Caltrain Journeys

Five days a week I take the same train on most days. The 7:56am Baby Bullet from San Francisco 4th and King to Redwood City. Redwood City is one of the multiple cities found in the peninsula of the Bay Area, also known as Silicon Valley. It isn’t a place that I would have ever thought to end up. It wasn’t on my roadmap, and it’s certainly not my favorite part of Northern California. I especially didn’t think I would end up here after spending a year observing and developing theories of identity representation in young black males. I miss that world of creation.

I feel as though my 50 mile round trip journey each day is not quite one of creation but rather of commuting and constants. The Caltrain is a “proof of payment” system, meaning a passenger cannot buy a ticket on the train. It’s as if to say if you have not paid the price of this journey, you cannot earn your “merits” on the way. The Caltrain environment is stressful –bustling and shoving people who don’t know how to give space to others and nervously flying fingers across keyboards of work emails and presentations. For me, I try to sit in the same single seat on the second level each day. I read, I meditate (thankfully morning commutes are quiet), and I listen to some of my favorite songs. Anything to break up the hubbub of commuter life. But it also reminds me of how different I feel on this journey. While Silicon Valley has a reasonably diverse population, the face of the area and the standard of the Caltrain commute are white men, and then others working in tech. The conversations I overhear range from phone calls to buy entire properties (something that costs an outrageous amount in the Bay) to shares and portfolios. Not the life I live, and it makes me think about how far I am from warm drives in my own car on dusky Miami streets headed to be with my students for the day. Or hot walks on red-dirt paths to buy vegetables in the market. Or even still, brisk bicycle rides through meadows by stone buildings, over beautiful bridges and rivers.

I have had to create my own meaning to the 35 minutes journey. Even steel tracks have sparks of beauty.

The Difference Between Resting and Stopping

“No might make them angry but it will make you free.”
― Nayyirah Waheed

If I said that I was someone who typically overcommits in their life, the people who are close to me would smirk at the understatement. While I am not a competitive person by nature, I am often deeply entrenched in a race with myself. What were the deadlines i set for myself? What was the timeline that I had written to hit particular life milestones? And what comes of that is people take advantage of you. When people know that you can and will get things done, even if the work is not for you, it will somehow end up on your to-do list. My workplace describes itself as a “yes, and” culture, and on any given day I can find people using that sentence structure. I am constantly reminded in this environment of a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she writes, “You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences constructed implicitly with “yes, and” rather than “yes, but.” You and your friend decide that “yes, and” attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes.”

We should be able to steer in different directions and to find the places of rest that provide us strength to keep going. We dread pauses because they are presented to us as stops, as losses, as setbacks. Instead of what they really are: necessary respite.

I have found this nature of needing to react and respond present especially in our current political and social climate. There are the constant demands to show up to protest, to respond to every social media post that one disagrees with, to read every piece of news that is spat out. I have people who send me videos of people denying white privilege or telling people to ‘Get out of our country’ first thing in the morning, as if to let me know that they would never do this or they are acutely aware of America. If we were all in fact so aware, we would not need as much respite.

And I have started to say ‘no’ to these things. NO to the constant barrage of hate news. NO to the demands that I react in words and action to every racist thing that is said or presented to me. NO to other people’s necessities. There is a power in ‘no’ that roots you, gives you the ability to set your own boundaries, and be in control. It’s not that I have infinite privilege to ignore the world around me, but rather it is my right to engage at the levels I want to, and to find the alternative routes of my survival.

I started a Creative Resistance Collective because I wanted to hold space for those who wanted to pause. People who had told me that they never had time to reflect because they were constantly being asked to react and analyze. One cannot nourish one’s soul on fire alone. The world goes on even if we spend a day sitting in our pajamas, eating ice cream, and re-watching episodes of Parks and Recreation. That is a life with turn-offs. Because it is not a turn-off, it’s the difference between resting and stopping, which is the difference between truly living and slowly dying.

A Deliberate Life of Healing

While reading Terry Tempest Williams I came across this line: “Women piece together their lives from the scraps left over for them.” Young girls are too often socialized to think of their highest calling in life is to give freely of themselves to others. While there is nothing inherently wrong with living a life of service, there is something unhealthy when that life of service is socialized as living your one life for everyone else but yourself. Last fall I read the book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. It was one of those experiences where you feel as though a book has read you instead of you reading the book. The book focused on the burden of living the life of the trope of the StrongBlackWoman. Again, strength itself is not unhealthy, but when it is a hegemonic image of black women that leaves us without room to ask for help and to rest, it becomes the type of negativity that kills both spirit and body. And our education, our continued socialization does not teach us how to not be complicit in our own oppression. It is passed on from generation to generation – grandmother to mother to self. We learn to walk on broken legs without ever recognizing that pain is not a natural state of being.

We convince ourselves that we would rather be the StrongBlackWoman than the other identities – the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Mammy, etc. But we have to begin the process of unlearning those monolithic identities. We belong deeply to ourselves, and have been deliberately created by God, and therefore, must deliberately walk through life on paths that we have crafted. We know because have lived, and most listen to the deep, low whispers of intuition in our bones. The intuition that tells us how to discover our true identities – far from the chains of this world.

Audre Lorde said, in a passage quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke:

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other. But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us, by expecting a little less from her gargantuan efforts to excel. We can love her in the light as well as in the darkness, quiet her frenzy toward perfection and encourage her attentions toward fulfillment.”

