a few months ago, someone told me i was in “reclaiming identity” mode. i had shared an experience that caught me off guard and i didn’t know what to make of it. after an extended conversation, we ended with reclaiming identity. i didn’t really know what to make of that either. at 37, i was pretty clear about my identity. i mean, i had done the exploring, figured out what i liked and didn’t like, and assessed who i was both when people were watching and when they weren’t. i knew who i was through and through. and yet, this very big thing happened and i had no clear understanding of how to respond to it. what did it mean about who i was, what i wanted, and what i believed?
identity is a weird concept. by definition, it is the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. that makes sense right? identity is who or what you are. in math, the word identity means something slightly different. it’s a transformation that leaves an object unchanged. hmm. i have never experienced a transformation and remained unchanged. never.
as a woman, i’ve gone through plenty of transformations. the biggest was from childhood to adolescence. this has to be the absolute worst phase of a woman’s life. i won’t bore you with the details, but i’ve said many times that adolescence was not kind to me in the least bit. if they were handing out free time machines that could only take you back to your 13th year of life, i would find a way to burn all those bitches to the ground and make their creators disappear. clearly, that transformation changed me. stories for another time.
what i have come to realize about identity is that it is quite fluid. it changes as you go through different transformations in life. my identity changed when i went from teenager to adult. it changed when i went from student to professional. it changed when i went from living with my family to living on my own. it changed when i moved from the midwest to the pacific northwest. our identities can change as we experience life. but ultimately, the core of who we are should remain the same. so if i’m the same, how in the world could i be in a reclaiming identity mode?
you should know i really struggled with this conversation. i know how to be my authentic self. i’ve lived too traumatic a life to wear masks. but this was something different. i was feeling and reacting to a new transformation and my identity was at the core of it. it wasn’t so much a question of who am i? again, at 37, i was pretty solid in the answer to that question. this time, the question was really what do you need? what do you need to thrive? what do you need to excel? what do you need to be your most authentic and complete self?
this same person asked me another question a year earlier. she’s good with the questions, this one. dropping them in conversation as innocently as one adds honey to a cup of tea. it’s heavy and thick and requires a little stirring before it blends in, so seamlessly enhancing the taste that you didn’t even notice the transition. the question was pretty simple. she asked me what i did for my self care. i fumbled through an answer but it was clear i was earning a solid f in the self care area of life. i didn’t really know what i needed to care for myself and rejuvenate.
i’m an extraverted person and because of that, people are very good at latching on to me and sucking my energy. in some environments, i leave so drained i can’t deal with being around people for a while. at the time of this conversation, my routine was to spend one weekend of every month in my fortress of solitude, secluded from everything and everyone. but because of my crazy schedule, i wasn’t able to honor that routine. when i really looked at how often i actually pulled it off, the tally was closer to four times a year and that was being generous. yep, i was failing self care.
“self-care and healing and attention to the body and the spiritual dimension—all of this is now a part of radical social justice struggles.” angela davis
considering all the racial tension in our country; the extended season of loss i found myself in with the death of my sister and grandmama and a large chunk of my seattle network moving away; and the heavy workload and volunteer commitments i was juggling, i was flat out drowning. but like everything in my life, i did that so well, that few people even recognized it was happening. as i pondered her words over the next few months, i worked hard to create a self care routine that made sense for me. i knew whatever plan i developed needed to include time in nature, time to create things, time to dance, and time to spend with the people i cared about. i put that plan into action but something was still missing.
fast forward to a few months ago, and i’m in “reclaim identity mode.” what does that even mean? i broke out my journal and started processing what was going on in my overactive brain and i finally realized a few things. even though i was always authentic with people, i was not very transparent. i found myself traveling through spaces that just didn’t feel safe enough to me to be transparent and vulnerable. i’ve always had struggles with being vulnerable. the idea of falling apart gives me heart palpitations strong enough to induce a stroke. i knew how to be a safe space for people to unload their stuff, but i didn’t know how to create that environment for myself in my physical space. i make that distinction because there are people i can call and just cry with. we have known each other almost 20 years and there are so few things i hold back from them. and even then, it comes out eventually. but in seattle, my adopted city, i had zero spaces. the only place i felt safe enough to come undone was on the floor in my living room with the music blasting loud enough to drown out my cries or screams or the deafening silence.
the past 12 months have been a journey of creating those sacred spaces. it started with developing my self care routine. through hiking and camping and dancing, i began to shed some of the weight from life. i found places to be carefree if only temporary. and as i really thought about what it meant for me to reclaim my identity, i realized i needed to create spaces where that identity was seen, affirmed, supported, and celebrated. i can’t speak for other people, but for me that meant i needed to have some spaces where i was around only melanated women. and even in that, some days it was a requirement that my time be with black women or women who shared my experience.
i needed the sacredness of space to just be. no questions. no explaining. no bridge building. i just needed to be. living in seattle where so few faces look like yours, you find yourself always being on. there is a show that is demanded of you day in and day out and when you don’t perform up to par – you miss a queue, deliver the wrong line, exit stage left when it was supposed to be stage right – there is a penalty you pay. and the cost is so high. it’s exhausting. constantly being surrounded by people who don’t have any connection to your story, your life experience, your pain, your joys, or your fears is exhausting. what i experienced a few months ago was a need to reclaim my identity from all the people who ascribed their own wants and needs on me. i needed to reclaim my identity from all the ways society imposed restrictions and limitations on me. and i needed to reclaim my identity from the false narratives i had internalized about myself without even realizing it.
there is a particular struggle that comes with being a black woman in this world. there are some pains others will never know. there are some wounds that are so deep they’ve stretched across spans of time, carving telling scars in the hearts of black women generations later. but there is also an amazing strength that can’t be contained in words. in the sacred spaces i’ve carved out over the last few months, i can come to shed that pain and connect to that strength and i walk away whole.