My Intention is to Survive

This post is full of a lot of “my mother always says.” She can’t help being so wise. One of these sayings is “Start as you mean to go on.” I can’t be silent until I’m an important enough somebody to speak up. What’s the guarantee I’ll speak up then, if my silence is what helped me to “make it” in the first place? As Queen Zora Neale Hurston, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

***

I sometimes have these moments where I’m convinced Issa Rae is going to jump out from behind a pillar and yell, “Cut!” It’s very possible I’m just narcissistic because I’m a Leo (if you believe in what the stars have to say), or because I’m an only child and a writer (if you don’t). Let’s consider the stats for a moment: irritating mid-twenties millennial, owns brightly-colored coats with ridiculous sleeves that are always too extra for any given weather or occasion, acts like she’s too feminist for Migos but secretly knows her fair share of Takeoff verses. And honestly, I would probably be at brunch more often if I lived somewhere that wasn’t Boston and if I could afford it. You see where I’m coming from?

Anyway, on this particular evening, I was on my usual walk through the covered car park on my way home, hysterically crying on the phone to my mum. Sadly, Issa didn’t jump out—she never does—and that’s because the scenario was more bleak than I have tried to make it out to be with the slightly cheesy Insecure-themed humor. “I’m exhausted,” I said “I don’t know what giving up looks like, but I’m ready to do it.” At this point my voice is bouncing off the walls and all around the car park, but in my experience people tend to give crying strangers a wide berth no matter how hard to ignore they might be. I can’t say I blame them. After all, Effie we all got pain.

As always, my mum is wise and calm in a way I’m not sure I will ever be. She asked, what does giving up look like? Moving home? I would absolutely find something to do. It’s not like people aren’t making incredible art in spite of the difficulties around structural support (I’m also not saying it’s easy to do so). I would be home, there’s nothing shameful in that. Except it implies that home would somehow be more tenable, that I would automatically be more at peace in a way that isn’t always possible in Boston.

As soon as the words are out of my mouth I realize how twisted it is for me to perceive “moving home” as a sign of failure, as if those who are striving, thriving, making their art and making their way in the world are somehow carving some lesser path than the one on which I find myself because I happen to be abroad while they are not. And as my mother reminded me, there would be nothing necessarily easier about being a young woman with lots of opinions and little fear to express them just because I would be in Accra and not Boston. My mother is brilliant, and  has always been unafraid to refuse orders she takes issue with. She spent most of her career at odds with “big men” who could not stand anyone who wouldn’t toe the line, let alone a woman. She has been punished for her brilliance and her refusal over and over again, and yet has always remained uncompromising and solidly in possession of herself.

In my personal relationships, I may not be as self-assured because I’m not very confident in my roles of daughter and friend, but at work and school, I truly am my mother’s daughter. I usually know what I’m talking about, and no one can tell me otherwise. But this day in the car park, just a few evenings ago, was not an isolated tantrum. It came out of weeks (or maybe even months, if I’m honest) of wallowing in desperation, of making room for misery to fester and expand. After completing grad school, I am still struggling with the feeling of being unmoored, and with the [false] belief that I am worthless without the right credentials and financial stability that would make me deserving of the luxury or privilege of peace of mind and time to research and write.

I have worked hard, I have “gone above and beyond” which usually means finding solutions to problems I didn’t create, I have spoken up and out for myself and other people, I have tried to be brilliant, to refuse when possible. I have also been feeling depleted, nursing old hurts, spending weekends depressed and teary after weekdays trying to be my shiniest and most impressive self at two different jobs and in social settings, exhausted from this relentless pursuit of financial stability that I am finding it increasingly difficult to socialize, attend dance classes, visit museums, volunteer, write, imagine; to do anything really that is spirit-sustaining for me.

I am slowly accepting lack, exhaustion, and precariousness as necessary for my journey in writing and life.