Therein lies our servant heart – that to love those who have lived similar experiences to us, to learn how to be gentle with that spirit, is to learn how to love our own. It is an overwhelming task to live with the expectations and oppressions of the world as a black woman. It becomes effortless, however, to love both failures and triumphs when we practice the deliberate act of making space for the full magnitude of being.

I am deliberately finding those spaces and being someone who creates them herself. Last summer I got my first waist beads in a ceremony with other women of color who I had just come to know in my first few months in the Bay. It was a powerful moment of sisterhood and quieting the frenzy of life. In that moment, we were suspended in time as we focused on that love for ourselves and love for one another. Ayodele, the woman who led the ceremony, talked about caring for ourselves as women, and how if we took the top layer of whatever we made, we would sustain ourselves and have plenty left to support others. She reminded us about the precious nature of womanhood, and the life or death of the earth that we bear inside our bodies. The beads connect us to our past and help us deliberately plan for the future we want. They tell the story of that journey in the intimate spaces of our bodies where the scars of life are written. During the frantic paces of life, I often find myself reaching to feel my beads through my clothing to find tranquility in knowing that they are there, and that I have deliberately committed their meaning to my life. New life creations come one day at a time.

Loving Myself to Change

We pursue visibility often. The need to know that someone or someones have given us a nod of approval, read our words, liked our photos, has reviewed our work. But if visibility is driven by something at its foundation, that foundation I feel must be hate. Whether that hatred is about hating who you are and needing to know others feel differently, or hating what someone has said or has thought about you and you feel the need to change it, it is still a medium of deficit.

A few months ago I wrote about black women being the daughters of Hagar, and how long before we may know it, God has seen us. And that visibility is one of love. How then can I pursue the changes that are driven by love? The changes that are rooted not in opposition to any ideas or the need to have that change recognized, but simply because I love myself enough to want it and to do it. It begins, again, with decathexis. Finding the things and the people that I am willing to let go of to give myself the room and energy in my life for the new. Because love is patient, love is kind, love is the gentle fall of leaves on trees making room for the spring. Love gives the energy necessary to change.

So what have I done differently in the name of self-love? I am learning to wake up to sunrises over my city, instead of the violence of the news. (It will be there later. It is always there still later.) I am purposefully crafting spaces that help me reflect and heal, and gives others the room to do so as well. (Because loving myself more gives me the energy to continue loving others.) And I am resisting the voice of despair, and instead listening to the whispers of “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Necessary Endings: Severing that which Binds

I am pursuing decathexis. I want the restoration of time and energy and life that comes from purposefully breaking off a pattern or a mindset that binds me, and keeps me away from nurturing my life. In this time of increased turmoil, I find myself bombarded by daily negative energy and news – declarations that hurt those I love, declarations that harm me. It is good, it is necessary, to face the world. But I cannot let this world harm the seeds I aim to sow.

Let me tell you a few stories of necessary endings.

The first is of a man. Coming back to the Bay had been a struggle in one regard – it was still the city that someone I had loved and still loved live in. Things had not ended well, but like all of the best/worst love stories, there will still the intricate vines of love that grafted a bond around us. This is a story that has always been messy, with roots that are deep and gnarled. And every time that it is necessary to walk away, the path leads circular back to a start. I want to find love, but love cannot find its way to hearts that have been rented out by guests that have no intentions of staying. I had a close friend in Ghana who once told me that God cannot share with you someone worthwhile for your life while your heart is cluttered with scraps of the past. I often go back to those words, but it was not until recently that I had made a more decisive decision that recognized that there are many people who one will encounter in their lives who want nothing more than to take and take and take from the wealth of care you will give them. They appear when they need that comfort, and then disappear when they are once again on their feet. But if I am to nurture new beginnings in my life, if I am to fall back in love with myself before anyone else, it will take severing such ties from my life.

And while this is the story of one particular man, it rings true of other relationships in my life. Over the last year, I have become acutely aware of those who will masquerade as friends and allies (a term I despise because it comes with little to no real action or change), who have been quick lately to show their true intentions. They want cookies, rather than to understand how the batter is baked. They deny and hide their eyes from the truths that can only be told by the canaries in the mine – those who see destruction coming long before it hits home. Now is the time to step away from spending any time trying to bargain my humanity with others, but rather to invest that time in building community that is necessary to sustain and thrive.

The second story is of the voice of despair. In church on Sunday Pastor Tanisha talked about banishing the voice and taunts of the devil from our lives. That voice that tells us all the things we aren’t going to do or be, and that tries to destroy our promises in life. I feel in the midst of an ocean, having left the shore but not seeing the other side of the land I am trying to get to, as Donald Miller describes it. Miller describes this as the time that we blame ourselves, others, and despair in the midst of not being able to turn back, but not knowing where we are going. When I feel like nothing is going quite right in my life in any area of my life, I hear that voice of despair, the voice of ‘never’ instead of ‘not yet.’ In the loud distractions of life, piecing out the voice of oneself, God, and the devil can be hard.

But Pastor Tanisha reminded us that everything the devil says is a lie – he is, after all, the Father of Lies. The energy spent overcoming the voice of despair need not be so burdensome. The answer is to allow God’s truth and promises and way in my life. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And ye tit is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability–and that it may take a very long time.” By dwelling in the place of faith, the place of confidence in battles already won, I can severe the ties that bind me to the voice of despair and tethers me to the buoy of hope that is born of action. Now is the time to praise even in the midst of despair. To celebrate in anticipation of a victory.

I am, finally, back on a road that although filled with potholes, I see a course ahead. I am deep into projects again that excite me, and I find myself moving from decathexis to cathexis.