Give Me the Deets with Amanda Doran Eby (Me)

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My friend Erin Drew (a comedian, writer, beacon of light, all around lunatic) has her own podcast. AND I GOT TO BE ON IT! Please listen to educate yourself about the school system…something that literally affects ALL layers of society.

Amanda is the Director of Scholar Development at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School. She coordinates career days, college visits, mentor programs, and meets with every one of her 8th graders’ families to help plan for their daughter’s high school future and beyond. In this episode, we talk about first-time teaching experiences, urban education, race, secondary trauma, teacher retention, and the complicated lottery system for Baltimore City high school placements. Read more at https://givemethedeets.libsyn.com/season-3-episode-3-with-amanda-doran-eby#HmXEwEY5ZTi2ccCS.99

https://givemethedeets.libsyn.com/season-3-episode-3-with-amanda-doran-eby

Dear Young Lady, I See You

You will come of age with our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you
And you’ll blow us all away
Someday, someday
Yeah, you’ll blow us all away
Someday, someday

– “Dear Theodosia” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. from Hamilton

 

Dear Young Lady,

Even though I saw you today for the first time in months, I see you all the time. I see you in children younger than you who walk the halls in pleated skirts. I see you strolling to school in West Baltimore, three feet tall, holding hands with a momma. I see you in the squeegee kids and their drive and lack of couth balanced out by their wide smiles. I see you when I pass a house with windows that’s among a row of vacants. I see you in red hair dye and abandoned binders and an old card you wrote me. I see you in faces and hear you in songs and imagine you turning on your heels so gracefully like when “Yip” is playing. When you texted me on Mother’s Day, my heart grew three sizes. You told me you knew I’d be a mother soon and that I’d sort of been one to you–I’ll take it.

When you told me what’s going on in your life, I hope you know I heard you. And that time you said you wondered what it’d be like if you grew up with parents like mine, I never stopped hearing that. When you smiled big enough that I could see the new tooth you’ve got poking through your gum, I was reminded that you are still a child. That although you just unloaded a set of stories most wise and well-supported adults couldn’t persevere through, you can’t vote or drive or buy a lottery ticket.

Those times I catch myself saying something like “Slow-close cabinets are a life saver,” you and your presence in my life, are among the factors that help me stay in check. You wouldn’t know this but you help me see my minutia and how trivial it can be. When you rattle off even a few of the things your mom has put you through, I lose my breath. And I get it back when I see in your face that you know you deserve so much more. More than someone who spelled your name wrong the day you were born or left you to raise yourself or doesn’t call or stops sending you money for food.

I asked you how you picture your life in September and you said you cannot do that. Not where you’ll be living or where you’ll start 10th grade. What pops into my head is that although you can’t imagine what three months away will look like, I can see what I hope for you in twenty years. And so I’m asking myself, is this something that growing up in a good family grants you? The ability to see the future? The agency to create it? The vision of the steps to get to a goal? So I try to keep my face neutral but I know the answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes. If only I could touch my pointer to yours and zap you with some of what I’ve got. If only I could stare you in the eyes and transmit how I imagine you as a happy, successful adult. If only we could enter some alternative universe where your name on your birth certificate matched the name you’ve always used and all the other good things, or just reasonable things, that followed that first act.

Young Lady, I will probably keep writing you letters I can’t show you. And to you, I will reveal a fraction of what I say in these. I try not to scare you when I tell you how much you’ve taught me and how amazed I am and how strongly I feel about your future. I’ll be seeing you…

Love,

Ms. Eby

See You Later, This is Not Goodbye

 

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Now THIS is a “Healthy Holly.” In our front yard. And if you don’t get why this is funny, read up on Baltimore’s mayor.

Dear Readers,

If you’ve ever been tubing, attached to the back of a speed boat you will know this feeling. You’re on the ridge of the wake, high up, you have to hold on extra tight. You don’t know whether your tube is going to slide to the left or fall to the right but it’s imminent. It’s like waiting for a balloon to pop or that feeling when you’re about to fall into cold water or rip a wax strip off your arm pit. It’s purgatory. The change is pending. This is where I am right now with my writing. I’m on the brink of a change and it’s time to slide left or fall right.

Thank you for being here, whether once or 104 times. The amount of love and support I’ve received for these pieces in the past two years has been incredible. It has buoyed me through immense anxiety at the start and most recently, through familial weirdness and unexpected life-altering sadness, through the forced patience of IVF. It’s helped me to speak things on the computer keyboard I couldn’t figure out how to say out loud, whether to myself, to anyone, to one of my girls. I’ve tried to be funny, I’ve tried to be emotive, I’ve tried to be helpful. I’ve planned how to help my most-challenged girls, I’ve pondered the arrival of my niece, I’ve spoken to family and I’ve spoken to strangers. I’ve attempted to garner more help for my beloved Baltimore. While writing these, I have both laughed at my own thoughts and cried at my own heart.

My next venture is to take some of this writing and to try to self-publish a book. Would you read it, even if you’ve already read it here? This is me, putting this down on paper, that I will work toward a book. Accountability.

Now, I still have this domain (I just paid to re-up for another year) and I want to actively write new things so I will aim to post at least once per month, always on a Friday. If you have a guest blog you’d like to post, please reach out!

So, thank you for your support. Below are some of my favorites in case you were late to the party or are looking for something to do on your work computer, other than work. Please, as always, comment, share, spread! I love having you readers and as humans in this world.

