Confidence?

I’m naturally a reflective person and starting writing this in the coffee shop of my youth didn’t help get me away from that.  This week confidence became the theme of my remembrances.

I took the girls to their first school skate night, along with one of my oldest’s friend.  I started out helping my five year old, but her independence soon pushed me away and I go to assume and observatory role.  My oldest fascinated me as she interacted with her classmates.  I had witnessed their interactions on field trips and birthday parties, but this was different.  This was a glimpse into a new phase in her life:  the tween/teen years when she would become more of her own person, defined by friends, teachers, and more interactions outside of her father and I.  For once, the thought of her growing up didn’t scare me.  I was more excited to see the awesome young adult she’ll become.   My only tinge of trepidation and prayer is that we would be best friends, as I see other mothers and daughters become.

I also couldn’t help comparing this skating endeavor with a vivid memory from my early teen years.  My mother consistently made me participate in youth group activities.  Ironically, or maybe not, these were the most socially awkward and unaccepting times for me.  I was a weird kid, there no way around it.  I read more than talked, I was overweight, and my more dressed me in over sized t-shirts and jeans with cheap ridiculously huge glasses.  Not an attractive look on anyone really.  Meanwhile, the youth group crowd was part of what we often called the “prep” crowd, in other words the popular “normal” kids.

The skating trip outfit was particularly hideous.  The t-shirt was a bright pink with an iron on picture of a teddy bear in a Victorian setting with puffy paint detailing.  As my athletically inept ass fell all over the skating rink, I was painfully aware how pathetic I looked.  I was determined to get better and I loved the music, so I tried to pretend I was unaware, but I sooo wasn’t.

Now for the the most part I really don’t care what others think of me.  I danced stupidly at my kids as they skated with my head help high.  So what changed?  Or did I change at all?

In high school I was terrified to speak with anyone outside of my band/choir circle, but things slowly changed.  Now I work with middle schoolers and laugh at myself, while still maintaining authority.  I can’t say why the switch completely.  Some of it came from outer sources as I started to buy my own clothes that I felt good in and finally having a boyfriend.  Some of it came from realizing that everyone has their own insecurities and most of them are focused on their own issues more than on me.  Most of all I credit my children.  Once I had a life to care for, worrying about people’s opinions seemed silly.  There were more important matters to contend with.  So ultimately, my confidence came from caring for others and not worrying so much about myself!

Christmas reimagined

I don’t get to write often with 300 students, 2 kids, and a husband needing my time (sounds like a bad version of the 12 days of Christmas doesn’t it).  So I’ve been kicking around what I would write about for quite some time and then as it usually goes, all of it went out the window with a Facebook post a friend wrote this morning.  My friend wrote “This is the first time in years I have not been done with all of the Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving. Feeling the pressure this holiday brings. I still vote for a second Thanksgiving because the expectations and the stress that comes with Christmas are just not ok.”

This post surprised me, because she is very level headed and didn’t seem like one to get caught up in the Christmas present hype.  And then I did some self-reflection.  I used to be obsessed with gifts, what happened?  Oh right, the African husband.  I was raised with my mom constantly quizzing me on what I wanted starting in early November and she would talk about it all the way until Christmas. I was expected to really save and think of her gift as well.  One year in high school I spent five more dollars on my friend’s secret Santa gift then on her present and she was furious for weeks.

.  I still had the present fever when we first married.  I remember our oldest’s first Christmas, we were broke, but I was determined she would have a good amount of gifts.  My parents weren’t there, we spent Christmas with friends and I knew my gifts would be the only ones.  As she refused to tear the wrapping paper and showed no interest in the toys, I realized how silly my gift obsession had been. Wole had tried to warn me.  Gifts hadn’t really been much a part of his Christmas.  You went to church and maybe, maybe you got something on Boxing Day.  I wanted him to get me the perfect gift and to get him one as well, but over the years I finally realized that’s not the part of Christmas I really care about and he certainly doesn’t.   Don’t get me wrong there are still gifts, but we as a family don’t harp on it.  The girls tell me one doll they want, I get them a few surprises and that is it.  The toys may or may not get played with, but I try and make the tradition and the day special.

