December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
I spent two hours at a Buddhist shrine in Chelsea this weekend, sitting and feeling my legs ache while I tried to find my center.
“You’re going to feel yourself pulled off course,” my instructor said. “That’s ok. Acknowledge it – ‘thought’ – and pull yourself back to the breath.”
There’s nothing that feels immediately natural about meditation. Here you are on a cushion in a room full of other people with your eyes wide open, trying not to get too caught up staring at one single spot while you focus on your breathing.
I’ve rarely spent time in total stillness by the time the gong rings to end the session. But when I’m tempted to get mad at myself for planning my week out instead of finding my center, I remember that I show up at this studio in Chelsea because meditation isn’t about perfection but, rather, about learning to hold your seat – to stay in the moment without changing its discomfort and imperfection.
It’s just this kind of thinking – “gentle thinking” – that brings me back to recognize that this exact moment, with the room full of people and the ache in my knees – is important. And, therein lies the secret to meditation.
The concepts I learn through this practice have proved to be some of the most helpful tools I’ve discovered in my journey as a young female business owner in New York.
The process of building a business without financial backing takes 4-5 years, with at least your first two typically spent in the red. Proof of concept can often take a year in itself, and the mistakes you’ll make after that will take both your money and your time.
What all of that adds up to is a whole lot of imperfect discomfort that I’ve learned you can’t build anything worth holding onto without. No matter what way you slice it, a business is built on thousands of individual moments that need your attention before you can move forward. And, sometimes, it feels like its going to be forever before someone rings the gong and welcomes you into the next phase.
When my heart is tired and my brain hurts and my emotions are all pushing me to give it up, the principles of meditation are teaching me to stay with the right now. Not when I’m making x amount of money, or manage to take on x amount of new accounts. Right now. This moment, with the recent mistakes and the present frustrations.
I’m learning to “hold my seat” – to engage fully with this exact stage of my business, just like each moment on the cushion.
Here are a few reasons why that is so important:
The future builds off this moment.
I’m often tempted to run ahead to the next thing – to do what’s more exciting or let my thoughts wander out to six months from now, but the truth is that each individual phase of building is vitally important to the next. If I hadn’t spent a year providing my concept, or several months on strategic planning, or made mistakes that showed me what direction not to continue in, our business never would have moved forward to the next phase.
This moment is teaching me something I need to know.
In hindsight, some of the most seemingly “wasteful” moments of my business have taught me absolutely vital skills. I saw this last year, after helping my former guide through a medical emergency in Uganda. I was glad to help – but I struggled, over those weeks. I was there to do business and ended up spending hours in medical clinics and hospitals, arguing with drivers and handling payments.
While all that time felt genuinely wasted due to a corrupt health-care system, those weeks taught me cultural insights that now prove useful to me every day.
This moment deserves my attention.
In meditation you learn that things you typically ignore, like your breath and the feeling of your stomach filling with air, are actually tools. While seeming insignificant, they can actually be the key to handling your life’s largest stress areas well. And, I’ve found that seemingly mundane or unexciting tasks I’d like to ignore make up the foundation of my business – things like market research, accounting, inventory are each important in their own right, and need to be done well in order for the business as a whole entity to flow smoothly.
This moment will give me strength for the next one.
I was once told that building a business like running a marathon. This means that endurance is required. And, the only way that you can learn to get comfortable with endurance is by starting with where you’re at. Slowing down and breathing through one moment is what gets me through the next.
So - Breathe. Stop. Stay.
Give this imperfect, messy moment your very best.
November 11, 2012 § 4 Comments
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. —J.K. Rowling
There is no confusion in my mind about the reason I started my business. I didn’t start it because I felt bad for African women, and I didn’t start it because I had to. I started it because I was desperate for meaning in my life. My religious background hadn’t provided it. Traveling as it were hadn’t provided it. My failed dating relationships hadn’t provided it. And, so, I was left with people. I began to believe that people provide life with meaning, and I wanted to partner with people in such a way that every second I spent laboring over my career path could be traced back to another person’s life, and its positive effects there.
I wanted to wake up every morning knowing someone else’s life was being bettered for it. I knew that was the only way I was going to feel alive, while I was working.
That was the light of my dream. That was my bottom line.
My company made more money than I expected it to, in year one. Which is fantastic. However, I look back on our budget and the way we spent money, and I wonder who the hell put me in charge.
Oh yeah, I did. And, I didn’t forgive myself for that for a long time.
