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In Anticipation of Death

Growth is a heady feeling. An intoxicating, soul-warming, heart-swelling wonder.

For a seed to grow, it first must die. I’ve been carrying around this seed within me, deformed from the effort it’s taken to keep it alive. Its name is self-preservation, and I’ve held on to it as tightly as I could since I was old enough to speak. I was taught that if I don’t fight for myself, no one else will. So to avoid the heartache of realizing that no one was fighting for me, I never gave anyone the chance to. I didn’t let myself need anyone. It’s just been me, behind my fortress, fully clothed in my impenetrable armor, shield raised, sword drawn.

In my early teenage years, my sword was my tongue. I was the bitch – the one with the death glare and the amazingly crafted insults that pierced through your chest and never left the corners of your heart. Then I stopped talking and started hiding – my sword of choice in the recent past has been to withdraw my affection. I figured that was better than saying the hurtful things I knew I was capable of speaking. None of it was malicious; I was merely doing as I was told. “If you don’t fight for yourself, no one else will.”

When I came out from behind my fortified walls, I thought I’d done it. I’d made the big leap – I was truly learning vulnerability now. That was back when I started writing this blog and learning how to take baby steps. I laugh now at my naivete, not because I wasn’t growing back then, but because I thought I had arrived at my [vulnerable] destination.

Two years later, I realize that I’ve still been carrying around that armor, still wielding my sword, still cowering behind my shield. Although I’ve stepped out from behind the walls, I’ve been so preoccupied with taking care of myself – with protecting my heart – that I might as well be back in that fortress I built forever ago.

And to discover that it was all from a warped view of God and His role in my life. The things you learn about yourself in therapy are eventually hilarious once it doesn’t hurt so much. As it turns out, I’ve been trying to play God my entire life, trying to take over His protective role. Instead of letting Him protect my heart like He promised to, I’ve been [ineffectively] doing all the work – wielding my sword unnecessarily and creating an incredible mess.

Oh, to have been taught that “guarding your heart” doesn’t mean building a fortress in which to cage your emotions, or living with a strict “three strikes and you’re out” mentality, but instead, radically entrusting your heart and emotions to God for safekeeping and taking your hands off the process. Freeing yourself to love and feel and be disappointed and break and be repaired, knowing that the hurts won’t kill you, and that the One protecting you is also able to repair you – what a wild, wild notion.

I’m not emotionally available to love or be loved because I’m much too concerned with being aloof and keeping my guard up. I’m always on the defensive, worried that if I’m too vulnerable, if I let you in too far, you’ll stick a knife in my gut and gloat as I bleed to death. I’m afraid of collecting more scars because I know just how long it takes for those wounds to heal. I ignore you and become stone cold when I’m romantically interested in you, because letting you know how I feel would be just as terrifying as running down College Avenue naked as the day I was born, screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” I can’t cry around you because I’m afraid you’ll think I’m weak and overly emotional. Hell, I can’t even let myself be super fond of you because what if you aren’t just as fond of me?

What a shitshow. Pardon my French.

And then this week, I had a stunning realization. In the midst of practicing unconditional love (which I wrote about here), I discovered that it really is the nicest feeling to like a person for who they are without any expectation that they like who you are in return. And then it hit me: I’m growing. Sometimes I get so lost in my flaws and shortcomings that I fail to see that I’m not who I once was. I’m growing. My leaves are budding – and even though there’s a fall breeze outside, it feels like spring inside. It tastes like the beginnings of finally being free.

A few months ago, God promised that this new year would be one of rest; a Sabbath. I thought that meant that all the things I’d asked for for so long would finally be mine, and all the pain would magically disappear. But today, I think His rest looks a lot more like me surrendering my armor and my weapons and letting Him fight for me – letting down my guard in order to let Him be my guard. The pain is still there and maybe always will be, and the things I’ve asked for are still not mine, but in contemplating the surrender of my self-protective habits, I feel closer to rest than I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

I’m not free yet – unlearning decades worth of terrible habits is not something that happens in a month, or six. But now I can see what freedom might look like – that when I stop fighting for myself, I can finally be free to live. That there’s more freedom and rest in letting go than in trying so hard to protect myself. That I find my life only when I’m willing to lose it.

