Dizzying/Against Balance

I didn’t know you well enough to know what you were going through, but I really wish you had stayed around a little longer. I hope that you have found peace.

 ***

For the past few weekends and a few after-work evenings in between, I have spent time in the presence of some of my favorite people in Boston and in general, wearing the same grin almost the entire time with them, and on the inside for hours after. I have been feeling so much joy that I am always tempted to apologize to the people who have the misfortune on the receiving end of my excited chatter, even faster than my usual high-speed speech. My grandma still gets frustrated trying to decipher all my running together words, and tells me to speak Ewe because she knows my brain unfortunately moves much more slowly when I have to translate thought to speech in Ewe.

Usually, I will undercut my own joy with a sense of foreboding, with the fear that my rightful fate lurks around the corner ready to yank me back into the misery which I deserve and in which I belong. As unsettling as this type of joy can be when it is accompanied by anxiety, I also feel most like myself, like the little self with the Afro puff or 2-4 braids (the extent of my mum’s hairstyling prowess when I was little) winning dancing competitions at your birthday party and your cousin’s too, like the me who would not be skipped ahead to the next class because I couldn’t be contained in my seat after I sped through all my work (the teachers thought I was too immature, but in my defense, I was five) the me who earned the nickname Dizzy because that’s how I made everyone in the house feel.

This isn’t the temporary euphoria of the “I took my meds, now I’m healed, let’s hang out” variety. I feel deeply at peace and able to tackle the difficulties of building a life as an adult thousands of miles away from majority of the people who love you the most. Two years ago around this time, four wisdom teeth out, a pinched nerve­­—sit up straight at your desk beloveds—and wrongly processed insurance claims leading to hundreds of dollars in bills where there should only be tens would have sent me into a downward spiral of self-loathing, of feeling stuck and unworthy of anything positive.

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“Was there ever a little girl in the whole wide world who was so loved and as loving as you!” -from a journal entry my mum wrote to me, dated December 31st, 1993

I would’ve been feeling as though the universe was conspiring to ensure that I would receive the punishment I surely deserved, which in turn made working through challenges even more difficult, leading to the spiral extending further downward and so on. I’m almost tempted to go as far as saying that what my mother and my therapist both call “the vicissitudes of life” feel easier and nowhere near as insurmountable when I’m not trudging through depression’s swamp. I am less inclined to apologize for things I didn’t do, to state plainly when I feel offended and better at expressing myself without the anxiety of trying to figure what the other person wants to hear, to recognize when I’m wrong without it turning into self-loathing, to believe that my low moments are some void of misery threatening to swallow anyone who gets too close. I feel more capable of staying at the surface of my life. Who knew this would be possible?

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This was actually a low moment, but I look in this photo how I feel these days. You can catch me singing along to whatever is playing on my headphones at any bus stop near you. I am now one of those people. (February 2018)

When my mother came to visit soon after what happened had happened, I was newly on the mend, and I was talkative, and energetic, and dizzy. She kept telling me to calm down, and I folded into myself, offended at the suggestion that I was being too much, manic (not in the clinical sense) even.

“Why are you telling me to calm down? Isn’t this better than me being miserable?”

“Baby, it’s about balance. You just need to find a balance.”

At the time, I didn’t think to tell her that I am not and probably never will be a laidback person, and that if I have appeared laidback or reserved on and off over the past few years, that is what my misery looks like. I didn’t think to tell her that if balance means risking talking too much, slightly grating even, uncontainable joy and where I was that evening in March, then I don’t want balance. I was not upset with her, because I think she just forgot how Dizzy could be. I know I had. Because I’m blessed to be the daughter of a wonderful mother, I was able to explain to her how unsettled I was feeling about her reminders about balance. She apologized and admitted that her advice was coming from a place of concern that I might have been experiencing mania; what she described as an “armchair diagnosis” on her part, an attempt to make some sense out of a state she had never seen me in prior to that week in March.

