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How to Rewrite the Story of Your Body and/or Mutombo and Me

“Each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms.”

-Gloria Steinem

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In high school, I found out my nickname was Mutombo. My sister was the one who told me. She had heard a couple kids at our school use it. In case you do not know, Dikembe Mutombo is a 7’2″ former NBA all-star who heralds from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a defensive dream and holds the second highest record overall for shots blocked.

It of course hurt to hear that this was my nickname. I wasn’t exactly Ms. Confident about my looks in high school and to know that this nickname came from the black kids at my high school hurt even more, it was both likening me to a man and making fun of my African heritage. 

For most of my life, I have carried a pretty complicated relationship with my body. On one hand, there was a deep, albeit small nucleus of belief that I was in fact beautiful and enough. I liked my dark skin, my thick hair, my almond-shaped eyes.

But, then there was the lack of attention from guys my own age.

The magazine covers of women half my size and considerably lighter.

The fact that I was hardly told I was pretty or cute by my family growing up.

Much of the time, I learned to invest in my humor, my smartness, my athletic gifts. I thought prettiness was the domain of a very specific type of girl and I was not her. I learned to make a lot of self-deprecating jokes and pretend that the insensitive words of others barely bothered me.

For many years, I lied to myself in this way.

But, then I couldn’t take the constant inner circus of nervousness, the way I was holding myself back from fully considering myself beautiful. And so, just out of graduating from college, I dove head long into all things feminist theory and body positivity.

It’s been a good ride, which does not mean easy; I’ve had to mine some deep, deep wounds over the ways I’ve been hurt around beauty, but I have discovered a sincere level of comfort and pride in this body that I have.

A couple of months ago, I was invited to take part in a Nasty Woman shoot by a friend. It was a small gathering. Women of all sizes and shapes. And even though I was the only black woman in attendance, I felt a deep kinship with these women.

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After hearing Donald Trump’s disgusting words against women (grab ’em by the pussy, etc, etc) and being inspired by a rugby women’s photo shoot, my friend teamed up with a Oil City, PA photographer  to create a photo series documenting the power of rewriting body stories.

We started the day with a journaling activity, wrote what we most wanted to embody during this shoot on a glass rock. My rock said “Re-write My Story”. Then we stripped completely naked and started to paint each other. It was awkward at first (at least for me) but over time, I almost forgot I had zero clothes on. Each woman was directed to write the derogatory words and phrases we had personally faced regarding our bodies, as well as any cultural beliefs.

Hearing the words these women have faced was alarming and so, so sad. Sometimes all we could each do was shake our heads in incredulity at the cruelty that women too often face about their bodies. There was one of us who was told by a stranger that she had “good dick sucking lips”, another woman whose father would call her “porky”, a new mother who was told that her breastfeeding in public was disgusting and gross.

On my body, there were words like “man” and “pretty…for a dark-skinned girl” and “there goes a big bitch!”. Across my back I had a woman write “Black women aren’t pretty, it’s science” to account for all the reductive pseudoscience garbage, all the Most Beautiful lists that negate black women, all the ways in which apparently black women are seen as less than.

We took a series of pictures and then we washed off the paint. Amidst the faded colors, we started to write the words we saw in each other. Words like “strong”, “beautiful”, “enough”, and “sensual”.

The new words mixed in with the paint of the old stories. Despite our washing off of the old words, part of their messages still lingered on us.

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It was a good lesson of the path of deep body love and satisfaction. For the initial part of my life, I chose to ignore the words and ideas centered around my body. As I started my healing journey, there was a part of me that just wanted to blast these stories away, erase them for good.

But, it rarely works that way.

Those stories will always be there. They are a part of my prologue and to make them disappear would be to erase just how much they have deepened my compassion for myself and for others. I have to see the pain of those words to truly heal. “Thinking positive” and forgetting are band-aids, short-term forms of assistance. It is the reckoning with our pasts with eyes wide open that truly instigates the deeper healing. 

I am so, so grateful I got to take part in this series. Admittedly, I am still a little apprehensive of posting my naked pictures on the internet, but I hope that one day I will have the courage to do so. They are beautiful images. (Another friend wrote a beautiful blog post about the experience and you can find some of the images here.)

I think the reason body positivity has become such a popular movement is because so many people, women especially, crave a space to redefine their body stories. We are given so many messages about our level of worth as dictated by our bodies. And we have had enough.

Of course, you don’t have to participate in a naked photo shoot (unless you want to!) to rewrite the story of your body.

Here are three ways to Re-Write the Story of Your Body :

  1. Free-Write : Go somewhere quiet with a journal and pen. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes. Write as fast as you can with no attention to syntax, spelling, or clarity about your body story. After you are finished writing, read the page. What images/memories arose? Which one is most plaguing you today? Commit to healing the idea that is the most salient for you.

2. Pick a body part that you have a hate/hate relationship with, perhaps one that others have remarked negatively about. For 30 days, spend 1-5 minutes praising its merits in the mirror. Notice how difficult this may be. When mean-spirited thoughts and objections arise, notice them too and let them go. Continue anyway and know that you can always come back to this act.

3. On a piece of large construction paper, draw an outline of your body, big enough to write in. Write all the negative stories you’ve internalized and heard about various body parts, your worries and fears. Use a red pen if you can. Crumple up that paper, burn it (in a way that doesn’t result in accidental arson) if you so desire. Then get out another piece of paper and draw an outline of your body and write the stories/words you’d like to really inhabit. Pin this somewhere you can see everyday. Practice giving yourself what you need.

