Thursday, July 23, 2015

Together, Still

He had invited me to the park for a walk after church, and something in his tone told me I should be nervous. We had been friends for several months now, working together on staff with a local church and helping run a college ministry at our alma mater. I was attracted to his passion and kindness, but had never thought beyond our ministry friendship, which was surrounded with strict standards from the "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" movement. We had spoken of future plans and families and life passions - all within the context of this strictly platonic friendship - and with the background of those conversations, I soon concluded that our park walk must be about him finally making the decision to follow his dreams and move to Africa.

We started our walk on a sunny Sunday afternoon, our flip-flopped feet soon coated with a thin layer of dust from the graveled path we walked on, which bordered the lake we were circling. I distracted myself with sites of bikers zipping past and marathon trainers loaded with fuel belts flurrying by. Something in me must have known what my conscious mind could not begin to fathom, because I became increasingly anxious about the context of our walk with every footstep. We tried our hand at casual conversation, both of our voices shaking with nerves, until finally he lead me to a park bench just yards from the water's edge.

My stomach flipped, as I heard these words come from his lips, "Noelle, I have something I need to tell you." Immediately, my mind raced back to my Africa-conclusions, but just as quickly darted to unfounded fears of sickness, until finally landing on the most unbelievable possibility of all: love. I felt my face flush and had trouble keeping eye-contact. "Ok, sure. What is it?" I mumbled, plastering on a put-together smile. And then I waited for what seemed like hours.

His next words are now forever jumbled in my memory with the intense rush of joy and exhalation I experienced as I heard them, and the incredible rosy glow of his cheeks as he spoke them. All the words and all the blushing and all the emotions said this: I want to start a journey with you that will span our whole lives.

That was May 1, 2005. Just four months later we got engaged in an old warehouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and just three months after that, we exchanged vows at our home church in a simple winter ceremony. December 10, 2005, with twinkling Christmas lights behind us and almost two hundred guests in front, we said "I do" to that vision of sharing our journeys forever. We kissed in commitment, ten years ago, never knowing what those shared journeys had in store for us.

Ten years of travel and adventure; ten years of arguments and apologies; ten years of first tries and thousandth attempts; ten years of holiday traditions and making a house a home; ten years of hosting international students and cramming every room with roommates; ten years of loss and love; ten years of death and divorce and devastation; ten years of devotion to that same dream: journeying together, forever

Marriage has not been easy, and there have been whole seasons over the past ten years when I have lost sight of those early commitments altogether. I have seen hurts and hurdles, rather than "together"; I have seen disappointments and distractions, rather than "forever."  I have run for the nearest exit, rather than pressing in; hidden my heart away, rather than opening it up. In so many ways, it has been my husband's commitment to that first vision of "together forever" that has been the glue of our marriage through the years (and I count that blessing often!). 

This past May, I took Daniel and the kids back to the park where Daniel first asked me to start our forever journey. We told the kids the story of our walk that day, thrilling them with all the fun emotions and butterflies in our bellies, the excitement of holding hands for the first time, life before they existed. We told them about the commitment we made to each other that day, the commitment we have had to revisit time and again throughout our marriage, the commitment to love that eventually birthed them. And we marveled together at the miracle - ten years later, two kids later - of journeying together still

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Adventuring & Vacuuming

It was noon and I was still in my pj's, which happened to be my running shorts and t-shirt that I never found the time to change out of from the previous day. I was rallying the kids for our weekly (daily??) room tidying and laundry sorting, hanging up endless piles of clean clothes, folding blankets, re-stacking books and toys on their proper shelves. After half an hour upstairs, we made our way back downstairs, where a sink of dishes and a full dishwasher blinking "Clean" awaited me. Again, I rallied the kids to pickup their toys and help sort silverware, as I scrubbed through piles of pots and pans and got the kitchen back to a useable state. After vacuuming breakfast crumbs, we were finally through our morning chores and ready to spend some time playing in the backyard together.

We played hard for an hour or more, until shoes were muddy, hair was sweaty and bellies were hungry. Making our way back inside for lunch, the kids took quick showers while I got our meal ready. Fed and cleaned - just two hours since our morning chores had been completed - I found myself with a sink full of dishes, a bathroom full of dirty clothes and a floor scattered with mud and grass, again. 

If you've read a single post on this blog, it will be no surprise to you that I am rather addicted to making lists. As I type, I can look to the left and see a sticky note with book titles scrawled all over it in a variety of inks, a running reading list stuck to the bottom of my computer screen. To the right is a list I made last Fall of activities that are truly refreshing to me, a self-care list that I force myself to check in with from time-to-time. Front and center is my never-ending to-do list, currently filling a notebook piece of paper full of pink ink and lots of boxes awaiting their checkmarks of completion. 