As the years have passed what I remember from childhood Christmases aren’t the gifts but setting up the tree at our house, something I often did by myself while my parents were at work.  I would carefully find a home for each ornament and remember where each one came from.  The pull string Minnie Mouse from our Disney World trip when I was seven, the Cinderella mice dad had procured when he was a McDonald’s manager, the rolled paper Christmas tree that took me hours in 2nd grade to make, and many more.  My parents have given me most of those ornaments, they don’t put up a tree anymore, and my daughters get just as excited as me with their own favorites.  This is what I have tried to make special and important to the kids, time together and stories.

This year we did something we’ve never done before and it had a huge effect on me, as it hopefully did for the girls.  I am sure you know this year has been a divisive one.  Racial, political, and nativist tensions are high and I’ve felt that keenly. November 9th I became an activist for policies I believe in and started standing up to family members with viewpoints that thinly veil racism and xenophobia.  At first I had planned to donate to refugee organizations and planned parenthood as their “gifts” for Christmas, but after listening to a compelling freakenomics podcast on isolationism (http://freakonomics.com/podcast/trust-me/) I had a less dickish idea.  The girls and I printed out recipes, went to the store, invited friends over we hadn’t seen in a while and baked up the mother load of cookies and candies.  The next night we went to a few carefully chosen neighbors with our goodie bags in hand.

At the first house we connected with a “young grandma” our oldest had bonded with on Halloween.  Once she saw we were giving her treats, expecting nothing in return, she invited us in.  My girls were quickly playing with her lonely grandson and she was talking us up about her house flipping business.  Soon her husband came down and bonded with Wole over golf and plans were made to see each other again.

The next house I hadn’t wanted to visit, but my darling oldest was excited to and how could I let her down.  It was the neighbors down the hill from our backyard, who had two yippy little dogs, two grown daughters, and they really kept to themselves.  The door had a very ominous sign on it saying “No solicitors.”  It took a long time after we knocked before anyone finally came to the door.  They were probably hiding and hoping we’d go away, that’s my usual tactic.  Finally one of their daughters yelled, “Who is it?”  “It’s your neighbor from up the hill and we have treats for you.”  Their other daughter opened the door and was grinning.  “Mom, they brought us treats!  We never get visitors.  (Maybe because of the huge sign I thought sarcastically)  Thank you so much!”  Wole thinks I’m crazy, but that was my favorite house of the night.

Over the summer, I had fallen in love with the neighbors next to them.  They are retired, the husband drives a motorcycle, they are often out at their firepit, and they have full conversations with my verbose children.  When they answered the door they immediately ushered us in.  The house was small, but beautifully decorated.  My 5 year old, not being subtle, stated, “I want to see the place.”  So while the wife led her on a tour, Joe showed us his music room and I discovered he was the trombone player I had heard playing sometimes.  He seemed in disbelief when I told him I was a trombone player myself and gave the girls a cd of his jazz group.

Last but not least we visited the woman who was the knower of all in the neighborhood.  She was the first one to welcome people when they moved to the area as she walked her dog and knew most of the neighborhood gossip.  We quickly learned more about her and her husband then we had in the four years we’ve lived here.  Again plans to see each other again were made.

As I reflected on the evening, I was amazed on how a small gesture of giving with nothing expected in return could turn strangers closer to a family. That’s what I want Christmas and hopefully other days to be for me and my family.

9/11 from the other side

Recently as part of a budding friendship, I was asked something I’ve never been asked before.  When did I know that I would marry Wole? I know, what could that possibly have to do with the title of this post.  Stick with me and I promise there’s a point and I’ll get there, but first I have to go back to even more seemingly unrelated events.

