21st Century Woman

Watermelon and Ryan

I was at the grocery store on Saturday night and looked hard at the watermelons that seemed so out of place on an otherwise fall night. Yet—the melons were the right color and the thunk was proper, so I grabbed one and put it in my cart anyway. Even later that night, I was on Facebook just as messages started to appear saying that a high school classmate of mine had passed away suddenly. It caught my breath. Not because it was a death, but because it was his death.

He was bright and funny and kind and lovely. I didn’t even know him that well, but I knew all of those things to be true. The next day, I found myself alone in the kitchen, quietly cutting up the watermelon. I would methodically make a slice, then will the melon to release from the rind. Meanwhile, I thought of Ryan. There is only one vivid memory of the few I have of him. We were sitting on a stage, waiting for rehearsal to begin, and as I turned in his direction, I caught him looking longingly at a classmate. He caught me catch him. We paused, and then we laughed.

I finished cutting the melon and put the pieces into containers in the fridge to cool. I took the rinds, now empty and somehow sacred, and placed them carefully in a bag. They were strangely beautiful even when they had been cleared of their color. Later that night I took the watermelon out of the fridge. and I ate the cold pieces one by one over the sink, thinking of him.

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21st Century Woman

This is 33.

I’ve had a lot of great birthdays, but this was not one of them. A few weeks into 32, I could feel a drip, drip of dread for 33. I’ve taken birthdays as they’ve come, never giving in too much to the weight carried by certain ages and milestones, yet, somehow, the idea of 33 felt uncomfortable to me.

I remember 23 so starkly because it felt like the beginning of everything. I had just finished graduate school and had moved to the city that would become my home for the next decade. That birthday would relaunch the friendship that would eventually become a marriage. I lived in the same neighborhood as my best friend, and I started a job that made me realize it was possible to be a do-gooder and get paid for it.

In those 10 years, I’ve done a lot of things I’m proud of, and experienced more adventures than I ever thought possible. I’ve gotten to watch my friends grow and change, and pursue their dreams, and have families, and find confidence in their contributions. And best of all, I wake up every day beside the smartest person I know.

Which makes it hard to pinpoint exactly why 33 is so unsettling.

This weekend we had planned to getaway to Asheville and I hoped it would be a welcome distraction from my discomfort. Instead, Hurricane Harvey happened, and David volunteered to go assist. The weekend was cut short, and I suddenly found myself with a 10-hour drive back home, alone with my thoughts.

I filled the first few hours with podcasts and music (the rental car radio seemed to only broadcast Christian evangelists) and a steady meditation of the changing landscape, but deep into my trip I started to lose focus. About 2 hours from home—a part of the trip I know well—I found that I was more than 30 miles past a critical turn. I suddenly felt disoriented, and realized I had been traveling in a fog for the past hour. How had I missed this turn? Where was I now?

With full darkness upon me, and nary a cellphone signal in my now rural surroundings, I tried to quell the rising panic. I turned off the radio and I focused on the road ahead, searching for a literal sign. In the quiet, I could no longer ignore my internal unease.

What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? I pondered.

I had spent my whole life working towards a future I had already achieved, then I had gone on autopilot. I had stopped learning new things. I had stopped thinking ten steps ahead. I yearned for nothing because my yearning had been fulfilled. It suddenly felt as if my dreams had been too small.

I started thinking about all the things that lived far beyond the life I had imagined for myself (things too big and audacious to name) and wondered if it would be possible to reset the finish line. What would that look like? Was I ready for the inevitable steps backwards and sideways? The hurt of rejection? The hours and sweat it would require?

I wondered.

A few minutes later, I regained the scantest signal and a text message from my friend arrived eager to know if I had found my way back to the main road yet. A sign for my missed turn came into view, and I made a left towards home.

This morning I woke up to feelings that are still complicated, but somehow also attached to purpose.

So, what happens next?

To be honest, I’m not sure. And for that, I’m glad.

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21st Century Woman

Checking In

Hey Friend,

Just checking in on you.

You doing okay?

It’s been a tough week. You probably feel enraged, shocked, totally unsure about what to do next. You were probably thinking about how shitty work is and then suddenly the whole world is one big garbage pile and the world is mess. You can’t believe people lack basic empathy, basic decency, basic human fucking kindness, but here we are.

I know, I know, me too.

But we persist, because we must and because we can.

