A love letter

10 year old Monya sitting at a typewriter
10 year old me

Dear 10-year old Monya,

I see you, sitting in front of the typewriter Grandma Flo gave you when you moved away; your fingers stained various shades of black from the ink ribbon, your head full of short story ideas. You wrote your first piece, “The Three Little Kittens’ First Christmas,” when you were 6, and haven’t let up since. I wish I could somehow speak back through the years and tell you to not to forget how much you love it. Because you will.

In the years not long after this picture, you will put the typewriter in the closet along with your goals of seeing your name on the cover of a book someday. You’ll stuff down your creativity: your love of reading, writing, and music, along with your intelligence because at some point it becomes uncool to be smart. You’ll learn to be exactly who they want you to be: quiet, agreeable, convenient. You’ll do all this without question or hesitation. You won’t even put up a fight. It will never feel quite true, but over time, you won’t remember what true feels like, so this might as well be it.

I don’t mean to sound like you won’t have a good life – you’ll know happiness and joy – but you won’t be living authentically. Don’t be discouraged by this – most people aren’t their living as their authentic selves either. We all go through life striving to be versions of ourselves that we think are the most attractive to other people that are also trying to be the most digestible version of themselves. It’s a pretty silly concept if we were to stop and think about it, but few seldom do.

The good news is that you will start to question it eventually. You’ll start to remember bits of who you were before you decided that you weren’t enough. You’ll fight it for a little while, but eventually the curiosity will get the better of you, and you’ll start to lean in. You’ll remember your creative side and how much you love to read, write, and how you need music like you need air or water. You’ll very slowly and timidly start to create again. I can’t yet say whether or not it takes off like maybe it would have if you had questioned it sooner – I’m not that far in yet.

As you continue to lean in to the questions you have about who you actually are, you’ll find that you have some pretty strong opinions about things that you hadn’t really stopped to consider before, and many of them aren’t quite in alignment with some of the people and situations you’ve tolerated before. You’ll realize that you’re a little bit crazy about humanity – especially those kept in the margins. It turns out that all those years you spent trying to be someone mainstream society found acceptable will be absolute wasted time, because it’s those people on the fringes that you connect with most. You’ll realize that community and relationship comes easy with the right people.

It’s been a little more than 30 years since this picture of you with your typewriter was snapped, and I’d be lying if I said most of them weren’t spent living as someone that’s not fully you. While I can’t go back and change anything, I can commit to continuing to rediscover and reacquaint myself with the person that’s been hidden for so long. You have always been enough.

An older, wiser version of yourself

Clearness committee or board of directors: whatever you call it, we all need one

I’m currently reading an advance copy of a book called “Make a Move: How to Stop Wavering and Make Decisions in a Disorienting World” by Stephanie O’Brien; a pastor, preacher, author, and activist in Minnesota. I signed up for this book launch for a myriad of reasons, the largest of which being that one of my biggest character flaws (besides being a grown woman and not knowing how to apply makeup) is that I completely suck at making decisions – from what to eat for dinner to what to do with my life – and the title of this book spoke directly to me. Basically, I get to read a book that, on the surface at least, seems to be written specifically for me before it hits the public; and I hopefully get some helpful advice on how to get past what Pastor Steph as she is known on the interwebs calls “decision paralysis,” and maybe my life moves forward a little bit. There is no scenario in which I lose here. And Pastor Steph? Well, lucky her – she gets her book put in front of the literal tens of people that might read what I write about it.

Full disclosure – I have not finished the book yet, so this is nowhere near anything that can be called a comprehensive summary or review. The purpose of this post is purely for me to process a concept that was introduced in Chapter 5 that Pastor Steph calls the “Clearness Committee Process.” The basic idea of a clearness committee is that as tempting as it is to make large decisions on our own, life altering decisions are best made in community. This isn’t meant to be a call-your-bestie-and-see-what-they-think kind of community decision making, this is an actual process with a specific group of people that you trust enough to charge with this task. In her book, Pastor Steph lays out the process for this group, and sadly, it does not involve sitting around tossing out ideas over a bottle of wine. It actually sounds like mentally and probably emotionally exhausting work. There are ground rules about keeping the focus on the person needing discernment, time limits, and reflection. And the real kicker? There’s no guarantee that at the end of the session, the person facing the decision will have actually made one. Rude. What the Clearness Committee Process does do though, is require the person to answer questions from outside perspectives causing them to think more deeply about the decision from other angles, and then provides reflection from the viewpoints of the other people involved in the process. So while it’s not a fast-track to decision making, it’s definitely a useful tool in preventing the person from spiraling through their own cycle of thoughts, and ensures that when a decision is made, it has been made with a level of information and wisdom that you could never have if you chose to try to make the decision on your own.

