On the Latter Side of Next

So, I graduated with my masters, but this won’t be a long, dramatic post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with drama, not in the slightest. I mean, you read this blog. You know. I’m only trying to be as concise as I can be because I fear that if I go on too long I will only allow the usual fear and self-doubt to take over. I will start to spiral into the usual sequence of unproductive (and untrue) thoughts that follow any significant accomplishment; I could’ve worked harder, written more pages, been kinder, been far better at keeping in touch, been a better person overall.

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My entire last semester was characterized by constant apprehension about the near future, and now that I’m here­– or there– it’s really not as scary as I anticipated. I’m here, and pretty proud of myself, considering all the simultaneous chaos that often seemed to run me behind and beside me during the past three years of working towards my MFA. I’m also incredibly grateful and lucky to have had several mentors and professors who let me overstay my welcome in office hours or use up their lunch breaks with my latest teary dilemma. I’m also thankful for friends and family who endured my long-winded explanations of my research and writing projects. Self-deprecating commentary aside, it means more than I’ll be able to explain here that so many people I love and admire see me and are actually there for me, since I’m somewhat “allergic” to asking for help.

With my dear mother and aunty (photos by Lloyd K. Sarpong)

Clockwise from top left: Lloyd, my brilliant and kind Laura, and Katerina and Erika, two of my absolute favorite people at Emerson.

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Keenah boo! (photo by Melissa, who managed to escape taking a single photo with me that day *side eye*) 

I used to think that when I got older, my self-esteem would somehow become healthier. My idealistic notion of what it meant to “grow up” involved me turning into someone who thought of herself more highly than I did at the time, someone who was self-assured and belonged to herself wholly. Essentially, I hoped to turn into the kind of woman my mother is. I’m still pretty young– bill collectors and student loan services appear to disagree– but I am unfortunately as down on myself as my insecure past self has been.

Arriving at the other side of next, that is, after the graduation fanfare has subsided and all the work is momentarily “done,” also means realizing that I have no idea how to be still. I have calculated my worth by tallying completed tasks against what is left “to do” in my agenda. I never feel enough for myself, let alone for anyone else. I don’t know how to give myself room to just be, considering that there is so much I urgently need to write about, so many events more complicated and more monumental than my usual anxieties. I don’t know how to let myself just be, without feeling as though I’m not worthy of breathing up all this air and taking up space on earth, unless of course I’m working hard, and unless that work is mostly to benefit someone else. This may sound a little hyperbolic, and I know “objectively” that none of it is true.

I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to myself. My self-esteem has been subterranean for quite some time, and I would love to bring it above ground, at the very least. I would love to experience some joy, even against the backdrop of so much horror and so much uncertainty in the world. You can find me in the sun these next few weeks, breathing up all the air (and pollen), and writing as if my life depends on it.

So much for brevity and no drama…

***

I wrote the following post about halfway through the semester but didn’t feel comfortable posting it at the time on the off chance that any of my students came across it and felt as though I was teaching them with a bad grace. I put in all the effort and care I could muster to make space for them to express and debate their ideas and to grow as writers. My restlessness had little to do with them and more about the impending uncertainty of postgrad life. I realize now that it reads a little like a riddle, an effect I wasn’t going for at all and don’t much care for. I guess it’s an indication of how confused and outside of myself I was feeling. In any case, I’m here. I made it!

 ***

My Self Every Elsewhere

I feel as if I’m living everyday on a deep inhale, except without the promise of an exhale’s sweet relief at the end. I am not present. Some of me is sitting in my grandma’s living room watching the fan waving around with the same content laziness I feel as I sink deeper into the flattened foam of the sofa cushions. Another piece of myself is waiting to cross the street somewhere in New Orleans where I would love to be living, scattered with potholes and lined with shaded verandas that might as well be Accra. There is also the no-place I’m longing to be, one that exists only in my imagination, or at the crossroads of my favorite novels and scholarly writing about the African diaspora.

