Ease On

Home is a place we’ll all have to find, chile.  But it’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing, knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.

I was not created for cool. I realized this in a very physical way on my sixth grade class trip to Washington, DC. We were gone for three days and two nights. On the way home, I was sitting across the aisle from my friend, Alicia, and at one point, she turned away to listen to music on her CD player. She was exhausted and ready to go home and be in her bed. When she started complaining about how she was bored and tired of this trip, everyone else leaned back into their seats and went silent as well. But not me.

For one thing, I didn’t have a CD player and for another, I was not bored and ready to be back home. The trip could have lasted another week. I wanted to sit up and talk and play for the remainder of the trip, enjoying this time together. I could feel the energy racing through my bloodstream and in that moment, I became grossly aware of the schism separating me from coolness. I was too hungry for interaction. Cool kids were not this excited. I watched Alicia stare out the window and longed to imitate her laid back posture, but my body wouldn’t stay still.

I hated this quality in myself. Being so hyper made me feel very foolish growing up. I was always bouncing around and talking at the speed of light and if there was no one to talk to, I would act out the fantasies playing in my head as if people couldn’t see me. Once, in church, I was sitting beside my brother doing the sign language from A Miracle on 34th Street (the one with Mara Wilson) when my brother pressed my hands down and pointed to the girls across the sanctuary, imitating me and laughing. When I recall this memory, I rewrite the story to include me giving them the finger.

I was lame and I knew it. Shoot, to be honest, none of Tyler kids were ever really popular. It’s hard to be cool when your mom bans all things secular, so you can’t discuss what happened on Moesha or Martin the night before and you can’t quote rap lyrics. But some of us were better at blending in than others. When my baby sister was born, I was not pleased. Lord knows we didn’t need another uncool Tyler kid. Once I had resign myself to the fact that my parents had indeed brought our number up to five, I made it my mission to make Danielle fit in.

My most vivid memory with Danielle occurred when she was about seven or eight. Our church’s children’s ministry was performing a dance to Donnie McClurkin’s “Caribbean Melody.” I loved to dance and sing and would have loved to be in the performance, but I was too old. So, like any stage mother living vicariously through her child, I drilled and killed the routine with Danielle. She was frustrating me because she was not doing the moves exactly as they had been introduced. She was bouncing around, adding her own touches. NO! Stop it with the improvising! Just blend in, you little weirdo! There was this one move where the kids were supposed to step out four times in a box rotation while waving and Danielle wasn’t stepping; she was skipping. I got down on my knees and held her foot down while she turned.

I remember this so well because for me, this was the real low point in our relationship. My stomach turns thinking about it. Thankfully for her, I went away to college by the time she was ten, so she got to grow and flourish without my negativity. Irony of ironies, she was the captain of her dance team in high school. She’s in college now and she is my absolute favorite. She inspires me to buck conformity and blaze my own trail. She is the coolest person I know, but not conventionally so. One summer she was interning at a community center and she was describing her coworkers. “There are these girls that work with me and they walk like, you know how cool black girls walk, right? I have never been able to master that walk!” I busted out laughing because I knew exactly what she meant. It’s like the opposite of the humpback strut. Cool black girls walk with their backs curled into a backwards C. The better to emphasize the butt and the boobs. Then you have to walk slow, almost like you’re stalking prey.

My going away benefited us both. The beautiful thing about going to Harvard is that everyone I went to college with was also a nerd, so I felt less of an impetus to be cool. But still, there were people with a great deal more swag than I. The other day I met a girl at a dinner and she asked if I knew a friend of hers who was my year in college. I said I did, but then quickly followed up with, “But she and I weren’t close. She’s cool people, but I wasn’t that social in college. I never went out, so we never ran in the same crowds.” She thought it was sweet that I mentioned that, but I felt I had no choice. God forbid she speaks to her friend and the girl is like, WHO?!?!”

I didn’t go out in college because I was terrified of getting pregnant and I couldn’t see any line between going to a party and screwing around. When one of my friends who partied a lot in college told me that she was a virgin, I fell out. How was that even possible? Her reply: “Andrea, there is shit and there is that shit that will get you pregnant!”