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Mutombo and Me

Rewriting your body story will probably take time, so commit to being patient with yourself during this process. It’s hardly ever a one shot deal.

When I was living in New York and active duty Coast Guard, I volunteered for an NBA Cares event in Brooklyn. And who walks in but Dikembe Mutombo. His voice is as raspy and big as you’d expect from those Geico commercials, and his presence made grown adults act with the same fervent delight usually reserved for toddlers. I was already about six years deep into my body healing journey and when I posed with him, I thought how funny it was that I got to actually meet the same dude whose name had plagued me so in high school.

I instantly thought backwards to teenage Hannah, so unsure about who she was, so willing to let others dictate how she felt about her beauty and worth in the world. I did not and do not hate that girl. For it was her kernel of belief in something better that has gotten me here today. 

Here’s to rewriting our stories and giving a big No-No Mutombo finger wag at anything that gets in our way.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

3 Ways to Find the Goddess That Don’t Involve Instagram Hashtags

“An uneasy reaction to the word Goddess is common among women. Thousands of years of repression, hostility, and conditioning against a Divine Mother have made a deep impression on us. We’ve been conditioned to shrink back from the Sacred Feminine, to fear it, to think of it as sinful, even to revile it. And it would take a while for me to deprogram that reaction, to unpack the word and realize that in the end, Goddess is just a word. It simply means the divine in female form.”

-Sue Monk Kidd, Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Oya inspired art I made
Oya inspired art I made

I used to think the only way one could incorporate the goddess into your life was to don clothes of the white toga variety, be a woman who wore flower crowns in the dead of winter and frolic around in green pastures a la Julie Andrews.

I have written about how I had to face some difficult truths about how I shallowly tried to embrace the Divine Feminine (here, here, and here) in what I called my Divine Feminine Fallacy.

But, how does one incorporate more Sacred Feminine energy into their lives beyond a t-shirt screen-printed with the word Goddess Is Me in Helvetica Bold or creative hashtags on Instagram? How do we go far beyond pure commercialism, “buying” our goddess energy as it were, instead of being in it? Learning about it?

How we start to unwind from the conditioning we have all faced in terms of this word and its associations?

There are times I fear the we are having a reoccurring “girl power” moment, one where we shallowly praise women and barely graze the deep-seated misogyny that undergirds most of our society. We make peace signs and yell GURL POWA and call it a day.

I want more. I want this damn world to be transformed by this energy. And part of that change starts with us.

This is by no means an exhaustive or total list, but I hope it can be a guide for you, Goddess. I really do.

  1. Explore and Accept What You Truly Feel When You Hear the Word Goddess

Do you cringe? Sideways laugh? I remember having to stifle a major orb shifting eye roll when I would first hear the word goddess. Granted, I was living in Portland, Oregon AKA Land of the Rainy Earth Mother. I was working with a holistic health counselor who was based in NYC and when she started incorporating goddess stories into her telephone work with me, I was like Et tu, Brute?

I was a girl who played basketball, went to military school, a black woman who was often expected to be tougher than who I was. I heard the word “goddess” used to describe beautiful women, but could not see how this word actually related to my day to day existence.

Now, I see that my inner discomfort at hearing this word was revealing some deep seated stuff. The ways I felt estranged from fully inhabiting my femininity. The ways in which I was raised to see God purely in masculine terms. The ways in which I equated anything associated with the Feminine with a certain brand of weakness and silliness despite my feminist leanings.

Yemoja inspired art by moi
Yemoja inspired art by moi, those boobs are shells

So, be honest about how the word makes you feel. Write it out. Talk with your friends about. Dig deep. Does it feel gimmicky? Do you worry your priest will find you in your new neighborhood and dole out 500 Hail Marys (how ironic) if you were to use it? Sit with your feelings. Notice what emerges. Live the answers.

2. Explore Your Own Cultural Path of the Goddess and read some books 

Part of the reason I was a little disenchanted with the Rainy Earth Mother Goddesses of Portland, OR was how some of these women seemed to be picking out goddesses to “invoke” like they were putting together a celestial grab-bag: A little Kali over here. A dash of Brigid here. A smattering of Athena and Hera over there. And when I heard there was a small group of uninitiated women who were worshipping the deities Oya an Osun, I was even more annoyed.

This is not to say one cannot study or learn from goddesses that do not necessarily “belong” to your culture. I will forever have a crush on Greek mythology, I love the stories of Amateratsu and Guanyin and Isis.

As a second-generation Yoruba woman, I know that my lineage contains stories of Oba, Osun, Oya, and Yemoja to name a few. They are not necessarily goddesses, but they are divine and they are female. Not every black woman in the diaspora has the gift of knowing where she came from, but there are many goddesses to  know (Abiola Abrams has an awesome starter pack of Goddess Cards only featuring those of black/African descent!)

Still, I am clear that I do not worship any of these deities. I do not invoke them or make altars in ways that are solely for the initiated. Perhaps one day this may change, but as of now, I am okay with being a student of the goddess.

What’s your lineage and what are the stories of feminine deities that are located in your own history? How do those stories make you feel today?

And if you like reading, well….

A Couple Books All About the Goddess/Sacred Feminine : Finding Soul on the Path of the Orisa by Tobe Melora Correal,  The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Elser, Pussy by Regena Thomashauer, Woman Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone and Divining the Self: A Study of Yoruba Myth and Human Consciousness by Velma Love.  (Just to name a few!)

Osun inspired art by Hannah Eko
Osun inspired art by Hannah Eko

3. Find a Your Own Goddess Journey and Walk It

When I first started reading about the goddess, I wanted to ape the journeys of women like Sue Monk Kidd or Meggan Watterson or Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I didn’t think my journey was all that interesting. I needed to travel to an ashram, become some sort of priestess, have the same exact synchronous mystical experiences as these women did.

