No More Secrets

Though I would never take it upon myself to put a cat in a bag, according to the saying, the cat is now out of the bag. The only people who remained in the dark about my plans to leave NYC were my co-workers. And now, as of last Friday, even they know.

Since I spend most of my time with people at work, my secret was not easy to keep. I’ve known for months that I would be leaving. Regardless, I’ve had to act as if nothing major was going on in my life. Starting a blog, receiving an acceptance letter, learning Dutch, applying for a Fulbright – all topics were off limits. There I was, finally feeling lighter and happier, with no explanation to offer.

The fact that I stink at keeping secrets certainly wasn’t helpful. I would say I was tempted to break down and come clean at least once a day. Someone could mention something as irrelevant as a clogged sink, which would make me think of wearing clogs, which would make me think of Dutch attire, which would make me want to reveal to said person that I am moving to Amsterdam. And as people discussed varying plans to apply for grad school or desires to move away from the city, I just had to keep my mouth shut. And I’ll admit, a few times I actually opened my mouth and fixed it to say “Amsterdam.” But I would stop myself before letting it out. Well, usually.

I let a few people in on the secret. I had to. These are people who would have known something was up just because they know what’s going on in other areas of my life. So creating a big blank space in the story would have been impossible. These friends were also charged with keeping the secret. And although I’m sure it wasn’t on the tip of anyone else’s tongue in the way it was mine, I know keeping this quiet couldn’t have always been easy.

The breaking of the news must have been a relief for my secret-keeping friends. It was the freeing of a duct-taped mouth for me. I could breath, speak, and smile openly. And I could finally explain, receiving tons of questions and enjoying the excitement of sharing the answers.

So I officially have begun to introduce my (soon to be) former life to my new life. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

Black Girl Gone Back to Africa

This revelation about my ancestry is coming sooner than expected.  On Saturday I did some research at the Schomburg in Harlem. I was only there for about 1.5 hours. I spent at least ten minutes of that time shaking and in tears…the super duper happy kind. Back to Africa kind of happy.

I went with a focused mission. In an attempt to tie up some loose ends before heading south, I wanted to take a look at a book my great grandfather, Charles Sumner Long (my mother’s paternal grandfather), wrote back in 1939. Since he and his father were both prominent leaders in the A.M.E. Church in Florida, it makes sense that the book is about the history of the church. I recently purchased and read a book about this same history, which made numerous references to Charles’ father, Thomas Warren Long. I have also come across numerous references to Charles’ book. But unfortunately, it’s no longer in print and can now only be found on microfiche. Hence my trip to the Schomburg.

My expectations weren’t too high. I suspected the book would carry a neutral tone and as the author, Charles wouldn’t go into much detail about his family. So when I saw a photo of Charles on one of the first pages (I had never seen his image before), I was satisfied and felt my 1.25 hour-long trip to Harlem was worthwhile.

I set myself up with a well-funded copy card, prepared to print any page that made reference to anyone with the last name Long. I scrolled through the book, zooming, straightening and focusing the film almost obsessively. I printed various pages with tidbits about Charles and his father’s role in the establishment of numerous churches in Florida. Somewhere in the middle of the book, between two chapters about a black bishop and a black politician, Charles wrote a brief chapter about his (and my) family history. I started crying as soon as I read, “He was the slave of John Roberts…” It felt like striking genealogy gold.

Here’s what I read:

Can this even be real?!  He dumped so much information on my lap that it took me some time to process. In all honesty, after I printed the page, I had to put it out of my mind just to regain the capacity to get through the rest of the book. And not until I left the library did I fully digest exactly what I had learned about James Long, as well as Thomas (though I already had a small bit of his story). I’m still digesting it, really.

First of all, most people assume that if their ancestors survived the slave trade, they came from the west coast of Africa.  And since the Zulus are from southern Africa, not many people are even aware they fell victim to slave traders.  But it happened, and apparently not so infrequently.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1783 and 1825, 25,477 were taken from southeastern Africa to Cuba alone, (21,038 disembarked).  Although his circumstances were less common, my third great grandfather certainly wasn’t alone.

