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Losing sight and developing vision: An academic’s reflections on her priorities

Last May (2017), the day before my teacher candidates’ graduation ceremony, I woke up with blurred vision in my right eye. The birds were chirping, as usual, the sun was shining through my yellow curtains, and the bold red furniture in my bedroom was an indistinguishable blob. Two nights before, I contently ate Chicago mix popcorn from Trader Joe’s and Haagen Daz ice cream bars. That was dinner. I may have had a smoothie the next morning and then rushed off to pilates. For the most part, I maintained healthy eating habits, enjoyed running, dancing, and working out. I even surprised myself by the “balance” I maintained between a healthy personal life and juggling work. Because of food intolerances, I’m forced to eat mostly healthy foods, but when stressed and emotionally drained, I found my way around it. Gluten-free ginger cookies and Chicago mix popcorn were my jam. Something told me to slow down and grab a meal before rushing off to my next responsibility, but I was late. I headed to the car dealership and still denied listening to my body. Instead of hopping a shuttle somewhere to grab a real meal I snacked on whatever was available. To this day, who knows if these actions were the cause of my vision loss. There are myriad possible culprits: Stress over an ongoing break up, a sketchy contact lens fitting with my optometrist, and/or the stress of too many demands at my job. I may never know, but what’s more important to me now are the lessons I learned. 

I endured 7 months from May 2017 to December 2017 of some of the deepest levels of suffering I had ever experienced. Only those closest to me witnessed a slither of this. Work carried on as usual and I managed to experience much joy at the same time. My mom was in the hospital for the duration of that time. Due to multiple forms of oppression, family trauma, and my own social and cultural capital, the weight of it fell on me, or at least it seemed that way. I spent those months back and forth to New York at least four times, often neglecting myself in the process. It took me a while to gain a better perspective. It took me a while to pace myself, slow down, seek the medical attention I needed, and trust that I was doing the best I could for those around me. I spent the summer undergoing several tests, worrying about finances, and navigating a health care system that devalues Black women and poses every bureaucratic barrier possible for those from economically dispossessed communities to access the proper care they need and deserve. I underwent a handful of brain, optical, and spinal MRIs, a lumbar puncture, blood tests, and other medical scares. I worried. I tried to control. Today, one year later, I still do not know the cause. But I learned. And I am still learning. Worrying and control only intensify the suffering. Though it’s hard to remember in rough moments, things always come to be as they are, so we might as well take two seats. We are the waving ocean, with ebbs and flows.

I gained a better understanding of the teaching that “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know” (Pema Chodron). I learned to love, myself, first and foremost. As Jasmine Syedullah says, “I had to learn to love my suffering” and claim my joy. This meant pausing and seeing myself, rather than seeing what others expected of me. Loving myself means truly committing to nourishing my physical body with healthy foods and staying active. This cannot be theory or a fickle thing. My life depends on it. Loving myself means embarking on an ongoing journey of defining myself for myself and discerning between what resonates with my core versus external weights placed on me. I had to choose the right environment for me. I feel joy and peace in my home and environment in California. I had to own this as fact rather than making myself sick by forcing myself to stay in New York City long-term, a place I love to visit and cherish for the many connections I have, but feel overwhelmed by with its brusqueness. Loving myself means developing healthy personal and professional boundaries. I had to and continue to come to terms with the tension I feel between my life and my mom’s life. Sankofa. I would not be where I am today without her love and resilience. I trust that I have done, and continue to do my best. I now recognize that my body tells me when I have done my best. If knots form in my stomach or I’m lethargic, it’s time to slow down and prioritize myself. I’m still learning boundaries at work. It dawned on me that in work and life I am a caregiver. Caregiving is reciprocal, it nourishes the caregiver and the cared-for, but it’s also draining. I have to say “no.” I have to sign off from e-mail on the weekends. I have to work on not internalizing the suffering of those around me. I have to speak up when I feel I am taken for granted. I have to speak up when I experience and witness white supremacist toxic masculinity and respectability politics. I have to sit, pause, reflect, and constantly grow in this journey of being true to myself.

