On my Aunt Nita, Vernita Watts, and Sonder

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Vernita Watts, my Aunt Nita. Died Jan 2, 2017.

I returned to my hometown of Rockford on New Year’s Eve. My great-aunt’s heart stopped two days prior; they rushed her to the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. On the evening of the second day of the new year, family gathered around her and shared stories, hymns, tears, and silence as she breathed her last breath.

The days before and immediately after are a blur in my memory. I’ve only referred to her as my great-aunt over the past few days so people would have a vague concept of her age before drawing their conclusions. She was always “Aunt Nita” to me. She’d been in my life since I could remember; trips to her house sometimes involved walks to the nearby pond. She kept strawberry-flavored hard candies in a dish in the hallway, they had a silver inner wrapper and a soft, gooey strawberry center. As the candies aged, the center stiffened a bit…still, even the taste of fresh ones reminds me of the sound the glass dish would make as I tried to sneak treats on lazy afternoons. There’ll never be a peach cobbler that matches hers, and her potato salad was the stuff of legend.

That said, Vernita Watts was not the type of woman to mess with. She didn’t play around with finances, and wasn’t one to mince words when she thought someone was acting foolish. As I got older, I appreciated more of her role as a person outside of being my aunt, the travels she’d taken, the lives she’d led when she shared stories. Still, these ideas didn’t truly come into focus until looking at her memory board during the funeral: a spread of photos showcasing a mother. A wife. A scholar. An educator. A truly wonderful cook. A woman with no roles…just a woman, just a person. Just Vernita.

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Every funeral I’ve been to feels different, not just because of the different people who’ve passed, but because of my own evolving understanding of mortality (if it can even be called an “understanding”). I’m nearly 30 years old now; I know that’s not old, but it definitely disqualified me from a seat at the kids’ table during the post-burial luncheon. I looked around the room, saw children running around tables with paper hats the caterers had given them. Just a few feet away, my newly-widowed Uncle Rick sat with other folks his age: people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, who looked on this experience with completely different eyes: ones that were saddened, familiar, knowing, but also smiling and enjoying the time together. Perhaps such is life at that age.

Four days prior many of us stood around my aunt’s bedside in the hospital. My cousin, Beth, Aunt Nita’s only child, pulled out a pile of photos from her purse. She passed them to me, and I passed them to my grandmother, who shared them with my sister beside her. One photo in particular sticks out in my memory, though its details are already fuzzy: one titled “2007 Rock Stars” at the bottom, something like that. Around 30 people were in the picture, standing in three neat rows like for a class photo, all seniors.

What sticks out to me is my grandmother’s reaction. “Oh, I remember this picture,” she said. She sighed and looked at it for a second, then started pointing at various faces. “He’s gone. He’s gone. She’s gone.” Her finger traced from the bottom-left to the right, curving upwards and looping back to the top-left. “He’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone…I’m not gone, of course!” she says with a slight laugh as she points to her own image at the end of the imaginary path. We said nothing of her sister’s image on the opposite side of the picture, Aunt Nita herself laying arm’s reach from us, neither gone nor here.


As I get older I wish I more and more that I’d take the time to learn lessons “the easy way:” to not just hear recommendations to slow down, to not worry about work so much. Call home more often, ask questions of my elders, write down their stories and recipes. Work harder at loving those around me instead of trying to gain the love of those who aren’t. And yet, even when told these lessons a million times, pieces seem to click into place in my head only when loss rears its head, when doors that were once open become shut.

If I could find some way to catch this feeling in a pill or a booster shot, prescribe it to the world…maybe that would help steer our focus away from hatred, from anger, from vitriol, from violence. And still I fear that I’ll forget this feeling…forget it until the next time life prescribes it to me at another funeral service.


My aunt left behind an amazing photo collection.  Decades of history encapsulated on various papers, some sepia-toned, others black-and-white, others full-color, none of those results “filters.” She had a knack for organization that I never appreciated when I was younger: the photos she left behind were sorted meticulously by name, highlighting relatives, friends, vacation locations. The memory board was just a small sample of her life, and even that collection of albums and boxes was only a piece of her life. Even with the organization and sorting, there were people, places, contexts that nobody recalled when they passed the photos…memories lost to time.