Mind if I share a few thoughts on where we go from here? Okay. Deep breath.

1.
Take care of you.
We need you in shipshape. Take a bath. See your therapist. Go ahead and have the fucking cookie. Give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling.

2.
Take care of others.
There are probably a lot of people you know feeling this way too. Reach out. Offer a hug or just an ear (because sometimes people don’t like hugs). If they want to get angry, get angry with them. Make a plan.

3.
Take care of business.
Yeah, I know it’s a lot easier to sit behind your keyboard, but that’s not enough, friend. Once you’ve done the other two things, make a donation. Call up your Representatives if you’re lucky enough to have them. Attend a rally or other peaceful demonstration. Show up. Oh and while you’re at it—call out racism when you see it. Misogyny* and xenophobia too. Be brave. You can do this.

Okay, so that’s all I’ve got for now. I just wanted you to know that you’re on my mind. That I’m looking out for you. That I’m here if you need to talk.

Here is a picture of Barack Obama and his beautiful family. And also one of Idris Elba. You’re welcome.

Love,

Ashley

PS: This week I was in New York. I was walking in front of Penn Station and I watched not one, not two, but three different men leer at a young Muslim woman of 23, 24, dressed in a head scarf and long sleeves. She kept her head down and her body physically bent to avoid their gaze and their hot breath as she walked past them. One was homeless, one was a construction worker, one was a business man. It was a veritable Village People of leering. I didn’t say anything to them, but I should have, and now I have to carry that in-action with me.

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21st Century Woman

Imposter Syndrome

Helping Hand


Image via Giphy

1.

Today, imposter syndrome left me feeling paralyzed.

A woman friend I like and admire had made an introduction for me.

And after I thanked her, I sat at my desk feeling totally paralyzed by the implications:

Someone else had put their good name on the line for me.

What if it was revealed that I was imperfect?

What if I reflected badly on them?

Should I ask them to withdraw their support?

I realize—now more than ever—the extra energy it takes to get ahead as a woman. All I could do was imagine was that their trust in me was a misstep that would bring my friend spiraling back down.

2.

I’ve been very fortunate to be buoyed many times in my career by other women.

Women who helped me get my foot in the door for a job, offered practical advice about a professional decision, or sometimes just perspective.

It is no small thing when women unlock the secrets of success for one another.

Once, during an annual review, my boss asked me where I sat on a scale of one to four, and I suggested a three. She looked at me silently for a moment and pointedly told me to write four.

The four would net me my first serious raise.

Another openly shared her salary with me, helping me negotiate for her position after she left. It’s a practice I’ve followed for the women behind me ever since.

The greatest gift we women can give to each other is to celebrate and champion our successes, and make them remarkable.

3.

It takes a certain kind of woman to turn away from her fellow women, but I’ve seen plenty of those too. Women who crawl on the backs of other women to get ahead. Women who sabotage and scheme. Women who strive to get into the boy’s club and then shut the door firmly behind them.

You are not welcome here.

 

4.

A few weeks ago we hired a young contractor to join our team. At 25, she’s bright and talented. She does thoughtful work, but when she completes her day, she exits the office to rejoin her life. She doesn’t read my emails late into the night, she goes to concerts with her friends. It’s an enviable position, and a good reminder to reset my own priorities.

She came to me this morning to tell me she’s leaving her contractor role for a new permanent position. I’m happy for her, she’ll be an asset to the team she joins.

She thanks me for my mentorship, for my edits. She thinks it’s made her a stronger writer. She tells me that she hopes someday in the future she can work for me again.

I tell her that I will always be there to open a door for her where I can. I will always put in a good word.

And so it goes.

5.

I worked all day to calm that inner voice. I re-read my resume. I power posed in front of the mirror. I listened to Justin Bieber on repeat. I flexed my new independent audio producer cred. I wrote something and had it accepted to a favorite publication.

And then I sat down to write a letter to a young woman, to remind her—when she needs it—that she is talented. and capable, and more than enough.

More than Enough

Image via Giphy

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21st Century Woman, Intention

Pride

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A few days after my sixteenth birthday, I traveled down to see my older brother, Jesse, with my mom and grandmother. Stepping into his adult apartment felt like entering another dimension. Neither my little brother nor I had been allowed to spend much time there.