I also learned to love others, their joy, and their suffering. My understanding and experiencing of love had been evolving over time. Much of it learned through relationships with my found family. I learned that love is giving, most importantly, presence. Love is knowing someone is here in its myriad manifestations: Time, an ear, food, humor, physical closeness, encouragement, honesty, and vulnerability. I learned that love is listening without feeling the need to change circumstances, control, or find the solution. Once I stopped grasping for love that wasn’t right for the moment, I got to know a beautiful form of love beyond what I previously fathomed. I knew it existed in theory, but somehow it registers viscerally once it comes into being.

These experiences have deepened my loving pedagogy. I’m not sure if this academic year was filled with more suffering than in previous years or if I simply brought a different lens to it. I have witnessed colleagues and students falling ill, parents dying, struggles with anxiety and insecurities, internal conflicts about choosing the right career, and copious amounts of stress. These of course, are my interpretations, not theirs. I strive to listen. Within this, I have tried to see my students’ humanity, create space for vulnerability, and share more of mine. I think this approach is constructed as antithetical to academia. While submitting late assignments can be obnoxious, especially when you’re someone like me, who hates grading them and has a busy schedule, in the grand scheme of things I just don’t care that much. They will survive. I am mindful of my overachieving nature and trust that an approach of least resistance can still be productive. My e-mails might be quick and to the point, but they are filled with love. I create space in my class for sharing the highs and the lows and acknowledging our humanity. Some days I am better at this than others. I don’t have the one correct solution for my students. I simply try to share wisdom from my own experience. These are insights I don’t think I would have carried as deeply without this year’s beautiful struggle. Work as an educator is filled with joy and beauty, and at the same time, it’s stressful. We have to deal with myriad demands on our time, multiple forms of oppression, bureaucratic madness, and low compensation. At the same time, we have to love and take care of ourselves and our families. Rest, eat well, pause, move, and connect with others. The path to juggling both is unclear.

Feeling good in my body. Slowing down. The sun shining in my bedroom. My soft furry cat cuddling. The warmth of my man. Reflecting on my achievements and journey in life. My mom’s stories and rhythm within my beat. Fresh clean food and water nourishing my body. Being, laughing, crying, and connecting with my found family. Children growing and making sense of themselves and the world. Working with teachers committed to transformative praxis. Slowness. Hiking in the redwoods, mountains, on the coast, and in the city. Running. Dancing. Traveling. Pausing. I strive to be present with the love and joy that is here.

Being Present during the Tough Times to Live Profoundly during the Joyful Times

I’ve been trying to figure out how to process this all. Over the past year I have learned various lessons that remind me to be present during the tough times. Here’s the most recent and benign example. Yesterday, I set out for a 12 mile run. I had been sick the day before because I tried a new energy drink mix after eating all day that did not sit well with my stomach. I texted my running sister and told her I couldn’t make Saturday’s run. We went back and forth and in the end we were going! I was good up until about mile 9, my previous week’s peak. We continued to run and then started encountering a few rolling hills. My legs felt like tree trunks and did not want to lift themselves. My running sister literally had to hold my hand to make me keep up the pace during these times. People were staring and I know I was making the ugliest “I can’t” face ever, but I kept moving. I wanted to accomplish this goal. She believed in me, I had to believe in me. I started thinking I no longer wanted to be a runner. Screw the half marathon coming up in 2 weeks. Then it kicked in, I hadn’t fully understood the notion that running is mental until this moment. When you THINK your body wants to give out the mind truly has to take control and keep you moving. As my sis pointed out…my breathing was fine so I was fine. Honestly, my lungs felt pretty darn good. By mile 10.5/11 I was good again!

