How Being Corny Saved My Life

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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.

Nah.

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?

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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.

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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.

Onward,

Hannah

It Is Okay To Be Happy

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Today started out in a good, good way.

And I was instantly suspicious.

I have been noticing this tendency in myself over this past year—my commitment to suffering, to melancholy, the deep safety I feel within chaos and misery.

Today, I had a tasty protein heavy breakfast. I and my boyfriend joked before I headed out the door. The air was slightly warm while waiting for the bus. My students laughed at my jokes and we talked about Junot Diaz. I had lunch with a professor who was kind and engaging.

And all throughout the day, I was awaiting for the piano to fall. For the stomachache to start, for the mean person to cut across my path, anything, anything, anything, that would ruin this sweet blessing of a day.

I know today, to pay attention to such feelings. To sit with them, to jot them down on my phone or a nearby notebook.

Why is it that happiness and feeling good simultaneously make me feel so ill at ease? Why does a heavy cloak of foreboding feel ever present, on the edge of my consciousness anytime my life starts to go well? Why do I expect bad shit to happen to me?

Sometimes it feels obscene to be filled with anything resembling joy in a world like ours. Especially in the last week with the horrific (but oh so sadly predictable) shooting in Las Vegas, the devastation in Puerto Rico, the fact that DACA is being phased out…what right do I have to call myself happy?

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I worry it is yet another form of American propaganda, this cult of happiness, and that I am falling into it, that I am another hippy-dippy privileged woman who is unaware of the real pain in this world.

But, I know this is not the complete story. I know that my fear of being happy and well-adjusted are not just social or national concerns. I know that my misery or depression does nothing to alleviate the depression or misery of another person or nation. I know this but…

When I allow myself to dig deeper, I see something else: I see a little girl who was well used to being on edge, tense, anxious, and afraid. I see a little girl who has immigrant parents who work and worked so damn hard and were not always rewarded for their efforts. I see a little girl who was taught that it is not “if” things go wrong, but “when” they go wrong…

I see the way this little girl has a limited understanding of happiness, that she truly believes her happiness and well-being is a betrayal to the people whom she loves. These belief are bone deep, not exactly conscious, but always there.

Last week, I did a vlog about the story of trauma as told by Bessel Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. One of the main machinations of trauma is a tendency to repeat the painful patterns that keep us stuck in the past. We almost can’t help it. Such behavior is hardwired into our brains and into our bodies.

We want to eat well, but stay feeling shitty on processed foods.

We want to date people who care about us, but find ourselves attracting emotionally unavailable people who ghost or leave us every single time.

We want to go for our entrepreneurial dreams, but we stay stuck in comparison and afraid to take the action to make our dreams a reality.

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We want to be happy but find ourselves self-sabotaging our well-being time and time again.

To be sure, there are things we cannot control. Life is life. We don’t get to call all the shots. We will never be able to control other people’s behavior. Ever.

But, I think we can be curious about our patterns, especially in relation to self-sabotage and being stuck, especially if we notice that feeling good makes us feel uneasy.

Unless you are a sadist, I think it may be useful to know why we tend to distance ourselves from happiness and keep ourselves mired in misery.

I’ll admit it: there is something about chaos and sadness and disappointment and being alone that feels oddly comforting to me. These are feelings and emotional states I have an almost sisterly connection with. I have had many experiences of being let down, of letting my heart open only to have it crushed with severity by those closest to me.

So, it makes perfect sense that when I have good days, when life seems to be handing me lemonade with extra sugar, I start looking upwards at the blazing blue sky waiting for the piano to crash upon my head.

It makes sense that these are the days I am most likely to pick fights with my partner, to eat something I know my digestive system will hate me for, to laze around so that I have to hurry and rush before an appointment even though I had more than enough leisure to be on time.

Part of me is absolutely terrified of being happy.

And I can love that part of me. I can slowly, gently, but always assure her that she deserves good things, that she can open her arms to more than the basics in life. I can let her know again and again and again that she not only deserves to survive, she has full permission to thrive.

It will take time to stop looking for falling pianos, this I know.

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So, if you are a Queen (or King) of self-sabotage, I urge you to take a holy pause to remind yourself that you deserve to feel good. I suggest you sit with those parts of your soul which are used to being left, being sad, being alone, being pulled in seventy directions and let them know that your new normal can be peace and love and ease. It will take time. It will take patience.

I am right there with you, trying to learn that being happy is not sin or a sign of immaturity or selfishness or a betrayal to those I care for. Being well-adjusted is a gift we can all pass on to those who follow us.

And I urge you to remind yourself as much as you need to:

It is okay to be happy. 

It is okay to be happy.

It is okay to be happy.

I will do the same.

Onward,

Hannah

Joy is an Act of Resistance

“Joy is an act of resistance”

-Toi Derricotte

The day to day of military school can truly suck. From 2005-2009, I attended the US Merchant Marine Academy. A common refrain heard around campus was that USMMA (also known as Kings Point) was a “good place to be from, but a terrible place to be.”

In high school I dreamed of attending NYU. I got the New York part, but a federal service academy dedicated to training future officers and mariners is just a tad different than the West Village liberal arts school.

