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. 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… 

Sliding Scale

I know it’s not Monday but… *shrugs and smiles*

***

There are certain things you keep tightly balled up in your fist so no one can gain access to them, especially when you can sense that they will not be treated with the kind of caution they require. How do you count out feelings and push them into a person’s palm when they are intangible and unquantifiable? There is no unit of measurement for giving up.

Except

when you assess the weight of your bones when they sink further into your mattress instead of assembling into motion and carrying you into the day ahead. You can tally the number of times you have poked fun at yourself hoping that enough desperation is jumping through your words and waving its hands so that someone will take the time to notice and ask what you really mean. You can even measure the intensity of the pain when the people who love you the most are the same ones wielding the pocket knives that slice off your protective layers one at a time until they are standing knee deep in dead skin and the sharp ends of meaningless punch lines.

You have kept careful records of every missed phone call, unfinished text or email and every plan you had to cancel. Your accounts also include details of popular euphemisms for your chaos, most of which you have thought of yourself: artistic temperament, moody, lazy, attention-seeking, ungrateful, in addition to the number of times you have tried to splash water on your face and get over it– if the situation was as dire as that you wouldn’t have so much time on your hands to think about it­– You lost count at 11 by 2:18pm.

You are constantly engaged in attempts to document the lack of things, trying to explain what lies between two disjointed thoughts, the resentment of expecting empathy at the same time as you reject your status as someone’s project. To your knowledge, there is no way to annotate the feeling of what isn’t there, the vagueness of no particular trigger you can identify, or the strain of trying to inflate a flattened voice to fool your listener into believing oh nothing it’s just been a long day. You make do by settling yourself as a footnote so more crucial issues can live in the main text.

You will continue to hide openly, transcribing every slight to your fragility with a ballpoint pushed so hard into the page that you can feel the outline of each word and see the faint transfer of ink on your hand. The ability to look like the glamour and confidence you do not have is your inheritance; you wrapped it in a brown and gold blanket and packed it in the bags you brought with you. It is ringing in the background of every throaty laugh and embedded in the corners of each side eye like I dare you to keep speaking just wait ‘til I open my mouth. You will adjust eventually, and will learn to keep track of the days you wear serenity slung casually around your neck like a borrowed satin scarf. Your archives will remain intact and you may visit occasionally to check figures against themselves, yesterday’s resignation versus the other day’s hopelessness. But this task will not be your final one, nor will it be your most important, so long as you hold onto the pen…

 

Support System

I’m supposed to be the white picket fence so you can be the chain gate with gaping holes in several places; rusty wire cutters lying on the ground next to battered sneakers, used-to-be-white once upon a time. How can your branches thrust themselves further into the sky, somewhere amongst the clouds, if the trunk that is my listening ear and open arms is rotting from the inside out? These hands are supposed to ease the tension clinging to your temples, and to dissolve your fears in a big pot of  jollof rice, or whatever you want to eat today. Let me know and I’ll make it for you, no problem. But my fingers are a paralyzed mess, condemned to an eternal state of arthritic immobility, and failure, and inertia. Nerve endings spark and short circuit, and die.
Please let go, I’m exhausted from the constant mending and molding. Frail-
you might break something if you don’t 
LET GO.
 I wanted to be a getaway, the sound of water playfully lapping at your feet- come in and play, the water’s nice and warm. I was going to be white sand nibbling at the soles of your feet; the smell of rain clinging to the ever-present red earth; blood orange juice dripping down your chin; the long-awaited embrace at the end of an airport terminal. But the water just turned into lava, the kind of terrible lake in which those who heaven shuns will be doomed to bathe for the rest of forever. The sand burnt your flesh raw and the oranges were crawling with maggots. You recoil into your cracked shell (a little or a lot worse for wear) and look at me with hurt brimming over in your eyes, what happened?
Please don’t touch, it’s not safe, I can’t promise that you won’t get burnt. I warned you. 
I offered you sunflowers and warm sunlight washing over your legs, as the grass tickled your back. Or maybe it was an ant? But ants can leave vicious bites, and I’m sorry I didn’t know these flowers had thorns, evil barbed ones puncturing your finger tips until they bled incessantly. My light turned into a naked fluorescent bulb shining directly into your feeble eyes, a naked bulb in an interrogation room, the blinding flash before everything goes black.
I would’ve loved to be your support system but *buzz buzz radio static* we regret to inform you that factory flaws and operator error have led to widespread malfunctioning within the system’s parts. This plant is henceforth shut down until further notice; you will have to find another way to satisfy your needs. We advise that you exercise caution when consuming products manufactured here.
Consume at your own peril.
Be consumed at your own peril.
Be consumed.
I warned you. 

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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown No More

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

-Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

 When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways, William Wordsworth

This poem has stayed with me ever since I studied it at school a few years ago, haunted me even, probably because I identified so much with “Lucy”. That scared me. I’ve taught myself to compress my presence into the least inoffensive, bite-size portions. Even when my attempts at this are not successful, I’ve had people who were more than willing to help me accomplish this feat, glorying in  my stunted self-perception so they could  attempt to shine.

 

The Lucy act is officially over. Please take your trash with you and head for the exit.

 

Exit stage permanently, eternally.

 

Compressing, and moulding, and folding, and hiding; frankly it was getting a little too cramped in here. Time to stretch.

 

 

How to Hate Yourself (the guide for hopeless girls)

Look into every mirror, and glass door and car window

Longing more each time to meet a different reflection

 

Fail to recognize that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, focusing instead on all your factory flaws

*This product has been recalled due to faulty design*

 

Make sure to drag your feet and hunch your shoulders,

Keep your inadequacy close to your heart in the hollow created by your rounded back

 

Construct a metal fence around your heart, a maximum-security fortress

With broken shards of glass and needles at the top, and a 1000 raging pit bulls below

So that anyone who thinks himself brave enough will flee in terror at the hell contained behind those walls.

 

Let every sharp sideways glance and every acidic comment

Overheard in dingy hallways sear your skin and pierce through tissue and bone

Allow it to settle at the bottom of your soul

To fester

 

Believe that your absolute best will never be good enough

And that there is no point fighting the uphill battle we call

“making an effort” or “using your talent”

 

Always remember, you are worthless

Worth LESS

Worth less than the very dirt you trudge through,

Fore even that sprouts life when the season is right.

 

Above all, just carry on being you.

The downtrodden wallflower that you are and always shall be.

Isn’t that terrible enough?