thank you 2020

dear 2020

it would be a lie to say you were a reasonable year, a restful year, or a year i would want to linger in. i used the words dumpster trash fire often when speaking of you, and it was as literal as i could be.

and yet.

you were the last year of many lives, lives that mattered to me, changed me, grew me, touched me.

you were a year of collective care that gave me small hope in the face of great obstacles.

you were a year of manifestation for so many necessary creations.

humans mostly mark time in this way now, measuring how often we circle around the sun instead of, say, the moon cycles we’ve known (i think i am 504-514 moon years old) or key lessons (i feel maybe 55 key lessons old, but it could be thousands, or three…). so the sun pulls us around her in orbit, and we say it means wisdom, celebration.

i am interested in the meaning we make inside the time, the cycles of learning. and i made so much meaning inside of you, 2020. so i offer you my gratitude.

thank you for showing me how deeply i need to rest, and how it takes me giving myself permission over and over and over again to practice simple things like sleeping, sitting still, taking my time, and finding my own pace.

thank you for reminding me how precious life is. because so much death came in these twelve months, i have had to reckon with what makes life worth living. i have gotten clearer on what matters to me, what i want to spend my life doing, and what i love.

thank you for teaching me about love. i love being alive, and many of the ways humans are living – i am so grateful that i give fucks, that i love the earth, that i dream of and practice justice, that i can laugh in almost any circumstance. i am grateful that i can feel this truth: even the lives of my opponents have magic and laughter in them.

thank you for making me be creative with how i love – i love showing my precious people how much i care for them, with gifts of song, ritual, and attention. i also appreciate the grueling and liberating labor of learning how to be honest in real time and trusting love to guide my relationships home.

thank you for teaching me about authenticity. i got to live my life from my home more than ever before as an adult – less and less performative as the months passed. i got to cook and do yoga and take baths and dance and think and pray and be in ritual from the same place where i write all my thoughts.

thank you for teaching me what mutual aid looks like in practice, how much i already have, how much i want to give, how nourishing it is to feel the abundance of the collective. i am grateful for how clearly care was the mvp of the year.

thank you for offering me back the practice ground of my body. when i couldn’t travel, or go swim, or have adventures beyond my front door, my body truly became the wonderland – what can i learn here, how can i worship here, where is the water within, how can i create a retreat for my body wherever i am, and how does my body want my space arranged? how does my body stay safe and connected? how does my body move through rage and solitude and still feel the miracle of interdependence? i have learned how resilient and powerful and beautiful and possible it is to be in any body that lives.

and thank you, of course, for my new ancestors. the ancestor altar at the heart of my home is so full, and i imagine the unleashed souls of my loved ones welcoming each other and praying for us with their act of deepest rest. so many, my god so many. thank you.

thank you for reminding me that it is all love – this grief, that rage, that hunger, this loneliness, this meal, that kiss, those gifts, this phone call, that reunion, this parental hug, this nibbling tear, those lovers’ hours, that video dance party, these compromises, this pounding heart…love.

thank you for the sun through the window, the snow on the ground, the plants that still grow, the species still thriving, the air we can breathe, the water we can drink, the miracle of life on this perfect planet.

you were an abundant year. i humbly place my cheek on the dirt for the abundance of lessons and surrenders and tendernesses you offered me, us.

with love
amb

root and hibernate

“everyone needs more than anyone can give right now.”

i feel like a combination of griefs tossed me into a cloud of volcanic rage ash (again) and it took many friends, tears, rituals, chani nicholas apps, bursts of good news, acts of service and therapy (again) to get a toe to touch back down to the ground. i know i need deeper roots for the next year or 200.

this sentence from a post that my friend ashindi maxton shared has become a voice in my head, helping me access compassion, patience, breath and quiet. these are impossible times. and “these are the times to grow our souls,” grace lee boggs keeps whispering into my youngest tears. ‘and/and’ as my therapist says.

as i head into hibernation, i am aware that i have given all i can this year, am giving all i can in every connection, aware that we all need more. and…rifling thru my memories of each beloved i grieve, i notice the flashbacks are sparce and visceral and true and precious, and so i also know that somehow this not enough will be just enough, this day and the ones i spent wandering in all the grief and the ones i filled with ranting and the ones where i surrendered to joy and satisfaction, the best ones where i sang and played with the babies and held my loved ones and learned and wrote, all of them together are my abundant life in a rich ecosystem of love. i commit to living a life that leaves memories of shared pleasure and deep presence, memories that carry laughter and delight and an ache of longing for more.

