Autoethnography

“Her Sexuality Should Not Be Pathologized”, Found Poetry

Published in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2017

“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems” 1

(My source material included free writes, prose, albums, & documents curated and collected as part of a Beauty Breaks workshop, led by Imani Jackson, as well as quotes from my own, unused, draft material)
My parameters included:
1) Using phrases that referenced or envisioned “Grandmother”, “Grandma”, “Gramma”, etc.
2) Using phrases with a color in them
3) Using half of the sentence / phrase for each instance (the meaning was re-imagined through punctuation and / or lack of punctuation, where appropriate)

“Her sexuality should not be pathologized”.

Red and hot like that candy my Grandma loved
I feel you come closer and your blue energy cools me
And then she came, coffee skin, red hair –

more red

The whitest background you’ve ever seen
The velveteen blood orchid
Purple sounds so tasty like sweet and tart
Purple rain
I could still smell its sweet magenta rimmed message
Premonitions of a grown ass woman.

 

Whine Club Reading: On Hope (Video Content)

Last evening, I was so excited to be a Featured Reader at Whine Club: A Monthly Storytelling Series for Women, Femmes, & Gender Non Conforming People alongside other brilliant & powerful readers: Lakshmi Ramgopal (you can sign up for her newsletter), Bria Royal (check out the pocket healing zines on the site), & Katie Burke.

JTP Reading

Photo Credit: Keisa, @WhineClubChi

My good friend, Jené, is amazing and crafty and managed to get a good bit of the reading on video (without me even seeing her recording – which was quite good for my nerves lol)! So, now I can share it with you all. The full transcript of content is available below. Follow @WhineClubChi to stay updated on their programming! **Special thanks to all who came out & sat in the chairs & stood in the aisles, to Whine Club & Uncharted Books, & to Ramona – the bookstore pup ❤

Intro:

“I’m a bit of a pragmatist so when I was invited to read, I immediately picked out the two pieces I would do. And then, Keisa sent the theme… It was hope, so I was like, ‘(Expletive) I don’t even know if I’m GOOD at that!’ (laughs) So, I want to offer this piece for those of us who find hope to be ephemeral. Those who hold their hands out and stretch to touch it – finding it like holding snow in their palm – lasting for a moment of precious wonder but all too short lived.

Hope is a complicated thing.

I. Every other week, I show up to my therapist’s office (we’ll call her Khadijah)…

 

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Full transcript:

Hope is a complicated thing.

Every other week, I show up to my therapist’s office (we’ll call her Khadijah). I take a break from work and get on the train, head up to the 16th floor, guzzle her filtered water from recyclable paper cups, and try to talk about my feelings without theorizing them.

“Let’s try to take a deep breath in… aaaand out”, she says. “That’s good work for the day. I want us (by us… she means me), to get to a point where we’re embracing ambiguity & hoping in life a little bit more”.

She puts two books into my hands: bell hooks’ All About Love on top. And right underneath it was Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She ain’t slick.

When I leave her office, I sigh in the key of East Coast born Black girl, wondering why the fuck she wants me to trust in life… to continue this activity of hope… doesn’t she know mass incarceration is real? Doesn’t she know the Orange Cheeto was elected? And I’m pretty sure I’ll have to be way more fastidious about cyber security now that *ding ding!

And the elevator open, goes down, deposits me back onto the first floor. Past the coffee shop. Out into the streets.

My therapist is convinced that I’m not bad at hope. I’m sure she’s right. I just have a hard time living into the Hallmark card, bootstrap theology version of what we’ve normalized hope to BE. My friend Ashon says that consistently showing up to therapy is a type of hope too. I’ll take that for now.

II. I went to church with my family every Sunday as a child. It was a nondenominational and charismatic church. I still remember the routine. Wake up. 8 am Sunday school. Praise and worship (for those who aren’t familiar with charismatic church spaces just know that during this section, we had to wait for everyone to catch the Spirit, shout, fall out, & get back up before it was all through) Then, there was the sermon. The altar call. (Where people might decide to pick up a shout again). After church conversations. Brunch – that was really around dinner time. Readying for school in the morning. Sleep. Nowadays, I recognize that it was the equivalent of a full work day. It took me a full 5 years post “adulthood” to sleep in on Sundays without it feeling like a crisis.

“Now faith is the substance of things HOPED for…”

I grew up feeling like hope was something I needed to ask for. Pray for. Wait for. Hope was expected to look a certain way. So, I got familiar with its mask. I smiled when I didn’t want to. I offered myself quick platitudes and Scripture when the emotional reality was too much. I was real inspirational those days.

On Sundays, I made my supplications at the altar and imagined warm light falling on me. Older women placed their thin, cool hands on my head and wrapped my body in white sheets. They put their hands on my belly and asked for spiritual fire to consume all doubts. I thought it could help me to be reborn.

At night, worry descended upon me again as I pulled the comforter up. I recounted the pending catastrophes – what might happen at school the next day, at church the next week, when I arrived home, when I got on the bus. I’m a Taurus, Aries-rising, long time maker of mental lists and plans. Yet, despite my lists, scribbled in bright neon post its around the bed, the anxieties followed me into dreams.