Here’s the real point I’m trying to make though. The run might be over now, but this was a huge accomplishment for me that I deserve to relish in and brag about for however long I want. I couldn’t fully recognize its value if I wasn’t present and in tune with myself, all of the emotions, negative self talk, positive self talk, physical pain in various areas of my body that was happening at that moment. Now, I’m home writing this blog, chatting with a friend, and watching a sermon online and I’m fine. In retrospect, yeah, I can do 12 miles again. It’s done, it’s accomplished, and I can rave about it. The adrenaline rush has worn off, but I sit with so many lessons. If I wasn’t present in that moment, I couldn’t fully appreciate having accomplished it. This helps me better understand the Buddhist notion that struggle and joy need each other. Running has become the analogy for so many other things in life for me now. Below are a few examples of how this idea transfers to additional scenarios.

Family: Without seeing my family ill, struggling through the process of not being the one in control, praying for their improvement and just experiencing overall vulnerability and uncertainty, I would not have this deep appreciation for their present recovery and roles they have played and continue to play in my life. Even when we are not facing tough times with family, we need to be present and not take them for granted.

Relationships: I have been single for a while. There are times I relish in this single-hood and times when I wonder when I’ll meet a companion who just feels right. I know the moment is going to come when I’m in a loving relationship and things are “blissful.” Ha! Well, not always. I also realize that these relationships can easily lose their meaning when it just becomes a routine or a given. Being reflective these years, months, days and counting leading up to this point (to come) can help me engage this relationship (to come) with fervor and value the journey.

Work, School, Finance: Right now I am able to live a decent life. Though I may complain about all of the work and wanting more money for vacations, I’m good. I know there will be a day when I am done with school. I know there will be a day when I may have a bit more financial security and control over my work. Again, being present throughout the process helps me recognize my needs in these areas, why I deserve certain wants, and how to use what I have attained for the benefits of others.

I guess the underlying message that I am struggling with putting into words is that once we have what we want it can often lose its zest. If we remember the process it took to get where we want to be, it allows us to enjoy these moments profoundly and continue to strive for increased joy. Sankofa.

Health and Black Authenticity

Why are several unhealthy lifestyle choices deemed authentically Black while the healthy ones result in people calling you into question? There is no authentically Black way of eating or staying fit, just like there is no authentic way of being Black PERIOD. Ever have those family events where the conversation starter, is “It’s about time you gained some weight. You’re looking nice and healthy.” Or, being from a southern family, the moment you say you don’t eat pork, you get the side eye. While I do think that you can somewhat gauge a person’s health by examining the outside, i.e. clarity of the eyes, wear and tear on the skin, etc. There is so much going on in the inside that remains invisible. I can be the thinnest person around and have clogged arteries, poor lung capacity, hormonal imbalances, irritable bowel syndrome, etc. Why? Because I live my life based on how the media, friends, family, etc. define healthiness rather than becoming attuned to my body. Below are three controversial issues when it comes to health and black authenticity.

1. You’re gentrified if you go gluten-free

How many folks saw the video that went viral a while back showing how the stores in NYC changed what they sold once they were gentrified? See below.

Hahaha, mad funny, but while I definitely get this, being gluten free, vegan, HEALTHY has somehow become more synonymous with whiteness or wealth. I’ve been interrogated because I live a gluten free lifestyle. I even had a friend hint at the idea that I had some sort of condition in which people obsess over what they eat. Well, let me set the record straight. Deciding to go gluten-free was a 4 year journey for me in which I learned to deeply listen to my body. For about 2 years I noticed a change in my functioning, I had no clue why things suddenly shifted, and I felt pretty defeated. I had very low energy, constant bloating and constipation and acne flare ups. Finally, I started doing some research, spoke with my doctor, and eliminated gluten. What do you know?! My energy shot up and my skin began to improve. It’s still a journey, I have slip ups, but every time I revert back to feeling like crap is more motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle for me. Plus, now that I better understand what’s happening internally, i.e. auto-immune responses and a decrease in my ability to absorb nutrients, I’m more motivated. So, bottom line, if you have no personal experience with gluten sensitivity or haven’t taken the time out to sense how your body responds to it, don’t buy into the assumption that folks are following a fad. More importantly, don’t tell them that one little cupcake won’t hurt nobody. More on what I’ve learned about gluten sensitivity and Black folk later.

A bit on veganism and vegetarianism. I can’t speak much about this from a personal perspective, but anyone remember that video of the 70 year old black woman in florida who looks 40? ‘Nuff said. This is something I’m beginning to explore more.