So much love to you,

Amandy

 

Dichotomy (yoga + West Baltimore)

Five Strangers Walk into a Bar (written by Shar)

A Hard Thing We’re Not Supposed to Talk About (IVF)

Ms. Renee Means Peace (Renee Buettner)

Dear Baltimore (a letter to the flawed city I love)

That Karaoke Singer from Hon Bar (about Bobby Ray, astronomer, numerologist, karaoke singer)

Perspective: Baltimore/Amandy (photos)

Anxiety and the Advice I’m Not Legally Qualified to Give (anxiety and healing)

Paint Baltimore Kind (ways to help Baltimore’s peeps and streets)

The Rose that Grew From Concrete (a Dear Young Lady letter)

Dear Niecephew Part II (a letter to Emma, when I didn’t know she was Emma)

Two Months is Not Enough (Dear Young Lady letter)

Humans of Hampden (photos)

A Modest Proposal: Compulsory Teaching (my idea of a societal advancement)

Be a Doer/Dreamer Like Erricka Bridgeford (about leader of Baltimore Ceasefire)

30 for 30 (30 thoughts near my 30th birthday)

Let There BMore Love (ways to help Baltimore)

Dear Young Lady (yes, another one)

Everything I Shouldn’t Have Known When I Was a Kid, I Learned from Seinfeld (implied)

To Gram, Mary Lou Lucskowski Lutz Papa James (a letter to my grandmother)

The World is Too Much With Us (commentary on the absurdity of the 21st century)

The Local’s Guide to Baltimore (what to do in Charm City)

Reinvention (repurposing of all kinds)

Welcome to Hampden, Hon: Old, Weird, Fancy (a present and past guide to my neighborhood)

A Sense of Place (being there, there)

Gratitude (no eye rolls)

An Urban Education Wishlist (what I want for our schools)

A Week in White Girl Hair (when all in one week I had cornrows, let my kids cut my hair in my classroom, and donated 12 inches to Pantene Beautiful Lengths)

 

Dichotomy

When you walk through the garden
You gotta watch your back
Well I beg your pardon
Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus
He’s gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole

“Way Down in the Hole” by Tom Waits, theme song of The Wire

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Thank you, Dichotomy. Thank you for the reminder that the world is not all one way. I appreciate the way you show up, just when I need you. Like a shower after a day of sweaty exercise and dusty cleaning, or an email from an uncle who sees the world through a completely different lens, a smoothie after too many French fries, a dark political podcast and followed by an episode of Schitt’s Creek.

The world is so full of contrasts that help illuminate that which is sometimes hard to see. There are times when I can’t see what is right in front of me, until I spot the opposite. For example, I do not appreciate my health, until I get sick. It takes the scary depths of a stomach bug to realize that almost every day I feel absolutely great.

You don’t realize you’re surrounded by noises, until you hear nothing at all. When you drive over a series of steel plates laid out like crooked teeth, you see that most of the roads are paved smooth. Maybe you don’t notice how gray winter was until spring green fills in the skyline.

Running once a week in West Baltimore with Back on My Feet and my team (Bad Ass Penn North) makes this sensation of dichotomy more apparent. The sights in West Baltimore can implode the notion that everyone has it as good as you do. Empty houses and buildings, the intermittent smell of urine, crunching glass underfoot. Street lights out for months, discarded food vessels, construction equipment deposited in front of peoples’ homes, cigarette butts and needle remnants. Black plastic bags and signs of white flight. Splintered window panes and weeds reclaiming sidewalk tiles. Bus fumes swirl past half broken benches. Forgotten cats slink by, tails curled under their skinny bodies, as they dart through peeling retread tires and pieces of an old bike. Red and blue lights bounce off all structures where the Avenue meets North, constantly piercing the end of the night at 5 a.m., a reminder that you are being watched. You may be anonymous but you will not go unseen. A cop under those lights flicks through his phone, his brain in some place other than right here in West Baltimore–a spot large swaths of our city, state, country, and world, have determined is forsaken, for good.

But yes, Dichotomy, you’ve got me again. Today is the fourth anniversary of Freddie Gray’s murder. Has much about West Baltimore changed since then? Since the night of April 27, 2015 when I sat shaking in Aubrey’s living room as we clicked back and forth from the news to The Little Mermaid, attempting to hold the book club meeting we knew couldn’t really happen, what with our city burning? Back then, I wasn’t in the pattern of driving Over West much, unless it was to my mom’s school or to the Mondawmin Target (R.I.P.). I didn’t have kids I picked up and took places, didn’t have my running team, no yoga classes or people I knew. It felt at the same time right down the street and lightyears away. And now that I go to West Baltimore often, I feel more in that memory of her distance–like I’ve added to something that’s from my past. Because in between the despair, the dilapidation, the crumbles and sighs and the lack of investment, I see a collection of neighborhoods teeming with life and loveliness. People mostly doing their best, or what they’ve learned or been told is their best.

Singer Billie Holiday’s open mouth next to an image of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, intricately layered on a brick wall. Billie’s got a pink flower in her hair. Murals of history and of hope. Tiny gardens inside repurposed Goodyears. Knee-high fences and fresh spring plantings. Rowhouses splashed with crayon colors. Babies and mommas and morning greetings. Bird nests on window sills and hundred-year-old spires topping attic windows. Kids in school uniforms and year-round strings of lights. Basketballs bouncing and “No Shoot Zone #123.” Kids and adults swinging in the playground. Recycling bins, churches, and schools named for figures in civil rights. Parks, green space, and porch lights switched on. Marble stoops preserved for decades adorned with flower pots. I see small businesses, both store front and street corner. Brick and mortar beauty shops and young hands slinging cool bottles of water for a buck at a red light. Spots people forgot and those some are just starting to remember. Pride and careful paintings and people going to work before the sun does. A driver yells a name from car windows to a walker nearby and their faces collapse into matching smiles.