But besides the holy-roller fear indoctrination, I was just not a big party girl. Freshman year, I got roomed with three fabulous women and we built a home together. We spent many evenings holed up in our suite playing Mario Kart and eating the banana bread that one of our moms had sent. Another roomie’s mom would send us a box of stuff every holiday. For Christmas, we got a tree. In January, we made snowflakes and hung them up all over the ceiling of the common room and made our own winter wonderland. My best friend from home who came to college with me joined us in the fall and became the fifth member of our family. I love what we built together.

And then blocking period came. Harvard has this really intense housing situation for upperclassmen that is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the sorting hat. At the end of freshman year, we decide whom we want to live with for the next three years, the blockmates. And then Harvard decides what house you will live in. Very serious stuff. Blocking period causes drama left and right and my roommates and I were so pleased that we had escaped the drama, until we didn’t.

One of us, for reasons I understand now, but didn’t then, decided to defect. I was pissed, but ultimately was like, ugh, she’s so selfish. Fine, she’ll live to regret that. But then, another one of us, for reasons I understand now, but didn’t then, decided to go with her. The night she told the rest of us was super dramatic. We were just about to watch Soul Food (I was really into Flavor of Love and I had turned my roommates on to it, but I felt like I had an obligation to balance out that ratchedness with quality black movies lest they think all black productions are a coon fest) when my roommate dropped the news. We sat there in silence while the roommate’s nervous giggles echoed through the room.

The best part of that night was when the first defect tried to alleviate the tension by quoting our favorite scene from Lilo and Stitch and was rudely interrupted by my heartbroken roommate (the one who was staying with me).

“Remember guys, ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten –

“Well Stitch can DIE because obviously, that’s not true!” With that, my roommate got up and stomped to her room.

With movie night officially dead, I packed up the movie and went into my room. We rebounded from that moment, but not before the school year ended. That was the week before spring break. I felt so lonely. All of my college experience was wrapped up in that group of five and now we were broken. My best friend from home had gone back to her roommates and the rest of us stayed in our own rooms. No more lounging in the common room.

I sat at my desk one day and tried to think about how I could get myself out of this slump. I recalled this moment from freshman orientation when an upperclassmen had approached me at the activities fair.

“Do you know that feeling you get when you sing at church on Sunday morning?”

He was trying to recruit me for a choir. My sister was the singer of the family. I only sang with her and she wasn’t here, so pass. But, I had given him my contact information and he had emailed me. I searched my inbox before I found the details for the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. They rehearsed Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm. Thursday, I took the shuttle to what used to be the women’s college campus and I attended my first rehearsal. During the break, they showed a video promoting their spring tour in Philly. An answer to my prayer. I would go to Philly with them. And the rest was history. Kuumba became my life for the next three years.

Kuumba Tour is my favorite thing in the world. I could write books on books about the magic of Kuumba tours. Sophomore year was my absolute favorite. Freshman year, I was making friends. Junior year, all of my big siblings had graduated and I now had to be responsible for making the space great for other people and then when I was a senior, I was president, so I was on all of the time. It was fun all four years, but sophomore year was pure magic.

The second year, we went to Chicago. Our first full day there was Easter Sunday. A bunch of people went to church and when we came back to the hostel, we had Sunday dinner together. Fifty people who I loved sat down and shared a meal that we had all helped create in some way. I remember sitting at the table eating and thinking, “I’m so happy right now and the best part is, it’s only Sunday. We still have a full week of moments like this to go.”

Nothing has ever made me as happy as tour did. But, as an undergrad, I didn’t always appreciate it. I loved tour, but I wanted to be a cool kid and cool kids didn’t spend all of their spring breaks singing at churches and schools in cities like Chicago and Philly. Cool kids at Harvard went to the Caribbean and came back with deep tans. I wanted to live the Instagram life before there was an Instragram.

I worried a lot about my non-mainstream ways because I was afraid about what they said about me. As a teenager, I started thinking that there were these classes being held somewhere that I was missing out on. Classes where you learned how to dance really well, or how to flirt, or how to be less intense. I had missed out and now everyone around me was acting in a play for which I never obtained my script.

In college, I found enough kindred spirits to create a world where I was – for the most part – content to stay in my own skin and truth. But for the last five years, I have spent a significant amount of time trying on other personalities. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s a healthy part of development. I didn’t have the space to do this as a child, so in this sense, I was just having a delayed adolescence.