I put the wrong person in charge of quality control, and she cost me thousands of dollars. I spent money on the wrong fashion shows, and I played around with the wrong branding. I supported myself out of the company account, when I really should have landed a part job so that I wouldn’t suck from our finances. I bought in bulk, when I should have streamlined. I did too many sale events, and I looked to the wrong target market.
I even moved to the wrong town.
By the time I had landed in New York City, started re-working our company, and begun meeting with an entrepreneur coach, I was sure I was the worst project manager in the whole world of social enterprise. I didn’t know where to start. In fact, I didn’t even want to get out bed.
We met three times in that first month. By the end of our first projects together, she sat down and gave me an assignment.
I was to look in the mirror every day, and tell myself that I was a, “brilliant entrepreneur, headed toward success and financial stability.”
I was positive she was full of it. I even found it a little humorous. However, after 40 days of looking in the mirror and telling myself I was brilliant and headed to success, I began to believe it (this whole mirror thing works). A week later, I accepted the fact that that was true because I failed gloriously. Gloriously! I had spent money, time and resources in most of the wrong places, yes, but after I let go of all that dead dross, I found that my baby business was still alive, under all the dead branches I’d buried it under. And, it was ready to grow. I was ready to grow.
Thanks to my failures, I knew what direction I needed to head in. Doors had been slammed shut. Tides had risen around me. And, all I had to do was hang on to the things I had learned I was good at – and chase after those like my life depended on it.
Pema Chodron writes that, “All this messy stuff is your richness, but saying this once is not going to convince you,” and I don’t think that there is a better description of the gift that failure can be, if you are able to put it in proper perspective.
Here’s what I learned about failure, in running-your-own-social-enterprise year number one:
1. It’s going to happen.
Hooray! You’re going to fail! There’s just no way out. You’re going to owe someone money and not be able to pay it. You’re going to pick a shitty product. You’re going to wish you hadn’t done XYZ. You’re doing to feel like you are the biggest schlep ever.
Grab yourself a bottle of tequila, and some Grey’s Anatomy. It’s gonna hit you hard, and you’re going to feel like a worthless, penniless fool who needs to get a real job. When this happens, stay far away from LinkedIn, your friends in finance and – a word to the wise? – don’t date a corporate sales expert.
Just trust me on that one.
2. It’s going to make you better
After you cure your tequila hangover (chilaquiles for the win!), settle back in to your desk and recognize that this made you better. Whatever it is you lost, you’re going to have to think of it as a transaction. You gave up a resource, a dollar amount, a relationship, for a certain amount of knowledge – and its going to stay with you for the rest of your life.
Just a few things I learned through wasted resources and money? How to streamline a production process, the importance of hiring the right people on the ground, what a target audience means and how to find it – and, ruthless focus. If its not in your business plan or branding, it’s a no. A firm no. And, it’s a no again.
3. It’s not you – it’s the process
One of the hardest things for me to get past was that it wasn’t my fault. Yes, it was my job to run this company. But, no, it wasn’t my job to know how to do it perfectly from the get go. Yes, there were artisans partnering with me who could use the money I was sending much quicker than it was coming. But, no. I was not responsible for their livelihoods, and it was not my job to fix their situation – it was my job to build the best company I could, over the long term: one that may not sell their product well this year, but would be doing it well in two, or three – and still doing it well in fifteen, or twenty.
4. Start over
One of the hardest concepts for me to get past was that I could start over, at year two. Because I put so much effort and time into year one, I really felt like I was cheating on my past self to call my year two a year one. But, that’s exactly what it was. I started over with a new business plan, new team members, new management and new designs. And, the only way to do that with a clear mind and a narrow focus was to do it with a clean slate. I began over again with the knowledge I’d gained from my year of failures, and I began again.
5. Celebrate your success
It’s really easy to look back and see all the things you didn’t do – and a little more difficult to celebrate what you are doing well now. But, lo and behold, I am three times the business leader I was last November. And, we are finally reaping the benefits of that change. I see my company growing. I see sales taking off.
I see the changes I made post failure creating a platform off of which I believe we can really do some beautiful things in this world…and I have my failures to thank for that.
Maybe they turned me into a brilliant entrepreneur after all.
At least that’s what I told myself in the mirror this morning.
August 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
I met M and J three years ago in Grass Valley, CA – 25 minutes from where I grew up off Highway 49, and an hour’s drive on I-80 West from Lake Tahoe, where my brothers and I used to make bets on who could stay in the cold lake the longest. We used to make my mom laugh, running out bright red and gasping from the snow runoff to beg for Juice Squeeze and hoagies.