SistaSoul Search Retreat Speech, Dec 12, 2020

As shared in keynote event, I wanted to offer to all Black women:

Thank you all for having me – it is an honor to get to come and speak with you, as Black women of faith, who are working to change the world, who are working for reparations, who are working for reproductive justice, who are navigating the complicated relationship with voting in this country, who are combating anti-blackness. I salute you, to begin with, because those are all the things. Thank you.

I am here today to speak with you about our pleasure.

Pleasure Activism – this is a book I wrote and gathered about my own journey with pleasure. I am going to speak about that, but first I want to say why such a book was even needed. Why Audre Lorde had to write the Uses of the Erotic as Power, the text which is the river flowing throughout the book.

The Black experience is by no means a monolithic experience – some of us have ancestors who were enslaved here, some of us have immigration stories of choice, some of us had to escape where we were and this was the only choice. Some of us can trace our lineage back to a specific origin, and some of us feel longing for a mother tongue we wouldn’t recognize if we heard it. Some of us were raised being told we had kings and queens as ancestors, and others with an anti-monarchial class analysis that says it’s more likely we descended from workers. Some of us were raised to be patriots to a nation in which we could make it if we just worked hard enough, others were told never to trust a thing this country told us, to seek our liberation by any means necessary. There are as many experiences as there are Black people.

There are, however, some things that tie us together into a fairly common experience.

One is that we have had to be people of faith. Be it religious or revolutionary, we have had to place our faith in something larger than us, get interconnected, something that could fuel us through challenges as impossible as forced sterilization, being separated from our children, being subjugated by patriarchs, living in places that couldn’t see or love us.

Another thing we often share is that we have had to normalize the labor of martyrdom. I cannot think of a Black woman in my life who has not been overworked and underpaid at least once in her life. I can think of so many Black women who have given their all to personal and professional labor which has not given them, us, back care, stability, ease, health, leadership or love.

Many of us share a history of sexual harm in the form of molestation, assault, harrassment, rape, or silencing of our sensual instincts.

Many of us share stories of reproductive grief and fear.

Many of us need help, permission and guidance to see our bodies as a site of pleasure, joy, satisfaction, contentment, happiness, ease, rest, peace.

I wrote Pleasure Activism for women like myself. I was smart, hard working, and when I showed up to work I got things done. Like many of us, when I was young I was given leadership “opportunities” which were often unveiled, with time, to be undervalued spaces of extreme labor. And I did the labor, eagerly seeking the belonging and love that was stolen from me at the ancestral level – you know I believe we all belong to the land, and when we are stolen from the land, or lands, we are meant to know, we can search high and low and in and out for that tether, that unconditional belonging that comes on land which knows your name.

I didn’t belong in the military world I’d grown up in with ARMY dad.

I didn’t belong in the sleeping world in which american dreamt its way through egregious injustice.

I didn’t belong to Black revolutionary space because I was queer and quirky and the men didn’t know what to do with me if i wouldn’t respect the myth of their superiority and/or sleep with them.

I didn’t belong anywhere else because I just knew that a Black queer feminist worldview was the liberating thought process that fit my mind and heart…so i floated around busting my butt for the movement, repressing my need for healing, for health, for a living wage, for respect, for consideration, for sleep…I confused numbing myself and escaping for pleasure. I confused being drunk, high, sexual, binge eating and living a deeply foggy life for pleasure.

And if we were all in the room together I would ask if you know what I mean. If you too have been the leader in your household, in your community, in your organization, church, mosque, temple, network, state, nation – if you have realized at some point that you couldn’t feel anymore, that you were scrolling through your life, that you were the most accountable person in the room and you were tired.

And that brings us to this paragraph from Audre Lorde:

“…when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering, and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like the only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”

Reading Audre, and looking at my life, I had this awakening – I am not constructed for suffering. I am not a miraculous being meant to toil to the bone for other people’s imaginations which are based in me shrinking and serving them. And I am not meant to give continuously of my gifts and talents where there is no love – that is self-denial.