The Spanish trade to Havana, Cuba started in 1789, which is perhaps right before the time James would have arrived.  And apparently Matanzas was big on sugar production.  So I can make the assumption that James was working on a sugar plantation.  Beyond that, I can’t even begin to imagine what he experienced.  An entirely new area for research has opened up.

Although I have found an African ancestor, which for many would be the jackpot that brings such a project to a close, there is so much more work to be done.  I need to catch up on these areas of history that I previously had no idea related to me.  As far as the Longs, there is one big, gaping hole in the story. If James purchased his freedom in Cuba and moved to Florida, under what circumstances did his son come to be enslaved? Was he also re-captured into slavery after moving to Florida? And was his wife enslaved as well? I’ll need to do some research on this John Roberts character in Jacksonville. Perhaps details about his plantation will direct me to the details that will fill in these gaps.

And speaking of traveling (was I at some point?), these new insights have added at least two more trips to my agenda, keeping in mind my agenda has become more of a long-term thing.  Cuba (Matanzas in particular) and Mozambique, since it seems the most common route from southeastern Africa to Cuba was from Mozambique to Havana. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.  But who knows what kind of records of the trade they kept  in either Mozambique or Havana?  I may be getting greedy, but I think I might have a chance to learn James Long’s African name.

Getting What You Want

Is something in the air? Left and right I’m hearing reports of good news from the people I care about most. (I’m sure the people I don’t care about are also celebrating some good news…but I don’t care about them.) It seems like everyone is getting what they want and have been asking for. Babies, engagements, jobs, home purchases, school acceptances, opportunities to move close and far…quite a range to suit a range of people.

I have somehow managed to surround myself with incredible people…really incredible people doing incredible things. But sometimes even the most incredible people get stuck. I have found myself stuck on many occasions – and that’s right, I’m classifying myself as incredible, just like my friends. I’ve been in jobs I hate, I spent three years in law school, which introduced me to my first bouts of depression, and I have been in relationships that made me feel less than incredible, which, if you were paying attention earlier, you would know is less than what I actually am. In each of those situations, I have focused only on what’s directly in front of me. “Please get me out of this awful job.” Or, “I’m begging for a class to address something I actually give an *ish about.” Sometimes it’s “get me out of this city.” Or my favorite, “please let this be the last year that I’m single.” I have had a tendency to focus on what needs changing and dwell on that misery until it’s changed. And now, more than ever, I’m realizing you get what you ask for – good and bad. I’m not making any statements of spiritual belief at this time. No matter who or what is being asked, there’s definitely someone or something listening.

Let’s start with the bad. When I first moved to Oakland in 2004, I had no money and no job. I had been hustling in Philadelphia for over a year, paying rent, feeding and entertaining myself with money from tutoring and privately teaching the children of the M.O.V.E.  Organization. Surprisingly enough, with minimal bills to pay, that didn’t work too badly. But in Oakland I had to give up my slightly lucrative hustle for what I hoped would be a slightly lucrative job. But when I got there (and while I was planning my move), jobs weren’t falling from the sky. So I started to seek anything that would pay the bills and rent…anything. A job that had some relevance to a future career (whatever that would be) would be a bonus. And sure enough, that’s what I ended up with, a job that only paid the bills and not much more, had a slight relevance to a future career, and was a living hell (shout out to my fellow MTA survivors). I never asked for a job that was hell on earth, but I also never asked for a job I believed in or a job I loved. I only hoped for the basics – or what I thought of as the basics at that time. Since then, I have only found and accepted jobs with organizations that seem to be a professional fit, personally satisfying, and provide an enjoyable work environment. I’m gradually getting better at being more specific with my requests.