Maybe a year from now I’ll have learned what it looks like to let Him do the fighting – to be emotionally available, to wear my heart on my sleeve again, to cry in front of you when I’m awestruck by beauty or when my heart is breaking, to love and let myself be loved.

I’m not that girl yet, but I’m running towards that freedom with all that I have. Today, I’m celebrating a deeper understanding of unconditional love – and completely relishing my gooey affections that need not be reciprocated at all. And on the day I finally put self-preservation to death, I will throw a giant party. Because it would mean that I have finally chosen to let God be my shield, and my fortress, and my defense. And my soul will finally be at rest.

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Silence Is A Cancer

The thing about pain is that it is universal. It lives inside of us – grief cohabiting with joy, unrest nestling with peace. We can’t escape it but we spend all of our energy trying to surpress it. Sometimes it lets up and joy wins for a time; and sometimes it spreads like a wildfire, consuming everything good.

The thing about me is that I’m a silent sufferer. The more intense the pain, the quieter I become, until I forget how to use my words to ask for help.

I’ve always been crazy about justice, wanting to make sure everyone gets what they deserve. It made me a little unforgiving as a child, and emotionally stunted as an adult living in a broken world. But thank the Lord that mercy triumphs over judgment. I don’t know when it started, but somehow – not by my own might – I began choosing mercy rather than judgment. And now, I’m the girl who can’t bring herself to hate a mass murderer; the girl who can’t bring herself to write a Facebook status about how she doesn’t understand how messed up and evil a person would have to be to kill dozens of people; the girl who feels overwhelming sympathy for the people we label as devils.

You know why? Cause I understand that we’re all in pain. We don’t admit it – I don’t admit it – until it eats away at all our healthy flesh and consumes us from the inside out. Everyone starts off thinking that they’re strong enough to be better than the next person. I’ll never cheat on my husband. I’ll never get to the point where picking up a gun and pointing it at someone is my release. I could never engage in non-consensual sex with a woman. We all start there, but we’re all in pain. And if we don’t choose to find our words and ask for help, if we don’t stop perpetuating this myth that suffering in silence is being strong, if we don’t let each other feel and grieve and mourn and break – we will all end up killing the good things around us too.

I can’t hate a mass murderer because his pain is not foreign to me. I can only imagine that they are silent sufferers too – ones who were told that to be strong is to wear a perma-smile and act like everything’s fine, until it’s not. Sure, I’ve never fired a gun. I don’t even know how. But I’ve at times gotten so deeply lost in my own pain that I begin to lash out at the people around me, even the people who love me. In an effort to find a reprieve, I’ve killed good friendships, hurt good men, used my tongue to lacerate my loved ones, and walked away from people who needed me. Sure, it doesn’t get the position of honor on the 9 o’clock news, but I have left my own trail of wounded, hurting people in my frantic attempt to stop my heart from hurting so much.

I’ve had my own share of trauma and abuse and heartache. And I spent years hating the inflicters of my pain until I realized that they are just as broken as I am. No, that doesn’t excuse what they did or give them any right to repeat it again. But it helps me not to demonize them, because only broken people hurt other people. And we’re all broken in various places.

So I can’t hate them. I will never condone the acts of evil they carry out in their own quest for peace, and I will never underestimate the agony the hearts of those directly affected have to endure. What I will do is remember my own brokenness, and that I am only one step away from their hell. That step is graceful surrender. The only thing that will keep me from being a cheating wife or an abusive mother or a mass murderer is the choice to not rely on my own ability to be good and do what’s right, but instead to make an honest confession that I’m broken and I’m in pain and Jesus’ grace is the only reason why I don’t go out and try to break other people. And that surrender, that choice, needs to happen moment by moment, not one time long ago in the back pew of your parents’ church.