This runs deeper than the harmful “one has to suffer for one’s art” cliché. Through actions, words, and also the silences, I have encountered deliberate efforts to convince me and other Black women and queer people that we are unworthy of care, of living and working in places where we are not treated as though we are disposable.

But I am not convinced. The other day, I read this incredible essay by Alexis Pauline Gumbs titled “The Shape of my Impact,” and I have since posted quotes from it on my office wall opposite some other quotes of hers I put up after reading her book Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She articulates all my fears and misgivings about giving myself and my brilliance over to institutions that do not care about my well-being or my life. In the essay, she writes,

“Let us be clear. Universities keep huge endowments, money on reserve, because they are supposed to keep money.  They will always tell you they cannot afford you. They will not spend their money to save the life of a Black feminist.  Poet Laureate though she may be.  Let us be clear. The universities that we mistakenly label as our bright quirky only refuge for Black brilliance have worked our geniuses to death, and have denied us help when we asked for it. The universities that employed June Jordan, Audre Lorde and so many others, watched cancer eat away at our geniuses, as they simultaneously ate away at black women’s labor. An institution knows how to preserve itself and it knows that Black feminists are a trouble more useful as dead invocation than as live troublemakers, raising concerns in faculty meetings. And those institutions continue to make money and garner prestige off of their once affiliated now dead faculty members.”

I have had this exact conversation with people working across industries. We are being depleted, but it is “for our own good.” We are reminded that somehow the places that cause us harm are also exactly where we need to force our “seat at the table” in order to do our work.

It is not hyperbole when I say to you that I have been in some of my worst health over the past few years in graduate school and immediately after. I am 26, and in the space of a few months in 2017 I had a surprise root canal, several fillings, and two eye infections (one in each eye), all ailments I had never ever struggled with until then. I’ve had panic attacks right before going out into the world with fake-slay intact. I have random knee and back pain that pop up on non-Zumba class days, and sometimes stay longer than must be normal. I may not have the medical credentials to say for sure that these are directly related to academic and professional stress as a grad student, but I am saying that being paid inadequately [sans benefits] for doing some really vital work including teaching [as an adjunct], means that you might not realize that tooth pain can turn into teeth falling out of your mouth, or rather that you might have to ignore those aches and pains in the hopes that they will disappear on their own.

I am not convinced that it’s normal for me to feel so undeserving of good things that even signing a lease for a lovely new apartment with a roommate who laughs and bakes and has the Bronx all over her sarcasm and sense of humor feels “too nice” for me to deserve. Every rent payment feels like an unnecessary splurge, because somehow I have come to believe that I don’t deserve the joy of looking forward to returning to my own living space.

In a recent conversation, I admitted to my mum that when I first started grad school, I used to feel so anxious about my finances that I would spend the barest minimum on groceries. She had given me money for my rent, and I felt so guilty that I had failed for not being able to pay on my own despite working multiple jobs, that I had failed for deciding to take out loans to attend graduate school because I didn’t get a scholarship (an irresponsible pursuit of a luxury we couldn’t really afford), so much so that it didn’t matter that I had always tried to be as self-sufficient as possible after leaving home because I felt she had already done more than enough for me, and because I knew she would give whether she had or not. So, snacks were non-essential. Fresh fruit and vegetables? Unnecessary. My fridge might as well have been an arctic wasteland until payday, and even then it was hardly any better.

Audre Lorde
“I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.  It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” reflection cut from an early draft of “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger” by Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archive) (from “The Shape of My Impact” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs)

I am not romanticizing the “struggling artist” trope. It is not just some cute aesthetic. I’m trying to tell you that I watched my physical and mental health fall all over the place because I believed the lie that I didn’t deserve any better. I still feel so much shame in speaking about this publicly because of the constant reminders, subtle and explicit, that “making it” has more to do with wealth, class status, and returning home to attempt to climb Accra’s rickety social ladder than it does pursuing a path that I find joy and fulfillment in despite the (largely structural) obstacles, and trying to do work that might benefit other people no matter how small the effect may end up being. All her brains, and this is what she is using them for?- a direct quote, as if making art and cultivating concern for other people beyond oneself in thought and action is inferior to raking in money for doing an exploitative corporate job…

I am not silly or presumptuous for seeking health, peace of mind, space, and time to do things that bring me joy. I am not ungrateful for requiring appropriate credit and compensation for work that I do, most of which is usually at the service of other people. I am not a “just for the time being until we have squeezed out all we can from you.” I am nobody’s negation or blank-space-until-filled. I am not disposable. I am trying to remember that desperation is not my default, that my peace lives with me and not where I have the most elite co-sign.

