Retrograde Review and a Healthy Break

Hello Beautiful People,

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I don’t keep any sort of tab about how many people read this blog. The numbers matter and they do not matter at all.

So: whoever you are, thank you for reading and coming through. There’s a lot of Internet out there and I am deeply and honestly honored you stopped over here. 

I’m going to be taking a blogging break for a bit. I’m not sure for how long but something in my spirit/body/universal whispering is telling me to slow my roll a bit and really birth a new way of writing that isn’t as tied up into external validation. I talk a lot about this, but now it’s time for me to really walk my talk and listen.

As much as I want to override this voice and just continue to do, do, do; I have to stop and take stock. I know this pause will bring so much more for all.

Eventually.

So, as a see-ya-soon gift, I am leaving these 9 blog posts for you to re-read (or to read for the first time). May they digest in a way that brings some joy or understanding or peace in your life. I hope there’s something that works for you:

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  1. The one where I talk about being allergic to the concept of self-love.
  2. The one about being a black woman with emotional eating issues.
  3. A Self-Love Playlist Step-by-Step Guide.
  4. The one about the best book I’ve ever read on trauma.
  5. The one where I realize that happiness is uncomfortable.
  6. 57 Awesome Quotes from Black Women On Loving Life.
  7. The one about following our hearts even when those closest to us are like, WTF?!
  8. The one about loving my body and being called Mutombo in high school.
  9. The one about why self-care is so damn hard.

I’ll be posting my “micro-blogs” on Instagram in the meantime but I fully intend to come back here. I like writing long things :) 

Thanks again for reading and see you soon.

Onward,

Hannah

Chronos and Kairos (or the art of accepting your timezone)

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Hello Beautiful People,

Grab some tea or hot chocolate, this is a long one. In this post, I hold a sorta-conversation with an excerpt of Meggan Watterson’s amazing book, Reveal about embracing the timezone of our lives. Enjoy.

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I used to love the fuck out of five year plans. On December 31st, there I would be, scribbling all the goals I was definitely going to meet the next year.

I never listened to the sane advice about setting small SMART (Specific/Measurable/Achievable/Results-Focused/Time Bound) goals, or to complete one thing at a time. I’d always have to add more lines to the space allotted for my plans.

I wanted to do it all.

Time was this incessant rushing that surrounded me at all times and I never, ever felt I had enough. I believed in pushing and linear progress and that life did not reward those who sat back and let things come to them.

“Chronos, or chronological time, is linear, sequential, “clock time”: this is where the ego lives and thrives. We often want time to unfold this way, one event following the next and arriving just when we want it to arrive.”

When I got out of Coast Guard, I felt I had to go all out; do all the things I missed out during my active duty years.

And I needed to do them all right now.

At the same time.

I was extremely judgment of all the time I “wasted” beforehand. Why had I waited this long to pursue my art? I should’ve been writing more. I should’ve been doing burlesque. I should’ve been traveling.

“Kairos, on the other hand, is nonlinear, sacred time–the right or opportune moment.”

It wasn’t long before I felt entirely burned out. I was taking trying to be a better writer, exploring burlesque, taking three classes, teaching writing college freshmen at Pitt, doing my Coast Guard reserve duties, trying to balance time with my partner/friends/family, mentoring a student on her manuscript, planning group outings, posting to Instagram almost every day, coordinating photo shoots, working out, starting my entrepreneurial dreams, reading every self-help book that came across my path…..and a lot more.

I developed this weird twitch in my right eye that semester, at least three times a day my right eyelid would flit wildly for minutes on end.

And still, during all this time, I told myself I wasn’t doing enough, that I could do more, that I needed to work harder. I never quit regretting all the time I didn’t pursue these activities earlier on in my life.

“We can pray our butts off for something to happen, say finding a lover, or getting a car or house, or having a long-awaited child. But then the person we meet ends up smothering us with love we weren’t ready for, or the car payments puts us in debt and the house catches on fire, or the baby of our dreams has colic and we don’t sleep for two years straight. Then we realize, that maybe, just maybe, in willfully pursuing our ego’s desire, we tampered with sacred timing. Kairos is aligned with the highest truth of our lives, and being aligned with kairos means not always getting what we want when we want it.”

I was very frustrated during this time. Every writing rejection stung. I was annoyed that I didn’t have the flexibility to performing the standing split of so many burlesque performers. I was frustrated that it didn’t seem like I was attracting new “followers” for my work online. I was frustrated that writing still felt so difficult. I was frustrated that my body, my personal growth, my boss dreams seemed to be moving along at sloth speed.  

In 2009, when I was just a wee Ensign, I wrote Issa Rae a fan-girl letter of appreciation when she released Misadventures of the Awkward Black Girl (she wrote a really nice thank you back :) I would gain inspiration from bloggers on Feministing and looked at Gabi Gregg’s fashion blog on the weekly.