Everywhere else but here.

I wouldn’t be so concerned about this longing if I didn’t have 18 students expecting me to be with them for 3 hours and 45 minutes a week, and an immense and unspecified number of additional hours on email, or online reading, grading, fixing, always giving. I would hate for them to have the slightest feeling that this is about them, and that I am staring over their heads and into a distant elsewhere that is most appealing at the moment not because of what it is, but by simple virtue of the fact that it is not here with them. Wherever I am, it is definitely not 9:26 on the green line in Boston where I have just lost my ID card as well as my eagerness to stand with a smile fixed on my face as I try to cajole the class into understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s genius (and the importance of citing one’s sources!!!)

My restlessness starts on the same spot towards the back of my scalp, where I scratch between the once-precise parting for my braids until the skin feels raw and bruised, until I am convinced I am one more scrape away from coming away with blood under my nails. I am ashamed of it, because it fidgets and jostles my careful mask out of the way, intruding into every conversation I have about what I plan to do next.

The part of my attitude that troubles me the most is that I am trying to wish away the unbearable present, marking time like a teasing metronome or a clock that is always trying to catch up its lost minutes. I’m trying to wish away my now as if I know that what will come next will somehow be more satisfying, when I can’t actually know that for sure.

I feel like the bratty child I never was, whining at the more-than-enough spread out before me, before pushing it onto the floor with sticky, greedy hands, the same hands I try to grasp at the better time everyone else seems to be having.

When we say “I can’t wait for this to be over,” the implication seems to be that whatever lies at the other side of “over” is more desirable, but that just isn’t true. That should be my consolation.

Yet, I’m wondering where else I have to go if both now and the latter side of next are equally uncertain and even terrifying–

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Photos courtesy of the man, the myth, the broski, Lloyd K. Sarpong, some selfies, and other people I was too excited to remember unfortunately!

I had nothing to do with this cap except for wearing it. Laura and Jeeyoon designed all the little details and I just held the glue gun and passed them scissors etc. Katerina came up with “Best revenge is your pages” based on the line from “Formation” All my own ideas for cap phrases were (more) rude/confrontational song lyrics… 

At a Stranger’s Funeral

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hang around your head like the sheet of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen. This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up in a hospital bed and reaching to scratch an itch on your arm only to snag your nails on the threadbare bed sheet. Or maybe you lost everything in a fire, except it can’t be because you are cradling an armful of your grandmother’s faded photo albums, and your mother is smiling at you from a sepia-tinted frame, and so are your aunts and uncles, and they have a dog called Popsy, and your grandfather is calling you to sit on his lap and tell him what you learnt at school today. So the smell scratching the walls of your lungs must be the egg you left on the stove because you had your face buried in a romance novel. You did not just come back from a long day spent in traffic and your house is still upright and not crumbling around you. Your arm is still there, and so is the person you loved, and so is the armful of ash that you insist on calling your memories. And the edge of the pew is digging into your thighs, but it is actually the side of your bathtub. It is 1am and you are in your apartment that is empty of everything but an overnight bag and the comforter that has been passing as your bed. You supposedly have “amazing things” ahead of you but right now all that exists is your naked self shivering since the towel dropped to the floor about four wails ago, and your phone won’t stop vibrating and lighting up. You don’t pick up because you have run out of ways to steady the wobble in your voice. So you will reach for their arm, or your arm, or that one treasured pile of ash that used to be a family portrait. You are not really here and everything is as it should be.

My Gift to You

Burning out; also associated with the fear of having absolutely nothing left of yourself to give. 

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All that I had, I massaged into your scalp. It flowed from my fingertips past your follicles and through your temples, coating your thoughts with the sheen of guaranteed futures. All that I had, I gave to you in an enamel pot with faded drawings of flowers on the side, and lines of rust running back and forth over the lid like desperation leaving tracks on the inside of my wrist. All of that has long since ceased to be. It lay rotting at the foot of a tree trunk, malicious flies buzzing and sucking until all that remained were bare seeds and a trail of ants too late for the feast.