The girls separated a year later. I lost touch with J, after that, but M and I stayed close. She never talked negatively about her old girlfriend, despite the fact that they’d spent over seven years together, and J had been nasty about the breakup. M has this phrase that explains her philosophy of living – “arms up!” she’ll say. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.” When she’s down, she’s expecting she’ll be back up. When she’s up, she’s aware she’ll be back down. But she doesn’t negate either place.
“I learned a lot from being with women,” she commented once. “Then again, I learn a lot from being with men. I guess I just love people.”
I’ve always been aware that putting a label on M’s sexuality would be a mistake. It has much more to do with a way of loving out her fellow man than it does anything to do with being pansexual or bisexual or gay or straight, and she never uses any of those things to describe herself. So, neither do I.
I lived out more than one metamorphosis in M’s west coast apartment – Shanley 2.0 and 2.5 and 3.0 all clusterfucked together while I figured it out. I’ve flicked cigarettes off the balcony and taken long, slow hits with my feet tucked up under me on the raffia furniture on the veranda until my head felt lighter and my temples buzzed. I’ve been brought home stumbling from Rohypnol and spent the night puking off the side of M’s bed until I could stand straight enough to get to the bathroom. I’ve spent dizzy hours cleaning up that carpet, and calling home to tell my mom I’m okay, that my friends brought me home, and nothing happened.
I’ve pulled someone close in that same bed, smelling cigarettes and Grey goose and tonic and I’ve felt the world stop turning for a while, in M’s apartment.
I’ve gone back to the balcony and the raffia on the veranda with my heart broken, and woken up with blistering insides on the white, leather couch and I’ve driven home late on the highway, praying out loud with my heater on full blast with my blistering, pulsing, hurting heart pumping up a hurricane inside my chest.
I’ve gone back again whole, and sat sipping cocktails at the counter and talking about new beginnings. M was the person I called the first time I kissed a girl, and knew instinctively that kissing girls wasn’t my thing. I called her the first time I slept with someone I didn’t know. I called her when I couldn’t forgive my body for shutting down, and when I rejoiced over it opening back up. I lost my way, along the way, but M’s path shone like a beacon, always allowing for new experience, but never doubting her direction. That’s where M and I differed. I was always a “what the hell” person. I pulsed through life pissed off and wondering ”What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?” while M danced, pulling in certain things and letting go of others, because M always knew what kind of beat she wanted to jam to.
Once, she told me that she’d gotten to that place of sureness through a lot of trial and error. That was the night I stopped being pissed at myself for asking “What the hell?” and recognized that it was part of my journey.
M is big on intuition and she’s big on trusting oneself. So, she supported me through planning a wedding, and then she supported me when it was time to let my plans go. I moved to Washington DC and Los Angeles and Portland and East Africa, and M closed her eyes and put her hands up for me, each time.
M was the person who introduced me to Martha Beck. Beck’s a Harvard graduate and life coach turned author, though perhaps not in that order. A lot of her writing centers on her son, Adam, who was born with Down’s Syndrome.
I still thought I had it figured out when M and I met, you know. I was this 19 year old with an agenda and a clear direction and I was making a lot of judgments on the world.
M didn’t care. That’s the beautiful thing about her.
She’d already learned the more you know the less you know – but she didn’t judge me for not being there yet. Instead, she quietly and kindly handed me Beck’s book “Expecting Adam” the night I first sat in her kitchen watching J flip chocolate chip pancakes at the stove.
All she said was, “read this. You’ll cry and you’ll laugh and it will change your life.”
She was right. I walked away from that book with a new perspective on success – that it was something that centered around the way you loved people and yourself and your work, rather than how much money you made or the title you carried. Or, so I thought. I mean, I guess I stored that information somewhere inside me. But, I must have forgotten it when I simultaneously chose to become a social entrepreneur and at the same time became guilt ridden and depressed because I felt I “should” be working in an office for a salary instead.
When I hired an entrepreneur coach to kick the guilt and the depression and find a clear path, I figured that meant spending the first two weeks of our time focusing hard on my financials – turning me into insta-success – helping me make more cash more quickly. But my coach, in true M-like fashion, wasn’t about to begin there.
Instead of talking about my bank account, she asked me to sit on the floor and start drawing a visual map of what my life looked like in three years.
Jesus. That was hard.
The first night I tried to map out Shanley 5.0 AKA who I’d like to be at 26, I put my hair in a high bun and changed into my yoga pants. I rolled out this big sheet of white paper and I crossed my legs indian styled in front of it – pen poised…
I left to get a beer.