My freshman year of college the international community became the bulk of my friend set.  Of course Wole got top billing, but Tola was a close second.  Fun was always running towards Tola with his mischevious grin ready to greet it and I treasure the times I was along for the ride.  On a whim, I remember him letting me try to drive his stick shift car from the gas station to campus, only laughing minimally at my inept attempts.  He gentlemanly refused to fire when I was taken hostage in a water gun fight.  And most importantly he was my knight in shining armor through a horrible clubbing experience.  My friend had arranged to drive a group of us into town for a night at the club, something I hadn’t done before.  Wole and I weren’t dating yet, but I looked forward to hanging out with him, only to find out he had stayed home sick.  So here I was with my American girl friend and quite a few of the internationals, including one known for hitting on everything that moved.  Almost as soon as we got to the club my girl friend, for extra emphasis, my engaged girl friend, was soon in a corner dry humping a stranger, while the player tried to dirty dance with everyone within sight and I was ready to go hide in the car.  Tola looked at me and a silent understanding was struck.  We would save each other from the molesting happening around us.  He stayed by me all night and managed to dance and not just gyrate on top of me.  Tola even asked politely before putting his hands on my shoulders for a slow song (by the way what kind of club plays slow songs?).  There was always a soft spot for Tola in my heart after that.

Fast forward to our next semester.  Wole and I had been together for over six months and comfortably in our sophomore year. Tola was still around, but was out of tuition money, so he had taken a semester off to earn enough to continue.  Wole, several international students, and I were in chapel when people started talking about planes striking a building in New York.  Everyone was not just sad, but frightened, as ridiculous scenarios were imagined in which the terrorists found their way to where we were.  After all the ridiculous had just happened.  I listened in history class as my professor scrapped his lecture to educate us on Afghanistan and Western relations and prayed for all the devastated people. I watched students pull together and heard of New York pride overcoming tragedy.   In all of this, the xenophobia potential still hadn’t occurred to me.

A month later, I was with Wole, getting everything ready for the big day.  I was in charge of the college’s marching band competition the next day and I’d been prepping since school started.  I was freaked out, stressed, and sleep deprived when Wole sat me down on the disgusting band couch and told me he needed to tell me something.  Stressed as I was, I didn’t think anything could be worth getting me out of prep mode, but I listened anyway.  “I didn’t want to tell you this, because you’ve been busy and I wanted to wait until this was over, but it’s going to come out in the paper tomorrow, so I need to prepare you.  You know Tola has always wanted to be a pilot?  (Uh, oh)  Well, he subscribes to a pilot magazine and when the postman saw the foreign name and the pilot magazine, he contacted the authorities.  When INS looked into the matter they found that Tola is here on a student visa and not enrolled in school.  They are going to deport him.”  I broke down and cried for what Tola was going through and how scared he had to be.  I was never mad at the postman, just mad at the bad luck and unfairness of it all.

It was much later that I saw the newspaper article, which recklessly painted Tola as a shady criminal and the postman as a hero who possibly saved us all from impending danger.  The portrait was so different from my fun-loving knight the disparity physically hurt.  Forunately, Tola was not just torn from us and sent away in disgrace.  He was around for awhile before everything could be arranged, teaching himself guitar with my chord charts (I was jealous how much faster he picked it up than me) and practicing flight simulations on my computer.  Eventually everything was arranged though and my friend was gone to Africa.

As soon as Wole told me Tola was to be deported, I feared for Wole.  Even though he had done nothing wrong, Tola proved to me that didn’t matter.  I knew then that I wouldn’t let them take Wole from me. I would go down to the courthouse and marry him at any time to keep him here as mine and safe.  The white wedding lost saddened me a bit, but not enough to dissuade me.  Wole would never have let me go through with this course of action though, as he knew our relationship already attracted criticism without adding a green card into the mix.  Still, with not even quite a year together, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Wole whether we made that vow the next day with two witnesses or years down the line with a crowd.

In an update, Tola did become a pilot, just in Africa.  As far as I know, he is happy and fine, but I wish I had gotten to know him better.  By accident, he taught me the real life applications of xenophobia and just how dangerous it can be.  Right now Trump is spreading rampant xenophobia and segments of Americans are happy to accept it.  Again I’m scared, but this time I know marriage isn’t enough to keep us safe.

Sticks, Stones, and saying Love will hurt me?

I have seen my fair share of rom coms, teen shows, and semi-romantic books so I know American culture considers saying “I love you” a huge deal.  In real life I guess I’ve always found myself wondering why?

I am a somewhat affectionate person (okay I need hugs a lot) and about average for getting emotional, but I feel love all the time.    A student shows excitement towards something I’m teaching, I love them.  A close friend; male or female; I love them.  Someone shares something personal in a non-creepy way, I love them.  I know if I tell students I love them some will find it weird, or if I haven’t known a person long enough its odd.  I know that that love is different and the real issue is romantic relationships, but how is that so different?