So I began to study in earnest. And I wrote a column for Bitch magazine called the pleasure dome, where I documented what was coming to understand. I wrote about getting comfortable in my naked skin, looking at myself, desiring myself and examining any fantasies in which a thin, white able body was more desirable than mine. Now it actually feels preposterous to me – bodies are all hot, they are all flesh and nerves and magic. But that took work. I had to learn what it meant to be in consent and to set and hold boundaries and negotiate the sex I wanted. I wrote about learning that I could ejaculate and about sex toys and pornography and period sex. I wrote about weed and ecstasy and healing and wholeness and Beyoncé and gratitude and nonmonogamy and liberated relationships. And when I reached my edges I reached out to others and wove in their knowledge on sex work and burlesque and pole dancing and humor and fashion and BDSM and casual sex through apps and pleasure while parenting and pleasure over sixty and pleasure with cancer. There is so much I didn’t get to include and I am still studying and practicing. I have a book in the works being co-edited by two thick Black femmes on Kink for Black Feminists. I want to really dive into the nonsexual pleasures of food, movement…I am reading Wicked Flesh my Jessica Marie Johnson, which gives incredible historical context to this condition of martyrdom…

The last thing I want to say is perhaps the edge I have been exploring most recently. I have been appalled at how so many of our hardest working Black organizers are treated. Underpaid, inhumane hours, yes. But I am speaking specifically about what happens when Black women step into the risk of leading. Saying – yes I will helm this organization. I will co-direct this network. I will work to align our vision and our values with what we can do in this time. I have been one of these leaders, and I have held many of them, and the current ease with which these leaders are attacked and disrespected is appalling to me. We are all learning how to navigate complexity and divergent paths towards liberation. We have disagreements, we have differences and contradictions, and of course, we make mistakes. But no one, not one of these leaders, deserves to be treated as enemy. Torn down. Threatened with death and targeted not just by the state, which we expect, but by those who call themselves comrades.

Often it is right at the moment of victory, at the moment of a small win in the long journey to liberation, when we should be uplifting each other, that we are instead moved to destroy our most precious parts, the black women mothering and midwifing revolution.

And I wonder, I wonder how deeply this capacity to mistreat Black women leaders is a sign of the same colonial thinking that originally disconnected us from our bodies, our power. That others expect us to mammy, expect us to martyr, expect us to toil without celebration or even attention. That if we work hard and we begin to shine, and our magic and power and even the pleasure of leadership – right, because it feels incredible to begin to learn what works, and to be in community with others dedicated to radical change and solutions and growing and learning in public, it’s such a balm when we find each other, when we have those moments of leaping forward and that light grows in us and the shine starts to show…but is there something in us at a collective level that feels compelled to police that, to control that, to shrink that, to shut it down?

I believe that there is inner work to reclaim our inherent right to pleasure, to awaken the wiring for delight and satisfaction that exists in each of us. But I also believe there is collective and perhaps congregational work to do, to be accountable for celebrating each other, and protecting each other. I think we need to ask ourselves every day: am I satisfiable? Are we satisfiable? And whose satisfaction is served when we tear down our own? Who is satisfied when we expect labor without offering gratitude? I want us to continue to work hard for that which is ours to do – our generation is here to defund the police and reclaim sovereignty over our reproduction and make racism past-tense – we have so much to do and I want us to work knowing that our community will love us when we fall, love us when we win, love us when we learn, love us when we change.

I am not waiting for reparations from anyone who doesn’t love me. I am reclaiming the love and pleasure due to me every day. We are reclaiming it as we scale our movements up to the level of justice. We give it to each other when we redistribute belonging, joy, satisfaction. And Black orgasms.

brief thoughts 2: starting small

this pandemic has really been a dance for me and my body.

i thought i was going to be very healthy. i stocked my home with healthy things.

then i placed another order for the things my body actually wanted and needed in order to move through isolation and stolen control and grief.

i heard crissle say not to judge my body for gaining weight during a pandemic, but instead be grateful to be in a body that has so far survived a global pandemic.

i heard glennon doyle say love and control can’t coexist, that you don’t control what you love and that’s how she knows she still has self love work to do with her body.

i did a round of sugar shift where i removed added sugars from my life for three weeks. i noticed how much better i felt and slept. i thought i would continue like that forever.

then i returned to the comfort of sugar, without much judgment.

i read lizzo talking about body normalization, and how do we normalize that there are all kinds of bodies that are beautiful and incredible. i read it while having sea salt caramels and sea salt chips, which really compliment each other beautifully, rubbing on my softer belly.

