Finding Flow

Some days feel erratic. There’s a little bit of something here, a little bit of something there, and time feels all over. It’s hard to find solid blocks of time to sit in a moment –to relish the essence that is being completely and totally rooted in that second, that place, that feeling.

I miss those.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention describes “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”People master an art or a craft through the type of flow that engrosses them. And I think about the last time I felt that type of focused energy. I’ve barely had time to write in the last few months, something I am trying to ease my way back into through this writing challenge (which I have not been succeeding at) and other passion projects. I think the last time I felt like my entire being was involved in an activity was last July when I was finishing edits for the co-written book I have been working on, so that we could enter it into a book competition. 

I had dreamt of this book for some time. My year at Cambridge writing my master’s thesis was also a time of flow. And it was also a time of immense change and realizations. It was the type of year that you need to find a way to represent and commemorate. For me, it would be this book. But I couldn’t and did not want to tell the story alone, so I reached out to a few other women of color I knew who I trusted to be in communion with. I think about our book often. I reread chapters often, the words soothing me and reminding me that I have words that long to be dripped from ink to paper. That in the telling there is power. I spent hours editing our work, going line by line asking questions of the authors, asking questions of myself. I lived those pages and those stories over and over again. I feel as though I know these women in very special ways. Through the flow of editing, I was helping memories dance off the pages and hopefully into the lives of future readers. I felt like these stories had to be told, and they had to be told soon. I did not know then what November would bring.

Winters not only freeze the land, they sometimes freeze us to the places we are at. As spring comes, fingers thaw and once again fly across keyboards and papers to create and recall the stories of healing and of thriving. The stories of life. I hope this spring brings that flow back, so I can once more use my writing to help myself and others say the words on our hearts.

The Trust We Owe Ourselves

For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes. . . .

When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Last Sunday Casey Affleck won a coveted prize of Hollywood – the Best Actor Oscar. It was another sharp reminder that men’s lives don’t end when they violate women’s bodies. They get rewarded –President to Academy Awards and everything in between. Society has given men, especially white men, great trust. Men have futures, while women have pasts that need to be upended and examined for any signs of evidence we can use against her.

The erasure of our belief in ourselves starts young. When we tell our parents or teachers or friends that something happened, and the questions pour in: Well maybe he did not mean that. Maybe you misheard him. Maybe you did something. Our lives are lived in the vast, harsh circle of “maybe you.” And we begin to think, “Maybe you didn’t. Maybe he didn’t.” And worst of all, the maybe you did, that leads you to think that somehow, you are at the center of any and every problem.

We begin to suggest, never tell. We suggest in our papers a lens through which to read the author’s intent, while our male classmate makes a bold claim and unwaveringly sticks to it. Even in the face of being wrong, the world has taught them that they are right. Thinking back on the Oscars one more, I am reminded of the one La La Land producer who gave an acceptance speech despite having the knowledge that they had lost. He acted as though it was his right to still take up space despite it not being his time, while the La La Land director and producers were forced to breeze through their moment, the words they longed to say still stuck on their lips.

It becomes hard to unlearn the sound of your own silence. To learn to step outside the path laid out for us into unknown territories where we can boldly declare the lives we long to live. Because it always feels like a betrayal to others to live that life. Yet, as one of my favorite authors stated, we have but one life to live, some must be lived for ourselves. The most important relationship to fix then becomes the breakup experienced long before in a life of what we want and what we do because we’re scared of the silent parts of ourselves. Who is the woman of ‘yeses’? Who is she? I can say with confidence that she has learned that our experiences are all we have, even when people try to tell us otherwise. Those who love us will not abandon us because we trust that what we feel forms the basis of what we know. This is why I trust women when they speak the secrets that have burdened their hearts. Because so often women feel as though no one is listening and hearing the sound of our own voice, clear with the conviction of self-knowledge, is the only way we are ever free.

 

Wound Care

While I was living in Ghana after college there was a line in a book that really spoke to me (An Imperfect Offering) that said “No scars, no stories, no life.”  My body has its fair share of scars, the majority from a dog attack at a young age that left me with 32 stitches spread out along my left leg, arm, and back. But one of those scars came from that year in Ghana during an October trip to Togo and Benin with my friend Mette. While getting off a motorcycle taxi, the driver’s balance slipped and the exhaust pipe pressed against the inside of my right calf, the pain searing through me like the slice of a knife. Our tour guide put toothpaste on the burn, trying to ease the pain until we got back home to Ghana. I cried on the sidewalk as he smoothed the blue paste across my leg. I was worried it would leave a scar, and I did not want to be marked. I did not want to have to always account for this story or have a story developed for me in the face of obvious markings. So I remained hopeful that a temporary salve could permanently heal a deep wound.