Let’s celebrate together the joy and beauty we discover amidst the filth in this world. But let us also embrace the pain and stop telling each other to be “strong” and suck it up and pretend like we’re fine. Strength is found in raw honesty, in beautiful vulnerability. Don’t entrust your heart to people who tell you that breaking is a sign of weakness, or that feelings are for little girls. Even Jesus wept. If we don’t start breaking on a regular basis, we’re all going to be walking around with emotional tumors that can rupture at any moment.

I’m no better than that guy on the news, and neither are you. We’re all in pain. There’s a time to laugh and dance and sing, and there’s a time to break. If we don’t let ourselves break, we end up breaking others. It’s okay to break. It’s okay to break. It’s okay to break.

***The best gift I’ve ever given myself is going to counseling. No, it’s not for the “crazies” – it’s for everyone who breathes. Yes, it can be expensive and intimidating. But I’d rather starve for a few days every couple of weeks than remain emotionally stunted. Recommend is not a strong enough word for the situation, but if you need a safe place to break and it is in your power to do it, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing a counselor. Your heart will thank you a million times.***

Soul Graffiti

My heart is a room in an old country home, spacious and open. At first, the walls were white, untarnished, gloriously pristine. But everyone who entered that room left it different than they met it, and eventually, my once pristine walls were completely covered. Some of the foreign matter was beautiful – vibrant reds and soothing yellows, sultry greens and cozy blues. But with the beauty came the grotesque. There were ugly words scribbled all over the once lovely paint, and it became increasingly difficult to see those vibrant hues through the hard words etched within.

The first words I read were etched deeply, filling up the room with their nauseating presence: you are not good enough. The author of those words spent time making deep carvings, ensuring that it would be a difficult task to undo what he did. And his doing opened the door for everyone else to follow suit.

Overcompensating for the damage done, I sent everyone packing and sealed the room off. But the fumes from the paint suffocated me, and there was no one in there to share in my suffering or remind me of the joy I once knew. I thought I had to protect myself; thought I had to be aloof and impenetrable to survive in a world where people gathered with their cans of spray paint and treated your heart like a train stopped on the tracks – painting their hurts and disease and brokenness and trauma on you.

I’m learning that instead of creating a concrete tomb to die in, all I need is a paint roller and my favorite colors. Sometimes people hurt others as a way to process through their own pain – it’s the way of broken people in a broken world. But some people bring joy and laughter and long, tight hugs on days when the pain threatens to topple you. And by trying to close out the bad, I also close out the good.

I want the good. All of the good.

So I’m purchasing a paint roller, and every time I find something ugly and hurtful being written on my walls, I’m going to paint over it with strong, confident strokes. And in its place I will write what’s true and good and lovely and pure. And I’ll let the only One who can truly protect my heart do His job – I’ll stop trying to help Him save me.

I don’t want a room with bare walls – that’s boring, safe, and not who I want to be. I don’t want a room covered in darkness and shame – that’s not who I want to be either. I want radiant colors and a beautiful story, and I want people to live out that story with. I want a heart that feels lived in. I want walls that tell a story of love, redemption, and triumph. And I want people. I choose people over my fears and self-defense mechanisms. I choose the possibility of hurt over the lifelessness of a caged heart.

I’m painting away, and today, everything’s a pleasant shade of summer squash. And the words being graffitied on the walls of my heart are ones of courage, and love, and wholeness.

The Girl With The Fro

I went natural a little over a month ago. Being natural, for my non kinky-haired readers, simply means letting your hair exist free of chemical straighteners (also known as relaxers) and other such processes to alter its original texture. Technically, I’ve been natural for over a year now – my last relaxer was after graduation last year and was an incredibly horrifying experience. I had been rude to my hair for months and it paid me back in kind.

My decision to go natural wasn’t really thought out in advance – I had waited too long between relaxers and my hair had practically made the decision for me. It was hard to maintain because the bottom half of my hair was new growth that had never seen any chemicals, and the ends were scraggly, damaged, over-processed hairs. So I tucked it all away and wore weaves for a whole year, hoping my hair would grow out to the point where cutting off the relaxed ends wouldn’t make me look like a boy. I was transitioning.