i tried to do a celery juice cleanse but was quickly reminded that i am allergic to raw celery. as i cleaned up the mess of bodily rejection, such a clear message, i reflected on all the vegetables i can eat raw, and how many vegetables and fruits i truly love.

i went to the hospital convinced i had covid-19 or an embolism, but after a variety of tests i was told i had an upper respiratory infection and otherwise am so healthy – this communicated by a stranger speaking with the slight surprise of health practitioners who assume the worst of fat bodies. i feel grateful that even my pandemic comfort kitchen is mostly populated with whole, organic foods, that i love cooking vegetables to eat with my jalapeño cheddar cornbread, that i drink like the receiving end of a waterfall.

i had a deep discussion with a friend about how sometimes the “you go fat/disabled/hairy/etc girl!!” energy can feel so inauthentic, tinged with the fear people still have around anything not socialized as normal and desirable. fear almost always shows.

i notice that i feel the ease of more bodies being normal in my mind, in my eyes. i pick up less and less on the false narratives of normalization, and more and more on how at peace people are within their skin, their capacity to celebrate their own aliveness, their capacity to grow. ah, more people strike me as beautiful.

i notice that what matters most when my life feels good is how it feels inside, how i listen to what i need and how i celebrate my aliveness…it’s intimate personal work, and i don’t have to measure where anyone else is in that work, but i have to find my own peace.

i notice that in my recent video calls, almost everyone is softer around the chin and face in ways that no angle or lighting can hide. a few are more gaunt, hollowed, shadowed. the constriction and pressure and patterns and grief is touching and changing us in ways that are visible. i find i rather like the softening, though i know better than to say so in real time because this territory is a tender one. maybe others don’t feel ease with their smoother edges…i know that just as with my own body, assumptions are rarely useful or relevant.

i have returned to my yoga practice. every morning before i touch my phone, i get on my mat. my body is fluent in yoga, so if i bend forward, the language of sun salutation flows through me. each day i leave room for my body to lead, and am genuinely impressed with what i can still do even with my arthritis, inflammation, gut; the freedom and flexibility increase with breath. i shift poses slowly, fluid as if dancing, feeling the strength and stretch in sustaining. each day the practice is a bit longer, and now most mornings include some crunches and the new-to-me practice of qi gong. i remember how good it feels to be in a body without the hypervigilance of thinking about how it looks.

i am practicing not being distressed to be alive in my body.

i am practicing hearing the old and new colliding at the border of my awareness.

i am practicing starting small while being big.

i am practicing what it is to be and do enough, based on a measurement within.

i am practicing loving my body, normalizing my body, relinquishing control, listening to my inner communications as if to a teacher, being authentic in my self love.

i am so grateful to be alive.

i am considering that this state of mind and body might just be the healthiest i have ever been.

brief thoughts, 1: movement as liberatory space

how do we vision, build and sustain movements that are liberatory spaces? where, by entering, humans find themselves in spaces where their whole selves are welcomed and they are encouraged to grow?

i think of movements as intentional worlds, or perhaps more accurately as worlds designed by and for intentional people, those who are able to feel the world not as an unfolding accident of random occurrences, but rather as a massive weaving of intention. you can be tossed about, you can follow someone else’s pattern, or you can intentionally begin to weave and shape existence. and yes, the makeup of your web is the same matter as all that already exists, but your direction and pattern can be new, unexpected, agitating new growth. what results from your efforts depends on your intention. movements intend to shape the world to be just, to give us all access to the inherit abundance of our home, to stop harm, to set us free, to help us live.

it can feel like liberation – i have felt it, been in rooms that felt it, where we understood something collectively that we did not understand alone. where we took action that changed the future in ways that increased life for all.

movements can also feel like exclusive containers, fixed sets of ‘right’ ideas, and dangerous places to lead. locations that, in order to grow, people must eventually free themselves from.

as i listen to movements process and feel and grow and shape, i want to bring attention often to this distinction: are our movements designed and practiced as places that liberate those within and without? or are we collectively creating cages, barrels, boxes…scarce domains in which no one can thrive in lifelong commitment?

are we getting stuck in regressive thinking and behavior that discourages growth, mistakes, and the hard work of holding leadership? how do we recenter humility, curiosity, and liberation in how we change the world?

does this pattern noticing resonate? have you seen solutions?