Breaking Open

A few things about how turning 30 feels (I can’t say “being” since I’ve only been here two weeks):

It feels like gold paper crowns and glow in the dark beads strung together by my six-year-old hands, eight spheres, then a star, eight spheres, then a star;

a neat tear straight down from frilly collar to lacy hem to flowery sock because dresses that puff out like iced cupcakes are ideal for bouncy castle jumping down and tumbling up;

uncles who carry you on their shoulders until you don’t fear falling, and aunties who paint your toes purple with red dots on one foot and red with purple dots on the other and aunties who sew you clothes covered in a pattern of your favorite fruit to match the slippers they bought you;

a full set that stays looking neon and new three weeks after your salon visit, and continuing to practice the patience that warns against ripping through week-old braids with the square tips of said set, reminding you instead to take oil and water from a spray bottle and a tail comb to the ends of your hair and be gentle, precious even, even if it means being a little or a lot late;

trying to bite back the self-loathing and feelings of defeat that froth to the surface of your consciousness every time a letter comes in the mail labeled IRS or due soon, whether or not you can afford to pay; 

waking up to more and more of your mother’s face in the bathroom vanity every day;

realizing that being generous with your spirit and your time does not or should not necessitate self-betrayal, and that not everyone who cannot care the way you crave wants to rend you to pieces (except for when they do);

when will you stop stepping on your self, how much harder do you think you can possibly work your way out of a trap with a jaw full of teeth jagged and lethal and fanged like the worst things you have ever said about your self and how much you’re worth;

 was there ever a little girl as loved and as loving as you.

It feels like trying to eat the guilt of all the times you have and will hurt or offend other people and finding peace in knowing that nothing said about you in malice or misunderstanding (including the worst things you have ever thought or said about myself) rewrites who you believe and know your self to be;

meeting your self with gentleness so you can remind your self: put that thing down that you’re hitting your self about the head with;

encountering the self in multi-dimensions where all the most afraid and most exuberant and most compassionate selves you are and have been have each gathered to place a candle on the cake baked in all of your honor;

wanting and yearning and craving like you truly believe that desire is never a mistake;

singing the praises of the sharp-edged, brittle parts of the self that have dimpled and rounded, turned full and soft beneath hands, the parts that have grown as you’ve grown, without excuse or justification (and with patience and the most tender of touch even when shame threatens to propel you forward to excuses) about how medication working alongside all the people that see and love you and the yoga mat and 8 mile walks across town and city lines and two-week notices brought you back to the side of the horizon where you are alive, so that now you live in the part of the story where you keep living, where you are still still, and where you remember what foods you like to eat and eat them until you feel full because you know the roof will not collapse if the cupboard runs empty and you have to go back to the store;

giving thanks to any of the ancestors who might still be listening after your thousandth wail that you are no longer in a place where the atmosphere shifts whiplash-fast and your fun and funny are preferable to your needy and confused and where the bathroom never feels clean no matter how much baking soda and vinegar you throw at it;

every song in a major key and some minor ones too if they remind you of the giggling infatuation of the feeling right before;

wondering when you will finally be able to turn down the volume on the voices much more cruel than you would ever be to another person, those voices asking when will you stop with the self-aggrandizing fluff like what you have just written on this page, when you will stop seeing rigor as contempt for self and fear of judgment for your lack of seriousness in times such as these, and when you will refuse the impulse to see any writing with your self at its heart as such unless you are hiding in “fiction.”

If I’m honest, the euphoria of this milestone is less about the roundness of the zero in 30 and more about the fact that I come from people who cut cake with your name on it whether or not you have been home in a year or five and pop champagne for odd number birthdays and school admissions not yet confirmed, who have “a drop” of wine just because it is Sunday and the sky is or is not grey. And each time it turns seven minutes past midnight on the 24th day of the 7th month, that is a reminder that my mother brought me into being for my heart to be at peace—Dzifa—and that I have chosen to stay.

I am my self, in bold.