Transitioning is that awkward process between where your hair is and where you want it to be. I didn’t want to do the Big Chop and start from scratch, so I transitioned for a year. I thought I was only transitioning hair textures, but as it turns out, I was going through a major transition in my mind as well. You see, I was taught that “good hair” meant long, straight hair or defined, silky curls and waves. Big, afro-textured hair was not acceptable in good society. And certainly not in my mother’s house. Good hair was white hair – which explains the inordinate amounts of money black women spend on weaves and relaxers every year.

I felt my prettiest when I’d hang out with my friends right after putting a new weave in and they oohed and aahed over my hair. Oh, and when the guys oohed and aahed too? I was SOLD on this good hair being white hair thing. Once when I had long straight hair, I had three of my guy friends on separate occasions tell me to never change my hair because I looked so good. You’d think that would make me glow with sexy joy, but it made me sick inside. Because I felt like a joke, like the person I was presenting to the world was a sham.

And to some extent, I was. I was a chameleon – I changed who I was based on where I was. If you expected me to be very serious and very “Christian”, I could do that. If you expected me to be rambunctious and full of dirty talk, I could do that too. If you wanted good advice, I was your girl. If you wanted to go clubbing, I was also your girl. I could be anything you wanted because I didn’t think who I was was ever going to be enough.

I talk the talk, but learning to truly accept who I am has been a rather difficult journey. If I could’ve paid as much money as I did for my weaves to become instantly funnier, wittier, curvier, flirtier, more self-assured…I absolutely would have. And everyone who knows me is probably thinking, “But you are those things!” It’s not enough for the world to tell you wonderful things about yourself, you have to believe those things in the quiet places where no one else ventures. That is what my year of transitioning taught me.

The girl I was last year would never have left her house with her hair in a baby fro – she didn’t have the guts to. She would never have done many of the things I’ve found myself doing and saying recently. She would probably have caved and put in another weave when her mother disapproved of her natural hair. She would have made every bad thing that happened to her her fault. She would still be obsessed with trying to do the right thing at the expense of her sanity and joy.

Going against the grain takes guts (especially living in Vanilla Valley where the first day I rocked my fro, people stared at me like I was an alien). It takes believing in yourself – the self you are, not the one you put on before you walk out the door. It takes accepting your imperfections, loving them even. And it takes giving a middle finger to societal, familial, and relational pressures and expectations. Who you are is enough.

When I decided to let my fro out of hiding a month ago, I did it while I was away in Texas visiting my mother. You know, just incase I hated it and didn’t want anyone else to see it. And it was a hot mess during my first week of experimenting and trying to figure it out. But I stood in front of that mirror and said, “You, my dear, are beautiful. This is how your hair was created to look and feel, so stop fixing. Just enjoy the skin and hair you’re in.”

I’ve given myself that pep talk at least once a week since then. It’s taking a while – I’m learning to have patience, to not compare my hair to other naturals’ curly locks, and to listen to it in order to learn what it needs. On a scale of extra fine to extra coarse, my hair is as coarse as it gets. It’s tightly coiled and cottony and doesn’t keep a defined curl for more than a day. It shrinks to about twenty percent of its length once it gets wet. All it wants is moisture, but it cannot seem to figure out how to retain any. It is kinky and full and I feel like I’m growing a forest on my head, but I have never felt more beautiful. And I have never felt more like myself.

I still have minor freakouts regularly. What if my hair shrinks overnight and I look like a boy in the morning? What if I’m not conditioning enough? What if the dry Colorado air kills my hair and it all falls off? Oh and my favorite thing to freak out about isn’t even my reality yet: What if my husband doesn’t think I’m sexy because I go to sleep with my hair in twists AND wrapped up in a scarf, instead of long luscious hair spread out over the pillow like in the movies?

I’m giving myself grace because I’m fairly new to this process. But regardless of the amount of work it takes or the [few] weird looks I get, I am committed to never altering my hair texture with chemicals again. Concurrently, I am committed to never altering who I am just to fit in. This past year hasn’t just been about transitioning. It hasn’t really been about my hair at all. It’s been about accepting who I am, believing that I am beautiful – kinks and all, and learning to not let comparison steal my joy. I’m finding myself, and this is one grand adventure.