I left to get chocolate to go with said beer.
I called my mother.
I tried on a new American Apparel dress, for the third time.
I mediated, back in my yoga pants after taking off said dress.
Three days later, with a blank sheet of paper still rolled out on my floor I was perusing Beck’s writing for more information on Downs and I stumbled on a quote that reminded me of everything I’d first thought I knew after reading Expecting Adam.
That’s all it said.
I spent a week on that one phrase.
It took a full week for me to come to terms with the truth that I probably knew several things about Shanley 5.0 – what she wanted, where I hoped she’d be living and what she’d be doing with her time. But, I was afraid that none of those things would pan out, so I was shutting her down. I mean, who wants to listen to a bright future when all they’ve got in front of them is schpleck?
“I will not should on myself,” my coach directed that week.
Right. So, the blocking had to shift – from “I will never have what I want” to blocking out what my coach called the “little girl on your shoulder.” The little girl kept saying I should be in a corporate office, that I shouldn’t be be budgeting in expensive beer and going without good conditioner, that I should be making more money, should have gotten somewhere better sooner and, last but not least, really should be sending out sales pitches instead of doodling on a long, white sheet of paper I’m just going to shove in a drawer when I’m finished with it.
She thought the dumb map was bullshit anyways.
She kept talking the whole time I drew.
Halfway through the first 1/3 of my big, white roll-out sheet I dove in to more Beck. This time, she wrote that,
All this cheesy law of attraction stuff actually works—at least when you do it in a non-cheesy way, which I’ve been trying to learn and teach my whole life.
I imagined myself in an apartment by myself, then. I imagined myself quitting my part time job in a year’s time. I imagined myself writing, and working with my social enterprise and I imagined myself without guilt, sitting in this little studio with my grandfather’s tapa stretched out on the wall behind me.
I imagined M and her son dancing in their kitchen, and the night that she told me she had been crazy scared of having a kid, but that she envisioned herself as a mom – wanted to be a mom – and deciding to do it, despite fear, was the best thing she’d ever done.
Somewhere in between reading about Beck’s piece of forest property she purchased after pray rain journaling about it for months and finishing the second 1/3 of my map, I got a text from M telling me that she’d met someone, and it was going well.
“I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing,” she wrote. “But I’m breathing and I’m dancing in all this chaos and I feel this peace inside, because no matter what happens, I know where I want to be – and I know that I will find my way there.”
“Arms up,” I wrote back. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.”
She sent a wink.
I finished my three year map a few days later. No where in it was there a corporate office, or anything close to the word “should.” In fact, it looked a lot like the direction I was already headed in – I just hadn’t known what to call it, before. Or, perhaps I should say, “draw” it.
I’m also happy to report that it has not spent a single, solitary moment in a drawer.
M’s coming to my coast this year.
She says she wants to come take part in this crazy adventure I’ve embarked on, in New York city.
“I love that you knew what you wanted and you went for it,” she texted.
July 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
When I was a little girl, my father fascinated me with the stories surrounding items he had from other countries. In his office, there was a hand carved tiger, a Japanese garden stool, a bottle collection, a Tiki man, and above them all, a National Geographic atlas where he used to show me the countries where he had purchased the things I loved to touch and ask about. “Here is Okinawa,” he’d say. “There’s Germany.” Sometimes we talked about Hawaii. Other days we talked about Mexico and Brazil.
As I grew older, my fascination with stories from overseas grew, and my grandfather and father honored my interest with gifts – a bottle here, a set of Japanese farming shoes there. They helped me begin a collection of global pieces that were connected to the stories of my father’s family, and their travels from before I was born. What I loved most about these pieces was the way they reminded me that the world is bigger than my direct experience with it, and I can live in the light of that reality, no matter where I am.
At 18, I began my own journey mapping out stories and spots on the globe – beginning with Haiti, and continuing into Uganda a year later. After spending time in these areas, the items I’d purchased, particularly the wearable ones, were imbued with memories and stories from their particular locations. By integrating these items into my wardrobe, I felt that I was able to take these places with me in my daily life. My bracelets opened dialogue about global events, stories and experiences. My flip flops created conversations around East Africa. There it was again – that big world. This time, influencing my relationships, and challenging my friends to take its reality with them as well.
