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Who I say I am: Living with Imagination

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I’ve been in the habit of surrounding myself with people who have this drive– this knack for defying systems and norms that have placed restrictions and limitations on their being.  I find these folks both in my personal and professional circles and I can’t think of a better habit to get caught up in.

The lessons I learn and the courage I experience from these revolutionary folks who face odds that are stacked to topple them astound and inspire me.

In my research, I meet domestic violence survivors daily who refuse to settle for the standard of worth that their abusers and society place on them.

In therapy, gender non-binary people who defy the system by being visible despite a world that seeks and attempts to erase them.

In my personal relationships, women who push back on beauty norms that claim that to be lovable you must be this; look like that; attain a heteronormative kind of love.

Brothers and sisters of color digging in and fighting a system that denies them basic human rights of equality and dignity.

This is a bold kind of living.  To boldly live one must have an imagination that reaches beyond the bounds that are placed on one’s existence.  Some of us have others show us the way of boldness and some of us have to carve out a bold space for ourselves and sometimes it’s a combination of both.  This is all grounded in an imagination of possibilities and opportunities– even when met with closed doors.

I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s book and the following segment resonated with me.  In one of  the most brutal systems in the world, apartheid, Noah describes living beyond the limitations of the system– living beyond the limitations people placed on him… living beyond how people saw him– living beyond what they said he could do and who he could be…

“My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do.  When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid– not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.  We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited… Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end.  There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go..  People thought my mom was crazy… So many black people internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own… Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom, “Why do all this?  Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”  “Because, ” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world.  If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough”.  

Damn.

Bold living is not just having an expansive imagination, but it is the courage to allow oneself to live with an imagination.

And to live boldly with an imagination– an imagination that reaches beyond and defies cultural and systemic limitations and oppression is hard ass work.  It is a deconstructive to reconstructive kind of all encompassing work that can leave us exhausted, disoriented, confused and lonely.

And because this an all encompassing kind of work it usually requires us to remember some things regarding the process and our self-care.

When you are exhausted:

Yup– you’re going to get exhausted, weary, worn-down and tired.  It is not because you are flawed or incapable or weak.  You get exhausted because 1) this is hard work.  It takes a great deal of emotional, mental and physical energy to navigate the world while essentially liberating yourself from stereotypes and norms that are in place to force you to conform.  And 2) you are a human with a finite amount of energy and capacity.  Everyone eventually drains that well… It’s part of our human cycle and as we grow in self-awareness and insight we can do more to preserve that well or reserve before it runs bare.

But we have to be aware… we have to be listening to our bodies and our hearts and respond to our exhaustion with kindness, grace and compassion.

I think we all can do a better job of establishing a foundation of self-care.  What’s your eating look like?  Are you feeling nourished?  How are you sleeping?  Do you have a sleep routine that supports what you’ll need from one day to the next?  What’s play look like for you?  What activities energize you?  Who are your people?  I’m talking about the people where you find mutuality, equality, respect and reciprocity.

When you hit that point where you may be depleted it is okay to unplug.  It’s okay to sleep.  It’s okay to turn the off or pause button on and take a retreat for yourself.

When you are confused/disoriented:

When you defy norms, you essentially are acknowledging your authentic self while also building yourself from scratch outside of the system.  The thing is there are no blueprints to follow and show how one should go about the building process.  There may be some folks, some ancestors that have modeled this kind of work that have gone before us…  I think of people like Rosa Parks or James Baldwin or bell hooks or Ellen DeGeneres or George Takaki.  These folks, among others, provide a picture of resistence and reclamation, which we can draw from.  Even still, a blueprint is not provided and so in the process one may feel confused, lose sight of the big picture and feel lost.

Usually when we are confused we try to equilibrize– we try to get balance and typically while trying to gain balance we look outside ourselves to calibrate.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that.  What becomes problematic is when we compare ourselves to others, because typically we are not able to objectively compare and contrast our situation to someone else in this state.

When one is confused it is important to ground oneself.  Grounding can mean incorporating objective voices in our experience.  It can also mean quieting onself and taking a break from all the noise.  For some, this can mean meditation or taking a walk in nature or turning off one’s phone and internet accessibility or listening to music.  It looks different for all of us.  Ultimately, grounding allows us to get back in touch with ourselves– helps us to see ourselves and our path again.

When you experience loneliness: 

This can be lonely work.  There are moments, days and weeks that feel isolating and lonely.  Our stories and situations are unique and diverse from others.  Sometimes we feel misunderstood or alone in our unique process– left to wonder does anyone understand?  I just want to say this experience is legit.  Be incredibly tender with yourself in these moments.  These moments pass.  Sometimes we are completely surprised by how someone does show understanding or compassion to our circumstance.  We also surprise ourselves in these moments because we can see our own personal strength and the incredible ways we are able to show up for ourselves.  This is resiliency and it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing.

Additionally, find the humor in it all.  Wherever you find a space to laugh– take it!  Today I met with my 83 year old mentor who has seen it all and who has carved her own path despite being raised in a time when women were programmed to live in a particularly restrictive way…  She could not emphasize enough how we need to be able to laugh; to laugh at ourselves; to laugh at our humanity– ya know the places where we stumble about and yet, we are trying so hard– these can be kind and endearing moments to chuckle over and it can lighten our load– if only for a moment may we have lightness.