Reminders

One of the greatest gifts I have allowed myself to receive in my life are the reminders that I find of things that I need to recall or remember. Sometimes a word, a conversation, a photograph. I just have to be ready to listen.

Last night I went to a celebration in Oakland in honor of Ghana’s 60th anniversary of independence. It was a wonderful night filled with reminiscing about trotro adventures, changing neighborhoods, favorite foods, and lots and lots of jollof rice. I was especially impressed with the young man sitting next to me who knew every Ghanaian song I was referencing based on a simple description of a few words or what someone was wearing in the music video.

On the way home my driver was a friendly Nigerian man, probably in his 30s. As the ride continued across the beautifully lit Bay Bridge, the driver expressed to me that people often ask him where his accent is from and that it was a way of them reminding him that he does not belong here; that this was not his home. The emotions in his voice rose as he talked about people who could never understand his sacrifices, and who had spent their whole lives in their geographic bubble. Such subtle reminders of how one views you is usually coupled with an inability to see the true nature of oneself or the other person.

In Citizen, Claudia Rankine describes this as, “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person…you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such langauge acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all thew ays that you are present.” As an immigrant, such language about accents and ‘where are you from’ are language acts that exploit a perceived difference in the way someone looks or talks. The point of such visibility being that it is necessary to paint the exact outlines of difference. My driver went on to describe how he does not pay any attention to ignorance that comes from ignorant people. The refusal to engage in those language acts creates barriers toward exploitation. And I return to the wise words of my driver, reminding me of all that has made me that so many can never catch a glimpse of or understand. Clint Smith writes in his poem “what the ocean said to the black boy”: they call me blue because they don’t understand how the sky work/they call you black because they don’t understand how god work. 

We must continue to create our armor against the exploitation of language acts bent to take that which makes us strong and use it to mark us ‘other.’

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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.

Living My Own Narratives

What does it mean for something to be mine and not yours? what “right” do I have to a space, a land, a boundary? Maybe I’m the “good” immigrant to them. The Ivy degree, no criminal record, “good addition” to this country checkboxes. I think about the first time someone told me that I should distinguish myself from American-born blacks. “You’re not like them,” they said. They were attempting to sell me what they thought of as a dream –no, a nightmare. An acceptance based on placing my foot on the throats of another; an unholy union with whiteness.

But I look into the mirror, and I see brown skin and eyes that are haunted by ancestors crying from unmarked graves and the bottoms of the oceans both east and west.

Is it love if they only love you if you present in particular ways? If your story is one they can exploit to vilify another? We cross oceans in search of a different story, and find ourselves forced into another we did not author. I became an “immigrant story” –which gets your family featured in the local paper under the title “The American Dream.” Sometimes though you dream of things and wake to find that they are empty of any promises that keep you whole. That’s when you realize the sacrifices it takes to pen your own story. To be you, not a trope, not a one size fits all existence.

Not the “good immigrant.”

But a person. A person who crossed an ocean in search of the room to build a different story.

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.

 

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.