Friday, 13 October 2017

Beautiful Redefined - Yes the Personal is Political

There is a running joke with my friends that I am a magpie. From the myths of our colonizers,  magpies love (and steal) bright shiny objects and hoard them. I have never encountered or heard about these shine-loving thieving birds in the African savannah, so I can only draw references to European folklores.

And so if the magpie’s occupation is anything to go by then we have a similar calling. I frequently like the things so called fashion gurus find shiny, tacky and averse. I love glitter, busy patterns, chunky mismatched jewellery, bold colours, sequins and big patterned prints and all manner of perceived fashion faux pas. I never take too seriously those who are scandalised by how people look and dress.

I pretty much wear what I like and like what I wear and definitely I enjoy people who are as liberated from fashion faux pas.

 And so this got me thinking a little bit about our bodies, adornments, appearances, body images and their significance.  I also thought about our indicators of beauty by which we implicitly or explicitly place value on others and ourselves. Across a span of time and geographies we see varying norms and value sets around what is considered beautiful and what missed the proverbial mark.

Bodies especially women’s bodies, similar to cultural artefacts have been reified and commodified as extensions of cultural wealth. Additionally women’s bodies also similarly to cultural artefacts, subjected to cultural relativism with limiting views of beauty norms and standards. Women’s bodies are repeatedly used as the physical manifestations that portray and define our ideals, identities, perceptions and attitudes around beauty and physical appearance.  And history has shown that these biased opinions have shaped and exerted much influence and impact in the power dynamics of our globalised world.

Back to women’s bodies and beauty standards... and the norms around skin tone, skin flawlessness, weight, shape, clothes…there are powerful social forces that push and pull women to aspire to fit in evolving but shallow standards.

But then how do we perceive and actualize notions of bodily autonomy and choice from a feminist perspective while we in turn turn a blind eye and depoliticise our own ‘personal attitudes’ around who and what is beautiful? Does this then make us complicit to the conspiracy of ranking bodies and appearances in a check list of aggregates to tick or mark X ….to pass or fail…. to be or not to be… B.E.A.U.T.I.F.U.L

Are we being candid with ourselves if we don’t disrupt a normalised culture that exalts some women’s bodies and cop out and lump it as our “personal preferences.” Have we challenged our ‘personal preferences’ to a values audit on what informs these choices? Do these choices sometimes affirm our biases against certain bodies? So on one hand we are attempting to demolish oppressive systems that shackle us, yet on the other hand we are the tools and instruments of a pecking order that disparages bodies based on appearance. And some of us may say, “But I never put women down based on appearances.” Yet our silence is loud when beauty norms reinforce notions that ‘some women are more beautiful than others.’


Over the years I have battled self-esteem and body image issues, an unsurprising staple with most women today. The world is not only harsh it is down right mean when it comes to judging women’s bodies based on attitudes around beauty. In my journey of feminism and part of it is taking care of the “self”, I peered into the pot of my troubled relationship with my body image and confronted the anxieties one by one. I am still purging those anxieties every day. Daily, and over generations forced subjections to societal (and patriarchal) approval plays a big role in internalized self-hatred and sense of inadequacies in us as women and by extension in others.

Men’s bodies have not escaped the harsh scrutiny of bodies and appearances. Due to heterosexist ideologies men have also fallen pray to the distinctions of aesthetic beauty and standards. Notions of handsome, tall, muscular have distinct advantages over short, fat, bald and other descriptors and words that have a distinguishable varying significance and values placed on them.

The aesthetics of our bodies and appearances have become so pervasive that instead of creating a healthy and enabling environment for us to build and grow, we now find ourselves having to deal with the burdens of social pressure and the drastic physiological and psychological effects of aspiring to achieve and maintain these fickle standards.

I myself have suffered the pressures of needing to conform. Slowly I am working on disassembling the damage it did to me and I could not have come this far alone. It took the power of extraordinary love and compassion to infuse my need and desire to build self-love and self worth outside the gaze of society.

