It’s funny, but I didn’t really take the deep, deep dive into Self-Help Land until I got to NYC.
Funny only because I had lived the previous three years of my life in Portland, Oregon, Lair of the Happy Hippy.
New York City was where I upped my yoga practice, did shamanic breathwork, visited mediums, went to the Open Center, started going to weekly meditation classes.
The New York City subway system is where I read a plethora of self-help books.
I often hid the titles of these book by the cover of my lap.
Because reading You Can Change Your Life! replete with a smiling white woman and 80s neon colors was the definition of Corny. And this was New. York. City. I couldn’t have the random passerby who could care less that I existed think about my uncoolness!
Amidst my desire to outgrow unhealthy habits and modes of thinking, there was still an ever-present need to be cool.
There was only a certain cadre of my friends who I shared my self-help leanings with. And then I would usually follow up with some random aside about the literary novel I was reading or the nugget of political news I had discovered that week. (Did you hear about the call to restructure the electoral college?)
These asides were not some esemplastic mode of expressing my total truth as a person.
I added these asides so I sounded “smart” and “cool” and “deep”. Because: I was really, really embarrassed by the often corny nature of changing one’s life.
There are some people out there who gain emotional and mental wellness via 18th century philosophers, ancient mystics, and deep study of archaic religions. When they talk about their journeys toward depth, they sound intelligent and sharp and use tons of three-syllable words.
But, these weren’t the places that usually worked for me.
What worked for me were things like affirmations and dialoguing with my Inner Child and blindfolded screaming in yoga studios with strangers. What worked for me was reading O Magazine instead of some fashion glossy and books with titles like The Disease to Please. What worked for me was going to Soul Camp where we had an OM off (which group could hold their yoga OM the longest) and a “tug of love” instead of a tug of war. What worked for me was asking W.W.M.D? (What would Maya Do?) and having cumbaya sing-a-longs with Kombucha drinking Wiccans and carrying citrine in my pocket. What worked for me was dancing my anger out to Tubthumping and visualizing the future I wanted via Desire Lists on hot pink paper.
What worked for me was corny as fuck.
There was no way to make this stuff cool.
And I hated that.
Why did all the things that actually worked for changing my life seem so silly?
There were times when I’d look around at the strangers beaming around me, the people who used phrases like “heart opening” and “shadow work” and talked about their chakras with as much seriousness as people talk about their mortages and I’d be like, how the hell did I get here?
I have been sarcastic and self-deprecating since forever. It runs in my family I think. I did not grow up in a household of hugs and effervescent happiness. I and my siblings often show our love for each other with our ironic teasing and deadpan observations of life. Both me and my sister have been told that we have “dark senses of humor” and that our sarcasm confuses (and scares) some people.
I often laugh at things that are truly not funny.
And yet, I really desired to change my life. I knew that the way I was living: constantly chasing perfection, lingering in self-doubt, being constrained by old stories, vituperating my very existence was NOT going to bring me to the life I desired to live.
But, I also wanted to be cool. I wanted to be known as deep, intellectual, razor sharp, a woman of the mind.
What was a sardonic black woman to do?
I will call her Eve. She was the owner of Lucky Lotus, the yoga studio I often went to for meditation and creative art classes in Fort Greene.
She was loud, flamboyantly in love with life, unafraid to dance and laugh with gusto. She was a tall, white lady who once trained to be a Yoruba priestess and now led shamanic breathwork classes where she walked around beating a handheld drum. She was enthusiastic about everything.
She was simultaneously someone I wanted to emulate and also the most intense stereotype of Hippie Seeker I had ever met in real life.
I really liked Eve. Initially I deemed her to be just another client, no way did I expect the owner of this successful, beautiful yoga studio to be so wild and outspoken. We often would talk after yoga and breathwork classes and she listened in a way that is kind of hard to find these days: never discounted my experiences, never lost that childlike joy.
Over time, she revealed more of her story. I won’t go into details here because that is her story and not mine, but this was not a woman who had a simple, la-di-dah existence. She had demons she had faced down—and was still facing. Her entry into this world of spirituality wasn’t some navel gazing pastime. It was her route from a rock bottom and frenzied existence.
She talked about how affirmations had literally saved her from the brink of suicide, that if she wasn’t saying these words of positivity to herself during her more precarious times, she would not be here talking to me.
One day, she and I went to Fort Green Park. We bought a bottle of bubbles from a local bodega and set ourselves atop a grassy hill. We meditated and then spoke aloud of all the things we wanted to let go of and what we wanted to be in life. And then, we blew bubbles. Like kids. And I watched those sensitive balls of light float away into the spring sun. I half wondered what we looked like to the people passing by, two grown women sitting cross-legged and blowing bubbles. Afterwards, I felt lighter and more buoyant than I had in a very long time.
I felt that a life of true joy and happiness was possible. Of course, the feeling did not last forever (it never does….this is another lesson), but I started to approach the corniness of the self-help world with more openness.
I started to own my corny. And my sarcastic streak. I started to see the ways they could co-exist.
Not long after, I rode my bike over the Manhattan Bridge listening to the Grand Dame of Self-Help Herself Louis Hay (may her soul rest in peace) deliver syrupy affirmations into my ears. It felt good and I felt good. And that was all that mattered.
I started to become more open about my love of goddess culture, didn’t lie about the fist-bumping You’re-Okay-I’m-Okay-We’re-All-Okay! conferences I was going to, blogged more and more honestly about all the sorta-weird self-help things I was doing.
Because as much as I still wanted to be known for my dry wit, I wanted to live a life of love way more.
If that meant that I was going to be corny and do corny things, so be it.
Oftentimes, our assigning certain self-care practices a signifier of corny or silly or stupid is just another clever mode of resistance. It is us clinging to the very behaviors that are harming us. It is our fear of change and being cast out of our friend group. It is our fear of doing something different.
We may have decided that happiness and health are only for certain types of naïve or shallow people. We may even decided it’s only for people who grew up in nice homes or white people or the lucky few. We decide that we are not those people and therefore, happiness and salubrious living is out of the cards for us.
In some ways, our culture is deeply afraid of true joy. We call it immature and stupid, as if wallowing in misery and being incessantly down on life makes someone smarter or more sophisticated, assigns them depth.
No, it usually just makes that someone a boring, bitter jerk.
Cultivating emotional and mental wellness, embracing our joy, being vulnerable with those we love are not easy modes of being. It’s much, much easier to be impenetrable and unkind and closed off and make snarky comments about shiny-happy-people. (Ask me how I know…)
But, we don’t get close to the lives we want this way.
So, if you’re worrying about being too cool for self-help, I hope you reconsider. Everyone has their own flavor of what calls out to their hearts and I hope you can be with how silly and weird it feels and really decide that your happiness is worth the struggle and being uncool.
Let’s be cornballs.