I’m My Own Storyteller

The following is an adaptation of my Presentation of Learning (POL) from my global gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. The original presentation combined speech, audience participation, artwork, and photography. It was first presented in April at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.


As a writer, I practice the art of storytelling. I find stories can be told in a variety of ways. Sometimes the story finds it niche in a poem, a short story, a blog post, an essay, or even a letter. There’s a reason I love literature, and there’s a reason I connect it with social justice. You see, in my years of writing and reading and studying, I’ve discovered that stories tell us about humanity. They teach us about human nature, society, the individual, collectives, identity, love. And I am so thankful for these beautiful creations. But some stories hurt, and not in the good way. Not in the “I-didn’t-realize-I-could-feel-so-much” kind of way, but in the “stop-seeing-me-as-less-than-human” kind of way. As a woman, I have been told all kinds of stories, and they have cut me down to the core. And since the very beginning of my gap year, I have begun to feel my bruises and try to heal my wounds. I’m reading a book—if I can call it that—called The Women Who Run with Wolves, and it is a path to reclaim the wild woman within all of us. This woman that has been trapped by society’s expectations and outlining of womanhood. The author goes through female archetypes and shares stories and actions that move us toward wild woman, towards wholeness. The first story is of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a she-wolf who gathers old bones which are in danger of being lost and sings them to resurrection until she has created a wolf which comes alive and, running, transforms into a laughing woman. So here I am, singing over my bones to all of you. This is a healing process, and this is social justice through a lens of love. It is loving my oppressor: patriarchy, misogyny and sometimes myself, and healing the oppressed: my womanness, my pain, me. And it is forgiveness and understanding and pain and hurt and anger and healing. I came on this trip as a fierce feminist, and I am leaving it even fiercer. But Thinking Beyond Borders has been an evolution for me in which I have made this feminist shift through self-love. I have learned about my role as a woman by looking inward and challenging my identity, my assumptions, and the stories I’m about to share with you.

I wrote a love note over the summer. It goes a little something like this:

Thank you, feminism, for the love you have created in the world but most of all, within me. You are not perfect, I know that now, but, hey, what is? Feminism, you and I both have a long way to go. I hope that together we can remember humility in the face of change, confrontation, and difference. But before we join hands and profess our unabiding love for humanity, I want to thank you for the years of strength and support who have given me and will give me. You are the reason I am writing my own stories. You are the reason I am not drowning in a sea of voices telling me that I am not enough. You are the reason I pick myself up after every time I fall. You are the reason I know what passion tastes like. And you are the reason I know what loving myself looks like. So thank you, feminism. Without you, how could I learn to love?

I found the note on napkin tucked into one of my poetry anthologies last night. It sounds pretty sappy, I know, and for the most part it is fairly generic. But when I wrote it, I felt electric. I could feel this aura surrounding me. Letter by letter some strange sensation of power flowed back into my body.

You are the reason I am writing my own stories.

If I am not actively saying No. I reject this. I am a puppet in the powerful’s play. According to the patriarchy, my storyline goes something like this: You’re prettier in makeup. A relationship will bring you a happy ending and fulfillment. You’re a victim. Always say sorry. Beauty is determined by how a man sees you. You need to be rescued. You’re too emotional. Your worth is your waistline. Unrequited love is poetic, and you deserve to chase after someone who doesn’t love you. Your story isn’t good enough.

These fictitious stories have wormed their way into my life; I have internalized them. They are the stories I am fighting against.

You see, I am my own storyteller. I don’t always have to smile. I can love myself enough to see my wounds. I can heal them, but I can let others help. I am my own place. It’s okay to feel. My dress is not a yes. My voice deserves to be heard. My worth is within myself. I can need others, just not more than I need myself. I deserve love. I am an interdependent being. I am strong. I am my own hero. I am not perfect, but I am perfectly human. My voice deserves to be heard.

Those are the kind stories, the truthful stories. The stories I have begun telling myself.

Everyday, I am told those first stories over and over again, and I must contend with nearly two decades worth of memories in which I was not actively rewriting them. When I was nine years old, I was told I should “go on the Jenny Craig diet.” Ten years later, I find my hands exploring my body, pinching my fat, and imagining a vacuum scanning my body to suck myself thin.

There are more stories within and beyond these which I have told, but underneath them all I see a message of “You’re not enough.” And it takes me back to one of the most impactful moments on my gap year. Sitting on the sidelines of the community soccer game in Bua, Ecuador, with my Program Leader Yvonne, I kickstarted this search for self-love. She held me as I cried, and she made me laugh through the pain. It was one of those days that I’d avoided, a day when it all comes rushing out, when the weight of being just becomes too much to bear. As I vocalized the pain of not doing enough—not getting into the college I wanted, not being loved by the right boy, not being strong enough to handle it—Yvonne pointed to the sky and suggested I try to be like the bird flying above us. I quickly rejected the idea. A bird? What a boring life! Where’s the passion in relaxing, in just being, in just flying? So she asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to be a lioness. Fierce and protective but able to rejoice in the sun, able to see that she was enough. And so I am both the lioness and the wild wolf. I am a both/and, both a complex human being who is unlearning the stories I have been told and a proud writer who is able to tell her own stories.