I am continuously reminded that my self-worth and essence is not defined by social constructs. I am an embodiment of enough-ness. I am learning to ignore the confines of beauty standards and instead focus on feeling good about myself.

Yet despite all this, I cannot disregard the small delights I get when complemented by a beloved or another person. And so how do we not compromise our sense of autonomy and self-worth, needing to constantly be defined and validated by others. This is because we all crave for human contact and connections. Perhaps the solution is to politicize our most personal notions, definitions, preferences, desirability of women’s bodies and put them to a test.

If we say the personal is political it means we must also scrutinize our individual biases on who and what we considered beautiful and cross-examine the root of those mindsets.

If we ascribe to strong opinions of aesthetic beauty, then we need to ask ourselves why we feel the need to hold on to those rigid values. And if we still choose to hold on to these values even when it is apparent the harm it does to those who fall through the cracks of whimsical beauty norms, we have to ask ourselves WHY? Why is it so important?

If each of us consciously scrutinize and address our own personal biases who knows, we may be one step closer to more transformative social change that sees and values people beyond narrow lines.

Living under the yoke of beauty standards can really dull and limit our lives and experiences. Question is, is it worth it?




Thursday, 12 October 2017

Fighting Fear with Compassion


 
Phalaenopsis orchid

I once spoke about the phases in my life when I suffer night terrors. I was terrified of peeking through the window to see the flickers of the lights in the dark; to me they looked and seemed like macabre and grotesque eyes peering in as I lay in bed; watching and staring. I found safety in covering my face with bed linen from the exposure of the night air. I felt a sense of safety in shutting my eyes tight to shut the windows of my soul from the invasion of lurking evil. Mercifully sleep would take me. My nightmares and terrors made me a handful of a child to deal especially when everyone was exhausted and patience quotas were frayed thin. My mother was the only person who could handle my traumatised self. For one she always sat next to me listened to the gory details of my frightful dreams. As I described the depravity of the monsters that terrorised me she listened deeply. She did not interrupt or question me as though to fact check my story. After recounting my sordid ordeal, I felt a discernible lift off my shoulder and the monsters did not seem as scary or big anymore. After she would hold me in her arms to pray, sing and embrace me long enough for her calm to infuse into me. Those moments in her arms were the safest I have ever felt.


The other reactions to my nightmares were rather different growing up. I would sense their need to blame my terrors to something I did or did not do... “Stop watching TV...” “There are no such things such as monsters you just have an overactive imagination.”  “You are are simply too sensitive.” Along with other lists of self-started irritants and a reminder that everyone has problems they need to deal with without me adding to them. The solution to my problem would be to simply stop “over thinking” and ‘saying or screaming’ out loud that I was scared as it was bothersome.

But my fears were real. As soon as the lights flicked off and the door shut and I was left behind, my terrors grew form again in such palpable ways I resorted to seek refuge and so I learnt to scream and run inside myself. My mother gradually stopped coming when I had bad dreams especially when she got sick but also because she was talked out of it as everybody was of the opinion that I needed to show some spine and grow out of my habit of being “too sensitive.”

So I learnt to take to covering my face and shutting out the world at night with my pillow. I would withdraw into myself more and find a shelter in my mind and in my dreams...this included many self-conversations going over my fears and addressing them and it was characterized by deep silences and solitude moments. Most of those around me just thought I finally grew up and were pleased to not waking up at night to deal with a nuisance of a child. In my adult life these phases still continue and typically look like profound melancholic moments.

While I do not cover my face anymore under my pillow, I recognize the patterns in which I cope with fear. I never really changed. My sometimes irrational ham-fisted sentiments or screams when shared frequently solicit familiar reactions of exasperation, eye-rolls and sharp intakes of breath.... “Oh boy here we go again....” and in one sweeping moment it becomes “You overthink things” “You over-analyse” “You are too sensitive” and the default question preempting my need to unload and figure things out would be:

“What did I do wrong this time followed by prompt apologies to contain a situation that is me.”