And then the good. Well, the best example I can think of is Amsterdam. Last year I stopped looking for a boy or eternal happiness in NY. It had become clear to me that those hopes were a wrap. So I put my focus on moving. I began to respond to the “have you met any guys recently?” question with something like, “I’m not looking. My energy is on finding something in Amsterdam.”  And although I sometimes struggled with the lack opportunities in Amsterdam, and the silly feeling of claiming a city to which I have absolutely no ties, I forced myself to call Amsterdam by name.  The uncertainty of it made me really uncomfortable.  But sure enough – I’m getting what I asked for.

The trick might not be in how frequently you ask for what you want, or even how badly you want it. I’m beginning to think it’s more about having a clear understanding of what it is you want, and recognizing it when it arrives. And more importantly, adjusting accordingly when you realize the original ask was somewhat misguided.  And maybe most importantly, not being afraid to ask for what you want, no matter how unlikely it seems.

I’m looking at this post as simply a reminder to myself.  I have a feeling this clarity may last no longer than a fleeting moment.

Signs of Approval

It’s easy to pick up the phone and call my mother. Although I wish she could live closer (she’s currently living in Chicago), we talk all the time – and she reads this blog…Hi, Mom! So when I conjured up this Amsterdam plan, and as I have gone through the challenging process of figuring out how to make it work, I have felt her support all along the way. And when I learned I had been accepted to UvA, it was easy to call her to share the good news and hear her reaction. It’s a blessing to receive that level of support from parents, no matter how old you are.

The harder parent to communicate with is my father. He died in September 2004. No more phone calls, no more funny stories, no more advice, and no more celebrating good news. At least not in the traditional ways. Now I see him and interact with him only in my dreams, forcing me to rely on questionable memories of what has transpired during my sleep. Not ideal – but I’ll take it.

On Monday night, the same day I found out about UvA, I had a dream I was already in Amsterdam. It was still new to me, as I felt a mixture of excitement and nerves. From what I remember, I was walking around the city alone, until I was suddenly sitting in a room – perhaps a hotel room or poorly decorated apartment. I must have been sitting on a couch. And there was my father, stretched out on a bed, super relaxed and happy. He was eating some type of snack – my guess is peanuts.

Sometimes in my dreams about my father he’s really sick and frail, conjuring up the real life memories of his battle with cancer. But most other times, he’s healthy and happy, and we laugh. This time we were laughing in Amsterdam. I don’t remember the exact content of the conversation. Maybe it was something about how far we’ve both come since we last saw each other. Or maybe we were talking about something that happened in life – one of my memories with him. I’m not sure. I just remember thinking how much I wanted to take a picture of him. I wasn’t so much aware that he was dead in my dream (sometimes I’m very aware in my dreams that it’s a visit from the other side). But I knew I hadn’t seen him in too long, feeling a painful urge to capture the happy moment and not forget. The funny thing is I spent so much time focusing on remembering the sight of him that I forgot to pay attention to what we were saying.

But the content of the conversation may not have been the most important thing. It felt more like a visit to say congratulations, and he approves. He not only approves, but just like he came with me to Oakland, and then to Brooklyn, he’ll be along for the ride to Amsterdam…eating peanuts and laughing as we go (he eats the peanuts – I personally don’t like them).

I was smiling when I woke up. The visit felt substantial and satisfying – as if we actually spent some time together. I never doubted for a moment that this journey I’m on would have been something that pleased him and made him proud. But it was quite a delight to actually see the happiness on his face. If only I could have gotten that damn picture!

Anyway…Hi, Dad!

disregard the white doll on the stair

It All Comes Down to an Email

Email is a funny thing. Every message, no matter the degree of importance it holds, appears the same in the inbox. A sender and a subject, and maybe, every once in awhile, a colored exclamation point. Remember when we used to get letters in the mail? Envelopes used to tell a story of their own, before you even broke the seal. The number of stamps, the date of the postmark, the way your address was hand written or typed. An envelope could be stuffed full of information to dig through and digest, or it could contain one single sheet of paper with a simple message. I used to love receiving letters from overseas (beginning in 7th grade, when I had tons of pen pals). International mail used to have a special charm, with unique stamps and faraway return addresses. They were far more distressed than the letters that only had to travel short distances to arrive in my mailbox. And my favorites were the letters that arrived in those special red and blue- striped airmail envelopes. They were always a special treat, poking out from a pile of the more typical (but no less intriguing) letters arriving in plain white envelopes. Sometimes I would swear I could even smell the scent of the sender, it having traveled with the intent of expressing far more than the words on the page.

