I am here on a warm day in Dallas, Texas and the leaves are the color of the sun and an unfamiliar song sweeps through the room and everything feels delicate. 40 pages into a frightening and beautiful book, I am reminded that every story is an opportunity for transcendence.
In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We are close. We’re having a meeting of the minds. […] We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy.”
This happens every time we converse, write, sing, testify, or confide. We are inviting others into a world that only exists in our bodies and minds. I’ve watched movies that have made tears roll down my cheeks. I’ve had conversations that painted goosebumps all over my skin. I’ve read poems that have done emergency surgery on the wounded places inside of me. Last week, I listened to this episode of the memory palace and carried the melancholy I felt with me all day.
I believe there is a divine magic that lives within us and between us. So electric and radiant we’re afraid of its power. We are afraid of ourselves and each other. We want to contain and sterilize and minimize the expansiveness of what has been experienced individually and collectively.
I remember being a teenager and discovering Malcolm X on my own terms; listening to his speeches and reading some of his ideas and feeling a holiness in his anger. Feeling the freedom that comes from unmasked rage – something that I had been denied and denied myself. At a conference this summer, a similar idea arose in a workshop where one woman shared that there was no emotion she was afraid to feel. That she “trusted herself enough to come back from any emotion.”
I still have yet to trust myself in that way and I know the fear I have of embracing my whole self is like a virus that undoubtedly infects my ability to embrace others. We all do this. We don’t trust ourselves – that we can be a conduit for unbridled disgust and ecstasy and sadness. We question the legitimacy of these emotions and feel threatened by their existence. We start to wall off parts of ourselves and feel the urgent need to silence those same things in others. But there is no way for us to share, to teleport as King would say, unless we give these powerful realities enough space to breathe freely. Unless we hold them as sacred.
When I was a little girl, my mom would take me to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the winter. I remember being there, wearing a burgundy, velvet dress and my winter coat with the faux fur collar and listening to these people on a brightly lit stage making music together. I was so moved by what I felt in that moment. I don’t know if a cried or simply held the feeling, quivering and wild in the back of my throat.
Sometimes I have sensations like this that are both memories and visions. I listen to a friend tell the story of baking bread over an open fire in her home country and see the soft leather hands of my great-great grandfather kneading dough. I watch a little girl run with reckless abandon in a community garden and hear the laughter of my daughter yet to be born. I listen to a beautiful young poet read aloud with desperation and find myself a witness to my mother before she was my mother, on her knees praying, faithful and alone.
What’s happening in these moments? These small glowing thresholds which seem to be the keepers of every answer we’ve been seeking for generation after generation. We must give them our full attention.
In these moments there is no before or after or heaven or earth or love or hatred. Everything exists and belongs. All of this to say that right now, in this bookstore, I feel perfectly human and separate from nothing.
Earlier this month, I went to a event here in Chicago with a group called Nuns & Nones. In those two precious hours I was introduced to a dozen beautiful people and a poem that’s served as an invocation to this month of my life: Sweet Darkness by David Whyte.
Since that day, I’ve been afraid to sit down alone with that poem. It is the kind of poem that seems to know where all the wounded, hungry places are within me and calls them each by name, so gently. It delivers that kind of comfort I often cannot accept from anyone else. That has always been my relationship with language, with art; It creates a space where I am welcome. Where there is always something anticipating me — a sentence or an image or a sound.
This month has been so very hard in ways that I don’t know how to fully feel, much less explain. Life has not been cruel to me. The people in my life have have not been harsh or absent. My body has not been sick. There is nothing bad I can point at as the impetus for the thing inside me that is inflamed with so much sadness. A mysterious sorrow.
So today I unfold the printed paper poem and cry. I let the words be a balm that soothes the invisible wound. They tell me:
“you are not beyond love.”
. . . and I remember the many people who have a space reserved in their heart for me. That this simple truth gives my life more meaning than I could ever try to ascribe it.
“the night will give you a horizon further than you can see.”
. . . and I remember that the future is dark only because we cannot see it. This blindness makes the possibilities endless and joy a certainty.
“your aloneness [is a] sweet confinement.”
. . . and I question my devotion to the sentence of loneliness I gave myself as a little girl and have been living out ever since. I crack the door to this self-imposed cage and let the room be filled with the fragrance of God.