After years of knowing our brother’s teenage room so intimately—playing with his TI-computer, marveling at his massive Lego city, smelling his Colours cologne, and breathing in the garlic scent of his Pizza Hut apron—this place seemed otherworldly.

My mom and my grandmother shuffled awkwardly around the space. My brother scurried around the room nervously making small talk. It seemed they were all stalling, waiting for something to begin.

I’m not stingy with love, but I love my older brother best. With an 11-year age gap between us, there is no reason that we should be so close, and yet here we are. When I was very young, he became a surrogate parent, rocking me to sleep. In childhood, I had full advantage of his big imagination. As a teenager, he was the protective, insightful, older brother. Today, he is my friend.

With Jesse around, a simple swing set became the most expedient way to catapult oneself over a dangerous lava pit below. A dormant beehive became a scientific expedition. The tall, scary hill covered in snow suddenly became the most excellent sledding adventure.

When you are a kid and you have an older brother with a ‘75 Mustang, you will most certainly experience the joy of a reckless 55 miles an hour (!) drive down a rural back road.

In my childhood, I found my brother intensely curious and fearless. He still is.

We are so close that I was much older before I could fully comprehend that he was my half-brother or what that even meant. He was just Jesse, my Bub.

Sometime around age nine, we stopped seeing as much of my brother. When he did come home, his visits were short, and his hugs were awkward and stilted.

My little brother and I were wrecked by his absence. When he did visit, we wrapped ourselves around him—literally. We would crawl into his lap, hug him needlessly, endlessly. Even though we could see tension between him and my parents, we were undeterred in our mission for his full attention.

One day, after a particularly sharp comment from my mom, my brother snapped at us to get off of him. It was the first time we had ever heard an unfriendly word from him. We slunk away, astonished and hurt.

What followed were a series of years where it felt like Jesse wasn’t welcome at home anymore. My little brother and I were heartbroken and confused.

We often asked mom why Jesse didn’t come to visit anymore and she would tell us he had his own life to lead, that college was a lot of work. We must have asked so frequently that one day she snapped at us, “It’s because you hang on to him too much. He hates that.”

The next time my brother visited, we kept our distance, afraid that the love bursting from our little bodies would push him further away.

Sometime in my early adolescence, we went to visit Jesse in the town where he lived (Christiansburg, maybe?). He was happy to see us, but nervous too. He told us that today we were going to meet his roommate.

As we assembled at Macado’s (!), a tall, lanky guy walks up to join us.

“This is my friend, Keith,” Jesse said glowingly, proudly.

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Keith has an outsized presence in my memories. My brother loved him and so I loved him too. He had glasses, which was really all it took for me fall for him (see: Kellie Martin). Jesse’s roommate came to our birthday parties and was always there when we went to see our brother.

And then, one day, Jesse told us we wouldn’t be seeing Keith anymore. Like a child of divorce, we pleaded for answers. Had we done something wrong? How can we bring him back? I remember crying real tears at the loss.

Time passed and we met more a few more of Jesse’s friends, but by then I had learned not to give my heart away so easily.

As I passed into full teenager, we entered another period where we didn’t see as much of my brother.

My mom and I spent a fair amount of time on the road together, driving to Girl Scout events, and once in the quiet car on the way back home, she asked me an unusual question.

“Why do you think we don’t see as much of your brother anymore?”

“I don’t know. I figure he’s busy. And you and dad are not very nice to him.”

“What would you say if I told you that your brother was different? What if I told you he was…gay?”

“Is that why he doesn’t come to visit anymore?”

“I didn’t say that. I’m just asking how you would feel about him if that were true.”

I remember pausing to think. This seemed important. There seemed to be a right answer. I could tell this was hard for my mom.

“I would still love him just the same. He’s my brother.” I shrugged.

I wish I remember what my mom said after that. I only recall her trying to hide tears. Was she trying to tell me my brother was gay? Or was she testing out the concept of “gay” using someone I unconditionally loved? It didn’t matter—for me the answer was the same.

It’s a few days after my 16th birthday and we’re standing in my brother’s apartment.

After some awkwardness, my brother tells me to come sit at a spot in the center of the room. My grandma, my mom, and my brother surround me like an intervention.

I start to feel nervous, so my brother knowingly reaches out and puts my hands in his to steady us both. He clears his throat, and then:

Sis, there is something I want to tell you.

I’m gay.

Do you understand what that means?

I nod.

Mom and dad asked that I wait until your sixteenth birthday to tell you, to make sure you were old enough to understand.

