permission

It’s okay.

You’ve known who you are for years. A woman who relishes solitude and freedom to move through life untethered. You wrestle with describing and depicting it. Sometimes you nail it with eloquence. Often you’re standing on a table in a crowded room shrieking at an uninterested audience. You’ve examined yourself. You’ve observed the world. You’ve tried to find places and people who will have you, this you who needs solitude and space. You’ve justified it. To your mother. To your friends. To your lovers. To your blog readers. To the messy pages of your journal.

I need you to know it’s okay.

This is who you’ve always been. You have my permission to be it.

By all means, express yourself. Feed your curiosity about other women who prefer solitude to companionship. Soak up their stories; find bits of yourself in them. Tell the world what you discover in learning and living.

But step away from the judge’s bench. Close your briefcase. Leave the courtroom. Case closed.

Go live.

the women on the wall

Grandmother (far left), Aunt B (middle left), Aunt M (middle right), Aunt D (far right)

I walk by this picture every morning.

This morning — out of bed before my 5:50 AM alarm due to a three-hour bout of insomnia — I stop and stare at the photo of my grandmother and her three sisters. My grandmother passed in 2010, but I lost her to a massive stroke in 2000. Cancer claimed her baby sister, Aunt D, in 2012. Aunt B and Aunt M live in Birmingham, Alabama 79 miles north of my family’s hometown, Selma. Aunt B is still standing and living independently. Aunt M is addled with dementia and lost her legs to diabetes sometime in the mid-2000s.

Stumbling to the shower with red, puffy eyes and a dull thumping above my left temple, I remember these women as they were. My grandmother, the rock. Oldest of nine children. The first to leave 1940s Selma for the Brave New World in Cleveland, Ohio. Who never let me end a sentence with a preposition, lectured me on the dangers of “mannish ass boys,” and made me watch every Democratic National Convention from 1992 until 2000. Aunt B, the soft-spoken soul who raised her grand babies while their mother wrestled with addiction. Aunt M, the firecracker who showed up at our house every Sunday after church with a veiled hat on her head and a Crown Royal bag in her hand. Aunt D, the belle, who hosted family gatherings at her sprawling Birmingham home and peppered her sentences with the phrase “I do declare…”

Resigned to start my day after a sleepless night of racing thoughts and pointed accusations, I think of what these women survived. Church bombs and neighborhood riots. Failed marriages and troubled children. Carving lives out of the scraps allowed women — black women, to boot; summoning and tempering their spirited natures in a world that didn’t want them to stand upright. What words would they have for their prissy, precocious baby; all grown up, learning the hard lessons of love and womanhood?

Steaming water hits my back and shoulders. I lean into the spray. Hot water massages my scalp. I hear their voices. That’s right, baby. Get everything you’re worth.

the art of protecting your story

I remember an afternoon a few years ago, talking to my then-boyfriend about my previous experiences in an open relationship. I let my ex have sex outside our relationship while I maintained sexual exclusivity; not out of obligation, but because I was good with having one sexual partner (I preferred to flirt heavily and go on the occasional date with someone else). I’ll never forget my then-boyfriend’s grimace when I told him I didn’t “settle for” the arrangement but suggested it; and how my ex and I sometimes joked about the other women in his life. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he’d said. “I just don’t understand why you would do that when you’re worth so much more.”

Our relationship ended shortly after that conversation. The Cliff Notes: I broke up with him because I didn’t want to be anyone’s girlfriend (at least not in the cookie-cutter way that I’d been his). For a while, him referring to my open relationship as the “dumbest thing I ever heard” gnawed at me. I took issue with my decisions — decisions I logically explained — being disregarded as a case of stupidity from a man who claimed to think the world of me. As more time passed, “you’re worth so much more” stood out more. Having my value determined by what I meant to someone else — opposed to what the experience of the relationship meant to me — infuriated me.

I thought of that conversation recently as I watched a TEDx talk by one of my favorite bloggers and feminists, Justine Musk.

In the talk, titled “The Art of the Deep Yes,” Justine said the following:

Women are not the heroes of big stories, epic stories. We are instead the wives and girlfriends, the mistresses and mothers, the femme fatales and manic pixie dream girls in somebody else’s big story. And that somebody else is usually a dude.

When I heard this, a light bulb went off about how many times I’d allowed my entire being to be defined by what I meant to the men in my life. I’ve been a girlfriend in a monogamous relationship, a significant other in a non-monogamous relationship, a ride or die chick, a long-term friend with benefits, a girl on the side of a committed relationship, the “friend” the guy really wants to bone on the low and is just waiting for his chance…I could go on.

However, no matter what place I’ve been assigned in someone else’s story, I have always been the Hero of my own. I’ve gone into every relationship as a whole person, with a whole story, and remained such long after the tears dried and the relationships ended. Titles or lack thereof in the lives of those men never determined my worth; what I gained from my time with them and who I became in the process did.

We live in a world that tells women “you are who you sleep with” and at some point, we (women) fall into the trap of defining ourselves on someone else’s terms. Remember to come back to your own story; where you are the Hero and the situations you meet are not the sum of who you are, but plot points you can use to shape your character however you see fit.

Don’t let the world rob you of your story.