One of my favorite sayings I’ve borrowed from my mother is “I didn’t come into this world to come and suffer.” One of her middle names is Obiageli, loosely translating from Igbo to mean “she came to enjoy life.” Usually, in my mouth it turns into something along the lines of “My mother didn’t give birth for me to sit down and suffer quietly.” She definitely didn’t bring me into this world to be beholden to people and institutions that would love to see me kill myself slowly for their benefit. I am formidable and curious and kind and  hilarious.

And I intend to survive.

(Image of Audre Lorde: Wikimedia Commons)

To My Mama Alwin Mana

There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.

You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.

Taking up too much space.

Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.

The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to externalize it, to carry on as if I don’t know that I am the main one picking myself to pieces at every turn. Constantly ready to berate myself in anticipation of mistakes, when I actually do make one, it feels world-ending in a way that it wouldn’t if my mind didn’t work the way it does. Between job-searching while trying to be present with students, and navigating relationships and life in general, my self-policing/self-silencing/self-punishment mechanisms have been working overtime, even in the face of exciting news.

I recently started a part-time job, an incredible position I didn’t think would  necessarily be an option for me, as the Editorial Assistant at Transition Magazine, and I’m optimistic about finding another part-time position to add to it. I’ve been reading a whole lot, and writing not as much as I should be, but still writing. Yet, I can’t shake the heightened urgency and anxiety that has characterized my approach to life for the past few years: Nothing is ever enough, especially not myself.

I feel guilty and sorry all the time, just for being the way I am, and for being at all, because my default positioning is that any personal crisis could have been averted if only I had just tried harder to be better. Some of the time, this is actually true. Self-centered, I know, because no one woman [has] all that power*, but it’s hard not to feel like every wrong thing rests on some lack or failing on my part when the imp just won’t shut up and allow me to make sense of life.

I am also terrified of isolation, so much so that I might end up isolating myself anyway as a result of my behavior, or things I say, or things I leave unsaid. I’m trying to stop “unsaying,” and to listen more carefully to myself and to other people, and to try to understand myself as more complicated than the sum of all my wrongdoings, as more than an ever-growing list of the ways I have or will hurt myself and other people. I absolutely want the people in my life to hold me accountable for my actions, and to be able to hold myself accountable, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to do this without it hurting so deeply. Or maybe it has to hurt, and you just have to eat some of that hurt and put the rest in your pocket for later, for when you start to feel lazy or complacent, for when accountability turns into a buzzword instead of an ongoing practice.

Most of all, I’m realizing that a lot of the work of realizing that I’m not so terrible as the imp– me myself– would have me believe has to be internal, with a lot of help from an amazing therapist, and voice notes from my mother late at night. On another note that isn’t as unrelated as it may seem, I’ve been thinking and dreaming a lot about my great-grandmother, but she hasn’t actually said much to me in those dreams. I’m not sure what I want to ask her or want to hear her say, if I’m honest.

Because today is a more clear-headed, less anxious day, I must also add that I’m feeling grown. Grown like my mum mid-90s with more confidence than you’ve ever seen, and the fluffy roller set and denim minidress combo, except without the child (yours truly) she had at the time. I feel grown, settled into my newly 26-year old body in a way that allows me to see how troubling it is that so much of this blog consists of me turning against myself obsessively, pointing out every flaw I can find in my own thinking, my feminism, my writing, or my actions, and with a strange impulse to do so publicly, as if I’m anticipating other people will chime in with their own harsh critiques of me. These small acts of tearing myself down haven’t been productive in the least, nor have they necessarily made me a better person or writer. It feels exhausting to look back through some of those posts, and I’m so grateful you are still here reading when I tend to say the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways.