“the world was made to be free in.”
. . . and I remember the goodness of Genesis and am convicted about the chains I place on myself and the chains I have placed on others. I humble myself to the delicate part of me that once perfectly understood creation and freedom.
“give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.”
and I tremble. I tremble because I do not know if there is a world in which I belong or if I have the courage to find it. But I yearn and I ache and I hope and I pray that it does and I can.
From this big little story I stumbled upon on Twitter, please receive (what I can only describe as) a benediction that Shira Erlichman gives at its end:
“When so many of us are often held in the maw of something dangerous: Isolation, desperation, ache . . . Wherever you are, I hope whatever aches you ‘just holds you there.’ That you feel this massive muscular beast decide you’re meant to be here in all your blues. You are. May you be given a touch of relief, a torch of belief, that in the midst of what could vanish you, you are held.”
I’ve started buying flowers from Trader Joe’s and putting them in little vases and empty bottles. Every couple of weeks I’ll select a unique, colorful bouquet. The “filler flowers” are always the ones that stand out to me — bright and long-lasting. Right now, my apartment has bundles of wax flowers propped on tables and shelves. I look at them like little pockets of living art.
That’s what life has been like since the new year — trying to collect these wildflowers that keep sprouting and spreading.
I’ve half-heartedly drafted and deleted a few of these letters. Jotted some things down in my journal and returned to them days later only to find that a new profound emotion or idea has captured my attention. All these powerful things keep happening — to me, through me and inside of me — so fast and overwhelming I can barely see them clearly before another one sprouts.
My grandma is a truly amazing gardener. She has an innate understanding of design and makes sure every plant, blade of grass and flower is in its place. These qualities, along with a thousand others, are some of my favorite things about her. I see so many of those same traits in myself: the desire to prune, organize and monitor. But my life keeps filling up with these unexpected beauties. These overwhelmingly stunning things that don’t fit into my design, yet demand my admiration. And in this way, what was once a garden has become a whole world in bloom, waiting for me to bask in its wonder. Like a sea of bluebonnets on the side of the Texas interstate highway — too many to count, impossible to anticipate and insisting that, even in your hurry to get where you’re going, you stop and witness.
While so many of the transformative experiences, emotions and ideas from the last few months can’t be confined in words, some of them grew from these seeds: reading bell hook’s trilogy on love in reverse order – Communion (finished), Salvation (halfway) and All About Love (anxiously awaiting). Watching a screening of my friend’s film last night. Reading this book and thinking about genealogy, home, legacy and the responsibility of being a storyteller. Reading and rereading this article and thinking about the ideas in this book as I’m continually reckoning with my allegiance to justice, love and personal purpose. This podcast episode of love stories and this one about interracial friendship. This conversation on “being the chooser” and this one on forgiveness. Engaging in generative, challenging and transformative conversations with people I love and value.
Some recent “wildflowers” I’ve gathered and am enjoying are: Facilitating a workshop on religion, spirituality and ethics in Austin. Cutting my hair short to document my unlearning shame, learning embodiment, and re-learning creativity. Remembering my love of suburban midwestern winters while visiting Minnesota. Going to counseling. Identifying as a “wounded healer.” Reconceptualizing aloneness as time in the museum of myself or in my soul’s art studio. Creating a prayer box to make intentional space for holding the suffering of others. Prioritizing yoga with other black folks as an opportunity to heal my own internalized anti-blackness, ableism, fatphobia, sizeism etc. Witnessing miracles — this often comes in the form of someone being so liberated and true in my presence that I experience their spirit/soul as a physical mass I can hold and feel for a fleeting moment (magic). Remembering how much I love taking baths. Practicing sincere apologies. Letting my heart grow big and soft so that I might feel love more fully and be humbled in the face of pain. Allowing myself to be celebrated. Drinking wine in my apartment with friends and realizing I dreamed of this moment – this life – as a young girl. Being enchanted by my word for the year: Dream.
Most importantly, I’m continuing to remember how necessary writing and sharing are for me. While this world of wildflowers keeps blooming, I know that my words are the seeds I carry in my pocket and throw to the wind — my contribution to the Great Big Beauty.
