When you break up with someone, you have to deal with the pain. No phone calls, texts, or emails. No calling from blocked numbers just to see if he’ll pick up. You have to face the agony head-on, like giving birth without an epidural. I’ve never had to do that, but I imagine it can’t feel any better than heartbreak.
The days will be long. You’ll spend your free time wishing you could just fall asleep but your body will refuse to. You’ll watch the clock, as if marking time will inspire a miraculous turnaround of events. As if you could take back your decision.
That text is just your sister sending pics from her vacation in Miami. The knock on the door is just your neighbor’s brother trying to sell you studded T-shirts and a so-called Gucci iPhone case. Don’t get that desperate.
Go outside. Walk. Feel the air, watch the people, smile at the squirrels. They’re all doing what you must continue to do—they’re living. When you go back inside, cry if you need to. Eat a brownie and drink a ton of water. Ok, white wine. Watch five minutes of a bad movie, then turn it off and watch something else. Cry some more, drink some more—water this time—and breathe. When all else fails, repeat.
I shouldn’t tell myself not to be upset. I don’t need to tell myself to get over it. I have to allow myself to feel what I’m feeling first, then move on. Ride it out. Feel the pain just as I would feel joy. Understand that raw, embittered emotion so I can learn how to cope with it. Dulling it with food, alcohol, sleep, sex, or any other distraction often makes things worse. Accept the feeling, then allow it to subside naturally. That’s how you get tougher.
Two years ago today, my grandmother, whom we affectionately called Weya, passed away. She was 88 and just a few weeks shy of her Valentine’s Day birthday. Though dementia robbed her of the final eight years of her life, she continued to dream big, make us laugh, and inspire us to be better. I was her “Nini,” and she was woman who could do no wrong. On the second anniversary of her passing, I’d like to honor her with this list of five things I loved about her:
1. She was deeply caring.
Weya pulled our family through some seriously tough times, such as my parents’ divorce. She made sure my siblings and I had an amazing dinner each night (my favorite dish was her “juice mixtre,” with boiled potatoes, ground beef, and tomato sauce). She pressed our heads, ironed our clothes, and tucked us in at night. She gave my sisters and me advice on how to be upstanding young ladies. I may have slipped from some of her guidance–“Boys and girls who aren’t married shouldn’t sleep in the same bed,” she once said–but I’ll never forget how much she nurtured me in my formative years. I still have a pajama top she gave me when I was 12, when I got food poisoning from Burger King.
2.She was feisty.
My grandmother was a genteel Southern lady who cooked homemade greens and watched “Matlock” reruns, but she was no pushover. I’ll never forget the time a man came to our door and, upon introducing himself as Darnell, Weya got buck. “That’s not my Darnell!” she shouted, referring to my uncle. We couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, we still burst out with that line randomly. Her reaction was funny, but more important, it showed how tough she was. She wasn’t going to allow anyone to mislead her, even if she was innocently wrong. And in the days when AOL was the most popular ISP, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell us we were “tying up the line.”
3.She was innocently superstitious.
Weya held endearing superstitions for the smallest circumstances. When it stormed, we had to turn off the lights and sit in total darkness–and silence–until it passed. “God is working,” she’d say. No more than one person could do our hair at a time. Opening an umbrella in the house? No, thank you. And, sweetly, I believed everything she said, much of which I only recently gave up. I don’t mind two people dabbling in my head at once anymore and I opened an umbrella in my room one afternoon (just to see what would happen), but I always remember her stern warnings. They make me smile now.
4.She seemed invincible.
I don’t ever recall Weya crying about anything. She remained poised and classy, even when things were positively heinous. I’d wonder how she could run her hands under scalding-hot water without flinching. On road trips, she neeeeever needed bathroom breaks. I rarely saw her eat, with the exception of a few pork rinds or pig’s feet. She couldn’t even admit to falling asleep–when we’d catch her dozing off, she’d insist she was just “resting her eyes.” It seemed that nothing could shake this woman. Though none of us can be perfect, Weya carried an unbelievable sense of pride, dignity, and resolve that put her pretty close to the mark.