My Grandmother said I had a “sensitive disposition”. My father said I had “bad nerves”. My psychiatrist said, “She has general anxiety disorder”. So, hope is a complicated thing.
III. Reading tarot grounds me in so many ways. I’ve got a few favorites in the cards: The Queen of Cups, the Hermit, the High Priestess, the Nine of Pentacles. The Tower tends to make my hands shake. The Knight of Wands reminds me of the charm & the quick temper of my father.

I’m still working out my relationship with the Star. You could say she’s got the iconography of hope.

I invite her out for coffee in my mind on the rare occasion that the Star chooses to visit me. In the tarot, the Star comes after the Tower has fallen down – after all that they’ve known has fallen in fire & light. And here they kneel, drawing up water in the dim glow of the stars. They are naked.

“Don’t overthink this, Jade”, she tells me. As I hold the card between my fingers she reminds me, “Let’s start our work by drinking more water. Hope means relaxing into that which we do not know yet. And that’s going to take some hydration. Allow your body more time to be naked – this body, this chronically pained body, this sometimes-walks-with-a-cane body, this Black body – allow it space. The rest will come soon enough”.
IV. Hope is a kind of suspension. Sometimes, when I look at my lovers face, it morphs into the consummation of my vulnerabilities and fears. Anxiety makes it easy to spin their locs into all of the reasons that the moment is fleeting: brevity of life, emotional stress, the inevitability of death…you know, the light stuff. But sometimes, when I have enough rest & food & medicine & ancestor help… I can push pause on that tape. I can find enough space to choose another path and hold onto it for as long as I’m able to – until it is replicated again in this life or the next. Counting their locs, one by one, for the reasons I’m so grateful. I’m practicing. Hope.

Hope is easiest to do when I’m showing up for my written work, editing what doesn’t work, trying to create new language, & reclaim other language. Using a Black queer radical imagination to see new ways forward. It’s sitting my ass down, writing shit that doesn’t only – SOLELY – respond to Whiteness or ableism or homo-antagonism – stuck in a feedback loop: inciting incident, think piece, praises or hate filled comments, “Say both your words AND mine-for-me. Give me digestible works that I can quickly share with my (racist, ableist, homo-antagonistic) facebook friends so they don’t have to do their own work”.

V. This year, I’ve taken up the spiritual practice of allowing myself some room to dream and to tell my stories. I want to tell you that I come from a long line of Black American storytellers. You probably don’t know them… but my aunts, uncles, my father can roll their trip to the grocery store into 45 minutes of entertainment with a life lesson at the end. For example…

“My family was fighting at the 2008-2009ish reunion. I don’t remember why. I do remember that my cousin processed this issue by telling a story about friends who enjoyed waffles, and friends who enjoyed pancakes, and how they needed to realize that both of those breakfast dishes benefit from syrup. Therefore, it’s wise to share your syrup if both parties want to stay away from dry ass breakfast dishes. It’s also wise to choose your fights when it comes to family, if you can help it.

I would tell ya’ll the stories – in my own dialect– about how I’m always doing the most. This is not self-deprecation. I’ve taken a poll and most of my friends… and coworkers… agree. Doing the most… is what I do. You want a report? You’re getting report, graphics, and likely a sequined outfit when I present the report to you. I could literally have a series of “Doing the Most” Chronicles. I would always have something to write about and we would both be cackling” (snippet from: Because I’m Not Solely Writing About DT for the Next 4 Years).

A full blown cackle – might that be categorized as hope too? I’ll have to take that for now.

VI. On some Saturday nights, I bring my body to the dance hall and twerk like my life depends on it. My feet, cramping & swelling with chronic plantar fasciitis, hold me up for as long as I need them to – even if it’s just for a few songs. Ass up & down, defying the laws of physics, that’s a part of the way I hope too. And that’s gonna have to be good enough for now. Because that’s what I got. Showing up. Writing. Laughing. Dancing. Staring at my lover’s face. Drinking more water. Being naked. And understanding that while hope fuels the collective work of artivists & activists, it is also an individual practice.

VII. My therapists usually asks, “What are you up to nowadays?” I told her, “Writing about hope, isn’t it ironic?!” She wanted me to bring this piece in so we can discuss it. I will not. It’s for us. It’s for those of us, that are here, that find hope BOTH within & outside of reach – yet need it to exist in this world. If I remember to go to therapy next week, I’ll take out a piece of paper, and roll it out on her desk. It will read: I’m practicing it now… the shit is still complicated”.

Photo Credit: Ally Almore

Vials of Oil for Anointing & Souls Behind the Eyes: Exploring Spirit*

This biographical essay is written for the #52essays2017 challenge by Vanessa Martir.

I.  It is a brave thing to write about Spirit. It is much easier to write, solely, about God, or colonial Christianity, or even decolonizing Christianity. Yet, matters of Spirit are often unwieldy. We can theorize them, but even that comes with its risks. Keating’s exploration of the spiritual work of Gloria Anzaldúa notes:

After all, those of us working in academic settings are trained to rely almost exclusively on rational thought, anti-spiritual forms of logical reasoning….