Lately, everything has been very loud. You would think with everyone at a distance, isolating, all that space would remain empty. Instead, it’s bloated with an endless stream of questions and anxieties. They fill up our homes, wall-to-wall like smoke. They’re transmitted through our screens. They’re caged in our bodies and minds.
Daily, I try to listen. To hear what is true. To tune the radio within and find a frequency of wisdom. It’s elusive but, when encountered, shockingly clear. A little over a week ago, I had one of my first moments of spiritual quiet and journaled:
I find myself here. Cracked open inside. Being invited into a deep reckoning. There is an offering laid out before me. A buffet of questions and possibilities. The last two weeks have been massive. Like a black hole whose power pulls you into an infinite darkness. In this moment, at the edge of the abyss, I find myself called to courage (the wisdom of my heart), clarity (the wisdom of my intuition) and creation (the wisdom of God). A Change Trinity: Courage, Clarity and Creation. The three dance with each other, trying to find their rhythm within me.
On my wall, there’s a white board with the word “DREAM” written in bold blue lettering. I’ve been thinking about my “word for the year” in light of this global pandemic. I say it out loud and it feels like a puzzle in my mouth. I’m slowly understanding that “dream” is not just a state of mind, but a state of being. It is a two-way prayer. Now is the time to free the prophecies and visions that live at the bottom of my throat and twitch through my fingertips. Something about this moment of world-wide chaos silences the voices of doubt that make me question the importance of sharing my words. My light. It simultaneously unveils the “old ways” — domination, denial and manipulation — will no longer work. That they never worked. The illusions of comfort, control and infrastructure are falling away and we, together, bringing all of our gifts, can dream ourselves into a new reality.
An activist I follow recently explained the idea of re-indigenizing which encompasses this perfectly. We’re not going backward, but inside. Way deep down to that place we call holy spirit, third eye, intuition — to remember the Truth we have forgotten. To start re-membering ourselves, our relationships, our communities, our species. Healing together. Perhaps the black hole is not an abyss, but a threshold. And we are not adrift in infinity, but learning to see in the dark. To discover the worlds awaiting us there.
I’m reminded that this is a liminal space between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next’ where transformation can take place. Poet David Whyte describes this as “the sheer beauty of the world inhabited as an edge between what we previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us . . . the claiming of our place in the living conversation.” To say, “I am here and you are here and together we make a world.”
Kahlil Gibran speaks to this well in his writing on joy and sorrow, positing, “verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.” Why do we refuse this middle-space of uncertainty? Why do we refuse to hold tension, especially when we know God is change? It is up to us to clear a space in our life for something new to claim us. For God to claim us.
As the days progress and we drift deeper into the overwhelming unknown, I am accepting the offering of self-exploration. I am consenting to uncertainty and change — to God. I am channelling Courage, Clarity and Creation by living out “dream” even here, even now. I am humbled by this liminal space and trusting the joy and sorrow that help me navigate it.
To end this letter, I’m borrowing my friend’s short meditation and sharing it with you: “Without love, nothing else matters. With love, nothing else matters.”
I woke up today to a flood. A hurricane of photos. A memorial service trapped in my phone.
I am drowning.
When black people are killed, which they always are, the horror comes unobscured. Another natural disaster befallen people who have lived through a million earthquakes. A thousand tornados. Daily typhoons. They come steadily. Consistently destructive.
James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” but I believe this is only one stop on the stages of grief we go through daily: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
And none of them bring Ahmaud Arbery back to life.
None of them free the black men down the street from the jails that are now death chambers.
None of them humanize the pain of black women.
This morning, when I read the story of Ahmaud’s death, I felt every stage of grief in one moment. I feel unworthy to even write these words about a life I know so little about. I am not the woman who pushed him out of her body and into the world. I am not the family who fed him and loved and watched him grow. I cannot know the impossibility of that grief. I cannot bring myself to post his photo. I will not use him as a political statement. He was a man, barely older than me, full of life and then gone.
I have only been mourning him a few hours and yet he left the earth months ago. Who am I to claim his death a platform for my outrage?