On Wednesday night I attended a Core Power continuing education training. It was four hours long in a sterile studio with fake wood floors, dim lights, and forty-ish people all white but one black man and two Asian girls. We received a printed packet containing  photos of skeletons and muscles and several grammatical errors. The presenter included messages about how to speak about postures, how to set a universal intention, how to make a shorter surya namaskar B, and several tips the following phrases were repeated (among others): “point your hip tips down,” “filling your diaphragm,” and “the natural curve of your low back.” Some people showed off their knowledge of the sagittal plane or kyphosis or hip dips. We were told not to plan sequences at home–the subtext being, “We will not pay you for work you do outside the studio.” The leader of the workshop called us “team” because “guys,” often a default, sends the wrong message. She rattled off questions to which the answer was always yes. “Does your theme matter?” (Yes.) “Is it important to work the entire core?” (Yes.) “Do you eat spinach?” (I’m kidding…but yes.) I get it. It’s a corporation. It’s a yoga training for a large national company. None of this doesn’t make sense. But, the older I get, the more dichotomy I see, and I am having a harder and harder time with minutia.

On Thursday night, I taught a yoga class to members of my BoMF team. We practiced in a field on a random concrete platform next to a chipping mural of figures from black history. Before we started, we picked up two bags of trash including several pieces of very stale bread which could only be described as rat food at this point. After we cleared our space, we set up my motley crew of yoga mats I’ve gathered by donation. Two elementary aged girls asked if they could join us, which was an emphatic yes and a pair of women who live nearby hopped in too. We were 9 yogis practicing in the sunshine in a field in West Baltimore, across from a community resource center that houses people in recovery. Kids ran the basketball court across the field and the playground was full too. Members of Penn North stood across the street and watched us flow–maybe wanting to join in. Life continued around us, a helicopter circled over head, and people did what they do on Thursday afternoon, arrived home from work, rode by on motorcycles, walked through with a waving toddler.

These two “yoga” experiences offered such a great dichotomy. “Yoga” means to unite–but which night offered the greater example of uniting?

On Thursday night, my breath cues weren’t perfect, you could barely hear the music from my portable speaker, I never mentioned hip tips (I don’t even really know what that means), and the soles of my feet wore dirt socks, but it was beautiful.

Thank you, Dichotomy, for all that you teach me. At the end of both nights, we all said namaste at the end but only on Thursday do I think we all truly agreed that, “The light in me sees the light in you.”

 

Get Out of Your Own Way

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Taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

— Marianne Williamson

Surely you have seen Coach Carter. How about Akeelah and the Bee? In a somewhat strange choice by Samuel L. Jackson in 2005 and another by Laurence Fishburne in 2006, these men starred/co-starred in really what are both children’s movies. Don’t get me wrong–I own AatB. Aside from being kids’ movies, these films have another thing in common: Marianne Williamson (above). While I cannot figure out which version of her quote is the correct one, I choose the one up top. And what this makes me think of, is this blog. Not this one, but this blog, generally.

Having written weekly for nearly two full years, I am almost stunned by myself. I know me. I can clean a tub, three toilets, and weed an entire backyard in two hours if it means I can avoid doing something that advances my personal goals. I could make it through my whole closet, make a pile of give-away clothes, and switch out summer and winter attire, all before submitting a piece to a literary journal. I get some deep-seeded satisfaction from completing tasks that do not directly lead to my self-fulfillment. I’m not here seeking pats on the back. Quite the contrary, I am here to say that if I can do it, you can do it. What “it” is, I’m not sure. It is totally up to you.

I completed my MA in Writing in May 2015 and then did not write again for 23 months. I was scared. I was afraid of myself. What if I mussed up what I had already written? (Not actually possible. It was already written.) What if I got rejected? (I did.) What if they took away my thesis award? (They wouldn’t even know how.) What if I sounded stupid? (I often do.) What if, if?

The writing degree. It says you can…write? But does it say you will write?

When I got my life back together, I figured it out. You simply need to get out of your own way. Which, as this article says, you do not sacrifice who you are, you do not pretend your baggage doesn’t exist, you simply see through it, like a fruit snack, not the milky ones. Your baggage is part of your view but you go on anyway.  You see through the cherry color.

According to Dennis Palumbo writing for Psychology Today,

“From my perspective, a creative artist who invites all of who he or she is into the mix—who sits down to work engulfed in “stuff,” yet doesn’t give these thoughts and feelings a negative connotation; who in fact strives to accept and integrate whatever thoughts and feelings emerge—this artist has truly gotten out of his or her own way.

From this standpoint, it’s only by labeling a thought or feeling as either good or bad, productive or harmful, that you’re actually getting in your own way. Restricting your creative flow.

Getting out of your own way means being with who you are, moment to moment, whether you like it or not. Whether or not it’s easy or comfortable, familiar or disturbing. And then creating from that place.”

It took me putting my own insecurities aside, my own fear, my own self doubt. It doesn’t mean I got rid of those things, they are here. But I go on anyway. I write anyway. Maybe, partially, or entirely, because I told you I would. For some absurd collection of reasons, on April 21, 2017, I said “I will post on Fridays.”

This is the same way I ran a marathon–twice. I signed up…and I told people I’d do it. I created my own accountability partners, by knowing my own shame would be strong enough to keep me going.

So, I pass that to you. What holds you back? Is it a good reason? Is it life-altering? Is that a positive thing? Is your thing good for you, good for the world, good for Baltimore? (You knew I had to plug it.) Do it. Getting out of your way doesn’t mean not being you. It means allowing yourself to be you. If I have 100+ weeks of things to say, surely you have it in you to do your thing, to go to the gym, to try this or that, launch your 501c3 or LLC, start the program, try the class, eat the peach. It’s just a life. “Your playing small does not serve the world.” Get out of your own way.

