Free

October 9, 2011

Freedom. Free. My online dictionary defines freedom as a state in which somebody is able to act and live as he or she chooses, without being subject to any, or to any undue, restraints and restrictions. The other morning I was feeling especially grateful to be free, so I updated my Tweetdeck feed to read… True freedom is being comfortable with the courage to speak & act without concern for approval, validation or judgment from others.

Even though many of us are physically free, we still restrict what we do, say, where we go, what we try and experience, who we interact with, what we explore because of fear. Fear of the unexpected and its results, fear of failure to succeed, fear of what someone else will say, think or do because of our choice.

Last night, I watched an episode of 60 Minutes in which they honored Andy Rooney – the editorial reporter who has been discussing random items at the end of 60 Minutes since 1978. He’s 92 years old and still says and acts the exact same way I remember him speaking and acting when my parents watched 60 Minutes in the 80s. One of the things he said during the interview is that he has always been comfortable speaking his mind, saying what he thought, and acting accordingly. He doesn’t regret anything except hurting the feelings of fans when they wanted an autograph from him and he refused to sign one or wanted to be left alone in public. If he had it do differently, would he? He said no. He thinks autographs are stupid and he values his private time whether he’s in public or not. I concur with both.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former Chairman of Apple, passed away earlier this week. There were many shows, online articles, Tweets, and FB posts about him, his life, his legacy and his death to the point that I was overwhelmed and didn’t go on Twitter or FB for the whole day and only watched one program – an interview with his co-founding partner, Steve Wozniak, on CNN. The main point that stuck with me about that interview was when Wozniak said that Jobs was totally passionate about what he thought and was creating. He didn’t care what other people thought, he didn’t care about what was hot in the industry at the time, he didn’t care that he wasn’t going to finish college… He was completely free. I admire that more than anything else in his story. The rest of history wouldn’t have happened without his willingness to be free.

I used to work in Jamaica teaching fitness classes and training fitness instructors at the various resorts. One week, I stayed and worked at Hedonism II in Negril. If you don’t know what Hedonism is, I suggest you Google it before reading the rest of this paragraph. I consider myself pretty “free” with nudity, but at the time of this particular week at Hedonism, I wasn’t as confident with my body as I am today. I was fit and toned and tight, but I was concerned about how small and droopy my breasts were. I didn’t want to put my breast-feeding A cups on display at the nude beach where Hedo vacationers with perfect plastic Cs and Ds with beads of ocean water dripping from perfectly perky nipples were sunning and giggling with their drinks on the beach.

As I was walking tentatively past the Prude Beach to the Nude Beach, I noticed a woman in her 50s or 60s smoking, swaying to music and laughing with the bartender between the two beaches. She was topless and wearing a bright-colored sarong around her hips. She had a little poochy stomach and cellulite on her thighs, but what intrigued me the most was the fact that she only had one breast. The scars from her mastectomy on the left side boldly curved from her arm under the space where a breast used to be. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help it. This woman with a pooch, cellulite, one breast and scar tissue was totally free… free to dance on both the Prude and Nude beaches, smoke, laugh and express herself regardless of who was around or what they thought. Since that day and that moment, I have boldly enjoyed my nudity – all of it – whenever I can.

Since the freeing of my great-great-great-grandparents who would have been slaves in the mid to late 1800s, I have had the choice to do what I want, go where I want, say what I want, and be who I want. I’m thankful every moment of every day for my freedom in every form.

Topless & Free

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The Interview

July 15, 2011

Many people assume that the mates and spouses of ardent athletes and fitness freaks are also ardent athletes and fitness freaks. Hmm, not so much. In fact, unless a couple meets at a triathlon or while playing a sport, it’s pretty common that opposites attract – just like in most relationships.

Before I share the particulars of a recent interview with my husband – the opposite of an ardent athlete and fitness freak – please note that I asked his permission before sharing the details of his health, background and challenges with living a healthy lifestyle (so don’t call him and ask him why I’m putting his business in the street).

Background: My husband, Maurice, and I have been married for fifteen years and we are opposites. I love to do fitness stuff so much, I left corporate America and a growing career in finance to work in my passion of wellness and exercise. Maurice does not love fitness stuff. He did not leave corporate America and is a busy Fortune 50 executive traveling across time zones 40-60% of the month.

I eat sparingly – I love fruits, veggies and seafood – I hate soda and juice, only drink water, and avoid eating meat for digestive reasons. Maurice loves a well-seasoned piece of meat with sauce and thoroughly enjoys a bowl of ice cream and an Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half sweetened ice tea).

I have to get at least 7 hours of sleep (preferably on a firm mattress with cool silky sheets) to function well during the day. Maurice rarely sleeps a continuous 5 hours and is often found snoring on the couch in front of the television with the remote control still resting in the crook of his limp hand.

I naturally wake up early with the sun and enjoy a walk, yoga session or meditation outside before starting my day. Maurice sleeps until the alarm rings and heads out to catch a flight, meet a client or start a conference call.

I believe in self healing and Eastern alternative preventive care techniques. Maurice has several bottles of prescriptions for various health issues in the medicine cabinet.

The Issue: Due to his unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise and a high-stress workstyle, Maurice’s cholesterol has been steadily climbing to a point so high, his physician put him on Lipitor, which he takes daily. He is overweight, stressed out and on meds.

We have tried working out together – not successful. He has tried not eating meat at all – not successful. He had a membership to LA Fitness – not successful. I suggested he stop playing video games and watching television until falling asleep in front of the screen – not successful. He tried taking martial arts with our sons – not successful.

End Result: I gave up and stopped making suggestions. I stopped paying attention to what he ate or drink when we went out – I accepted who and what my husband is and stopped trying. I found trail and  mountain-hiking partners and stopped asking Maurice to go with me. I stopped eating what the rest of the family ate and started preparing separate evening meals for myself. I quit suggesting how Maurice could wear his clothing to camouflage his growing stomach and accepted what he wore and how he wore it. I stopped begging him to get a massage and acupuncture and simply kept up my own monthly preventive and pampering treatments. When it came to health and wellness – I went on my journey and he went on his. Happy couple – no arguments – It was all good.

The Interview: One morning last week, Maurice and I were leisurely hanging around chatting about politics, our kids and life when it dawned on me to ask him about wellness:

“You know, Maurice, I have clients with the exact same challenges as you. Yo-yo dieting, starting and stopping various exercise programs, on prescribed medications, stressed out. We both know that you have had challenges sticking to great programs, but what have you been doing lately that has stuck and worked?”

He was quiet and contemplated the question for a minute or two. While he ruminated, I thought about the changes I’d noticed in him the last few months. He looked trimmer and his arms were more muscular. His complexion was smoother and unblemished. He seemed more relaxed and engaging. In fact, I didn’t think I’d seen him pick up a video game controller more than two or three times in the last month or so.

“Well,” he started, “I have been eating something healthy every morning for the last three months. A bag of cheerios or a granola bar if I have to run out, or you may have noticed me eating a bowl of cereal.”

He was right, I had noticed that.

“I’ve also started swimming laps almost every day. And when I travel, I choose hotels with indoor pools so I can swim before or after my meetings.”

“How long have you been doing that?”

“Hm,” I could see him calculating the weeks and months in his mind. “Hm, for about a couple of months now.” He added, “And if I can’t get an indoor pool, I’ll take one with a gym on-site and I work out on the elliptical and do some pushups.”