All that I had is buried under mounds of doubt and smelling salts, like a relic from the days when hysteria was believed to exist only in the minds of bored housewives. Everything I had is exhausted, an empty jar left rolling on cracked tile, an almost imperceptible trace of grease lingering behind. One, two broken teeth from a comb- that hair- I spent all that I had trying to make it bend and curl the way it should.

You are carrying all that I had on your shoulders. It is sitting on your clavicles, their sharpness threatening to tear a hole in your chest. It is coating the roof of your mouth and making your teeth feel sticky. It is trapped in the back of your throat, wrestling with your tonsils for space. All that I had, I poured into the never-ending depth of your greed, and I am left with faded paths in the sand were mighty termite kingdoms once stood, running back and forth like imminent death tracing its way along the flimsy covering of skin just above my veins. I have given you all that I had, the very best from my reserves. Now you have moved on elsewhere, and I am left clawing at the walls of my imagination, hoping to recover my wealth.

The Last Affirmation

(an ode to all those shrinking violets who have outgrown the dark)

Have you ever heard the expression “painfully shy?” Are you familiar with the words “uptight”, “stuck up”, “introverted” or the crowd favorite, “not even all that?” I’m more than positive that all these words have been used to describe at least one person you know at some point in time. Or maybe it’s you? I was once told that shyness was actually a form of arrogance, not a distant relative only linked out of convenience, but rather a direct derivative, one state of being extracted and distilled from another. Think about it. Are you just scared of social interaction with large groups of people you don’t know? Or are you so convinced of your own superiority that you don’t find it necessary or worth your time to come into contact with anyone whose dusty feet wouldn’t dare to brush even the base of your pedestal? Listen to reason. Aren’t you flexing your ostentatious self esteem, polishing the trophy of your spectacular being in the face of others’ dullness? Of course you think you’re better than everyone; that’s precisely the reason you keep to yourself, holding up one corner of the room with your hunched shoulders, a sign of your silent judgment and disdain.

I see you.

The truth is that the look on your face is not a signal for others to stay away, warning them that you’ll be bored beyond death into the afterlife by their platitudes. It would be better for them to conserve their energy and take their politeness elsewhere. The real truth is that your expression is a poorly disguised plea for everyone or anyone (anyone at all) to see you, and to cast aside first impressions, what do they mean anyway? These are all stale clichés overused and pounded to a meaningless pulp. Let me put it this way. It’s like having two warring sides trapped in one whole. There is a well-adjusted, self-possessed, and confident presence, someone who radiates ease, drawing others effortlessly into her force field. As she fluffs out her hair and gets ready to leave the house, a shriveled imp with a disturbing eye twitch and a hacking cough sneaks up behind her, “Where do you think you’re going like that? Who do you think you are? Not even that smart, kind, pretty, hardworking, funny, spiritual, even God is disappointed…”

Not even that smart, kind, supportive, organized, popular, humble, God himself made you and He’s looking down wishing he hadn’t bothered.

Is this making sense?

Alright, imagine that you have a dark room somewhere in the furthest flung corner of your mind. That dark room has a door with rusty hinges; termites have feasted on the wood panels leaving obscene gaping holes throughout. You push the door open, and you see a strange shadowy creature stirring in the corner. It’s the little imp, with an evil glint in its one good eye,

Not even that special, or wanted, or important. Not at all important. Not at all…

You slam the door shut and it is immediately reduced to dust. But the imp’s chant is playing in your mind in a loop, over and over and over…It ricochets off the walls in empty corridors, and hides under the voices of acquaintances that are not as happy to see you as they claim to be. It manifests itself in the blank stares of people who couldn’t possibly remember that you had met just the other day. It disguises itself as heartfelt words of encouragement from a trusted friend whose real aim is to ensure that the dreaded loop isn’t broken; your continued insecurity is like a footstool for their swollen pride. The chant echoes in the scolding of anyone you have ever loved, the only one you have ever loved, the people you grew out of loving: it’s not them, it’s you. You care too much what people think. You care too much.

