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Tamara Jeffries

Manuscript and Editorial Consulting

Now I See


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A Warrior

Posted on 13 November, 2016 at 16:36 Comments comments (493)
For my sisters in the midst of making change:

"A warrior is a hunter. She calculates everything. That's control. Once her calculations are over, she acts. She lets go. That's abandon. A warrior is not a leaf at the mercy of the wind. No one can push her. No one can make her do things against herself or against her better judgment. A warrior is tuned to survive, and she survives in the best of all possible fashions."

--adapted by Tia Hall from Carlos Castaneda

I got shoes

Posted on 13 November, 2016 at 16:31 Comments comments (24)
I got shoes.
You got shoes.
All God’s children got shoes….
I was talking to Salaama today about a loved one who, we think, is missing a great opportunity. Why is he hesitating over a prospect that seems so ideal, we wondered? Was it fear? Ego? Wisdom? We don’t know—we can’t know—what keeps him from making a move. All we know is that he is a grown man, making his own choices. He must have his reasons, we reminded ourselves.

“I guess I could afford to put myself in his shoes,” Salaama said, wisely. We agreed that doing so was a sure way to conjure up compassion and push judgment aside. And thinking about things from other people’s point of view almost certainly adds value to your relationship with them.

But I told her that I realized that I sometimes spent so much time worrying about what's happening in other folks’ shoes, that I don’t pay enough attention to what’s happening in my own. 

If you’re a wife, a mother or a caretaker of any kind, you probably know the feeling. You’re constantly considering the needs of the people you love. Not just what they need in the moment, but what they’re going to need, what they might need.

To some degree that comes with the territory. But what happens when it goes beyond the family schedule?

It wasn't that long ago that it hit me that I was thinking about everybody else’s career choices and health needs and financial concerns—but paying very little to my own. What was my plan for the future? Where was my next check coming from? How was I fulfilling my reason for being? Is urging someone else to move and grow really the source of my own movement and growth? I don’t want to look up one day and realize that I’ve spent all my energy worrying about other folks’ choices—choices I can’t control anyway—and have done nothing to further my own purpose for being on the planet.

My mother’s father, a poor man with ten children to clothe and feed, insisted on “good shoes”—sturdy soles and high-quality leather—for them all. And he insisted that those hard-earned shoes be well taken care of. I remember my own Daddy sitting down on Saturday nights to wax and polish our shoes for Sunday morning and the rest of the week. These are the people who taught me that taking care of your soles is a good investment. It think they would say that taking care of your own soul is, too.

Dig In

Posted on 13 November, 2016 at 16:23 Comments comments (67)
Periodically, my girl Marva will send me a "brilliant carat" newsletter from business and life coach Simon T. Bailey. More than a month ago, she sent me this one—which I forwarded to firestarter Danielle. For some reason (kismet?), D sent it back to me today. Clearly I was meant to read it again. It was good the first time, but a lot can change in a month. Today I'm "standing in a different river" and this message struck me in a way that it hadn't before. 

Bailey writes: 

"His eyes on fire, Robin [Rampersad] explained that when a tree is going through its winter season, it is denied the ability to produce food through the process of photosynthesis. Everything changes for this tree because it is accustomed to trapping sunlight in its leaves via chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their green pigment, and transforming that chlorophyll along with other viable ingredients into food. This is normal for the tree, and it doesn’t have to think about it. It’s second nature. Yes, this is third grade science but it is so cool.

"In the winter, though, these normal functions are no longer an option because there isn’t enough sunlight to produce food, nor are there any leaves on the tree to trap the light. The tree, at this time, becomes almost dead on the outside, but internally, it begins to search for answers. As a result, it is forced to find food another way. And here’s the brilliance of God—the tree must push its roots deep into the soil to find enough minerals, salts, and water to sustain itself.

"Because the tree has spent the winter anchoring itself deeper and deeper into the soil and finding sustenance in a time of scarcity, it will be able to grow and thrive in the spring and summer months. Its fruit will be of a wonderful quality because the nutrients that helped produce it have come from deep within the recesses of the earth."

I'm struck, today, by the idea that sometimes it's necessary to rely on new and different means of sustenance. We often literally have a favorite place to go for our food. The farmer's market. A favorite bakery. The local burger joint. We rely on that spot to fill us. But what happens when the farmer's market closes for the winter? Or you realize that, for all kinds of reasons, you should probably leave the $8 slices of white-chocolate cheesecake alone for a while? What feeds you then? You have to find another place to forage.