We might admire Anzaldúa’s bold spirit vision yet fear that if we explore it in our work, we will harm our careers. Not only will our colleagues scoff at us, but we will have difficulty publishing such explorations. As Lara (2005) suggests, these fears can be intensified for Chicanas and other women of colors who are often already viewed as interlopers in the academy. (Keating, 2008, p. 55)

However, matters of Spirit are often unrelenting. They show up, most often, when I want to write fluffy, easily-shareable pieces. They are determined.

Whenever we speak of Spirit, or spirits, we are both aided and blocked by our language. “What do you mean by Spirit”? In the past few months, I’ve been asked this question in so many different ways. I never give specifics because it’s typically already been decided I’m in need of re-Evangelizing.

The women in my family are always negotiating spirit*. For the purposes of this piece, I define it as the essences / life forces which we cannot always understand… yet find ourselves either intrigued or repelled by.

The women in my family are brilliant and can intellectualize most things. Yet, I often hear behind the words, because I came from them. And there is much concern about holy & good spirits – “wait, do you believe in one Holy Spirit or many other spirits” – staying away from evil spirits. But then there are the metaphorical spirits* – the energies & memories of the things we’d rather forget or leave alone. There is always the risk of being blocked by language, of being misunderstood, of being seen as “at-(spiritual)-risk”. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit*.

II. My Gramma was always intrigued with the concept of exorcism. She chased the next revival services, healing events, and traveling “prophets” like ones who would chase a storm. Seeing where it began. Seeing how it ended.

She had a library of books on methods to keep evil spirits away. A hobby? A passion? A fear? All three?

As a child, she would tell me about these excursions of spirit. Sometimes, I could travel along to a service – if she felt it was safe enough. She kept a vial of oil, anointed for the task of both blessing and protecting – warding off evil & inviting in good. “Spirits ain’t nothing to play with”. She told me, “You’ll know when it’s a bad one. Your stomach turns. Your throat feels like it’s hot and dry. Look into the eyes. See if it looks like a soul is behind there“.

She often retired to the back room to pray. It used to be my play room, but I grew too big for the walls. I grew too big for the house, itself. I grew too big for the entire state, I suppose. Years later, she asked me to mind my size – and help her clear out that back room.

I spent hours on the dusty pink carpet, eating home cooked meals, pausing to look up at the sparkly popcorn ceiling, and sneaking journals full of Bible study notes from 1985 into the garbage bin. She would catch me, occasionally. “Grandma, I can type these up for you”. But she preferred the hard copies all around her like a shield. So, in one month, I could only clear one chest. After she passed, there was so much more clearing to do.

III.
“Mother, are spirits real?”
“Why are you worried about this?”
“I just am…”
“You’ve got God inside. You have nothing to fear”.

My mother’s jaw clenches when she is trying very hard to be patient. My Gramma often regaled her with stories about faith healers, far and wide. How much she was intrigued by them. My mother is a medical professional with complicated thoughts around faith healing (life sets up the most beautifully ironic situations). She listened carefully, because this was her Mother, and they were good friends. Only I could see, standing underneath her with my childhood body, that her jaws were clenched & her smile required effort.

IV.
I began getting bored with my church at 16 years old. How many more Sundays could I watch the parishioners march up to the altar, seeking more deliverance from the spirits which were real, imagined, a mix of both, who knows? I craved “something intellectual”. I was young and wanted more of everything, really. So, I took a sharp turn, tried out Reformed Calvinism. I was intrigued by their use of the word “eschatological”  , the thought that perhaps life could be figured out by a few “simple” tenets, and the added surprise of walking in to church with multitudes of handsome brown men. I was young and thought I knew everything.

I theorized everything then – the life of “spirits” didn’t seem to be worth as much exploration as the “doctrine of election”. I stopped dancing at religious services. I kept up with the rhetoric – until I realized that believing in “totally depravity”  left my soul dank & depressed. Until I saw how much violence it did. Until I realized that beyond my Black church, most of the prominent scholars in the denomination were White. They believed & taught that a spiritually elected-somewhat-Divinely-yet-arbitrarily-decided group would access heaven. The implications of that horrified me. I was young, and old enough to know I needed to get out.

V.
One of my favorite tarot cards is “The Hermit”.

hermit

The Hermit, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck

In the dark, deep, blue glow, the Hermit carries one single light and walking stick. They are walking across the cold, craggy mountains. They are looking down, inward. They are reaching deeper spirituality. Some people feel this card is a bit obscure (and sometimes, I agree haha). However, the Hermit is a guide – that sense of “knowing” inside of ourselves when we need a “container”, a “cocoon”, somewhere dark, quiet, and even a bit windy to shake up our previous understandings. A figure, resembling a Hermit, found me in a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania (population 50,000). I was living in the LITERAL, actual mountains during this time. “The Hermit” showed me that there was a healthier way of Christianity & of spirituality, itself.

Then, I moved to Smalltownsville, SC (population 9,000) to continue my journey in further shades of solitude. I spent time with myself. I didn’t write.

VI. It is now 2017 & a few conversations with friends have turned into a nonprofit organization which “centers the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color at the intersections of mysticism and activism”. It is interesting that it is built on Christian contemplative tradition, deconstructing what this means, and breaking open space to include indigineity & diasporic religious traditions – a chance to bring our ancestral knowledge out of “hiding”. Equal parts Howard Thurman, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the saints, the Christian mystics, and our Grand-ancestors teaching us prayers, songs, and ways to invite God in. Equal parts “what we know” and “what we’re open to discover”. Someone inboxes and says it sounds like potential to the slippery slopes of “idolatry”.