At 21, I combined my love of travel and stories into a fashion line. Created in collaboration with celebrity stylist Antonio Esteban and individual artisans in Uganda, our pieces serve as a way for women to open dialogue around global events, stories and experiences – their own, other people’s, or those of the women we partner with at Nakate. My vision was always that these pieces would serve as a reminder that, no matter where you are, the world is much bigger than your direct experience with it – and it is possible to take that reality with you, wherever you go.
June 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
There are all kinds of damaging beliefs we carry – from our childhood, our adulthood, our religious and non religious experiences and our backgrounds. They affect how we think about ourselves as people, as women – as lovers, as partners, as teachers, as career people, as friends. They can make us narrow. They can throw us off course. They can make us unhappy, and misguided.
Here are ten things I wish that someone had told me – much, much sooner. They pertain to more than just women. These are human things.
1. Don’t be afraid to be different, because what you want is different
Feminism personally has given me the confidence to decipher the difference between what is socially expected of me and what I genuinely want for myself. And I’m not saying those two things are always clean cut, there are things that my parents may want for me that are social expectations but that I also feel because they genuinely love me, they want me to be happy and all of that stuff. And so it helps you decipher what is expected of you versus what you do for yourself, or what you want to do for yourself. And also I think that it gives you the confidence to recognise that your value is not based on what attention you get from men or the success of your relationships with men but it’s based on who you are as a person and the things that you want. It’s a question of self determination. Honestly, I always say it’s like this taste of freedom and once you have it you can’t go back. Like now that I know, I’d never settle for someone who isn’t completely comfortable with who I am.
2. Do a lot of things. And make each thing you do reflect the values you want
I think now, people think they should be successful by the time they’re 30, and I just wanted to say to them, you know, have four different professions and many different lovers. It’s okay. …The whole idea is not to figure out what you should do that will matter, but to make each thing you do reflect the values you want. …Because we don’t know what’s going to matter in the future.
3. Stretch out. Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.
But then there are nights like last night. When just hearing his name in a movie, or smelling a certain whiskey on my husband’s breath, or tasting a certain Chinese dish, brings it up. And to say “brings it up” is not quite right. “Up” implies levity, and action. What I really mean is Shuts it Down. Everything. When I describe this feeling to my therapist, I make a motion with my hand. I slide my open hand over my eyes, like I’m playing peek-a-boo, except I never raise the hand again and smile. My body detaches from me. All that therapy, all that yoga, all those saintly patient boyfriends go to shit. And there he is, above me. And I am on my back. And I can’t feel a thing.
“I’m sorry I’m so weird,” I often tell my husband on nights like last night. I whisper this, and grow small, the front of my body collapsing in on itself. I bring my knees into my chest, and regress to infant mode. “Stretch out,” he says when this happens. “Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.” And then, when I don’t: “It’s okay.”
My man. My guy.
4. Let others walk their own path.
It’s an interesting idea actually: Two strong forces – Love and Control, and how they compete with one another at times. We only ever try and control the ones we love, but by controlling them, we are not truly loving them. We stop being true to THEIR journey. Love and control can never exist in the same space. Unconditional love is letting those you love live and walk their own path; it’s letting them hit rock bottom, as hard as it is to witness, and as difficult as it is to do we have to stay true to what their journey is and simply love them through it. When we try to control, we make it about ourselves; about our desired outcome; about our advice or voice not being taken or heard.
5. Don’t expect disaster.
She can live through it, Miss Taggart, because we do not hold the belief that this earth is a realm of misery where man is doomed to destruction. We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it – and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity, that we regard as the abnormal exception of the human life (Ragnar Danneskjold, 696).
6. There are no dating rules.
Dear everyone: You understand that if there was a book that taught people how to not be single there would be no more single people, right? (Involuntarily single people, anyway.) People are not monolithic. You cannot trick people into loving you by treating them like math equations waiting to be solved. It’s dehumanizing. If you want to date a human being you have to treat other human beings like human beings. It’s not that complicated.
Here are the only actual “rules”:
1. Be a person with a life.
2. Respect other people and their lives.
3. Be patient.
4. Don’t be desperate.
That’s really all you can do. And there’s still no guarantee that it’ll work. But at least you won’t be trapped in some loveless marriage, bartering passivity for diamonds for the rest of your life. Okay?
7. You have a “psychological immune system.” You can feel happy even when things don’t go as planned.
8. You should ask for what you want. There is no shame in wanting.
For some ridiculous reason we do not express our wants because we become afraid of appearing too blunt, too aggressive or even too demanding. But why is wanting something considered a bad thing? It isn’t. It is the basic human condition, to want, to desire, to dream. We owe it to ourselves to simply ask.