I had noticed him doing pushups in the bedroom every morning before his shower since the beginning of the year. Cool.

“What else have you been able to stick to?”

“Uh, I’ve been forcing myself to turn off the television at night and go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed you in the bed instead of on the couch!”

“Mm hm. Since I’ve started sleeping at night instead of playing video games and watching movies, I’ve had more energy during the day and I’m not as stressed out when dealing with stuff at work.”

We both sat in comfortable silence as we digested what he was saying. Unhealthy habits that he’d had for more than twenty years, he was slowly changing in his 40s.

“Oh yeah,” he continued, “I’ve also been watching my late-night sweets consumption.”

We both chuckled thinking about his nightly bowl of ice cream and my bag of gummy bears (I’m not totally innocent here).

“But I’ve noticed dirty ice cream bowls in the sink for the last few days,” I said.

“Well, I still get cravings just like you do, but it’s not my regular habit anymore,” he responded with a shrug.

He was right. I’d noticed that he wasn’t consuming sweets until falling asleep on the couch, the empty bowl resting at his feet.

“How long have you been doing all this stuff?” I asked him.

After a few seconds of thought, he said, “Since February or March.”

It’s July – that’s almost 6 months!

“What made you decide to do this now?”

Maurice took a deep breath and let out a soft sigh. “When I went to Dr. Ito and he showed me those cholesterol numbers over 300 and told me what could happen as a result, I knew I had to do something. I don’t want to take Lipitor every day for the rest of my life.”

I laid next to him quietly for a long time after he said that. I knew the changes he’d made weren’t easy for him, and that he had to really be concerned about his health and our family’s future in order to do what he was doing. I also knew I had to share his experiences.

If I’m honest with myself and my clients, I can’t fully relate to the challenges Maurice and my clients have with eating and not exercising. My career and life are one big exercise class.

“Can I share this?” I eventually asked him. “Can I blog about it, can I talk about this conversation and your journey in my presentations? I think so many people will be able to relate to your challenges, your story and your successes.”

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he said.

Then he got up, put on his swim trunks and left for the pool.

The Dash

May 31, 2011

I’ve heard and read about the concept of the dash between the years. You know… on a gravesite headstone. There’s the year of birth, a dash, and then the year of death. The dash represents everything that happens from the time a person physically comes into the earthly world we know and then departs from it. Everything. That’s a lot of stuff for most people.

Many of us have the same routine from waking to sleep. There are a few hiccups in the routine, but for the most part, we do what we know to do, go where we know to go, say what we know to say, see what we know to see, hear what we know to hear. It’s rare that we step outside of our box of knowing and do something totally unknown. Something different.

I live for those rare moments in life. I hunger for stories shared by others. I listen with rapt attention as my husband unfolds stories of his business travels to other countries or when my studio clients tell me about their travels and life journeys. Out of the norm experiences that make the dash jump, twist and bend. Experiences that make the dash seem yards longer than the mere centimeters long it is to our eyes. Experiences that, when shared, make for great stories that last well past the date written to the right of the dash.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband made a business trip to Japan. He called me one morning and reported that “group exercise” was being performed in the park outside his hotel window. I suggested he partake in the exercises, and the next morning, he did! My 6’ 0”, solidly-built, dark-skinned, African American husband donned a pair of red basketball shorts and a grey t-shirt and joined the large group of native Japanese people of all ages and both genders all wearing white in the park. I could only imagine how he must have stood out – bigger and more colorful than the native people. Different. When they swung their arms, he swung his. When they bent over then reached up, he bent over then reached up. When they leaned briskly to the right and left, he leaned as quickly as his larger frame and new-to-this-program mind could handle. He was slightly behind the rhythm and timing of their moves, but he was there, doing it all. He heard a group of Japanese women behind him giggling and commenting, but he kept at it and reported feeling good afterwards. What an experience to add to his dash between the numbers!

Is our dash experience always a positive one, or can it be a traumatic learning experience that shapes the direction of our lives? I have a variety of emotions attached to my dash, but my most recent addition to the dash – the bioluminescent tour – is a combination of comedy, education, and… Hm. I can’t really find a word to describe it. I’ll leave it up to you to define it.

The BioBay

A few weeks ago, I was browsing Islands Magazine and read an interesting blurb about a rare microorganism that glows in the dark in deep recesses of water. There are only five places in the world for tourists to experience this unique phenomenon on the water’s surface. Cool, I thought. Then I kept flipping through the magazine.

When my husband and I arrived in San Juan, PR to start the celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary, we turned on the television in our hotel room and started watching the information channel about things to do in Puerto Rico. One of the info clips was about the BioBay – one of the five locations in the world where people can experience bioluminescent microorganisms creating streaks and blinks of light in the dark water. Cool, I thought. Then we started flipping channels.

When we went down to the lobby to find out about rock climbing, waterfall hiking and zip-lining through the rain forests, the clerk handed us a flyer about the BioBay and the unique nighttime adventure of exploring bioluminescent microorganisms. Okay, three times is too many for a coincidence… so we signed up for a tour with a company called EcoAction and, later that day, drove an hour to a funky (and I do mean the nasty smell funky) little corner of Fajardo, PR.

The first clue that this was going to be a dash-enhancer was the fact that there were three scraggly-looking street dogs pooping, farting and peeing in and around an open space where I happened to be sitting near the edge of water where nasty, brown seaweed and muck was washing up on a dry patch of grayish brown land.

I looked around at the ten to fifteen BioBay tour companies dispersed not far from us and planned my escape from the dogs. “Let’s go found out where our company, EcoAction, is located,” I suggested to my husband, even though we’d arrived about forty minutes early. As we walked away, I cut my eyes in a warning slant toward the panting, scrawny dogs jogging behind us like we were their owners.

In my determination to get away from the dogs, I didn’t realize that none of the flags or tents or brightly-colored t-shirts on the tour guides had EcoAction emblazoned on them. Not one. “Excuse me,” I asked a professional-looking guide wearing a KayakTours red shirt. “Do you know where we could find EcoAction?”

He didn’t hesitate in pointing out the spot where I’d been sitting. The exact same spot where the dogs had been pooping and peeing at the edge of the muckiest part of the bay. Hm – not a good sign.

“EcoAction has a yellow truck and they’ll be over there in a few minutes,” he said. Then he smiled at me, with just a hint of sympathy in his eyes, before turning back to his well-organized group of tourists in matching red life vests standing in an orderly semi-circle.

I grudgingly returned to the bench near the poop, pee, muck and funk and waited patiently with my husband. We watched row after row of brightly colored kayaks parade in even lines out into the bay and disappear behind the shored boats through a tunnel of low-hanging trees.

Within minutes, a tattered-looking Toyota pulled up to the curb and a young man with his hat turned backwards jumped out. He nodded to us and proceeded to wave down a junky-looking yellow truck. The window of the truck was shattered as though someone had thrown a brick into the passenger side window. A white cardboard sign with the words ECOACTION BIOLUMINESCENT KAYAK TOURS was haphazardly taped to the window in an effort to simultaneously cover the spider web of cracks and inform customers that their tour guides had arrived. The driver pulled to a stop next to the young man and jumped out to give him a hand slap and a man-hug.

I tried not to judge this situation even though it was becoming harder and harder as each new element was making our situation seem more dire. The driver of the truck was wearing brightly colored plaid surfer shorts, thigh-high purple water socks, a pair of electric blue and black water mocks, a multi-colored surfing wet shirt, and a long tail of curly black hair peeked out from the back of his trucker hat. My eyes briefly met my husband’s.

