A Word With Jesse Kadjo

 

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Jesse and her fiance Marcos

Every week I will feature the kinds of everyday heroes I look up to. They come from all walks of life, age groups and beliefs. I hope you’ll learn as much from them as I have!

I first met Jesse at Loyola University Chicago. We didn’t live in the same dorm, but we ate lunch at the same dining hall, and eventually took a Psychology class together. Jesse always came prepared to learn, while I usually showed up ready to nap. That duality has been the through-line of our relationship: Jesse conquers, I goof off. Thankfully, my sisterhood with her as lead to some real breakthroughs that have shown me how much fun life can be if you live it with both eyes open (see what I did there?).  She’s a woman of unmatched strength and poise. She also lays out the kind of humor you wouldn’t anticipate from a worldly woman in a tea-length dress. I love Jesse for many reasons, but most of all for her inherent goodness. I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did. The transcript is below!

 

What is your profession? Is it what you wanted to do?

I am a labor representative. Another term for it is organizer. I work for a labor union and teach workers how to advocate for themselves and make positive changes to their work environment through collective action and bargaining. This is not what I set out to do when I went to college. I wanted to be a diplomat, because I grew up abroad and saw that work around me. But, in truth, I don’t think that is what I would have been happy with either. I’m just good at talking to people and helping people learn how to work systems to improve their lives.

 

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Jesse and I during a trip to the Francis Ford Coppola Winery where we caused a ruckus

If not, what would you like to do instead? Why?

I’m not sure what I would like to do. I have toyed with a lot – cosmetic chemist, food writer, food researcher, travel show host, podcaster, blogger. Some of these things I already am doing. I think that finding your passion in life is a real privilege, and being able to actually do it is a whole other thing. Even the passion is work. For right now the thing I greatly enjoy is food and and the feelings it brings to me. From the preparation, to the pictures, to the video, to the writing of it, I love thinking about it in all ways and its impacts on human life. This is what I’m trying to explore on my blog, The Chocolate Mousse. 

What are some ways you take care of yourself?

I love to meditate, read and exercise. If I’m doing one of those three, I feel good. If I’m doing all three, I feel amazing.

 Can you share a time or event you didn’t think you could survive?

My brother’s death is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s one you can never recover from, because death is permanent. I wouldn’t say I didn’t think I would survive it per se, it’s that I felt such deep pain that I did not know how I would come out of it. My mother was also so broken that I could not look to her. In many ways she felt this much more than I did, as this was her son. I had never suffered from depression or even negative thoughts until then. It was a sadness I cannot even put into words. At least not yet.

What/Who pulled you through it? What did you learn?

I can tell you that I knew I needed to speak to a professional, because the mind is a real forest, and you need a guide to get you to the other side. My therapist, Dr. Rebecca Chamorro, was an angel sent from God. I worked with her for two years, and she helped me through this time as well as helped guide me to the next stages in my life. I am deeply grateful for her. The path to healing is a long one and I’m still on it. I could not have started on this without her. I’ve learned that therapy is just as important as going to your doctor regularly. I’ve learned that if I want to have a good life, full of love and happiness, I have to do the work to learn how to better move in society, accounting for all my faults, not really to eliminate them but to understand how they were formed and how they remain. It is only then that I can tackle them in earnest.

 How did the event/time shape the way you live now?

I am much more aware of the impermanence of our experiences and relationships. Because of this, I value my friendships so much more and work to connect with my people wherever they are in the world. I’ve traveled more to see my friends and family since his death, because I don’t want to regret not having made that trip or made excuses for why I can’t go. You truly don’t know what can happen. I don’t live every day like it’s my last. because what does that even mean, but I do try to live a full life and an earnest one. When I’m upset with someone, I tell them. When I’m happy for someone, I tell them. When I want to talk to someone or spend time with them, I tell them. I tell them, I tell them, I tell them. I wish I could tell him too, in person. But I still tell him, every day, in prayer.

What was the best/ funniest/ most memorable piece of advice you’ve received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is from my mom. In high school she told me I only need 5 friends. She said this in response to me asking to go to a play with my friend Gwen. Like many times back then, I thought my mom was nuts and that she was trying to attack me. Mother daughter relationships are such a minefield and more needs to be written about them. Now, I completely understand what she meant. Of course you will have more than 5 friends. Facebook might even say you have 1000. But your quality ones, the ones that really matter, those you only need a few of. Those are the relationships that matter and that have to be watered. Those are the ones to invest in. Those are the ones that have great benefits all throughout your life.

When do you feel the most free?

At home, farting away, reading my book. Also, traveling alone. I love it.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Being a good friend and someone people can count on to be there in good times and bad.

 

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Jesse with her dog Fancy. My second greatest love!