Most people live their lives in 3 realities:
- Caring WAY too much and being afraid of what people think of us.
- Alternatively, exploding from the restriction of holding our tongues to the point that we don’t care at all.
- Or we form a sea of resentment, and each and every time we negate what it is that we want, or don’t take the time to ask for it, the sea only widens and deepens its bounds.
We should feel no shame in wanting things, and we should have no shame in asking for what we want. How else will people know what to give us if we don’t?
9. Every woman needs a cornfield.
My high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.
“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”
10. You don’t have to be good.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
June 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal-a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
- Mary Oliver
A friend of mine used to regret the year he lost his religion in college. He told me he once thought that without the guiding light of the church he’d turned cold.
On Friday, I was in bed at 3:04 PM, drinking Pinot Grigio out of the bottle.
I’m not a lush. I mean it.
I took two swigs, and I put it down and stared. I was grumpy as hell, and the Pinot was just to take the edge off.
A piece of my life went missing on Wednesday. By Friday, I was experiencing some kind of post postpartum depression.
I got out of bed at 7:13. I finished a meeting and shipped a wholesale order to the Northwest by 9 AM. I worked non stop until 3:00 pm.
3:04 hit, and I was done.
I guess I needed space to grieve.
I wanted to write when I was a kid. I used to buy all these little notebooks and pens with cash I made from selling eggs to my grandmother’s co-workers at the department of agriculture.
Nobody told me that writing would feel like being pregnant – carrying around a live something inside you that’s coming out, one way or another. And, I’ve been carrying mine around for ten months now.
I finished it Wednesday. Come Friday, I was anti-climaxed the fuck out. I’d bid adieu to this purpose – this relationship with google docs. Ten months it had been me and this thing – me returning again and again to acknowledge a story that needed telling, to send another draft to an editor that kept driving for the epicenter of my being – what is it that needs to come out? He was right, over and over and over, when he told me I hadn’t hit it yet. These were all false labors, the drafts I kept sending over.
I wanted my writing to matter – for women, for men, for me. I wanted it to be a healing vessel for all the women I don’t know that have walked into the place I’d once found myself crouching in – small, hidden, believing that I was somehow still standing straight when I was lying down. I’d ended up on the bottom when I’d wanted to be on the top.
I’d found my solutions in my words. Words were my compass, while I tumbled over them and I figured out exactly what it was I was trying to say about this giant thing I’d lost myself in.
With my words, I discovered that I had been a hypocrite of the worst kind. I had been a woman writing about and seeking to empower women from a place where I had handed over all my power to something else. I had handed my power over – all my power – like a casual spliff outside a dive bar, without thinking.
Suck, pull in, hold.
Cough and release. Cough again. And again.
I had left behind any kind of self awareness.
It didn’t get done to me – not really. That’s the worst and the best of it. It’s the worst because it’s an admission of guilt. It’s the best because its only in the admission of guilt that one can be free.
Four months, draft two – I thought I’d been wronged. Six months, draft three – I’d done the wronging. Month eight, draft five, I was able to recognize that I used to be a boundary-less woman – free for the taking. I didn’t love myself enough to protect myself. I said yes, over and over and over. My methodical, minute by minute pushing out of my right to refusal left me drowning.
By draft eight, month nine, Google docs was on fire. I found solidarity both in owning my part, and in letting go of the parts that belonged to others. And I started coming back alive.
After a good, long 10 months, I finished my literary pregnancy this week. I finished the story and half the Pinot in a go before I sent my story to an editor that let me know I’d finally nailed it. My reality had been released on paper. It was ready to live, to breathe, to take its part in the world at large and to change the lives of the people it came into contact with, like anything does that’s alive in this world.
I felt wonderful.
8 hours later, I woke up panicked and empty. I had reached the end.
Without the guiding light of exploration, I turned cold.
I thought and I thought and I thought, and I ate too little. Then, I ate too much.
At long last, I called an old friend. He answered in the check out line. My voice on the line – for years – and he knows in an instant when something’s awry.
“Let me check out and call you right back,” he said.
I went to hang up and his voice stopped me.
“I love you.”
He said it like a driving force – a great, big pounding reality, set to take over other realities. Love. Wrapped around. Wrapped behind. Love, in my room and in my writing, and in the life around me in the city.