I could not be a tall blerd* reading Dance of the Dissident Daughter on the R train and journaling in 54 cent composition books.

No, that was not intense enough.

But, really, the Goddess is wherever we are. Some find a closer relation to her by examining the demographics of their churches. Some find her by getting in touch with their bodies though a Wednesday gentle yoga class. Some find her when they are walking home from a party and take care to notice their breath and the ways they are connected to all that is life. Some find her by exploring their sexuality or reading female empowerment stories to their grandchildren of any gender.

There is no special certification or pre-requisite for exploring the Goddess. No timeline or six-week course. You don’t have to wear a toga or change religions. You can be who you are, committing to explore the Goddess in a way that works for you. You can be any gender and any age.

You can be you.

In my gradual acceptance of who I am, I have been able to host goddess groups with willing (yay!) friends, performed goddess ceremonies twice this summer, and last year I went to Nigeria FOR FREE to study (but what else?) the goddess in the form of Oya, Osun, and Yemoja. I have talked to strangers about the assumed gender of God and about once a month, some person I barely know calls me a goddess.

That girl on the R train who was aching for a deeper connection to the Sacred Feminine would be so proud. But, I didn’t know HOW any of this would occur. I just wanted it.

And here it is. Right on time.

I wonder what your goddess journey will look like for you. :)

Onward,

Hannah

 

*black nerd. (And proud.)

 

 

 

 

I’ve Got That Summertime Madness : Happy Summer Solstice

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My favoritest season is here! June 21st marks the Summer Solstice for us people in the Northern Hemisphere and is a time for truly shining forth, being outward directed, and getting moving.

It’s hard not to love Summer. Summer is often the arena of vacations, lazy days binge watching Netflix san guilt, and enjoying the deliciousness of being outdoors. I love Summer so much that I can even recall my summer school experiences from third grade to my first-year at military school with a smile. (And I got my bottom wisdom teeth pulled and was taking Calculus during my last summer school experience.)

In Taoism, Summer alongside Spring are the two “masculine” energy oriented seasons. This does not mean that there is not room for more inward dwelling feminine energies, but that Summer is the time to take action: Publish shit. Travel. Bring that new project to life. Date like a hedonist. Meet new people.

In Fall, we start to shed what doesn’t serve us and slow down.

In Winter our roots grew deeper and stronger and we go deep.

In Spring, we probably saw the first evidences of our winter introspection and took more muted steps toward action.

In Summer, we go all out. We get out there and let the world greet us as we are. We are unashamed about listening to our pleasure as a guidepost to living with meaning.

I wish you all a bountiful, beautiful Summer my friends.

Here are some questions and prompts for summertime reflection.

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Summer Questions for Reflection:

-How can you show up big and bright for summer?

And “big and bright” is totally your definition. Summer is a time to shake things up, move far beyond the tried and true and show up as our outrageous, quirky selves. We all have things (please let them be at least sorta legal) we’ve wanted to try and be. How can you honor what small pictures of growth you saw in Spring and shine them even larger during Summer? Is it wearing something a little risqué? Going to a concert solo? Finally telling that sort of toxic friend you’ve let hang on for too long to fuck off? Channel the largess of a mid-1990s diva and take up space this summer in the beauty of you.

-What is the biggest thing you learned from Spring?

Growth can feel sorta spurty and half-there in Spring. But, trust: you learned a lot if you just look for the lessons. Sometimes you have to look extra hard, but too often we rush through life without any real time of reflection. This is especially true for those of us who have said goodbye to the time-markers of graduation and end of semester days. What did you learn in the space from March 20th (the Spring Equinox) to now? Write it down. Honor that shit 😊

-What is one daily or weekly practice of showing up can you commit to?

Summer is all about outward directed action and launchings of all kinds.

This is the time to start Acting As If. Act as if you are publishing all the stuff you want to. Act as if you love your body and think you’re the sexiest person in your region. Act as if you already take exquisite care of yourself. Act as if you are the parent, teacher, student, candle stick maker you so wish to be.

Again, summer is about taking bold (see what I did there?) steps my friends. Sometimes you may feel kinda silly Acting As If. Acknowledge it. Then continue to Act As If and you’ll be surprised at how natural it starts to feel.

Watercolor painting of Lauryn Hill gazing upwards to large yellow sun with large hoop earrings against green background

-How can you bring in more nurturing, slow energy for Summer?

Much like Spring, it is still important to slow down on occasion during Summer. I enjoy just sitting, not looking at my phone, but just sitting in public shaded places staring into space like a weirdo. (Try it, you’ll love it.) I also am starting to fall back in love with naps. Another thing I do when I remember: before rushing from one location to another, I pause for three seconds. I hold my key to the door of my apartment or I purposely sit an extra five seconds in my car before I start grocery shopping. These tiny instances of pausing can do WONDERS for your day.

Happy Summer everyone! Stay safe and beautiful.

Onward,

Hannah

Art: Simone Digital, Akeisha Walters, and Annelie Solis

 

Feelings Are Not Milk

“There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.”

The Buddha, from the Satipatthana Sutta

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What Happens: Your very close friend of forever tells you with happiness that she is engaged to a Good Guy.

What You Want to Feel: Exuberant joy and effervescence for her good fortune.

What YOU Do Feel: Bitter, slow churning anger in your gut. A heavy dollop of sadness that coats your entire chest. A severe jealously that you are 100% sure is blaring from your eyes and forced smile.

