Am I Home Yet?

 

Downtown, hometown

Downtown, hometown

I grew up in a small town about 25 miles south of Detroit, Michigan. Lakeside, farming, hunting and fishing folk. Hundreds of years before the French claimed this town in the late seventeenth century, it was settled by several Native American tribes. As with most tribes in this country, many were massacred, imprisoned or forced to flee. During the battle of 1812, Detroit surrendered to the British and from that point onward, this little southeastern city was predominately white and working class (manufacturing, farming, trucking). In fact, in 2012 92.2% of its population was white-only, not of Latino or Hispanic descent.

There wasn’t much diversity as I distinctly remember. I read that this little city contains a significantly lower than average percentage of Black people when compared to the entire state. Oh! and there were under 0.5% of reported lesbian/gay couples residing together. Even as a child growing up in the 80’s & 90’s, I experienced varied levels of racism because my skin was darker than most of the fair, mostly European descended residents. My background involves a blending of different nationalities, but I didn’t quite fit in because my fiercely curly hair, dark eyes and brown skin reflected that of a Native American, if not an African American. We humans worry so much about how we look.

I inherited those traits from my father, but because he chose not to be part of my life, I had little exposure to his family or others “like me”. Most of the friends I made were white and many of their families were actively passing down racist values. As a child I used to sit at my windowsill and pray I would wake up the next morning with blond, silky locks. I wanted to look like my mother – fair, blond and green eyed. My mother’s family was a blend of French, English, German and Polish, to name a few. I didn’t look like anybody in her family. However, I think I was only “fortunate” enough to have inherited a brawny bone structure from those Polish. At least, that’s why my mother always said.

But what I’m getting at is that from a young age I battled the concept of what it felt to belong. Even amongst my extended family, we were never close. Despite my mothers efforts to show me how special being uncommon can be, I wanted to be just like everyone else. I wanted to prove my worth by showing how I could fit in with everyone else. While in one ear I heard, “let yourself be different. Be proud of what you are”, the voice inside my head told me I was a “blackie” who came from a poor, single parent household. In this way, I didn’t feel it to be a blessing to be different.

In my late teens, I was more than ready to emerge from my high school bubble. I started talking of all these crazy ideas, “I’m gonna move to California”, “I’m gonna apply to a writing school”, “I’m gonna hop on a plane and get out of here”. Crazy talk, but only crazy because I didn’t have a plan. Or any money. I wanted to meet people with open minds. I wanted to talk about how to make changes. I wanted diversity! My high school boyfriend of several years told me to stop trying to run away. “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s the same everywhere, just different faces”. He was the “same day, different shit” type of guy. I was angry at him for telling me this because I wanted to hear him say he believed in me. I learned I’d have to figure it out on my own.

Williamsburg, Va

Williamsburg, Va

In my early 20’s after college I moved out of Michigan, and without looking back. When I said my goodbyes to friends/family, I knew it’d be awhile before I returned, even to visit. I moved to Virginia and began working as an archaeologist. I lived with a boyfriend there for 2 years and began creating a new life. As excited as I was to have escaped, I still found it important to prove to others I was worthy of their acceptance by adopting “their ways”. Once my Michigan accent was so kindly pointed out, I chose to tone it down. Those people in Va have a way of softening vowels that Michiganders don’t. I didn’t want my voice to stand out. My newly realized accent sounded horrible! Although, I could only say “soda” for so long before resorting back to “pop”. Who was I to be calling it soda?

It was my first experience away and it didn’t end easily. My heart was torn to shreds when the relationship ended, but I began a new journey to Boston to start grad school. I moved in with strangers I met on Craig’s List and hoped for the best – hoped they weren’t going to kill me or something. I struggled to find jobs and juggle school. I tried to make friends so I wasn’t always wondering around the streets of Boston alone. I’d walk past a bustling restaurant and (envision this like in a movie) I’d see well dressed people clinking glasses and laughing amongst themselves over a delicious meal. Imagine that, in slow motion, a violin playing and I’m the sad girl standing outside the window….watching.

Pathetic…and creepy, I suppose.