Let me digress here for a moment. My husband, Maurice, and I have been married for fifteen years and we dated for five years before that. We don’t need words to communicate at this stage in our relationship.

The look on Maurice’s face and the communication from his eyes said:

“WTF?”

“This is some shady, unprofessional $&!#.”

“Maybe we can get a last minute sign-up with one of the other fifteen companies out here with a more professional set up.”

“We should get in the car and get the hell out of here RIGHT NOW!”

Yep, his face said all of those things to me in one second. Literally – one second. I sighed heavily and I’m sure my shoulders physically sagged as I leaned depressingly forward and rested my head in my hands.

We looked around desperately and realized we were the only ones waiting in this section. I considered going back to the hotel right then and there and getting a free night’s stay for them booking me on this crappy tour, but in my inifinite Yoganess (is that a word? I just made it up), I decided not to judge this situation from what my eyes saw. I took Maurice’s hand and softly said, “Let’s not judge the book by the cover.”

The look in Maurice’s eyes replied that he had judged this situation and was about to get the hell out of here. But he felt my Yoganess taking over, and simply stood there in his Chicago-stance. (There’s no way for me to describe the Chicago-stance. If you know someone from the Southside of Chicago, you know what I’m talking about.)

Wait a minute… was that multi-colored surfer-guy tour guide pulling kayaks out of the back of that beat-up truck and pulling it over the dog excrement into the brown foul-smelling muck? No way. No way. Yoganess gone. Maurice looked at me. My eyes and my mouth told him I was having a serious problem with this. I couldn’t – wouldn’t walk in that water right there. I couldn’t – wouldn’t step on the sacred city-dog-blessed-ground.

But we didn’t leave. It was as if we were determined to create a dash moment together. A traumatic experience that would bind us together for rest of our dashes. When another couple looking as dubious and cautious as we were walked up, we almost hugged and kissed them.

I will spare you the details of the two beat-up minivans pulling up with more tourists and squealing young girls speaking rapidly in high-pitched Spanish. All with reservations on EcoAction.

Eventually, multi-colored surfer-guy pulled out life vests and handed them to us. For some reason, I think Maurice’s life vest was a joke. It looked like it would have been more appropriate for our 9-year old than his height and size required, but I kept that thought (and a smile) to myself and listened while Peter, the head of this operation and our lead guide, began to explain – VERY rapidly – how to use the oars to steer the kayaks.

Peter further explained that we would be paddling a mile and a half in the pitch black through a tunnel of trees called mangroves. If we accidentally crashed into these mangroves, they would be slimy and we’d have some problems getting out, so we should try VERY hard to stay in an even line following the glowing light of the lead kayak. As he said this, he looked towards the kayaks and pointed, but there were no lights. He stopped speaking and stood still.

¿Dónde están las luces?” he angrily inquired of the young guy with the hat turned backwards.

“No se,” Hat-back replied and walked away as though it was okay that he didn’t know where the lights were for our kayaks. I quickly glanced at Maurice and immediately looked away after seeing the set of his jaw.

“First couple!” multi-colored surfer-guy called as he stood in the muck.

No turning back now. I sighed as Maurice and I gingerly made our way over the areas we knew had dog poop on it and stepped tentatively into the waiting red kayak. At least I didn’t have to step in the water.

“Wait by the red boat!” Peter called to us and four other couples that had safely made it out into the bay. That was easier said than done considering the waves of the boats and other kayak tours paddling out were causing us to be pushed into the shallow mucky water at the base of the mangroves. We tried to paddle our way into a little group, but kept running into each other, bow first. The shallow water was full of seaweed and as I tried to paddle us into position, the seaweed would get trapped on my oar and then fall into the kayak on my lap and on my head. I whimpered silently to myself.

Where was the guide? Where were the lights? Were we really going to try to stay in this one spot until all twenty kayaks got in the water? There were only five us in here now and things were not looking good for the five of us as one couple drifted into the mangroves and another headed straight for us. Everyone was fighting and fussing with their kayak-mates. I was immediately reminded of the Amazing Race, one of my favorite reality shows.

I watched another kayak company’s kayaks rowing out in orderly fashion past us. A red light glowed on the back and a green light glowed on the front of each one of the fifteen kayaks gliding silently and professionally past us. No arguing, no fighting, no Amazing Race drama.

Eventually, multi-colored surfer-guy waded through the shallow water up to us and placed a bright green glow stick in a little hole at the front of our kayak. He did the same for the other ten kayaks now milling about in the bay. He jumped into a red kayak without a colored light or glow stick and flashed a little light into the air. “Follow me in a single file line, people!” he shouted as he expertly turned his kayak and began stroking out into the bay.

More chaos ensued as the now fifteen kayaks (and more coming into the water every minute) tried unsuccessfully to get into a single-file line. We broadsided each other, we crashed, and Maurice and I got turned completely around. I know we looked like a circus side-show to the other tourists. I know each and every one of them was silently thanking their creator they hadn’t signed up with EcoAction.

Eventually, about six of us got it together and were gliding in a line toward the tunnel of mangroves. I hazarded a glance over my shoulder and saw the three-ring circus of the rest of our group crashing and bumping in the bay behind us, their frustrated voices bouncing off the surface of the water. But I didn’t have time to think about them. I got into a rowing rhythm with Maurice and we sliced silently through the dark water into pitch black.

There are no words to describe rowing in total darkness knowing that fish, eels, birds, bugs and trees are so close to you, you could reach out and touch any of them at any moment. Everyone in our small group must have felt it, because no one dared to speak above a whisper as they gave directions to their rowing partners. A fish streaked past us under the water and Maurice and I both gasped. The water around the fish was glowing bright blue and green and left a streak of illumination in the dark water behind it. Awesome.

We crashed into slimy mangroves, we crashed into kayaks going the other direction in the narrow tunnel, we crashed into our own sister kayaks. It was so dark, it would be impossible not to. I felt my eyes stretched open as wide as possible as I tried to make out the outline of anything, but to no avail. The only things I could see were the glowing green sticks on our kayaks and the outline of leaves against the backdrop of the lighter sky. Every couple of minutes, a flash of light from the multi-colored surfer-guy’s kayak would flash through the tunnel of darkness illuminating exposed mangrove roots and the rowing outlines of the people in front of us. When I looked back there was nothing but Maurice and total darkness. Awesome and amazing.

Eventually, we made it out of the narrow, winding tunnel and cruised into an open area about half a mile in diameter. When I looked down into the water, it was glowing an icy white-blue-green. Fish jumped out of the water leaving a spray of glowing water behind it. I passed my hand tentatively through the water and it glowed white-green. Luminescent bubbles surrounded my fingers and left a wake of glowing water in the trail of my movements. The water that had pooled inside the floor of our kayak was dotted with glowing light. I scooped up a palm-full of water and held it close to my face. The glowing water was alive and moving within my palm. It was truly unreal and amazing. Now I know why Island Magazine dedicated a page to this phenomenon and suggested it as a must-see experience for its readers.

After being a part of the actual tour, the foolishness that is EcoAction was forgiven (but not forgotten). Would I have had a story like this to share with you if we’d gone with KayakTours? No. Would my experience be as memorable? No. Would my dash be as abundant? No.