 

My purpose is to use creativity and connection so that we can become better

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On Wednesday I participated in a leadership conference with 10 of my girls. An interesting layer to the conference was that the middle and high schoolers participated, and facilitators–like me–were able to participate while leading. Teaching is most rewarding when your kids are learning, receiving some intellectual gift, interacting, growing, having fun, building with others, and all the while, you are typically on the sideline. Sometimes, we get to work together, teachers and students. But, for the most part, being a guide on the side makes for a great teacher. Meaning that a chance to learn and grow with the kids, was pretty special. 

The conference was about leadership and purpose and was run by Ross Wehner of World Leadership School, someone I have worked with once in the past, also about purpose. Wehner (who is one of these incredible people who just radiates good things, opportunities, and genius) bases his learning, speaking, and ventures entirely on the huge concept of purpose, and I smell what he is cookin’. Without going down the purpose-rabbit-hole, Wehner talks about how when purpose is central to education, learning increases, applications to the larger world become essential to the learner, life-long scholars are born, and the evils of unhealthy stress, anxiety, and meaninglessness, all decrease. Wehner links stress with meaninglessness, asserting that, and citing others who assert the same, stress is often imposed on those who don’t believe in what they’re doing. This speaks to me in more ways than I can go into.

I also learned that hedonic happiness is happiness that has to do with the self—pursing pleasure, eating pleasure, getting “mine.” Eudaimonic happiness is “based on the premise that people feel happy if they experience life purpose, challenges and growth.”

Throughout the day, using multiple exercises and funneling those results, we came to our own purpose. After what Shar and I thought was an appropriately timed lecture (less so for the teenagers with us), we were able to use these Calling Cards (which I just ordered on Amazon). We narrowed down the activities that most felt true and appealing to us and got down to five–the cards included activities such as “organizing things,” “exploring the way,” “creating dialogue,” “adding humor,” and one that felt very true for me: “making connections.” Short of recounting the entire conference and giving up Wehner’s “aha factor,” from the cards, to a movement activity, to a long conversation with a stranger, and so on, we were able to whittle down a purpose statement. Like a one sentence vision that says: here’s why I am alive.  

I am still somewhat workshopping mine but the best I have right now is something like “Using creativity and connection so that we can become better.” The we, in this case, is everyone, anyone, my girls, me, you, Baltimore, the world. A concept that feels very present to me is connection. If I wrote my own version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music it would contain a line something like, and imagine the tune in your head as you read this,

“Trader Joe’s flowers and whiskers on puppies,

bright social justice murals and Emma’s fleece mittens,

Connecting people I care about, and sometimes complete strangers,

with helpful resources around Baltimore or anywhere I can find them,”

or something more or less broad.

I love making connections among people, among ideas, among opportunities and nonprofits and jobs and yoga studios, long form nonfiction articles, podcasts, my book club, and things I haven’t even thought of yet. I have this narrative in my head that I know and have the best of everything, but rather than a “false narrative,” it’s more of a half naive/half true narrative. 

In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Gladwell starts chapter two, “The Law of the Few” with the story of Paul Revere, and his lesser known fellow revolutionary, William Dawes. Dawes essentially took actions similar to that of Paul Revere, but lacked Revere’s “rare set of social gifts” (p. 33). Revere was what Gladwell calls, a Connector, with a capital C. Revere had a large social network, he was gregarious, and as Gladwell says, his funeral was attended by “troops of people.” He had a slew of hobbies and interests including fishing, hunting, card playing, theatre-going, drinking, business, and he was active in the local Masonic Lodge. History knows Paul Revere. There are poems about him, stories, he’s in history books. We all know, “One if by land, two if by sea.” And who is William Dawes? I know as well as you do. In history, he’s a nobody. Revere caused what Gladwell calls “a word-of-mouth epidemic.” His role as a Connector became essential when, the British were coming.

I feel like I have a few traits in common with Paul Revere–and I’m not talking about the fact that we both have long brown hair, generous cheeks, and a penchant to rest our chins in our right hands.  I think what I have in common with Paul Revere is partially due to the fact that I’ve lived in Baltimore City my entire life and continue to milk it for all it’s worth. I have a lot of people here, and I have a lot of hobbies here. Gladwell says, “In the case of Connectors, their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.” While I do think at my core, I am an introvert who recharges alone and gets irrationally angry at the drivers of luxury vehicles, this speaks to me. And what’s crystalizing in my head following Wednesday’s conference (see the post from April 3), is that my role in the world is that of a Connector. I feel a jolt of the truest joy any time I think of, make, carry out a helpful connection. I love when people turn to me for ideas, people, advice, and that’s increased when or if I can help.

Generally, I think most people really enjoy helping others. In other words, this does not make me unique. From a completely selfish perspective, helping others, making a connection, launching someone into something, recommending a job, giving away a free gym pass, passing along an email address, these things feel good for the helper or connector. I am glad we are wired this way–it’s truly helpful to society, and I urge you to look for ways you can connect and lift up others. There’s a high to be had. Baltimore is a great place for it because we are a small city. We’re insular. Everyone knows everyone. Scary, but also incredibly helpful. It’s easy to connect here. And maybe that’s another reason I fell into this role so easily. I live in an incubator for connection.

Knowing some semblance of my purpose in this world is helpful. It’s funny that Gladwell’s book, which came out in 2000 and which I read more than a decade ago, popped into my head when thinking about this concept of connection. Somewhere in the deep parts of my brain Gladwell’s idea and the description of the “Connector” lived for all these years ready to pop out and take hold. It’s like I knew to remember the concept for when I was ready to be who I really am. Like I knew I would be a Connector.