It's true of all kinds of nourishment—physical, spiritual, emotional. Sometimes the thing you've always relied upon to "feed" you—the job, the lover, the church, the ego—can't fill you any longer. Maybe you've entered a dry season. Maybe your field is fallow. But one thing is certain: A sista needs to eat. Another thing that's sure: Spirit will make sure she does.

When you start to fear the haunting "lack" and begin to listen for the hungry moan rising from your belly, reflect on Bailey's story of the trees. Remember the parable of the manna. Believe, if you will, that Spirit always provides. (Kismet.) Believe, if you can, that what comes next may be even more delicious and nourishing than what you've had.

Maybe Marie Antoinette had it right. When your bread is gone, start looking around for the cake.

Suddenly I See

Posted on 13 November, 2016 at 16:21 Comments comments (103)
Her face is a map of the world
Is a map of the world
You can see she's a beautiful girl
She's a beautiful girl
And everything around her is a silver pool of light
The people who surround her feel the benefit of it
It makes you calm
She holds you captivated in her palm

I was flipping channels one late night and landed on a live performance by a woman I’d never heard of. I put down the remote, intending to have her sing background music as I worked. But this song captured me. I Googled it and I've been listening to it over and over. (So much that Little Bitty has started singing it. "She's a beautiful girl, she's a beautiful girl...")

A few weeks later, flipping channels again, I landed on opening sequence of The Devil Wears Prada and realized that this was the theme song for the movie. So it’s old news. Still, the lyrics to K.T. Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” are fresh and vital for where I am right now. I think it says something about the way I used to feel about myself, the way I always thought I’d feel at this stage of my life—and the way I want to feel now.

Problem is, I’ve been hearing little things about myself lately—and seeing things in myself —that don’t fit that picture. The me I’d like to be is smooth around the edges. She has sea legs; she doesn’t waver or flail when things are in tumult. She does not suffer from procrastination, panic—or PMS.

The me I am has edges and sharp teeth. I do panic, quietly and frequently. I waver. I think one thing—consistently and firmly—until I say it aloud, with all possible didacticism. Then I change my mind. I have brilliant ideas that die of hunger and thirst. I think of the perfect thing to say—three days too late.

And I know I have to accept that. I have to forgive it. I have to mix it in with the fact that I can juggle a million things, think of the perfect gift, write a letter that will always get the interview, fry the best tofu anybody ever tasted, inspire someone to do their best thing, and make a comeback every single time.

I believe in accepting people being people—being human, being flawed, and being okay with that. I believe that in theory—that it’s okay to be messy and complicated and kinda wrong—but it’s damn hard to accept in practice. Not when you want to feel like a beautiful girl in a silver pool of light.

But if you want a face that’s a map of the world, then I believe you have to accept your own humanity—the mountains and valleys, the desert places and the flooding ones. The places where the sun comes up and the ones where all the bones are buried. You have to see all of that in you. And get to know it. And learn to love it.

I'm learning.

Self-knowledge is a nourishment. Self-acceptance is imperative. Self-worth is a treasure. (How’s that for didactic.)

By the way, the chorus of the song goes like this:

Suddenly I see this is what I want to be.
Suddenly I see why the hell it means so much to me.

The Little Red Hen is My Kind of Chick

Posted on 13 November, 2016 at 16:18 Comments comments (30)
Little Bitty's aunt once gave her a book called The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza. 

As I recall, the old school version has the hen running after the other farm inhabitants in search of some assistance with harvesting wheat and grinding it into flour to make a loaf of bread. In this updated version (retold by Philemon Sturgis and illustrated with cunning cut-paper collages by Amy Walrod), our chick has moved to the city and has a hankering for a pie with the works. But her urban friends are no more helpful than the ones down on the farm.

“Hello,” she said. “Who’ll run to the store and get me some flour?”
"Not I," said the duck.
"Not I," said the cat.
"Not I," said the dog.

Little Bitty was appalled and deeply offended by the idea that the other animals kept refusing to help the hen. But I told her there were some good lessons in this book.

First, that hen wasn’t stymied when nobody came to her aid. She went out and bought her own pizza pan, then went back to buy the flour, the cheese, the toppings. She made her pizza dough from scratch, topped it with everything she wanted on it (including olives, onions andanchovies) and baked her own damn pizza.

On top of it all, when the savory pie was done, she was kind enough to share it with the deadbeats anyway. And smart enough to put her feet up and read a magazine while they did the dishes. (Yes, they finally got the picture, to Little Bitty’s relief.) And she did it all in some very hip shoes.

All in all, I’d say this Little Red Hen is a very Plan B type of chick.

It was an old story I’d long forgotten, but one I was glad to share with my little girl. I hope she won’t forget those lessons. I hope I won’t either.

