about betwix and betwine

my world was weightless

“I moved slowly, one strained step at a time, and as I did so I thought of my mother and father and all my younger siblings, who were growing into strangers. After countless nights of deliberately trying not to think of them, I now felt a distant and detached affection that I knew I could carry harmlessly. They were gone, and whether I would ever see them again no longer troubled me. My world was weightless, more so than I had ever thought it could be. I owned practically nothing and was obligated to no one; I felt more alive than I ever had before.”

– p. 103 of Dinaw Mengestu’s latest book, All Our Names

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I might have no one in the world, but at least I’m free

I do have someone, some people in the world, for whom my gratitude knows no bounds. But the sheer freedom described below appeals to me in a way I can’t quite articulate. Insert old adage about longing for the things we don’t have.

 

You see those people? He pointed toward the bar. All those people have families, you can tell by their faces, they have families that depend on them and that they depend on, and for some of them this is good, and for some of them this is bad. But it all amounts to the same shit because there isn’t one of them who is free. They can’t do what they want to do or be who they should be. I might have no one in the world, but at least I’m free.

– the Gangster, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

how I became a ‘good girl’

When I was a child, adults always told me how adult-like I was, how quiet and composed and calm. I’ve been grown my whole life. Together, orderly, good. I never had the luxury of messiness, of mistakes, of forgetfulness. My value rested on how well I could prove that I am indeed valuable and worthy, how well I could prove my case.

According to the statistics for girls like me (fatherless, raised by a single mother, low economic status, etc. etc. etc.,), I should have become a teenage mother nursing multiple addictions with an abusive boyfriend or husband (less likely since the expectation is that I wouldn’t get married in the first place). I would be poor, of course, and live through troubled, shaky teenage and young adult years. Getting in with the wrong crowd, dabbling in legal issues, and treading toward a bleak future.

That’s just a snippet of my projected path. I think I was always conscious of these “realities” waiting for me or maybe because I internalized the idea that these things were all I was good for, I ran fast in the opposite direction. I became, instead, a “good girl.” I was aware from an early age that people around me had the lowest expectations of me, even those who loved and cared about me. At best, maybe they were expectant or curious about where I’d end up. But I knew in my fiber that people overlooked, underestimated, and devalued me.

To be fair, there were also many people around me who were extremely encouraging, often reminding me of the great possibilities I can achieve if I work hard and remain focused. They imbued positive energy on me and wished for me the best things. But it was often tinged with the idea that because of my life circumstances, I couldn’t be like other kids. I couldn’t mess up like they did or afford to get more C’s than A’s and B’s on my report card or give my mom too much trouble because she wouldn’t be able to handle it. So even with their love and support, I still knew that was I was working toward was moreso survival, breaking barriers, improving my circumstances, instead of thriving, becoming, reaching my full potential, and succeeding for the sake of achieving whatever it is that God put me on this planet for.

And so the rest of my years were dedicated to fiercely proving wrong the low expectations set against me. Showing them that I was capable of staying out of trouble, of being pure and good, of achieving and performing. The good, stable, wholesome girl became a lot more comforting and promising than the promiscuous, imperfect, human one. Although when other girls became just that, it was thought of a matter of a phase, simply a matter of misguided decision, a redemptive circumstance. I knew those liberties did not apply to me and so I acted accordingly. I could do good – I became a pro at editing, erasing, compartmentalizing pieces of myself. It became easy. It became natural. It became me, like second skin.

My life is a series of buried traumas. And when those memories resurface, I’m left wondering how I survived. Burying and pretending to be normal were my survival mechanisms, that’s how. I had to create a semblance of goodness for myself.

But I am so ready to unlearn the baggage of a quarter of a century. Because otherwise? I’m terrified that I might just collapse under the weight of it all.

what does it mean to be a family historian?

It’s more than collecting photographs, writings, objects, and heirlooms, though those physical manifestations of memory and legacy are very important to the preservation of a people. But it extends beyond to how you use those objects and things to tell the stories of your family.

What will you say, who will you include, what will you leave out, what will you blur and downplay, what will you place as the centerpiece?

How you frame those photos and extract from them matters just as much, if not more than, the fact that you have those objects in the first place. In Through a Lens Darkly (watch it, it’s on Netflix), the filmmaker was intentional about including the stories of two family members who were essentially sidelined because their identities didn’t match the overall values of the family. While the family didn’t completely try to erase them, they marginalized them enough to where they became almost invisible. You had to dig and inquire to find out anything about them. They were a shame and a stain to the otherwise proud and just legacy of their family.

This is one way in which families as an entity can be extremely oppressive – there is a power dynamic at play in which certain members, acting as individuals or as a group, can make decisions about who is worthy of being included and remembered. They have the power to determine who will be seen and known by future generations. That’s the thing about death – life moves on without you and your capacity to shape the future is swiftly extinguished. So the still living must decide for you and those decisions won’t always be in your favor. You could be entirely written out – that is a very real possibility, based on the value and legacy you contributed to your relatives while you still lived.