I was never a die-hard Sex and the City person but I like this summation in the form of a quote from the show: “Enjoy yourself…that’s what your 20s are for. Your 30s are to learn the lessons. Your 40s are to pay for the drinks.” While I’m only 31 and I know I have umpteen more realizations to make, I think I have learned a few lessons already.

Know who you are. Know your purpose. Mine is to use creativity and connection so that we can become better.

Dear Emma

FEmmanist

Dear Emma,

Before you were you, back when you were just a tiny alien-mushy-human-squish. I wrote you letters. I called you “Niecephew” because we didn’t know you were you. I told you how I’d be there for you and what I’d teach you and how well I’d listen. I wrote about what I hoped for you and what you’d be to us and how much we’d love you. But I was wrong.

I was wrong because you far exceed what I imagined you to be. You are quite literally incredible. You lift my soul. I love your smiley face and your smooth forehead, your giggle, and those puffy little feet. Your Bam Bam ponytail and your wobbly practice walk. I love your laugh and the noises you make. I like watching you eat and your happy food dance. I like how you actually “eat your peas one at a time.” I love when you kick your little leggies in a swing or while Momma’s holding you. I can barely handle that you smile and giggle when I arrive to your house–like from a cardiac perspective, I can barely handle it.

Your presence and your splendor have markedly improved my life. I can’t stop visiting you. Your momma says it’s good to have me visit, but I can imagine it’s a lot. I feel drawn to you. Like I must make you laugh. I must make you smile. I need to hold you.

Everyday you’re growing muscles and using brain cells and being amazing. You play peak-a-boo behind the coffee table as you’re doing squats. When you grip the oven handle and dance, you’re working those triceps and forearms. As you roll over Momma and Joe or Dadda or some toy, you’re using those little baby abs.

You look at the world with eyes I envy. Everything is new, everything is interesting, everything matters. Watching you watch anything makes me believe in humanity. I know behind that amazing bouffant there’s a growing brain. You’re taking in knowledge and working it in with what you learned last week, yesterday, and seven minutes ago.

I just need you to know that I am grateful. I am grateful for everything you are. I’m grateful for your joy and innocence, your beauty, vigor, and amusement. I’m grateful to have you as my niece.

Love,

Aunt Amandy

It’s Okay to Keep Exhaling

A couple weeks ago, with Morgan, Beth, and Gabby, I attended a “Second Stoop” at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. We were on the twenty-something floor with an insane view of Baltimore. I was less than a week from an egg retrieval and feeling pretty dauntless. If I can swell my ovaries to several times their normal size and have eggs scooped from my body three times, what can’t I do? The show was called: No Limits: Stories about female leadership, creativity, and resilience.

If you do not know what Stoop Stories are, I am so sorry I haven’t gushed about them to you yet (also surprised). They are probably in my top five favorite Baltimore things. There’s one on Thursday at Creative Alliance: Off the Menu: Stories about memorable meals, colorful customers, and our lives in restaurants. You should totally come!

Stoop Storytelling is a movable event that always has a theme. Typically seven people tell seven minute stories (practiced and coached) on that theme and intermission is a chance to put your name in a hat and tell a story that you haven’t prepared or rehearsed. These are the audience stories. The hosts of Stoop Storytelling are two total badasses: Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. Unrelated: Laura and her husband have been to my yoga class a few times and this makes me few special.

Chas has told a Stoop before, Shar has, Erin Drew, and probably more people I am forgetting to honor. And I really think that my dad, Sean Gahagan, my omie Vince, Morgan, Tim and Phrank Cyphers, and lots of other people need to tell one. It’s so empowering, even to just watch someone tell one, especially if you really love that person.

So a couple weeks ago, with encouragement from my ladies and the assistance of one Duck Pin Pale Ale, I threw my name in a hat. The result is below. This is the first audio blog!

My Stoop Story

All speakers

Five Strangers Walk into a Bar (by Shar Hollingsworth)

Five strangers walked into a bar on last Friday night.

Actually, let me backup first. Jerry was, apparently, my neighbor. I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Mt. Vernon in Baltimore City. Jerry lived on the third floor, until he died in his apartment, inside our building on East Read Street.

Few of us knew him and according to his family, Jerry lived a pretty private life. It is actually more accurate to say none, or few, of us knew him until we began to smell his decomposing body. It was a mild smell at first, one that tenants on the third floor would most notice. Sinmi, my new friend thanks to the late, Jerry, states she made her first call to American Management on February 26th, requesting someone to come take a look, or a sniff. Mind you, she made the call on February 26th, meaning this smell had gotten to a point of concern. American Management said they would send someone out.

However, it wasn’t until March 5th that Jerry’s decomposed body was recovered from his apartment on the third floor. Seven days after Sinmi’s first request for action, an additional week that this man’s body was laying in his apartment decomposing beyond the time it could not be detected from the hallway by neighbors like Sinmi. At work, I’m required to respond to my emails within 48 hours, pretty typical protocol. One would hope that an apartment leasing company would have at least slightly similar requirements when a complaint about a foul, death-like smell was made? Maybe respond to that within 48 hours? In a place where people actually reside? Maybe?

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This is how I first found out.

We can still smell it in the elevator. And, unsurprisingly, by March 5th the smell had traveled to the fifth floor. In this article from The Baltimore Sun from March 7th, American Management claims that, “death happens.” They claim, “We checked it out, we didn’t find any smell. There was no cause for concern.”

So, Simni and Glen organized and mobilized. Nine people gathered together on a Friday evening at 7:30 for a candle lit vigil to pay respects to Jerry’s life. His family wasn’t able to attend, but they provided us with a handwritten note stating “God Bless you All! For caring!” and hung a couple pictures of Jerry. We lit candles and took some time to share what we knew about Jerry (very little). Then, five out of the nine of us decided to walk over to Spirits for a glass of wine and to get to know each other a little.