Photo of a dark-skinned black woman holding a set of pink balloons above her head and open-mouth laughing, with gold balloons and streamers behind her.
Photo taken on 7/23, the day before my birthday, by my dear Mel

My initial intent was to introduce the next movement in this post with the usual self-diminishing irony, pointing out how cliché and almost too good to be true it is that this particular development coincides with this birthday of all birthdays. Then, I gave my self an inch more of breathing room, some grace, some space in the waistline for wiggling and adjustments if necessary. Besides, it would only be too obvious if one believed that this news is the pinnacle of success rather than one indication out of many that the life of my own design is indeed possible and continues to take shape. Why am I stalling?

My first novel, Blue Futures, Break Open is being published by West Virginia University Press. I have been submitting my work to agents and publishing houses since around the fall of 2020. At the time, I knew my work wasn’t quite ready to be considered for publication, so that the pitch or query looked more promising than the actual mess of a book that was the finished draft, but I desperately needed some good news or some reassurance that all that work had not been a waste. I got a lot of no replies and a lot of really thoughtful rejections, including some agents who gave me the chance to revise before ultimately passing on my work, and I was discouraged because I had started to see my writing as the easiest way out of the discomfort and frustration that characterized my day job. Or, more realistically, I knew that one published book does not a fortune make, but my work existing in the world could reveal more possibilities beyond that job, or at least would make it easier to bear if I knew the thing I loved the most was actually moving from aspiration to material reality. As trite or, to use my therapist’s favorite word, “Pollyannaish,” as it may sound, it was only when I paused submissions for some months, sought out more feedback from loved ones patient enough to also be readers, and did countless more revisions that I started getting more positive feedback and ultimately a contract offer.

Without the characters and the place where the book is set waiting for me every evening after work, I feel lost in the world. I won’t flail for long, because I still have much more to add and to revise between now and the end of this year. And anyway, it is not that the characters ever left me, they are still there with their lives unfolding before them, and I am still compulsively saving images and articles and book titles and videos for “research” every day.

There is something else I need to write (or process internally first) about how much my writing process parallels desire, so much so that the “end” of this book and the long inhale before what I hope will be the next one feel like I broke up with someone who is patiently waiting for me to come to my senses and call them back. Surrendering to dead-end crushes on virtual strangers sent my hands flying across the keyboard, as did listening to music heavy with bass and longing and playing the web series “First” and episodes of the delightfully naughty Thirst Aid Kit podcast in the background while I work. I think surrender is what makes the process feel like desire, loosening a tightly wound self enough for all the words to flood in.

I also considered the possibility that watching and re-watching Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty so many times throughout the years I worked on my novel had created a pathway in my mind that forced an association between desire and artistic pursuit. But then, I felt this link so viscerally, and it seemed so intuitive that I realized there was no way I was the only one experiencing this creative infatuation and even tried to look up some psychological or spiritual knowledge to help me make more sense of the feeling. Saying that this practice, this craft, this obsession is my first love may sound like a throwaway shorthand, because I haven’t yet found the words to describe adequately how terrifying and exhilarating it is to realize that there is something I love so wholly and in all ways that any romantic feeling or yearning I might feel for another person would only be a usurpation. Too dramatic? Too extreme? Or maybe, it feels easier and safer, the prospect for pain lower, if I sublimate all this want into the cursor’s blinking rather than someone who might break me in the process of breaking themselves. Does this mean that any love poem I’ve ever written is less about the subject themselves than it is about my love affair with the actual words? If so, sorry to every egomaniac who ever puffed up their chest at the prospect of being my muse. You were always just a bystander or a spectator, a side fling, at best.

I’m proud of my self for flinging this body and soul towards and around the sun 30 times and living to tell the tale, and for committing tens of thousands of words to the page over years of overwork and mental and physical shattering from school and day jobs that paradoxically were meant to help me make something out of life. I don’t wear the misery with pride, and I can only imagine how much ease would be at my fingertips had those jobs and other challenges not threatened to squeeze my creative world out of the way into non-existence. But I’m here, and so is this first offering of what I hope will be many books to come. I hope you will find some use in it.

2 Comments

  1. Happy Birthday Zoe! Congratulations on this amazing and well deserved achievement! The African in me will call you writer Zoe haha! Loved this piece and what a feeling to enter a new decade! Keep on rising! 💙

    Liked by 1 person

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