In 2016, many of these women are stars in their industries. Writing books, creating shows for HBO, releasing their own swimsuit collections.

I looked at the magnificent and amazing progress these women had made in the years I spent in the Coast Guard and while I was really excited for them, but a question would reverberate in my brain whenever I saw their amazing progress: what the fuck was I doing during those years?

“Kairos is the sacred time needed for us to meet with not only what fulfills us but also what fulfills a need in the world. Kairos works on our soul’s timing, not the laminated table the ego has set up for our life. Kairos-time allows things to unfold naturally; nothing is forced or contrived into being out of fear.”

Fear. That was my main motivator. I tried to dress it up in a fancy assemble of Ambition and throw some Passionate cuff-links on, but the truth was that all my goals in life were fueled by a persistent feeling of not being enough.  I was scared I was never going to meet the big goals of my life.

And I was extremely dismissive of my actual achievements.

I wanted to bully time into the timeline I wanted. But the thing was, every time I did this, things fucked up. I felt harried. I didn’t get to spend the time I wanted making my writing or art really shine. The work I would often showcase felt cheap and under-cooked. I would get some sort of success and then realize I didn’t even have the time to actually savor it because I was already onto the Next Thing. 

“When we judge where we are in our lives and how much we’ve achieved, we do so from a place of chronos. Our judgments are based on the expectations we set for ourselves: job by 25, married with children by 30, book published by 35, own business by 40, and so on to the grave. Many of us measure ourselves by these milestones without even examining them to see if they’re our own. Meaning some of them are acquired by social osmosis. What shifts the weight of our baggage is simply choosing it. Owning the baggage as the particular story our soul needed to live out allows us to claim it. And oddly enough, claiming it allows us to then let it go.”

When I really sat my ass down, I realized that I had been entertaining this ambition-fueled-by-terror my entire life. Even in the Coast Guard, I was like this. Taking self-improvement class after class. Always questioning how well I was doing as an officer (which was never good enough).

I had to come back to Story. What was the story I am telling myself of how my life should’ve gone? What I should’ve done? Who I should’ve been?

It sounds simplistic and it is not. Getting to know our specific story means we are probably encountering some not-so-shiny parts about ourselves, views, and influences. Things we think we should be past now—or never have assimilated into our belief system in the first place. Like if I see a beautiful woman and instantly feel the first pin-pricks of jealousy, I can decide to ignore these feelings, minimize them or inquire about what story I am telling about her and myself in relation to her. Do I believe in the hierarchy of beauty? Even a little bit? Do I think my life will be easier if I looked like her? What junior high hang-ups are still operating under my skin? What is the Story here? And it’s the same about the timezone of our lives.

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“Once we let go of some of the stories that have been defining and confining us, we can align our identity with a deeper truth—with the soul-story beneath the surface drama of who we are according to ego. We can dive beneath the wreck we fear we’ve made of our lives to hear the story our soul is living out. Listening to our soul-story allows us to release the idea that life is something happening to us. We can claim the power to become the author of our own narrative.”

Owning our story and our timezones isn’t easy. Our parents and friends and social organizations will chime in or hammer away at us about how they want us to live.

If your story is that you don’t want children or you really want to live abroad or you are tired of hanging around with your work friends at functions that cause you to want to stab a pen through your hand, this is YOUR choice. People will probably never shut up about their opinions about what they think you should be doing. The magazines and social media apps won’t stop showing you what other people in your similar fields are succeeding at. It’s up to you (and me) to reinterpret what we see.

“This is how we begin, how we remove a crucial veil: we claim our baggage as the story of our soul. No matter how old you are or what you’ve been through, you can change your perception of what’s possible by claiming what has weighed you down and what you’ve used as an excuse to remain closed and unworthy of love, and accept that your baggage is, in fact, your personal soul-story, which has unfolded in exactly the sacred time required. You may not be where you wanted or expected to be at this point in your life, but you can choose to acknowledge that you are right where you need to be. This does not mean that where you are is not painful or frustrating. But it does mean that you have the power to change your life in an instant, simply by changing your perspective.”

My name is Hannah Eko. I was born in London in the mid-80s. My family is Nigerian and I have one sister and two brothers. I spent some time in foster care. I went to schools in the suburbs of Southern California. After I graduated high school, I spent five years in military school and eight years in the Coast Guard. I had my first kiss and relationship when I was 25. I am jealous, kind, very sensitive, stupid-competitive, creative, often a procrastinator, funny, a little vain, shy with new people, and smart. I am not an influencer, widely published, or a Thirty Under Thirty. I eat out way too much. I love my friends. Sometimes I am still overly self-conscious and tied to people-pleasing. I love corny shit like self-help, astrology, and seminars on Being a Good Person. This list cannot cover the magnitude of who I am, but I must own it. All of it. This is where I am in my life. This is what I have to work with. This is my timezone.