But now email, as much as I love it, takes away all of that charm. Good news, bad news, and no news. It all looks and smells the same.

This morning: I press snooze on my phone alarm for a third time, as the blackberry gives off a little tiny buzz to indicate a new email has arrived. With only one eye open, I click on the email window to find an unassuming, benign looking email from the Graduate School of Social Sciences (abbreviated as apply- gsss) – no capital letters and no exclamation points. Before I open it, all I see of the subject is “Application for Migration and Ethnic St” – this must be it. No big or little envelope, no fancy airmail stripes. Just a quiet little buzz to wake me from a desperate Monday morning sleep. Click to open…

Amsterdam, April 26, 2010

…followed by tons of white space requiring a scroll…

Dear … get to the point!

…more white space requiring more scrolling…

On behalf of the admissions committee we are pleased to inform you…


So here’s the gist. I was accepted to the University of Amsterdam. They do, however, want me to complete a year of preparatory course work because my academic background is a bit different from their Master’s program. Shall we call it my remedial classes?  That prep program will not begin until February 2011. Then I’ll begin the one-year Master’s program in August 2011. In June 2012, I will finish with a Master of Science in Sociology, and hopefully a thesis that can be turned into a business plan and seed funding proposals for the nonprofit organization that’s waiting to be founded.  The first chip has fallen into place.

Although February is about 5 or 6 months after I originally hoped to hop a plane out of this place, it’s actually a much more sensible timeline. I will have time to make an easy transition out of my job, take my time preparing to move, and find and save some money to support myself while I’m there. Plus, I’ll be there for at least a year and a half. Bonus time for those who are planning to visit (please visit)!

Sometimes you don’t get what you asked for because what you asked for wasn’t what you needed. Fortunately, I have some folks looking out for me who usually know best. So now the place and the timing will be right.

Looks like I’m heading to Amsterdam after all…


If I Do

In all fairness, I’d like to give equal time to optimism as I tend to give to worry. So allow me to think through what will happen if I do receive some good news from Amsterdam. Not the really serious, stressful things, like saving money, packing, or finding a place to live. Rather, the more immediate things that are more exciting than they are difficult.

  1. Spread the word. Those of you who know about my plans are beginning to ask more and more if I’ve heard anything yet. “When do you expect to hear from Amsterdam?” I get that question 2 or 3 times a week now. When I actually do hear from them, it will be a priority to let everyone know. And since this will be good news, I expect this communication roll-out plan to be far more expeditious than if it were bad news. Folks on facebook will probably know within the hour.
  2. Give my job a few months notice. As I think I’ve made it pretty clear, I’m pretty much over my job. At this point, I’m only waiting for the right reason to quit. If I’m able to tell them within the next couple of weeks, I’ll be giving them 4 or 5 months notice. That’s plenty of time for them to come up with a replacement for me to train (in an ideal world). So I could make a guiltless exit, hopefully even leaving on good terms – though that possibility remains to be seen as I begin what will likely be a rough week.
  3. Treat myself to something special. I always treat myself to something special when I think I deserve it (and sometimes even when I don’t). I’m not sure what it will be yet – but it will demonstrate a unique combination of special, gratifying, and affordable. Any suggestions here are welcome.
  4. Begin a countdown, making the most of my remaining days in NYC. I don’t think I have wasted the last 2.5 years in NYC. Rather, I think I’ve made the best of it when possible. But there’s still a lot I haven’t seen or done. If I am provided with a clear date for the end of my stay here, I will be much more motivated to get out and see more of it. I’ll approach it like a tourist with a “to do” list, crossing off tours, buildings, and museums on a weekly basis. I won’t have any more time for moping or wallowing. Good news will lead to nothing but action.