Five strangers walked into a bar. It is the beginning of a bad joke, and a night that would turn into something both awful and beautiful in its own very weird way.

Because it’s important to this story let me describe the racial makeup of this group. I am sorry, Derek, but I am going to categorize us as simply “white” or “black.” I know there is so much more to each of us, but… I’m doing it. Two white women (including me) two black men, and one black woman.

Glen (black man) walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The bartender poured it and then slid it down the bar four feet to the cash register, telling him he could pick it up when he paid. Sinmi (black woman) ordered a glass of wine, same thing. Glass of wine is poured and slid down to the cash register. “Okay,” I think, “Is this the method they use here?” trying to be optimistic. I went next.

Wine poured. The bartender extended her hand and my glass of wine, smiling as she passed it over to me.  

We all exchanged glances and communicated “what the f***?” with our eyes.

Derek (black man) went next. Glass of wine poured and yet again, slid down the bar to the cash register where he can “pick it up when he pays.” At this moment, Derek and I looked at each other and without saying a word communicated, “Oh yea, this is happening. This is what we think it is.”

Kristen (white woman) went next, glass of wine poured and handed directly to her.

Having met one other approximately thirty minutes prior, at a candlelit vigil for our neighbor whose body had been decomposing in our building for weeks, we were all assessing how to respond to and handle this situation.

That hesitation did not last. We sat down and instantly jumped into a dialogue, completely forgoing small talk that might be expected of people who just met one other. We instantly called out the elephant in the room.

White people: Do me a favor and re-read that scenario. Take your ego out of it and tell me what just occurred.

After chatting over one glass of wine, we decided to leave. Sinmi, in all her beautiful, poised, bravery requested to have a private conversation with the owner. Sinmi described what was just experienced and the owner apologized, but in the same breath, and this is my summary of Simni’s recounting to us: “That wasn’t what was happening. I’ve known her for 12 years. I am a gay (white) woman and know what it is like to be discriminated against and would never put someone behind the bar that would act like that. Can you please take my word for it that, THAT wasn’t happening?”

Pause.

So this woman was basically saying, to another human, “Please trust me that your experiences and what you are feeling did not happen because I have known this woman for 12 years and I, myself, am a gay woman?”

I was acutely aware of the body language of THE bartender who stood watching Sinmi like a hawk. She was outwardly scoffing and rolling her eyes. Hate and anger was flowing off of her. I also observed the owner of the restaurant doing far too much talking, while Sinmi empathetically and patiently nodded her head.

My fellow white people: Shut up and listen. Listen first. Listen to truly listen and hear, not to respond.

We exited the bar, adrenaline pumping, and decided to go somewhere else.

We spent the first thirty minutes or so at The Elephant being charmed by an 18 year old magician, who had been practicing magic for ten years. Sinmi leaned over and whispered to me, “This kid is brave to be so into magic at his age.” Which is true; he was unapologetically loving every moment of his magic trick performance. Kristen, unimpressed, and needing scientific backing for all things, challenged him, prompting laughs from both him and the audience.

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(left to right) Me, Sinmi, and the magician.

The magic tricks had taken the edge off of the previous bar’s events and we all transitioned to a small side room with sofas and games to talk. Again, measly small talk that is often expected when people hang out for the first time was not even an option, as Glen asked thought-provoking question after question to us all, he reminded me to, “Keep it 100,” when asking about my biggest culture shock from coming from my rural, primarily white upbringing and to living in Baltimore City.  

Derek spoke about culture shock related to west and east coast living and the tendency we, as humans (and I, in this piece) have done to simply put people in boxes of “white” or “black” when the reality is that we are so much more, he is so much more. He spoke about how this discounts other parts of his identity. As he spoke I thought and challenged myself in my own mind, knowing that this is an error I can sometimes make. Throughout the night, we were all vulnerable and real in our conversations, which just encouraged deeper vulnerability.

We had known each other for about and hour and a half at this point.

Sinmi got up to request a food menu. She walked into the main area to find THE Bartender and THE Bartender’s friend. She walked by and this grown ass woman who, I am guessing is in her 40s, extended her leg and kicked Sinmi in the thigh. Yes, kicked her.

Sinmi came back to our room and described what had just happened, clearly upset, while also showing incredible grace in this situation. Honestly, this woman was pure grace in all of her interactions.

Fast forward about fifteen minutes and Bartender and Bartender’s friend are in our little room in our faces screaming acusatorials at Sinmi. “What is your end game!? What is your end game!?!?” Neither woman was able to elaborate exactly what she meant by this when asked by Glen. Sinmi tried to speak and Bartender looked at her like she was a child, or an animal, and with her finger in her face said, “Shut up. I will get to you.” I tried to say something and her friend turned to me saying, “You. Shut the f*** up.”

So, in my mind at this point I was battling with a couple thoughts. 1.) I’m white, these people are white–what can I do to connect with them and help them see how they are wrong? 2.) How can I be most helpful right now? How can I use my voice, while also not out speaking Sinmi. This black woman, does not need this white woman speaking for her, but, how can I speak with her?  How can I both face my own participation in whiteness while also challenging mind-sets and and people that prop up this whiteness? 3.) I found myself suddenly in the back and was standing idly behind Glen and Derek. I did not want to be passive in this. I aligned my body physically next to Sinmi, but also a step behind her. She has a voice and was using it, I didn’t need to speak over her, but I did want her to feel my physical support and let her know that bitches better believe I am ready to step in.

Bartender and Bartender’s friend were  not listening to anything anyone is saying. Apparently Bartender’s friend is married to a black man. Yes, she shared that.