I am taking my outrage today and holding it in my two hands. When I look at it, I see a suffocated dream. A dream of a world where I could have a child and believe wholeheartedly that they might outlive me. That their brown body might grow old like a beautiful oak tree. That their skin may know the love of sun rays on a Sunday afternoon jog. That they might return home to me, body and spirit intact. Alive alive alive.
For now, this is a dream. A dream trying to break through the plans made hundreds of years ago and reinforced daily. Written into every law. Crafted in every image. Planted inside our hearts and minds. Watered with money and hatred.
But I hold that dream deep inside. It’s been handed down by those before me who have chosen to live and make life in a country that was built at their expense. And that is why I am here. Because even in the face of horror we didn’t stop dreaming.
To my white friends reading this, please hold your own outrage. Look at it. Were those men driving the truck and carrying the guns your kin? Where does the shame you feel come from? How have you grown since the last flood? Since the last digital memorial service? What have you done? Are you still watching from dry land?
Do not perform outrage today; feel it and change.
I often go silent in these moments. Everything feels incorrect. Inappropriate. Today, I allow every emotion. I let the flood waters baptize me. I come back to life even more committed to the dream of those descendants running in the sun. Free. Beautiful. Alive.
Some days it feels like I’m dealing with the irreversible consequences of a choice I didn’t make.
My whole life I was taught that if I planned, organized, and did things the “right” way, I could avoid so much of life’s uncertainty. No moment has proven that more false than this one. Some days I wake up and have to remind myself of the strange new world I now live in. Everything feels so surreal – like living inside a movie.
I recently started reading Alicia Keys’ autobiography, More Myself, and have found it revelatory in many ways. She writes, “Nothing but uncertainty is certain. Circumstances come together, only to fall apart moments or months later. And then, in a flash, we must rise up and regain our footing . . . It’s not that the ground underneath me was suddenly shifting; it’s never been still. That’s part of the work of my journey — getting comfortable with life’s groundlessness.”
It’s comforting to think that life is something stable and controllable. That you can detail a clear path into the future. Paved and planned. But I’m learning, yet again, that’s not true. Letting go of a past where the future felt certain in order to make space for the uncomfortable present is a kind of surrender I’ve never experienced before. I am humbled and forced to bow in the presence of change; God. In a recent poem I describe us all as being widows to the Future and newlywed (an arranged marriage) to the Present.
All our plans are casualties to change . . . and yet our dreams are untouched. Transferred across generations, physical space and spiritual realities in pristine condition. They are our most precious hope. We’re often taught that dreaming is wistful or silly. That planning and logic are the way of maturity and wisdom, but now we see that our plans were just a card house that crumbled in the wind. Maybe dreams are the only real anchor we have. I’ve been thinking a lot about what “dreams” mean to me. They feel like the inverse of prayer. Dreams are things God sends down through us and asks us to live out. Prayers are us asking for guidance in living out those dreams. Like an endless circle, the dreams and prayers clarify and intensify each time. Nothing can derail them because they’re divine in nature.
Daily, I have to remind myself that this is my life. This is the time and place I’ve found myself living in. I’m working to be present to all the pain and beauty bound up in that reality — to feel truly wed to the Present in all its idiosyncrasy and unexpectedness. I hope one day I can grow to love it — the strange and overwhelming Now. It is causing me to have a kind of faith and courage I’ve never needed before. Each day I create, what my friend described as, a sand mandala: a detailed, ornate and beautiful 24hrs that are then wiped away for me to create again. I’ve also been holding on to the Greek folklore of the phoenix that burns and rises each day, somehow made stronger by the ashes.
Amid all the challenges and changes, I am reminded of a dream that is planted within each of us: to seek, create and embody expansive love. My friend Aisha wrote the words that spoke to something I couldn’t name:
Maybe love is nonlinear and doesn’t have a beginning or end.
Maybe I thought I grew to love you, but really I watered a love that always existed, and in our crossing, a new branch emerged from it’s sturdy, deeply-rooted trunk. A part of history, with the power to sprout future generations of love.
And each love, it dances inside of me to its own unique rhythm. Yet my body recognizes its pulse. How could it forget? A love uniquely ours yet a part of a legacy, that I inherited. My spirit whispers, “ahlan wa sahlan” and expands its unbounded home.
As we make peace with the present and remember the dreams we’ve neglected, may we find power in a dream that never dies: love.
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