I’m feeling dizzy, and joyous, and loved without condition or caveat. I’m feeling more like myself than I have since the Afro puff, like the painted-on self I have been pretending to be in order to get by and to appear untouchable. There are certain kinds of balance that I’m seeking; between rest and work; between enjoying retreats into my inner life and closing off from other people completely. I’m also seeking to open myself up to people and to love without fear of saying or being too much.

***

And here are some more things in which I delight: 

Orange line, rush hour, conversation between a mother and child:

Child: It’s a rainbow!

Mother: Where do you see a rainbow?

Child (undeterred by the mother’s doubt): Rainbow!

Mother: Ok, I’ll take your word for it, but mommy doesn’t see nobody’s rainbow.

A baby wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of a sloth along with the words “slowly but surely, I’m going to bed.” It brings me great pleasure to add that the baby’s name was Zoë!

My therapist using the phrase “feminist utopias” during a session

A woman on the phone with small hands and lots of silver rings who reminded me of my friend Philippa

A house on my new commute with bushes growing over its white wall that look like bougainvillea; reminds me of home

Random parts of Cambridge that look like New Orleans (and I don’t mean gentrifiers whitewashing and taking over historic Black communities and make everything soulless glass and metal)

A Black girl with amazing boots and a T-shirt that says “radical and soft”

The swelling sound of the strings on “Eros” from the Beale Street soundtrack

Small talk with a Liberian woman who had lived in Ghana for years that started because she complimented the beads on my wrist and showed me her similar bracelet

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “Love is still the most powerful force on the planet”

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “I nap periodically” where I N-A-P was spelt with the periodic table symbols for iodine, sodium, and phosphorous

(I realize a lot of these are babies and T-shirts.)

 

 

 

In Which I Delight

Note: For those who might need a heads up, this post discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts.

 

 

(VCCA grounds, June 2019)

***

for someone I know who ultimately chose a different way

I’m sure I’ve written before about how terrified I am about wishing away time, of not being present even when the circumstances are difficult. The sort of presence I try my hardest to practice feels impossible while I working at a place where the desperation is not quiet, and most bonding between people is done in whispers–at times bitter, at times distressed, many times both– about such things like “higher ups” family trips abroad and holiday homes outside the city. Meanwhile a trip out of state is a stretch for most everyone else, or God forbid, an unexpected medical expense. Meanwhile dignity is synonymous only with title and power, a distorted order of things made more frustrating and even more painful by the almost mandated performance of enthusiasm, gratitude, and community, and the belief that all the “good” the work is presumed to be doing out in the world allows room to sidestep the irony of bloated grants and paychecks that could directly transform the lives of the people about who we claim to care so deeply. Have I described the non-profit where you work?

I’ve been trying to remind myself that me being disposable in the work machine does not make it so in real life. In real life, I have agency, and should be able to move beyond whispered grievances in someone’s office doorway to a place where I decide how to seek and hold on to joy and work with meaning. Unfortunately, depression also exists in real life, as evidenced by the average of 45 minutes it takes me to get out of bed on most work days, and the frequent stepping away from my desk for a quick cry, or a moment to sit outside the building and just breathe. Even with Beyoncé’s Homecoming on a loop, or interviews with Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Jesmyn Ward, Julie Dash, and other Black women whose work sustains me playing in the background, I am increasingly absent. So much so, that I can go days before realizing I have lost track of the date, and that I have worn the same combination of black leggings and black shirts far more drab that what used to be my usual. But I can no longer afford this sort of absence from my own life. As hard as I have tried and laughed and joked and made grand pronouncements about “surviving,” I am not able to successfully insulate myself from the discontent (justified and understandable though it may be) that coats the  office walls and the feelings of being stuck that keep me fixed to my swivel chair.