Love – bigger than the monster of control that I don’t want to risk running into again. Love for fellow man, love for pancakes and for mornings and for coffee and for sunshine. Love for summer in New York city. Love for time with a friend six blocks North who tells me to live in the present with him and to drink deeply of this life – and the champagne I’m handed, with a wink. Love for another that greets me with a hug in Soho. Love for a sister that’s learning English. Love even for those who turned out creating toxicity with me, instead of health.
In love – for myself, for my fellow man, for the woman I’ve become instead of the woman I was – I put the piece of writing the chicken girl had only hoped to craft someday into a private document, out of reach, and I walked away.
I let go of my story after that – the writing of it, the publishing of it, the re-living it every time I sit down to visit with the ghosts of my past again.
I thought back on the conversation with my college friend again. It was a month ago, in a bar in East Village.
I remembered that he’d explained, on beer two, that he’d come back alive when he realized that the religious system he’d used as a guiding light had never been such anyways. He told me that it was in caring for others that he found direction again.
“I used to be a selfish bastard,” he said.
He told me that it was only when he lost his fixation with his personal journey, and opened up to the world around him, that he began to feel life in himself again.
When he said that I felt the sudden awareness that – in all the years we’d known each other – this was the first time he’d ever made time to sit and drink a beer with me.
Friday came and went. Pinot. Depression. Grief. I went to bed early to sleep off my funk.
Come Saturday night, I was eating ribs and drinking white wine with a new friend.
As I listened to him laugh and I felt my heart warm up inside, I was quietly aware that, just two days prior, I would have been home diving through my dark past, instead.
“There’s a present,” someone told me recently. “You know, there’s a present, and it matters. Don’t get so caught up in what was for you, that you can’t see what is for you, now.”
It was then that I realized I hadn’t really lost anything when I wrapped up my self exploration through the written word.
I hadn’t turned cold, after all.
In fact, in letting go of my literary obsession with the darkest period in my own past I had, quite possibly, come that much closer to being a light, myself.
Not to mention, I woke up on Sunday ready to write – this time, about what life is for me now.
April 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
I took Agnes to the pacific last week. We’ve been business partners for over a year now – her running the Ugandan side of our business, myself working stateside. We’ve worked together in East Africa. But, now it was her turn to enter my world.
We spent time in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Santa Monica, introducing Agnes to shop owners and re-stocking locations with our new spring line. We found out she loves mango smoothies the way I love matooke. She loves coffee the way…I love coffee. She loves sandwiches the way I love chapati. In my world, we talked about my childhood the way we’d talked about hers during my last visit. We discussed my breakups the way we’d talked about her relationship with Patrick after she’d met him in grade school. We talked about the way I was born in San Diego and grew up in the Sierra Nevadas the way she’d talked about growing up in Kampala. And, after she met the head of the journalism department at my alma mater, we discussed our degrees – mine in journalism, hers in business.
She laughed through my dating stories. She told me she’d waited to get married on purpose to finish her education. We discussed Patrick’s views on women – his support of her. I nodded. I’d seen it – him waving goodbye from the veranda, watching their three children while we worked on our company. We traded stories about our cultures on the way into boutiques – the way Ugandans say Americans make love in the streets, the way Americans claim Uganda – and all of Africa, at that – is full of people defecating in the streets.
At the stop light on Broadway, we laughed so hard it hurt.
It was 3:30 pm when we were done – prime traffic time in LA, and I warned her we’d be late home. But Agnes had been smelling the ocean air for just about as long as she could stand without being properly introduced, and I caught the desperation in her eye.
“I’ve never seen it!” she pleaded.
I thought of myself asking to visit the Nile, and nodded, putting the truck in drive.
I’ve never introduced anyone to the pacific for the first time – let alone the ocean itself. The practice felt sacred to me, taking off our shoes on the edge of the boulevard and walking across the sand in our bare feet. I pointed out ships and surfers as we walked.
Agnes hesitated at the edge of the water, the way I’d hesitated when I’d first shared a pathway with a herd of Ankole cattle on my way through Wobulenzi. I laughed at her hesitancy the way the cattle herder had laughed at me, crouched at the edge of a herd of long horn cattle. I waved my arms – “come on!”
I watched Agnes and the ocean feeling each other out for the first time, and I thought about how many things this woman has introduced me to.
I met her when I was 21. It was my first day in Kakooge. Agnes greeted me with a loud voice and open arms. She gave me a hug and three kisses – left, right, left. She waved her arms around – “welcome to our home! You are so welcome.” By “home,” I soon learned Agnes was referring to the entire village – not just her half acre plot in the midst of it.