Sonder” is a term coined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to mean the feeling of understanding just how complex other people’s lives truly are, lives equally complex and nuanced as our own. I’d passingly read a post on Facebook that mentioned it, lost the word, and my sister’s boyfriend looked it up while we talking. Neither Merriam-Webster nor Dictionary.com sanction it as an actual “word.” The feeling persists…I can admit, this doesn’t seem like the right word for the feeling.

“Sonder” sounds inherently somber, depressing, a comprehension of complexity so vast while still focusing on the self: a reminder that we are near the smallest of blips to the universe. But I think about all that Aunt Nita must have experienced: the laughter, the tears, the friendships, enmity, pride, sorrow…the boredom, frustration, the just plain spacing-out where maybe she felt nothing at all, just waiting for the next moment.

When I think about her living decades all of that…it’s more akin to “wonder,” another word nearby “sonder,” but somehow feels more distant. And when I think about how those decades years stretched out and affected the lives of those she came into contact with… I know not all of those interactions were perfect, but thinking about that isn’t depressing.


At Aunt Nita’s service, a woman stood up to talk about my aunt’s effect on the life of her daughter. My aunt was a para-professional in the local public school district and worked with children with disabilities. She reached out to this woman’s daughter beyond the classroom, giving her a Bible and taking her to church in the fashion of her faith. These practices might be frowned upon in many modern climates, but the woman said that those actions changed her daughter’s life. She said my aunt instilled in her daughter a love and respect of learning, traits which she’s now passing down to her own two-year old daughter. She said that my aunt lives on in her daughter, and now in her granddaughter.

She lives on in her husband, in her own daughter, her husband, and their three children. She lives on in my grandmother and great-uncle, her younger sister and brother. She lives on in my twin uncles, my mother, and all her other nieces and nephews.  She lives on in me, my sister, our cousins. She lives on in countless friends, family members, coworkers, and more than I’ll never know. My Aunt Nita, Vernita Watts lives on in all of us, and in all of the lives we touch.

 

Brief as our lives may be, we reach far beyond.

Rest easy, Aunt Nita, and thank you.

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-Josh

 

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Remembering Grandma Boykin

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Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but the thanks of the season increasingly find themselves tempered with sorrow as the years roll on. A year ago on the 19th we said good-bye to my Grandma Boykin, a woman I didn’t get to see often, but who reminded me of the values of compassion, honesty, laughter, and the power of a home-cooked meal.

I’d always known of my Grandma Boykin when I was younger, but she lived far away and our family didn’t really travel much while I was growing up. Money was tight, so the few times we took a “vacation” often involved long drives or bus rides to Cleveland, OH, my father’s birthplace and childhood home. My Aunt Wanda still lived there with her three children, and we made the trip out to Cleveland to visit when Grandma flew in from California. I was roughly 11, maybe 12; I remember the drives being too long, the summers too hot, the air too humid.

I don’t remember much of Grandma from those trips; my sister and I tended to stay in the basement playing with our cousin and his Legos. She was a short woman with a keen eye and a constant willingness to work. The couple concrete memories I’ve carried were rebukes: a command to wash up after dinner, a comment about how I was starting to get chubby… the follies of memory, I suppose. Conceptually, I remember her smile, her frown, her strong, matriarchal personality. Nobody doubted that she ran the ship: perhaps she assumed that role when my Grandfather passed while my dad was still young, before I was even a concept of a concept. Then again, she was a landlord for multiple rental units and owned her own hairdressing business, so maybe she’d always just had that drive.