And this is where the fear of personal writing usually kicks in, the fear that there is something disingenuous about trying to find the prettiest and most evocative language to describe real life pain, yours and that of other people. And doesn’t the narrator always make themselves martyr, the long-suffering yet still dazzling star of the show, if all the reader can see is through that narrator’s eyes? Now that I have fully devolved into a cryptic babble, I will take it as a sign that this post could have ended a few paragraphs earlier than it has. So I pause, for now.

***

unnamed (3)
I miss her all the time, especially these days.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

-through an intercessor because I am too afraid to say

Dadá, you are mother in life, and in memory, which means you live still

And you didn’t enter a room like an avalanche clearing a mountain side only for your child to carry herself like this, to be sifting through pebbles looking for the fractured pieces of good sense she has dashed to the ground

She is looking for you on streets in places too frigid for your spirit to land:

Sweetie, you know what time the bus coming?

They say

Bon…I lost my stop, cherie, you know where I can get the number 1 bus?

They say

She is looking for you in the scarf creases of someone else’s grandmama or tatie, in metal shopping carts rocking on uneven wheels, and inside old money bills folded between scrap paper with a fading phone number scratched across in blue ink

It’s embarrassing, Dadá, frankly she is embarrassing herself on your account, look

She is calling you all kinds of names and you do not come, names she never knew you as:

Mama Mana

Dadá

La Vierge Noire

Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre

Star of the Sea

protector, protect me, she says

“Voici la Porte de L’éternel, c’est par elle qu’entrent les Justes.”

She is leaving smudges of herself everywhere, kohl watered and blurred on her fingertip, face powder smeared on her shirt collar (a few shades off for August skin) dust sitting on the ridge of her bed’s headboard, and round the rim of the bath, scum

All this, and your back is still turned against her. And if it wasn’t for your usual no-tune hum hanging around your head, she wouldn’t even know it was you

Dadá, she has failed because she isn’t the kind of steadfast you borned her to be.

She cannot bear to tell you herself, and so she sent me

***

* Kanye *slavery was a choice* West has been on the outs with a lot of us for a long time, but this quote felt appropriate in this context…

(Image: Taken in Somerville, MA by yours truly on Wednesday 8/8/2018. I decided to take the longest walking route home, and I passed this Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church on my way.)

Intermission

The original starting point of this blog post went like this;

The lateness of this blog post is brought to [you] courtesy of a combination of staying up-to-date with the latest horrifying news and moving for a temporary job while trying to find a more permanent one for “the latter side of next.” I’m feeling this strange sort of distance from myself, where I know something is “off” in this hazy, undefined way, but can’t quite articulate why.

 The time is currently 1:19am, and I am sitting on my friend’s bed instead of dancing downstairs in the backyard with the rest of her guests (or helping to clean up now that the barbecue has just ended). I tried my hardest to rally myself into some sort of pleasantness– I even wore my new favorite yellow dress and my old faithful cartoonish pineapple earrings– but I eventually decided it would be best to go upstairs and think and write (and shower) rather than sniffling back tears on a crowded dance floor like the 90s teen drama protagonist I would hate to ever be.

I must also add that this self-deprecating comment is not an attempt to dismiss anyone else’s very real and painful feelings of anxiety and isolation in the middle of a crowd. Humor is just how I cheer myself up, as harmful as this sort of belittling of self may be. (See also my constant repetition of the “joke” that my life is at the moment a poorly written episode of a *insert Black young woman web-series here*, and that I need the writers’ room to get it together because the current storyline is looking a little bleak).