I wish I could explain how western colonization has prompted us to see these practices as “idolatrous”. I wish I could explain how it was demonized… not inherently, demonic. I wish I could read them the quote I read today – from the long process of resource sharing we’ve undertaken. I would read slowly:

“Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment. —Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848, as seen in Lara’s 2005 work.

Most of all, I wish I could explain that I see this as “spiritual activism” (Keating, 2008) – a way forward that allows us to get into deeper touch with God, self, & others, as we fight for social justice in this world.

But I sense their fear. I’m close to them. And I swallow these words with my morning tea. Perhaps, another time. Perhaps, never.

VII. 
The next night, I dreamed of my Gramma. First, I described the dream on Facebook (because #millenial). In this dream, I was preparing for my meditation practice. I wore bright yellow.

My Grandmother sat where my teacher usually sits. She wore white and gold. She said to me: “I want you to meditate on this mantra ‘I ain’t got time’.
(Let me pause here to say that everyone who is familiar with AAVE / African American vernacular English understands all of the nuances of that statement. It is not concretely translatable in Standard American English. ‘I ain’t got time’ means something between “I have time, but refuse to engage something”, and “Something is distasteful to me and / or hazardous to my health, so I will reserve my time for the things that help me to thrive”. This is a loose translation).

I cackled, as per usual. She smiled and said, “Yepp, say it, ‘I ain’t got time”.  Sometimes in your life, there will be giant pizzas rolling toward you – moving fast…”

This was very typical of her – to take a somewhat random object & work it into a life lesson.

“In that moment, you have to decide. Do I want to take a bite out of that? You can only take a bite with it moving that fast. Do I want to knock it down and share it with friends? That’s an option too. And sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, “I don’t even WANT pizza” & just let it roll by. That’s when you say to yourself, “I ain’t got time”.

I woke up to the Twitter-news that Mercury was in Pisces & that my dreams might hold some keys for deep learning at this time (@starheal). It’s funny how that works.

VIII. 
I believe that art allows us forms of exorcism – appeasing the spirits of things our families, sociocultural histories, and personal journeys leave us with. Moreover, it invites us to welcome in all that is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious” (Phil. 4:8-9, The Bible).

My Gramma’s lived in enough awareness of what could be bad. These days, she’s telling me “She / we / I ain’t got time”. And the only spirits* I deal with are good ones.

Resources & Further Reading

Keating, AL (2008). “” I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change”. Feminist studies (0046-3663), 34(1/2), p. 53.

Lara, I. (2005). BRUJA POSITIONALITIES: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism. Chicana/Latina Studies, 4(2), 10-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23014464

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

Story Time – Family Vacations, Healing Services, & Smoke Machines

What I’m about to tell you is certified “family business”.

For the sake of context, you should know that for the past few months I have been doing some emotional and spiritual work in the areas of familial relationships. It’s been equal parts exhilarating and tiring – charting out the emotional / spiritual histories of family members (for as much as I know). This year, I’ve realized that family & ancestor dynamics shape us in deep ways – some we see readily, even written in the features of our face! However, uncovering other inherited traits, dynamics, spiritual practices, and emotional ‘fallbacks’ can take a bit more work.

The fun part about all of this is that I’ve been re-acquainting myself with some very colorful family stories that we share. In the past, I’ve written quite a bit about my family (it may or may not be fodder for our ‘family meetings’. I’m not sure if they would ever tell me that. Ha)! However, these stories have mostly been serious in nature – the time my Mother ‘stuck it to the man’ in a sacred space, the very deep and multifaceted levels of my Gramma’s spirituality [I’ve written about that twice, actually].

So, this tale is a light-hearted family account that includes smoke machines, driving all across Florida, healing services, and shenanigans. If you’re looking for something a bit more serious, look here. If you’re game for this, come sit with me while I share! (Be careful about drinking water during the tale; you just might spit it out a few times and Mercury is in Retrograde. No one has times for those kind of technology-games).

My Gramma taught me a lot about the mystical side of life – the things that could not be seen. We often disagreed often on the details of these things, but nevertheless, she’s gotten me familiar with a very interesting view of the world.

One year, my family decided to change up their approach to ‘family vacation’. Each member would choose an activity for every day of our trip. The other family members… well, we would deal. This sounds mildly stressful but it was actually quite enjoyable since, generally, I trust them to not have me “out here”. We spent the week going to parks, doing mini golf, riding on jet skis, exploring new restaurants, and more. All the things you think of when you consider those fancy-schmancy vacation and travel blogs.

Then, it was my Gramma’s turn to choose her activity for the day.

We would be going to The Holy Land Experience, which – for those who dont’ know – is described as “a Christian theme park”. (No, I’m not making this up. The hyperlink is there so feel free to explore… Also know, I’m REALLY fighting with myself to refrain from unpacking all of the dynamics of the fact that this is a thing… oh the bed mates that are White Evangelical Christianity and Capitalism… I’m stopping here. The point is that my Gramma wanted to see it… because ‘Christian theme park’… and what Gramma wants, Gramma gets. Who gone argue with my ancestor? Nobody).