While admittedly it is not easy working or relating with a highly sensitive person, I do feel the hows and whys we go about weaving into each other’s lives is worth pondering over.

I am particularly intrigued by the neat frames we like to ‘other’ each other where people fit into tight neat boxes of being “either this or that”;   as though things, experiences and whole lives were as simple as this two options. I wonder if we pause to think of the alternative our assertions and assumptions suggest.....

.....So one is either “over sensitive” or.......? (insensitive, thick skinned, unfeeling ....I wonder?)

You are either right or.......? (wrong, really? Is it really always that simple?)

You always over analyze things, and the opposite of this would be......? (apathy? indifference? unconcern - how true is this?)

I find this thinking a way to problematise and cluster people we consider different from us. The idea of ‘them and us’, ‘you and me’ inevitably fall through a further labelling where we value each other different and forming power dynamics we refer to as strength and weakness.... progressively we internalise these labels as true and unbending and they embody us as strengths or weaknesses.

I have been internalising the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm. He talks about how easily tempting it is for us to ridicule the fear of others because it reminds us of our own fear and how we are also taught to keep fear unacknowledged and out of sight. In his teachings he says that this fear causes us to act out in fits of anger. He suggests that if we as an alternative produce the energy of compassion to replace fear, we may calm our hearts and this allows us an opportunity to help another person.

I really resonate with his ideas on this because I experienced this deep compassion when my mother listened sincerely to me and spoke and acted her love to me when I suffered nightmares. Her compassion on those terrible nights was very real and comforting.

My thoughts and wishes for the day is to invoke this energy of compassion to more people around me and hope that the universe is kind and sees it fit to reciprocate this back to me.

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Dance of Giving Generously




my clutches on the dying art of letter writing
As a teen I spent my youthful angst writing long bad poetry...... What I really mean is that I trace my windy way with words and clumsy poetry to my teens; often sending long missives to hapless victims and objects of my affection. 

You see words put together for me were and still mean many things; they declutter, detox, delight, define, declare, deride and detail my feelings and thoughts You see I really like words; the construction and deconstruction of ideas and thoughts using words make me very happy.

And so as a teenager in boarding school words were a life link to the outside world...I likened boarding school to prison time. I remember spending countless hours looking out at the plush tea estates beyond the confines of our school grounds longingly. School years were dog years and I could not wait to break out and be free. 

Well I take that back now and in hindsight over two decades later, I would settle for that simple life boarding school provided anytime....

Anyway about school, angst and what-nots I spent a considerable amount of time and scant pocket money resources on onion skin writing pads to send long letters to my siblings who were far away in college then. I missed them loads and took to writing every day blabbering on and off over a span of a week or so; detailing mundane things as a way share my life experiences with them craving reciprocation. They left eons ago and for me this was a sure way to still be in each others lives across distance and time. 

You see my simple mind then and now lights up at little pleasures of letter writing. Letters for me were a way to actually share a little glimpse of your world with someone.....it intrigued me to no end what people chose to write or say or even not to say in their correspondence. 

I still write handwritten letters and mail post cards, most go unacknowledged, unnoticed and unanswered but when I do get something in my snail mail other than a bill I glow for days!! I also find it hilarious when someone drops me a one line message on email or WhatsApp to flippantly say, “thanks I got your card or letter.” Some even go the extra mile sprinkling me with digitally formed emojis... ❤️🤗🙈🙆🏿😔😂... sigh the world is changing....fast paced , digital and immediate. I have become my parents and suddenly feel very old and unrelenting, with an iron grip of what joys the good old days brought with them. I still have letters cards and notes dating back 1984 and they give me so much pleasure to keep and read from time to time. I have cards and letters from my departed friends and loved ones like my parents which I treasure.