My prayer is that my dash moments live on to bring amusement, entertainment, education and joy to others, even when the number on the right is etched in stone.

I Am My Mother

December 14, 2010

It’s official. I’ve turned into my mother. Something I swore at the age of 16 would never happen. There were several good reasons I could never act like her, but the most important one was that I am a Sagittarian and she’s a Virgo. Anyone who knows even a little about astrology understands the importance of that single fact in securing the impossibility of my ever turning into my mother.

There are also examples.

In 1987 or 88, the song It Takes Two by Rob Base was released. Simply hearing the first thumping beats of this song would raise my heart rate and make me gyrate. My mother and I would be riding along calmly in the car, that song would come on, and I would scream… “THAT’S MY JAM!” and crank up the volume. She would purse her lips, frown at me, and say, “Oh my Lord! Are you deaf, Child? Why does the volume have to be that loud for you to hear your song?” And she’d turn the volume so low I could only hear whispers of my jam. If I was lucky, I got to keep listening to the song, but on some days, it was WLOQ, the local jazz station, that she switched to. She always played her music so low you really didn’t hear the smooth jazz until you were stopped at a light.

I’d never be like that.

In 1984, I started high school. I was involved in a lot of sports and clubs and activities and was invited to different social events. Sometimes, there would be activities on Friday and Saturday nights. When I would ask my mother to go to the events on both nights, she’d always complain and say I’d just gone out the night or weekend before. Hm. What does going out on Friday have to do with going out on Saturday if you don’t have anything to do on Saturday? Why does the fact that I went out last weekend have any bearing on my desire to go out this weekend if I’m an A-student, good kid and all my chores are done?

I’d never be like that.

But the one that really got me. And I think I have a witness on this one from my younger brother and a few cousins that stayed with us from time to time. The clincher was… if I was ever caught sitting still watching television or talking on the phone or looking in the kitchen cabinet for something to eat, my mother would search, hunt, scavenge for something for me to do. It’s almost as if my mere presence of relaxation annoyed her and she was determined to alter my status. She’d walk in from the garage and see me flipping through a magazine at the kitchen table and start looking around. “Althea get up and put these things away,” she’d say, gesturing to boxes of food on the counter. Or, “Althea, put these dishes away,” as she would open the dishwasher to see clean dishes resting on the racks. “Althea, why is your room so messy? Make your bed and put these clothes away.”

I’d never be like that.

Or would I?

“I refuse to be like Mom,” I say silently when I catch myself about to do it. But most times (and I hate to admit it), I can’t help myself. Something about those boys sitting in front of the big screen playing Call of Duty – Black Ops when there’s folded clothes to be put away, and dirty dishes on the counter, and an overflowing trashcan…

“Un Unh! Turn it off. I know ya’ll aren’t in here playing that game when this place looks a hot mess.”

I see the knowing looks pass between them. I hear the sigh that little one hasn’t learned how to stifle yet. And, yes, he got more work because he sighed out loud. And yes, I also did that thing my parents used to do if we acted ungrateful. I went through the full list of how grateful they should be to have me as a parent.

“I know you didn’t just roll your eyes. Look around. You have a nice house to live in, clean clothes and dinner on the stove. I take you where you want to go and let your friends come over and play. You have every video game known to man in here. I wish you would sigh again!”

Not only have I turned into my mother, I’ve gone beyond where she was. I admit it. And I’m not sure how I feel about it. Perspective changes as we get older. Perspective changes as we have children. Perspective changes as our children get older.

I am not completely like Mom – I let the kids play their music loud with me in the car (except for that one song by Soldier Boy, Hey You There – what a stupid song); and I let them go to as many social activities as they want as long as they do well in school, do their chores and have good manners at all times.

And today, when my son was leaning on the door of the kitchen pantry, looking for something to snack on, I stopped myself from glancing around to find something for him to do. I resisted the strong, strong, strong urge to tell him to do the dishes, take out the recycling and get started on his homework.

I allowed him to eat, text and sing a song before I asked him to do all that.

Watch What You Wish For

December 2, 2010

It’s my birthday week. I’ve been anticipating and planning it for more than six months. My 40th. A true landmark year in terms of birthdays.

For my Sweet Sixteen, my parents planned a beautiful formal affair at a local civic center. My father, a professional photographer, took the pictures of the guys in their 1980s suits and matching Jerricurls. My boyfriend at the time, Jamal, had on a tuxedo with tails. I wore a fuchsia satin floor-length gown made just for me by a family friend – the same seamstress who made my debutante gown and wedding dress years later. I love to celebrate birthdays.

For my 30th birthday, I planned a grown-and-sexy pajama party. The pictures are under lock and key and what happens at an Althea party stays at the party, but I will tell you that the lingerie and silk pajama coed fashion show was something that will be remembered in many people’s minds for various reasons. Uh… well… those that were sober and can recall the events of that night. I love to celebrate birthdays.

I love birthday celebrations so much, I go as far out as I can with my sons’ birthday parties. I was just reminiscing with a cousin last weekend about Lil Maurice’s 1st birthday. He wasn’t even walking when I scheduled the inflatable bouncing machine, the husband-and-wife clown team, and ordered an elaborate Sesame Street cake that was large enough to feed our entire street of neighbors – many of whom came to celebrate the birth of the wild-child’s baby. I love to celebrate birthdays.

Anyway, I’m three days away from the big 4-0 celebration. Six months ago, I was trying to decide between a huge bacchanal adventure on a Caribbean island I hadn’t visited yet, or a month of partying with my friends in various cities where I’d lived. But in August, my close girlfriend and studio manager became very ill, and my mindset and daily life activities were… what’s a good word?… altered.

After two months of daily and weekly hospital visits, teaching multiple fitness classes, handling studio issues I hope to never see again, and still being an attentive mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend, I didn’t want to party. I didn’t even want to talk about my birthday. I just wanted to sleep. In fact, two months turned into three months and then four months. Hard and difficult decisions about life, and my business, and my family had to be made during those four months. Really hard and difficult decisions.

So, a month ago, my husband asked me – for maybe the 10th time – “Althea…” (when he says my full name, this means he’s really serious) “Althea, what do you want to do for your birthday?”

I sighed, and rubbed my eyes and sat back from whatever task I was engaged in. I blinked a few times, as though that would help me find the answer in my crowded mind. After a minute or two, I replied with a weary voice… “I just want to go to the mountains alone and sleep. I want to meditate and think and read and write and plan. I want to get a couple of spa treatments while I’m there and I want to eat good food that I don’t have to cook.” There, I’d said it. I’d made up my mind. And I meant it. No party, no people, no major celebration. Peace and quiet and me-time. No problem, right?

Big Maurice made all the arrangements. A long weekend at Chateau Elan. It wasn’t the mountains, but it was far enough away to be away and close enough to have dinner with hubby, the kids and my brother on my actual birthday. Chateau Elan – known for fantastic amenities and top-notch spa treatments – was my new focus. I just had to make it to the week after Thanksgiving. No problem, right?

I started with getting substitute teachers for my classes at the studio. Then I started wrapping up open items on the studio to-do list. Then I started planning what I would do with 4 quiet days to myself. I’d start on Wednesday with a late wake-up, breakfast with my twin who is also celebrating his 40th on the same day, an acupuncture session and then an afternoon of shopping at the outlets. Then on Thursday, I’d wake up late again, pack my clothing slowly and take a leisurely drive up 85 to the resort. My list of birthday weekend to-dos included things like planning my 2011 creative calendar, reading about chakras and meditation, soaking in a hot tub of scented water and listening to lounge jazz with a warm eye-pillow resting on my face.