It was also decided that we would be going to a healing service afterward. In Tampa. We were going to drive. From Orlando. To Tampa. Gramma’s excited smile was the gavel slam. We were doing this.

I’m going to take a moment here to shout out my Father. Dad was the one doing most of the driving for the entire trip. This morning, he woke up to find that he was driving us about an hour and a half away from the resort space and back. After the theme park. I can remember catching his eye and learning a valuable lesson: Sometimes, in order to keep peace and show love, you gotta drive an hour and a half away from the pools you thought you’d be swimming in by sun down.

It would take an obscene word count to explain the theme park. So, if you are able, I suggest that you go, then call me, we’ll both pour a really big glass of wine, and compare notes. I’m going to focus here on our time in Tampa.

Here is what I was expecting from “healing service”:

It seemed like a logical conclusion, given the strong data from our collected familial, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds. At about 8 pm, I woke up from my car-nap, to my Dad saying, “This looks like… was this maybe a supermarket before… are we in the right place?”

Here’s the picture:
Four family members (myself, Mom, Pops, & bro) are hanging back trying to figure out where in the ham-sandwich we’ve landed. We were also trying to figure out how Gramma heard about a healing service in this church, at this time. She wasn’t on social media. Perhaps, a friend told her. Perhaps, she saw it on tv. Perhaps, it was an unction. I’ll have to consult other family members to get their working theories.

Nevertheless, we were there and in front of us, I think Gramma was enclosed in a ray of metaphysical light. She smiled as she pushed the door open. Everyone else looked around – possibly hoping that one of us would suddenly feel queasy and we’d have to go home. That didn’t happen.

We were greeted by the sounds of heavy metal worship. This is not hyperbole. I am not kidding. And it sounds exactly how you imagine it sounds.

Everyone meets new experiences in different ways. My mother is the most logical person I’ve ever known. I could see her mental wheels spinning in this moment – perhaps, recounting the decisions that got us here. My brother attended to his physical health, as his asthma made itself known – given all of the smoke machines that surrounded the pulpit space. I’m sure I texted a friend – I don’t remember, but it sounds about right. My father chose to count all of the congregants there who had on matching camouflage outfits.

My Gramma was certain that some powerful healing was going to take place. So, as a note for those who aren’t up on the general charismatic church order of services:

  • ‘Healings’ typically happen during altar call
  • Many times, altar call is at the end (after worship, tithes & offerings, announcements, any additional sermonic selections, preaching)
  • Guess how long we were staying…

The preaching started approximately 30 minutes after the heavy metal worship set. My family tends to have a natural aptitude for music. So, after a few measures of each song, my Gramma could get the melody. She sang along during the entire set – a consummate cultural anthropologist.

This next part will be hard to describe in words – which, is ironic, because I’m using a print medium to tell this story. However, I called my brother, and he agrees with me. This experience… words will fall short and that’s where I need you to use your imagination at some pretty epic levels.

The minister / healer approached the pulpit (I use both minister & healer loosely here). I’m hesitant to describe her in too much detail, but the image of a shiny green skirt suit with a brooch, hair that was whiteish-grey yet dyed in pale blue and secured into a bouffant ought to suffice.

After her brief sermon (approx 15 minutes), she introduced us to her practice of “prophetic rapping” (approx 2 hours). The practice (and some people would say ‘gift’) of prophecy entails some sort of divine insight into a situation partnered with the ability to speak on it with clarity and conviction. Prophetic rapping… well I’ve seen it, obviously… but I’m still unclear on the details. It sounded a lot like… well, regular rapping. Key words like Jesus, God, healed, Bible, holiness, were placed into the lyrics as well.

Soooo… I’m going to steer clear of making value statements on that. But I will open an invitation to my religious-scholar-friends (and by religious scholar, I mean… actual religious scholars): Is this a part of a larger charismatic movement? What religious studies classes do I need to understand this? Who has receipts? I need answers. 😉

Meanwhile, back to Gramma…

At this point, it was about 10:30 pm, and we had an hour and a half left to travel back to the hotel resort. My Dad was asleep with his arms folded in his chest (to his credit, again, he was doing all of the driving). My brother’s head was on my shoulder. My mother was trying to reason with Gramma that perhaps it was time to make our exit. My little brother piped in with a performance of Grandson-Charm that I will never forget. We were out within 2 minutes.

We left and debriefed – leaving the actual ending of this encounter still unknown. But it’s a story that my brother and I still recount. It’s one of my favorites and here’s why:

Besides the fact that it’s just a good story and these types of shenanigans follow me around…

I learned a lot that day from my Gramma. We never practiced faith in the same ways. However, she taught me an openness to at least see and bear witness other people’s expressions of the Divine. In the midst of our side eyes, she was game to see whatever that encounter might bring.

I remember her posture whenever I’m invited into a new sacred space – and to be clear, that doesn’t automatically mean “a church”. Since then, I’ve found myself in all kinds of spaces – places I never thought I would get to see. I’ve been in labyrinths, temples, and edifices with a host of different customs and scenery – all with the intention of touching the Intangible.