I remember the first time I told Wole I love him, not because it was a big deal, but because I had been led to believe it was a big deal.  We had known each other for over 6 months, but only been dating for a little over 1.  We were on Spring Break, Wole had stayed behind at school and I was on campus for only one night during a school group function.  Trying to maximize our one evening, I spent the night in Wole’s room (just cuddling thank you very much).  As I got ready to leave in the morning, without even thinking about it I said, “I love you.”  Immediately, my easygoing haze lifted and I started to panic.  It was too soon and those words were too heavy!  He was going to push away from me now because I was too needy and jumped in too early!  All this panic lasted all of 30 seconds until I heard an easy, “I love you too,” from Wole.

We discussed this moment sometime well after the fact and Wole said, “Of course we loved each other.  I knew that before I even kissed you.  You knew that, so it was no big deal.”  So that’s how easy it could be.  When I thought about it, why was this phrase held up as such a relationship maker?  There are no commitments made in the statement, “I love you.”  Its just simple truth about an emotion you feel for the person in that moment.  There is no vow taken.

I use the phrase, “I love you” a lot and I mean it.  I’m not afraid of it, but I also know its power and its inadequacies.  It isn’t hard for me to say “I love you,” but it can be hard to show it, to act on it, to sacrifice for it.  So rom coms, quit making it so hard to get out the words I love you and start working on the really hard part; proving love and making it last for a lifetime.

Introvert in a land of Extroverts

I feel like shy people have gotten a bad reputation as inherently selfish or cold.  I even heard Matthew Hussey, self proclaimed relationship expert, say you shouldn’t feel bad for excluding shy people from your gatherings, because we don’t bring anything to the table.  I take offense to that Matthew!  When you bring a shy person out of their shell you get a friend that is more loyal and hears things others don’t.  And for the most part we’ve really thought about what we have to say and we can also make great listeners as we process what you have to tell us.  We’re kind of like cats in the great Meet the Fockers quote:  “But cats make you work for their affection. They don’t sell out the way dogs do.”  For example, we had a graduate school friend of Wole’s who was extremely shy, but once you took the time to get to know him, he had the funniest observations on life.

One of the first things I ever noticed about Wole and other Africans was a brutal sense of honesty.  Our first time hanging out together, Wole asked me, “Why are Americans so big?” which infuriated me at the time.  Since then, I’ve noticed as a culture the Nigerians I’ve met have no qualms about calling people out to their faces for just about anything.    Along with this honesty comes an extroverted nature, where anyone can talk to anyone else and frankly invade their personal and emotional space (Wole aptly uses the word “invasive”).  And I really mean your personal space.   The only Nigerian I met that doesn’t fit this description and is painfully shy turned out to suffer from schizophrenia.

I realize there is a difference between being an introvert and being shy with introverts recharging by themselves and shyness meaning you have trouble interacting with people you don’t know.  I have always had a bit of both and most days I would be content being alone with my children and husband.  I have progressed out of my shyness quite a bit, starting with my freshman year of college, really when I started dating Wole.  Before that I was terrified of interactions with people I didn’t know and really did not want to go to a school away from my family and friends although I did it anyway.  Something switched with Wole.  I never want to encourage anyone to have to find their self-worth through a relationship, but I kind of did.  Up until my senior year of high school my mother had insisted on dressing me in baggy jeans and t-shirts and only half listened to most of what I had to say.  Senior year I started buying my own clothes, younger band kids were starting to look up to me, and there were also a few flirtations, although none of them went anywhere.  But when a guy who always spoke exactly what he was thinking saw me as beautiful and found what I had to say interesting, it inspired a whole new boldness.  My job has also helped with my introvert ways as I have to interact with my class.  Being an introvert, control freak does not make it easy to be a middle school music teacher (why do you always have to be in my space and try to do things your own way!), but it has helped me with both aspects of my personality.