But what was frustrating about trying on these other personalities was dealing with the aftermath. I would get so annoyed when a situation went to pieces because I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. A textbook example of this was when I went to Puerto Rico with my friend in law school. My first night there, we were having dinner with her family and I said that I wanted to go out to the bars that night. This makes no sense considering that I have limited bandwidth for bar hopping. Only under very controlled circumstances (really good company, good music, chill environment) do I enjoy going out, but here I was stating that this is what I wanted to do my first night in PR.

We go out and as soon as we arrived at the first bar, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. It was so hot and I had no desire to drink and God knows being sober around people who are drinking is a nightmare of epic proportions. Then, my friend turned to me and said that she forgot to tell me that when she goes out with her brother, he sets the itinerary. We won’t leave until he is ready. My blood pressure skyrocketed. I hate other people – men especially – being in charge of my destiny. I love to quote this Wolverine line from an X-Men episode, “I go where I WANNA go.”

I tried to relax that night in PR by telling myself that bars close at 2am, so I just needed to make it until then. I forgot that Boston is a Puritan city where 2am is the limit and that PR is nothing like that. We got home at 7am and by that time, I had digressed into the worst version of myself. The tone of the trip never improved and we were both miserable. I was so angry. I spent a great deal of time trying to process my emotions because I could literally feel heat coursing through my veins.

Other friends rationalized my emotions by saying that the situation was just contrary to how I live my life. It was the situation, nothing more. But that wasn’t a satisfactory answer, so I tried to recall a time when I had been as angry. Very recently, the answer came to me. I was that angry once in college.

At the end of my junior year, two of my best friends were graduating. One of them was from a very well-to-do family and she had a very nice desk chair and fridge that she was leaving me. She offered to just give them to me, but our relationship was rocky at that period in time and I didn’t feel comfortable accepting her generosity, so I paid her a nominal fee. When I went to visit them the next day, my other friend in the pair, came to me and said, “This is the plan for the fridge.” And my first thought was, “How do you have a plan about my things?” She went on to say that she was going to use the fridge for a couple of weeks and then another roommate of theirs was going to use it the rest of the summer and then put it into storage for me.

I was immediately against this plan. I was fine with her using the fridge, but her other roommate was not friend of mine. I knew what would happen. The end of the summer would come and the girl would lose track of time and forget to store the fridge and then just not care enough to find a solution. There would be no incentive for her to do right by me. She wasn’t my friend and she was graduating, so she could just move on, no cares given.

I wanted to tell my friend hell no, but the words wouldn’t come out because I was thinking, “Dre, why are you like this? Why does everything with you have to be such a big deal? Your best friends are graduating. Don’t fight with them right now. Just be chill for once in your life.” So, I didn’t say anything. True enough, the girl called me at the end of the summer to ask me how could she get into the storage unit for my dorm. I didn’t know and I was back in Memphis, so there was no way for me to fix it from a distance. She ended up leaving it in the hall outside of the storage unit and the cleaning crew found it, decided that it was a donation, and it ended up God knows where. I was livid.

My friend hates when this story comes up in conversation because she feels like I’m indirectly commenting on our friendship. I agreed with the plan because I trusted her as a friend to make a good judgment of character concerning this other person, so when I lament about what happened, I am really calling her a bad friend. But, that’s not true. My choice to acquiesce was not about her at all; it was about me and my insecurities. I was trying to be more go with the flow and when it all played out as I predicted, I was angry with myself for not following my instincts.

Similarly, my rage in Puerto Rico was about me. I had no business being out that night. I hate activities like that and the only reason we were all out that night is because I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I felt like I had to have this type of experience to validate my presence in Puerto Rico when I would have been ten times as happy sitting on her couch watching Earth, Wind & Fire concert tapes with her parents. But, instead, my insecurities got the best of me and I made a bad choice and then, instead of owning that, I took out my frustration on my friend. I was angry with her for not looking beyond what I was saying (or not saying) to see my needs and act on them. But, the question remains, why was I asking her to be a better friend to me than I was being to myself?

When the writer, Tony Schwartz, turned 60, he wrote out a list of lessons he had learned in his lifetime and the first was, “The more we know about ourselves, the more power we have to behave better.” I would amend it to say the more we know AND accept about ourselves. I am my worst self when I refuse to validate certain qualities of my personality. I ignore the traits, hoping that I can wish them away and then, someone steps on one of my triggers and sooner or later, the situation blows up in my face.

