The Career Crisis

I shared in my last post my general feelings about the state of my career. As I sat in therapy this past weekend, I had a realization, which one often does in that space: I never addressed my career crisis.

What was the moment?

I spent my entire grad school career striving for a particular goal: working for the National Archives. I made that ambition known early. In 2010, I interned at the Seattle branch to fulfill my MLIS requirement. I loved the work.

My first job out of grad school was a strategic choice. I took a one-year archives processing position at Death Valley National Park in Death Valley, CA, some 3,000 miles away from home, because it was federal government-adjacent and, I believed, would demonstrate substantive archival work. By month four, I had begun to circulate my resume to park employees to get their feedback. What was I doing wrong with my resume? Why was I not advancing to an interview. I took their recommendations and tweaked my resume. By month nine, I was actively applying. AND, I was getting interviews.  

My contract ended. I moved back to the East Coast. In August 2012, I got THE interview: an archives technician position at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

A week later, when I heard the words “we would like to offer you the position” I was in shock but also experiencing the unmitigated joy of a plan for my life coming together.

I *thoroughly* loved my time in Philadelphia, for professional and personal reasons. In spite of the 2013 federal government shutdown, I was still all in. But, in 2014-2015, government bureaucracy reared its head and my idealistic view of NARA became muddied.

In time, it came crashing down.

Rather than address the end of an idealistic dream, I ran. Running looked like applying for other jobs. I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore as I had wrapped my whole identity in working for NARA.

I was NARA. NARA was me.

Without it, who was I?

Now that the fog of a two year depression has lifted, I see the toxicity built in wrapping up my identity, let alone my professional identity, in a place. In something external to me.

My heart, in spite of the hurt, still cares deeply for NARA, especially the people. I am still invested in its success even if that means being at odds with its leadership. For example, at SAA 2018, I took the time to address its leadership during their August 17 session regarding NARA’s “digital future” and its strategic plan. I even talked afterward with Micah Cheatham, the Chief Management and Administration, much to the chagrin of some of leaderships most ardent supporters. I have reservations and many of them grave. Why? Because I love NARA. I want the best for it. I want it to do right by the American public and its hardworking employees.

The question now is what can I do in archives? How do I channel the things I love, the causes that are important to me, and who I am now (and who I have always been) to reimagine a career that enables me to create something exciting and helps others?

So here I am, four years in the making, ready to face it.

*deep breath*

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The Act of Crying: My Complicated History

Each morning, I spend time reading my bible at my dining room table. My quiet time to “get my mind right” and spend with God before starting my day. My 10 year old cat Thaddeus is exiled to the living room and, begrudgingly, he has accepted it. He only enters to make his way to his litterbox which is located in a corner nook near my basement door. The soft sounds of Mozart play as I dive into the word, my common practice since exiting the church in 2016 (story for another time).

My studying is composed of three parts. First, I begin by reviewing my notes from my previous morning session. This is where I talk aloud what I’ve read to ensure I understand what I read. Occasionally, new thoughts pop up and I record those too. Then, I read and study for 20-30 mins. This looks like reading a few verses from my designated book and chapter out of my New King James Version (NKJV) bible. I turn to my behemoth of a commentary to review what it says. I reason and grapple with the words, the themes, the concepts. Similar to my review, I talk it out. I write my notes. My notes even include questions or comments where I agree, disagree, or need more information. Finally, I pray.

What I pray about varies from thanking God or preparing for my upcoming day or my friends and family or even the state of the world. It varies. Sometimes, I’ve started out my study session thinking I will pray about one topic but end up praying about something else entirely. I’ve even stopped mid-prayer to pray for a situation or person that came to mind. Prayer for me isn’t what is often depicted in church or on tv.

I don’t get down on my knees or steeple my hands. It’s a conversation, spoken aloud, with God. Sometimes my eyes are closed. Sometimes they are open. Sometimes I cry.

Today, I cried because I experienced one of those rare prayer moments. The kind that comes upon me. When I have been carrying something for far too long. That type of release comes out in hot tears that turn to sobs. The kind that makes my usually cautious cat venture into the dining room to let me know he is there.

I centered crying because I have a complicated history with the act of crying that I desire to unpack.

***

Early on in life, it was instilled in me that crying is weakness. Full stop.

Crying didn’t save you or elicit sympathy. It got you yelled at. A lot. It made you a target, especially a target for an emotionally abusive and manipulative father.

I was not equipped to verbally spar with a man twice my size and three times my volume when he was angry so I shut down emotionally. Friends have often described me as even-keeled, calm, unflappable, or even stoic.