Finding Rest

I want to learn how to dwell. I’m fully aware that my relationship with God cannot be likened to anything resembling consistency right now, and I find myself pulling away because I’m not as close as I’d like to be. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at that particular reaction – it’s how I treat the people around me as well.

I want to learn how to sit, how to live, how to be in a state of dwelling continuously. I’m tired of quick visits and extended vacations when things get especially rough. I’m sick of my supposed dwelling resembling my church attendance – once a week and emotionally charged. I want my dwelling to savor of normalcy. Like brushing my teeth or brewing my morning cup of coffee. I want to dwell in Him the way I dwell in my house.

Because the Psalm says that he who dwells…rests. My life has been chaotic these past few weeks and while I’ve complained about the busyness of it all, I’ve welcomed the constant movement as a distraction from the unwanted emotions. The sadness, the uncertainty, the occasional minor freak out, the apathy that’s continuously fighting to rob me of faith. It’s all there – underneath the hysterical laughter and wide smiles and dinner parties. And I’m learning how to embrace it all, how to feel it all. I want to feel it all, but he who dwells rests. I want rest just as much as I want to feel.

In exactly eleven days, I will begin my seventh year away from the country and people I grew up with. It’s not that I miss it – quite honestly, I don’t. But He promised me something at the beginning of this year – He promised me rest. He said the seventh year is His Sabbath and He’s going to give me rest. All the petitioning has made it to His ears, all the tears have been preserved in His bottle. He just wants me to watch and see what He does.

But I can’t watch outside of His presence, can I? I can’t manufacture my own rest in trying to create a plan for myself and struggling to make it work. I can’t be at rest when I’m running away from Him. So I need to learn how to dwell. I need to learn to live inside of Him like He’s the fortress I claim Him to be. I remind myself that He lives inside of me, but sometimes that skews my perception of his grandeur. He lives inside of me, but I also make my home in him because He is bigger than my cavernous depths. I want to learn to live inside my God and find rest from the chaos and uncertainty. His rest is better than my facade of repose.

“You will never be in control of your life circumstances, but you can relax and trust in My control. Instead of striving for a predictable, safe lifestyle, seek to know Me in greater depth and breadth. I long to make your life a glorious adventure, but you must stop clinging to old ways. I am always doing something new within My beloved ones. Be on the lookout for all that I have prepared for you.” – Jesus Calling.

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Psalm 91:1

Remember This

Dear future self entrusted with the care of young, impressionable souls, you will most likely have forgotten how it felt to be young and immersed in the discovery of who you are and what you want. You will have forgotten your passionate cries of “I will never do [insert annoying trait] when I’m a mom!” This note is to remind you and keep you accountable.

*   *   *

Remember that they are important. Whether they are three or thirty-three, their “No” is valid. Their “You’re hurting me” is valid. Their time, concerns, plans, emotions, thoughts, words, perspectives are all important. Let them be someone other than you.

You are to cultivate the soil and tend the fragile garden of their souls, then watch in wonderment as they begin to blossom and unfurl. You are not to tell them when and how to grow, and what kind of plant they need to be. Someone already decided that long before He gave them to you.

Learn to say “I’m sorry.” You aren’t perfect, and you never will be.

Remember that they are gifts. Before they became an overwhelming responsibility you had to deal with, they were given to you as gifts. Treasure them, and keep your grip loose.

Show them unconditional love. Rebuke them and discipline them, but do so while being emotionally present. Don’t withdraw from them simply because they broke their curfew or disagreed with your opinion. That’s conditional love. Actively love them even while you enforce consequences. Actively love them even when you disagree with them.

They pick up your habits, healthy or unhealthy. Spend time getting healthy – for you, for your husband, and for those precious souls who learn how to love from your example. Get healthy; see a counselor. It will probably help you realize that not everything they do is about you.

They don’t know what it’s like to be a mother, to nurture new life and have it rip your body and heart apart. But just because they aren’t there yet doesn’t mean they don’t value and appreciate who you are and all you do for them. They’re learning and changing and growing, but one thing is constant – they love you. Believe that. Trust that.