“Take all those stories you’ve used as a reason not to love yourself. It’s time to see them as lessons to challenge, refine, and even polish your soul. You look at those hard-to-let-go-of stories, and you love yourself enough to see that you deserve much more than to dwell on them and punish yourself with regret. You own the stories that have kept you in hiding, knowing that they form the unique narrative of your soul. You also know, however, that they are only a part of your journey, not the whole.”

My story of rushing, of constant comparison and that dogged sense of not-enough that has tailed me for most of my life does not have to be yet another reason to hate myself. It is because of my over-scheduling days, that I truly know the benefit and gift of slowing the fuck down.

My twitch taught me a lot.

The success of Issa Rae and Gabi Gregg has taught me in the power of going after my passion, of consistent effort and action, and what is possible for black women today.

My not-enough has brought me to classes and teachers who have opened my eyes to meditation, attachment therapy, the effects of trauma, and a deeper sense of self-love.

My not-enough wound lends me compassion to others who suffer in this world. My stories aren’t “bad” or the entirety of my existence. They are ways for me to be a more solid human being. I am truly exactly where I need to be. This is advice I’ve heard since I was about 18. It is only now, thirteen years later, that I am beginning to believe it.

“In this way you clean out your inner closets. You dig out the piles stashed behind the couch and under the bed, in the basement, the attic, and the spare room, and you lay the contents of your life at your feet. You sift through everything that makes you who you are and what you will be able to do and become.”

This process takes time. It is constant. I think we hear these sort of pronouncements, these entreaties about day-to-day progress and we add them to some automatic check-list in our mind, got it, check, moving on.

We scarcely rest with the awesome but beautiful task of growing and what it really entails. I have been in the habit of living about two days in advance since I was like, six. Life was all about what I was going to do and become by next week, next month. So yeah, this consciousness is not going to be something I embody in one fell swoop.

“If we didn’t have baggage, if we didn’t have dark, troubling stories in our lives, how would we ever get to practice the power of love? What if every traumatic event we’ve endured, every regretful choice we’ve made, is actually an opportunity for the soul to spread its wings? We lift the weight of what has held us down by choosing to believe that everything in life has happened for our soul’s formation. It has not only happened for a reason but happened exactly when it needed to. And that means births and deaths, marriages and divorces, epic gains and epic losses.”

Honestly, if someone came up to me after a stupendous hurt, a death of a loved one, a catastrophic disaster and told me, “Don’t worry, Hannah, everything happens for a reason,” I would probably slap them across the face. I believe that sort of advice is not anyone’s to formulate expect the person who has gone through the loss. I don’t even think everything in our lives will make sense.

But, some things will. There are some things we can locate in our storylines with the awesome benefit of hindsight and maturity and see them for the wisdom building events they were.  We see that yes, this had to happen to me exactly this way or I would have never learned to stop dating assholes or stand up for myself or go for that audacious goal or leave the only home I’ve known.

Or maybe we still don’t know the lesson. Maybe there never was one. Maybe we didn’t become a “better person” or deeper.

Still—whatever happened is.

We have to say, I know that This Very Happy or Visible or Fit Person is doing ______________ right now, but this  (whatever this is) is my current life.

We are the only ones who can see this. We are the only ones who get to sit down with the complete tapestry of our lives and accept it all.

There are times when I feel like I get this on a level of depth I have never encountered before in my existence.

Then there are other times when I am like, fuck-this-lesson, fuck-soul-formation, just let me get what I want. Now.

I accept this too.

I am not a cyborg programmed permanently to the setting of Zen.

I’ve got my stuff like every other human and part of that stuff is being hella impatient and fearful.

And not always knowing.

I hope that you can find some space this week, this month, this year to sit down and go over your life.

To slow down and accept your own timezone with open arms.

I hope you can find the beauty in what is only yours to see.

I hope you can learn to let go and trust in a way that truly works for you.

I hope you can shed the expectations this culture places on you that don’t actually jive with your own life and heart.

I hope you can learn to love the Kairos.

Onward,

Hannah

Sometimes I Make Art For All The Wrong Reasons

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.

-Moliere

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I read a magazine article the other day.

(Though sometimes, I don’t even know why I pick up glossies; since 89% I will look up from their artsy pages thirsting for culottes ((And I don’t even like culottes! but they were in the Spring issue and the model wearing them was striding down some urban landscape looking all mod and confident, so…)) and wanting to try some diet that involves cantaloupe-mango shots.)

It must be the pretty pictures.

(Advertisers are the devil.)

But, my recent perusal netted me this idea for a blog post, so there’s a positive.