MY real memories of my grandmother really began the summer after I graduated from college; I’d just taken an internship with Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and decided to fly out to Richmond a week early to spend time with Grandma before heading down to Southern California. Her furniture, old pieces bought from decades ago, were kept in good condition with plastic coverings. Pictures of my dad’s side of the family lined the walls, cousins and aunts and uncles all over the place (we were never great about sending photos). She spent much of her time either in the kitchen or sitting at the small informal dining room table, so I did, too; she’d make fried chicken and cornbread and greens in a cast-iron skillet I could almost swear she’d brought with her from her youth in Mississippi. Delicious smells of meals long past danced in the air as she cooked, her short frame working magic over the stove-top.

“You want more, baby?” she’d ask, her Southern accent eluding my Northern-trained ears at first. We’d sit and drink water and juice at the table, eating chicken and watching daytime TV. “You have as much as you want, baby; I know you not full yet.” Eventually I felt her pace, her tone flow in to me; conversations moved from formal get-to-know-yous to short statements between us punctuated with “mmmhm”s, laughs and sighs filling the space as courtroom judges sentenced petty criminals.

Grandma Boykin never wasted a thing. When I saw her in California, she she reused anything available, including resealable freezer bags and twist-ties. She drank water and juice out of a plastic Folgers decaf coffee container. The TV next to the table where she ate was an old CRT with fading, flickering light and a long, rabbit-ear style antenna. Frugality wasn’t a concept for her, it was a way of life: growing up poor in the South during the Great Depression, money was not a commodity to take lightly. A woman of strong faith and determination, she worked with what she had, even when she had almost nothing.

As a result, particularly after her retirement, she had money, particularly when it counted: she paid her own bills and maintained her own independence, she saved her kids from financial jams on multiple occasions, and still was able to send a little something to us grandkids on birthdays and Christmases. She sacrificed so that she could provide for the ones that she loved. That said, she still had a house with plenty of space for visitors, kept her pantry and refrigerator well-stocked, and she had quite the collection of fancy hats for Sunday services. 

Grandma wasn’t a woman to mince words, and she let people know how she felt. She worked hard, and she expected the same from those who were able. She cared about faith, and she showed it in her daily life. She wouldn’t let a person eating in her house go hungry. She could laugh and smile from not just her stomach, but her soul. She was happy. She loved, and she was loved.

I didn’t get to spend much time with her before she passed, but I really value those moments we got to spend together. I think about how much I have and how much I take for granted with my finances, with my friends, and with my family. Thanksgiving is around the corner, and somehow I’m just conscious that, no matter how much we give thanks for, there’s a certain amount of luck/blessing/life we simply take for granted. I was able to see her on one last trip a few months before she got sick, and I’m thankful that I was able to share more moments with her and learn from her before we lost her.

When she passed, she had two services: one in California, and one in Ohio; both were frequented with multiple people who loved and respected her. The effects a single person can have on the world around them astonish me, and I hope that those of us surviving her can learn from her example, passing on what we can to those who need it, appreciating our family, and loving everyone we can.

-Josh

Thoughts on the Paris attacks.

I’ve been thinking about World Wars I and II today. I thought about the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil War…various American wars fought over time. Did people know when they started that this was global conflict? Was there a shift in the air, a sort of presence in time that told people, “Hey, pay attention: this is a big one?”

If that presence was around on September 11th, 2001, I don’t remember it, likely because I was too small to really conceptualize global consequences of people’s actions. I remember riding in the car on the way to school, my mother running slightly behind to drop me off. Steve Shannon, a local radio DJ, made the announcement just as we were pulling up to my middle school. I remember fearing passenger planes raining from the sky, and even though I even processed at that age how irrational the thought was, I wondered if a plane would crash into our school. Irrational as it was, a part of me couldn’t shake it.

Here’s a text I got today:

…I’ve been standing by my door telling myself that I need to go get groceries for 10 minutes, lol. Now I’m wishing you were back in whatever city you did your first install in – I guess you always expect us to worry about you whenever there’s bad news.

I know how I was supposed to respond: “Hey, don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. This is a terrible situation, but they’re going to find the people that did this and bring them to justice. In the meantime, don’t worry about me out here; I know I’m far away, but I’m safe. It’ll all be OK.”  Something to that extent. But I couldn’t help but feel like Middle School Josh today.