What really happened was Big Maurice had a major meeting at his office on Wednesday, so I woke up early to get the kids off to school. I got stuck in traffic trying to get to my birthday-twin breakfast. My twin was in a bad mood the whole morning, so I spent the morning trying to cheer him up. I raced to the office after my acupuncture appointment to handle payroll and still missed getting my younger son from the bus. I sped through the crowded afternoon streets to meet him and do homework, cook dinner and begin laundry. My husband fell asleep on the couch around 9:30pm while I cleaned up the kitchen and yelled at the boys to “GO TO BED NOW! I MEAN IT!”

Okay, so Wednesday didn’t work out as planned. No biggie. The real birthday activities weren’t supposed to start until Thursday anyway.

Today – Thursday morning – I woke early again to get the kids ready for school because Big Maurice had to race to the office. My older son walks downstairs and calmly informs me that he forgot to tell us, but the band concert schedule was printed wrong at the beginning of the year and he actually has a band concert tonight at 7:00pm. As I look up from the computer screen of emails waiting to be answered, I gaze around the room at all the stacks of mail, unfolded laundry, shoes and bags everywhere and I remember…

Four months ago, I started asking – repeatedly – for a day with no appointments, classes or meetings. A day to be in my house to clean and declutter. In fact, I wrote two blogs about the clutter in my home and how my life was not allowing me to tackle it. It all came back to me. And I realized, at that very moment, that I’d gotten exactly what I’d wished, prayed and asked for. For my birthday, no less. A full day with no appointments, meetings or classes.

I now have a full day to clean and declutter my house until my younger son comes home from school and needs a snack before homework. I now have a full day to clean and declutter my house until my older son needs to find his band shirt and a clean pair of black pants and needs to be taxied to the school early to prepare for the concert. I now have a full day to clean and declutter before running to Walmart to restock the pantry and cabinets with food and toiletries before I leave for the weekend. And I will do all of this with joy so I can truly relax and enjoy my leisurely drive up 85 with my meditation books and scented eye-pillow.

I love to celebrate birthdays. Especially when I get exactly what I wish for…

The Spa

October 17, 2010

No Pain, No Gain.

That’s the slogan I expect to see at the gym in the weight room where men with muscular arms and fat stomachs are groaning beneath bars of weight to show off their prowess to other men groaning beneath bars of weight.

However, that same slogan should probably be stuck in big, bold letters on the front door of every spa in America. I know, because I love going to the spa as much as I love the grueling workouts of trail running, Ashtanga Yoga, and kickboxing. There’s something in me that likes the pain of the challenge and the success when I push through it to the end. And the results – firm legs, shapely arms, a flat stomach. It’s worth every drop of sweat in my opinion.

But it’s spa services we’re talking about right now, not fitness routines.

This weekend, I went to the spa to try something I hadn’t tried before – a full facial. Everything started off wonderfully – like they always do. Dim lights, soft new-age music with Native American flutes and the sounds of waves crashing on a beach, the faint but distinct scent of some deliciously perfect essential oil permeating the room. In this particular instance, I was lying naked between soft sheets on a heated massage table with a bolster expertly arranged beneath my knees. Perfect. Heaven on Earth. Exactly what I needed after a week of 12 and 13-hour days of intense work, wifing and whisking my children to this event and that appointment.

As I said, everything was blissful. I should have just paid the people to leave me alone in the room and wake me when an hour was up. But NOOOOO. I wanted to chalk up a new adventure in my spa experience. It was at the point when the aesthetician began to press firmly on my right nostril (she claimed she was removing a white head) and I could no longer breathe, my eyes began twitching with the pain of the blunt instrument pressing down on my skin, and I felt that blood had been drawn, that it all came back to me. Everything. Every “first” spa experience.

There was my very, very first massage – pregnancy massage when I was 28 years old and in the final weeks of my endless pregnancy with my first son. All I have to say is I was carrying a 9.5 lb baby and he was 9 days late. No massage could comfort me – physically, mentally or spiritually.

Ah – my first bikini wax. Before I go into this, I have to share that I endure the pain of a bikini wax EVERY 2-3 months because the results are indescribably sexy and smooth in an area that is not naturally very sexy and smooth if you don’t get a wax.

Anyway, I was presenting workshops at a hotel on Biscayne Drive in Miami Beach. On the last day of the conference, my presentation ended early and I didn’t have plans until later, so I decided to get a pedicure and try a bikini wax since I’d heard so many wonderful things about the results. Strangely, no one had EVER mentioned there would be pain involved.

The Puerto Rican woman working on me was pleased I spoke Spanish and we exchanged pleasantries in her native language as she swiped alcohol on the inside of my right thigh. I was laughing about something she said when she applied the first layer of burning hot wax on my pelvis. I stopped mid-laugh and sat up abruptly from my supine position. “Uh, wait. What was that? Is it supposed to be that hot? Can it be a little cooler?”

I remember the aesthetician looking at me with these dramatically made-up smoky-eyes and asking me in heavily accented English, “Is this your first wax?” incredulously. Like every woman in the world over the age of 18 gets bikini waxes every other month. Come to think of it, they probably do in Miami Beach. But whatever… “Yes,” I answered cautiously. What did this mean? Should I be prepared for something?

Too late. She had already begun pressing a rectangular cloth to the waxy area on my pelvis and inner thigh, and RRRIIIPPP. The hair was gone and all of the air in my lungs was too. I grabbed the woman’s wrist as tears came to my eyes and I whispered, “wait.” That’s all I could manage. And the technician – dear, sweet woman that she was – just smiled and rubbed the back of my hand like the nurse in the labor and delivery room when I gave birth to that 9.5 lb child a few years before.

A procedure that normally takes about 10-15 minutes, took 30 minutes that day. I cried, I whined, I prayed out loud in two languages. The nice waxing lady held my hand, patted my thighs and pelvis, and cooed at me in calming tones.

I remember the drive from Miami Beach to my mother’s house in Miramar like it was yesterday. I had every window on the car down, the sun roof open and my panties and shorts off. I had my left foot propped out the window and my right knee as far to the right as driving would allow. My seat was reclined as far back as I could go and still see the highway. I didn’t care about the truckers driving next to me and honking their blaring horns. I just needed the breeze to cool the painful fire of the waxed areas and I didn’t want ANYTHING to touch my skin around “there.”

I called my girlfriend, Yvonne, on the cell phone and recounted the horrifying (but beautiful results) story as 18-wheelers honked and SUVs beeped at me like I was a porn star driving on the Las Vegas Strip. She laughed and I could tell she was crying from laughing so hard.

Two months ago, I decided to try something called a “Hip Bath” at JeJu Spa. JeJu is an authentic Korean bath house outside Atlanta. One day I’ll share my first experience going to JeJu and meeting 8 strange women I didn’t know for a birthday party completely butt naked. But that’s another story for another blog.

Anyway, during previous trips to JeJu, I’d seen women sitting under heavy drapes on short stools talking quietly to one another. It seemed like a peaceful experience and one I might enjoy. So, one weekday evening, when the spa was practically empty, I stripped down to nothing but my bikini wax and signed up for the Hip Bath. The animated Korean woman pointed me to a low box with a round hole in the center. I squatted down, got as comfortable as possible on a box with a hole in it and allowed the woman to encircle me in a rubberized drape that sealed at my neck – kind of like at the barber shop or beauty salon. But this drape completely covered me and rested on the floor around the box. A pillow was propped behind me and the woman brought me an ice-cold bottle of water. Cool. This was going to be nice.