On the last Tuesday of March, a few days before my mum was due to fly into Boston before our trip to New Orleans, I tried to end myself. It was in a small way, relatively speaking, but the despair and feelings of worthlessness behind my actions were not small, and neither was the harm I was working myself up to, one which a growing part of myself hoped would be more final. This wasn’t the first time I had seriously considered and even planned suicide, like 2017 4th of July weekend when one of my roommates coming home earlier than expected save me from my own mind, or the summer of 2014 where I drove my mum’s car faster and way more aggressively than I usually would dare because I didn’t care what the outcome could be, or all the times before I left home where I explained away my own sorrowful feelings as being “moody” or “dramatic.” But this time, what terrified the larger part of myself that loves life and wants to continue living it was that for the first time I had the means to succeed, namely three months’ supply of an anti-depressant that I now know was not doing its job. Everything I’ve said prior to this point might point to work as the primary source of my misery, but the conditions I have tried to summarize are just the backdrop against which so many other low moments converged in my mind on that Tuesday night. I honestly can’t remember what happened that day, all I know is I was on the train trying to sniff back my tears until I could get home to let them out.

All at once, I was standing and walking in all the public places I have cried; the 80 bus, the road sloping down towards Medford Street from the corner of Highland Ave and School Street, a significant stretch of Broadway from Powder House Square to the CVS in Magoun Square, the 86 bus, the entire length of the red and orange line platforms at Downtown Crossing, the 86 bus, the car park in front of the giant Kappy’s that would be so much more convenient as a supermarket, the 88 bus, on Cambridge Street down the road from the nail salon and the dentist, the Lechmere-bound green line platform at Park Street, the complicated highway I have to cross to get to my otherwise wonderful apartment, any number of places in Harvard Square and Boylston Street downtown, and the beginning of yoga class in Dudley Square while everyone’s eyes are supposed to be closed. There was the weight of reflections of myself I didn’t recognize and with which I’m constantly struggling; selfish, needy, demanding, burdensome (whether you think you are hiding well or not), and waves of grief about things I have been terrified to reckon with, things like “Maybe I didn’t really say no. Maybe that didn’t happen.”

 

 

(Downton Crossing, Wellington, Home, Savin Hill)

Mostly though, I was exhausted in every way one can be, just wanted so badly to sleep, and was not really concerned with whatever lay on the other side of that sleep. Recognizing I was putting myself in danger, I called my therapist’s voicemail box, and she called back right away because she happened to be working late. I refused to check myself in to the hospital no matter how much she insisted, because even more terrifying than what I was trying to do was the prospect of checking myself in on my own. I promised to go in to see her the next day, and I did, after going to work and before going to a yoga class that I feel strongly helped me save myself that week. My therapist could not convince me to go to a psychiatric ward, and I think the only reason she stopped insisting was because I promised I could hold on until my mum’s arrival on Saturday, and more importantly that I wanted to live, that I had been making plans for my future, as uncertain as it all seemed.

 

 

(Swimming back to the surface + candles and some high-maintenance plants)

I spent the rest of the week swimming furiously back to the surface of my own life. I took a personal day from work and bought the plants I’d been meaning to get for a while, as well as an overpriced tea from a café on the way, I called my mum and told her about the plants, about the much better tea I could have had for free at home, about the spring weather finally coming in, about how healthy my hair was looking, but not about Tuesday night. I wrote this in an effort to ask for help while still remaining partially in hiding, I brushed off any concerned messages following that post about silence with a mention of “work stress,” I cried on the phone to my friend Mel and yelled back at the rude neighbors who complained that I was crying too loud. By the time Saturday arrived, I was feeling stable enough to make my café date with my gem of a friend Abigail (we meet every few weeks at a different café and sometimes in between for film screenings, author talks, museum trips, general catch-ups etc.), and then on to the airport to wait for my mum. By the time my mum walked through the arrival gates, I was in tears, a mix of relief that she had made it and fear of what I was about to tell her.