Another message I got today, after calling the day a “terrible situation:”

Yes it is. We know how they feel. 😦

For some reason, this stuck out to me, felt…shocking. And yes, I can still say this after telling my “I feel like I did during 9/11” story. The lens I look at yesterday through, not even 24 hours removed from the event, says I can’t assume the Parisians feelings, can’t pretend to know any feelings anyone truly has other than “scared.” “Angry,” I imagine, is also a common one. “Sad” seems to not quite measure up; perhaps “devastated” or “distraught.” “Depressed” certainly goes on my list. Still, those words are just words; they all feel lacking to an extent.

All day, I’ve struggled to attach words to this event. I was tempted to break my writing streak partly because of it, and I feel like I’ve been running away from my keyboard ever since I first got the news. 6 attacks, with 153 dead as of this writing. I just…don’t really know what to say. But I had to write here to convince myself that it’s OK to not know what to say, or do for that matter. It’s OK to just feel for a moment.

I keep feeling like I need to do something, but I don’t know what. I don’t know that I could do anything even if I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And that’s what’s shaken me up so much: this feeling of helplessness. If someone were to race down the street with assault rifles firing, I’m pretty much helpless. If I sit down to coffee and someone busts in to hold the place up, I’m helpless. Hell, if “The Big One” happens, the earthquake that’ll supposedly change the entire Pacific Northwest, I’m helpless. We’re helpless against multiple forces every day, and I feel like I certain amount of comfort comes directly from ignoring that concept regularly. When something like this happens, it’s hard to ignore that feeling anymore.

My suggestions for those who feel the same way I do: keep an eye out for ways people in Paris will receive aid and contribute your money/time if you can. Call your loved ones. Buy someone flowers. Sit and simply think, experience. Pray, meditate, contemplate for Paris. Pray, meditate, contemplate on the the welfare of the countless innocent lives that were directly affected and will be affected by this conflict. Volunteer for people in your community. Feel anger, feel sadness, but don’t let your feelings take control of your actions.

When the violent want to push the world into senseless chaos, we have to push ourselves to counter it, to create meaning and show love to prevail over the hate.

-Josh

Featured image by Jean Jullien.

Reaching towards flow state.

For those who don’t know, I keep a pretty bizarre sleep schedule now; I usually wake up around 11 in the morning, and stay up until 3 or 4 the following morning. I think my brain likes the late night hours; for some reason I’m able to focus late at night in a way that just doesn’t come without a serious fight during the day. I try to devote an hour and a half, maybe two to each article I write, and can usually get a decent amount of writing done before heading to bed… Last night was not one of those nights.

I’ll admit, I started at 3:30 AM, which was really late, but at 9 AM the gears were still turning, the words were still flowing, and I found that I simply didn’t know where the time went. I found flow.

It’s now been two months since I left my last job, and in many ways I feel like I’m just hitting my stride. My calendar has 33 stars on it (with another coming after I finish this post) from 33 days in a row of writing and posting, and I’m starting to feel writing become a habit instead of a forced project. I think more people are reading the writing, and I feel like my writing is improving over time as I practice more and learn what I really mean to say and not say. But it’s not frequently that I hit flow state, that moment where time seems to just run by as I work. Now that I know it’s possible though, I want more of it. Flow is an addiction.

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Marelisa Fabriga writes in her blog Daring to Live Fully (which you should read) writes about the Flow state and lays down a set of criteria to trigger flow: it’s a balance between taking on a challenging project and working within your high levels of mastery. It requires time and focus, but eventually, it just happens: time slips away and you wonder what why you feel so good. A friend told me about flow state a couple of weeks ago, and though I’d experienced it before, I didn’t really think about trying to trigger it repeatedly. Flow state puts us in a state of peace and productivity with our work, but it takes practice, balance, and passion.