Balance your maternal urges to protect them from the world with the understanding that they need  to make their own mistakes. You survived your own mistakes. Trust that they’re resilient enough to survive theirs.

Do things for them because you love doing things for them. Buy them gifts because you want to. Express your love in whatever form you choose, but never use those gifts as a guilt trip in the future. Love doesn’t come with a price tag. You either love them or you’re acting like you love them so you can get what you want from them. Love them.

They are your children, but they are also people. Treat them with dignity, respect, and honor, just like you’d treat anyone else. They are not dispensable, and they don’t exist to cater to your every whim, just like you don’t exist cater to their every whim.

If you let them teach you a few things, it might surprise you what mature, kind, God-honoring children you’ve raised. Celebrate that. And let go when the time comes to let go. They’ll be your babies forever, but acknowledge their adulthood when it is time and let them go. They’ve heard every word you’ve repeated over the years, and they will do you proud.

Get It Wrong, Get It Right

I do this thing quite regularly where I place the blame for almost everything on myself. Maybe I’m not the only one, or maybe I am. But it is second nature to me, and has been since my prepubescent days. Why didn’t we have a good time that night? I probably did something wrong. Why doesn’t she ever call me? I probably said something to offend her. Why am I a 23-year-old who’s awesome (as expressed by biased allies) and yet has never been on a real date? I’m most definitely doing something wrong.

Now, I’m just as skilled as you are in pointing fingers and making charges. But by the time I feel bold enough to blame someone else for an issue, I would have already stood trial before my highly accusatory heart and waited for my exoneration. There are lots of reasons for it – reasons that would probably end up being rants about growing up in a conservative, Nigerian household.

Nevertheless, like a well-worn shirt, I daily put on the belief that if only I were doing something better, I would have the results I want. That, somehow, if life doesn’t work out the way I want it to, it’s because there’s something I need to improve on. This doctrine is ever-present in Christian culture. If it doesn’t work out, then God wants to teach you something through it. Oh, you’re still in this situation because God is waiting for you to change your attitude, THEN He’ll give you what you’re asking for.

We start seeking change, improvement, betterment as a means to an end. We seek to develop, not for the beauty of growth itself, but for the things that will be afforded to us because of the growth. It’s a game – when you reach a new level, you get a thousand points. We take on burdens that aren’t ours to bear, forgetting that we live in an evil world filled with imperfect people and their imperfect responses. We chase after maturity not simply because it is what God desires of us, but because if we’re mature enough, we’ll finally be delivered from this situation/given our significant other/get into grad school/get that dream job/whatever it is. If I figure out what You want me to learn quickly enough, I can skip the rest of this pain and move on to what I really want. Because if I don’t have _____ yet, it’s because I’m doing something wrong.

For this to be true, I must be operating under the assumption that if I do everything right, things will inevitably fall into place. In reality, I could do everything right a thousand times, and things could still fall apart. Just because you speak the truth with grace doesn’t mean it will be received well. Just because you are fiscally responsible doesn’t mean that you won’t one day end up broke because of circumstances out of your control. And just because you’re finally content with being single doesn’t mean your husband is on the way. (And can we, for the love of all things good, stop spreading that little fable around?)

If I do the right thing, it should solely be for the sake of doing the right thing. And it should be done with the expectation that the world could still fall apart and she could still hate me and he might still not be interested and I might still end up broke. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee happiness.

So, Universe, this is my official declaration to you and your inhabitants: I refuse to carry your burden along with mine. I will choose to be responsible for myself and act accordingly when I’m wrong, but I will not continue to blame myself for the things you’re responsible for. Sometimes I let myself think that I’m inherently flawed – never enough. Lies. I am enough, it is not [always] my fault, and I refuse to be responsible for you. It’s not my problem, and I’m keeping it that way.

***The idea of being responsible to people and not for them has significantly changed my life. I highly recommend beg you to read Boundaries by Cloud/Townsend for further expansion on that topic, and for your general emotional well-being!***

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