I want you to know that I’ve been careful. I’m HIV negative.

His voice cracked.

I hope you know this doesn’t change anything between us. I’m still your brother. I love you very much, and I will always be here for you. Okay?

There is a long pause.

Is that all?

Yes. That’s all.

Okay, well…I knew that already. And I love you too. Always. Now, let’s go eat.

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I didn’t know then, but it was a big deal. My brother had a long, hard road of coming out to my parents. There was a period of time where he wasn’t welcome, where he had been distanced…nearly disowned.

Through those years, we all turned inward. My brother, struggling to come to terms with an identity he had been told was wrong, dangerous. My mother, trying to understand what it means for her relationship with her son. My dad, fighting long held beliefs about right and wrong. My little brother and I, just longing for our Bub.

In a different time and place, we would have shared these feelings with each other. Leaned on the family unit for support and understanding.

But I didn’t grow up in that time or that place.

It would be another decade before anyone in our family dared to stop referring to his boyfriends as “roommates.” Some of my extended family has still refused to acknowledge this fact about my brother. We’re still working on getting my dad not to refer to my brother’s interests as “that gay stuff.”

I would keep the promise to my parents and wait another year and a half for my older brother to come out…again…this time, to my little brother.

After it was over, the adults breathed a sigh of relief and my little brother walked over to me standing in the kitchen.

“So that’s it?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“Huh. I mean, he’s still my brother. I still love him.”

“Obviously.”

It was a weird secret to have kept, mostly because it seemed so benign to us. The telltale signs had been there all along for anyone who cared to look. My brother’s inner battle had manifested itself in the form of complicated mixtapes: Bette Midler and Dolly Parton, next to Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman, with the occasional Madonna, for good measure.

I know that Pride month it not meant for me. It is for the millions of men and women who are brave enough to be their truest selves in the face of a small-minded world.

And yet, here I am. I feel immense pride to be my brother’s sister.

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21st Century Woman

A Brief History of Before

It’s 7:30 AM and I have an 8:00 AM class across campus. I trudge to the bus stop, rubbing my eyes. Last night had been long—I’d counseled a homesick student late into the evening.

As I’m standing at the stop, I look past all the other tired bodies and notice one of my residents, also waiting. He has on giant over-the-ear headphones and is lightly nodding his head to some unknown beat. I try to recall his name, but nothing comes to me.

Please don’t talk to me. I can’t be your RA right now. Please.

As if I’d said it out loud, he turned his head slightly to look at me. We share a glance of recognition, shared sympathy even, and then we both look away.

I’m grateful.

“You know, you should really talk to my friend David Allen. He’s a writer, like you.”

“David Allen? He has two names?”

“No, that’s just what everyone calls him.”

A few nights later, I find myself in his residence hall. I nervously walk to his room, the door is open.

“Hi, I’m Ashley.”

“Yeah, I know. You were my RA.”

“Oh, sure. Right.” (I don’t recognize him)

“Chris said we should meet—that we have a lot in common.”

“Oh yeah, he mentioned that.”

“Okay, well, um, let’s keep in touch. Maybe send me some of your writing?”

“Yeah, okay, cool.”

We’ve been talking a lot over AIM. He read my plays. I read his poetry. But I have a boyfriend and so we’re just friends.

Even so, he invites me to his residence hall on Valentine’s Day. He makes the sweeping romantic gestures my boyfriend had not proffered—tries to be the salve to my tear-stained day. There is cookie dough spelled out in my name, lovingly baked in the communal kitchen. There is Donnie Darko. There is a bean bag pillow.

I know he means it to be romantic, but I’m already in a roller coaster of a college romance. I have nothing left to offer him. I fall asleep in the middle of his beautifully planned date.

And then suddenly he has a girlfriend, and she doesn’t like how often we talk. He disappears from my AIM list and we awkwardly ignore each other at the dining hall.

The loss is immediate.

The next year, he has been selected to be an RA in the building next door.

During orientation, I play a pregnant student in need of advice as he uncomfortably shifts in his wooden standard issue seat, struggling to find the right words.

I’m aware of the kindly way he listens, knowing the right moments to insert advice or offer support. I dig in, stretch my dramatic muscle, and yet he persists so evenly I’m forced to concede to his response.