Let’s take a little side trip now, and I promise we’ll circle back around. In January, I joined an online group called the Red House Writer’s Collective, which is the brainchild of author and speaker and all-around charismatic person, Kathi Lipp. The goal of The Collective is to “combine check-ins, community, coaching, and a proven 12-month program to help writers build a sustainable career from their message.” For sake of brevity, I won’t go into the entire structure of the program, but the coaching component is typically live video sessions with an expert in whichever area The Collective is focused on that month: create (content), serve (your audience), or build (your business). In March, the focus area of The Collective was the “build” piece. This is the piece that I struggle with most, because how on earth am I supposed to build a business that doesn’t exist? While this aspect never got what I would consider easy, I did eventually come to terms with the idea that, while I don’t have a business to build, I am actively trying to build myself as a brand, and the two are not really all that different. Once I came to that realization, I found myself going back through recordings of the videos that had been presented during the month; now with a little more of an open mind. One of the videos that I revisited was presented by Kathi Lipp herself, and was on the topic of creating a board of directors. I hadn’t given it much attention when she was presenting it live (who needs a board of directors when you don’t have a business, right?), but with my new outlook, thought maybe I should give it another listen. Kathi explained the role of a writer/speaker/business owner’s board of directors as a group of people that provide structure and accountability for the goals that you set for yourself. This group should include someone who knows you well, someone who is familiar with the industry, someone who will be a cheerleader, someone who will help you to set, and adhere to, boundaries, and a spiritual warrior who will hold you up in prayer. The first time I heard Kathi talk about this concept, I only about half heard what she was saying because the negative self-talk going through my head was talking so much louder, but after some reflection, and chapter 5 of the “Make a Move” book, it hit me: this concept of a board of directors isn’t much different than the concept of a clearness committee!

It’s funny how much power words have, and how just changing the vocabulary of a concept can take some of the pressure off. The idea of a board of directors sounds like a no-brainer to anyone running a business of any size. I once worked for a non-profit agency with a staff of four people, and we had a board of directors. Conversely, the school district I most recently taught in employs roughly 2800 people, and naturally they fall under a board of directors as well. It’s a straightforward concept when you’re coming from a business standpoint. From a personal standpoint though, it was a little bit scary, and made me think it just wasn’t something I was ready for yet. Once I made the connection between a board of directors to a clearness committee however, it felt like something I was qualified for. Silly, right? Both are a specific group of people with intentional roles to support and guide you to make the best decision for a specific situation. I’m calling this small epiphany a win in my personal journey, and I am going to start intentionally thinking of people that would serve me well in this role – whether I call it a clearness committee or a board of directors.

Some vague clarity moving forward (if only for me)

Man, I love a good contradiction in terms. “Which is it?” you might be wondering, “Vague or clear?” And my honest, really not trying to frustrate anyone, answer is both.

We’ll start with the vague. This part is pretty simple. I still don’t know what my purpose is. I still don’t know what exactly I’m searching for. I don’t know if I’m looking for a job with an existing organization or if I’m leaning toward an entrepreneur kind of situation. I’m not sure if I’ll continue to develop my current manuscript (resembling a memoir) or if I’ll scrap it and take my publication efforts in a completely different direction. Oddly enough, for a person that thrives on certainty, I’ve found a pretty crazy level of peace in all this vague not knowing.