I was scanning through the Essence Black Women in Hollywood issue and came across Lupita Nyong’o’s gorgeousness and an accompanying full page quote. I can only paraphrase now (since I was cheap and read the magazine in the store) but it was something about how Nyong’o never worried about being famous or well-paid, she was always just looking to get lost in good, meaty acting roles.

Lupita Nyong’o is a Piscean goddess who was probably birthed from a large seashell as King Poseidon and a host of black mermaids swam by singing in falsetto.

I bet the woman can heal the sick and communicate with cats.

My name is Hannah Eko: And I sometimes make art for all the wrong reasons.

I make art to get noticed. Barely caring that it will do Good or Inspire Others.

Continue reading Sometimes I Make Art For All The Wrong Reasons

Why I Quit The Trauma Olympics

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(This post contains some graphic descriptions of bodily injury, so if that’s not for you, stop reading now.)

On the first ship I was assigned to, the Sealand Florida, one of the longshoreman lost a finger. It may have been two. We were arriving into port, I think it was Houston or Beaumont and suddenly there is a frantic call to the bridge via radio.

Some mooring lines, the ropes that tether ships of exceptional tonnage of large container ships like the Sealand Florida to a dock, can become so tense when stretched that if they should snap, they have been known to cut a man’s leg clean off with machete preciseness. They can carry so much strength that if you accidentally get your fingers caught against a bulwark and the line, your fingers will leave a mangled, bloody mess.

They sent me, the lucky deck cadet down to escort the injured man via elevator upstairs to the medical room. I remember that this particular longshoreman was one of the youngest members on board, not much older than my nineteen years, and that the space where his fingers should be looked like squished tomatoes. I remember he was crying.

In my shock and thinking words were useless, I said nothing as we rode up the several flights. I just prayed and wished the elevator would go up faster.

I still regret that. That I said nothing.

But, what do you say to someone in that situation?

Sorry? I hope you feel better? It’s going to be okay?

The Trauma Olympics is when people assert their trauma as a justification for terrible behavior. It’s when people belittle someone else’s pain because it isn’t as large as their own or doesn’t meet their staunch criteria of Things People Should Be Hurt About. 

It’s that friend who when you tell them of a recent heartbreak says Well, you should hear what happened to me, trust me, you don’t know heartbreak…

Or

I mean, she’s over here complaining about her family, but I can tell you my family is much worse…

Continue reading Why I Quit The Trauma Olympics

7 Reasons Self-Care Is So %&$@ Hard

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Self-care, these two monosyllabic words, are very popular these days.

As a feminist and a woman creator in this society, I have often struggled with the practice of self-care. The concept makes sense to me: take good care of yourself lest you be so overspent and miserable you make others (and yourself) suffer.

Got it.

But, sometimes it’s hard. And while I used to think the difficulty was another personal failing, I am now well aware that it is not. So, please, if you are blaming yourself for not doing self-care “right” or “well”, STOP.

You are not broken.

But.

There may be some reasons why self-care is so damn hard for you.

Here are my 7 (by no means exhaustive) reasons why self-care may be tough for you. I speak from experience (as always) and I hope you will find something useful here…

Continue reading 7 Reasons Self-Care Is So %&$@ Hard

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #4: A Conversation with Roxane, Stephanie and Becky

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Hello Beautiful People,

I’m back with the Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat series (check out Part One, Two, and Three.)

Today’s post is a conversation with the writing of three women: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Stephanie Armstrong Covington author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat, and Becky W. Thompson’s A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems.

Sometimes when I want to talk about being a black woman who is healing her emotional eating issues, I feel a little like Dave Chapelle in Half Baked. You know that part where his character decides to go to rehab for weed and meets a crazed, coke-addicted Bob Saget:

Bob Saget: Marijuana is not a drug. I used to suck dick for coke.

Rehab patient: I seen him do it!

Bob Saget:  Now that’s an addiction, man. You ever suck some dick for marijuana?

Yeah, sometimes I feel like that. Like with the assortment of ills that black Women face on the daily, I’m gonna make a big deal out of emotional eating and body image?

But, then, I remember that this is not  my highest self talking or even a well-meaning balance toward empathy for other’s pain.

Nah, this voice is a virulent, parroting of patriarchal values which instruct me to rank pain and to always, always situate frivolous “women’s issues” at the very bottom. It is a voice steeped in meanness and denial.

This is not the voice which wants me to heal and be honest.

Eating is something we have to do to live. And for women, it can often become a deeply divisive and harmful act which we use to control our bodies from becoming too much. Food is social and in our country, usually widely available. It is therefore easy to self-abuse with.

Food becomes another mode of employing a steady degree of self-loathing, we eat foods that make us feel ill, we create highly rigid diets that take out all the pleasure of eating, we starve our bodies from what nutrients they actually need.