But I am drifting....back to my teens, so one time I got a reply from my sibling with a whole load of pleased expressions about “how lovely it was to hear from me and get my letters...” It was all the encouragement I needed! I invested EVERYTHING in letters... I sent longer ones, I bought or designed my own envelopes and stationery .... worked on improving my handwriting... made a long term payment plan to work out long distance postage costs etc etc. Then the bug of poetry caught me and I sent long letters plus even longer poems...

And frankly any word of encouragement gave me more drive to do and say more.... so that meant more letters sometimes overlapping too impatient to wait for Kenyan mail system to kick in....

I can directly attribute a lot of my confidence in writing emerging from my letters and pen pals. I also realised that affirmation was one of my biggest source of strength and that holds true even today.

Needless to say, one day many years later I reconnected with my siblings at a huge grandparents family reunion thing. In this reunion I got to meet many a cousins, aunts and uncles who I had never met in person. It was wildly exciting and rather overwhelming. It was also the first time my siblings and I met in person in 5 or so years... I waited to reconnect with them with bated breath. At the reunion some younger cousins knew my siblings as there was a time they lived or boarded with them while attending university. 

One of them piped up in the way honest innocent kids do,

“Is this Chiqy that annoying sister who used to you those looong boring letters with bad poetry?” 

My sibling cringed, other cousins in hearing shot laughed mildly embarrassed on my behalf and uncomfortable as I stood there stunned soaking it all in slowly and painfully. 

It hurt, still does if I am entirely honest. 

But that’s me, wearing my heart on my sleeve and getting it scrapped and punched around. It is what it is. Well well well sigh....

So many thoughts and lessons there to ponder on.

snail mail rocks

But one that sticks to my mind is the sharp lesson I learnt on mindful giving. It took me a long time to figure out how to be generous with people I care about. Always thoughtful on what would be wanted, valued, how much of it is enough or too much or too little.....and importantly, the pruning of expectation or anticipated appreciation. This for me is a constant dance and I still fumble with the steps today.

I do think though there is something to be said about how and why we give... and a lot of it oscillates around showing our affection and high regard of our beloved. I am (still) learning when and how to give in ways that are conscious, responsive and not conflated. Often I make many mistakes and miscalculations. But it is worth the effort in trying nonetheless, this I feel is where the thought counts the most. 

We need to always be mindful as we are generous with each other and it goes both ways. If we choose to give let us do so not just to give what only we value, but what the recipient may desire....and for those fortunate to be on the receiving end, never ever look a gift horse in the mouth. 

So let us not rue the day with missed opportunities that demonstrate our thoughtfulness, devotion and caring for each other. Part of this is making efforts to being in tune with each other constantly. 


That my dears is the dance of giving generously lets keep trying at it.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

I choose, I live and then I die

the self, 2017


It is true I admit that I occupy wide spaces literally and figuratively. I cannot deny the zeal in which I love and long to be loved. It is no surprise that because of this intensity, often I can only be taken in small doses. But, do not conflate my bluntness for arrogance. It is just that over the decades you unlearn windiness and relearn to crisply say what you mean and feel. And that does comes with a calm confidence over time.

Perhaps it is also being more introspective about the way life plays its hand in your space. It allows me to see me and myself in all the experiences I have had; good, bad and downright messy. I saw and continue to feel and acknowledge these experiences and lessons that life throws my way.

Some of the things are not easy to tease to the surface - still raw and festering; some of the things are a joy to piece together and others I feel deep contrition. But these glimpses of me and mine are never going to limit the little time I have in this life. They will not shackle, cage or contain me, of that I am unapologetically sure about.