White people: Save your, “I have a black friend” comments. Good for you. Good for me. Do not respond to someone challenging or questioning your actions when it comes to race or white privilege with a resume type response of all the charitable work you do (which Bartender went into an extensive rant about) and how many black men (or women) you have dated.  I’m watching these women do this and thinking “Good GOD, white people. What are we doing??”

Derek looked at us all and made a comment along the lines of, “These women must really hate themselves. Let’s take a moment and just feel for them.”

Drop the freaking mic.

My mind was taken to James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time,  and a line in his book that I’ve grappling with for a while, “White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

As these women were talking at us and not with us in any way, I was struck by how much hate and anger was coming off of them. That’s a miserable way to live.

We left. We chose to walk away without resolution, apology, or any sort of acknowledgment that Bartender and Bartender’s friend are blatantly wrong. We left because three out of five of us were black and think about it: There’s a crowd of people in the streets at midnight, profanities are flying, yelling, fingers waving in faces, (all of which primarily are coming from them) and if the cops showed up, who would be questioned first?

White people: What are you, we, me doing to learn how to accept and love ourselves and each other WHILE also acknowledging this whiteness that we are part of, that we participate in, and have benefited from?  Then, and this is the important part, what are we doing to remove our egos, remove our defenses and link that to how a very intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions allows this privilege to continue? You are fabulous, I am fabulous, and we have benefited from our whiteness. We continue to benefit from our whiteness. Let’s love ourselves and each other while also honestly unpacking that privilege.

What if I told you that Sinmi was a white woman and Bartender is a black woman? Would it have been handled differently? Would you think about this woman being kicked as she walks through the bar differently?  

The five of us: Derek, Sinmi, Kristen, Glen, and I walked the 0.1 miles home to our apartment building. We walked past the remnants of the small vigil for Jerry, whom we never really knew. Derek and I walked Sinmi, Kristen, and Glen to their doors on the third floor where we all hugged goodnight. Derek and I continued to the fifth floor where we, too, hug goodnight and retire to our apartments.

Five strangers walked into a bar, stir up some shit, acknowledge and address blatant racism, show incredible grace and love, ask questions and listen to each other, and then walk home as friends. Jerry, although we didn’t know you, your impact is still felt by the neighbors who rest their heads near where you rested yours one final time. Thank you, Jerry, for your patience, for these new friendships, for pushing us to face difficult conversations, and for one hell of a strange story. 

Shar Hollingsworth is a radiant being. She grew up in Garrett County, Maryland, earned a BS in Psychology from Towson University and an MS in counseling psychology from Frostburg State University. She has worked as a mental health counselor, addiction counselor, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 27 months in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), located in Southern Africa. She moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a short time after her service and then to Baltimore where she works as the Scholar Support Coordinator at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School. She enjoys time with her family, laughing loudly, reading, yoga, athletics of all kinds, snuggling with her cat Raffi, travel, humanity, and learning. Should you wish to comment on her story, you may reach her via email at shar.hollingsworth@gmail.com, CC me (Amandy), I’m curious!

 

A Hard Thing We’re Not Supposed to Talk About

This story is purposefully not date-stamped because this piece is not about a sprint. This piece is about a marathon. And while I am exploding with the need to share this story, there’s a lot about it I cannot and do not want to discuss, including where we are with this and why we are in this at all.

I wrote, because I needed to, and because I’ve been writing it in my head and my heart for a long time. I also think this is a story that’s under-told and it’s important that the world (or at least my list of a few dozen readers) knows that things that are easy for some, sometimes even too easy, are not easy for others. There are a lot of women I did not know I shared this journey with until I opened up about it (do I sound a little like a contestant on The Bachelor?). What at first feels like the closest secret, gradually, as I shared with women I knew, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t talking about it before. So again, no wheres, no whys, and if you work in health insurance, just close the tab right now. This is not that interesting. Seriously, go away. 

 

It’s 6:36 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am pulling into a sparse parking lot. I see another woman about my age in a car a few rows away so I rush even more quickly to grab my waiting gear: lap top, water, and coffee. I head toward the glow, yank open the door, too rushed to hit the blue opener button, and power walk to the steps inside which I bound two and three at a time. I throw open the door on the third floor, and see that I am fifth in line.

The office doesn’t open until 7 o’clock and I am 24 minutes early, but I am fifth in line. I settle into my spot against the wall and begin attacking the day’s emails.  I’m here, sitting on a well-worn carpet next to a metal box for disposed needles. When the desk-nurse-person-lady arrives a few minutes later, she walks past our row of female desperation and says nothing. She unlocks the door without greeting us (she will say hi if it’s Friday) and lets us into the next waiting chamber, where we will sign our names and write our phone numbers, in order of arrival. Although it disgusts me, I also almost enjoy her lack of grace because it proves everything I feel about these types of situations when I’m feeling pessimistic. We are not unique. We are all just letters and numbers on a list. And they put on Today’s Lite (sic) 101.9 to drown out our yawns, sighs, and hushed conversations with our partners. When “Moves Like Jagger” comes on again, I consider taking the knock-off Bose and throwing it down the stairwell. Nevertheless, she persisted.

So we wait, with drawn faces, avoiding eye contact, because this is private, we suffer alone, our journey is our own, and IVF is not something you’re supposed to talk about or share. I think in this case, and other situations similar, silence begets silence and because no one talks about it, no one talks about. What I have found having been on this road for a good chunk of time, is kind of the other side of what the desk-nurse-person-lady makes me feel. Yes, I am not unique and my letters and numbers might be on that list, but I’m also not the only one. And while we don’t talk or really interact at all–I’ve done way more eavesdropping than I have actual conversing–the ladies in the hallway and in the waiting room, we all have one another. Our co-presence proves that we are not alone, that this has all been done before and it’s worked before and it’s been painful and exhausting and so draining and unpredictable, before. But there are also babies’ photos on the board in the back and notes I try to steal a moment to read from women whose feet occupied the same metal stirrups mine do now.