2. Why you working out you already thin? 

We have truly been led astray if we think that working out is just about being thin. This goes for thick and thin people alike. Many thick folks take pride in their bodies and see a resistance to working out as a resistance to mainstream norms. Thin folks claim that they don’t need to work out because they already are thin. Again, one’s authenticity often gets called into question because supposedly Black women in particular are supposed to be thick and working out is seen as counter-productive to this. Either way, our emphasis is being placed on the wrong things. We are so focused on our external physical selves and forget about the internal. It’s also not about working out, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Our body thanks us in so many ways when we are active. This activity can take the form of walking, taking care of the children, playing a sport, sex, dancing, hitting the gym, hiking, bicycling, etc. Our energy and mood is better when we are active, our internal organs get the oxygen and blood circulation they need in order to thrive, and the muscle mass improves our metabolism. This is not at all to say that physical appearances don’t matter. And of course, there are times when I notice the bulge in my belly and I want to do something about it. However, if I’m more in tune with my physical needs, I’m less driven by superficial distractors, which leads to more positive self talk. Get active. Get aware. Love yourself.

3. We don’t do therapy

In so many cultures, it’s taboo to go see a therapist and/or get counseling and the black community is no exception. We are supposedly too strong for therapy, and yet, we suffer. While we might attempt to support each other as best as possible we can carry all of the burdens on our own. I can support my sista as best as possible, but her needs might go beyond my capacity. We need to face our emotions and our psychoses in order to continue healing. Avoiding our problems can worsen matters. The challenge is that there are practical reasons why we need to maintain this appearance of holding things together. Society does not afford Black people the space to show weakness. However, we need to delve into our souls, face ourselves and our communities in order to grow stronger. Let’s also recognize the multiple ways to engage in therapy that go beyond sitting in a room with white walls across from someone we have never met before in our lives. I do think that finding the right therapist can be extremely helpful, but therapy can also come in the form of meditating, exercising, listening, speaking to confidants, taking a break, journaling, doing a hobby, etc. Most importantly, it boils down to listening to your social, emotional, and psychological needs and doing something about it, rather than avoiding it. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Terrie M. Williams’ Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.

So, did you notice a trend here? My final message is that the more we listen to our nutritional, physical, and mental needs, the more in tune we are with ourselves, the more fulfilling of a life we can lead.

How long will it take you to internalize your fabulousness?

YOU are fabulousness. Yes, fabulousNESS. Not to toot my own horn, but if you are reading this it’s probably because you are in my circle of friends. I should probably rephrase that, if you are reading this and appreciate the contents (though you may not agree 100%) then you are probably within my circle of friends. If that is the case, I know that you are fabulous, but do you know it? While I can say this about you, have I internalized it about myself?

Here’s where I’m coming from. How many times have you doubted your potential or convinced yourself not to do something? “I can’t begin investing in real estate, I need to pay off my debt.” “I’m not ready to go to law school yet, I have other people to support.” “I can’t make this big move at the last minute, I’ll burn bridges with my current employer.” “This presentation is going to suck, I’m so anxious.” “I can’t focus on my writing, I need a job that provides solid income.” “How could that fine ass dude be interested in me?” I’m guessing you get the point by now.

NOW, how many times have you ran this script through your mind or actually verbalized it, but took the risk anyway and you were a success? I ask this because when I reflect on my experiences, probably  9 out of 10 times when I predicted a negative outcome or made an excuse, but went for it anyways, I prospered in the end. Now, maybe it’s luck or God’s favor, but maybe just maybe it could also be that I am FABULOUS! Usually, us folks who were not raised with privilege do not allow ourselves to believe that we are AMAZING and can accomplish brilliant things. My goal isn’t to create a fairytale, we surely cannot ignore that we do not live in a meritocratic society and success is not as easily attainable by us marginalized folks. However, speaking from experience, I’m usually able to accomplish more than I give myself credit for.