Here’s what I do know: the clarity piece of this puzzle. I have done a remarkable amount of self-reflection in the past couple of weeks, and have had some pretty big “aha”s. When I launched this blog, the intention was “to establish community with people that share my affection for humanity and my passion for social justice and to learn about different people, customs, cultures, etc. outside of my very small circle of experience.” That is a direct quote from my first post in February 2020. Somewhere along the way though, I got caught up in the idea of somehow building a business. I’m not sure how the blog ever fit into that idea, or if it did at all, but suddenly building a business became a big focus for me. The more I worked toward building this business, the more discouraged I became, and here’s why: I was trying to build on something that doesn’t exist. I don’t offer a product or a service. People aren’t calling me to offer my expertise on anything. There is no business to build. I got to the point where I was ready to scrap the whole nonexistent thing and just get a job, because at least working for someone else I would have some concrete direction and clear expectation.

And then one day it hit me – rather bluntly – during a fairly difficult conversation with my counselor (whom I typically love, but less so on this particular day). I don’t remember what exactly was said, or how it was stated, but the theme I logged off the session with was this: I am not building a business. There is no business – that was never the goal. I am however, building a brand. I am the brand that I am building. If I continue to build myself as a brand, staying true to the values that are important to me, any business I choose to build will come organically.

So there you have it: still pretty vague overall, but the little bit of clarity has been game changing. In the weeks since that session, I have been reading and reflecting, and really digging in to my values and the things I want for my life. Among those values, inclusion, acceptance, and community stand front and center, and it’s time I bring the focus back to that.

How do I celebrate Black History Month as a white girl?

Full transparency here – Black History Month is one of those things that I’ve always read about and admired quietly. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things like that. I’ve never really been sure if it’s ok for me to celebrate Black History Month as a white girl. I think I’ve always been concerned that because it’s not my heritage, it’s disrespectful for me to take part in it – like I’m afraid to do it wrong. What I have decided in the last couple years as I have spent more and more time trying to educate myself on things outside of my comfort zone is that I would rather get it wrong and learn from my mistakes than remain in my own ignorance.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m reading books and articles by Black authors, I’m following Black social media accounts, I’m seeking out how to better support Black owned businesses, and basically learning as much as I can about Black history, culture, and community. I’m sharing a resource every day on my social media accounts just in case someone actually follows me and might want to learn along with me.

Here’s what I’m not doing. I’m not asking Black people to educate me and answer questions I can find the answers to using my own resources. They are not my Google and it is not their job to rescue me from the whitewashed history I have experienced growing up. If I am called out for getting something wrong (as is likely), I will not take it as a personal attack, and instead use it as an opportunity to further learn.

I am also committing to continuing my education beyond February 28, because Black culture and all the things we have to learn from it can’t be fit into one month. I welcome input, constructive criticism, and productive conversation. If you’re white, I invite you to follow along and learn with me (my social media accounts are linked to this page). If you’re Black, I invite you to follow along in whatever way you feel led.

There are no resolutions here

It’s New Year’s Day, and this year is a weird one. There are plenty of posts out there that will break down in detail what a mess 2020 was (and don’t get me wrong, it was), but this is not that post. There are also many posts talking about finding the blessings amidst the destruction of 2020 (of which there are plenty if you bother to look), but this is not that post either. Though there is much value in reflection, and we’ll need to do a lot of reflecting to even begin to heal from the events of last year, this is a post looking forward to the year upcoming. But instead of resolutions and specific goals, I am choosing instead to focus on improving specific areas of my life through habits and systems. There are five areas in my life that I have decided to focus on for growth this year.

Focus 1: Physical Health

First, let me emphasize this focus has nothing to do with weight loss. I haven’t weighed myself in months, and I have no intention to do so anytime soon. It’s not even about how my clothes fit or what the mirror shows. It’s all about how I feel. For example, I know by listening to my body that I am sensitive to sugar. Too much in the morning makes me nauseous, and too much any time gives me a headache. I also know from experience that sodium effects me pretty strongly. My hands and feet swell when I am the slightest bit dehydrated and have had anything too salty. I know I feel my best when I eat real food that is prepared fresh and hasn’t been in a package for who knows how long. The solution to this problem seems pretty obvious: just eat healthier, home cooked food. Ironically, I actually enjoy cooking. But often by the end of the day, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like it, and it’s really easy to talk my family into ordering takeout (we are a family of loving enablers). But in the interest of focusing on taking care of my physical health, I am putting in place a system that at 5:00 each evening, I will cook dinner.