So when I think about this process of familial erasure, I often think of my auntie Etaba. She died over a decade ago; since then, I’ve lost two other loved ones, my other auntie and my uncle. And the differences in how these three people are remembered, how they were mourned when they first died, how they continue to be memorialized in people’s minds and imaginations are so stark. The differences are stark.

what my mama always knew about the dealings of grown men

When I was younger, a child, a preteen and into my teenage years, my mom would warn me about men – grown, adult men. She’d instruct me to never open the door for a man in her absence, even if we knew him, even if he was a neighbor, a friend, or an acquaintance. She even ran down the list of possible pleas they might make to get me to open the door: “your mom sent me,” “I have a package/delivery for you,” “could you help me study?” Never oblige, under any circumstance, she’d demand sternly. And I remember promising to follow her strict orders but laughing it off and thinking “there goes her paranoia again.” In fact, what I deemed to be her paranoia was often a source of laughter or embarrassment for me. I figured her to be overly careful, suspicious of dangers I couldn’t see or make sense of, unrealistic about people and situations.

Now, at 26, I get it. I get her, and her ‘paranoia,’ and her insistence that men, regardless of their marital status, relationship to us, or personality, are not to be trusted around young girls. She recognized the imbalance of power that exists between an adult man and a small girl. She foresaw the very real possibility of abuse, molestation, and the snatching of innocence. Especially in a culture like ours where our people are deafeningly silent on rape and sexual abuse. In a culture like ours where even if instances of rape and sex abuse are openly reported or acknowledged, it’s the girl child/woman that bears the brunt of blame. You probably seduced him. Why did you dress like that around him? Stop your lies, ekele _____ is a respectable man, he would never do such a thing. And just like that, the girl child/woman is handed her slut, fast, shame card and the male in question goes completely unquestioned and unconfronted. Our people protect our men like the fiber of the society depends on that protection. We make all kinds of excuses for them as if they are fragile china ready to break at any moment if we don’t coddle them. And worst of all, sometimes/often/too often it is women who maintain, perpetuate, and protect patriarchy to no ends.

I don’t know what my mom witnessed/experienced/knew about the secret, dark, inhumane things that happen between grown men and girl children in the unfortunate event that they’re left alone. She’s never talked to me about specific instances or examples for reference. But she didn’t have to. She knew, and for that knowledge, I’m grateful, even though it didn’t entirely prevent the possibility. But that’s for another time.

Disclaimer: I know not all men are pervs. Also, it’s not just/always girls who are victims and it’s not men who are just/always predators.

a saturday with frida kahlo

I went to the NY Botanical Garden for the first time about a month ago and it was such a magical experience. I fell in love with the place, the maybe 1/8th of the vast terrain I had time to see [I will be returning soon for the rest, just waiting for a nice sunny weekend, which the month of June has betrayed me of :/]. My timing coincided with the recent opening of the Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exhibit, which is “NYBG’s evocation of this unusual garden as it appeared in the mid-20th century.” If you live in the NYC area, check it out before it closes on Nov. 1!

It engaged all of my feels. I dusted off my camera and captured the shots below. enjoy 🙂

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home [Casa Azul]. If I ever have the chance to visit Mexico City, the Museo Frida Kahlo will be atop my agenda.

the beginning.
the beginning.
a complicated love they had.
a complicated love they had.
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entering Frida’s world.
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pyramid channeling their ancient ancestors.

Frida’s studio:

a recreation of Frida's garden studio.
a recreation of Frida’s garden studio.
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the makings of magic.
"I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality."
“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality” – frida

Frida had a deep appreciation for cactus plants, as do I [not all of these are from her garden, some are from other parts of the Garden]:

indestructible.
indestructible.
a world of varieties.
a world of varieties.
strange.
boundary defying.
boundary defying.
breathtakingly strange.
limitless.
limitless.

flores [I couldn’t resist]:

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for women who only rest when they die

a poem I wrote about my late auntie, who I remember always being in motion, rarely taking time to sit and be still for more than a few minutes. the greatest lesson I’ve learned from observing the way she lived her life is how important it is for women to take off their life and rest [to borrow from nayyirah waheed’s beautiful words]. it could mean the difference between survival and death.

premature women

premature women leave behind fancy tea sets
still in their box, stashed away for special days
they die with $800 in their bank accounts, combined
they look through old photo albums,
and pick the best ones to be displayed at their funeral
they leave no instructions for the care of their children
they abandon preteen daughters before showing them how to handle their first sight of blood
they leave their husbands without a map of the kitchen
they leave their sisters alone to decipher their own dreams
they become ghosts before they could live.

her most persistent feeling was fatigue
fatigue that seeped deep into her bones and seized her nerves
a daily, ever present fatigue
where even a deep sigh could make her head spin
because that was the longest oxygen stayed in her lungs.
so how could she tell at the end,
between fatigue and disease?
it had been lodged in her cells all along.

can you blame me for making a point of exhaling?