5. She was grateful.
Although my beliefs eventually diverged from Weya’s traditional Christianity, I admire the hope and gratitude her faith gave her. After she had forgotten how to walk and talk, she still dreamed about going places, meeting new people, and enjoying life. She’d qualify all her plans with “If the Lord spares me” and shout out “Thank you, Jesus!” at 3 a.m. She couldn’t watch her favorite TV shows and make salmon croquettes with her disease, but she continued to exalt the heavens for all she had. That amazes me–this woman was bedridden and could barely remember our names, but she was so happy and grateful. If she could be thankful for her life even as her mental faculties failed her, so could anyone.
Weya’s dementia was hard to deal with sometimes. Before I understood what was happening in her brain, I couldn’t understand why she would lash out at me for no reason, or why she couldn’t walk through airport security when I escorted her home one time. I got angry. I got annoyed. I didn’t sit with her all the time.
Looking back, however, I’m thankful that I was able to do small things for her last days, whether it was putting lotion on her legs, reading her a few verses from the Bible, or feeding her macaroni and cheese while rubbing her head. Her final years forced me to look deeply at my own humanity and at hers. I will never forget this amazing woman. Though she is gone, her words, deeds, and spirit will dwell in my heart forever.
Life feels painful, slow and tedious. I can’t think. I can’t sleep. I want to drop-kick people for just looking at me the wrong way. I feel like a bitter hag destined to eat frosting and flick cats off the coffee table for the rest of my life. I want to stay in my room, bother-free, until the fog dissipates. But while it’s still there, I’m a grumpy old woman.
The most difficult part about this hell week is remembering that it’s temporary. My life really isn’t in shambles. People, usually, aren’t that annoying. And no, I won’t be the mean old cat lady. But my hormone goggles depict the world in that light. They force my spirits and gaze downward, as if the worst days of my existence are upon me. When the cycle’s over, everything’s sunny again. Remembering that–instead of condemning myself–is crucial.
When raging PMS or general moodiness bogs down your general well-being, focus on the good things around you. Appreciate the simple details of life—a smiling stranger, a compliment, the relaxing feeling of a nighttime walk. Take a bath, read a book, watch a movie. And as counterintuitive as it may seem, opening up to people when you’re in a foul mood can be therapeutic. Be honest and specific about your sour feelings, but don’t let them overtake you. Soon enough, you’ll feel fine again. In the meantime, don’t chop anyone’s head off—or your own!
Today, remember that you are entitled to your own unique existence. You are an individual, and you have every right to move through the world at your own cadence. Do not focus on your progress compared to that of others. Keep pushing and thriving on your own accord. While others go about living their own lives, you are free to live yours without justifying yourself. And in maintaining your independence, you allow others to maintain theirs.
We women have our shortcomings. We talk about our hair more than the average man cares to hear. We get in other folks’ business more than the IRS. Some things, though, are as unforgivable as Diddy’s pop-group pimping. If you’re a woman who desires respect and admiration, I’d advise you to refrain from the following:
1. Wearing too-light foundation. There’s a rule about clothes—they always, always look better when they fit. Not too baggy, not too tight, but just right. The same rule applies for makeup. If you could double for Patrick Swayze in your NC45, it’s time to get a darker shade. Now, I understand that many of us still have hangups about our complexions. The media doesn’t help us. Several major cosmetics companies — cough, Almay, cough, Neutrogena — still think Lucy Liu is dark. Many brands, fortunately, do recognize human skin tones are vast. Trust me, brown paper bags are for groceries, and that’s only if you don’t have reusable bag. The shade that matches your skin tone — whether you’re Paula Patton, Jennifer Hudson, or Viola Davis — is always going to look prettiest on you. Anything lighter might make you appear insecure.
2. Wearing leggings as pants. Since the revival of these ’80s staples in about 2006, spandex has been up everyone’s crack. And not just the one you sit on. They’re much more comfortable than constricting skinny jeans, but they have been sorely misused. I was officially disturbed with the trend when, under the high midday sun, a fuller-figured girl’s blue-and-pink polka-dotted drawers stung my eyes. She was wearing leggings—as pants. With a tiny polo shirt. And her underwear gleaming right through them. Unless you’re working a Michael Kors runway, we commonfolk have no interest in seeing which pair of Hanes you pulled from the three-pack today. I don’t care if you’re wearing a thong, granny panties, or nothing at all [side eye] — leggings are not like pants, period. Your top should cover your rear. If not, find something else to wear and stop insulting us with your cracks.