Of course, physical health isn’t only about food. Movement is important too. I go through pretty drastic hills and valleys with regard to exercise. I’m either working out 6 days a week and feeling amazing, or I haven’t gotten off the couch in a week with no current desire to do so ever again (one guess as to which extreme I’m at now – hint: I’m currently lying in a recliner watching my 4th Marvel movie of the day, typing on my phone because my laptop is charging in another room). The challenge with this one is finding the best time to do it. If I start my day with movement, I feel great, but then I feel like my day is running late. If I wait until the end of the day, it’s likely something will get in the way and I won’t get to it. So the system I’m putting in place for this one is at 4:00 each afternoon, I will move my body for 30 minutes. This could be a jog around the neighborhood or a workout in the garage. Hopefully before too long it can be a gym workout, but right now that’s not in my comfort zone due to Covid.

Focus 2: Mental Health

A lot of the mental aspect of health can be improved by improving physical health, so if I can get that under control, I feel like I’m that much closer to better mental health. Unfortunately, I have historically focused specifically on one or the other meaning that the one that wasn’t the focus at the time only got as much benefit as the other provided. For example, in times that mental health was the focus, I tended to make sure that I was prioritizing rest, meditating regularly, and being kind to myself without putting any real emphasis on nutrition or movement. My mental health systems are small, but impactful. Most of these practices are how I start my day. I will list 5 things to I am thankful for first thing. I will not check my phone for the first hour I am awake. I will meditate and reflect each morning before I start my “work” day (more on that in a minute). I will continue to meet with my counselor every other week.

Focus 3: My Work

This is a tough one because it doesn’t yet have a specific focus or determined direction. That’s why I’m putting these systems in place – to establish that direction. I have joined author Kathi Lipp’s ministry team as an intern to learn more about how to build my brand and put myself out there. In joining this team, I have joined the Writer’s Collective which is a program that I feel will really strengthen my progress toward my goals. The program is broken down into three categories: create, build, and serve.

3a: Create

Creating for me means making progress toward writing my memoir. The plan is for this manuscript is to follow my evolution of a mother through my life as a pregnant teen, teen mom, single mom, married mom, and now that my kids are mostly grown, as a self aware individual. I will spend 90 minutes daily, Monday through Friday, working on some aspect of this manuscript.

3b: Build

In addition to writing, I am also putting a system in place to spend 90 minutes each day building my platform and community. This will be useful in hopefully increasing my readership, but also in attracting an audience that will actually find value in what I hope to offer in terms of hope and support and acceptance.

3c: Serve

The final 90 minute block in my “work” day is dedicated to serving my community. Right now this will be primarily through blog posts, but as I get more comfortable reaching out and as it becomes safer to interact in person post Covid, I would like for service to be feet on the ground serving marginalized communities wherever I can.

As I mentioned before, all things “work” related are pretty vague. The systems are there, but the projected outcome is not. Not yet anyway. If nothing else, I’ll be learning.

Focus 4: Personal Growth

Another pretty nondescript category, but not any less important than the others. I would like to set aside time to discover new interests and rediscover interests I have set aside. I mentioned earlier that I enjoy cooking. I’d like to remind myself that regularly and make a habit of it. I used to play piano, and while I hated it as a child (to be fair – my teacher was really mean – even my mom will back me up on that), I wish I still played. We got rid of our piano about 5 years ago, but I think maybe I’ll pick up a keyboard and try to get back into it. Part of me would like to learn to dance, though that sounds terrifying. Regardless, I plan to set aside 30 minutes per day for some sort of personal growth activity.

Focus 5: Spiritual Growth

This one is a little bit scary for me as my spiritual upbringing swings between my step-dad’s extreme Old Testament, fire and brimstone beliefs and nonexistent avoidance. I’m in a place now where I’d like to learn actual truth. I have a hard time accepting a God that is ok with things like misogyny and white supremacy and homophobia, yet sends his son to teach love and peace and acceptance. I need more information. I need reconciliation. Last year, I started to get involved in the Daughters of Abraham and was looking forward to learning more not only from women from my own faith background, but women from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds as well. Covid put a damper on that though, and it fell by the wayside with so many other intentions. I plan to get more involved with the group this year – even if it is virtually. I also virtually attended the Evolving Faith conference this year, and found myself among a group of seemingly like minded people. My hope is that in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have the opportunity to make some connections in person and find a church community that I can plug in to and learn from.