We Need to Talk About Beyoncé

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The first time I was blown away by Beyoncé was in high school. She performed a medley of her solo songs on the MTV VMAs, descending from the ceiling upside down and singing with more power than most singers can muster rightside up. If ever there was a person born to sing and perform it was her. My friends and I tried to learn her “Crazy In Love” choreography (I still remember a few steps), but we couldn’t hit it like she could. It’s funny that all these years later Beyoncé still inspires imitation, however it’s in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

It was subtle in the beginning. The “Deja Vu” music video was set on a sprawling Southern plantation, where she performed an African dance – forgive me for not knowing the specific culture – in contrast to the history of murder and oppression intrinsic to the environment. Next, “Single Ladies” hit the scene, showcasing not only some serious Bob Fosse inspiration, but also three black women performing intricate choreography for the female gaze rather than male. I can’t think of anything like it before or since. Then “Grown Woman” popped up, which was a West African love-fest covered in resplendent ferocity. By the time the Lemonade album rolled around everyone should have known Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter is not interested in being remembered for vocal runs or her body. Rather, we’re witnessing an artist curating a record of her awakening to her inherent magic in an era that wishes to either drain it or erase it.

It all came to a head with her black-as-hell Super Bowl performance with Coldplay and Bruno Mars. Of course there were detractors. Folks who didn’t get it, and others who absolutely couldn’t handle the level of deliberate blackness Beyoncé was serving. I would wager a bet that Mrs. Carter learned something I am still coming to terms with: blackness is only acceptable when it’s easily digestible; when it makes you feel good, not when it makes you face our horrid history and current treatment. I would bet again that she stopped giving a damn about the feelings of the willfully ignorant.

Seeing Beyoncé, a beautiful woman with a radiant voice and oodles of money, be assaulted for publicly claiming her blackness has revealed a brutal yet necessary truth to me: no matter what you have, look like or do, there will always be people who want to see you fail if you challenge their world. They will rage against your joyful existence. There will surely be those lurking in the shadows whom will spring forth with glee in the event you miss a step, especially if you happen to be a person of color.

In between watching snippets of Beychella – the name her performance has rightfully garnered after rendering all other acts mute – I watched footage of two black men being arrested and removed from a Starbucks for merely existing in the space. The two gentleman had been waiting for a friend in a place that is advertised as a place to do just that. Thankfully, they had white allies in the space who spoke up, recorded the incident, and are now protesting, yet reading about the event juxtaposed against Bey’s performance was entirely too real. For years I tried to shrink myself, to appear less threatening in predominantly white spaces. I learned the skill – code switching – very early on. You keep your head down, make them laugh, maybe learn a country song all in an attempt to stay safe. But no amount of hiding will change the fact that black bodies, black folks, still aren’t seen as human. The two men hadn’t been trying to hide their blackness, they hadn’t done anything at all, but they still weren’t left alone to live in peace. It’s clear that we can’t escape from the realities of our existence. I have found that the markers of my identity( black, woman, descendant of slaves and immigrants) carry the kind of weight that doesn’t hold you down but strengthens your step. So, why hide it? Why relegate the power of your identity to the dark? No one is going to appreciate your facade more than your bold truth.

After the Beychella performance, I was overcome by the voices of people on Twitter talking about living their truth, giving themselves 110% , and being proud of what sets them apart from the crowd. That’s special. Not many people inspire those emotions, but here we are. I’m thankful for Beyoncé, because she makes me groove, feel, and dream about what my life can be if I’m true to myself in every way. The world isn’t kind to black folks, so we have to be good to ourselves. We also need allies lifting us up and protecting us, encouraging our risks and sheltering our rights.

Today I want to encourage you to live as you are in your heart. Don’t think about what other people are going to do or say, because you can’t make everyone happy. Some hate to see others make it, so be petty and make it. Make your life what you want it to be. Shout your truth. You never know who you might inspire.

Be More Like A 5th Grader This Weekend

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This afternoon I had the pleasure of spending a little time with the coolest 11-year-old I know: my friends daughter, Mac. She invited me to her class for a Friday the 13th celebration with S’Mores, scary stories and a Goosebumps episode. Watching her with her classmates reminded me that the only thing separating kids and us old folks is our hesitancy to let life roll.

This little lady is outgoing, viciously witty, and radiates so much happiness in her existence. She walks with the sure step of someone who hasn’t yet discovered self-consciousness, a quality which I am now making my own personal mission. As I looked around the room, I noticed no one exhibited the angst I’ve become accustomed to in my daily life; nothing seemed to weigh them down. Sure, they’ve not yet taken the plunge into the gritty realities of life, but it got me thinking about how difficult it is for me to feel O.K. with a little lightheartedness.