A Note on the AME Shooting, Racial Wounds, and Emotion

I woke this morning with a rock in my stomach. I groggily reached for my computer at my bedside, and opened it up to check my e-mail and my Facebook. More news about the mass murder terrorist attack at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston abounded my news feed. I was thankful that at least this was still news. At least it wasn’t being swept under the rug like other mass shootings have been. Scrolling through my feed, however, I felt the rock in my stomach sink deeper. I realized then that the rock was a product of this shooting so close to home. It was a product of the racial injustice, extreme violence, and twisted news coverage that have grown apparent from the “#CharlestonShooting.”

One of the first links I clicked on this morning was a clip of last night’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He describes the “abyss” of our nation as “a gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” To this I say, yes. There are probably a hundred different reasons why the deaths of these nine innocent beloved people is affecting me so deeply, and most likely it is that these hundred reasons have all collided to form a particularly mournful, sorrowful day in my soul. Regardless, I feel the grief of these families and of Emmanuel AME’s congregation so heavy on my heart that I cannot remain silent.

ownmedia.cgi

This morning I felt so emotionally charged that I drafted a scattered post with far too many expletives. I felt angry and frustrated because this clip of Jon Stewart to which I was greatly applauding and fervently nodding my head at was not the only link being shared on my news feed this morning. There were also posts being shared about the vigils and memorials in Charleston. “Hey Ferguson. Hey Baltimore. This is South Carolina. This is how we do it. We are family. No riots. No looting. Nobody acting like animals. What do you see here? Multi-racial. Multi-ethnic. All colors. All races. Banding together to defeat evil,” the posts read. While I wholeheartedly believe in non-violence and am thankful that Charleston and my state have not reacted with hate in the face of hate, I do have a problem with these posts.

I take issue because for one, we should not be comparing the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston to the various events in Ferguson and Baltimore. While they are all demonstrations of racial injustice in America, they are separate entities. Secondly, do not belittle the riots of Ferguson and Baltimore. Do not continue to ignore the fuel that enflamed that fire. Try to understand the hundreds of years of oppression which led to the anger and pain and grief that motivated those riots. I may not believe violence and anger can solve the issue, but I do understand why these emotions are there and that they are completely valid. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” And thirdly, I take issue with these posts because too many of those “banding together to defeat evil” continue to refuse to acknowledge this as the AME Shooting rather than the Charleston Shooting. Let us not white-wash this anti-Black racist violence. This was not an attack on a city, but it was an attack on a race and of “Mother AME.” As the hours go on, however, and more and more vigils and memorials occur throughout Charleston, I am warmed by the love that is radiating for the nine victims of this heinous hate crime. I just hope we can all remember the racial significance of this attack. 

e1f48c6fd2cfd28b1d5bd5c3e9c4a8e2

Tears are what first broke my silence. Sitting in my dad’s car, the anger and frustration and pain flew to my tear ducts and came pouring out as I sat there in a new silence, not quite able to explain my emotions. My emotions, like always, are complex. My tears today do not come from one specific source but rather an array of dominos falling down onto each other. They are not to be shamed, however. My tears are not weak. They are strong. They are tears of a white ally heartbroken by the state of racial affairs. I fight back the urge to run to find some secret time traveling device to take me back to a space where I can discuss the AME shooting with my TBB peers. I want more than anything to question and feel and act together with them, and I long to stand in the sun of our radical commitment to love and empathy. But this cannot be, so instead I hold on to the moments of love and empathy I remember to move me forward.

I have not carved out the time to write the posts I have wanted to write, to explain the true concept of what The Lioness & the Wild Wolf is all about. But let me assure you that when I talk about social justice through a lens of love, I am talking about what must occur if justice is ever to be served for the massacre of not only the nine innocent lives taken in at Emmanuel AME but also for the millions of black lives that have died at the hand of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. White silence is white compliance. It is raining now, a fierce summer storm has rolled out in the middle of the sweltering heat. May these raindrops bring in a flood of change to the hot racial wound we all need to acknowledge. Learn how to be an ally and move forward with me. It is time for a change. We can hear it in the gun shots, in the grieving tears, in the echoing screams. Racism is far from over, and if you think you can ache for the victims of the AME shooting and then precede to live a life of white compliance after “#CharlestonShooting” is gone from Facebook’s trending list, you are on the wrong side of history. This kind of social change takes all of us. This takes true social justice through a lens of love.