What You Do: You hug and congratulate your friend. Joke about ugly bridal dresses all while entertaining a raucous inner dialogue of Why Am I Such a Bitch? Why Can’t I Feel Happy for My Friend? What is Wrong With Me?

And maybe you go home and you try to shake these bad emotions from your mind as if they are raindrops along an umbrella. You reason: you should be happy. He’s smart and deep and treats your friend with grace. You love your friend.

Still the feelings persist no matter how much you talk yourself out of them. They follow you from bridal shower to wedding day, only dulling with time but never truly moving.

We all have feelings that seem to land on us from out of nowhere. Emotions that are ways away from what we want or expect to feel. A gleeful happiness when a colleague announces they didn’t get a prestigious grant. A welling of grief when we say goodbye to that one really toxic friend. Comparing ourselves to supermodels even when we know it’ll only depress us.

Sometimes, I think we forget that feelings are not milk.

They have no shelf-life, no labels detailing how many servings to ingest. They don’t stay neatly inside a container.

Emotions have a wisdom of their own–even when it feels like quite the opposite.

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In our feelings-averse, feminine-hating society, emotions get a bad rap. Especially the strong ones. Especially the strong ones when experienced by women: Jealousy. Anger. Grief. Frustration. Raucous joy. Sexual abandon.

We are told to “calm down”. To “think positive”.

(As if that shit always works, as if it is healthy and wise to stuff down our most intense emotions with twee platitudes of JUST BE HAPPY.)

What we not told is that feelings are truth. We don’t need to act on them, express them (like, yeah, no need to tell your newly engaged friend I HATE YOU BITCH AND WISH IT WAS MEEEEEE!!!!!!). We are not told that once we began to greet our feelings with curiosity, openness, and a hello, we start to learn and engage in the world more honestly.

So, how do we do that?

One way I have been learning to engage with my feelings in a real, tangible way is dancing.

Yes, dancing.

I don’t slip into choreography the minute I have a feeling, cuz, well, I do need to keep a job and my students might be just a bit confused if I started to gyrate in the midst of a lesson on writing closing arguments.

I have playlists for certain emotions.

Pissed AF.

SAD!

Hey, Jealousy.

Perk Me Up.

(One of my favorite tasks in the world is making themed playlists.)

I put on my music. Loud. If my boyfriend is sleeping soundly or I am away from home, then I slip on my ear buds. And I move.

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I got this technique from Mama Gena and Jess Grippo, two women who know that our feelings are nothing to run from or interrogate away.

When I first started Dancing with My Feelings, I felt all kinds of silly. Sometimes when my boyfriend would amble out of the bedroom all bleary eyed to go to the bathroom, I would freeze like I was caught doing something indecent.

No more.

Sometimes we forgot that we are not just heads attached to clouds. Emotions are called “feelings” for a really good reason: they show up in our bodies. This is part of the reason we try and run away from them, the discomfort is not solely located in our racing thoughts and attitudes, but in our chests, stomachs, shoulders, backs, and jaws.

Dancing helps me to move with the feeling. To give it a language beyond reasoning and meditation. I let my hips circle through envy and my arms snake their way through confusion. I get on my knees and pound the floor with my anger in beat to a headbanger.

We are not taught to do this. We are taught to bottle up and be Appropriate, to be a Nice Girl, and to pretend that all we have what Mama Gena calls a “vanilla emotional life”.

I say no more.

When I hear of another unarmed black person shot, I dance out my feelings of powerlessness and fear. When I am mired in creative self-doubt, I take a break to shimmy. When anxiety threatens to dull my message, I close my office door and I dance.

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I think dancing with our feelings is especially important for black women and women in color in general. We have to police our emotions even more vigilantly in a racist society that refuses to see us as full human beings.

Dancing can help us be truthful with ourselves, to give ourselves a gift of deep honesty.

And usually, something beautiful happens: my feelings reveal their wisdom to me. They tell me of my deepest insecurities, they speak of actions I can actively take, they assure me that I am still worthy of love and celebration.

Sometimes I end up crying. Or laughing hysterically. Or I sit in a quiet self-satisfied glow.

Everything is welcome. I may look crazy but I feel so free I don’t really give a shit.

The next time you experience a feeling you “shouldn’t” be feeling: dance that shit out. It will feel counterintuitive at first but whatever your body is called to do, let it do. You don’t have to best Ciara or even dance on beat.

If you want to sink to the floor in despair and shake your wrist limply, because you feel like a loser compared to all your “30 Under 30” friends, do that. If you want to twerk in front of your hallway mirror after seeing your ex all hugged up on someone new, do it. Write big and loopy in a journal in blood red ink. Wind up the windows in your car and scream like a banshee.

Let your body lead.

Feel.

Move.

Onward,

Hannah

Art: Oresegun Olumide, Mahmahmoud Said, S.C. Versillee, Dion Pollard More

Loving the Unloved Girl

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One day I went on a weekend bike trip in Ohio with my boyfriend. It was all awesome and good until he pointed out a deer and I looked a bit too long, crashed into his bike, and fell to the ground.

I wasn’t badly hurt–mainly just grumpy, but I could not wait to soak in our hotel’s whirlpool and ease my aching shins, arms, and ego.

Once at the hotel, I lowered myself into the bubbling hot tub, probably even emitted a long soda-commercial “aaaaahhhhh” as the water enveloped my entire body. It was late and the swimming pool area was completely empty.

Seconds after I entered the steaming waters, a woman knocked at the window. I groaned. No way did I want to exit the whirlpool, but she stood there, waving at me from afar. I sighed loudly and left the pool, the cold instigating goosebumps along my arms and made my way to the door. I cursed the lady under my breath for forgetting her hotel key and quickly wrapped a towel around my waist.