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In a blog post, Stephanie Armstrong Covington, author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat writes,

“…As a child my mother explained my harsh realities, “You’re poor, you’re Black, and you’re a woman. You’ve got three strikes against you so don’t expect life to be easy. But she was wrong. My dark chocolate colored coating protected me from suspicion, judgment and the intervention I desperately needed. When I finally sought out mental health support my family was mortified. I had broken the one sacred covenant. Church was offered up as the only acceptable alternative. I had revealed my deepest secrets to strangers who did not look like me. I had relinquished my role as the strong Black woman archetype. Why couldn’t I suffer in silence? Or have more self-control? There was so much I needed to learn about my relationship with food. Instead of celebration and ceremony it became a weapon I used to shove down my shame and loathing. It took a long time to learn that I could not heal my relationship to food on my own. There was no diet that would work for me…”

Food, for me,  was and sometimes still continues to be, a place where my shame of being too much, where my desire for comfort are the most salient.

Unlike Ms. Covington who mainly grew up in inner city Brooklyn, I was raised in a suburb made up mainly of Mexican and white people in Orange County, CA. My Nigerian parents had no real idea what it meant to grow up in a setting that was not a black majority.

When I think back on my youth: the desire to be a famous catwalk model in Milan, the tiny white girls I was surrounded by, the teasing from black guys in high school about looking African, it’s not difficult to see how my relationship with food became so fraught. I see why I carried so much shame about my deep attachment to sugar, why the binges occurred, and the resultant obsessiveness about diets and workouts.

It was all so damn confusing: Eating was supposed to be fun! All the commercials said so, including the Carl’s Jr. ones with lanky blondes somehow sexily chewing up a hamburger. I wanted to be skinny like Alek Wek. (When I wasn’t wanting to be built like J.Lo.)

At family parties, aunties would pinch my cheeks and with the sharp straightforwardness of the non-Westerner issue a loud, “Hannah, you’re getting FAT.” I was encouraged to eat jollof rice, red stew, fried rice, dodo and if I took a smaller helping an uncle would say I was showing off or trying to be white. You got admonished for being too skinny AND too chubby.

Curtailing my sugar intake felt scary in a way I deep down knew was not normal (sometimes when our junior high school Snack Shack was closed, the one that sold 3 Snickers for 99 cents, I’d get all panicky and almost about to cry…okay, sometimes I actually did.)

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When I decided to seek help like Ms. Covington, I felt stupid, like any minute a trio consisting of Oprah, bell hooks, and Toni Morrisson would revoke my black girl card. And because I did not see Women and girls who looked like me talking about their struggles with eating, because I did not fall cleanly into the standards set forth for bulimia or anorexia, because I felt like I was a burden and “too much” already, because there were Bigger Things To Deal With As a Strong Black Woman, I mostly stayed silent. I kept my constant anxiousness about food to myself.

If no one else gave a shit, what right did I have to?

In an interview at Adios Barbie! Professor Becky W. Thompson offers this,

“…Racism, poverty, homophobia or the stress of acculturation from immigration–those are the disorders. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are very orderly, sane responses to those disorders. So that’s why I don’t even use the word “disorder.” I’m shifting the focus away from the notion of eating problems as pathology, and instead labeling forms of discrimination as pathological. I even thought for a while that I should say “eating issues.” But I ended up using the term because eating problems do become problems for women. So why the shroud of silence? Shame makes it especially difficult for women who don’t fit the “profile” to speak up and seek help. For many women, healing from body problems goes hand-in-hand with finding a solid racial, sexual, or personal identity…”

The deeper healing from harmful eating habits in my life is a reckoning with the actual problems: the daily assaults of racism and sexism, the emotional phobic nature of our society, the ways I had truly internalized that I was only important if I had the right kind of body, my deep-seated belief that I was bad, the way sugar offered a steady comfort I could find nowhere else.

Before, I saw myself as the problem: I had too little willpower, I was lazy, weak, the wrong kind of black girl.

Seeing words like those from Professor Thompson removed a thick veil, a veil that thought I was all alone, that I was irredeemable and broken.

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I cannot divorce my eating habits from the issues of YM (an old school teen Magazine) I read like crazy and the MTV I devoured unconsciously as a teen. Or the way I felt unsafe in my body. How high fructose corn syrup made up for the sweetness missing from my actual life (but not really). The pressures to be a good African daughter. The kids at school who would ask pointed painful questions about my skin, hair, and lips. My model dreams. The want to be romantically desired by a certain type of brown or black boy. The vocal judgement from an Auntie about my belly.

Our eating habits do not exist in a vacuum.

“…This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us,” Roxane Gay writes.

This message from Gay is not solely about thinness.