All Kinds of Minds

Posted on 22 July, 2013 at 23:15 Comments comments (512)
"What can the world learn from different kinds of minds?"  

This weekend I listened to a fascinating series on NPR's TED Radio Hour on "mental illness." I put the term in quotes here, because these brilliant people are reframing what it means to have a mind that works differently. 

How can someone with severe schizoprhenic episodes graduate from Yale Law? Elyn Saks,legal scholar and author of The Center Cannot Hold, talks about her experience.

Humorist Joshua Walters examines the difference between mental illness and "mental skillness." (The difference depends on where you fall on the bipolar spectrum.)

Listen here:

How Not to Die

Posted on 11 June, 2013 at 20:44 Comments comments (40)
This amazing piece from Crunk Feminist Collective speaks to the effect that relentless stress and "doing too much" takes on us—physically and emotionally.
While the focus here is on the impact  of stress on our bodies, it acknowledges that it also brings us down emotionally. That's just as bad...and the two work together for our detriment. 

Here's a quote: 

"It is a problem when caretaking (taking care) becomes something we do for other people and not ourselves.  It is up to us to survive and not just survive but thrive in our lives.  To not put work above living.  To not make ourselves our last resort.  To not wait until we are tired to rest.  To not wait until we are sick to make healthy choices.  To not wait until we have pleased everyone else to think about our own needs.  To not postpone our own happy.  To not just tolerate foolishness."

To that end, the piece offers 13 survival strategies, including: 
#2.  Say No.
#6.  Purge anything toxic in your life.
#13.  Let people do things for you.  (And I would add to that: ASK people to do things for you!

Take care of yourself—by any means necessary. 

Spiritual counseling is a gift from God

Posted on 9 June, 2013 at 17:58 Comments comments (38)
What happens when a person who loves God and respects the church finds his self-identity clashing with his religion?

He can "implode and experience depression," according to a source in
Mashaun Simon’s recent piece on The Grio.  The article focuses on gay men and their relationship to the church— addressing the inner conflict that arises when a Black man finds his sexuality at odds with his spirituality. 

But in fact, Simon hits on a number of issues that relate to men and women, gay and straight, when it comes to seeking mental health care in their spiritual home.  For example, the story quotes a young man who went to his pastor for help with his depression: 

“He responded with cheery anecdotes and philosophical musings. He undoubtedly thought his response was helpful but it was typical church-speak…. He never once asked me why I felt the way I did or if I thought about seeing a mental-health professional. I left church that day feeling worse than I did when I came because I reached out for help and I did not get it.”

This happened to a gay man, but that kind of response could have been given to anybody. And it could have been worse. Many church- (and mosque- and  temple-) going people who admit to depression risk judgment and criticism: A child of God isn’t supposed to be depressed. You must not be counting your blessings. Where is your faith? You just need to pray. Needless to say, that approach is not going to lift anyone out of a mental miasma.  

There are full-fledged spiritual counseling centers like the one at T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House, which has trained therapists on staff, but that's rare. I’d guess that, in most cases, ministers do the best they can to offer solace based on experience and spiritual direction, if not actual training in mental-health counseling. In this age when more and more people seem to be suffering, that may not be enough.   

That’s not to knock church-based counsel. In the Black community we have long been taught that, when times are hard, you turn to God, the pastor and prayer. Today, there is solid scholarly research on religion’s role in mental health—much of it citing a positive relationship between a person’s spiritual health and their mental wellness. And the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) makes a good point, too: Because so many thousands of people are without health insurance—and many insurance plans don’t cover psychological services anyway—spiritual counseling can fill a broadening care and treatment gap.  

But it’s gotta be done right.   

Someone who is depressed, suicidal, coping with anxiety or other emotional issues, needs more than “trust-the-Lord” reminders and a warm pat on the back. (Though neither of those can hurt.)  Pastoral counseling has to have enough depth to offer true help and healing. To that end, the AAPC offers a certification for experienced pastoral counselors, and a training program for those who want to be better equipped to offer effective care. Their goal is “to increase the capacity of faith leaders to respond to such needs of their congregants.”    

But where a person’s mental or emotional issue is beyond the experience of the spiritual counselor, that minister needs to have the faith and humility to send the sufferer to someone who can offer more effective care—and consider it a gift of God that such resources are available.  

As for the issue of how our gay brothers and sisters are treated in church counseling, the AAPC has taken a stand. In 2010, the organization issued a commitment to anti-racist, multi-culturally competent care that states that “persons are regarded as having equal worth regardless of identity markers, including but not limited to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, difference in ability, religion, language, and cultural or national origins.”  

I guess that's a start. What do you think?