So there you have it. No actual resolutions, but plenty of areas to focus on growth. I’m seeking out accountability resources to keep me from losing focus, and the only real goal is growth. Here’s to 2021.

Hope (an Advent post – kind of)

*I am not a historically religious person, nor am I in any way a Biblical scholar, so please forgive my elementary interpretation of all things theological in nature as I attempt to educate myself.*

Yesterday marked the first Sunday of Advent, the 4 Sundays before Christmas that focus on waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ; the theme of the first week being hope. Although my knowledge of the history and meaning of Advent is incredibly limited, it has always been one of my favorite seasons, and marking the beginning of the Christian calendar, I thought it a good starting point to try and deepen my understanding of the Christian faith as I attempt to reconstruct my own.

One of the most familiar images of Advent is the wreath of candles representing the themes of the season – three purple (representing hope, love, and peace and lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent), one pink (representing joy and lit on the third Sunday), and one white (the Christ candle lit on Christmas Eve).

Now that I have shared my elementary Sunday School knowledge of Advent, let’s dive in to the main idea for this post: Hope.

This is a pretty timely topic for me as it has been the subject of more than a few recent conversations I’ve had with my counselor as I continue to explore what I feel called to do since leaving the classroom this year. Changing paths is a hard thing to do when you only have a vague idea of what the new path is. All I have been able to come up with so far is “I want to empower people – especially those in seemingly impossible circumstances. I want to give them hope.”

From that stemmed a conversation about hope in general. What does hope look like? What actually is hope? Where does hope come from? Who has provided me hope? All questions pointing to a bigger issue: I cannot aspire to be a source of hope if I don’t acknowledge where my own hope has come from. Thus began a long period of reflection.

First, I had to figure out what I meant by hope, because I feel like hope can mean different things in different situations. Some days I hope the chicken I set out won’t thaw in time to start dinner, and oh darn, we’ll just have to order take-out. This is obviously not the hope I am talking about here. When I say I want to give people hope, I am referring to the hope that encourages them to get out of bed each day with the belief that they are greater than their current circumstances and that some day their circumstances will change to reflect that.

But how? To be honest, the how has been slow to take shape. So slow, in fact, that it is still in some abstract form out of reach from me. More important than the how though, is the why. This was a big part of the reflection I’ve been doing over the past several weeks. And as difficult as the work was, the why suddenly appeared very simply: because someone once gave me hope. And that is where things started to make sense.

I got pregnant when I was 16; just before my junior year. Being an accelerated honor student, I had extra credit hours and was able to enroll as a senior, putting me on track to graduate a year early. Now, if you’ve ever been a 16/17 year old, you know it’s a rough season under the best circumstances, and hope can often be elusive; but even more so when those circumstances involve challenges like the obvious pregnancy and an entirely new cohort. It was an incredibly lonely time, and many days doing my best was comprised of just getting out of bed and making it to school. Hope didn’t exactly spring eternal during that time, but it wasn’t altogether absent either, and it came in the form of a teacher. My senior English teacher was one of the primary sources of hope that year. Without going into vast detail (she gets an entire chapter in the memoir), I will just say that she made an impact on my life beyond any teacher I had ever had – and I had some pretty incredible teachers.

Back to present: I had identified my why: I want to provide hope where it is scarce because someone had once given me that hope. But now I needed to acknowledge that hope in a way that went beyond my own private gratitude, because what good is gratitude if it’s not expressed to the person to whom it’s owed? So at the direction of my very bossy counselor (who I am positive does not follow my site, but I have to get a shot in just in case), I got out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to my former teacher. And then I marked it up and scratched things out, and threw it away and wrote another letter. And after a lot of indecision, I stepped out of my Enneagram 9 zone and reached out to her and asked how I could best share it with her. She shared her address with me, and before I could talk myself out of it, I mailed it. To my surprise (and a little bit to my introverted horror), she replied a few days later with her phone number and asked if we could chat by phone. We set aside a time, and as nervous as I was when I dialed her number, my nerves were almost immediately calmed as we talked and I was reminded of why I saw her as such a huge source of hope in my life all those years ago. We talked for an hour about how important it is to give people hope and take care of each other. We shared stories about life, about challenges and successes and failures and heartbreak. And above all, hope.