 

There are many reasons that women go through IVF. This is hardly a single story. 

But what we don’t have in common pales in comparison to what we do have in common. When I look around the waiting room and see couples and women alone, I know that each of the women, between 4 and 8 p.m. every night, is rubbing her belly with alcohol preps. She takes the G one out of the fridge and clicks the right dose because it’s a multi-use pen. Subcutaneously, in it goes. I prefer to do the M one first because it hurts more. With the M one, she has to uncap and then rub the tops with another prep. She uses the Q cap to open the vial, draw out the liquid and use the Q cap to put the liquid in with the powder. She draws the powder and liquid mixture back out into the syringe. Then, subcutaneously back into the fold she creates in her belly. When she first starts doing it, it’s hard not to bruise. (The very first week my belly looked like an unpeeled, unrolled plum skin.) When she’s farther along, she adds the C one. This one is the worst. There’s a syringe pre-loaded with liquid she has to use a needle straw to put the liquid into powder, mix that, suck it back up the needle straw, switch the needles out in the syringe and then finally, into the belly. 

If there’s a woman in the next phase in the waiting room, I know what she’s doing every night, too. She’s slapping estrogen patches on her sides every other day, ripping them off, leaving goo behind because it’s impossible not to, and then she’s adding more where she can’t see any goo. She’s creating a sort of gray graph paper all over her abdomen. The patches make her feel crazy, but she’s not sure if it’s just this whole thing making her feel crazy. Tears come at random and so does anger. She will keep adding patches until she’s 11 weeks pregnant. Then, maybe, she gets to be like the rest of humanity?

She and we are all navigating this world of shots and hormones, full bruisy or sticky bellies, confusing feelings, hope and not-hope.

 

I appreciate when they summon me by my first name. “Ms. Amanda” is also kind of sweet. I’ve waited my turn and it’s time to enter the caverns of the office. I confirm my name and date of birth for the 2230948th time in the past year. I’ve watched that “age” field rise. I undress from the waist down, cover myself in my paper sheet, and saddle up. There are several doctors who could walk in. I have my faves and I certainly have my least faves. Today’s doctor walks in (she’s fine, tiny, young, a little aggressive with the pressure), asks me how I am, and I remark that several of the doctors in this practice are pregnant, including her. We joke that she should share the wealth. It’s not actually funny, though.

I slide down the bed and she tells me that I will feel her hand and up goes the camera. We look at my eggs on the screen as she measures each of them with clicks and strokes as a nurse assistant records their sizes on a sticky note. I imagine a wall somewhere in the back with all of these sticky notes peppering the plaster like a science fiction fertility rainbow shrine. It’s clear my eggs need a couple more days even though I feel like I’m carrying a Tupperware full of jello in my belly. We finish and I head downstairs to the lab to get my blood drawn. Unfortunately, the lab just got an electronic check-in system. This means that most days I have to wait for 1-3 elderly people to figure out what a touch screen is. I have a favorite phlebotomist, she, like the doctors upstairs, is also pregnant. She listens to gospel in the mornings and always checks on me.

The office will call me later in the day with my blood results, which might as well be in Japanese, and to give me my injection instructions and when to return. I always let this go to voicemail out of fear that I will get nervous and forget the directions if I take the call live.

 

There are several things comprised in IVF in which I’d never thought I’d be skillful: giving myself shots, having my blood regularly drawn, surgeries, being completely out of control of my own body, forgoing exercise, anesthesia, and visiting into a medical office 2-3 times per week and being late for work on the days I have appointments. 

If IVF were up to the man, I think it would be a public topic. I think men would speak out about their journeys and discuss their difficulties. I think they’d qualify their tears and explain away. Fox News would report about how hard it is for men to go through infertility treatments and that it hurts their penises and their egos. But the world will never know. Because fertility control and infertility treatments are all up to women. And we can do hard things and keep them to ourselves. Although, we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we can’t. Right?

But men do have a role, if they choose to accept it. And not everyone in this situation has a partner like I do. Chas comes to every appointment and brings our folder of paperwork, which started out the thickness of a quarter and is now more of a tree trunk. Sometimes the nurses make fun of him “doing his homework.” He writes down the questions we have, because I am usually too emotional or weird to even remember what it is we need to know. He asks them to repeat answers, he pushes for me to receive the best care. Sometimes when Chas says something to the doctor, I realize how much better equipped he is for the science aspects of this than I am and that in some ways, he’s better at caring for me than I am for myself. I’ve joked that he’s my manager. Whatever he is, he’s a good one.

Now that I am part of this world, I feel pride when I hear about well-known IVF-ers. Becoming by Michelle Obama is next on my nightstand but I already feel pride that she spoke about about her own IVF journey. This article makes the point I keep thinking about too. IVF is a luxury for those who have the insurance to cover it or, god knows how, the money to pay for it themselves. Because education and economic inequality are often closely tied, this, from the same article, struck me in particular: “The education gap is equally stark. While 56% of adults with a postgraduate degree say that they have either undergone infertility treatment or know someone who has, only 20% of those with a high school degree or less report experience or knowledge of infertility treatment.”

I know that I am fortunate that I am able to do this and on the days I feel like the fattest tub of lard and that this is never going to result in anything, I have to remember that I have an option and not everyone does. I have a support system who will listen to me and that same support system respects that Chas does not ever want to talk about it.

When I look back at this time in five years, a decade, a few decades, I hope I remember only that I was stronger than I thought I was, that I can do hard things, and that it was all totally worth it.