When I got back to my home in Ghana, my boss George, who I was living with (he and his family) at the time, caught me fussing over my wound. I was trying to find a quick way to stop the cycle of puffy skin and pain and ugliness. I had found some ointment for cuts and bruises and burns in my emergency kit and was trying to lather it on while trying to figure out which bandage to put over it. George smiled at me and told me that we had an aloe plant growing in the backyard. He told me to take a short walk to the back and find the plant, then break off one of the leaves, cut it open, and smooth the fresh gel from the plant over my burn. Only then should I gently wrap the wound. I wanted to know how long it would take for everything to heal and if I would have a scar. He laughed and told me to just take my walk to the aloe plant each day and let time and my body do the rest of the work.

That’s not what I wanted to hear, but I diligently put the aloe on my wound each day and gently wrapped it, and eventually I forgot to count the days. I stopped trying to hide that I was hurt from others, and instead focused on the process of healing. Time was only marked by the change in the look to my leg. I had to trust that I could heal, and I had to let go of the desire to choose quick, temporary fixes. In the words of Mary Oliver, I had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

In a singular moment in Togo I feared that I had been permanently and irreversibly scarred. And in many ways I am. But not in the same ways that I once thought. The scars have faded, but I know that they are still there. I cannot escape the words of the story that they tell that add to the spaces of my life. I continue to be the sum of every moment that has marked me. “No scars, no stories, no life.”Just like my time in Ghana with the aloe plant, I purposefully walk the paths toward my healing, making my own salves that I know will let me naturally heal the pain and fade the scars into beautiful lines of living.

 

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.

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.

 

28. Beginnings.

Beginnings.

San Francisco has been a hard move. It – and this year in general– has tried to steal some of my happiness that I had been building. But San Francisco had not realized that while it had power, forcibly taken and enacted through the violence of gentrification and hollow liberalism, that I was magic. That I was made of red clay to gain strength from the sun and was divinely anointed in my work.

But people often like you better when you are broken.

They like the ability to tell you when liberation is right for you and how freedom should look. Earlier this year I saw this thought manifest itself in the life of Korryn Gaines. Korryn Gaines, a black woman who was vilified and crucified for daring to name her freedom. But isn’t that the freedom Mother Harriet meant for us? Did she not say that God’s time is always near and we were meant to be free. Not in the time of the Civil War. Not for the want of freedom papers. But for the will to get up and leave.

In her piece “My Revolutionary Suicide Note”, Melissa Harris-Perry pens, “We like suicide as long as it is martyrdom. We are only shocked by the swift and sure final act that renders the black body unavailable for use by others. That says – this suffering will not be endured.” She goes on to retell the story of Igbo Landing:

“Igbo Landing. 1803. South Sea Islands of Georgia. The people were stolen from Africa. In return they have stolen the ship. They cannot turn it back. They will not be enslaved. So they turn and they walk. They walk all the way across the water. Back to Africa. Back home. Julie Dash tells us the story in Daughters of the Dust. The Igbo who walk back cross the water. Generations who tell the story of the Igbo who would be free. Until she reminds us: no one can walk on water. No one can fly. Igbo Landing is revolutionary suicide.”

MHP also reminds us that this suicide is not what one may expect. It is not a death wish, but rather the will to move against the forces that would crush you, even it it means death. Because, as Huey said, our strong desire to exist with hope and human dignity calls us to do so, because without them life is impossible.

For me, over the last year, this has sometimes come in the form of becoming dead to others, especially as this year—from Nate Parker and rape to the election—has proven that even those I would have named as friend or acquaintance did not have the will to support the full spectrum of my humanity. I am reminded in these times of Martin Luther King Jr’s note that the true enemy of the progress he sought were those who came in the guise of friends but asked black people to wait for their freedoms, and to only seek them in particular ways. These are the ideas that we are taught in schools that get reinforced by the systems in place. They are handed down as truths but are actually perspectives.

These are the reasons we so often speak of invisibility. How black women are not represented and are stripped of our voice. But I am the Invisible Woman. No amount of visibility has saved me in the way that my invisibility has. A few years ago, I came to the same conclusion that Claudia Rankine had – that no amount of visibility could change the way one was perceived. And facing that has made me equal parts angry and equal parts depressed over the years. But I would choose invisibility in the face of the soul-crushing death sentence of acceptable visibility. These perceptions handed down as truths are the things that must be interrogated and overcome. My pastor, Michael McBride, refers to this as the necessary job of becoming a life giver that does not re-inscribe bondage, but rather seeks the sweetness of freedom. So then I had to ask myself: What relationships in my life were robbing me of my life giving purpose? Those were the relationships that I had to let go of as I refused to participate in the world in ways that would move me further from the light I seek, because God, just as He instilled in Harriet’s heart, wants me to be free.