As I got closer to the door, I realized the woman was not a woman.

It was a little girl, probably about eight or nine years old.

Immediately, I felt bad, and wondered if she had seen my pissed countenance the entire time I had walked toward her. I softened my face, tried to offer a welcome smile and opened the door.

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The little girl had her hair wound in the same candy-ball baubles my mom used to braid my hair into when I was her age. Her skin was dark brown and radiant in the way that only really young children can shine. But, her face carried a faint quiver, she had clearly seen how I had looked when I got out of the pool and her fear was evident.

“I just wanted to say hi,” she said softly.

She tried to smile.

“Hi,” I said. I offered the widest smile I could.

Her smile grew more. She waved again and then she walked away.

I am thinking of this story a lot lately. How I mistook that little girl for a grown woman and was set to open the door with an attitude. Once I realized how young she was, I quickly decided to treat her with compassionate kindness.

There are times when the unloved and unwanted girl within me speaks and I treat her like a grown woman. I am short with her. Annoyed, sometimes even downright angry. I wonder why she can’t just get it together. I reason with her, lecture, ignore her. I withhold all manners of compassion.

The unloved girl who reaches for instantaneous fame, sugary foods, negative thoughts, stale friendships is not a grown woman. She is a girl. She does not react to “reason” or “logic” for she is pure, raw feeling, as children usually are. All she wants to say is hello, to have me welcome her and ask her what she needs in that moment.

fulltenpicture

It is tough to do this. We don’t exactly live in the Age of Introspection. We are taught to beat our “badness” into submission.  But I am getting better. I know there are ways in which I learned to reach for substitutes for true love and instead of being afraid or dismissive of these impulses, I am now choosing to say hello.

There is reoccurring theme in many meditation circles of holding our pain, greeting it, letting it be as big as it needs to be. Of saying hi how ya? to our anxiety, jealously, procrastination, grief, and anger. Some meditation teachers even liken it to sitting down for a meal.

That little girl at that Ohio hotel taught me something so profound that day and I am still digging deeper and deeper into this lesson. I forget the lesson and then I remember, I circle lower and lower into the healing this teaching requires, growing the entire time.

It all comes down to being where we are. Greeting our pain with open arms and offering ourselves what we did not get as children. For some it is a gentle reminder that it is okay to be different. For others, it may be permission to set boundaries, to eat slowly and mindfully, or to love ourselves even when we fuck up.

For me, it’s a bit of all the above.

I am learning to greet all my selves with a hello and to love that unloved girl within me. Every time I take the minutes to acknowledge her presence, to tell her that I still love her, that I hear her cry for attention, care, celebration, or connection, her cries lesson.

In the end, all she really wants to do is get my attention.

My hope for you: that you greet your pain and unloved portions of your heart with open arms. Journal, take a walk, cry, listen to sappy songs, do whatever makes that little unloved girl (or boy) feel heard. Ask them what they need for you to do.

And it all starts with a simple hello.

Onward,

Hannah

Art: Gerald Sanders, Merry Jaye, and last picture attributed to fullten

Notes from a Wonder Woman Fan Girl

POW!
POW!
A casual eye to my social media presence will reveal that I love, love Wonder Woman.

I have written about her. 

I entered (and lost…insert sad face) a Wonder Woman themed contest.

I donned a skirted Wonder Woman costume and gave an embarrassingly earnest speech about reclaiming my Amazon-ness for my Miss Tall International talent.

I have waaaayy too much Wonder Woman paraphenlia. Totes, mugs, t-shirts, stamps, stickers, temporary tattoos…

I drove three hours out of the way during a road trip to visit the Wonder Woman museum.

I have dressed up as Wonder Woman (at least once) for Halloween since 2014.

When I work out in the gym, I either imagine I am training for a Trumpian apocalyptic Hunger Games situation or to be a cast as an Amazon sister to Wonder Woman in the movie sequel.

Once, I cajoled my boyfriend into allowing me to come to the Harlem kindergarten class he taught dressed as Wonder Woman.

You read that correctly—I asked to do this.

I remember changing in the unisex restroom of the school, realizing for the first time just how skimpy the costume was. The pantyhose I brought to stave revealing too much ripped as I slid them on and I texted Josh in a panic from inside the restroom, afraid I was going to give the wrong impression of female empowerment to five year-olds.

The kids were wide-eyed at my costume and presence (my Wonder Woman boots are about 6″, increasing my already tall frame to 6’8″). The teachers were in various states of confused merriment and thankfully did not kick me out of the class. At times, when I was bending down to help the kids with their reading, I would see that my boobs were starting to hang outside of my corset and hastily tuck them in. I worried a lot about my starred booty shorts that day.

Strike a pose
                        Strike a pose
Thankfully, no children were scarred for life and they even humored me with assuming a Wonder Woman pose at the end of the day.

The Wonder Woman movie is opening June 2nd.

I will refrain from wearing my full Wonder Woman costume, but I may be wearing my Wonder Woman bra and panty set.

Underneath my muggle clothes. Le sigh.

I will nerdout hard for Wonder Woman. All day. And I am so ecstatic that this movie is looking like an actually polished superhero film and not some cheap-ass summer throwaway. It’s even directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins who directed Charlize Theron in the 2003 feature Monster).

One day, I will attend Comic-Con dressed in some obscure iteration of Wonder Woman. Finally, my Wonder Woman mania will make sense for I’ll be among brethren of all stripes. I won’t even have to worry about the shortness of my starred hot pants.