Having acknowledged this, I choose to love every day. And I choose love every single conscious day I wake up. I choose large cantankerous love... full of stupefying headiness... I choose the kind of love that is explosive and expressive in my private and public spaces.....I choose to immerse and soak myself in it and let the rays singe and touch every exposed part of me. I choose to love, be loved, each day in every way. I choose to revel in the feeling of owning a precious treasure, and of being owned, collared and cherished and endlessly wanted. I choose love over the dregs of poisoned bitterness that attempts to tait the pathway where love flows in and out of me. 

I guard and protect this pathway fiercely.

And so I in equal measure rebuke and reject all that is not lovingly thought, done and made. Life is too short to clutch onto toxicity. I choose to put as much distance to the babble of derision and disdain. I choose not to blunt the sharp edges of life’s dreams with both apathy and ill feelings as they add little or no spice and instead sour the sensations my short existence.

I am also inevitably trying to rid myself completely of the constant oppressive collusion of shame and regret. Shame is so shameless; always clouding my sunshine, capping my dreams, nipping my budding shoots, making me small and dampening my moods. Regret is always taking more time than I can afford, keeping me looped to a time warp of what will never be, crippling my hopes and pruning my ambitions with apprehension. I reject these companions completely each day.

And so I wish to love and be loved in huge spadefuls. I aim to say what I mean much quicker....And to let go of more than I can bear.....I dismiss the constant disapproving gaze that follow my decisions.....I step away from hatefulness; I choose to reject those who are ashamed of me and who pull me to drown in their tumultuous seas of regret. 

I choose, I live and then I die. 
That for me is life enough, no more no less, just mine.


THINGS, (Just) THINGS....


things are THINGS and I like things I cannot tell a lie but I don't LOVE things.

THINGS are things which keep me warm and dry but I don't stay up THINKING of things.

THINGS are things colourful bright and elicit smiles that lift my lips but don’t TOUCH my soul.

THINGS are things that house me and my things for perceived safety but don’t CONFRONT my fears.

THINGS are things that bridge the gaps of life and lifelessness but do not breathe PASSION into me.

These THINGS are things, just things aiding my existence but do not STIR my essence.

They are just THINGS.... things I need but do not DESIRE.

They are THINGS... things I crave for but they not SUSTAIN me.

They are THINGS... things I aspire for but draw me little PLEASURE 

They are just THINGS... things I have but do not keep me up DREAMING, WANTING, CREATING, WISHING, ACHING, LONGING, LOVING... LOVE.

THINGS, just THINGS these are...



Sunday, 17 September 2017

Resist Oppression and Oppressing, or Die Trying.

self portrait - some Sunday, 2017

I just realised today how immeasurable time is. There is simply never enough time it seems to exhaustively say or do something anything right these days really.... I feel like life has whizzed past and there have been many vivid moments I recall, but on the whole it is hard to imagine my life at the face of four decades ... where did time go? It went like a flash....

As I stop and take a moment to appreciate life; I feel my bare heels sink and dig into the ground a little more firmly now. I am more protective and deeply appreciative of everything around me; the colors, the textures, the moments, the feelings. I say to myself, wow awesome, I wish I could stop and pay more attention to this now that I see how valuable and beautiful life's experience can be. Most times though, there are so many competing pressures nudging or pulling me aside that I quickly snap out of the musing.

Some of you may know that I psyche up for night school most weeknights and plan to do so for the next few years...and I work full time and go to university part time; and whoaaaa it is not easy. But I have such a thirst to learn and grow and only so little time to go around. This often means I have less time for socializing, or falling into place in the traditional roles most of us are accustomed to more than we care to admit (read as being specific to women and how to be "good" wives, mothers, loving attentive girlfriends, more available etc etc…)...

My life in many ways still gets preoccupied with the things girls/women who reject the "comforts of normativity" to get ahead with life pursuits. So being a "good teen mother", identifying as bisexual, being a "good wife and partner" and resisting the push and pull of society as to what "good" looks and feels like has not been an easy journey.  And it has to be said that placing this “goodness” that women are force to exemplify, alongside the parallel of for instance non-existent and absentia fathers, husbands and boyfriends who get about doing whatever without the denigrating scorn and commentary of society is such a huge double standard…

I often feel like I have no business being where I am clueless facing the big bad world with nothing but common sense and stubbornness to survive. But well we go about life differently and each way is still valid.