 

 

(Myself and a gem: Abigail and I a few days after what happened had happened, and again this summer)

New Orleans could not have come at a more perfect moment, and before she went back to Accra a few weeks later, she was sure to tell as many of my Boston people as possible that she needed them to check on me because she knew I wouldn’t call. I was grateful she did, because I would have just kept hiding and got on with it as is my wont. My swim to the surface included actively looking for a new job (which I now have and will be starting at the end of August), writing, Zumba-ing, and yoga-ing because it really did feel like my life depended on it, and most importantly, trying not to be silent about what I tried to do. People who I love and who love me, especially those I have not yet told about this in person or on the phone, I hope you will understand why I had to write this. Saying everything out loud gives the silence and the low moments far less power over my self, and I promise you with every part of this self that I am ok now. Moving back home isn’t what I want to do right now even as I see how much that might put you at ease, and as much as I would love to be there right this minute. There is still so much I want to do out here, such as it is. I need to choose to live everyday for myself, because that is what I want to do, and not only because of the fear of letting other people down. I hope you will not be angry with or disappointed in me.

Here I am at the surface of my life, present and accounted for by Alwin Mana and by her mother Lolomo who loved me even before she knew who I would be. I have been actively trying to re-orient the way I think so that I don’t sink to those depths again. I had bloodwork, a general check-up, an appointment with a psychiatrist, and a change in medication. Bank accounts, work  drama, the inhumanity of borders, and the rising sea levels are still on my mind daily, the last two far more urgent than the first two, but I am loving and listening to the inner self assuring me that I must hold on, and that I must keep choosing life daily. I can no longer afford self-deprecating humor about depression; I can’t afford ironic pessimism; I can’t afford to keep hiding behind sarcasm, although I do not at all intend to shame other people who use these as coping devices. Personally, I just cannot do it any longer. I am choosing life. There is nothing to joke about.

Choosing life also looks like trying to find small things in which I delight as often as I can. I got the idea from a lovely person I met during an Alternative Spring Break program in college, who posts “small and beautiful things” she observes as she moves around New York City. Trying to do this daily over the past few weeks has shown me that Boston can truly be as miserable as people make it out to be (seriously, there is nobody as mean and abrasive as someone yelling at their fellow passenger on the MBTA at 8:45am), and especially if you are not a well-off white cis person. A lady at the hair salon once described Boston as “Atlanta for white people” and I have never heard anything more accurate. Trying to find things to delight in where I can instead of every day has made it much easier and much more pleasant than putting pressure on myself to find any hollow thing to be happy about every single day. Because this is already so long, I will only post some of my favorites for now. I am choosing to continue living this life, and in this life I will delight.

***

An [initial] list of things in which I delight: 

A wide-eyed little girl wearing a t-shirt with the words “Small Wonder” printed across the front

A woman with a New Orleans accent making pleasant small talk with her neighbor on the train

The words “fly blackbird” carved into the brick on the platform at the Davis T station (and running into other lines of poetry on unexpected pavements and platforms around the city)

A new shoot finally pushing through after my asparagus fern’s sickness

Surprise “Have a good week” texts from a dear friend who was just on my mind

A baby giggling on a bike ride (although I generally find it frightening to see small children strapped behind their parents on bikes)

In someone’s front yard, a sunflower taller than me with a bee kissing up to it

 

 

 

 

Happenings

I’ve been finding it really difficult to separate the idea of my “worth” and my self from the dollar amounts that people are willing to pay me for my work. At times, it’s so difficult to remember that institutions don’t really care about you as an individual, so that the fact that there never seems to be any money for increased hours or pay has far more to do with the fact that they are trying to maximize the amount of productivity for the most reasonable (read: lowest) cost, than it does with you in particular. It’s not personal, and never has been, but it’s hard to believe when your personal well-being and personal bank account are directly at odds with how hard and how well you seem to be doing your job(s).

With this in mind, I’m trying to step up my compartmentalizing game. Work is just a place, and I am a whole person who belongs not to that place, but to myself. I am a whole person who is permitted to make mistakes (as long as other people do not end up being collateral damage to those mistakes), including but not limited to; sending a late-night text that will surely go unanswered in an attempt to figure out the reason behind someone’s  ghosting, deciding 9pm on a Sunday is the best time to wash my hair, and continuing to purchase knockoff earphones even though I already know they will only last for about two weeks.