I care.

How could anyone know about that dazzling personality? You are certain it exists, but it lights up only on your insides, providing temporary warmth, a paper shield for your quivering soul on those days when the attacks on your character are too sharp and threaten to rip your skin to shreds. Is anyone ever born self-deprecating? Did you come out with your head already bowed, or averted, or tilted back to avoid the tears from burning through your carefully created mask? Nature versus nurture. Were you taught to turn this mask into a default setting, welding it on to conceal your natural God-given radiance? Your very existence seemed to cause people’s eyes to narrow, blood lightly simmering to a boil as they watched you. Even they couldn’t explain why. And so the training began.

Your daughter has come on top.

 She’s rude.

 She thinks her hair is long, and so what? Tswwww.

 She thinks she’s pretty aaahma.

 You know she said this about her body- what, really? Her?

 I know she cheats on tests.

 She was posting Bible verses just the other day, but we know what happens behind closed doors.

Imagine the imp sits on your shoulders; it has a front row seat to your life. Keeping a close eye on you, making sure the show goes the way it should. Imagine your reflection is an indeterminate haze in a mirror stained with spit and tears. Imagine the mirror is cracked. Imagine it is whole but you don’t ever lift your head to look at it. Imagine your own “self” is so malnourished and lacking of love, that it hides in that dark, damp room in the unsearched recesses of your mind. Imagine that you’re so worried you’ll meet another empty glance, another mean-spirited whisper, another mangled text conversation, signals distorted in translation, so worried that you barricade yourself in that room. You decorate it with the false happiness of self-sufficiency and paper chains and flowers wilting fast. Imagine your fear of that chant, that loop, that refrain that punctuates all the better moments in your life; imagine that fear paralyzes you. And now the imp is hungry and you have no self-worth left to spare. So maybe you feed off others who appear healthier than you, spitting out unnecessary comments here and there in muted tones loud enough to make them feel a fraction of the discomfort you live with.

Picture your life, vast and largely unknown, stretching before you in a flurry of diplomas and babies and love and lust and contentment and grief and satisfaction. Now try to fold it over on itself as many times as you find possible, so tightly that it can fit in your pocket as you peer through the cracked window of that gloomy room. Anxiety? What are you anxious about? People are dying and starving and starving to death and burying babies and dreams and memories. If you want some real problems I can give you some.

I love you.

 For being confusing and frustrating. For that soul that is beautiful in so many unexpected ways, for that voice that is loud at all the wrong times, but still quiet when it’s absolutely necessary. For that fierce determination, even when it is hidden behind a curtain of unstoppable tears. For not feeling the need to compete, because you’ve already won and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it. Trust me, all the other contestants are very much aware that you’re worthy of gold medals, and laurels for your head. This is part of their game plan. For that fragile shell of sarcasm and biting wit and sass, for that truth that scatters the shell into a million shards, I love you.

Not even important, not at all, you should be sorry-

 Unapologetic. This is the last justification. Waste no more of your precious words.

“You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, something not everyone knows how to love.”* I won’t tell you to love yourself. I won’t sprinkle affirmations around your desk, scribbled on fluorescent sticky notes. I won’t tell you that even the combination of Chaka Khan, Pippi Longstocking, Yaa Asantewaa, Tina Turner, and Mary Magdalene has nothing on you. No inspirational quote or Buzzfeed article can capture your essence. You’re more than just a reformed wallflower, a loneliness addict in rehab.

Have I revealed too much? Have you not become vulnerable?

No dear, I think this is what I call freedom.

This is the last affirmation.

 

*Warsan Shire, “For Women who are ‘Difficult’ to Love”