I am calmed when I recall the story of Hagar, as I was reminded of once more earlier this year by an inspiring black woman speaking to our church congregation. Hagar, a woman of color, worked for a wealthier woman Sarah and was cast out for jealousy. Hagar, in her despair, was comforted by God and declared, “You are the God who sees me.” We, black women, are Hagar’s daughters. We have seen and have been seen. I have seen and have been seen. Even when we lose the materials and spaces of this life, there is no such thing as invisibility or silencing when we dwell in those truths that cannot be undone.

27 had brought the darkest of nights when I thought that when I had sought to hear the quiet whispers of God’s guidance, that I had only heard silence. But in writing this now, as I am blessed to see another year, I have learned that it was in the depths of silence that He had sent His loudest messages: Love, courage that is revolutionary, and the audacity to continue living my truths.

Beginnings.

Canaries and Cages

I haven’t written anything in a long time. I’ve started and stopped blog posts, but only in my mind. I’ve been engaging with writings that others have written and readily shared strong voices of my dear writer friends. But my own thoughts have been stuck on the roof of  my mouth and the tops of my keyboard–relegated to snippets of thoughts in the form of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets.

But tonight I went to go see Michael Eric Dyson. I’ve been interested in his writing ever since he wrote his scathing piece on Cornel West. Interesting does not mean that he appeals to me, but rather than I am intrigued at his thought process. Tonight he spent most of the night condemning Obama for chiding black people throughout his presidency, and then ended by saying as black men and women write we should write what we know academia wants to see. Then, once we get to the next level of the job–that tenure, that special honorary seat–we can start to write the more radical pieces we longed to.

If my 27 years of life has taught me anything, it is that the pieces of ourselves we compromise, the ones we push down in favor of being lauded by a system not meant to recognize you, we seldom regain. I have sat by firesides listening to black academics who I count as voices willing to listen and share in the uplifting of others, say that if you allow the system to change you so you can get in, its work is done. That if you leave out of your writing the things that make it your writing to get to that next level, that those compromises do not end. And I have to be able to look at myself in mirrors, face the person that I am. If my 27 years of life has taught me anything, it is that when the system does not recognize you, it is in that moment, those spaces, that LIFE, that you find the pieces you did not know the world had tried to strip from you.

And while Michael Eric Dyson spoke of these things, I peeked at my phone as Bernie Sanders slowly crept to a victory in Michigan, after a projected loss by 20 points. I have lived in the heart of America. It is where I was raised. In the heart of America I have encountered some of the worst forms of human hatred in my hometown and around it, and I remember every single moment. However, it is often where we find one extreme that we find the next. In a similar fashion to how black people are the canary in the mine, it could be that in the middle of America that we so readily cast off, is the comeback kid we’ll analyze for generations. Because as often as I have encountered the racism that plagues middle America, I have also come face to face with it in the form of those who claim to be liberal, open-minded, ‘allies’, and justice warriors. Those who might teach a class on radical politics, where radical is just another word for some of you get a pretty short end of the stick. They are often the ones who ask black people to wait, don’t shout so loud, wait your turn, and, similar to Prof. Dyson, ask that we shed that which makes us the canary in the mine, for a cage in the open air. Polls are often wrong, in much the same way the systems of oppression that many of us navigate remain the same because too many are convinced that our greatest protest is to protest our way into it.

I’m not conservative and I’m not a liberal. I’m a deeply spiritual black woman who is willing to examine the truths I develop and the items that people around me say are the Truth with a capital ‘T.’ I so often revisit these truths. One truth I have revisited lately is the act of voting. I used to believe that to not vote was to spit in the face of democracy. That to not vote meant I did not care, and that I had no right to complain. But in my struggle to find the spaces of survival, I have grasped at a truth that not voting is indeed a form of voting. One need not choose a lesser evil over another. And while I will cast my primary vote in May, I have let go of the faulty moral ground that demonizes those who don’t.

I have to decide where I stand, and I am choosing to seek within the margins a source of power, the kind that bell hooks wrote about and the kind that I have seen in the research that I have conducted. It is a space that does not ignore the existence of the “dominant”, mainstream spaces, yet does not look for it to affirm that which it creates. It is a space that on the fringes, within the realms of deviance from the norms, creates anew.