Of Mysteries and Meditation

Posted on 3 February, 2011 at 14:17 Comments comments (33)
     I’ve tried and tried. Been to retreats; done it at church; practiced it walking, sitting, chanting, silent. I’ve made a place to “sit” at home. But meditation does not come easy for me. 
    I believe mindfulness meditation can have benefits. And so do other folks: According to a recent post in the New York Times’ “Well” blog,  “researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.”  The study showed a boost gray matter in areas of the brain associated with regulating emotions and taking perspective, and a decrease in the areas associated with anxiety and stress.
    Less stress, more equanimity? I’ll take it. But 30 minutes of meditation? I dunno. I can sit quietly for half an hour, no problem. But the goal, it seems, is to keep your mind still for that long—and that’s where the trouble lies.  If you saw me meditating, I’d probably look peaceful enough. But if you could read my mind, you’d see it churning like a commercial-grade washing machine agitating an improperly sorted load of clothes. 
     Recently, though, I received some unexpected encouragement in Walter Mosley’s latest crime mystery series. It features Leonid McGill, a quick-fisted, middle-aged P.I. who used to work more cases for the bad guys than the good and who, when Mosley introduces him, is trying to change his karma (though I don’t believe karma is the word he’d use).  
    The plot includes mysterious NY powerbrokers, remorseless assassins with hearts of gold and beautiful women in various stages of distress— plus so many fight scenes and plot twists you have to read every chapter twice to keep up. In the midst of murder-mystery madness, our protagonist McGill finds his center either duking it out in a sweaty boxing gym or practicing Buddhist meditation.  
     When he’s in a particularly stressful situation—say, being interrogated by suspicious police who want him behind bars by any means necessary—he turns to mindful breathing.  

After the representatives of the NYPD left my premises I sat me down in the office chair and took in a long slow breath while counting the number “one.”  I exhaled, considering the numeral “two,” and went on in that fashion until I made it to “ten.”  I started at “one” again, many times, until the counting fell away and all that was left was a kind of bliss that lasted a little more than half an hour.  

     I think that last phrase may be have been intended as a bit of Mosley irony, but even 30 minutes of peace would feel pretty good for a single mom with a stressful job and way too much on her plate. And counting to ten? That, I can do.
    If my favorite mystery author and a team of neuro-experts say it works, maybe I'll give meditation another try.  

The Color of Grief

Posted on 10 January, 2011 at 0:06 Comments comments (196)
I know blue.  Thick, smudged blue, like ink oozing from the spine of a broken pen.  Like a vat of indigo, tipped, sloshing, splashing, running in fast rivulets then sighing into dry earth.  Like the atmosphere at midnight, swelling to squeeze out even the tiniest prick of light from the stars.  Blue I know.  

My grief is gray.  

All the color, even blue, has drained away.  I feel like a faded photo in which my features are unclear, my face in shadow, hardly identifiable. I am without the warmth of sepia. Without even the sharp, clear edges of black or white. I feel dull. Blurred. My grief is a color without a name.  

Having known blue—having held my breath, expecting the wash of it in the wake of loss—this gray comes as a surprise. But perhaps it shouldn’t. There is a distinction between grief and depression—an important one. 

Grief has the arguable blessing of justification. It has a reason: It arrives with or anticipates a deep loss—of someone or something beloved, of a valued way of life. In this context, grief is accepted, expected, even encouraged. Tissues are offered. And this salve: You’ll get through this. It will take time, but this will pass. 

But true, clinical depression often has neither reason nor the promise of relief. Yes, certain kinds of depression can surface as a result of difficult life situations. It’s acceptable then: Of course you’re down, baby. Who wouldn’t be, in your circumstances? 

But sometimes it arrives like a guest with no luggage and no way home. When it comes without an apparent reason—with nothing attached—it can be difficult to accept.  It can be especially hard among people who seem to “have it all” or “have it made” but who still can’t shake their sense of despair.  Mental-health advocate Terrie Williams says the folks who are most “well off” are the ones who are the most shocked by their own depression. Their blues can be further thickened by guilt and anxiety, and by the lack of understanding from the people who would otherwise offer support.  

The two, depression and grief, can blur together. Grief can harden to hopelessness that won’t lift or turn. But one is not necessarily the other. Fortunately, the wise ones and the experts know the difference. It is up to us to turn to them—groping in the dark, pressing through the fog if we must—for help toward healing.  It is the wise ones—or we, ourselves, clinging to our own frail wisdom—who remind us to stand upright until our color returns.

For more about grief and grieving, visit the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation website. 

In honor and memory of Frank Jeffries, Jr. 
May 21, 1927~ December 26, 2010.