Learning to be Big

I left work completely devastated and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in a season of severe self-doubt, mired in worry. This was about business, about a professional transition, but it was more than that. I was feeling like I was doing something and I had done something that is all too familiar and damaging to my writing life.

I was in so much pain because I was trying to be small.

As it usually does, it took my best friend’s observation to get me to stop with the ugly crying and chest heaving.

“You are always trying to be small and I don’t understand it,” she said. “But literally nothing about you is small.”

Nothing about me is small.

I have a big laugh, a big smile. I have big feet, a big heart, and a big gift.

This is obvious to so many people, but until now, it has not been at all obvious to me. I don’t take these things for granted as much as I have been so busy thinking of other things that I haven’t allowed myself space to think about this.

My first thought was of Marianne Williamson, because this quote has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. It was my dear friend Portia, when we were pen pals (remember those?) 20 years ago who transcribed it in her remarkably beautiful penmanship in purple ink:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These are nice words and I like them and I loved to read them. I read them many times over the years. Each time, I felt the recognition of their truth but I didn’t  own being a child of God. Not really. I talked about it. I wanted desperately to believe it. But I also wanted to hide my lamp under a bushel, even if Scripture is pretty plain about why that’s not a good Standard Operating Procedure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. When I was a kid, I was literally smaller. Well, thinner. But I longed to have girth and heft, to be seen, to be a force like my mother, who was physically solid, strong.

The thing about visibility for women, for black women and girls, is that when you are seen, you are also a target. My bookish nerd brain decided, once in the Bronx, where most of us are invisible by default, and again when I entered the workforce, that the best way to keep from being a target of anything was to shrink.

This is where being mildly introverted comes in handy. It allowed me to fold myself and my personality up and tuck it quietly between the pages of a book. This presents to others as a feminine virtue, I think, as modesty and humility. Perhaps I also have some of that, but primarily, this was about survival.

Because God has a sense of humor, my height was always the main inconvenience on this front. Except for the random times when they were lining us up in reverse size order during elementary school — once a year! — I was the last or second to last person in a size order line.

Always visible from the front.

Always subject to someone’s question about my nonexistent basketball-playing ability.

Never ready for the attention.

I think some of this comes from not being used to having things. I wonder if that’s why it has taken so long to accept and to grow into the power of presence that my height has given me or the gift of writing. After all, the natural reaction to being unaccustomed to having things is to give them away.

I gave my power and gifts away in so many ways as a girl and a younger woman that it is impossible to recount them all, and merciless to try. The main reason I wanted to shrink is because of a feeling of deep guilt about succeeding in my life where my mother had failed. She wanted so much for her dreams to come to fruition she repeated them daily until she got sick. She chased them until she decided she was ready to move on to the ultimate dream.

I carried, while Mom was alive, this feeling of both wanting her to have everything that I earned and knowing that I needed to keep what was mine. She had raised me, she had given me this wellspring of compassion and empathy — for all of the difficulty that had come with it. Someone should compensate her for the hard life she had lived, I thought, even though I realized that some of the hard living was her choice.

She said she was jealous and that she wanted me to soar. What I took from those two statements was a rejection of anything I did because she couldn’t have the things she wanted most.

So to believe in my own expansion or expansiveness felt like a betrayal of her. Our mother is the beacon whose every word and action sets our moral and emotional compass. I found myself longing to move out from under my discomfort by undermining and sabotaging myself. Becoming flat. Quiet. Discreet. It seemed there could be only one big woman between us.

I let her be the sun and the sky. I was content to be a shadow, even a few years after her death.

The weird thing about grief is that it can set off in you a series of unconscious reactions. When you lose your footing, when you lose ground, the first thing God sends you is a reminder of what is familiar. You can chose to cling to the blanket or toss it aside for more discomfort in order to grow.

I clung to the blanket. I met people who reminded me so much of my mother; they displayed her ambivalence about how I should be in the world more than anything else. It happened in friendships, new and old, that had run their course for too long. It happened at work and in love, when I was least aware of how my playing small was at the core of so much suffering.

They assured me in one breath that they could nurture me and help me shine. In another, they helped me sabotage myself with manipulation and envy. Even when I was trying so desperately to be small, I was still, apparently, a threat.