I was never a “natural” at Kings Point: Terrible long distance runner.  Would rather read a book than be a drill instructor. By the time I graduated, I was one of three black women in the entire school (Kings Point usually had between 900-1,000 students at a time). 

To say I did not fit in would be a grand understatement. 

The technical courses were kicked my ass and I questioned my intelligence for the first time in years, me who always relied on being “smart” as my main identity. My hair was damaged from chlorine and running, I was 3,000 miles away from home, and my desire to engage in intellectual discussions with classmates often went unfulfilled. 

To keep from sinking deeper into the depression that always seemed to hover around the edges, I started to intently orient my mind to focus on the happy. 

Joy = purple pants with white horses on them. And goal post arms.
Joy = purple pants with white horses on them. And goal post arms.

I’d be walking in formation and think back to a sardonic and hilarious joke from my younger sister. I’d recycle cinematic scenes from Amelie or Freaks and Geeks or another movie that made my heart smile. I’d study the pale pink blossoms of the trees leading to the library. When I was in drowning swimming class, I’d pretend that Maya Angelou was on the sidelines of the pool cheering me on with a hearty fist shake. 

It was a little crazy and sometimes really forced, but it worked most of the time. I am not making light of the real ramifications of depression or chemical imbalances, these things are very real and I know such”positive thinking” directives will not remedy every mental distress.

Still, I cannot underestimate the power of this method and how much it saved me during my Kings Point years. 

I was truly learning to protect my joy. 

Once I graduated, I would employ this tactic many times, but I started to really question this method. Was it naive of me to focus on being happy when there was SO MUCH oppression operating in the world? Did such a focus lower my intellectual cache? These thoughts were always in the periphery at Kings Point, but I needed my happy inner moments so deeply back then that I was usually able to push them aside and focus on the joyful aspects of my life. 

…I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”, as the third right—although I understand in the first draft was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land; acquisition of resources; acquisition of slaves. Still, I would rather he had written life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.

I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.

-Toni Morrison

dark skinned woman with purple tights in dress with magazine screenprints on it. she has long braided extensions and light purple lipstick, raising arms in a goal post style with a red background.
Joy = purple tights and a $10 dress from downtown LA

Some years ago, I had only read the bolded lines of Toni Morrison’s commencement speech (is that the large curse of the Internet age? To only track in excerpts and sound-bitey quotes without looking at what else is there?), and I thought the Grand Dame herself was reiterating the superficiality of choosing to go after happiness.

Was I hiding from a life of “real work” by making giving full attention to my inner joy? I started to regard happiness as extremely suspect (weren’t people suffering all around the world)? I grew very resentful of happy people, thinking that they must be dumb or mired in a dream world. When a friend said she was reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman (Mr. Happy, basically) I gave her a mini-lecture about the shallowness of such a pursuit (I cringe at this now.)

Meanwhile, I was sad as fuck. A lot. Swimming in my mind were all those unacknowledged pains from years ago, work stress, and my own desire to live a, dare I say it, happy life.

I had to ask myself some questions. Like, what was this life of shelving my happiness because there was the reality of human suffering doing? Was my emotional turmoil and commitment to sadness eradicating police brutality and the evils of capitalism? Did it feel good in my body to be so resistant to joy and talk the same old depressing shit with my closest friends? 

Um, no.

I feel like this year has been an exercise in trusting myself. Some small spark of guidance during my Kings Point years led me toward that practice of gratitude and dwelling on the good, beautiful, and uplifting. Instead of protecting and growing my joy,  the past couple of years has sometimes seen me in quite the opposite pursuit, screaming MINE, MINE, MINE; cradling my misery like the shrunken down Daffy Duck in the Ali Baba Looney Toons episode.

This is not the way I want to live.

We live in a culture that is deathly afraid of pleasure and fun. We worship pain and suffering in our religion, in our fitness and dietary pursuits, in the ways we choose to go after goals. On occasion,  we pretend we like pleasure, what with our jumbo sized plates at Chili’s, the rapid-fire social media feeds, and the ubiquitous worship of  celebrity culture. 

I really don’t think 99% of that shit is truly pleasurable a majority of the time. I see it as reactionary and a shallow attempt of true joy. I see it as acquisition and contest and being told what we should want. I see it as ignorance and devaluation of our bodies and this earth.

My pleasure sometimes feels trivial in this chaotic world, I suspect that this is something I must mature out of.  

While I truly agree with Toi Derricotte’s pronouncement which starts this blog post, I know that sometimes my happiness is kinda silly. I cannot pretend my joy always has some heavy, higher purpose and social justice connection. It does a lot of times (self-care and acceptance for black women is still too rare) but sometimes this girl really just wants to have fun. 

I used to really want some “authority” to tell me my happiness was okay. That I could be intellectual and still have a Happy List I consult when I was down, that it was not immature to believe in living an effervescent life. Now I know the authority I was waiting for is myself.

I give myself permission to live a life committed to joy.

I give myself permission to wed my pleasure with deep meaning.

Here’s to being in joy. Here’s to protecting our joy. Here’s to creating more joy in this world.

Onward,

Hannah