Boston, Ma

Boston, Ma

I began pressuring myself to be like everyone else there – always on the go, successful, motivated, determined, creative…because, that’s what  everyone in Boston is about, right? In order to make friends, I began to adapt to certain ways of thinking and speaking. I had to toughen my skin a bit. There’s nothing wrong with taking on new characteristics, as it’s only natural when you take yourself out of your comfort zone. However, I began to fall away from who I had always thought I was. In fact, I began to feel the furthest from myself as I ever have. While the above traits are usually deemed positive, I lunged myself into believing I wasn’t capable enough. I was a liar. A phoney. I wasn’t the energetic  person I thought I was. I found it tiring to keep trying to impress others with brains and ambition. Once again, I was trying to prove my worth.

Even though I had zero desire to move back home, I realized I wasn’t finding the comforts of home within myself. The folks of Boston are a proud people, as they have right to be in many ways. But I felt it overwhelming to accept their fast-paced culture as my own. In fact, I fought it. Sometimes it made me angry with all their Patriot’s this, Harvard that, clam chowder this and extensive, impressive and interesting American history that…. you know what I’m saying. Truthfully, I was just jealous I didn’t hold the same pride about my own roots. I was exhausted and I discovered, by no means, was I some sort of prodigy.

ABQ

ABQ, NM

Fast forward a few years and now I live in the southwest, New Mexico. Yet, here I am once again reflecting upon my identity. New Mexican’s are very much different from those aggressive New Englanders, but their ideals of culture are just as prominent. The strong Hispanic background is quite foreign to me; in fact, culturally I may be most out of my element here. I find my coworkers poking fun at me because I can’t pronounce half the Spanish names in this city. Or I receive strange looks when, at a restaurant, I tell my server to hold the green chile. As I make friends out here, all of my old insecurities come to surface. Will I be too strange to them? Will they accept me?

Now is the time to ask what I find important to convey about who I am. What am I about? What do I do? One of the most refreshing aspects of relocating is the opportunity to unveil yourself anew. Nobody knows anything about you. It’s a freeing concept but also intimidating because it requires work. It means you must check-in with yourself and ask what you want. What sort of people do you want to incorporate into your new life? How do you want others to see you? What can you do differently from where you were last living? How can you be a better person?

So, I’m learning more and more about how to balance the desire to feel included versus the importance of finding the comfort to live as I am. I’ve always held so much fear about being an outsider even though I have a great appreciation for those who think outside the box. I admire them, in fact. Some of the most brilliant theories, inventions, words, buildings, discoveries, art etc. have come from some of the most eccentric and misunderstood people.

Regarding my childhood encounters of feeling cast out, things began to change with time. People were using tanning beds to achieve the bronze skin tone that was already natural to me. Women would always tell me they wanted to have my thick, curly hair. My sister and I are the only ones in our family to have lived out of state and do some serious traveling. I see that many of the kids I grew up with never left our little hometown. I have discovered what my mother meant when she told me to stop worrying about fitting in. You can go places, see things, learn and grow. New experiences have forced me to examine my life and come to understand the words of Plato/Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

I’m not claiming to have some uniqueness above others, as I’ve faced adult challenges that have humbled my ego and, at times, left me to have some serious doubts about my self-worth. In fact, I don’t advocate the popular concept of showering your child with compliments/praise and teaching him/her that they are the absolute greatest. But I do know the importance of attributing your own, personal culture into all that you do. Because once you leave home, you have to make a new one.

Can You Forgive Yourself?

Today I saw a video posted on TED by Shaka Senghor entitled “Why your worst deeds don’t define you”. I frequently view videos on TED and have discovered valuable insights just by listening to presentations. The previous headline caught my attention immediately. I’ve often wondered how some people learn to find peace with their pasts and what it means to truly atone. Granted, my past “bad deeds” don’t involve murder or incarceration as Shaka’s does, but at the very least most of us carry guilt about actions we are not proud of. Please take a few moments and watch this video:

This video brought forth several thoughts. Shaka speaks of how time in prison spent in solitary confinement led him to finding himself. This became a time of examination and transformation for him. He was, for the first time, forced to look at his life honestly. He discovered literature by black authors who indirectly helped him to see past stereotypes not only placed by society, but also himself. After receiving a letter from a family member of his victim, he began to explore the concept of atonement – this person had found it within him/herself to forgive Shaka for murdering a member of his/her family. He began to write a journal and further understand how Plato’s quote “a life unexamined is not worth living” indeed applied to him.