I’m rambling, but this rambling is as close as you can probably get to how I think and speak outside this blog post entry box. Basically, I’m worried about a lot of different things– many of them somewhat out of my control– and it appears that I have worried myself into silence. This silence is the real reason why there was no post last week, and why I can only seem to speak and write in riddles instead of putting into words what these worries are.

So, I’ve been busy with all the moving and job-hunting and planning and working, but beyond that, I also find myself unable to speak anything meaningful or true. I have turned to other artists’ work, not for some sort of empty “healing” or “care” in the ways these terms are often used to mean just a different sort of momentary gratification. I’ve been reading and watching and listening a lot, to hear other people speaking to each other, and to be confused and excited and emotionally invested in other people’s worlds and lives, whether imagined or otherwise. I can’t say more (I’m really struggling with my words, as I said)  except that these works mean a lot to me at the moment, even those I don’t quite fully understand as yet. I really want to share them with you.

Reading

where the line bleeds

I adore this book because as Jesmyn Ward herself has said in a number of interviews, she loved her characters so much that she felt she protected them from any fate too cruel for them (or her) to bear. Her writing is so detailed that I can see where the freckles are on characters’ faces, and the color of the sand beneath the surface of the water they dive into at the beginning. There is beauty and there is hurt, but Ward doesn’t torture her characters to reveal either.

Read also: Interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah by Chloe Wayne Sultan

To remember:

“How do we create altars in society for black female genius? And not just the women who are artists or authors. But the women who contained art and who were never afforded the space to express it. It’s not about me as a writer, it’s about: Who authored my life? It is fascinating how so many artists of color often feel as if we are a processional of legacy, and often we enter into these rarefied spaces of art through familial or localized bonds. And yet, outside our intimate memories, who knows the names of these women who made us?”

-Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Listening

  • “I Put a Spell on You”- Alice Smith rendition of the Nina Simone Song (watch the stunning short film, Black Mary, directed by Kahlil Joseph for the song here.)
  • “Come to Me”– Daymé Arocena (If you have the chance to see her live, please do. I’ve seen her twice in Boston, and both times felt like what I used to think church was supposed to feel like, free and easy.
  • “Nguwe”– Nomsa Mazwai
  • “I Wonder If I Take You Home”– Meshell Ndegeocello
  • “Django Jane”– Janelle Monáe
django jane.gif
Django Jane. Directed by Andrew Donoho, 2018. (GIF Source: GIPHY)

Watching

***

Header image taken by yours truly, Amherst College, June 2018. I’m working as a TA in a pre-college program on Amherst’s campus for the next few weeks. I love it already, and when I find my words I will tell you why.

 

 

 

 

Procedure

rewriting (again) or reimagining this post I wrote a while back called “Recovery.”

***

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

 “–let me go mad, Grandmother. Let me bleed and be forever lost and no one.”

-Toni Cade Bambara from “The Survivor,” Gorilla, My Love

 The ones on the top row were the first to go.

I spat them out on a plate one day, next to the wrecked remains of chicken bones, and watched them sink into the orange oil smeared across the porcelain. I looked on, bored, almost as if they were not for me.

The wisdom ones went next, the irony so apparent it was almost nauseating.

They shattered into someone else’s mouth. The time has long come and gone, and they still can’t tell if that is grit or bone or me causing their jaws to grind and stick, worn down and rusty as an forgotten mill

Finally, it was right up front, on the left.

I missed the silent warning. The root perishing in place, turning the enamel outside slowly brown and darker still ’til the surface was crumb like the sugar I love in my tea.

How could you let it get this bad?

Well, I decided to crack and vanish myself little by awful little.

I have a little time–

Doing the Most (and Never Enough)

I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…

Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.

I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.

I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?

 I just need to write.

***

When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.

I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.

The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.

Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.

But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.

Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.

I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.

I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.

It’s urgent.

I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).

I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…

Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?

Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.

***

Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.

 

 

 

 

My Secondhand Lonely

I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine! My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat! I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.

***

My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.

I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”

There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.

I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)

Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.

Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.)  I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.

You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.