I recall the battering on all sides about all kinds of things when it comes to my time and choices....mostly about what I did, or didn't do, or what is wrong with me...or what I did not do enough of...

Like time, when it comes to choices women are plagued with the wide varying (often unreasonable) expectations of others. The force of this leads many of us to live lives that are so dependent on others that soon we cannot recognize ourselves. When we look at the mirror we only see the measure of expectations of our family, friends, influencers and slowly we erase ourselves so much so, we cannot remember who we want to be. But it is understandable why we relent, our choices are questioned, manipulated and tainted with self doubt. It is far easier not to live, but to perform a life we think others will approve of, invest in and underwrite.....we become shells and slaves of who society thinks we should be, and we will still get battered for it as the aspirations of society are fleeting and insular.

Growing up I did not know what I wanted, I tried to leave that as blank as possible hoping my vivid imagination and zest for life would stumble upon an interesting path.

What I did know however is that I did not want to live in societal shackles. I did not want to look back overcome by regret. I did not want to perform my life for others. I did not want to preoccupy myself with people who constantly berate and put me down. I did not want my existence and sustenance to be dependent on the vague indulgences of another soul or institution. I did not want to constantly try to please because one cannot chase and catch clouds successfully.

Actually what I want is to live and breathe...free of these narrow confines and do it (unapologetically) go to the ends of the earth to escape these shackles.

And so it is important to me to be ok with whom I am. I am a teenage mother, rape survivor and survivor of an abusive relationship. I am bisexual and I am student, a lover, a friend, a child, an adult, a teacher, a neighbor, a friend and I am enough. I have and will always dedicate myself to love, to learning, trying and second chances.

In the little time I have here I will do my part in resisting the construction that seeks to shame me into conformity of narrow societal spaces. The one that makes me feel inadequate about my choices as an African woman, as a mother, as a lover, or as the one that sneakily suggests that I may have been responsible for the abuse I endured. The one that seeks to shame my sexuality. The one that seeks to shame my body and the choices I make. The one that shames me especially as a woman about the dreams and pursuits I desire for myself; as though it is selfish to want to grow learn and build oneself. The one that shames me for my time and my choices on things I want and do.

This not withstanding I acknowledge that there are responsibilities we individually have that root and ground us. Pursuing one's dream though should not be totally eclipsed by our social obligations. I am actually suggesting that we are more functional humans in society if there is room to dream and grow. I feel fortunate to have recognized this and fiercely protected my dream to grow. I did this not because I am strong but because I had by my side truly wonderful beings who may not have understood my pursuits but that my wants and desires were important enough for them to support me no matter what. 


But why do I say this? I say this hoping that beyond my life I hope these words find themselves to someone who is in a crisis of self. I hope I catch you in time to go look at the mirror again and ask if you recognise the person you are evolving into...or is the reflection on the mirror an performance to please everyone but yourself? If you want, there is still time and choice, there always is... there is still room for you to find yourself to attempt to be who you always wanted to be. Our dreams and hopes are always within our grasp.... just reach put and touch it and never let anything or anyone penetrate that happy place you call your own. Do not let your pursuit of happiness be weighed down by anyone or anything. Make that transformative step - big or small to live outside the confines of people who bringing you down...do not continue to let them underwrite and fund your life because they will continue to have a hold on you. And, in the very same breath NEVER take on to support someone who has no respect for you...do not be a safety net of negativity and toxicity.

Live and die on your own terms. Do not fear frailty, or vulnerability and do not use it as a weapon you wield over others.

Life is too short, instead; Resist oppression and oppressing, or die trying.