And so here we are in this first week of Advent, with its theme of Hope. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been the recipient of hope so many years ago, and to have the opportunity to pass it on.

A Personal Growth Post (i.e. a semi-coherent brain dump)

Two things are going on in this post. One is that I signed up for the #30day10k writing challenge though the Writing at the Red House group, and as such, am committed to a whole lot of writing this month; but I’m not really feeling my manuscript today, so a blog post it is. The other is that since my bi-weekly appointment with my counselor Wednesday evening, I have been processing a lot of thoughts, and since part of the tagline on the logo that my dear friend Anna created for me says “personal growth,” I thought it appropriate to ruminate here and use the words toward my word count goal for the day (which is 500, so buckle up because we’re only 124 words in).

It’s no secret that in recent months I’ve been on a journey of self discovery. I’ve felt an enormous, unrelenting tug on my heart to serve in some way that makes a positive impact on members of marginalized and oppressed groups. The main challenge is that I’m not sure in what capacity I am meant to serve, what my gifts are, or where my focus lies, and so my counselor has shifted the focus of our sessions together in a more career coaching sort of direction, which has given me a different perspective of myself and my goals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel any closer to clarity than I did four months ago when we made this shift, but I’m finding the process to be incredibly enlightening. One of the first “assignments” she gave me was to write a mission statement. She gave me no hard deadline, which was a rookie mistake, because I’m not sure if anyone of the three of you that read my blog posts have ever written a mission statement, but it is flipping hard. At least it is for me. I have wrestled with this thing, written, rewritten, thrown away, walked away from, and written again for the better part of nearly three months now and it’s still in draft form (though it’s way closer than it was even last week). On Monday, I finally texted the latest version to her and told her to “chew on it and give me feedback at our appointment Wednesday”. Of course, when Wednesday rolls around, instead of telling me how she felt about my statement, she goes the counselor route and says “how do YOU feel about it?” Ugh. After a whole lot of stumbling around for words I thought maybe she’d like to hear me say (please tell me I’m not the only one that does this), I finally said “Well, it’s still pretty vague, but if it was a mission statement for an organization I was considering serving, I’d work for them.” To which she said, “So are you proud of it?”

Am I proud of it? We had roughly 15 minutes left in our session and with one word – proud – she secured me as a counseling client for at least another three months. Am I proud of the statement I wrote? I can’t say that I am. Which is stupid, because I worked hard to come up with it, and on a rational level, I know that even if I’m not yet completely satisfied with the outcome, it’s ok to recognize the effort I put in to it, but proud? Can I have a different word, please? She said I can’t. Proud. After a lot of uncomfortable squirming and mentally hoping the internet would fail and cut our connection and damn – we’ll have to pick up again in two weeks (and maybe she’ll forget what we were talking about by then), she asked what my problem was with the concept of pride. Nothing. No problem at all… for other people. You finished that marathon? Way to go, sis! You defended your dissertation? That’s astounding – you must be on top of the world! You dragged yourself out of bed and made it through the day? You’re amazing, and should celebrate with a nap! I am completely comfortable with, and excited about, celebrating other people’s successes. Sincerely and wholeheartedly. But can we please just look the other way when it comes to me?

Of course, now I have opened the gate to the never-ending (though admittedly necessary) conversation about core beliefs; how they can be challenged and changed, but first you have to figure out where they come from. So begins the hard work of meditating on the questions: What do I want to believe about pride? What was I taught about pride in childhood? What accomplishments would I like to feel pride in? How can I feel qualified to empower people if I am not empowered enough to acknowledge my own accomplishments?

So far there are no answers, except to the last question which is I can’t, and while I can’t say I’m excited about this step in the process, I recognize the value in the work. I’m committed to discovering my calling and I acknowledge that challenging my core beliefs is key to unlocking my potential, and therefore required for any kind of success.

I’ll start here. Today I wrote 872 words, and of that accomplishment, I am proud.