(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)

Choosing Joy

or something like trying 

The list of PMDD symptoms on the clinic’s website are clearly separated with bullet points marching down the page like ants following a trail to their nest. “Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Sensitivity to rejection. Social withdrawal.  Physical: Abdominal bloating. Appetite disturbance (usually increased). Sleep disturbance (usually hypersomnia.) Behavioral: Fatigue. Forgetfulness. Poor concentration.”

The list may as well be a roll call of old friends from my contacts list. They explain why I have been known to snap my reply to my roommate’s simple question, “Are you the one boiling water?”

I am becoming increasingly fixated on and disgusted by my bloated belly during the weeks leading up to my period and remain unsatisfied when it reverts to its usual and lesser roundness in proportion to the roundness of my hips and thighs.

I got home early from work a few days and was driven by this latest preoccupation to spend all afternoon trying on all the fancy dresses I wore during my graduation season in 2015 to make sure they still fit.

I spend entire days in deep sleep and unable to complete the simplest of tasks when I wake– send that email, reply that text message, braid your hair, take a shower. Every single mundane obligation seems to require effort that I can’t find in any corner of myself.

The dependable memory I often brag about feels more like a mosquito net with huge holes in it, details of stories I heard just days before immediately escaping after I hear them; Ah, didn’t I already tell you this?

My messier, more complicated states of mind defy the order of any list. The minute I start searching old text messages and emails for hurtful or unprofessional things I said, no matter how many years have passed since, I can bet my entire student debt that it’s two weeks before my period.

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These photos remind me of the Sunlight commercials that used to be on Ghanaian TV channels when I was little. Those people looked so excited to be doing laundry. (Lloyd K. Sarpong, April 2017)
Two weeks of picking through past mistakes obsessively, the time I was a terrible student leader and sacrificed a team member’s well-being for the “reputation” of our organization, or when I ended up hurting and losing a friend for venting about ways she irritated me to everyone but her, or the time at morning assembly circa 2010 when I made a rude comment about a girl’s outfit loud enough for her to hear. I now feel compelled to provide a disclaimer that I’m not rolling out these memories in some complicated attempt at self-deprecation, to paint myself as the supremely self-aware person who has grown for her past mistakes.

The kind of guilt I feel at these and a multitude of other mistakes sits on my chest at night like a bully daring me to get up, to fight back, knowing that I do not have the strength to. The list of wrongdoings extends before me, off the edge of my bed and into the shadows of my room; like the time I missed several office hours meetings with a professor I respect greatly because I just couldn’t make it out of bed and didn’t fully understand why at the time. I’m just burnt out, I thought. Senior spring after all, I thought.

The bully’s voice gives way to a more sinister one, something like a hiss, working hard to convince me that this collection of evidence affirms what I ready know, that I am undeserving of care or even the right to exist at all. Where do I fit these on the approved symptoms? How much of this is regular human obsession over cringeworthy moments? How much should I worry?

Again, I feel compelled to interrupt myself, to point out that I use metaphor not simply to grab your imagination, but to express that I hear myself being hateful to myself, sometimes like a schoolyard enemy, annoying but mostly harmless, sometimes like something much more cruel and dangerous. I’ve taken to carrying out painstaking scrutiny of my past self, dedicating whole essays to tearing down my half-formed politics from years past. (I’ve done that once here, and there are a few other posts I never put up on this blog.) Mean-spirited navel-gazing, if you will. I mean, girl. how can you claim any kind of radical feminism when your CV includes an organization founded by THE feminist imperialist herself, and another named after Woodrow Wilson? How? And those study abroad blog posts you wrote, girl…

This song improves my mood almost instantly and motivates me to get work done, despite containing the lyrics “Who needs a degree!”

Paranoia is another state of mind that refuses the precision of a bullet-pointed list.

Are the whispers in the next room about me? Did I do something? What did I do?

This is why you are trash.

What does this text message really mean? Was it clear that I was having a hard time, or is this person being dismissive because they can’t pinpoint the gravity of my tone?