The Hip Bath technician parted the front of my drape and began to stir herbs and leaves and what looked like salts into a crock pot beneath the hole in the box. Soon it seemed like a good-smelling stew was brewing beneath my va-jay-jay. The tech stirred the concoction with a big wooden spoon, then resealed the drape and went away to talk with her friend in the body scrubbing room. At first, things were fine. I was getting warm and I could feel beads of perspiration gathering beneath my breasts and running down my torso. Good. Great. I could literally feel the toxins pouring from my body.

Hm. Wait a minute. Things were starting to get a little hot “down there.” I opened my eyes and starting looking around for the technician, but I was completely alone in the room, tied into a floor-length drape, sitting on a box with a crock pot boiling steam up a hole into my cootchie. This was no longer comfortable or feeling good. This was hot and I desperately wanted to drink the water sitting only inches from me on the floor. But I couldn’t get my arm out of the drape. As I looked, longingly, at the beads of condensation rolling off the sides of the bottled water, my mouth literally went bone dry and I thought I was going to pass out from dehydration right there on the Hip Bath box in a Korean bath house on Pleasant Hill Road.

As a tear began to form in my right eye, the tech came walking into the room. I really thought I could hear angels singing around me. Deliverance had arrived.

“You okay?” she asked me in choppy, heavily-accented English.

“Um,” I croaked through cotton mouth. “It’s hot.” That’s all I could manage to say.

She mumbled something in Korean to herself, parted the drape in the front, and I sighed with relief as fragrant steam billowed out of the front and a rush of cool air enveloped my private areas.

“Water. Please.” I whispered faintly. She unscrewed my water bottle for me and put in my shaky hand  sticking out of the front of the drape. I put it to my lips and sipped gingerly. There are not words to describe the feeling of gratitude that rushed through me in that instant. As I sipped, she stirred more herbs and plants into the crock pot.

“You get hot – you open this,” the tech said as she pointed to the crack in the front of the drape. I won’t bore you with more details of the Hip Bath experience, but I will tell you that I truly enjoyed resting in the cold whirlpool afterwards.

Anyway, you get the point. Some of the things that happen in spas are not always pleasant experiences. But I for one am addicted to them. I get acupuncture, massage, reflexology, and pedicures every month. I love sitting in steam rooms and dry saunas or whirlpools. I even take my sons to the spa. My 8-year old has enjoyed reading next to me in an “igloo sauna” while his older brother swam in the coed lap pool at JeJu. I want them to know that a massage, meditation, or a body scrub is for everyone regardless of sex, age, income, race or religion. Hopefully they will have more gain than pain with their spa experiences.

The Clutter Monster – Part II

October 6, 2010

The Big CM – otherwise known as the Clutter Monster – is still lurking on tables and ottomans and beneath my bed and around bureaus and next to chairs and sofas. And I’m still irritated by its simple existence.

As I explained to you in full detail in my previous blog, “stuff” – a.k.a. the Clutter Monster a.k.a. CM – is affecting my sleep, work and peace.

I know the simple solution is to just handle it – clean it up, throw stuff away, shred paper, give away never-worn clothing. But there’s one thing necessary to make it happen that is in short supply most recently – time.

I am the queen of time management. So much so that I lecture on it… yep, that’s right. I have a full multi-slide presentation with bullet points and fantastic graphics and hilarious photos to illustrate the simple steps to being successful in the daily juggle of managing life. Time management.

One of the key points that I not only stress in my workshop, but live by, is the realistic to-do list. It’s on my computer, in my cell phone and constantly running through my mind – in order of priority. Seriously.

  • A form with a past-due deadline for the IRS related to my business’s sales and use tax: top priority, gotta happen today, no matter what.
  • Need to find a substitute teacher for our most popular class which starts in 2 hours because the teacher just sprained her ankle and I am teaching another class at the same time: top priority, gotta happen in the next 1 hour and 45 minutes, no matter what.
  • 500 word magazine article that’s both humorous and informational about acupuncture for seniors due yesterday because it’s going to print at 5:00pm today: top priority, gotta happen today, no matter what.
  • Water is leaking from the ceiling onto the hardwood floors of our studio in the middle of the youth jazz and hip hop class from three different pipes: top priority, gotta handle it NOW, no matter what.

You know, stuff like that. Forget the other small things like scheduling physicals for the kids before the registration deadline for soccer, or getting an updated passport before the international flight departure of two days from now at 7:45 am. Those are 2nd tier priority items.

But what does any of this have to do with CM all over my house? Everything.

When I wake up in the morning, I start hustling kids. I roll out the door with them and step right into the front of a class. I step out of class and put out at least 1-2 fires before I jump in the car and head to the next class or meeting. I get back in the car – nibble on a banana or grape or (more likely) a few gummi bears – and drive back to the office to attack items 1-3 on the priority list and head back home to meet child #1 and give him my undivided attention for 40 minutes before child #2 comes home and they begin to fight and argue and wrestle and break things. While they fight, I cook dinner and assist with homework simultaneously before packing them in the car/van to drop someone off somewhere and drive quickly back to the studio to teach one or more classes or workshops. There are two alternatives at this point. I either drive back home to break up a fight between the children, check homework, write checks for this trip or that year book,  become a nurse practitioner in order to sew up the gash on the ankle of some child, and listen with rapt attention to husband on phone in another time zone about something work-related; OR I dial in to catch the end of a conference call for some organization I’m an officer for, or run to an evening meeting in Yoga-attire (apologizing simultaneously for being late and being inappropriately attired), or do a quick shower and change to make it to a business networking event or charity event to promote my business. Regardless of the choice, by 10:00pm I am finally sitting still and I relish the silence. I just want to lie down. The last thing I want to do is tackle the clutter surrounding me as I sit like a zombie.

In fact, the reality that I am constantly in my car, changing clothes and shoes and accessories and bringing props and music and mats and blocks and belts and oils to and from one destination to another means the CM has followed me out of the house and into my car. My husband calls our minivan the Disaster Recovery Vehicle because it’s full of food and bottled waters and mats and blankets and… stuff.

I think that all I need is a day or two without interruption and appointments, and I think I can tackle the CM. I really do.

So as fate would have it, I got just that. Last weekend. The fairy godmother of women-who-do-too-much waved her dainty wand over my dredloc’d head and POOF… kids and husband gone (sort of) and only 1 appointment at the studio. I had a whole afternoon and evening, two days in a row, to clean my house! Yay!

Uh, no. What actually happened was… I laid on the sofa in my most comfy yoga attire and watched movies and ate oatmeal cream pies and doughnuts. For real. I’m not lying. And I had a great time, too. In fact, I didn’t really see the CM all around me. All I saw was the sun shining through the window, warming my bare toes as they wiggled off the end of the couch above a stack of utility bills and credit card statements lying on the floor where I left them next to the shredder. Bliss.

The Clutter Monster

October 6, 2010

This is gonna be a two-part blog. I can’t fully impart the reasons why I’m being attacked by the Clutter Monster (hereinafter referred to as CM) without taking time to explain why CM continually exists. So, there will be a Part II to this blog.