My writing life is also sitting in its own little compartment where it is flourishing in it’s own slow and steady way. Over the past few months, the following *cool writing things* have occurred:

  • My essay “My Secondhand Lonely” was included on the Notable List in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays.
  • I wrote two reviews for The Washington Post, one on the Well-Read Black Anthology edited by Glory Edim and Damon Young’s memoir What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
  • My flash fiction piece “Miss Freda Pays a Visit” made it to the penultimate round of the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by the baddest, Warsan Shire. This piece was also selected to be included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions Anthology.
  • I interviewed Ayesha Harruna Attah about her book The Hundred Wells of Salaga as part of the Boston Public Library’s Author Talk Series. I love watching artists give lectures about their work/take part in the “in conversation” sort of thing; sometimes I play them in the background at work to stay motivated throughout the day. It was such an honor to take part in an event like this, especially with a Ghanaian woman author interested in the afterlife of slavery as Saidiya Hartman puts it [and the domestic trade of enslaved people in Ghana in particular]. She was a delight to talk to. I hope I did my secondary school English Literature teachers proud with my close reading and questions.
  • I was accepted to do a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, which means in June I will have uninterrupted writing and research time, a huge luxury for any artist/writer trying to live life and pay bills at the same time!

I’m also trying to remember that even if none of these things had happened, and in spite of the rejections that have come in between these opportunities, I would still be a whole person worth more than the sum total of resume lines.

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In my efforts to document not just my low moments, I must also report the following;

  • I took a trip to New Orleans (the place where I’ve felt the most at home in the US so far) with my mum. I’m back in Boston, but my spirit (and tastebuds) are most certainly not.
  • I’ve started going to a POC yoga class that apparently has been going on for about 5 years, a year longer than I’ve lived in Boston. It feels amazing to share that breathing space with so many kind people in a city that can feel rather stifling at times, especially when the cold weather drags on. If I may say so myself, I’m not half bad at it either. Every week, I’m surprised at how satisfying and freeing it feels to see how far I’m able to push my body in terms of the stretches and movements we are called upon to do, but not in a scary hyper-competitive way, just in a “ok, sis who knew we could do this” way.
  • Most importantly, I am reminded everyday that I am loved and not alone. Who knew that living somewhere for nearly 4 years would lead to so many meaningful and loving connections? Even when that somewhere is Boston, when the city’s latent and overt hostility to Black people and non-Black people of color and its high cost of living makes building community feel impossible.

Some of my snaps from New Orleans, including my mum living her best life at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and flipping her hair somewhere [on the quieter side] of the French Quarter.

Another important point: I am here. And choosing to keep on living.

A List of Quiet Things

“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”

-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

 

For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.

Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.

This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.

This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.

Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?

Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”

Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.

Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.

My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.

 

 

Feeling Womanish

I was planning to write to you about some things I’m bringing into 2019 that I wish I wasn’t, things like shame and insecurity and other such emotional experiences that often feel awkward to explain and almost untouchable when presented in front of other people. I was going to describe my teetering between constantly feeling guilty for often failing at being the compassionate and capable  friend/daughter/colleague I would like to be, and trying to be more conscious of the effects of my actions on others without making myself the center of or solution to their problems when I am not.

Or more daunting; the guilt of seeking pursuits just for the sake of my personal joy, like writing, and dreaming; for potentially letting my mum down if I don’t make her work worth it, followed by the guilt of passing back over the same insecurities for the thousandth time, and the shame of not being over hurtful words and actions that are now years old.

you always use your emotions to justify your bad behavior; you’re selfish; you care too much what other people think; you were trying so hard to be perfect, weren’t you; you’re being irrational; you can’t handle someone like me; your feelings are less important to me than hers; you’re acting like this after a few weeks, how do you think she feels;  you know I’m a bully, right?

More daunting still, the guilt of daring to look down on myself after all my foremothers have been through to give me life, for my weakness next to their fortitude, as though they would be ashamed of me if they could see how easy it was for my self-worth to be tossed around on the tides of circumstances and the changing whims and opinions of other people.