Now I will toot my own horn for a second because if I don’t, who will? I certainly have been surrounded by enough messages at work, school, and in the media that Black women are far from the cream of the crop. So…I have managed to successfully pass my dissertation proposal hearing after dealing with serious family issues and juggling multiple jobs. Not only did I have a successful hearing, I did a damn good job and looked good too. Meanwhile, I was nervous and anxious as hell before it all started. I’ve started noticing that when I make eye contact with potential partners, they look back. Who would have thunk that person would be interested in me? I’ve submitted job applications, and wow, they respond immediately! I randomly went out for a run one day and after each mile just kept going until I had ran 6 miles. I haven’t ran 6 miles since high school. Meanwhile, I keep saying I could never build up to running a half-marathon or marathon. I’m always anxious before giving a presentation or starting to teach a new class and then I end up having fun and making folks laugh, it feels kind of like improv. I think I’ll stop tooting my own horn there, well at least online. I’ll allow these positive scripts to continue playing offline.

This brings to the title of this post “How long will it take YOU to internalize your own fabulousness?” I ask this question because I have been proven over and over again that I am the bizness even when I doubted myself. I figure the more I see how I come out on top the less I will fear otherwise. I’m asking you to take a moment to reflect, how many times have you come out on top when you’ve doubted yourself? What can you learn from each of these scenarios? Whenever we hear those negative scripts playing let’s remember the times we prospered. Eventually, the positive scripts will come out on top as well. Be. See. Feel. Believe in your fabulousness!

Looking back and propelling forward: Commitment to self and others

I’m not sure if anyone else has ever reached the point of second guesses. What if we don’t work out? What if I chose the wrong career path? What if this outfit doesn’t look as good as I envisioned it? Well, here I am down to the wire of my doctoral degree and I am having second guesses. I’ve invested a lot of time and money into my education and now I wonder what it was all worth. Yes, my intellectual curiosities have been nourished, but hey, there’s also a thing called self-education. And no, I did not choose an M.D. or a PhD in astrophysics, something that would lead to a lot of money. Instead, I chose the doctorate of education. Why? Well, because of my commitment to social justice and desire to mobilize for marginalized communities. At the same time, academics have their ways of being hypocritical and simply reinforcing the problems our research is supposed to address. Nonetheless, this commitment has led me to job choices that were in service to others or prioritized the work experience over my own well being or financial stability. This is where many of us people who are traditionally oppressed when it comes to class and have a social justice orientation end up sacrificing ourselves. However, a friend of mine who is my senior, once told me that “you can’t help others if you aren’t wearing your own oxygen mask first.” It has taken me seven years to realize this. While looking back can bring us insight, it doesn’t necessarily propel us forward. While I lacked in material wealth, I had experiences that satisfied my spiritual and intellectual hunger. All I can do is move on from here. To other folks finding themselves having second guesses I suggest looking back to learn from what truly were poor choices, but being propelled by the lessons learned and experiences gained in order to move forward with fervor. Pray, reflect, meditate, do what you need in order to find your right balance between a commitment to others and self. Remember, balance does not mean equal. Balance is about equity. As I approach my 30s I’m tipping towards self without guilt. Often in our culture, women of color in particular, are told that prioritizing one’s self is selfish. This sort of rhetoric reinforces the super woman syndrome. I’m no longer buying it. I’ve got nothing to prove. My commitment to my family and various communities is from the heart and soul. I shouldn’t have to defend it because you can sense it. Focusing on my own intentions rather than the judgment of others allows me to take care of myself without feelings of guilt.

The Caged Bird Today

I know why the caged birds sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings -
I know why the caged bird sings.