After that, we see each other one more time. He comes to visit me in my new apartment. I leave the door open so there can be no suspicion. We commit nervously to small talk, and then he’s gone.

There will be another year of awkward glances in the parking lot before I graduate without ever having said goodbye.

Another year passes. I’m in my second year of grad school in South Carolina. I hate it there. I’m struggling with my thesis. My college boyfriend and I break up. My student dies suddenly. I feel the deepest and most intense loneliness.

It’s Christmas break, and it will be days before my roommates return. I discover that my hometown feels foreign to me—I am an island, after all—so I’ve returned to grad school early.

It’s late and the silence of our apartment is deafening.

I scroll through my AIM list, but not many people are online. Then suddenly, I see a name I haven’t seen in awhile. It’s him.

His away message says, “I wish it would snow.”

My hands go to the keys and pause.

I type, “Me too.”

I hit enter.

We spend hours on the phone. We blow through phone plans. We watch movies together hundreds of miles away. There are mixed CDs and giggly wake up calls.

His assurances bring me confidence. I’m not lonely anymore. His voice is always in my head.

And then there comes a visit. The sudden suspension of distance has made things very real. Our timing is all wrong.

We push off in separate directions, again.

Somehow we end up in the same city, without planning to, without meaning to.

We are shy at first, conscious of all that came before.

Yet, there is no going back, there is only the thing that must be done.

Soon, we no longer remember “before.”

Looking back, there was no reason for us to find each other again, but the universe continued to insist on our collision, so we collided and collided until there was nothing else to do but open our eyes and see it for ourselves.

My best friend

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21st Century Woman, Sunday Sessions

Sunday Routines: How Ashley Lusk, sometimes writer, spends her Sundays

BRIGHT AND EARLY We’re early birds so I’m usually up around seven on the weekends. David is almost always up before me, immersed in his “digital meditation,” which is usually a video game, or time spent scrolling through Twitter on his phone. Meanwhile, I stumble into the kitchen and start the electric kettle.

COFFEE SNOB I’m thoughtful about coffee, and prefer to use a French press at home. I’ve spent this year rotating between different local bean purveyors. Right now I’m into Blanchard’s Columbia El Obreje, a roaster in nearby Richmond, Virginia.

READ AND RELAX Our Sunday routine is seasonal. We’re in late winter right now, so we’ll probably stay close to home. He may go to Starbucks for an hour or so to read the digital edition of the New York Times or catch up on more Twitter. I’ll stay home wrapped in blankets reading the Washington Post and scrolling through recipe blogs. My favorites are Joy the Baker, Smitten Kitchen, and Naturally Ella.

A SEASONAL MENU Brunch is probably our favorite meal of the week. Lately we’ll drive over to Ted’s Bulletin, which shows old movies and has a fun 40s diner vibe. They recently dropped several of my favorite brunch items, so we may have to reevaluate our “regular” status. If it was summer, we’d be first in line at the wood-fired oven pizza stand at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market begging them for a tomato, basil and mozzarella piadini. After picking up our produce for the week, we might stop by Kramer’s Books and browse.

WELL-PACKED BAGS Next we’ll walk a few blocks over to The Wydown and I’ll pick up a cappuccino. We’ll then go next door to the Trader Joe’s and fight our way through the crowds to do our grocery shopping for the week. I love watching the TJ’s staff pack the bags. My dad was a grocer, so I appreciate when it’s done without crushing the soft or delicate items.

CAT NAP We’ll head home, unpack the groceries, and then take a half hour nap. Sometimes it’s my best sleep all week. By mid-afternoon, we’ll head to the gym for an hour or so. David will hop on a bike or an elliptical. I’ll do some light free weights and then take a turn on the elliptical. Sometimes we’ll skip the gym and I’ll bake something instead.

WRITING TIME David’s incredibly disciplined—towards early evening, he’ll get his clothes and his work bag ready for the week. For me there is mostly the panic of realizing I should have worked all day instead of relaxing. If I’m especially avoiding a project, I might sit down and write a blog post for my site, or maybe a letter to a friend.

QUIET EVENING AT HOME I used to watch a lot of TV, but I’m trying to pull back on that a bit. On Sunday nights, we’ll probably have a simple dinner and listen to 60 Minutes or a favorite podcast while we prepare it. We mostly keep the TV off for the rest of the evening, unless there is a new PBS series or Game of Thrones. The more likely scenario is that we’re both in bed by 10.

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