I think we’ve all reached a type of flow state in various situations, some of which aren’t work-related: spending time with family over a good meal that ends too quickly, a night under the stars with a new lover, or time sunk into a good book or game that quickly becomes double or triple what you’d planned. Flow feels good because we’re doing something inherently right for ourselves, not selling our time to people that don’t appreciate it, not dragging ourselves through yet another set of mundane tasks, but instead working towards fulfilling a piece of our potential. Though I don’t think we can achieve a constant state of flow, we can try to create more opportunities to reach flow in our lives.

The creator of the concept of flow state, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, gave a TED talk goes into detail about flow state and its potential benefits on our lives. Check it out, check out Marelisa’s blog, and think about the different ways you could channel flow state in your life and work. We could all stand to have a bit more happiness in our lives.

-Josh

Three Keys to Effective Communication.

You know, for an English major, I have to admit that I’m not historically the world’s greatest communicator. Sure, I’ve been known to do a whole lot of talking, but when it comes to real communication, conveying an idea from one person’s head to another effectively, sometimes I get a little bogged down in the speaking process. But I’m finding that, as I get older, most all of the important issues distill themselves down to issues based in communication, and quality communication is key to success in practically everything (and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration).

You’ve probably done something similar to this thought experiment before: pretend I’m picturing a truck in my mind, and I want you to draw it. Picture a red truck. Picture a red Chevy truck. Now, let’s pretend you drew that truck, and it was a 100% accurate representation of the Chevy you created in your mind: was it old, or new? Did it have two doors, or four? What are the odds that the Chevy you created in your head was identical to the one I had in my head? I could give you all the details I wanted: the number of doors, the year, the model, even the specific color red, but there’s still no guarantee that we’d have the same picture: that’s because words are just stand-ins for concepts we have in our heads, and they’re not always even good stand-ins.

Communication is a combination of explicit and implicit factors that we juggle both consciously and sub-consciously constantly (get all that?). It’s not just the words themselves, along with their multiple possible definitions that can throw us off; eye contact, body posturing, vocal inflection, and more factor in to in-person vocal discussion. We even try to decode implicit communication in print-based messages like texts and emails! Was that joke supposed to be funny, or sarcastic? How serious is she since he used a period instead of an exclamation point? What did he mean when he sent that winking face, really?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to 100% accurately decode someone’s communication at all times. Poor communication can lead to dramatic consequences both personally and professionally, but frequently we let our fear of being embarrassed or called out interfere with getting to the heart of the matter. Sometimes we’re afraid of hurting the other person with the news, while other times we take comfort in the gray spaces communication provides so we can avoid conflict or perhaps twist the knife a bit in a person that we don’t like. More often than not, poor communication (or a lack of communication entirely), whether intentional or unintentional, makes a situation worse than it already was.

I’ve learned to have a lot of respect for the people in my life who are direct communicators. Though I tend to dance around a situation until I can’t avoid it anymore, I’ve really been impressed by the people who can acknowledge a tough situation, talk through the solution, and walk away with minimal hard feelings. I sometimes think a piece of me is conditioned to think that every tough argument will result in a total meltdown, and my fear of hurting other people makes me want to avoid that circumstance. Problem is that avoiding those tough situations usually just makes them hurt that much worse when they eventually do get confronted.

Though my actions don’t always show it, I’ve learned there are three keys to effective communication:

  • Communicate often.
  • Communicate directly.
  • Communicate in a timely manner.

Perhaps this seems a bit like using a word in its definition, but using these three keys ensures that people receive information about topics that are relevant and important to them, that they’re receiving the message as accurately as possible, and that they can use their knowledge of the communicator to help clarify the message. Any communication, from professional feedback to relationship advice to cleaning instructions, benefits from using these keys.

I feel like I’m a bit in “do as I say, not as I do” country with this advice, but that doesn’t mean I believe in these principles any less. I’m working to communicate more often, more directly, and more immediately. Being around friends who are great communicators teaches me more about integrating quality communication in to my daily life, and that makes life better for me and the people around me. Hopefully you can use these keys to unlock the doors to effective communication in your own life!

Wow. Gag. That was a terrible ending. But I’m allowed one every once in a while, right? 🙂

-Josh