I would continue by detailing all of my flaws I am deeply aware of, (I won’t because I’ve done so over and over on this blog, as you know) the missteps, personal and professional, that in my mind have proven that I am an irredeemable mess. All this followed by the guilt induced by Toni Morrison’s disapproval, definitely imagined because of course I don’t know her in person. I assume she would disapprove of my incessant chorus of “I’m terrible and unworthy, and here are all the reasons why” because I once heard a clip from an interview where she explained how she would tell her students that she doesn’t want to read about them or their grandmas, encouraging them instead to inhabit and write about the lives of people very different from themselves, to build empathy and to concern themselves with human experiences beyond themselves. But instead, here I am doing this, fixated on the tip of my own nose. So, I’m also failing the “What Would Toni Morrison Do” test in my mind at least.

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As always, I turned to books for comfort and advice, not wanting to bother anyone else with problems I believe are imaginary or “not that serious” on most days. In her latest work, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, Kim McLarin writes about what it means to be a Black woman who loves herself and is fully in possession of that self, about what it means to be womanish. She also has an essay aptly titled “On Self-Delusion” which I have returned to several times since finishing the book in just over a day. Following a series of “I” statements she refers to as “self-deceptions” that include “I am more misunderstood than the average person,” “I am angry but my anger is righteous and thereby justified,” and “I don’t hurt others, others hurt me,” she writes,

“These seven sentences share a common theme and a common word: I. This both is and is not egotistical, in the sense that all human beings are egocentric and all writing is egotistical…and yet, if that writing is worthwhile, it endeavors to point to something true beyond itself.” (Womanish, pg. 103).

This passage means so much to me because it arrived in a moment where I seemed to need to read it the most, as most of Kim’s words often did when she was my thesis advisor. I don’t think I’ve ever told her how I would re-read her writing on her mental health when I felt most like it would be better for everyone else if I wasn’t around, and even on days when I didn’t feel that way. She recognized how low I was feeling in grad school as I continued to sink lower, and she printed out things for me to read, sent me a therapist’s contact information, and gave me her cellphone number. I knew I wouldn’t use it because I didn’t want to be a bother, but it was a huge comfort to know that she saw me. I definitely haven’t told her that I was always wishing I could prolong our thesis meetings beyond the one-hour we had just so I could hang out with her— Did you see that article? Oh God did I tell you what this classmate said to me?

Maybe “her advice was right on time” is a little cliché, especially when she is the person who has given me some of the most vital guidance about the sort of writer I want to be in the world. But that’s how it feels, especially coming from a woman I admire who is actually grown, and not what grown looks like according to my *yikes-I’m-three-years from thirty-and-still-a-mess* perspective. I’m trying to learn how I can re-orient the ways I think about myself, to be honest to myself without being cruel, and to use my writing “to point to something true” for those who read it. (The intensely negative thoughts and self-perceptions might be delusions too.)

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Still from If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018) This shot is of the stunning Kiki Layne who plays Tish in the film.

So instead of continuing to dwell on how I’m failing as a person, I’m deciding to think about Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk which I saw  with a dear friend recently, and about how much Jenkins loves Black people through every frame, and about how I felt loved in each moment as I watched, and how I want people reading my work to feel loved in the same way, and about how I want the light in every scene of fiction I write to be as perfectly illuminating of beautiful and painful parts of Black people’s lives as the lighting in Jenkins’ work. I want to show to myself and to others the same kind of fortifying love that Ernestine shows when she says to Tish, “Unbow your head, sister.” Even as much as I allowed myself to be caught up in the beauty of the film and its soundtrack, I’m also thinking about Baldwin’s portrayals of women, and about how Kim, who knows more about his work than anyone else I know, loves him enough to recognize that the women and mothers in his work are somehow incomplete, their images distorted through the patriarchal lens that even Baldwin saw through.

Thank you for reading, and for letting me know that you see something about yourself in what I write, and for bearing witness as I attempt to turn that loving gaze on myself while lying to myself (and to you) a little less.

 

 

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,  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? Insufferable.

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, even when I can afford it.

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 (was this irresponsible of me?), 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.

***

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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.)