It is a defense mechanism that has become adopted behavior. I learned how to retreat inwardly when confronted. Perhaps, this is part of the reason why I have such a rich interior life because when I endured confrontations I wasn’t listening. My body was there but my mind was elsewhere.

I am not one to take much stock in labels, especially personality-related ones but I find the Enneagrams fascinating. I am an 8. The issue with 8s are their fear of being controlled as a result they can be controlling. My control manifests itself with an intense desire to control my surroundings and my emotions. However, life has taught me that there is very little outside of myself I can control. That fear shifted to controlling my emotions as best I can. At all times.

Yet, this 8 fear is based in very real trauma. It is how we interact with the world. Our controlling is the result of learning early, brutally, and repeatedly, that the world is not a safe place and, sometimes, the people closest to you are are the most damaging. They are not safe spaces.

It is hard work to recognize and actively unlearn what has been impressed on your psyche from an early age. In it’s unraveling to form new pathways, it is fear-inducing because to unravel it means to, in part, remake who you are. Honestly, who wants to do that?

Crying is an extent of my emotions which I kept under control for so long coupled with a very real fear of being perceived as weak. Therefore, open to attack by anyone, even those closest to me.

***

What changed my relationship with crying was an external force beyond my control: the death of my mom in 2005.

My high school graduation. Unfortunately, my mom passed before the big social media boom. Majority of my pictures of her exist in physical, not digital, form.

My high school graduation. Unfortunately, my mom passed before the big social media boom. Majority of my pictures of her exist in physical, not digital, form.

I was a sophomore at a university about 1.5 hours from my hometown. I was gearing up for finals. My sister was home from active duty when she called me. Our mom was sick. Jenni related how she had begged, pleaded, and cajoled our mom to go to the doctor. My dad was...around and his usual apathetic self for any plight outside of his own. I told her to call me once she found out anything.

My life resumed. Went to my classes. Studied. Wrote papers.

When my sister called, I remember I was in my dorm room, mid-study session. There are few moments in life where you remember with exacting detail. Out of this entire experience, this is what I remember:

Jenni: Ashley (pause) momma has cancer.

I stood up and started to pace.

Me: How did she take it?

long pause

Jenni: Ashley, she just started to cry.

That. That right there made this moment real. That made the rising pain in my own chest bubble up. The earth had shifted. It would never be the same. My defense mechanism of emotionally shutting down kicked in and I hurried off the phone.

What would follow in the next few weeks were emotionally painful conversations with professors to reschedule or get out of taking my exams. I cried every single time and I hated it. I hated exposing myself in that way. I even hated how some of them responded not to say they were heartless but highly uncomfortable.

This only heightened my discomfort and hatred of crying.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2005. The last few months of her life would be spent shuttling between my hometown of Brunswick to her childhood home town of Baxley. She would have family caretakers in the form of her sisters, especially my aunt Loretta, and then me when school let out in mid-May. Her illness opened up the family chasm that existed. The tension between my father and my mom’s side of the family. They knew the type of man he was. Even now, it isn’t spoken in a substantive way. My mom was a domestic abuse victim. I lived with it for most of my life that I thought this was normal but it isn’t. It shouldn’t be.

Despite the initial diagnosis, I did very little crying. There never seemed to be any time for it. I had a cancer-ridden mom to take care of and shield from further abuse.

You thought it ended because my mom got sick?

Like any child, I redirected it toward me. The anger. The words. All of it. I couldn’t run away and I most certainly couldn’t cry. I had to be strong for the both of us, my mom and I.

My mom was losing her battle. The diagnosis had come too late. Her body too weak to fight. In late June 2005, on a Wednesday, my mom died in hospice. My sister, aunt Loretta, and I by her side. The moment I had feared, dreaded, but also prayed would come (I didn’t like to see her suffer) had come.

I was calm until she took her last breathe and then I panicked. I bolted from the room. When I found my aunt Darlene who had stepped out for a moment, I greedily pulled her to me. I needed to feel something steady in a world that no longer made sense. A world that had gone to shit in an instant.

I shut my eyes and said “my mom is gone.”

Defense mechanism kicked in again as we endured the next few hours. Family needed to be informed. My brother, who had returned home to Virginia a few weeks prior to tend to his pregnant girlfriend, had to be told. He quickly got off the phone. I learned later that he retreated to his bedroom, laid down, and cried. My cousin Shawn, who affectionately called my mom “Auntie Bernie” had a similar reaction. The information went out. None of us would be the same.

