Reading my way back to me

Books healed me. Books restored me. Books sustained me in 2020.

I began 2020 with this reading challenge:  to read 52 books by 52 Black women writers.  I must say that first, despite my being a child raised by books and in the stacks of the Milwaukee public libraries, an English major turned literature and writing teacher, a literacy scholar and researcher,  and co-founder of the Soulful Saturday Sistas book club and free library project, I have spent years reading very little for pleasure.  I was always too busy doing this or doing that, that I let life get in the way of one of my most treasured and necessary self-care practices.  I love to read (and to write) and I need stories to survive.  In 2020, in what would become the year we won’t soon forget, I found my way back to this passion and what a healing journey this has been.  It is the self-care and self-love I did not know that I needed. 

So, on this last day of 2020, I celebrate this journey.  I also share gratitude for all of you who have followed my goodreads reviews, who’ve DM’d me for my book recommendations, who lent an ear when I gushed with excitement “gurl, you gotta read this book!”  And, I share gratitude for the Black women writers, across the diaspora, who are telling our diverse and complex and brilliant stories when the world would have us think that Black women and girls are not important.  That our lives do not matter.  We know that they do. 

I read some amazing stories by and for Black women and girls this year, and I’ll highlight my top 10 with 2 bonus mentions.  Let me start with my two bonus mentions.  Jesmyn Ward. That’s all.  Just Jesmyn Ward.  I really dove into her work this year and Salvage the Bones is without question one of my favorite books of all times.  Next, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.  Those of you who I talked to about this book (we read it for book club too), you know that the final conversation between the two sisters had me ready to throw my book across the room.  One of the best dialogues ever!

And, here are my top 10 in no particular order, but with a thematic description of why and how they helped define my year of reading myself back to ME.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory:  I forgot how much I LOVED romance novels and Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding series was my reintroduction.  The Proposal was my jam—good sex scenes and the food!

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert:  Because we all should aspire to be Dani Brown.  And Zaf.  The heat between the love interests was contagious.  And there were so many LOL moments.  The perfect mix of witchery, purple hair, chest and abs…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo:  One of my most complex reads of the year.  The experience reading this book reminded me of the need for patience and persistence.  Brilliant interconnecting and cross-generational storytelling of Black women’s lives.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett:  This was the read that I can’t wait to see on screen.  Who will they cast as Early? The drama and secrets—I could not put the book down. 

You Should See Me in A Crown by Leah Johnson:  I teach YA literature and admittingly I had not read a YA book in a long while!  This was my first of the year and I am just so excited about how YA literature has evolved.     

Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown:  This book stretched me the most, especially in terms of my understandings of sexuality, pleasure, and desire. 

You Belong: A Call to Connection by Sebene Selassie:  I explored Buddhist spirituality this year and really wanted to connect with Black Buddhists.  This book by Selassie inspired me deeply.  And, I especially loved the writing.

His Only Wife by peace adzo medie:  My favorite debut novel this year.  This was a page turner!! 

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi:  This book standouts for the narration and point of view. It’s a suspense that deals with the realities of death, loss, acceptance, and denial. 

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw:  This collection of short stories is a masterpiece and it should have won the National Book Award.  As a COGIC kid, I was intrigued by the title.  I was mesmerized by each story and more and more in love with Black women, our beauty, our complexity, and our genius.

All in all, I had a ball (RIP Ecstacy). 

Now, what should I read next?

A Flu Intervention

sick and workingI am sick.  I have the flu.  And I’m having a really hard time with this reality.  This is that barely lift your head up, body chills, aches, and pains, fever and night sweats, coughing up a lung, throwing up kind of flu.  It ain’t no joke.  And I’ve been battling with it for over a week now.  When I went to my doctor on yesterday, I asked him if I could go to this meeting or if I could teach my two yoga classes over the weekend, and he just looked at me and politely said no.  He said that I must stay home, rest, take the medicine he prescribed, eat probiotic foods, and drink lots of fluids (though he did give me permission to go to see The Black Panther as long as I wore a mask).  He asked me if I needed a doctor’s note to be excused from my work and other obligations.  I just laughed and politely said no.  I laughed because despite being the sickest I’ve been in at least the last 15 years, I have not felt like I could completely let go of the work.   I have not stopped working.   I’ve called in to most meetings that I had scheduled.  I’ve met deadlines and fulfilled requests.  I’ve handled administrative duties (with support from my office administrator).  I’ve worked remotely from my iPhone while laying in bed nearly hacking up a lung.  Oh, get this:  I even traveled to Atlanta for a business trip in the middle of the week, under the auspice that I didn’t think I had the flu.  I nearly fell apart trying to make it back home to my bed.  My doctor was trying to give me permission to stop working, and he and I both knew in that moment that I was–that I am–beyond needing permission.  I need a serious intervention.