This is why you’re trash.

Am I breathing too loudly in this elevator? Did I seem interested enough in that conversation? Am I talking too much? Am I wasting their time? Why aren’t they talking to me? Did I do something?

This is why you’re trash.

Was that story too personal for this setting? Have I used the term PMDD too many times in this conversation? What is self-care, and do I deserve it?

The conclusion to all these unrelenting questions is always, I’m trash, and everyone is just pretending they don’t already know. See? This is why.

What scares me is not being able to draw a straight line through all these elements, to categorize what is “normal” for my at times scattered emotional experience and what isn’t. I would hate to find out that there are more acronyms and names previously unknown to me that describe some other mood disorder. (Is it presumptuous of me to even hint at a self-diagnosis so casually? Am I being too casual?)

It’s been a while since I decided to leave the curtains open to my performance. I offer full access to what happens behind the scenes in the name of full disclosure. I’ve been trying to transcribe the terrible questions circling around inside my head like some nightmarish carousel. In this spirit of full transparency, a few more realities I’ve been trying to share instead of hiding–

I sometimes cancel plans because I can’t bear to leave the house again once I return from work, and not because I have too much homework to do. I’ve chosen to say hidden in my room, hungry and thirsty because I can’t bare to face any human being, purposefully isolated but wishing someone would check in on me. It’s so frustrating to feel completely stuck, craving company and flinching from it at the same time behind my closed bedroom doors. I once spent an entire weekend in intermittent panic, self-loathing and bouts of crying because I felt so awful for not finding it in myself to be as welcoming to a person dear to someone dear to me as I was expected to be. Selfish. This is why you’re trash.

I detest the saying “something’s gotta give.” Of course, I can manage. Keep in touch with everyone, run your errands, calm your nerves if you need me to. I’ve only recently realized, after dropping some of the many conversation threads and obligations I’ve been juggling, that more often than not that “something” is me. For every time a friend reminds me that someone or something in my life is demanding too much time and energy, or is being neglectful and careless, I am often left confused when that friend isn’t able to apply those boundaries to their own actions. “Prioritize yourself, except when it comes to me. And if you don’t hear from me, well. I’m sure you’ll be fine. You always are!”

I almost resisted at this point, but am inevitably giving in to the guilt of how selfish the preceding paragraph may read. What’s even more upsetting is that these voices, or symptoms, are working their hardest to convince me that hardly anyone has noticed the slip in my act. No-one is wondering where you’ve been. No-one will wonder if you’re gone. And again, the guilt reminds me, I am trash for expecting…what? Round the clock attention? For my friends and family to be punching bags for all my emotional twists and turns? To avoid me or hover and fuss at my whim? To drop everything they’re doing and pay attention to me? Whose job is it to do all this? I don’t even know what I want or need. One of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t expect to get away with hurting or neglecting others because of my chaotic internal life. I can hold myself accountable, I just need to express how much time I spend hating myself just for living.

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I wish I knew what the joke was here!
For the moment, I’m done explaining. I think I’m now generally a more tolerable, maybe even interesting, person than I was when I was an insecure teen torn between the respectability politics flying around my head and the carefree irreverence my mother was constantly nudging me towards, cover up those thighs (or don’t), get that extra piercing (or don’t) ladies don’t curse when they’re angry (but they do), do as you please so long as you are comfortable (your body is a temple).Very soon I must write about how my mother fiercely held on to her agency and autonomy in a male-dominated field that punished her for daring to do so while being brilliant and the best at her job. I will never be as amazing as she is.

I’m off to go write about that, among other things. I’m taking a break from this blog, because I have a thesis to write and joy to catch up to even as it may continue to elude me. There’s so much important work to be done, and I’m trying to ignore the guilt and fear of empty self-indulgence long enough to get it done. I’ll be back to post updates if anything exciting happens in my life that I may want to share. Wish me joy!

(Header image: Lloyd K. Sarpong, April 2017)