Suffering Sappho, she's really strong!
Suffering Sappho, she’s really strong!
I love Wonder Woman because she stands for feminine strength and compassion. Because she has kinky, feminist beginnings and always has to save her cute, but hapless boyfriend Steve Trevor. She is an Amazonian princess steeped in mythology. As a woman enamored of mythology, how could I resist the origin story of a warrior princess born to Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons who makes a guest appearance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream) whose daddy is sometimes Zeus and often clashes with the war god Ares?

Her changing looks and attitudes, from exuberant patriotism to being a 1960s mod girl to resembling a rabid Cross-Fitter reflect national anxieties on the lines between womanhood and power.

She aint perfect: She has an invisible jet. Sometimes she gets so skinny that I feel relieved she is a true demi-goddess, because otherwise, she’d probably get her ass kicked. I still wish there were more black women superheroines who weren’t derivatives of their male peers or one-lining muscled brick houses with asses that outsize Jupiter.

I want more for us.

Still. This Wonder Woman love is not going anywhere. What’s great about being a great big nerd about what you love is that people will send things your way. One friend bought me a Wonder Woman water bottle (thanks Lucia!) Friends will send me interesting mash-ups on Instagram and limited-time only t-shirts.

My boyfriend bought me a Wonder Woman lightswitch cover. Heart.

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I have talked with Wonder Woman fan-girls (and fanboys) all around the world. We laugh at the weird knowledge we carry about Diana Prince, admire the various illustrative creations of the George Lopez directed comic book line, giggle about the funniest Linda Carter Wonder Woman series episode, remind each other about #wonderwomanwednesday. We talk about how cool it is that while Superman and Batman are summoned to engage in wars, Wonder Woman is who the people call when they want to end one.

About five months ago I took an eight hour bus ride to New York City from Pittsburgh. On the ride, I read through the Wonder Woman series The Circle. This Diana Prince was complicated, trying to balance her otherworldly powers with the compassion the world so needed, all while being misrepresented and misunderstood by the very people she was called to save. A deeper surge of recognition took root in my gut, warmed a path to my heart.

I know I am not an Amazonian princess who can fly and deflect bullets. But, I am a woman who is trying to figure things out, who is oftentimes anxiously straddling the lines between woman and power, holder and held, not-giving-a fuck and empathy.

Most of the time, my fangirling is pure fun, a sort-of socially acceptable way to exhibit the unabashed enthusiasm I never really had access to as a child. I’m sure this is the story for many cosplayers, comic-con attendees, superhero obsessed adults. We finally have a chance to play.

But, sometimes the play can help digest lessons that no first person essay or therapy session could. If Wonder Woman feels confused about the right way to be a woman, perhaps it’s not so strange that I still do too.

I will fangirl for Wonder Woman always. Or until my future children beg me to stop picking them up dressed in full costume.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

Therapy While Black – Part III – The Stuff to Keep Us Going

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

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A friend of mine recently mentioned that she knows of several black people who are attending therapy—they just don’t share it openly.

“Perhaps it’s the new down low,” I replied.

Perhaps.

Obviously, there are reasons why being in therapy makes it harder for black folks to admit.  See Parts I and II of this series.

This post is for those of us who are in the midst of emotional and mental healing. It may be therapy. It could be reading all the self-help books you can find. Services on Sunday. Yoga and meditation. Weekly group coaching.

Maybe even a combo of some or all of the above.

Wherever you are on this path, bra-fucking-v-o. And I mean it.

We live in a world wholly invested in remaining unconscious and isolated 90% of the time. It is not easy to remove yourself from the Matrix of Un-examined Feelings and attempt to do better.

Why keep going though? Why invest in inner healing in a world such as ours that often doesn’t reward it? It’s not like you get to post selfies of your transformed brain on Snapchat.

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Sometimes we need reminders to keep going.

But keep going we must.

Keep going because the world needs more models of black people who are integrated within. Keep going because you matter.

Keep going because the children really are the future (Whitney was right) and they are worthy of adults who can adequately respond to their emotional needs.

Keep going even when it hurts—sometimes pain is the first step towards a true piecing back together.

Keep going because you deserve to wrest yourself away from the voices that declare that your nose is too wide, that you are a Problem To Be Solved, that you don’t deserve to be laughing without worry.

Keep going to heal from a world that would leave your dying body in the street for 48 hours and then ask you why you’re angry or depressed. Keep going to find freedom away from voices that simultaneously declare you too much and nothing at all.

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Keep going because it is easy for those voices to become your own.

Keep going because authenticity is more than social media buzz word and you deserve to keep it real for reals.

Keep going because stress-related diseases are no joke.

Keep going because you want to usher in a new understanding of holistic health for your church, temple, and home.

Keep going because you need to be heard. Keep going because you have a right to be free from the ghosts of the past.

Keep going even when the world and your family or your friends tell you it is enough to survive. Keep going because you want to thrive while your soul dances upon this earth.

Keep going because it’s okay to do differently than your family. Keep going because it’s okay to do differently than your friends. Keep going even when they do not start going.

Keep going. One small step at a time. Fall back. Start again.

May you keep going. May you respect where you are today and be with it fully as a sunrise.

Keep going.

Because you deserve to be whole.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Therapy While Black – Part II – The Stuff To Consider Before Going

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The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

 

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

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Black people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression in their lifetime but much less likely to seek or receive help than their white counterparts.

I grew up about twenty-five minutes away from Disneyland. I could usually count on two hands the number of black kids in my schools.

And yet.