And just for the record, this list was much harder to write.

Favors for the Forgotten

I tend to think of myself as pretty forgettable. That sounds awful. And I don’t necessarily mean it in every context. But I sure do often feel compelled to re-introduce myself to people if I believe they played a more significant role in my life than I did in theirs. Teachers, professors, supervisors, elders…these people are unlikely to remember me by name or face. They’ve got more important people and things that occupy their time and memory. Self esteem issues to work on? Maybe a little. But I like to think it’s not so uncommon. Besides, this isn’t the right time to be distracted by what will (I’m sure) one day be discussed in therapy. We’re focusing on important people and my presumed forgettable nature among them.

For this reason, I always swallow a horse pill of dread when I read an application for something that requires references, whether academic or professional. Understanding the requirement means preparing to contact some important people in my past who likely will need to be reminded of who I am and why they should say positive things about me.

“Hi. Uhhhh. Remember me from like 10 years ago? Yeah, I was in your such/such class. It was super. You gave me some good grades and we had some interesting chats back then. Sorry about not being in touch since I graduated – or maybe you got that one email I sent about 8 years ago? Right, well anyway, can I ask you for a favor?”

Fortunately the need to request such a favor does not arise too often. But when it does, I become angry with myself for not maintaining these important connections. Not only could these former professors (and even former bosses) be providing me with recommendations for my occasional efforts to try something new; they could be advisers and mentors throughout the process. But no. I don’t think about that until there’s an urgent need to get that letter from them.

So when it came time to request 2 academic recommendations for my UvA application, I held onto that nervous feeling for a couple of months, procrastinated for a couple more, then finally swallowed my pride and reached out to one professor from undergrad and one from law school. Two of my favorites, actually. The undergrad professor was my thesis/project adviser. And although I hated law school, I admit that I had some professors that made it worthwhile. And shortly after I graduated, this one promised me “references for life.” Regardless, I convinced myself that they wouldn’t remember me after all this time.

I got the first response from my undergrad professor, which was incredibly enthusiastic. And although I have no idea why this would be the case, she said, “I was just perusing your fabulous senior project!” How strange and flattering! And the law school professor expressed similar excitement to hear from me and about my intentions to pursue this program in Amsterdam. Sigh of relief…I was dreading the task for nothing…application complete…almost.

Getting an enthusiastic promise means nothing if the letter is never written. It’s important to make sure they come through, especially if there’s a deadline involved. So I quickly went from the woman they likely wouldn’t remember to the harassing micro-manager who keeps making urgent demands. And I feel guilty and insecure the entire time. A lovely picture of emotional torment.

So anyway, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I got all pieces of my application together and sent everything off to Amsterdam – with the exception of one letter of recommendation from the law school professor. It was already written and I was expecting it way over a month ago. But she stopped responding to my emails. And I was beginning to panic (keeping in mind the timeline for working up the nerve to ask for a recommendation is at least 4 months alone – never mind the time it would take someone else to write something). It actually crossed my mind that she may be in some type of danger and I should call the police. But how would I have identified myself? “The woman to whom she promised a recommendation, godammit!”

I sent a final plea on Tuesday, communicating my panic in a courteous way. And then the most wonderful thing happened: she responded. Not only did she respond, she apologized for falling out of touch and explained that she submitted the letter to complete my application. Reading the receipt confirmation email she forwarded from the University, I’m pretty sure I shed a tear of relief. And finally, in her email she reminded me that her offer still stands for life.

I received an official confirmation this morning from the admission’s office that my application is complete and has been forwarded for review. Now that felt good.

I’m so thankful to those professors for the genuine support they showed and for coming through for me. I still just can’t believe they remembered me…