It took falling apart in my best friend’s kitchen for me remember myself, to begin to see myself as others see me.

It has always been unfortunately comfortable for me to feel as though my success as a writer has come at the expense and inconvenience of others; That by becoming bigger, becoming my full self, unfolding the fullness of God’s gift to me, I would somehow be stepping on someone else, taking more than I am worthy to have. Being what the world often tells black women we are: Too big for my own britches.

It turns out that I have, in this way, been my own worst enemy. I’m forgiving myself for that, for the fact that I have never really loved myself enough to believe that it is enough to believe in my own expansion.

It is enough to give yourself permission to divest yourself of the opinions and reactions and feelings of others. You can feel and be as limitless as the horizon if you are willing to allow yourself to have all that you are capable of having and become all you are capable of becoming.

I am stepping into the big shoes that have always been mine to fill, at least I am working toward that. Life is too short to settle for a corner, for a side part, a dark shadow. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and it’s what I’ve seen. It is scary but beautiful and necessary to stand in the light or — even better — to become a brighter sun.

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Running Through Madness

On Sunday, I ran what must have been my seventh or eighth half marathon. I did it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the last year has been more intense than I anticipated it would be and I wanted to process what that means for me now, what it means for the future. Whenever I come to a point of pivotal change like this, there’s nothing like running more miles than most people consider normal to help me sort things out and come back to myself.

Whenever I run a race, I think about why I started running in the first place. I always come back to the fact that my mother’s insanity made me run for my life until I discovered that what I really needed to do was chase down my own sanity. We always need more than that, of course, but this was the core of what I felt I needed when I became a runner.

Marguerite had both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. She was officially diagnosed when I was in my twenties. She tried medication briefly when I was in my thirties, just a few years before she died from cervical cancer, but said it interfered with her relationship with God, so that was that.

I was an adult when I was told for the first time that my mother was bipolar, but I always knew, the way you can tell from the sound in someone’s voice when they are hurt or in love or enamored. Marguerite was a meteor hitched to emotion, bright candor and love exploding and ascending, her voice high, arms spread, warmth around me, a million words effusively scribbled beautifully with a deep ballpoint press on reams and reams of notebook paper from her oft-abandoned community college endeavors. She lit up darkness and she made the foundation of a thing rock with ease and joy, however temporary, however artificial. This is how I learned how to move in the world. Riding the crest of her waves of emotion, trying not to worry about the crashing to earth, the unfurling of furious waves.

You are brilliant.

Everything you touch turns to gold.

You are a miracle.

The words of a mother who loves her daughter with language are gifts that last forever. They are the royal blue film over the lens of life, making lovely everything that was before just mediocre. To believe you are cherished and special by the one who gave birth to you is believe in your ability to be immortal, to be a superhero. To fly even when you are pinned to earth.

When she was down life was hell, a pit of seething anger, sad tears in her voice but not on her face because she said her tear ducts had stopped working. My mother’s sadness clipped my wings, made me a girl-Icarus who flew too close to the heat to ever soar for long with comfort or confidence.

I was the subject of all her shame as I had been for all her glory.

She hated me, she told me so, she repeated it to me and as a girl it played with the kind of steady repetition of a march. Left, left, left right left. I hate you I hate you I wish I never had you I hate you. This was the undoing of my belief in myself for quite a long time. My survival became more about rugged stubborn tendencies and less about reinforcing the belief of my delightful mother when she was up. I was never sure which version of me I wanted to save but I was more terrified of dying most of the time so the only other option was to try to make my life into something as dreamy as my mother’s mania.

I wanted to always get her back to loving me with her words, instead of hating me with them.

So from the beginning of my life until the end of hers, I grappled with how to cope with the invisible ghost that was her unique brand of crazy. I tried wrapping my arms around it, then avoiding it before I realized there was no way to deal with it but trudging through.

Along the way, I learned that the folks we call crazy have been broken in places where most of us are confident we are capable of bending. They embody the potential of pain and heartbreak to warp a soul and murder the spirit. To encounter them intimately is to be singed by a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Running would be my salvation, a mechanism for avoiding the flames, in the end, even when I thought it was too late to start, even before I knew what my heart was leaning toward for me by doing it.

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