3. Talking about your sex life on Facebook. I can deal with the fascinating I’m-doing-laundry posts. I can even deal with the 47th pic of you in the bathroom, though to much lesser extent. I cannot, however, bear the vivid details of your sexual encounters. Unless it’s snowing, I don’t ever want to read about white stuff in your status (Yes, I really did one time. I evicted her from the feed). Unless you have a dog named Richard and a cat named Fluffy, stop talking, now. Though we’re even more open about our sexuality than our predecessors, Facebook is the place where you share the family-friendly parts of your life. What happens in your bedroom isn’t anyone’s business. Take down those pics of you biting your finger, too.
4. Wearing heels higher than three inches during the day. Nothing says “I’m low-maintenance, sensible, and forward-thinking” like a five-inch platform pump at 8 in the morning. Nothing is more practical, comfortable, and stylish than walking up steep hills and stomping down escalators in four-inch Aldo wedges. Ok, I’ll cut the offenders some slack here. The right shoe can upgrade even the most basic outfit. And we all admire a girl with a mean shoe game. But please, for the love of Dr. Scholl’s, try to keep your heels lower during the day, at least while you’re running errands, commuting, or working (unless you, um, work at Stadium. Look that up yourself. It’s in DC.). You’ll avoid the Kevin Hart buckle and your feet will feel better. Win-win!
5. Talking in a baby voice on purpose. I love my 3-year-old nephew’s speech. Every basic word or phrase he says is cuter, sweeter, and funnier because it’s coming out his little voicebox. Sadly, I also hear that same chirpy chatter from people taller than 3’2”. I understand if your voice is naturally high-pitched. You can’t control that any more than you can control the price of a washcloth in Burundi. But if you’re using an irritatingly elfin voice because you think it sounds cute, you are sorely mistaken. No one agrees with you. In fact, most people just want you to shut up. I’m all about self-expression, so please, say what’s on your mind. Just leave the baby talk for Heidi Klum or somebody.
What other bad habits should sensible women give up?
If you ever did time in that penitentiary called middle school, you know that preteen kids can be unequivocally mean. They’ll make up crude chants about your hair, clothes, or your prepubescent taste in zit-faced boys. They’ll spread rumors about who you tongue-kissed after school, refuse to dance with you at the spring fling, and call you “waterhead” as you put your tray away in the cafeteria. This awkward period between childhood and true adolescence can be traumatic for anyone, but it was especially harrowing for my fragile young heart.
I recently caught a flash of those embarrassing moments when I walked past a lineup of students from the Middle School of Mathematics and Science at Howard University on my way to the library. If it were 1976, pig’s blood could have fallen from the sky. But I smiled, held my shoulders back, and walked forward. I’m beyond those days, I thought. I know who I am and I accept myself. I kept walking. And, in a juicy plot twist that would’ve made Stephen King cower, a sprightly voice called out to me:
“You look cute!”
I paused for a millisecond. Well, I’ll be—a middle-school girl had something nice to say to me! Where was she 14 years ago? As I beamed and thanked her, more compliments followed. Another girl told me again, in the same tone as the first, that I looked cute. The next girl complimented my Steve Madden combat boots. I smiled like a Miss USA contestant as I walked past that lineup, thanking each charming girl for her kindness. I wore that grin long after I plopped down with my laptop in the library.
What kind of alternate universe had I stepped into, where middle-school girls are all sweet and nice and flattering? Had they really gotten that much nicer, or had my positive thinking projected an air of confidence? It could be either or both, but one thing was certain—those compliments felt great. And with all the stereotypes about black women being angry and critical, the fact that the praise came from little black girls made it even lovelier.
I don’t know what goes on in the school hallways nowadays, but I do know that those young ladies deserve praise for their candid kindness. When you’re that age, it’s easy to point fingers and sling insults at innocent people. But those girls presented themselves with an air of class that often eludes their peers. Their simple admiration helped my day sparkle a little more.
With time and some serious soul-searching—and hey, even therapy— you realize that the kids who picked on you never defined you. You learn to shed your insecurities and enjoy being yourself, whatever that entails. You learn that compliments are much more valuable than insults. So walk proudly, give praise freely. You never know what that person has gone through. If I learned anything from my middle-school retake, it’s that being nice is so much, well, nicer than being nasty—at any age.