Whenever I am starting therapy, I request a black female therapist first and then a woman-of-color therapist. Due to my oreo-alternative-black-lady status, this may seem surprising. I (thankfully) have never had an encounter like the one Rankine so skillfully details in Citizen. But, I have experienced my fair share of casual ordinary racism in therapy: There was the white therapist who did this weird ShaNaeNae head toss and finger-snap thing when I told her about being afraid to show anger as a black woman. And the therapist during my last year at the Merchant Marine Academy who flashed me a quizzical glance when I told her of the racist, sexist comments my classmates made.

My friend (a black man) says every time he brings up racism his therapist ignores his input and wants to instead focus on “what is real” versus “what isn’t”.

Le sigh.

White supremacy has very long tentacles and therapy is no exception.

I wish it was better for us out there. I really do.

And so, I forever seek out therapists who look like me. Which isn’t easy. Black and brown people do not dominate mental health professions and getting to work with a black therapist is harder in smaller cities.  To be sure, there are other considerations beside race that one may have to make. Perhaps you really want someone who is queer or you are a dude who really wants to talk another dude. Perhaps you want someone invested in more unconventional approaches to healing. For me, racism and sexism have salient effects on my mental/emotional health. I cannot see a therapist who does not understand this.

Let me be straight–I’ve had uncomfortable interactions with black therapists too—the one who would eat her entire lunch during the session (and not like a granola bar, woman would be heating up rice pilaf and roasted chicken chewing away) or the one who consistently brought up the fact that I was Nigerian even when the point of discussion didn’t warrant the inclusion.

Indeed, there are non-black therapists well-versed and empathetic around oppression, even those oppressions they don’t have to experience directly. The important thing to remember is that you get to choose.

I had the most amazing black woman therapist once. She was spiritual, but not necessarily religious. She was extremely knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and somatic (body-centered) forms of therapy, thoughtful, and had a collection of flower essences she sold in a little wooden cabinet. When I mentioned the casual racism I experienced at work or in the city, she didn’t balk or try to “reason” with me.

kirz art

I have not always had a Dream Therapist. One may have to settle sometimes, decide that dealing with your anxiety or depression is more worth than waiting out the perfect person. I’ve definitely done this once and it was not the end of the world. Word to the wise: 2-3 visits is the MAX time you should give to a therapist when you’re ascertaining whether you want to work with them. If you aren’t feeling it by then, put on your best fuck-boy airs and cut it off. On to the next.

I saw my Dream Therapist though the Coast Guard EAP program, which gives active duty and selected reserve members a specific allowance of mental health counseling appointments each year. When my allowance ran out, we continued our work outside the program. I know I am mighty lucky to have been afforded this opportunity—most people don’t have full health insurance that also covers therapy. (And about a third of therapists don’t accept insurance). Sometimes when I see the hourly rates for therapy my eyes bug out in that cartoony-flashing manner.

Some friends who are in therapy and not attached to school or work insurance meet with therapists on a sliding scale. There are mental health professionals who will do this, but sometimes you have to ask. Some friends save money by seeing their therapists every other week or once a month. Some colleges and universities offer low price sessions to locals. Some friends have invested in free 12-Step groups like Adult Children of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families which meet in cities around the nation or other affordable online programs which primarily work through phone/Skype sessions. Some choose to work with life coaches instead of traditional therapy.

So, before going to therapy, ask yourself some questions: What would the ideal therapy relationship look like for you? Who would you feel most comfortable working with? How possible will this be considering the demographics of where you live? Looking at the resources you have access to and your economic reality, what can you take part in? Are you wanting to heal from trauma or would you better benefit from working with a life coach around a specific issue?

You’re the only one who can answer these questions. But, please don’t feel afraid to research and come up with what makes your wellness journey possible. You deserve it.

 

Other Resources:

therapyforblackgirls.com

http://www.ebony.com/life/black-mental-health-resources

Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art

Therapy While Black – Part I – The Stuff That Keeps Us From Going

“Who wants to go broke paying for a fake friend?”

Molly from the HBO series Insecure

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In 1999, when I was in seventh grade, I would occasionally visit the counseling trailer during break.

That year, I was active in student government, won the lip sync with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, and easily made the honor roll each semester. I even had a steady group of friends. I’d lie to them that I was going to math tutoring and talk with a softly smiling white woman for twenty minutes about how lonely I felt.  It was usually the typical sophomoric litany of teenage issues (disconnection, changing roles, lack of romantic attraction), but these issues were earnestly felt (as are all things without the buffer of adult conformity to squelch them).

The woman had strawberry blonde hair and her office smelled of something sweet and artificial. I always left feeling lighter, less adrift.

After two visits, the counselor had some news,

“Hannah, while I really enjoy our conversations, to continue to see me I’m going to need you to get this permission slip signed.”

My heart descended into my stomach and stayed there. For awhile, I could compartmentalize this sort of therapy. Now it was real as the white paper that sat in my lap.

I took the slip home and asked a family member to sign it while they were on the phone half-hoping their telephonic conversation would distract from reading the finer details. I left the room and waited. Five minutes later, when I heard my name being yelled over the phone along with words like “weak”, “thinks she’s white”, “instead of confiding in her family…” I knew I would never be visiting Ms. Smiling White Woman’s office again. I shamefully collected the unsigned paper, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the trash.

I didn’t try therapy for another ten years.

When my friend Monique, another black woman, casually told her black friend she was seeing a therapist, her friend clutched the desk in extreme alarm and looked from side to side as if what Monique had dispelled was that she was dabbling in bestiality, “GIRL”, she stage-whispered, “ARE YOU OKAY?!”