Skirt wrapped around her waist and an arm of bracelets, Agnes walked me through every part of town, little blonde NGO reporter that I was. We went to the outskirts of Kakooge, to the main street of Kakooge, to the village’s only indoor restaurant, to the east, where most of the children gather to play and, finally, to the bars, where drunken men recognized Agnes, and exclaimed over the Mzungu. I watched them, sitting on a wooden bench offered to the white girl, and I thought about the woman I’d just met.
She spoke about Jesus and women’s rights in the same sentence – often in church. With a booming voice and an out-streched arm, she regularly preached alongside her husband to a local congregation on wooden benches. And yet, here she was, a public figure in her village and a respected woman in her culture, laughing with the men in the bars and, later, I’d learn, with the prostitutes. Turns out, Agnes is not only progressive, she’s a bit controversial.
By controversial, I mean Agnes swims against the ancient wave carrying respected society away from anyone engaged in less than admirable activity, and pulling the religious and dignified away from issues like birth control, safe sex, AIDS, family planning and a woman’s right to express herself freely in every room in her home. Jesus doesn’t talk about condoms, does he?
Agnes seems to think he does.
After my 22nd birthday, she threw in her livelihood with me, and hired 40 women she handpicked to partner with us after meeting me once. That same year, she began to change my view of Uganda. She brought me into East Africa as a part of the woodwork, insisting that I wasn’t a visitor anymore. I had a place carved out in her home along the Kampala to Gulu highway, where the trucks run through to the West of my bedroom wall in the night, and the roosters crow on the half hour just before dawn.
Agnes must have known that any person transitioning into a culture needs to be taken in with their background, and taught new ways, instead of expected to know them, because she told me she saw me the third time I returned to Uganda. I was deep in a half eaten plate of matooke when she said it. I was struggling with a culture that I didn’t fit into – checking my iphone in between meetings running an hour behind schedule, and lying awake trying to teach myself to slow down. I was embarrassed by my white legs, and the way I kept cutting myself shaving in my bucket shower.
I stopped eating and stared. “Yes,” she nodded. “I see you. I see your heart. I get you. And, I believe in you.”
Her words, in the midst of a sea of misunderstanding, became my lifeline.
Later that week, it was Agnes, again, that gave me permission to have a large vision for my work in East Africa. She walked into a room she’d transitioned into mine for the two weeks I stayed with her. “I want you to open your heart,” she told me. “We’re going to be big. Big beyond Uganda. I have plans for Kenya, Rwanda, and the Congo. So, you let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll go.”
During that visit, I discovered that Agnes’ willingness to be controversial – to speak up, to speak out, and to go places where other women were not willing to go – had taken me to those places with her. She’d silently understood my desire for integration into her village, my desire to do business directly with the women in at, and with it – quietly been creating a place for me in Uganda – in the way she spoke about me, the way she helped me understand her culture and, now, the way she brought the two together.
She’d created a profile of my work, and my character. She’d been prepping the women working for me to meet me again. The woman she once went to visit in the bad parts of time were coming to greet her – and to greet me. Women that we’d gone to take pictures of in huts were walking across town to kiss me three times – left, right, left – and talk about our work. The prostitutes that had once pursed their lips at me were greeting me in English.
Six months later, at the age of 23, it was Agnes that gave me the grace to allow our plan take longer than expected, and for funds to come through more slowly than I wanted them to. After sales tax stripped our January bank account, I got an email from her quoting a scripture passage from the book of Zechariah. “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings,” it said.
More than matoke or Ankole cows, Agnes has taught me about the way a relationship with a person can change everything, as she’s staked her reputation on my ability to come through for her and the women she’s hired to work for us – taking months to explain cultural customs, work out our accounting on the ground, gather items and, now, to come and learn my culture so she could better integrate the needs of our customer base into hers.
As we walked on the wet sand, I pointed out kelp and washed up shells and explained crustaceans. I picked up different size shells. I pointed out the way the tide moves. But Agnes wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in the way children interacted the way with the water, and kept pulling on my arm to laugh and point them out.
I’d never seen the ocean that way – through children. One ran away from the ocean – terrified – and made a muscle, smiling at us, once he’d safely escaped the surf. Another was rolling himself in the sand and grinning underneath his gritty, gray hair. A third ran into the surf squealing with delight over waves that were too cold for me.
“I love the way they love it,” Agnes said. And, it was in that moment, watching a little girl dance the sand out of her polka dotted suit, that I realized Agnes had done it again – she’d changed my perspective on the world and, with it, the way I view the people around me, and my place in it, alongside them.