I am trying to do better. I have noticed that I gravitate towards people who are secure in who they are. They don’t have to share my values or interests; they just need to be comfortable with the people they are. They are my compasses, leading me in the direction that I would like to go.

My all-time favorite television show is Parks and Recreation. I have been watching an obscene amount of this show in recent weeks and I have been studying the transition that takes place in the main character, Leslie Knope, as if I am preparing to write a dissertation on it. What’s fascinating about the show is that it was designed to be similar to The Office in many ways, one being that the lead character was highly flawed and awkward, yet longing so desperately to fit in. But by the end of Season 2, Amy Poehler takes the Leslie Knope character in a completely different direction.

Very slowly, Leslie learns to find the beauty in herself and starts to root herself in her own truth. Her newly-developed self-possession connects with her passion for life and explodes into this energy that touches every other character on the show and illuminates within them a beauty and complexity that they didn’t know were there. It’s not until the sixth season, when Leslie finally gives words to this new lease she has on life.

It comes out that one of her employees and friends thinks that she is really annoying and has been tweeting about it. After the tweets came to light, the two had a conversation and Leslie said, “I’m sorry that I’m annoying sometimes, but what’s annoying to some is inspiring and heroic to others and I can’t promise that I won’t be heroic and inspiring in the future.” And the friend said that’s fine, but she would continue to vent about it. They hugged and they moved on. This is what is possible when people are transparent about who they are. When people clash, they can either decide that they need to part ways or they can deal with the differences. Either way, the transition is smoother when both parties are clear about who they are and what they require in this life.

I’ve wanted to be this type of person for a while, but I have been hindered by the question of how much of me is me and how much of me is just learned habits that simply need to be changed? I’m constantly in this place of self-improvement and it hinders my ability to accept myself as I am. But, this past year in Guatemala did a lot towards pushing me in the right direction.

My two closest friends in Guatemala the second year were both married women with children. Being friends with married mothers means that hanging out requires planning and effort. Most of the time I spent with both of them was at work or in the early afternoon. It was not a situation where we would be kicking it at all hours of the night. As a result, I spent most of my weekends in solitude.

At first, I was really annoyed by this turn of events. I would berate myself by saying, “You would move to a new country and find friends like these. What is wrong with you?” One of the friends told me once about how one of our coworkers had come to her house and was complaining about not having friends and my friend replied, well, I’m your friend to which the answer was, “No, that doesn’t count. You’re married with kids.” My friend was offended, understandably, considering that this conversation took place inside her home during a time when she was working to be friendly towards this person. But, I understood what the person had been trying to express. I would have liked to have not found kindred spirits in people whose lifestyles were so different from mine.

But this was the case, so eventually, I got used to spending the weekends with just my own company. I would read books, watch movies, go hiking, or just wander the streets at night, looking out over the city. I remember I would have these observations about life and the things I was watching and I would long to have someone there to share my musings or jokes with. I used to think, “God, all of this is just going to waste!” But then, I just decided to throw concerns about my sanity to the wind and start engaging myself in conversation. I would make myself laugh with the jokes I would tell and that would bring me joy. I became my own best friend.

 

Being friends with myself has changed how I treat myself. I’m kind. I’m compassionate. I don’t berate myself as harshly when I make mistakes. And I’m accepting.

 

Since I moved back to Boston, I have been staying with a friend off and on all summer until I move into a place of my own. I have been spending a lot of time with her daughter; I take her to the park and library. I love taking her to places where she can interact with other children because it’s always a surprise to see how she chooses to engage with the world on any given day. Sometimes she just wants to play in the corner alone and will ignore friendly attempts from others. Then there are days where she is all about the bonding and gets all up in people’s personal spaces. She loves to hang out with kids who are a few years older than her. And then sometimes, she decides that she wants to be the center of attention, so she runs around, singing at the top of her lungs, drawing everyone into her energy.

 

I try to stay out of her way and just let her present in whatever way she chooses that day. Sometimes, I get anxious and want to do less or more when I’m worrying about how people around her are perceiving her (and me by extension), but I try to get hold of those emotions and just let her be. This is how I show her love. This is how I want to be shown love. I’ve always desired that unconditional acceptance from others. Since befriending myself, I have started loving myself in that same way, accepting my quirks and delighting in the unique circumstances they engender. And God, how good it feels. It feels like home.

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