So many times this week I have wanted to cry because I’ve felt so bad.  Not just physically bad–but emotionally.  I have felt angry at myself for being sick.  I have been disappointed that I haven’t been able to attend events that I’ve looked forward to for some time.  I have been embarrassed to have to tell people that I can’t be there or I can’t do this.  I have felt like a failure.  And then at other times, I’ve felt lonely, depressed, and just sad.  I don’t want to be sick.  I am not choosing to slow down.  But, my body physically will not allow me to continue to work at the same pace.  Friends and colleagues keep telling me to rest and take good care and not to worry about the work.  They assure me that everything will be OK in my absence.   And, I want to trust in that.  Yet it has been difficult for me to just take the time to allow my body to heal.  As I reflect on that, I just think, how tragic.  How tragic that I am even contemplating these issues.

I teach and practice yoga, and I am constantly sharing with others the importance of self-care practices and centering one’s own self and health.  And, for a long time, that message has worked for me.  Despite having a crazy busy life schedule, I’m generally zen, healthy, and balanced.  The message has worked for me until it doesn’t.  This bout with the flu has been a wake up call.  A sort of flu intervention.  When I tell others to “listen to your body,” do I really mean it?  When I caution others against taking on too much and learning to say no, am I taking my own advice?black panther mask

Having the flu has forced me to acknowledge that I have a hard time letting go and stepping away from work and obligations.  Somehow I have convinced myself that I have to keep up with every email and every item on my to-do list.  But this flu has intervened to say, nope, not happening.  It has also shown me that life will go on while I am away caring for myself and my health.  The meetings will happen.  The events will take place.  Deadlines will pass.  Life will go on.  And there is nothing I can do about it.  Well, there is something that I can do.  I can follow the doctor’s orders and feel better soon.  And while I work on feeling better, I am learning that everything is gonna be alright.

No Day But Today

Last night, I took my 12 year old son to see a high school musical version of RENT.  Jonathan Larson’s RENT is probably my favorite musical.  I saw it first as a young adult in Boston and then later on Broadway before it finally closed.  It is hard for me to get tunes like “Seasons of Love” and “I’ll Cover You” (especially Collins’ reprise at Angel’s funeral) out of my head.  I feel like each song weaves together the voice of a generation of young people declaring, I’m me.  It’s OK to love.  It’s OK to feel.  It’s OK to care. No need to make apologies for who you are or for who you love. One of the biggest messages I always take away from this musical is to not live life with regrets–there’s no day but today.  As Mimi sang,

There is no future
There is no past
I live this moment
As my last

There’s only us
There’s only this
Forget regret
Or life is yours to miss

No other road
No other way
No day but today

So, I woke up this morning reflecting on a few ways to live for today that I thought I’d share:

1) Tell and show someone you care for and love them deeply.  Sometimes we let our pride, or our ego, get in the way of expressing our love to those near and dear to us.  We’re afraid to be vulnerable or to show signs of weakness.  I say, get over it!  And, get over yourself!  Loving and caring for others does not make you weak.  In fact, it makes you strong.  And, it’s even better when you do so unconditionally, without judgment, and without expectation.  I spent a great deal of my life giving love or caring for others because I wanted them to care for me back.  It doesn’t work that way.  I had to learn to love myself first which then allowed me to love others authentically.  When you do this, you experience love abundantly.  Trust.

2) Which brings me to my second point, Be yourself and love that person. We wear the mask, carrying everyone else’s definitions for who we ought to be.  Be a good mom.  Be a perfect wife.  Be an accomplished scholar.  Be a devoted daughter.  Notice I placed loaded adjectives before each of these roles that I occupy.  Sometimes they’re neatly interconnected and other times they are fiercely in opposition of one another.  But, I am all of these things, for good and bad.  I’ve learned to drop and reject the adjectives.  I’ve learned that I can only be me in any given moment, flaws and all.  I accept and embrace the various ways that I enact these roles, and I look forward to the variety that each offers my life.   I’m doing me and loving it.  As Millie Jackson sang, you gotta, gotta, gotta Be Yourself!