Origin Story Two: Living in Limbo

0547c874edfd7b47a5b756bb4743318c

Sitting in my neighborhood Starbucks, I realize a profound disturbance. We live a life of unconsciousness. Society has numbed and dumbed us just enough so that day-to-day life is lived just under the brink of awareness. We are taught not to question, to follow authority and tread along in the name of progress. Oh, yes, you can have your political opinions, and yes, sure you can be whoever you want to be when you grow up, and yes, yes you live in the land of democracy—let freedom ring! But meanwhile no one is actually awake. Besides, individual freedom does not exist until universal freedom is recognized. I understand now why the first few weeks after coming home I felt like I was in a daze. It was not that I was reaching for the dream-like trance of TBB. No, I was reaching for the reality and active consciousness TBB provided. Returning from TBB means living in limbo. You are alive, but you live in society’s dreamland. Most of the time, the people around you are living examples of the unconsciousness you left behind eight months ago before you died a social death, but when you see them you do not question their existence—you question your own.

This theme of consciousness versus unconsciousness is prevalent in all three pillars. On my gap year I discovered multilateral consciousness (which is really just a fancy way of saying I learned how to not only stand on the three pillars—love and community, challenging your assumptions, and looking inward—but also practice them simultaneously). What does society’s unconsciousness look like in this context? Respectively, a lack of emotional literacy, honesty, and vulnerability; a blinding faith and trust in the system born from a quasi-factory line education meant to booster ego; an unrecognized fear of depth and of introspection and a humility deficiency. There’s plenty of evidence from my past which says that I have been developing the three pillars for quite some time now. And perhaps similar evidence can be found in your past and even your present. However, for me, the difference between the past pre-TBB and the past during TBB is consciousness. And that has made all the difference. During those seven months of travel, I actively pursued love and community, constantly challenged my assumptions, and committed myself to looking inward. It was a lived reality during which I was fully awake, and my struggle to remain awake is what leads me to the type of exhaustion as if I am treading water.

135b1f67c1e770c7d16cbe83243a0f00

My original intent for this post was an explanation behind the pillar “Challenge Your Assumptions.” Instead, I ended up here. Before TBB, I would have forced my canoe down the intended course rather than the purposeful course. I would have listened to my head space’s “supposed to be” instead of my heart space’s “this is.” I would have followed the plan when I could have let the writing take over me. In all essence, I would have heard my ego over my soul.

I say this because I want to emphasize that society is not consistently unconscious. The moments when the soul is heard over the ego is consciousness; when art is created, observed, or heard consciousness exists; when love is recognized, that is consciousness. We all carry within us the ability to reach the brink of awareness, even beyond the TBB community.

The late poet laureate Mark Strand once wrote, “I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. . . Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems . . . I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am.”

Living in limbo comes with the responsibility of awareness and education—at least for me, because living in limbo means fighting to keep that consciousness alive, fighting to keep yourself “alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic.” Living in limbo means more than just wanting the poem to be smarter than you. . . It means letting it.

So here you have the purpose of the three pillars: for the soul to be heard above the ego.

Origin Story One: The Beginning of Humility

At sixteen, I knew I didn’t have it all figured out. (And nearing 19 I still definitely don’t have it all figured out). I wasn’t arrogant enough to believe that I had all the answers just because I started You Me We Empower. In fact, I have always been an eager learner, always ready to find out more, especially about the social justice world. But, I wasn’t humble either. I thought I had some of it down and that some of it was my theory behind empowerment. Although back then I never would have considered calling it a “theory”–in my mind it was fact not theory. I founded You Me We Empower–both the organization and the blog–under the assumption that I could empower others through both humanitarian work and my writing. If there are any fellow Thinking Beyond Borders alums out there, you’re probably shaking your head because, well, that is somewhat problematic thinking. My reasons for why this is problematic will hopefully become clear in this and future posts.

IMG_1082

Let me start with India Seminar Two “Does education oppress or liberate?” on my global gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB). Program Leader, social justice guru, friend, and mentor Stacey led this seminar. About thirty minutes into the discussion she dropped a metaphorical bomb on my somewhat literal “empowerment junkie” identity. Stacey explained a popular definition of the word “empower.” In short, a person cannot empower another person because this would be invoking an oppressive power dynamic. It would look like giving a hand out rather than a hand up and in reality would not last. So instead, a person can only empower oneself. The moment this clicked, the moment I realized I too agreed with this definition was a moment of deep rooted confusion. When the seminar ended, I was left with my arms flailing, screaming “This can’t be over! Someone, anyone, Stacey, please, answer my questions! I don’t know where to go from here!” Had the past two years of my life been spent perpetuating oppression? Was I hindering not helping the issue? And what about all the organizations I supported? Were their values aligned with my new ones?