So, I learned about my capacity to stretch, suspend, and reserve judgment for the things that my ancestors thought were important to watch. Even if I found them to completely unexpected and different. ESPECIALLY if I found them to be completely unexpected and different. I was a teenager at the time this story occurred, so trust, that was a big lesson. I also learned about the allowances we make for love’s sake. (Because if it was anyone other than my Gramma making the request…)

I miss my Gramma’s physical presence on earth. Yet, I also understand her better now. Small annoyances become life lessons. I’m grateful for each one now… even the ones that involve smoke machines and camouflage church-wear.

Image Credit: Isha Gaines, Createherstock.com

 

 

 

I Didn’t Choose Mystic Life, It Chose Me! (Also titled: Inheriting Mysticism from Other-mothers)

Monday – Group Meditation and affirmations
Tuesday – Chat – “Sounds like your sacral chakra might be out of balance. Let’s see if there are any exercises we can do to help with that”
Wednesday – Too-good-to-be-true coworkers lovingly refer to me as “The Apothecary” – known for having an assortment of herbal teas at the ready to ease things like stomach discomfort, lack of focus, headaches, and so on. 
Thursday – Text from friend: “Thanks for letting me know about the sage! It seems like things are looking up”
Friday – *Research on contemplative practices rooted in my cultural heritage

Many of my friends refer to me as “mystical”. I grew up in a pretty theologically conservative (yet, sometimes subversive) place for most of my childhood. In that space, we were discouraged from that which we could not easily understand through literal readings of Biblical text.

Yet… at the same time…

My other-mothers, who are now my ancestors, taught me to have a life filled with mysticism.

My godmother, Lynette, was one of the joys in my world. She became my mother’s best friend when they were both in the fourth grade. She was a consistent force of love in my life. She passed when I was 12 years old. For years, after my dear Mother woke up early, kissed my forehead, and set off on her long commute to work, I spent the remaining hours before school at my godmom’s house. She made sure I was washed, dressed, fed, and that my hair was neatly arranged before I went out.

She lit a candle for me everyday, so that I would have something delicious to smell, first thing in the morning. She regularly brewed me cups of Lemon Zinger and Raspberry tea, and introduced me to new blends when she could. I learned mindfulness from her as we sat at her dining room table, slowly sipping, sometimes listening to music – mostly, just being present.

My godmother believed that what the earth offered us was good. My mother, a medical professional, taught me about biology, different types of medicines, and their effects on the body. Simultaneously, my godmother, a children’s occupational therapist, took me to orchards to pick fruit and taught me their properties. She explained the usages of tea and the benefits of the probiotics in yogurt. She made things from scratch and believed in the healing of laughter.

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Circa Age 5-6 at Net’s Home

My grandmother was serious about God. She grew up in the Baptist church, in the lineage of the Reverend Lewis Rice, who helped to form  African Zion Baptist Church,  with “a group of free Black families” in 1852. She would often tell the story of how she was “born again” in her 40’s – converted towards a charismatic, nondenominational, Evangelical display of belief in God. When I wasn’t home, I accompanied her almost everywhere – to her home town of Charleston, West Virginia, in the summer, through her everyday errands, and to countless tent services and churches during their Revivals and Healings.

My grandmother believed in God and in spirits -in benevolent angels and vicious demons. She believed in the power of anointing with oil and the symbolic protection of a Cross drawn on the foreheads of her grandchildren. She believed that healing could happen through prayer and “laying on of hands”. She took me to places where I might encounter healing energy. She hid me in her car, armed with snacks and a coloring book, during services that intimated that an evil spirit might be nearby. She would stand watch and pray.

Afterward, she told me that when I’d encounter an evil spirit, I would know it by my “gut” and by the Spirit. She gave me rides through our city, casually making conversation about where she believed the warlocks and haints might be. She taught me to be vigilant against that which would steal my joy and peace.

When I got older, when I learned more, when I started using “big girl” words like hermeneutics and epistemological, I found a great deal of her expression of belief to be a bit odd and a bit “problematic”. I craved and loved the intellectual rigor and on visits home, I would share what I’d learned with my Gramma. She would smile deeply and genuinely, saying:

“Jadey-Mae, sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking, but you sure are talkin’ it good”. 

For a long time, I distanced myself from this type of faith and mysticism… for so many reasons. It took me a while to see the deep spirituality in what my Grandmother and Godmother were offering me – even if we didn’t verbalize these things in the same way.

As I grew older, I began making my own tea blends to assist with some of my ailments (ginger/licorice root/cinnamon & clove for stomach upset, chamomile and lavender for sleep), and I thought of my Godmother. I learned about chakras and practice of reiki – energy healing – by the hovering or laying on of hands and I thought about my Grandmother. I recalled the way she would whisper prayers and rub our backs, lingering on those places where she felt a bit  of tension. She was the first person to verbalize the importance of regarding our bodies with loving and healing touch.

I learned about mindful meditation, and then, circled back to the shared moments at the dining room table with my Godmom. I made decisions and reflected on my Gramma’s lesson that I’d know what would serve me well “from my gut’s response” to a person, place, thing, energy, spirit. I began buying essential oils for varied reasons (eucalyptus for cold / flu season, lavender for calm) and mapped it with my Gramma’s Christocentric understanding of “The Oil”. What I gained from Gramma’s impartation is that not all energies are good ones, and that I must be vigilant against that which would harm me. What I gained from Lynette’s impartation is that slowing down, meditating, stretching, brewing, were all gifts that could center me throughout my life.