3) Do something you’ve always wanted to do.  What is holding you back?  Living for today means letting go of fear.  Sometimes, we hold on to past hurts and experiences in ways which hinder us from moving forward.  The past becomes a crutch, an excuse for not moving forward or trying something new, something different.  The past fuels your fear.  I guess I just don’t want to leave this earth saying, I wish I had… or Why didn’t I…?  There’s no day but today and I refuse to live with regrets.  Now, I don’t plan to be ratchet, but I can allow for a little reckless abandon every once in a while.

RENT inspires me every time I see it.  Now, I’m getting on with living each moment as my last.

As a side note, interestingly, my son was less concerned with the statements on love, sexuality, and identity and more so on issues of sexual health and AIDS/HIV (mostly spawned by his recent curiosity about human species and sexual reproduction).  Just a reminder to talk about sexual health as a part of self-love.

I’m a Vegan Junkie

candy-hearts-2014-5-songsI will refrain from using this online space to complain about all of the responsibilities that I am unsuccessfully juggling at the moment.  But, let’s just say I’m dealing with a bit of stress.  The last few days have been filled with activities and looming deadlines, and I’m merely keeping my head above water (queue the theme music!).  In times like these, I find that eating a vegan diet becomes challenging for me.  I’ve only been strictly vegan for the past six months, so that in and of itself has been a significant transition in my life.  With a busy schedule, I’ve had to be very purposeful in figuring out how to make the diet work for me and to make sure that I always have healthy options.  Unlike before, I can’t just go to any number of fast food joints near my campus office to grab a quick bite to eat.  Though, a vegan “fast food” cafe just opened up steps away from my office.  And, therein lies the problem.  Yes, the food is vegan there, but they do not offer only healthy food choices.  No, they have a “B”LT sandwich, and my god is it good!  The sandwich is made with deep fried tempeh, lettuce, tomato, sprouts, and vegan mayonnaise spread generously on a grilled bun.  And, they have the best cupcake in town, and it is vegan!  So, when I’m feeling like I’ve had a good week diet wise, I don’t mind indulging in a few vegan treats.  Problem is, right now, I’m snacking on Mi-del Swedish Style Ginger Snaps.  They’re All Natural, 0g Trans Fat, and 120 calories for 5 cookies.  That justifies me eating the entire bag, right?

Here’s my confessional: when I’m stressed, I become a vegan junkie.  Yesterday, I almost finished off an entire container (I won’t admit the size) of Valentine’s candy hearts.  At least they’re vegan *shrugs shoulders*.  It’s easy to do that when you’re sitting in front of your computer writing a proposal that is due that day.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how going inward helped me to slow down and stay focused and balanced.  I took the time to prepare healthy meals and to savor every bite.  When I lose my center, all bets are off.  Thankfully, centering is an act that is continual and ongoing.   Sometimes you get off, but you can get back on.  This happens with eating and dieting all the time.  I have the best intentions, but I am human.

I’m learning that when I have a particularly stressful week ahead, it is a good idea that I plan accordingly.  Here are some of the ways that I combat my vegan junkie tendencies:

1) I make sure that I have lots of healthy snacks on the ready.  Some of my favorite standbys are chips and salsa, unsalted cashews and almonds, Boom Chicka Pop sea salt popcorn, and hummus and pita chips.  I also make sure that I always have a banana, an apple, and an orange with me.  I’m much more likely to grab for the banana over the candy hearts if I have it with me.

2) Eating a few squares from a diary-free dark chocolate bar can usually satisfy my sweet tooth. And it’s good for you.  And it’s chocolate!

3) I just admit that I don’t really like salad, and I don’t try to force it into my diet.  I will eat grilled, steamed, and roasted veggies all day long, but I’m just not a huge fan of salads.  I think there are certain misconceptions about what it means to eat a vegan diet, i.e., most times when I’m at an event and I ask for a vegan option, they give me a salad.  There is much more to eating vegan than eating salad.  And, I’m not hating on people who love salads; it’s just not for me all the time.

4) I make sure to have canned black beans and chickpeas and frozen bags of brown rice on hand for quick dinner options, especially for the nights that I teach late or have evening events to attend.  Without those options, I’m inclined to polish off my bag of ginger snaps and call it a night.

5) I permit myself to have a night of Amy’s frozen no-cheese vegan pizza, that “B”LT from the vegan cafe, or a black bean and grilled veggies burrito from Chipotle.  Sure, it may be processed or fast food.  But, you have to live a little.

Most importantly, I try to maintain my zen and not let life stress me out.  Ultimately, I’m better able to make good decisions about my health and diet when I’m centered.  And, eating well and eating right is a radical act of self-love and self-care.  I must make it a priority.