CM has been a part of my life forever. It’s a part of my personality and dynamic. There are some people (typically Virgos) who are very ordered and neat and organized. Files neatly labeled and color-coded, or storage bins neatly filled with cherished personal momentos are a natural part of some people’s lives (Virgos). Well, to a degree, that’s me too. As I indicated in an earlier blog, I have a little OCD regarding folding clothes and having a neat closet and drawers. Therefore, the only storage bins I have neatly ordered are those related to seasonal clothing and shoes for my children and me. Outside of that, clutter is taking over my world.

Yes, clutter. It’s gotten so out of control, I have changed the general term of clutter to the living, breathing object of… The Clutter Monster.

When I was a teenager, CM was stacks of journals and notepads and stationary and office supplies scattered in careless piles around my bedroom desk and bed. Every few months, I would spend a couple of hours carefully going through everything, discard what I didn’t need, neatly stack the books and journals and file away the papers. But I was just as busy in high school as I am as an adult – I went from school to track or swim team practice to FBLA meetings to Charmettes events (don’t ask what Charmettes is – that’s another blog) to church activities to hanging out with my friends. I would rush in the house, quick change my wardrobe, throw my bags of books and papers on the bed or the desk and grab what I needed for the next activity.

As a young adult in college, not much changed. Instead of FBLA and Charmettes, it was Student Senate and my sorority activities after classes. Instead of cluttering up my bedroom at home, now I had a whole apartment to house my papers and journals and school books and applications and stuff.

Then I graduated from college and moved into various apartments in several different cities and I had to box up my “stuff” and take it with me. Instead of stacks of papers and books and journals and crap, I had boxes of papers and books and journals and crap. Some boxes I never unpacked – I used them for tables and stands to put my plants on, or to drape my clothing over.

I would have continued in this fashion for the rest of my life if I didn’t decide to get engaged and had to co-mingle my “stuff” with my fiancee’s “stuff”. Suddenly, I enjoyed giving things away, throwing things away. I had to. Two people with 20 years worth of “stuff” can’t fit in a one-bedroom apartment without some drama, and I don’t do drama.

Purging things I didn’t need or use from my personal space was uplifting. I felt like I could hear angels singing in the heavens and the sun seemed to shine brighter in the apartment. It looked larger and I enjoyed sitting on our couch and simply looking around the living room or out the window. Why didn’t someone tell me earlier about the de-cluttering thing?

Fiancee turned into husband and one-bedroom apartment turned into a 1940s cottage nestled in a wildlife reserve. We turned the master bedroom into a party suite with a big-screen television and a huge sectional sofa so we could entertain guests all over the house. Our hard wood floors gleamed and the minimalist styling was airy and fresh. No clutter and life was good.

Baby number one ended it all. Party room – gone. Clutter-free zones – gone. Airy, minimalist styling – gone. In its place – stuff. I won’t even take the time to explain what some of the stuff was – it just existed and grew and I couldn’t purge fast enough. In the end, I gave up – literally. We sold the house and moved away from CM.

So now, here we are in a beautiful spacious home. A room for every person and thing. An empty basement housing some of the “stuff” we couldn’t part with in the move from the cottage to here. A garage housing more “stuff” we couldn’t part with in the move from the cottage to here. In fact, I was okay with “stuff” in areas of the house where I couldn’t see it on a daily basis, but slowly CM started to creep back in.

It started with the living room table where the boys do their homework. Pencils, pens, notebooks, gaming magazines, sneakers, backpacks – they just seem to gather on, next to, under, and around the living room table. It doesn’t matter how many times I clean it up or ask them to clean it up, the living room table and the surrounding area always look like a 3rd grade classroom.

It moved to the dining room table where I would drop the mail and magazines and newspapers and things to be signed and returned. Anything important would end up on the dining room table.

Then “stuff” started accumulating on the kitchen table, because that’s where we would sit to eat and discuss field trips and class pictures and new insurance and the new schedule for the studio and test results from the doctor for a childs’ fractured foot.

Then “stuff” started growing in the family room around the gaming storage unit, because GameCube became a Wii which became a PS3. There are different controllers and games for each system and manuals explaining how to get to the next level of each game and chargers for cordless PS3 controllers and chargers for batteries for the Wii controllers and a BluRay Disc thing and an Apple home unit that syncs all of this technology together so we can watch movies and family pictures all in one spot. Yeah, okay.

Finally, “stuff” attacked me in my only sanctuary – my bedroom. And I can’t blame anyone except me for it. It’s the only place for my books and journals and pens and pencils and booklets from conferences and scraps of paper with email addresses on it and thoughtful cards from family and friends and Christmas gifts from the last three christmases which I haven’t gotten around to using yet and important papers I have to attend to at some point. It’s where I go as soon as I get home from a class and quickly shower and change to go to a meeting or an event. Shoes are all around my side of the bed – flip flops and sneakers and high heels – because I will wear three different shoes to go with three different outfits every day. Every day.

Like the monster children are afraid of under the bed, my “stuff” attacks me in my sleep. I can see the mounds of “stuff” around me in shadow form as I try to doze off and it bothers me. When I wake up in the morning, it’s surrounding me. When I try to work on the computer in the bed, it’s staring at me and calling to me to clean it up, put it away… DECLUTTER DAMNIT!

So easy, so simple. Just clean it up.

I tried. But I got frustrated and distracted and I couldn’t stick to one room or one pile or one area. The entire first floor of my beautiful home is covered by the CM, and I can’t seem to get myself together to tackle it. When I do get around to cleaning off one table, the kids come home and a week passes and it’s covered again by our lives.

I hired a house cleaner. They can’t clean clutter. Only the owner of clutter can de-clutter. So I have shiny floors and well-made beds amid mounds of crap. Depressing.

So here I am at 5:00 in the morning blogging about my clutter because I can’t sleep with it looking at me, haunting me, teasing me, daring me to do something about it. When I’m done, I’ll spend a few minutes and put a couple of things away. Maybe by Christmas I will have gone through the items from last Christmas and put them away to make room for the new “stuff”. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Cancer

September 6, 2010

I’m in the hospital. I spent the night here. Today – September 6 – marks the one-month point of Yvonne’s hospital stay.

In June, my family and I went away for 3 weeks on summer holiday. When I returned to work, my studio’s General Manager and close sister-friend of the last 11 years began complaining of fatigue. The next week, she didn’t have the strength to teach her high-impact Kickbox classes, and I started to substitute teach them for her. The following week, she didn’t show up for a scheduled class and I knew something was wrong. Yvonne D. Carroll does not miss a class, appointment, meeting or any scheduled responsibility… so this was serious.

On August 5, my other sister-friend, Lisa, and I went to Yvonne’s house to find out what in the world was going on. She was laying limp in her bed – she hadn’t eaten in days, hadn’t bathed or moved. We tried to get her to go to the hospital that minute, but she refused… wouldn’t budge.

In my anger and frustration over her refusal to get the care she obviously needed, I started to clean. I banged pots and pans and silverware around in soapy water. I slammed cabinet doors. All in a vain attempt to suffuse my mounting emotions. I cut up chunks of watermelon she had in the refrigerator and almost force-fed the pieces to her. Lisa lay in the bed next to her stroking her hair and arms. God knew to have two people there – one to stroke and one to fuss. We were both needed to give Yvonne what she required at that moment.