The body, formerly known as my mom, had to be prepped and taken away. I stood there watching all this happen but there wasn’t the mind/body disconnect. I was here. My mind was here watching all of it. In that moment of death, I see now, that emotional disconnect between mind and body had begun to mend. To heal itself.

I started to cry. I cried as my aunt Loretta drove me home. I cried as I got ready for bed. I cried in bed. Eventually, I cried myself to sleep.

My auntie Loretta and I. Thanksgiving 2017. She is now the family matriarch on my mom’s side. Both of her parents and two oldest siblings, her sister (my mom) and her brother (my uncle), are gone.  My favorite story of hers is when she shared how my mom, who was working at a department store in my hometown, paid her bus fare to come for a visit and bought my auntie Loretta’s prom dress. It was the first time my aunt traveled on her own and to a new city to spend time with her big sister. She loved that yellow, flowy prom dress.

My auntie Loretta and I. Thanksgiving 2017. She is now the family matriarch on my mom’s side. Both of her parents and two oldest siblings, her sister (my mom) and her brother (my uncle), are gone. My favorite story of hers is when she shared how my mom, who was working at a department store in my hometown, paid her bus fare to come for a visit and bought my auntie Loretta’s prom dress. It was the first time my aunt traveled on her own and to a new city to spend time with her big sister. She loved that yellow, flowy prom dress.

I still remember waking up the next morning and, for several seconds, thinking it was a dream. My face only inches from my green bedroom wall. My childhood room. Any second my mom would yell at me to wake up. When she didn’t, I remembered. I cried some more.

Seeing myself in the mirror startled me. My eyes were swollen from crying. I didn’t even know that was possible because for all of my life I don’t remember crying as much as I did in those first 24 hours of her death.

I cried some more when I overheard my father and aunt yelling in the backyard. Thirty-some odd years of animosity had now bubbled over. I didn’t have it in me to see what was going on or to shut down. My aunt Lois was sitting outside under our carport. She motioned for me to join her. We said very little. The air punctuated with angry words. Eventually my dad got in his car and drove away. With him gone so had the tension.

I didn’t cry much in the coming days. Erroneously assumed, I had cried all the tears I would ever cry.

But, I am not a machine. I was, however, different.

***

The act of crying became a release. A release of whatever emotion I am feeling. It took me several years to recognize this shift. In those intervening years, I hated it every time it happened. Years of stigma loomed large.

Crying signals to me that I still feel, deeply and profoundly. It also helps me to process the underlying emotion. Being the consummate 8, my controlling tendencies, as it relates to my emotions, exist. Yet, I see crying as a part of the process of processing this experience called life. I am still loathe to cry in front of people I don’t know but I’ve expanded my world to where I am able to let others in.

It also brings clarity. It is like a physical manifestation of whatever I am feeling. Once it runs its course, my mind kicks in. After all, I’m a natural born problem-solver.

I find, since my mother’s death, I cry when I’m happy too. Her death reconnected me to emotions I spent so long suppressing.

***

That brings me back to the beginning.

I’m still uncovering, discovering, and learning who I am in this world. I carry burdens, even those that are known and unknown to me. Naturally, that brings all kinds of emotions to the fore.

I cried today because I needed the release. To let go of the burden I was carrying in that moment.

Crying is not weakness.

It never was.














Presidential Candidates for 2020 and white allyship

The road has been fucking long since the last presidential race of 2016. Perspective Democratic candidates have come out of the woodwork to vie for top pick in 2020.

*checks calendar*

This is going to be a long road with sound bites, hot takes, and candidates trying to demonstrate how relatable and cool they are. I decided to write this post to talk specifically to white allies.

These last few years have been a growing and unlearning season for some of y’all. And you’re maybe even patting yourself on the back for how far you’ve come and how much you’ve grown. I’m here to say that white supremacy and patriarchy are potent.

And, let’s be honest, y’all been drinking from this kool-aid for a long time. I’m already seeing the subtle turns in the conversation and the denigration toward people, especially people of color, who have tangible criticisms of presidential candidates. This is popping up, yet again, in dismissing and shouting down people of color, tone policing, and sealioning. It is not our place to do the work for you. And, in one fell swoop, you can undo all the goodwill you’ve spent time cultivating.

A couple of things:

  • Women (white and of color) tend to get criticized more harshly by comparison to men (specifically white and of color). Ask yourself if your level of criticism and skepticism is being applied with the same intensity to all potential candidates. The propensity to go white and male is still strong without critically analyzing their position and why people (specifically people of color) are not checking for the same candidate. And, recognize when candidates, as the competition gets stiff, start employing dog-whistle politics.