Excerpted from Dunbar’s “Sympathy”

Read more about Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar Analysis & Poem by www.poemofquotes.com

Today I had my 8th grade students read and annotate Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” As we discussed the metaphor for Black people during slavery, their fight for freedom, and turn to prayer my mind was in deep contemplation regarding its modern day meaning in my life. Race has always been at the forefront of my psyche and analysis of institutional injustice, but as of lately class has moved from the periphery to take its rightful place at the crossroads with race. Just 30 minutes ago I was sitting in the NYCHA office breaking my mother’s lease. My mother lived in these projects for over two decades of my life. These buildings first started being constructed in New York City during the 1930s and 1940s. They were and still are meant to provide low income families with a place to live. So there I sat, surrounded by these mint green concrete walls fighting to hold back tears as they tell me that my mom will probably have to pay a couple months of rent and a fee for not clearing out the apartment and properly ending the lease. Granted, the couple of months rent is my fault since I did not break the lease sooner. However, my mom was sick and is disabled, how could she possibly clear out that apartment? I find that our accountability to bureaucracy often trumps humanity, which can be brutal. Just a year ago they were offering her $5,000 to move out anyway. That’s gentrification for you. Regardless of whose fault these fees were, it just reminded me of the privilege of being wealthy. IF I were of the class possessing old money or even new money backed by assets, a few thousand dollars would mean nothing. However, every month or so I’m presented with the daunting reminder that any moment a financial crisis could make or break my family. We don’t have much to fall back on. To many, a $400-$500 monthly loan repayment doesn’t bother them much, but for me it creates a real sense of anxiety. My cage is financial instability that I am fighting desperately to break away from with wings that are bloody red. These are the effects of capitalism.

I’m reminded of Hughe’s poem “Harlem,” and the raisin carrying this heavy load trying desperately not to explode. I’ve never bought into the American Dream. All people in the U.S. simply do not have a fair chance at achieving their dreams, institutional racism, sexism, and classism guarantee that. So here I am, two degrees down from a top 10 university and one on the way from another, fighting for financial security. I never believed the degrees would be my ticket to freedom, but I sure thought they would help and I still do, but not because of the knowledge and skills I’ve developed, but more so because of the networks. I’m an academic at heart and I love learning and devising ways to improve society, idealistic I know, I’m the line with infinite possibilities as described by Asagai in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Right now, I’m at a crossroads where my education is both a blessing and a curse. As the end of Dunbar’s poem suggest, I turn to prayer and faith as my source of continued motivation. There is a surge, a level of dissatisfaction driving me to think and do differently.

Beauty in the small moments

I’ve started several blogs in the past, but have actually written zero. I’ve decided to write this blog because I like communicating with others, maybe a little too much. Most folks who know me well know that I suck at/pretty much abhor small talk. I would prefer sitting down somewhere cozy and sharing life stories. Finding those points of connections and diversions. Let’s get all of our shit out on the table and build our relationships from there. Lately, I’ve been finding that not too many folks are into that or maybe I make people think that I’m not into it because I assume they aren’t. Anyways, none of that matters and I digress. So this blog is selfish really. A form of catharsis. A place for my ramblings, but in a way it isn’t 100% selfish. It’s also an attempt at noting the small things in life that we take for granted. It’s a way for me to more intentionally note the beauty around me. My hope is that my musings can bring you a silent burst of joy, a moment when you stop and smile, or a note to self to focus on the positive next time. Below are a few “small things” from this weekend.

The smile on my mom’s face because she knew I was ok. My brother making a big decision that brought him some peace. Learning something new about a friend I’ve known for 15 years. The words on my friend’s vision board stating “Celebrate every day.” My cat running across the room and bumping into the wall because he got a bag caught over his head. Reading a book that I connected to and smiling to myself because a dear friend from CA shipped it to me. The sound of the water trickling down my cat’s water fountain. Seeing pictures of friends with their significant others and the love and/or joy they share. LOL @ the movies. The awkward moment when I said something apparently shitty to the folks around me and my inward giggle to myself after realizing how it may have sounded, but not feeling up to/having the time to explain. Doing the cupid shuffle at one of my student’s baby shower. Hearing from a friend that something we did together eased her mood. All of the graduates doing their thing! The taste of Simply Lemonade raspberry lemonade. The sense of accomplishment and energy I felt after running. The mist outside today. Actually writing.

So…this blog may never reach the eyes of anyone because who knows if I will actually share, but if it does…I encourage you to share your moments, achievements, epiphanies as well. I have one request, keep it positive! We can tackle the negative elsewhere.

Much love,

W