Kitchen clean, watermelon gone, and half a bottle of water drunk. I was satisfied enough to leave Yvonne napping in the bed. But our journey had just begun.

The next morning, as I’m leading a business networking presentation, I see an incoming call on my cell phone from Yvonne’s number. I watch the clock on the wall, slowly ticking off the minutes to 9:00 when I can officially end this meeting and go to a private place to check my messages. Just as I knew it would, the message indicated Yvonne had been taken to the hospital by one of our instructors, but they sent her home to see her physician. What?!

I quickly went home, changed into my hospital transportation outfit of jean shorts, t-shirt and flip flops, and headed straight for her house. I met her in the driveway, as she limped from the truck of our studio instructor. We didn’t pass Go, we didn’t collect $200 dollars, we went straight to her physician specialist 40 minutes north in Johns Creek.

Yvonne sat listlessly in the waiting room, struggling to stay coherent enough not to fall out of the chair. I called my mother and fussed. I called my husband and fussed. I stood outside the waiting room sucking up rays of sun and fumed. Why would my girlfriend wait so long to get care? Why did I have to fight her to go to the hospital and doctor just for her to turn around and go the next day.

My phone rang constantly… Did you send the email? Are we still on for our 10:45 training meeting at the studio? Why haven’t you returned my call about the program? Who is teaching Yvonne’s class tonight, we’re getting calls at the studio? Where is the deposit bag? Are you participating in the Chamber of Commerce event this evening? One thing after another. I patiently and cheerfully answered as many calls and inquiries and messages as I could. I didn’t want to have to explain what was really going on in the private life of my friend and studio manager. I smiled as I spoke into the phone, trying to mask the fear, anger, and frustration that might creep into my voice as I patiently responded to requests for my time, energy, knowledge and person.

Finally, about 40 minutes later, Yvonne was called into the sterile, small box of an exam room. I’ll spare you the details of the examination, but the end result was the doctor looking extremely concerned and calling Emory Johns Creek Hospital to have a room, bed and medications prepped and ready when we arrived 15 minutes later. That was August 6. Yvonne hasn’t been home since. In fact, she hasn’t been outside of the hospital except the day they transported her from one hospital to another to get more specialized care.

AML – Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. That was the final diagnosis. Blood transfusions, bone marrow tests, chemotherapy, antibiotics in an IV drip. That’s been Yvonne’s daily reality for the last month. Doctors, nurses and specialists poking and prodding and invading her private areas. Tears and fears on her face and in her spirit. But she was strong. Stronger than the hospital staff thought she would be.

“Honestly… we didn’t think she’d make it when we saw the condition she was in upon arrival.” Those were the words of the amazed cancer doctor 2 weeks after Yvonne’s arrival at Johns Creek. We were sitting in her hospital room laughing and talking as if we were shooting the breeze in her living room at home when he came in to update us. I appreciated his honesty and saw the pleasure in his countenance at Yvonne’s miraculous recovery and strength.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. The bone marrow and blood tests indicated she needed more intense chemotherapy to fully eradicate all of the leukemia cancer cells. And she would probably need a bone marrow transplant to help her start generating infection-fighting white blood cells. The Bone Marrow Center at Northside Hospital would be her new home. So, the next day, my husband, Maurice, went to Johns Creek and helped pack up the hospital room that had become Yvonne’s new home and my hang out. He stayed with her until they packed her into an ambulance and pulled out of the circular drive of Emory Johns Creek.

Northside’s Cancer Center is a maze of buildings and floors and sections and rooms. My first visit was with another sister-friend, Lindia, who had flown in from Virginia to see our girlfriend. We got lost, turned around and finally made our way to the entrance to the Bone Marrow unit. We dressed each other in scrubs, shoe covers, and gloves… all required to even get on the floor where the patient rooms were located.

As usual, Yvonne was smiling and playing hostess when we came in – “What do you want to watch on television? Move that pillow and have a seat right there. Is it too dark in here? Althea turn that light on for her. Move that stuff on the couch and get comfortable, Ya’ll.” No one would know she was even sick. The only give-away was the multiple lines and tubes hanging from the metal “tree” into her arm. She starts exclaiming about how good the food is here at Northside and shows off a plate of grilled chicken, a perfectly baked potato and bright green veggies. My stomach starts growling immediately, but I have to stay focused on the purpose of our visit – to cheer Yvonne, share information and cards from the outside, and find out the status of the day’s reviews and reports from the doctors.

So here I am. September 6 – Labor Day. My husband and the boys went to Mississippi to visit family. I was supposed to go, too. But I couldn’t leave my sister-friend in a hospital room alone while everyone was barbecuing and partying. It wouldn’t feel right. So I packed an overnight bag, some books and my journal and, after church, a nap and a pedicure, I made my way to the Bone Marrow unit at Northside Hospital.

My mom, brother and his wife came and hung out with us for a while during the evening. We laughed and talked like we were at one of our houses. Eventually, they left and Yvonne and I went to sleep – well, as much sleep as you can get while nurses come and go testing, squeezing, poking and proding. I, of course, slept through it all – it’s a gift.

She’s eating breakfast, I’m blogging and we’re watching Good Day Atlanta. The exact same thing we’d be doing at one of our houses on a lazy Labor Day morning.

Yvonne & Althea

Man Child

July 12, 2010

I was in the last city of our visit to South Africa when I realized it – my first child is now a man. This realization is different for every mother of a son. For some of my girlfriends, it’s a sad time… one of loss. For others, it’s with a sigh of relief. And they can’t wait for his big rusty butt to get out of the house.

For me, it’s a weird, strange feeling. Almost like I don’t know who he is or where he came from. He still has the same round face, the lashed brown eyes, the happy smile, and that charismatic personality that allows him to make friends with anyone anywhere at any time. He still hugs me, and kisses on me, and (tries) to sit on my lap.

Man-Child in 2009

But now, he’s my height and almost my weight. He’s wearing men’s sizes in clothing and shoes. He’s very discerning in what he’ll wear and how he’ll wear it. He walks with that male assuredness that women find attractive – it’s almost a pimp. Barack Obama – style. You know what I’m talking about.

In South Africa, he was protective of his family – grandparents, mother and younger brother. He was very confident as he walked around and directed my mother and me through a large mall when we’d lost our way. He always opened the door for us and stood back to allow us to go before him – looking around as though he would take someone out if they tried to harm us.

My Brother's Keeper - Table Mountain, South Africa

He and I had to share a room for a couple of days during our trip to South Africa. When he was sleeping was the only time I saw my baby boy. My first child. I could see traces of the infant they placed in my arms to suckle for the first time in the hospital. But then, he turned over, grunted, scratched and woke up. The baby was gone and the man was back. I continued to stare at him in… what – Confusion? Wonder? Amazement?

When did it happen? I had definitely seen glimpses of it on occasion. But I hadn’t had a chance to really sit still, be quiet and absorb it until our trip to Africa.

This man-child transition happens at different times for boys. And a lot has to do with the home situation. Single-parent? Older sister? Older Brother? No siblings? Younger sibling? Multiple siblings? A father in the house? A father who cares versus one who doesn’t? A mother that treats her man-child more like a child than the man he eventually becomes? Cherished versus un-cherished?

Age has nothing to do with it. Experiences, circumstances and lifestyle have everything to do with it. Because of this, I won’t even discuss my son’s age in this blog – it has nothing to do with it. All I know is, he’s a man and I’m stepping back to allow it.