  • Maya Angelou once said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I reference this particular quote to say to you, white allies, to compare what potential candidates say to their track record. Compare what they don’t say (or refuse to acknowledge) against their track record. This is the kind of labor people of color have been doing for years, determining which candidate is the best or, at the very least, are likely to do the least harm to their community.

  • To do the work of selecting a candidate will mean listening, practicing mindfulness to know when you are taking up too much space, in real life or in the digital world, doing your research, checking and re-checking your privilege at the door.

Above all, these are people vying for the top pick to go up against 45. Now is the time to nitpick and eliminate the poorer choices.


Embracing What Is

On a Thursday night, on a whim, I purchased a bright yellow curve-hugging dress from Forever21. This form-fitting dress was, and is, outside of my comfort zone. Yet that sale cost of $10.99 had me willing to risk it. The last time I purchased something from them, I ended up returning half of the items because of bad fit and incorrect sizing. I didn’t want to make the same mistake so I ordered the yellow dress in a 2XL. I reasoned that a bigger size meant less cling. Hey, I could always return it.

I continued scrolling through their offerings when I saw another dress, similar cut but shorter and $7 more. No 2XL but they had 0XL and 1XL. I decided to take another risk and order a 1XL.

A few days later, the dresses arrived. A mix of guilt and trepidation filled me. Guilt because I impulsively bought two dresses which is a habit I’m trying to break, especially since I put myself on a budget. Clothes are not a mainstay of said budget. I find bi-weekly therapy sessions more important. The sense of trepidation due to the fact I now had to contend with these dresses vis-a-vis my body.

At first, I put the package down, resolving that I would try on the dresses after my menstrual bloat + upcoming work trip (and not-so-clean eating as a result) had passed. Even as I thought these things to myself, I knew they were excuses. I opened the packages, examined the dresses, and pressed them against my frame. The side seams lined up with my sides, a shot of optimism reared its held. Maybe, just maybe, these might actually fit.

I retreated to my bedroom and tried them on. First the yellow dress. I remember looking down and, rather than see how the beautiful yellow complimented my skin, picking up its golden hues, I saw only my rolls. My stomach, F.U.P.A., and thighs.

“Look at those rolls,” said that all-too familiar voice in my head.

Those mounds of flesh slightly painful reminders that despite my weightlifting work that there were parts of me that were just “extra.”

I don’t have a full-length mirror so I improvised the next best thing. I balanced on the edge of my tub in order to see myself in the bathroom mirror. When I stand on the tub’s edge, I can see from under my boobs to mid-thigh. I checked myself out. What I saw first was the way the dress emphasized my rolls, then the slightly ill-fitting top. Not so much that I should return it but a realization I need to wear a good bra when I actually wear the dress. Once I got down from the tub and saw my face did I notice the yellow. How my skin seemed to sing in the color.

In the space between trying on the yellow dress and the black dress, a shift occurred. When I slipped on the black one, something clicked. I saw the same rolls peeking out but how I felt about them had changed. So suddenly and without warning.

Standing on the tub’s edge, now wearing the black dress, I saw myself and my body differently. I even did a little dance. My body hadn’t magically changed in the three minutes between dresses but my mind had. A different voice had come in.

“This is your body,” it said.

You’re probably wondering how is that liberating? Friends, it was a revelation. My thoughts took ownership of my body, reclaiming it from the daily assault from society that it was never good enough. Too lump, too dumpy. In that simple statement, I realized and accepted that my body will never be an hourglass because it isn’t. That is OK. I will always have a little extra in my hips, thighs, and butt. And, since entering my 30s, a little extra in the tummy area. That is the way my body is designed. Sure I can tone and slim those down with working out but they will always hold a little extra there.

In that moment, I let go of what my body could be and traded it for what it is.

I decided to write this because the first step to self-love is self-acceptance. It is letting go of this illusive, aspiration and frankly damaging image and grounding yourself in who you and and what your body is. I can’t say that I’ve shaken that extra critical eye but it was a pleasant surprise to discover a newer voice speaking over the criticism. The one that said in that knowing, lilt,

“Girrrrrl, just look at it.”

And I did. I looked at this body of mine and I smiled. I shimmed around the house to the bemusement of my 10 year old cat Thaddeus. Honestly, I didn’t want to take the dress off once my perspective shifted. I remember thinking, “fuck wearing Spanx underneath. This is the body, y’all gon get and y’all will deal.”

Learning to accept my body is a process and a crucial step on the path to self-love.