That does not mean I became completely outgoing and loved, loved, loved social scenes after dating Wole and starting to teach.  Part of the reason Wole and I got along so well in college is we avoided parties and opted for smaller gatherings, so the first real difference became apparent in phone conversations.  Now I have never been a huge fan of talking on the phone.  I talked a lot on the phone in my younger days, because I had no other choice, but I’ve always preferred face to face interaction and felt awkward on the phone.  When your boyfriend’s family lives a $1500 plane ticket away, you have no choice, but to talk on the phone.  I had to be ready to talk at any moment, with a bad connection, and dealing with accents.  Much as I already loved these people for raising such a fantastic son, these calls nearly gave me anxiety attacks.  Mummy and other Nigerians have chastised me several times for not calling enough.

In person, the lack of shyness has its pros and cons.  The pros have been feeling like I really connect with most of the Africans in my life.  This pro outweighs just about everything else, since my family has always kept things on the surface and not really been able to talk about anything real.  My in-laws listen when I communicate something, even though they have to struggle with my accent.  The con can be having to talk or interact with people when all I really want is to be alone and away from everyone.  I feel guilty for this, because I’m not as warm as I’d like to be, but at the same time sometimes I really do need a little bit of alone time or to slowly acclimate to a new group of people.  This can often cause misunderstandings with me and my husband who can talk to a new stranger for hours with no anxiety whatsoever, but this is another example of how our opposites help balance each other out.  In the end, I appreciate the African world not letting me live too much in my head, even if the culture can be intrusive.

 

What is Love to me now?

Love is omnipresent in our books, our movies, our television, and of course our songs, so it’s no wonder it is often on my mind and probably yours as well.  I’m well settled into my love at this point having been with Wole for over fifteen years, but I still examine how we got here and how my idea of love has changed.  I know my story is different from most people’s experience, as according to a recent article in Brit and Co,. the average age most people find their soul mate is 27 and I found mine at 18.  That has allowed for a lot of emotional growth since we first met.

Much to my consternation, in high school I had many guy friends, but all of them loved me in a sisterly fashion.  Looking back, that was all for the best, but at the time I had read and watched so many Romantic comedies I was waiting for one of two things to happen.  Option 1:  One of my friends realized he was madly in love with me and made a grand confession and romantic gesture.  Option 2:  The universe plopped a guy in my way, who would also make grand romantic gestures, while I passively received the universe’s gift.  (What can I say, I blame Meg Ryan movies.)  In college I made a discovery.  Both of those options come off as really insincere and annoy me.

Since I didn’t know anyone at college option 1 was not really a possibility at first, but option 2 began to pop up.  A few guys that I had been warned hit on every girl that moved offered to help carry things for me and told me how beautiful I was.  Instead of being flattered, I just felt icky and irritated.  Being slightly more pro-active, I joined a praise band, because church musicians would be the perfect gift from the universe right?  The guys in charge let off an undefinable aura tinged with arrogance and self-righteousness that made me nauseous.

Then there was Wole.  There weren’t instant flirtations, just two people interested in what the other had to say and who genuinely enjoyed hanging out together.  I won’t say dating wasn’t a thought, but we spent months just getting to know each other.  When it finally turned into something else, there was no grand confession, just a natural and slow change to a love that was beyond friendly.  For years I thought he didn’t love me enough, because there weren’t constant lavish confessions of love, but again I think an oversaturation of romance would have seemed fake and annoyed me.  (When those confessions did come from guy friends after I started dating Wole, I know they angered me greatly.)

Once again culture differences do have a part to play here.  I spent a great deal of time studying and listening to the music of the Nigerian Afropop king, Fela Kuti, a pan-African activist who sought to maintain African culture and fight Western influence.  One of his arguments was against the Western idea of love, in which he cited there is no Yoruba word for Romantic love.  This is debatable, but “Ife” certainly has a different connotation than the European idea of love established by the Romantics.  The Nigerian culture has a more practical view of love and while things happen and the Western concept of love has crept in more and more, everyday struggles take precedence.  A great deal of coupling doesn’t happen until after college and the requisite year of youth service, because life is just too unsettled before than.

So where does that leave Wole and I?  Well, when the sweet words are spoken, I know he means every word to the core and that this love truly runs deep.  As I watch my inordinate amount of single friends struggle to find romance, I wonder if they have taken the time to find the deep earned words of love or are focusing on the beginning raw attraction with no roots.  Everyone is different and needs to find their own ideal, but I hope no one misses the ocean, while being blinded by a flashy creek that dries up when the rain takes a break.