That quote resonated with me as well. The entire concept of empathy, atonement, forgiveness and transformation sang out. Often one of the most burdensome aspects of depression is self-hatred. It lingers in everything you do. An overwhelming sense of worthlessness and a genuine belief of being a bad, undeserving person sets it. It sinks into your entire being, lacing itself throughout all of your organs resulting in one large knot in your chest. It’s a dense, heavy belief and nearly impossible to convince yourself otherwise. I always found reasons to believe I was bad, evil, soulless. I believed I was poison to any friends or family who still held interest in my life. Any sort of failings, no matter how small, I attributed to my uselessness. I would look in the mirror and ask myself what my contribution was to anything…anything at all and I could come up with nothing.

Even when the darkest periods of depression subside and unveil new instances of purpose, it’s easy to retreat back to thoughts of worthlessness during stressful moments. The negative self-talk emerges and echos throughout my mind convincing me that I’m awkward, lacking social skills, uninformed, slow, boring, cold, clumsy, forgetful, unreliable, untrustworthy, selfish etc. It’s during those moment that I want to retract back into my shell. Safe from others judgmental eyes. In reality, it is me being the harsh critic – the patronizing audience member who just won’t quit.

It requires a strong effort to convince yourself that others aren’t making nearly as many negative assumptions about you as you are.  It can also be a challenge to accept that others may find your “faults” attractive. For example, you may believe that you don’t show any interest in your coworkers lives, you don’t ask them questions, you don’t initiate conversation. You make an assumption that you’re nothing but a heartless human being because you don’t seem to be as sociable. “Aren’t humans supposed to be the most social beings on the planet? Why do I not seem to need conversation? I must be bad at being a human”. On the flip side, somebody in the office might find your lack of socializing to be mysterious and intriguing. Perhaps somebody believes you to be unique because you don’t seem interested in office politics and don’t get involved in mindless small talk. You don’t seem interested in trash talking others or bashing on the new person. Somebody might actually admire that about you. You never know.

I had this moment of revelation a few months ago about what it is to be a good, grown up, human being. I realized that I could no longer blame my upbringing, my parents, society or anybody else for my shortcomings. It suddenly hit me that everything I do shapes who I am. I have the power to make changes. But, I started to wonder if it was too late for some things. As I have many times before, I mentally relived some of my most painful mistakes and memories. In some twisted way, I’ve believed that reliving those moments was a form of atonement – a continuous, tortuous way for me to “pay” for my mistakes. I’d think of all the hurtful words I used and the way I shut people out. I put myself back in the shoes of that young person who didn’t “give a fuck”. I’d think of my apathy, my selfishness, and my addictions.  I’d remind myself just how much I didn’t care about anybody and then I’d say “You get what you put in. You’re getting what you deserve”.

But is that really atonement? Is keeping myself in a dark, isolated corner of self-belittlement going to help me become a better person? Can I grow if I’m swimming in a pool of poisonous assumptions rather than planting new roots in the ground? Can I truly heal if I’m feeding myself theories of ill will, sickness and hopelessness? Some people, though, want to see you pay. They want to watch you endure suffering and live a lifetime of pain. Some of these people wish this because you may have wronged them, but some people are going to wish this upon anybody. It’s up to you to determine when enough, is enough.

I decided that I could no longer keep reliving and punishing myself for the mistakes I’ve made. Believe me, aside from self-punishment, I’ve paid for many of these mistakes. However, life must go on. I’m still alive and I still have goals and desires for the future. If we all lived perfect lives, then we’d never acquire the knowledge, wisdom and appreciation for all of life’s moments, regardless of whether we deem them good or bad.

I realize that, unlike Shaka Senghor, I did not take someone’s life. I can’t match the years he spent in prison coming to terms with this; therefor, I find his story inspiring. However, it’s not a far fetched concept he’s discussing – hence why he shared in the first place. If you’re holding onto guilt about your past and you deeply believe that you must live your life carrying this weight, I’m gonna tell you right now, you’re wrong! Don’t let it define you, no matter what opposition you feel internally. You are an imperfect being and can not always act in an “ideal” fashion. Most of us like to believe that we are living life the “right” way – that our own way is what’s best, but we have experienced moments of regret, too. The negatives ought not always outweigh the positives!