In the year 2016, I opened up a chat with my good friend and asked, “Gurl, people swear I’m mystical. They might be right”. Her response told me that I was probably the only one still working through this fact (lol)! I responded offhandedly, “I didn’t choose the mystic life – the mystic life chose me” and then I realized what I said was true.

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Delivering the Invocation at Princeton’s Black Theology & Leadership Institute – Photo Credit, Dr. Regina Langley


I talked about these experiences with Ebony Janice of the Free People Project on her vlog. You can view that here!

Featured Image Credit: Createherstock.com

 

 

 

Gramma & Me: A Re-Telling of Religion & ‘Right Minds’

“(God) woke me up this morning, (I was) clothed in my right mind” – based on Mark 5:15

I. My Grandmother (Gramma) is the most sophisticated and complicated woman I’ve known. She was known for her quick wit, generous heart, impeccable sense of style, and solid taste in music. She’d thrown out most of her ‘secular’ records after what she referred to as ‘getting saved’. But it was still my favorite thing to sing a few bars, watch her face light up, and hear her say, “Whatchu’ know about Sarah Vaughn?!”

Recently, my Gramma transitioned from this life. The calendar tells me there are only 29 days left until the anniversary of her passing. I’ve struggled to find my words for 1 year.

As Gramma grew older and she took on leadership positions in our family church, I think that folk glazed over her complexities to see only the service, just the love for God, only the way she rocked their babies to sleep in the nursery, only her encouragement, just the times she’d play piano and organize a service for those in the nursing home.

These things have a deep impact and should be remembered. However, my Gramma was a full person. Although I could only see fractals, I know that those fractals are “infinitely complex patterns, self-similar across different scales”(1). I knew her as a woman who grew up in the Jim Crow South and found ways to survive and thrive. I knew her through the stories that my mother and I shared.  I realized that through her relationship with my siblings. I realized that when I went back to Pennsylvania to help clean her home. Re-telling a life is complicated.  To present her as one dimensional seemed dehumanizing.

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Source: Family photo albums, College graduation at PSU

II. We sat in an office and sipped filtered water as the sun went down. A researcher and I were discussing equity for LGBTQI* persons within a Christian context along with some of our personal experiences. However, the conversation wound around a few sub-topics as we began to share. “I’ve noticed a trend of deep anxiety in these stories about religion…”

Anxiety about hell. Anxiety about punishment. Anxiety about being unloved / unwanted. Anxiety about being attacked by spirits. Anxiety about just… not getting things “right”.

I think about that conversation often. Because I know, from watching my Gramma… from knowing my ‘ownself’… of the delicate dance: the balance between religion (at least, the type my Gramma and I knew, the kind I detached from in some respects, the kind she leaned into) as both a coping mechanism and a source of stress.

My Gramma sung hymns when she was stressed and overwhelmed. This got her through an incredibly difficult relationship. She recited Scriptures from moment to moment. I’d catch her mumbling prayers on our many trips to West Virginia together. She carried anointing oil in her bag – for commemorating new beginnings, for healing sick grandchildren, for warding off spiritual darkness. For managing anxieties about the things that could and could not be seen.

III. My Gramma and I had a lot of things in common. She would often take me with her on her shopping trips. This was where my love of sequins, furs, and fabulous-ness was perfected. I would accompany her as an assistant; helping to choose Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday’s best. I’d go with her to the nailery (as we say in Philadelphia). I watched her long nails shaped into almonds and painted mauve. I hated the smell of the chemicals in the shop… but I loved the glamour.

Gramma and I both shared somewhat complicated relationships with the Divine. Where she leaned in, I critiqued. What I critiqued, she often would not understand. But we both knew it was complicated. It was the complication of temporal and divine relationships marked by love and disappointment.

Gramma and I placed a high importance on ‘safety’. These days, I open my mouth and it’s uncanny how quickly I find one of her key phrases: “That’s risky!” She played movies about being safe from temporal dangers: strangers, getting lost, falling down, being poisoned, etc. She watched shows about being safe from “spiritual dangers”: hexes, (certain) secular music, the Seven Deadly Sins, and more. I didn’t know there was so much to be afraid of. Though her face didn’t show it… I often wondered, “Is Gramma scared, too?”

IV. We were between declarations of ‘clothed in my right mind’ and profound internal anxieties. We were between the salves of whispered prayers and travails of ‘warfare prayers’. It was her house that told me that. It was cleaning her house that reminded me of my own need to let fear subside.

V. My Gramma had a deep interior world, of which I will never fully know. Yet, there are times when I see its connections through our ancestry. There are times when I see it through the presence and brilliant testimonies of her neighbors, students she taught, children she’d soothed (now-grown), women she’d mentored.

What I wish is that she could see this for herself.  Cleaning her house was discovering her psyche. Journals holding pages full of desires to get closer to the Divine – feeling that she had fallen short. I learned that in my adult years, she had given up understanding me (especially my spirituality). So, she decided to love me instead.