Work and I don’t mean the Rihanna song

“Nothing will work, unless you do.”  -Maya Angelou

Work. It is important to have a good work ethic, but how young is too young to start working?  Does that work always need to be for money?

My parents both came from large pastor’s families where they were on their own financially, so they entered the work force as soon as they could.  During college they met while working at a fast food restaurant and eventually quit college to continue working there.  While they did not want me to continue in their footsteps, they held onto the idea of being financially independent as soon as possible.

I started an actual summer job when I was ten, helping a grandmother watch and care for a one year old and four year old for a whole forty dollars a week.  I don’t even remember where that money or the little bit of babysitting money I made before I was sixteen, went.  When I was sixteen it was apparent my parents had made no plans toward my future education, so if I didn’t start working now there was no way I could pay for college.  My parents fully supported me, but the rules were only during the summers and no fast food.  Eventually I would break both of these.

The library was a second home of mine from a young age, so after my sophomore year I wrote a letter to the head librarian describing this as my dream job.  Apparently, that didn’t happen too often so I was quickly hired on and started working 12 hours a week.  Shortly after, I encountered a different viewpoint on working for the first time in my short life.  I was very active in everything band related and was part of a camp to prepare for a big downtown parade.  I had to miss a bit of this camp for my new job and upon returning, I found out the director had switched the color of shoes we were to wear, after I had just bought the other color the night before.  When I complained, he told me if I hadn’t been working I would have known.  I was so hurt that my work to pay for college was considered a bad thing when the band had been my life, I had to leave before I started sobbing in the band room.  I went home thinking my parents were already gone to work, but there they were.  I wanted to handle things on my own, but when my parents heard what happened they stormed down to tell my band director off.  That then set a few of my friends against me and all of this because I had committed to a job for only 12 hours a week.  I would keep this in mind when I was later the band director with working students.

When school started, I didn’t stop working because my parents felt I should hold onto this not to demanding job and eventually my friends all had jobs as well.  One of them even worked at the library with me!  We were able to still participate in band, but looking back there were things I gave up.  For instance, being in any of the plays or musicals because they had to practice every day after school.  I still managed to take off tech week and work sound, but it’s not the same.  For my friends who worked as cooks or waitresses they gave up even more, as I watched their grades slip and their exhaustion set in.

Of course, there were benefits as well.  I adored helping with the summer reading programs and am still extremely proud of my first real initiative towards the end of my senior year.  I suggested to the head librarian that she let me put on a monthly coffeehouse in the basement.  I decorated the basement with beanbag chairs, white Christmas lights and soft lamps.  Then I bought all the materials, made a coffee menu, and put my espresso maker to use!  My friends and family and a few others were enough to fill the place as we had bands come, a poetry night, and even an open mic night.  It died off when I went to college, but I am still proud of my little accomplishment.

Once college started I had to find summer jobs with more hours to raise more revenue, including cleaning people’s houses, being a cook at Steak N Shake, and eventually I became a day care teacher, which was along the lines of my later work.  I did work study during the school year, which usually allowed me to get homework done or was directly related to my later career.

Wole comes at work from a very different point of view.  Jobs are not the easiest to come by in Nigeria and minimum wage isn’t really a thing, so when Wole saw a teenager work force here, he was in amazement.  Why would teenagers be doing a job that a grown man could use?  Beyond that Wole was raised in the upper-echelon of middle class in Nigeria (I joke with him that we would not have been friends), while my family was just above having our house foreclosed on.

With our varying experiences and upbringing, deciding on the best course for our kids has caused a lot of discussion.  My high school job only minimally kept me from other school activities and gave me a chance to accomplish things I never would have in classes.  It also allowed me to pay for my entire first year of college without having to take out a single loan.  However, we have already ensured our daughters will not have to be completely financially independent at eighteen.  Our usual coming together point is looking for internships and maybe even overseas experiences for our kids as they hit the high school years and help them balance a work/play schedule.  Hopefully that will allow our children to have a good work ethic, while not having to give up the extra-curricular experiences high school and college have to offer!