I did my first poetry reading!

hello lovely human. I’ve truly missed this space. I’m genuinely proud to share something that I did recently (just last weekend) – my first poetry reading. at the most intimate, cozy, independent, feminist bookstore. bookstores are magical places anyway but Bluestockings Bookstore here in NYC felt like such a warm place. in the days leading up to my reading, I was extremely nervous…because hello shyness and social anxiety and introversion, all melded into me. so I did my best to prepare. I decided on two poems to read, poems that are personal, beautiful, and vulnerable. I’m proud of what they have to say and how they allow me to open myself in incredibly new ways.

Sunday arrived faster than I could process. I decided to not do any last minute worrying because what good could that do? so I took a walk around the park and treated myself to frozen yogurt. any excuse to justify fro yo 🙂

something happened within me between the time I sat in the audience as a listener and the time I got on stage to read. a confidence and determination I didn’t know I had sprung up and I was able to deliver my poems without tripping over my words, blanking out, or doing a complete disservice to my pieces. I’m proud of the outcome and glad to share it with you.

    the audience was so receptive and warm and loving. not to mention that the other readers before and after me were phenomenal. wow, the amount of pure talent and heart I witnessed that night continues to inspire me. women have so many stories buried within us and when we start to unravel and reveal them, they make for sweet, purposeful poetry. I’m extremely grateful for the Grow Fierce online writing course I took in January, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for women who are ready and willing to dig deep and really go there and uncover the depths of their souls.

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my roomie recorded my reading, enjoy the video below and let me know if you have any thoughts. be blessed loves ❤

oh and if the idea of a volunteer-run collective feminist radical bookstore sounds as amazing to you as it does to me [there are only about 15 in the U.S.], consider donating less than $10 to keep it going. help by buying one or more of these pretty buttons:

$2 each, $8 for all 4
$2 each, $8 for all 4

growing up in the diaspora: podcast interview

in the spirit of not being afraid of my voice [both literally and figuratively], I participated in a podcast conversation about my identity as a diaspora Ethiopian. I discussed what it was like to grow up in the Ethiopian/African/immigrant concentrated D.C. area and my current relationships to my country of origin + my current home [the U.S.]. my talk with the two lovely hosts from Black Women Be Like was framed by a piece I wrote in November, monday morning blues. enjoy below or on SoundCloud.

all emotions are not created equal

167230-172106On my train ride this morning, I read a really enlightening piece from Psychology Today‘s February issue, entitled “Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down.”

Do you find that some emotions are more socially ‘acceptable’ than others? I’m becoming more and more conscious about which of my emotions the people in my daily life support and respond to and which ones they ignore or disengage with. And beyond myself, I try to pay attention to these patterns across social media platforms, especially Facebook which allows for longer, in-depth posts.

Facebook ‘friends’ seem to react more robustly and frequently with happy, cheery, ‘something-great-happened-to-me,’ ‘look-how-amazing-my-life-is’ posts than ones that express sadness, depression, grief, anger, melancholy, disappointment.

And while I understand that some people may not know how to react to someone’s sadness or do their best to show support, their response tends to brush off the emotion, rather than recognizing and validating it, sending the message of don’t let this get you down, you can beat this, don’t let this have power over you.

While these kinds of comments may come from a good place or intention, sometimes they come off as impatient and restrict the freedom of the person to represent their life as it currently stands. I notice that social spaces don’t allow the same room for sadness and discomfort as they do with happiness and cheer. But we do know that life ain’t always a picnic, right? Who’s to determine which feelings deserve to come to light and which ones remain hidden?

We, as sentient, complex humans, should be allowed to feel and express the full range of emotions we experience on a daily basis. The best thing we can do for the people we love and care about is give them permission to fully feel what they feel, freely allow them that space, just listen and absorb. Let them be human, basically.

Here’s an excerpt from that piece:

No one questions the value of feeling good. In fact, it seems that for the past 20 years, everyone in America has been on a relentless quest for a blue-sky state of mind, in pursuit of permanent residence on the spectrum between contentment and ecstasy. Feeling bad is another matter entirely. Emotions that generate unpleasant feelings have been called sins (wrath, envy), shunned in polite interaction (jealousy, frustration), or identified as unhealthy (sadness, shame). We suppress them, medicate them, and berate ourselves for feeling them. Because such feelings are aversive, they are often called “negative” emotions, although “negative” is a misnomer. Emotions are not inherently positive or negative. They are distinguished by much more than whether they feel good or bad.

Read the rest at Psychology Today.