Colliding with emotion

Here’s the thing with storytelling – it’s really freaking hard sometimes. I can only speak from personal experience, but the act of sharing what is most precious to me feels like the ultimate act of courage.

There is a difference between telling a story and sharing a part of yourself with the world. This is where I struggle. For years I’ve stayed safe behind telling stories. I can share tales about life’s mundane moments but when it comes to matters of the heart, I sometimes feel like I’m banging my head against a concrete wall. It’s not that I’m terrified of the vulnerability that comes with it, it’s more so that I’m waiting for the timing to be perfect – well, now that I say it out loud, it’s likely both.

There are a lot of fears that show up around acknowledging the past - in particular, the act of making peace with the person I once was as well as the person I am now becoming. Letting go of the controls seems like the least responsible thing I could do, but then again it also seems like the ultimate act of giving into life just as it is. The challenge is to stay present while honoring the moments that created me – and that’s not easy.

I’ve spent a long time crafting an identity around the “Peace Corps” part of my life - the young and fearless girl who woke up one day inside the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Swaziland and two years later left heartbroken and grief stricken. It took that girl years to come to terms with the trauma she witnessed, and since then, those stories have taken on a life of their own. It’s as if they’ve somehow attached themselves to me, tar at the bottom of my feet, weight around my ankles.

Just a few weeks back, I took out a hard drive filled with video footage I had shot in Swaziland in 2004. When I finally had the nerve to watch it, what I saw in the footage shocked me. The stories that I’ve held onto all these years have often revolved around trauma, but as I was watching this young girl, all I could see was absolute joy emanating from her. There were hours upon hours of footage sharing stories of friendship and community, dancing and laughter, connection and love. As my twenty- four year old self looked directly into the camera and spoke, she was able to convey that even despite living amongst sickness and death, she was there because of the joyfulness of spirit.

I cried watching that footage, all the way from beginning to end. The young woman I saw on the screen was not the same girl I’d been trying to hold onto for all these years. What I have been holding onto is her trauma because a part of me fears who I will be without it. It’s the part of my past that I hold closest to me, and the part that I’ve spent years trying to protect. The surprise twist is, it’s also the part of me that keeps me small, and I’m terrified of letting it go.

What I know to be true about this young girl in the footage is this: she was ravenous for love long before she joined the Peace Corps. Not the romantic kind of love, but the everyday familiar kind of love, and before she even stepped onto Swaziland soil as a volunteer she was already searching for something. 

What I met in Swaziland at age twenty-two completely and utterly broke me open. The grief and presence of living amongst the 42% HIV prevalence opened my heart to unimaginable degrees. I spent those two years giving and receiving love and sorrow so intensely, that it seemed to change everything I had ever known about who I was.

And so, it was in Swaziland where I collided with emotion. I was walking down the dirt road and an emotion jumped out of the bushes and tackled me without warning. I didn’t fight back, in fact, I never even noticed the venomous fangs that dug deep into my flesh, poisoning my veins with feelings, until it was too late. He didn’t tell me his name at the time, and only recently have we become close enough for me to learn that he calls himself vulnerability, the same name that I feared for the first thirty years of my life. It was here that I learned about love and loss, and opened my heart to be both broken and mended, over and over again.

Two years later, upon my return to New York City, I had convinced myself that this joyfulness of spirit could only exist in a place of extreme intensity. The emotion and connection that was birthed in Swaziland was nowhere to be found, and what I held close to my chest was the grief. I cradled it like a baby who never wanted to grow up.

That was over ten years ago, and my honest truth now is this - the past ten years have been one radical act of transformation (and it’s not over yet). The work that I’ve done to process my past is still in process, and some days that processing is terrifying. What is it I’m afraid of? I’m afraid that sharing myself with the world is equivalent to letting her go. Who will be left once I set her free? That being said, I am not immune to this simple understanding - letting her go means I must fully step into who I am now.

So, what this represents is the next step - the beginning of sharing her story with the world. Over the past twelve years, as I’ve split my time between New York City and Southern Africa, I’ve seen the resilience of the human spirit so well defined. From Brooklyn, New York to the mountains of Swaziland, one thing is for sure; we human beings are constantly being created. Through trauma, love, sadness, and possibility, we all strive to find sanctuary within ourselves. This sanctuary can be an act of radical self-care in its own right, but there always comes a time when we become ready to open the sanctuary doors for those around us to peek in.