Blanket assumptions are the worst BUT on a whole, black and brown communities usually have an appreciation for “thicker” bodies. Thick does not usually translate to fat but to a thin-waist-big-butt-and-boobs ideal.

I have no issues with the thickness but even this ideal can become associated with the “not taking up space” Gay speaks about.

Basing our self worth on an arbitrary cultural ideal (even if said ideal is “big”) and letting this ideal control our lives is still wanting to be small,  for our lives become firmly attached to seeking external approval (a never ending contest) and disallow space for what actually is.

I long to live a life that isn’t pinched into smallness by the demands and tastes of unconscious men to take up less space in my actual body.

My relationship with food is a perfect barometer of how much I still believe in being small and pleasing.

So….

How do we relearn how to eat with the intent to nurture and not to control? How do we let go of being pleasing and work on being pleased ourselves? What ideas about smallness and scarcity are fueling our relationship with food?

It starts with realizing you are not alone. Like, at all.

You do an inventory of your history. Was there trauma that you encountered that affected your relationship with food? Where you grew up. What messages you learned about eating. Your fears about your body—aesthetic and otherwise. The media you took in. The shame you held or currently hold.

You hold that desire to be small, to fit in, to be pleasing with as much compassion as you can. You are not weak for seeking love or validation the only way you could see fit.

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There is real social and even economic capital in having a “a good body” in our society.

However, we have to look closely at the way eating is stifling our lives. Eating does not have to be a place of anxiety and turmoil. It doesn’t have to be exhausting or scary.

But, you may have to do some digging and some reckoning.

When that old shame of being too much and being the Weak Black Woman creep up on me (and they are stubborn little creepers let me tell you…), I breathe. I know there will be some people in my community who DO believe I am taking myself too seriously, that I am Dave Chapelle trying to get off the weed.

That’s okay. This is my life and what makes me feel more Whole is to shine a light in any area shadowed in shame.

And for me, this is definitely, definitely eating.

Dear one, if you are reading this and suffering or just fed up having a low-level dread of eating, do not be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. To do all that you can within your means to heal. A wound is crying out for your attention; heed it.

You are not alone.

You are not broken.

You are not solely defined by how you eat.

You can heal.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

 

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #2: An Interview with Jennifer Sterling

Hello Beautiful People,

Welcome to: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat #2. (For Part One, here ya’ go…)

I’m constantly searching and scrounging around for personal growth stuff, especially in terms of eating. I entered the self-help world mainly through my haphazard, strained relationship with eating and my body.

I wanted a life free from constant body dissatisfaction and eating my feelings through the portal of Cadbury Roasted Almond Chocolate bars.

I found many wellness coaches, eating disorder specialists, health gurus and body positivity warriors. Many of them white women. And while I gained a lot from their level of mastery, I wanted a more culturally nuanced view.

Someone who got why if “eating clean” meant forsaking jollof rice, I was, um, not gonna do it.

Enter Jennifer Sterling. Jennifer is the Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Coach of my fucking dreams. She’s a former pole dance instructor, went to culinary school, and is well-versed in black girl wellness. Her weekly emails about healing from trauma and learning to nurture ourselves with food instead of numb ourselves, buoy me upwards every time I read them. She doesn’t believe in diets or that health only comes in one size. She is also the founder of the Black Girl Healing Project.

She is amazing and has gracefully agreed to be interviewed here. I hope you enjoy and definitely, definitely check out her site! You won’t regret it.

Jennifer Sterling
Jennifer Sterling

Please tell us all a little about yourself, Jennifer. What are three things we would not know about you just by looking at you (weird, random factoids welcome!)

I am a Holistic Nutritionist, plant-based chef and creative arts therapy candidate. I help women learn to eat intuitively and nourish themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Three things that no one would know about me by just looking at me? I taught pole dancing for about 8 years, I owned an allergen-free baking business for about 6 years, and I play the alto saxophone.

What led you to become a holistic nutritionist?

My interest in nutrition came from a desire to heal myself. When I was in college, I started experiencing recurrent yeast infections, headaches, and fatigue. I saw several doctors, and everyone swore there was nothing wrong with me – my blood work came back normal and it appeared that everything was fine. After a few years of feeling like I was getting nowhere, I decided to take my health into my own hands and do a little research on my own. As I was researching, I discovered that the way I was eating was contributing to my symptoms. I changed the way I was eating and many of my symptoms disappeared – discovering the power of food for myself, made me want to share it with others, especially since it was never mentioned anytime I saw a doctor. I didn’t want other women to have to suffer for as long as I did.

What issues do you find particularly affecting women of color with eating/body image? Are these issues being addressed in your opinion?

The issues I see affecting women of color have more to do with bigger societal issues – the thought that women of color can’t or don’t suffer from eating disorders, and women of color feeling as though they have to look a certain way based on societal norms.