 

*

                There have been numerous articles about why black people don’t go to therapy. Maybe it’s because the warranted distrust of the medical community. Or because your family tells you to pray harder. Maybe it’s the general thought of “my life isn’t THAT fucked up” and only whiny, upper-middle class white people have the luxury of getting mental help. In America, especially in Trumpian America, there are “pre-existing conditions” to consider and the outrageous costs of health care.

The external pressures are many and daunting. I’m surprised black people go to therapy at all.

Then, there are the barriers that occur inside.

dark brown tears

One of the words I have dragged around my entire life is weak.

Weak for needing help.

Weak for asking for help.

Weak because emotional wellness is a “white people” thing.

Even when I finally accessed a level of inner courage and honesty and started seeing a therapist this word would dance around my sessions, catching me off-guard and a warm shame would rise to my face. Did I really need to be sitting on this couch? Why couldn’t I just figure it out like the strong women in my family?

Watching the “Real as F-” episode of Insecure made me laugh in recognition. I have been both Molly and Issa around therapy. Suggesting it for others but pretending I have my shit together. Teasing those people who started sentences with “My therapist says…”

 

*

kirz art

Things are getting better. Black people, especially those who have access to a higher education, are seeking help. A part of the de-stigmatization of black people going to therapy comes from people being honest about their personal stories around counseling and therapy.

This is my story. I wish my school system knew that some families, especially working-class, non-white families would not find therapy normal. I wish I grew up in a society where mental and emotional health were prized above glossy appearances of wellness and glamour. I wish I never heard my own flesh and blood deliver a monologue about how weak I was for wanting to see a counselor once a week.

Alas, this is not the case. Therapy is not about seeking a “fake friend” or a panacea for all of life’s ills. Black people do go to therapy. And I cannot change how the world or my culture perceives mental wellness, no matter how much time I spend wishing things were different.

But I sure as fuck can change my own views.

Full disclosure: I have never been formerly diagnosed with a mental illness. I write this not to assure my validity or superiority, but to show that one does not need to be classified as mentally ill to desire emotional and mental health.

Therapy is no magic cure-all for all of life’s issues, but it can greatly assist you in figuring some stuff out. Yes, it’s not for everyone and not every therapist or kind of therapy will be an awesome fit (more on this in Part II).

However, in a world which brutalizes black people in ways both subtle and overt, in a world where families can be settings for immense pain, in an age where we are instructed to acquire likes and followers at the expense of inner peace, seeing  the assistance of a  mental health professional can be highly healing (and very, very smart) for learning how to be more at peace in the world.

Therapy helped me figure out the words I had been carrying, the negative stories that were spinning, the ways in which I was being a general asshole to others because of my own unworked-out stuff. My therapists guided to me towards the actions that were already inside of me, the things I just needed help de-cluttering.

Therapy made me more compassionate, grounded, and aware. It helped me to forgive and forge healthier, deeper relationships.

And I never solely relied on therapy. I still read books, went to yoga, talked with my sister and friends, and journaled. My inner healing methods were (and remain) diverse and expansive. Yours can too.

Today, I can finally see that I am not weak. If you are thinking of going into therapy but have that word or ones like it rambling around your inner universe, please don’t believe them. Distance yourself from anything that suggests taking care of yourself is foolish or extravagant. You are not weak for seeking help outside of church and family. You are taking action to be well.

 

***In Part II of Therapy While Black, I discuss the racism that oftentimes exists in therapy and considerations that black people may have to make prior to seeing mental health professionals.

Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art

Poolside Maya Angelou


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I used to pretend Maya Angelou was cheering me on during swim class. I was nineteen years old and in my first year at the US Merchant Marine Academy. I could barely swim.  There was one other black girl in the entire school and I had just had my first ever experience of academic probation. To say I was not doing well would be putting it lightly.

It may seem to be easy reaching to say that Maya Angelou is a personal heroine. She has become a standard of national pride, a reoccurring face affixed to Women’s History Month. She even has her own stamp. But, I needed her back then in a way far beyond rote admiration. I needed to imagine her sonorous voice espousing good will as I took my place in the shallowest side of the pool. The Maya Angelou I invoked during that semester was pure victor, miles away from the adversity that plagued her young life. She’d sit in the stands with a good book and look up every time I finished a lap with a smile.

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Two nights a week I would go to open swim hours and swim amongst the students who moved through water like native marine animals. I’d gingerly climb into the deep end and practice letting go of the wall. During swim class, I often swam as close to the tiled wall as possible, its touch was steady reassurance that I would not drown.

I knew I would never pass swim class that way. I imagined a young Maya Angelou daring to speak for the first time in five years since her childhood rape. I focused on the bravery this act took.  And I’d practice letting go of the wall. Ten seconds at first. Then thirty. Weeks later, I could tread water ungracefully for a full minute without the wall’s aid.

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On my last day of swim class, I laid down on a cold locker room bench with hands steepled in prayer. I had passed the class. I thanked God and then I thanked Maya Angelou.

That swim class was twelve years ago and I still remember the utter shame and fright which overtook me every time I donned that navy blue one piece. I know more about Maya Angelou now. I know that she was not the flawless statue of my younger imagination. I know that every time she sat down to write a new book she wondered if she was good enough. I know that she hated disappointing her son and loved unstable men.

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Many Angelou lovers stop at I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and miss the messy, brilliant woman she eventually grew into. I was the same way. But, I no longer need always-triumphant-Maya-Angelou. I’d rather be inspired her humanness. The woman who failed. The woman who let go of unhelpful walls, even a little ungracefully. The woman who dared to live.