I realized how much we were alike – in complexity, beauty, and humanity.

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The Tightness in My Chest – Reflections on #NoShameDay

Her office always seemed too still, but I liked driving up the mountain, so I kept going. It was the second year of my M.Ed program, and I was having a very hard time sleeping. In reality, I’d been having trouble sleeping for about two years prior.  But I only paid attention when I began to have headaches, digestive troubles, and other physical symptoms. Mostly, I thought it was just because of my circumstances at the time.

“I’m…uhm… having a hard time sleeping, but it’s most likely because of my recent breakup”
“I’m not sure it’s just the breakup…”

I always wore brightly colored lipstick when I went to her office and made sure to go right after work, in business casual dress. [Lest she think I didn’t have my ish together]. I always came prepared with a planner, a notebook, and a few pens (in case one ran out).

“And when you wake up each morning, how anxious have you been feeling, on a scale from 1 to 10”
“About a 4… or a 5”
“The moment that you wake up?”
“Yes”.

Yesterday, Bassey Ikpi (@Basseyworld) & The Siwe project moderated a conversation via the hashtag ‪#‎NoShameDay‬ to “help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health illness”. When I began to read the posts, I was immediately prompted to reflect on my own journey with mental health and wellness. For quite some time, I’ve encouraged others to let go of the stigma of mental health illness, all while remaining relatively quiet about my own journey. That ended yesterday, as I made the conscious choice to participate in #NoShameDay.

Before then, I’d been quite afraid of something I didn’t have words for… until I stumbled upon this definition from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Santa Clara County:

Participating in #NoShameDay meant being vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t been before… with both the risk of double stigma AND the healing experience of speaking my truth & sharing my story.

Participating in #NoShameDay caused me to remember those early days of trying to figure out what was going on with my mood by talking with spiritual directors & leaders. Their simple admonishments to  “Have more faith…” almost always sent me into further panic. How could I have more faith than I already had? Was I missing something? Why was my level of faith insufficient… and HOW, exactly, where they even measuring this?!

After experiencing that scenario more times than I could count, I knew I needed to take a different route.
“Experiencing anxiety at level 5, first thing in the morning, is pretty intense. How long has this been going on?”
“Honestly Dr. S* I think an easier question might be, How long hasn’t it been going on?”
The trouble was that consistently ruminating over what might go wrong made me pretty effective. I was five steps ahead because this old brain of mine had already gone through the 15 scenarios that might happen when… if… and where…
I was achieving great things. And I was also losing sleep, having nightmares, tension headaches, digestive upsets, dizzy spells, and shortness of breath. I legitimately did NOT want to entertain that this was anything more than just a passing phase. So, once the counselor began talking in terms of general anxiety disorder, I stopped taking the drive up the mountain.
A year later, the shortness of breath & tightness in my chest seemed like it was not going away. I’d gone from about a level 5 (upon waking) to a level 8, and I was always fatigued. I went to a family doctor. The first sign of why I’d been feeling so fatigued was a deficiency in iron. However, as time went on, the family doctor began asking deeper questions – questions that would get to the root of those physical symptoms. Eventually, we circled back around to anxiety: the anxiety attached to maintaining my composure in an intensely microaggressive situation.

“So how do you want to do this?”

It took me a long time to answer that question. It was loaded. It would mean that there was something there that I needed to address: double stigma or not. I let out a deep breath and it seemed Dr. W* sensed my apprehension.

“Okay, so how about we keep it simple. Try very simple things first, and then we’ll reassess later: drink water, spend time with people who love you, get enough rest, actually take your vacation time, and take this pamphlet on deep breathing”.
It was honestly the best advice that I’d received at that time. That year, I told my friends and family:
“But you don’t seem nervous or sad at all!”
“Nervousness is not necessarily the same thing… Anxiety, is hard to explain. It’s the feeling that something unfortunate is coming. It’s working out the answers to the problems you don’t know you have yet… and may not ever have. It’s checks and balances – it’s tension”.
I didn’t really understand why that was so hard for me to come to grips with it [AND for people close to me to even consider it was a real experience] until I read on a piece on ForHarriet.com about Black Women, Mental Health… & the Superwoman Myth. In it, author Anna Gipson references Dr. Brenda Wade’s work along with the myths & misconception that Black women must be strong (at all times, in all circumstances). Yet it is this misconception that can prove to be such a hindrance to our self care process.
About a year ago, I started the practices of meditation and art therapy. I learned deep breathing techniques and I taught them to my partner, as well, so that I’d have a reminder in case I was having a less-than-ideal-day. I learned that following the musical movements of Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS gives an anxious & ruminating mind something constructive & beautiful to do. There are still hard days, and there’s no guarantees that it will ever subside. However, it has made me more mindful – of myself, of others, and of the present moment that I am inhabiting.

After a four year journey, I’m still unlearning the stigma. I’m learning to forgive myself for the things I didn’t know when the tightness in my chest began. I’m learning how to advocate for myself unapologetically. I’m learning that I don’t have to fix everything. I’m learning and affirming that anxiety is not who I am. I’m learning to take my vacation time. And I’m learning to drink more water. 🙂
*Image Credit: Deathtothestockphoto.com, Daily Inspiration Collection