcastic, and witty human being.  One who is a feminist, an equal parenting partner, and one who always, always has my back.    But up until about three months ago, my husband was not capable of buying something as simple and beautiful as a bouquet of fresh flowers for me.  Not because he was thoughtless, or cheap, or clueless, but because he was not capable of seeing the beauty in flowers…..or in much else.

I’d like to tell you the story of our seven year itch.  Actually, we (I have my husband’s blessing to write this of course) wanted to tell our story in case it might help others also going through the itch.  Our seven year itch culminated about four months before our actual seventh wedding anniversary.  We just had a houseful of lovely and diverse dinner guests over, and Adam and I were washing dishes after everyone had left.  I was on cloud nine, doing what couples typically do after a dinner party – rehashing the highlights of the evening, commenting on how the bread was just not crusty enough, but how the coconut ice-cream was divine.  And Adam, was well….silent.  So I asked him questions like:   Are you feeling OK?  Did you have too much to drink?  Why don’t you go sit down and let me take care of these dishes?  And much to my surprise, he did.  That’s right, the man dried his hands, left the kitchen and plopped himself on the couch, leaving me with mounds and mounds of dirty dishes.  What is this?  1952?  I looked over expecting him to be lying down or buried in a book, but I was startled to see him just sitting there on the couch, staring dead into space.   And it was at that precise moment that I knew that something was terribly wrong. 
And so our week-long seven year itch conversation commenced. During this time, I reflected deeply on the past seven years of my marriage.  I wasn’t really UNhappy I guess.  Adam was the doting, engaged father to our six-year old son.  On various occasions during our marriage, because of my work schedule, he actually ended up serving in the primary parent role.  He was attentive and took interest in things that mattered deeply to me.  He was supportive of my personal and professional goals and aspirations.  He was my rock when I almost lost my father, and when I walked out on my job two years ago.  I didn’t really have anything to complain about, did I?  But somehow over the years, life got in the way and I failed to notice that while Adam was always present and in the moment for our son and for me, he was no longer present and in the moment with himself.  When we first got together, we developed this crazy bucket list that most people would certainly mock for its lack of sophistication:  Enter a gingerbread house in the National Gingerbread Competition in Asheville, North Carolina;  Audition for a part in the Thriller zombie street dance performance for Halloween;  Take a photography road trip to capture church signs like “What’s missing in ch_ _ch?  UR!”  (Get it?)  Somehow, somewhere, Adam completely forgot about that bucket list……along with countless other things that used to bring him joy like movies, road trips, tinkering with cars and electronics, video games, you name it.  The only hobby that he held on to, and almost lost himself in every night for hours at a time – was reading (Adam’s first and only therapist would later explain to him that it made perfect sense for someone like him to lose himself in fiction, rather than to confront the mundane existence of his real life - but more on that later.)  So slowly and steadily, without even realizing it, I came to expect less and less “living” from Adam.  Sure we still had our family movie nights and Sunday dinners, but for those parts of me that longed for deeper fulfillment, I began looking elsewhere.  Slowly and steadily, my dreams and my bucket list became more and more separate from Adam's. I of course still loved him, but had resigned myself to the possibility that maybe this was one of the many different ways a marriage could work – two responsible, loving people coming together to build a responsible, loving life.  But I’d have to find that deeper passion for living through my own work and my own personal interests.

I guess it is fitting that we spent seven entire days scratching our seven-year-itch.  And boy, those days sure were wretched.  We’d wait for our son to go to bed and we’d suddenly start diving into impossible questions, with answers that we feared hearing like “Are you even happy anymore?”    It is during this time that Adam confessed to me that since he can remember, as early as his teenage years, he often felt hopeless and overwhelmed.    There’s this picture that hangs over our bed of a rope bridge set over a pond in a thick, dense fog.  Adam explained to me that for some time, he would  get up every day and get lost in that picture for several minutes.  But then when he snapped out of it, he would find himself still stuck in that fog, on that bridge, and the bridge just kept getting longer and longer, with no ending in sight.  He shared with me that he would often feel guilty for feeling this way, because he had everything he ever wanted in life – a stable home, a son and wife he was crazy about, a job that occasionally challenged him.  All he ever wanted was to see the beauty in all of this, for he knew it was there.  But try as he might, he just couldn’t feel the beauty.
And so by the end of the week, Adam had an appointment with a therapist.  A few weeks later, he also made an appointment with his family physician, who prescribed him a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor – more commonly known as an anti-depressant.  And over the next three months, Adam learned to become acutely aware of his emotions and how they have come to define his personality.   He learned to anticipate triggers that might set him back like work stress, interpersonal conflicts, and unplanned life events.  And he has, to the best of his ability, structured his life in a way that minimizes these situations.  He has come to terms with the impact that chemistry and family history has had on him.    Over the next three months, Adam also had the best Christmas ever, checked off multiple unfinished projects like fixing the front burner of my mother’s stove, finally watched the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, and bought a djembe drum. And over those same three months, I learned what it is like to be pushed to the depths of your marriage vows.  I’ve learned to care enough to keep asking questions.  I learned that a person is not always the sum of his emotions.  And probably the most important lesson I learned is that it’s not always about me.  It still terrifies me to think that if we hadn’t scratched this itch, if we just slowly let things decline and decay, we would have never faced or treated Adam’s depression. It is very likely, that I would have grown increasingly resentful of him, and he of me, for my inability to understand him.  We would have likely grown further and further apart and ended up like those dried flower petals, with no life sustenance, perfectly preserved, but really already dead inside.  

And that brings us to January 20, 2014, our 7th wedding anniversary:  a.k.a. the day I walked into the house to find a beautiful vase full of flowers that had absolutely no rhyme or reason.  There were yellow daisies, and pink roses, and purple lilies and they were wild and extraordinary.  And there were baby’s breath, and random other green leafy stems tucked neatly thoughout the bouquet.  Adam had talked the florist into letting him inside the huge walk-in cooler so that he could personally pick every single flower himself.  He just couldn’t choose, so he got one of each. Because for the first time, in a long time, he saw the beauty in all of them.   And for the first time, in a long time, I was reminded of that glorious day seven years ago when the universe brought together two imperfect, ridiculously flawed, but forever evolving individuals.  And that is the story of how we survived our seven year itch.

Note:  The National Institute of Mental Health reports that approximately 18.8 million American adults have a depressive disorder. The disease is not discriminating, seeping into all age, race, gender, and socioeconomic groups. Depression  can stall careers, strain relationships, and sometimes even end lives.  If you know someone suffering from depression, or if you'd like to help break the silence and lift the stigma around this devastating and common disorder, visit know I've blogged about this before, but the single most impactful piece that has helped me truly understand depression has been this brilliant comic strip:

 Photo:  "In My Shadow" Copyright Sharon Cummings