There are some conversations that are happening around these issues – some acknowledgement that anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what their shape or size. Sometimes, it is assumed that only a thin person can have an eating disorder, and this is not the case.

I think with the anti-diet movement that’s happening now, a lot of body image issues are being addressed – as more practitioners come to understand the dangers of dieting for weight loss, there is more talk about body kindness, self-love and acceptance. I think these conversations and understandings will be helpful for all women.

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What is the one piece of wisdom you would offer to a woman wishing to heal her relationship with food?

Let go of dieting and everything that goes with it – counting calories, weigh-ins, etc. – and focus instead on the needs of your body. There is no one size fits all diet and 95% of people who diet end up gaining the weight back plus some within 5 years – learning to eat in a way that makes you feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally is much more sustainable and supportive of your overall health than eating to control the size of your body.

What mainstream nutritionist advice or guidance do you find problematic, especially in regard to women of color?

That you need to be or have to be vegan to be healthy. I see this a lot on social media, especially on accounts run by women of color. Being vegan is great, if it works for your body – if you feel energized, satisfied, and well when you eat that way long-term. It’s not the only way, however. For some, eating high-quality animal protein is helpful.

In general, I find any nutrition advice that only focuses on one way of eating to be problematic. We’re not all the same, and we don’t all have the same needs when it comes to food and eating.

What is your favorite meal? Dessert?

My favorite meal…that’s a tricky one! I love mac and cheese, pizza, and tacos. What can I say, I’m a nutritionist, but I love comfort food. Who doesn’t!?!

My favorite dessert. Hmmm….sweet potato pie!

And a curiosity of mine: can you give us your inspiration behind your sign-off, “hugs and curves”?

For sure! It was inspired by the years I spent as a pole dancing instructor – so much of that work was about helping women to celebrate and appreciate their curves. That sign-off is meant to be an extension of that work – offering support with a hug and a little encouragement to embrace your curves.

So, please remind us again, where can we find you?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @jennmsterling or visit my website: jennifersterling.com for more info about me and my work.

Thank you so much Jennifer!

I hope this interview has helped some of you out there. Eating does not have to be a struggle and I am learning this along with you. I too have succumbed to notions that there is a “right” way to eat and look, but I am happy to say, that this type of thinking is fading away. I truly hope all of us can find the freedom to be our best selves in our bodies, and that we can learn to treat them with grace and love through the way we eat.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Redefining Sexy

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It kinda all started when Blake Shelton was named Sexiest Man Alive 2017 by the authority of authorities on sexiness, People Magazine.

So me and a friend started talking about what has been universally accepted as sexy these days: What images proliferate in our media. Think pieces on how Beyoncé, Kim K, or Rihanna have “changed” the way women experience their sexuality and sensuality. Does personality count? The ways in which strip club culture has altered the conversation on Sexy.

Lately, I have been paying closer attention to my body in the world. When it expands. When it contracts. When I feel that anxious tightening in my chest or clamping down over my ribcage. When butterflies start. And stop.

During our text conversation, I felt my body constrict, like a dozen thin ropes were wrapped around my mid-section. In the past, I would have ignored this tell-tale signal and blustered forward in intellectual conversation. But, yesterday, I stayed with my body.

I started to think about what I had been told was sexy, the images and attitudes that came into sharper focus once I got to junior high. I thought of Beyoncé in the Baby Boy video. I thought about rappers comments about their love for “honeys with the light eyes” and the current hyper-fascination with big asses. I thought about duck faced selfies and hour-glass silhouettes. I thought about how American-made porn dictates much of what the world is supposed to find sexy.

Sometimes, I think about how I should “already know this”.  Shouldn’t I already have accepted that what I believe doesn’t always jive with what the culture sees as sexy? Haven’t I read enough feminist theory, books about sexuality, blog posts by sensuality coaches? Haven’t I browsed Babeland and She-Bop enough in my lifetime? Shouldn’t I already have an expanded view of sex and sexuality and how I fit into it?

Earlier this week, I read this quote from Bethany Webster:

“Cognitive understanding is very important but it isn’t enough to transform us and create lasting, meaningful change…Concepts are like seeds of transformation, that when dropped into the body can take root and begin to transform us on the deepest levels. When we gobble concepts it is a superficial action. What creates lasting transformation is fully digesting the concepts and allowing them to sink deeply into our bodies, where the alchemy takes place.

Transformation has its own organic timeline that is out of our hands. It cannot be rushed. We cannot control or predict it. This truth can be hard to swallow, especially because our culture sends the message that success is equivalent to control and timely “results”.”