I was exhilarated. I may have been at a low point personally, but I had never felt more academically challenged. The seminars that followed continued to confound me. I asked more and more questions and quickly started facilitating my own conversations beyond seminar to satisfy my overflowing love for liberation theory and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Months later, I am still asking questions and practicing the love and humility born from this original pursuit for liberation.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is truly at the crux of my shift. Sitting here now, I am not sure how to define what I shifted away from, but I do know what I shifted towards: wholeness, humanness, humility, understanding, love. I cannot untangle every story or theory which led me to where I am today in a single blog post. Or even in a single series of blog posts. Maybe that is what the future is for–untangling the stories we have lived and are living. Consider this the first installment of The Lioness and the Wild Wolf origin stories. I cannot promise a regular schedule, but I can promise a full-hearted process. In the near future, you can expect explanations of The Three Pillars: Love & Community, Challenging Assumptions, and Looking Inward, and of the meaning behind my practice and this blog’s tagline, Social Justice Through a Lens of Love, and also of the meaning behind the new name, The Lioness and the Wild Wolf.

Until then, I will leave you with this:

d55af9ef86528d59db1c36c21fb5f3e4

Grieving and Grasping

I am grieving. I am grasping. Grieving the loss of community and grasping at the memories because I fear they will fade away like those of a dream. There are certain moments that rattle me so much that I can feel the connection between my head and my heart shake. It is as if through a third eye I can see my heart grow hands and reach out with the kind of yearning born only from the loss of an imagined reality. And it is then, too, that I see my head contort itself so perplexed by the lack of a group photograph at the cabin in Virginia. A simple object which to some may not be worthy of my grievance. To me, though, it would mean a simple object for which to grasp. So while my heart throws itself outward, my head curls itself inward, unable to cope with the inability to touch the dream-like state of love our TBB community crafted. And in between these two corporal beings is my throat, the broken microphone that catches every other word forcing my language to come out in stutters. Suddenly I am inarticulate and my professions of love and loss are perpetually caged. It is in this absence of a photograph that I feel an overwhelming sense of quasi-failure because some place between my head and my heart needs the captured bliss of community to remember the lived reality of TBB.

Earlier today, I stumbled upon a post entitled, “There’s a Word for That: 25 Expressions You Should Have in Your Vocabulary.” Nearly every word seemed to hit the nail on the head. I had experienced these emotions, and I praised that they had a name. At last, there was a name for so many realities I had lived on my gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. Because, yes, I once felt sophrosyne, a deep awareness of one’s true self, and perhaps it did result in true happiness. . . but then again, “What is happiness?” And, yes, my gap year gave me erlebnisse, the experiences that we feel most deeply, and through which we truly live–“not mere experiences, but Experiences.” But the word that is still caught in my throat, the word which my broken microphone still stammers on is hiraeth. “A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return. The nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of the past.” Mmm. Yes, I’d say that sounds about right. I had a thought last week. It was addressed to my TBB family: I have been homesick for the place I created in all of you.

For seven months, I lived out of a 65L backpack. I became a vagabond. I did not have a “current address,” and truth be told I did not mind it much. The constant state of travel, at least in hindsight, did not unravel me. I recall one seminar in South Africa when our check-in (a round of responses to a prompt for the purpose of welcoming, recognizing, and honoring the emotional spaces of our peers and leaders) was something along the lines of, “Describe your heart’s bedroom.” I imagined my heart’s bedroom to be fluid. It changed frequently, rotating between all twelve of my previous and current bedrooms. As I opened my mouth to answer, my voice shook and before I could complete my thought I collapsed into tears. It was not the first time I had cried during a check-in–far from it, actually–but this time felt different. I did not understand these tears. My heart space, though, was calling out to me, forcing me to pay attention to the inner cavities and crevasses of my soul. Maybe I felt gratitude. Imagining all of my bedrooms, half of which I met during TBB, I feel the embrace of thankfulness.

But here in this Georgetown, South Carolina bedroom the tears I cry are not those of gratitude. I am sure that latter emotion mixes into the equation, but mostly my saline is made from grief, confusion, and hiraeth. In my darkest, most acute moments I realize that the place we were can never again be the place we are. And I want to be okay with that, but I am not.

Two weeks ago I said goodbye to my TBB family in Washington, D.C. Some nights during my nightmares I relive the moment I pulled out of my last hug, waved my last goodbye, and walked away. It took everything I had to not turn around for one last look because I knew that last look might break me.

2015-04-05_11-27-58_80

Fourteen days at home and countless more to come. Days here are not tragically painful. I am not constantly in tears. But I am constantly dazed, it feels. Here, I do not know how to be the person I’ve become. One of the beauties of TBB was its rawness. I shed my outer layer and was inextricably myself. I was the closest to wholeness I have ever come and every day, every experience, every person made me more human. This is the magic of social justice through a lens of love. I lost myself in TBB, and I would give anything to grasp ahold of my community and lose myself in their love all over again.