Do you think one ought to spend a lifetime atoning for mistakes or wrong-doings in the past? Do you believe that people can change?

 

When Turning Off Is A Turn On

 Social Networking Website Grows

Lately, I’ve felt a bit distant from myself.

I don’t regularly practice yoga, meditate or keep a journal as a form of “checking in”. Perhaps that’s part of the problem, however, this distance I’ve been experiencing seems to have derived from living on auto-pilot. I’m somewhat surprised to find myself displeased with this being that my depression has often created a longing to be free of emotion. Auto-pilot is just that – I find myself performing daily tasks without putting much thought into them. It’s not that I don’t put effort into the tasks, it’s that the tasks often feel meaningless.

A large part of life, for me, involves discovering and attributing meaning. However, I realize not all daily tasks must revolve around self-discovery. For example, I do laundry so I have clothes to wear. There need not be any further meaning required for me to perform that task because it’s rather mindless. What I’m referring to are the moments in between mindless tasks – the moments we find to absorb our present and all that we do to determine our future.

Not only am I running on auto-pilot, I’m downright flustered.

I decided to turn off the tv, put my cell phone in a different room and close out all of the nonsense tabs I had open on my computer. I opened a blank word document, just like I used to do when I would write for my eyes only. I sat alone, in my apartment and decided I was going to write without distractions. No checking my phone to see if I received any notifications. No bouncing around the internet checking “my accounts” and social media. No tv with it’s relentless advertisements trying to convince me there’s something more I need to buy. Or even, something more I need to be. All of these messages swarm around me, these opinions, demands, criticisms and “truths”. I can read an article online claiming research proves stretching is good before a run, people who drink in moderation are healthier than those who abstain, the soap I’m washing my face with is polluting the water, it’s impossible to catch up on sleep, vitamins are actually ineffective, a bachelor’s degree isn’t worth anything anymore, marriage is biologically unnatural, I’m not attractive enough, smart enough, thin enough, healthy enough, responsible enough, wealthy enough, sociable enough and the list goes on. People in this world, complete strangers whom I will most likely never meet, are sending the message that I need to be happy, but that I can never be because I’m not doing enough of the “right” things.

I realize that I’m looking at this in a holistic manner – each individual article has its message and the message itself usually is intended to be informative, helpful or inspiring. However, there are so many floating around that it becomes exhausting sorting through them. This obsession with finding happiness is making us all a little crazy.

It’s not always easy to sit alone in a silent room with your own thoughts, but what happens when we no longer find those moments? What happens when each spare moment of our time is spent on a technological device? What happens when we’re constantly plugged in to an internet realm where we consume information with little thought? With people hiding behind the anonymity of a computer, the internet can often be a place of cruelty, among other negative characteristics. It seems we are free to express our opinions on just about any site now. But the comments we leave are generally opinions – tons of worthless information that so many people take to heart. We believe much of what we read online. We form new opinions about societal norms and expectations based on what we read and what others seem to think. We judge ourselves against what we read and the images we are shown. But how often are we reflecting upon these messages? Which remain with us and which do we dismiss?

I suppose the answer depends on the individual, but as a whole, we live in a society which thrives on the consumer. Without our spending, the world as we know it would come to a halt. I won’t delve deeply into economics (I’m no expert by any means), but I think it’s important we take time to look at who we are. We are not JUST consumers. Humans weren’t always consumers. Our existence cannot simply be to acquire things and to judge ourselves and others based on what we don’t have. All of these headlines vividly popping up before us demand our attention, “Read me! I will change your life!” or “Look at me! I’m beautiful so I know what’s best for you!”

I’d never consider myself a mindfulness expert or claim that I don’t participate in any societal trends; in fact, I’d be contradicting this whole post if I claimed that. What I have been experiencing is an absence of direction and knowing what is important to me. The flood of limitless information and dependence on it as “truth” is turning me off. I’m growing bored of daily conversations with people revolving around tv shows and “amazing” youtube videos. Perhaps this auto-pilot phase would pass if I could free myself from believing that happiness is a destination and that I’m not doing enough or the right things to achieve it.

Do you ever allow yourself to be alone to ask yourself what it is YOU need? How often do you respond to your own personal headlines?