I had been “eating” up the truth about what sexy was for a long time, but the deeper understanding of it was not connected in any real way to my body. So while I was espousing a belief that sexy was more than gyrations and “acceptable” hip-to-waist ratios and long hair, etc. etc., the truth was that deeper in my body, I didn’t really believe it.

The truth is that my views are very much aligned with what the culture has declared as Sexy.

Even now.

This can be traced to living in a culture that devalues women and their experiences. If we are taught that men are superior to women, then it follows that male opinion is more important than what women opine. It is therefore imperative to focus on what men, especially the most powerful men, define as desirable and good and oh-so-sexy. Women must take their cues from their desires and fall in line.

And so, if the idea of Sexy is Kim K and women who look similarly and a handful of Victoria Secret Models and the “hot” yogi or what have you, then this is sexy. End of story.

The rest of us are just there.

I do know that sexuality and sensuality and attraction to who we name as the Sexiest People in our society isn’t a neatly drawn line between women and men. I know that “not all men” find the same women sexy.

However, I also know that there is still a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexy: it is young and immaculate and usually white-or-near-white looking. It is often performative. It is frequently divorced from how women actually experience their bodies. It is sterile and open mouthed and always eager to please.

Part of my journey in revising my relationship to my body, untying myself from the patriarchy is really digging deep in the most common assumptions I make about the world. This includes what I have define as Sexy.

Taking a moment to center.
Taking a moment to center.

The largest leap I made when entering the world of burlesque was not physical. It was not the tassel twirling or the hip shimmies, the bump-or-grinds or the standing split (which my ass can’t do without killing myself anyways.)

It was learning to see myself as a sexy woman.

More importantly, it was feeling sexy.

For so long, despite my reading of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, I had pretty much accepted that only certain types of bodies and women could be seen as sexy. I was more comfortable being funny and theatrical, because that was where I saw myself. Girls and women like me, weren’t seen as inherently sexy and feminine.

Intellectually, I knew this was bullshit, but I would literally find myself unable to do certain movements or flirtations in burlesque class due to these mental formations. And when I did, I felt stupid and silly. I was afraid people might laugh at me, that they would smell my awkward display of sensuality a mile away.

I felt like some kind of impersonator, that I was behaving like what Sexy “should” be. A kind of sexy that had no real connection to my living, breathing body.

But, I kept going. The first time I took a burlesque class through Brown Girls Burlesque, I stood in awe of these women of varying shapes and shades who so proudly flaunted their erotic personas on stage. I went to a ton of burlesque shows. I let myself feel awkward as I winked and circled my hips and was fully alive on stage. I danced alone in front of mirrors at home. I journaled about the hard truths about how I had defined sexy before. I expanded my media intake. I asked myself tons of questions:

Where did I first learn about what sexy was? How would my views on sexuality be different if I had never seen music videos or porn in my life? Why am I so tied up to mainstream’s definitions of sexy? When do I feel the sexiest? Who’s the sexiest person I know in real life? Which celebrities do I actually find sexy and which ones have I just been told that they are and reluctantly agree?

I’m still asking myself these questions, but the answers are taking on a deeper level of cognition because they are not just located within my grey matter. I realize that I can’t just “gobble” up these redefinitions. They will take time. The journey is not about what everyone else is doing or how others experience me or even their own sensuality, it is about my own truth.

So.

 I am sexy. I know that Perle Noire is my sensual hero. I know that mainstream attitudes about what constitutes sexy will probably not change much in my lifetime. I know that it is my experience and definition of sexy that matters more than People Magazine’s. I think that sexuality can be spiritual. I know that there is true power in the erotic.

I don’t know if Beyoncé or Kim K or Rihanna have really changed the conversation on women and their sexuality. Perhaps for some women, they have. Still, I think our experience of sensuality and sex is still too firmly tied to the most superficial of attributes. I want more.

I would like to see women talking more about their sexual journeys toward wholeness after experiencing trauma, I would like to hear about how women who aren’t the mainstream definition of sexy still experience themselves as very sexual beings, I would like to see a diversity of bodies of varying ages and abilities and sizes full embodied in their erotic power (but not just in a social media campaign), I would like to hear how black women have redefined sexy amidst racist and sexist expectations. I would like to hear how women came to love and enjoy their natural rhythms and love the most disparaged parts of their bodies; their periods, their menopause, their pussies.

These stories ARE happening, don’t get me wrong. I read about them. I listen to podcasts about them. New paradigms are being created. I think the journey towards redefinition starts when just one woman hears a common patriarchal “law”, tilts her head and names her own experience as valid.

Kudos to People Magazine for prodding me along.

Questions for further reflection: What do you define as sexy? When do you feel the sexiest? What struggles have you encountered in defining yourself as an erotic being? Who would you pick to coach you around feeling sexy if you could pick anyone in the world? What gets in the way of redefining your world?

Onward,

Hannah

 

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