I know we’ve all got responsibilities and baggage that makes walking through life with wide eyes difficult, but I want to encourage you to give yourself permission to cut loose. Laugh louder. Talk with emotion. Read books that remind you how wonderful it is to daydream. What will you do to feel younger this weekend?

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Chicago: Making Peace With Painful Places

 

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Last weekend I traveled to Chicago for C2E2 (their comic con) with my parents and brother. The event was phenomenal, the costumes were outstanding and the people were kind, but it wasn’t the time with my fellow nerds that struck me the hardest.

The city itself was an obstacle I was nervous to tackle. I lived in Chicago for school many years ago and it’s where I went went through some of the biggest hurts of my life. It’s where I was assaulted at 20, where I had a nervous breakdown, where I was hospitalized and where I learned that I wasn’t invincible. I’ve returned a few times over the years since leaving, but each visit took a piece of me. I saw specters of failure in each familiar building, every friend who still lived there.

I went into this trip excited for my first C2E2, yet I worried I wouldn’t be able to take everything in through clear eyes. I thought about backing out several times, but my partner kept me from that course of action. To my surprise, once I was on the ground with my family things just felt different. I believe what made the trip better for me emotionally was the presence of people I know have my back through anything and vice versa. Laughing with my brother kept me from looking over my shoulder. Helping my father get his bearings on the CTA gave me a sense of pride, and reminiscing with my mom as we walked through the French Market made me forget for a moment the pain of the past.

On reflection, I’ve realized that with time and space we heal. The part that made Chicago so painful for me was the sense of shame I felt over leaving. All my life I wanted to conquer the big city; I left feeling like it had won the battle with me. My bestie Jesse – who I met at University – reminded me that it’s our responsibility to make decisions that are good for us regardless of what other people think. Leaving was difficult, but now I choose to think of it like this: walking away from bad things to heal is brave as hell. I wouldn’t be as happy or healthy as I am today if I had remained. You don’t get a medal for staying and suffering, but you do win something great when you leave. I won a second chance at life. Slowly, I’m letting go of the bitterness to see the city anew.

Tip for returning to places that hold painful memories: don’t go it alone if you can avoid it. Find a partner or a group that keeps you from focusing on the hurt.

Putting Self-Care Into Action

 

Now that we all know what self-care is and how it works, let’s talk about making a schedule for yourself. I know, I know – work is the last thing you want to do , but this is for yourself! I think you’re worth some extra time. Besides, we both know the outcome is going to be a happier and more balanced person, which is a great goal! I’ll break down the details for you to get started.

What Relaxes You?

First off, taking care of yourself doesn’t have to look like a music video. That would be nice, and if you’re capable of making that happen, then go off. However, let’s start with something realistic. I recommend thinking of an activity, book, movie, or anything that brings your stress level down. If you like shooting hoops to shake off the day, do it! You don’t have to be laying face down in a dark room to feel at peace. Make a list of anything that brings you a sense of calm.

Can You Do It Alone?

By this I mean can you do it when you don’t have someone else to turn to? I wish we all had people to turn to whenever times get rough, but that’s not always the case. There are going to be days when you might be unable or unwilling to reach out to others. In those scenarios it’s important to have safe practices set up that can keep you grounded and healthy.

Can You Do It For Free?

Honestly, free things just rule. In my experience, spending my money all willy-nilly causes a spiral effect of guilt and shame. It’s become all too easy for me to talk myself out of self-care when it involves payment. To work around that mind game I started looking for loopholes. I go to the community center near my home to exercise, because it’s free and the patrons are usually retirees. It kills two birds with one stone: I get those good endorphins while avoiding the anxiety of exercising around people more likely to judge me. Walking, meditation, stretching, painting your nails, singing super loud, and other activities are just a few examples.

How Often Can You Do It?

Here’s the fun part! Now that you have a list of things that relax you, that you can do alone and for free, all we have to do is determine when you can do it. Ideally it would be every day, but let’s start slowly. What I did was start on the weekends. I had no excuse to put things off on Saturday or Sunday when I like to do them. I started first thing in the morning, because that’s when I’ve got the most energy. As an early riser I’m also usually alone. This sets me on the right foot for the rest of the day. Slowly, I started introducing my activities into weekdays. A Monday night here, a Wednesday night there until I had an activity in place four to five days a week. Sometimes I do the same thing over and over again (nightly face routine) or switch it up day by day (exercise). The key is to never do something that can hurt or endanger me (triggering my eating disorder).

I really hope this helps! I have a unique set-up right now with work that allows me more free time than I’ve ever had before, but I still struggle to make time for myself. My solution has been to carve out time no matter what for the things I’ve listed for myself, because I know I’ll need the good tools when my days get dark. Let me know in the comments what your schedule looks like! And never forget: You got this.

 

kevin bacon dancing GIF by STARZ