The morning I described above is typical of 90% of our mornings around here - a mixture of play and chores, and constantly cycling through laundry and dishes and vacuuming. I would assume some form of this cycle is typical of 90% of other families as well. It is the nature of life and living, of caring for ourselves and our families. 

And yet, as my husband and I were plowing through yet another to-do list in preparation for out-of-town guests last weekend, a subtle reality dawned on me: I realized that I am constantly working toward a completed list, a life with all the boxes checked...a life which, by definition, does not exist. I realized that so much of my stress is falling into bed at night, exhausted from a day of doing, frustrated that I still have so much to do the next day. I think to myself, "When am I ever going to get all of this done?!" I focus on completion exclusively. 

But, finally, this reality dawned on me: How can all the boxes always be checked off if life is still happening? Isn't life all wrapped up in the adventuring and the vacuuming, the cuddling and the cleaning? Won't every single chore cycle back, again and again and again, as long as I have life and breath? And isn't this good?

Brene Brown says in her book, Daring Greatly, "Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because perfection doesn't exist." I have said this very thing, seen it and meant it fully. And yet the truth of it continues to sink further and further into the depths of my life. The truth that life is cyclical, it is not a row of checked boxes. The truth that life is both work and wonder, both effort and enjoyment. The truth that having to wash dishes again tomorrow does not make me a failure or mean that I didn't get enough done today - it simply means that I am alive. 

I don't know about you, friend, but I need reminded of these truths constantly. I need to know that even though the laundry will need done again tomorrow and that dinner will need cooked again tonight and that the floor will be filled with crumbs after every single meal - that incompletion does not equal insufficiency. That the cycle of chores that fills so much of my days can be a source of joy and celebration, rather than a source of constant stress, if I will just see the life behind it. If I will just see the gift of getting to live each and every part of this journey, chores and all.

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Keeper: Finding Constancy in a World of Change

The following is a guest post by one of my current 30 Day Writing Challenge participants. I love seeing what comes out of these brave souls every quarter, and am honored to get to share one these pieces with you today!

It would kill my Mom to know that my first real childhood memory is of Ralphie, my bio Dad, but it most certainly is. There are so many other early memories burned on my brain, but those are after their bitter separation and eventual equally bitter divorce. Those memories surface their ugly heads first and are filled with green trash bags stuffed with dirty work clothes, cursing and spitting, crushed cigarette butts, and him leaving and never looking back to see me in the window, ever-waiting for his return.
It is early on a Sunday morning but the sun is up and shining. I race downstairs, anxious to catch him happy (happy = not too drunk but surely not sober) before my older brother and mom can distract him, annoy him, or chase him away. He is reading the Sunday paper and I quietly creep right in front of him and punch the paper hard and swift right in the crease, to startle him. It works and he laughs and hands me the funnies. I am not yet 4, but I can read and have been since I was 2 - a bragging point I hear my Mom Mom often announce to family, friends, and random people we run into when we shop together, which is often. I love The Family Circus best, as well as the one with the barbaric Viking, whose eye you could never see. My hands are covered in stinky newspaper ink, and I don’t like the smell or the blackness on my fingertips, but I don’t want to waste a moment of my time with Dad on hand washing.
Dad is the funny one, the goofy one, the kid that never grew up. My Mom is busy taking care of all of us. Stay-at-home mom by day, waitress by night. The entire Eagles 8 track “Hotel California” is the soundtrack of that time and is constantly playing in Dad’s green van and Mom’s yellow Volkswagon Beetle. My Mom Mom and Pop Pop live walking distance away and are a constant in our lives, baby sitting, furnishing the house, supporting what they can support and judging what they can’t. Sunshine is our dog, a gorgeous German Shepherd who loves me fiercely. Not like Gretchen, the German Shepherd dog before, who bit my index finger hard enough to draw blood, with no warning.
Dad suggests I eat a donut from the Dunkin Donuts dozen he has already picked up so we can head to the crick (creek) to go fishing. I choose the Boston Crème, joyful when the pudding center squirts through my teeth. He munches on his French Cruller, crumbs falling all over his t-shirt.  “Let’s go!” he declares. No hair combing, no teeth brushing, no outfit matching. We are going fishing! This thrills me, especially since my brother is not awake and therefore, unable to join us.   
It is hot on the borrowed (stolen?) little motor boat and I am thirsty. The sun is bright and Dad is distracted with the fishing pole, baiting the line, casting the reel. I wait until my mouth is too dry to even lick my lips wet. I finally ask Dad for a drink, hopeful that he has my favorite cherry Kool Aid in my Holly Hobby thermos. Instead, he produces a shiny white and red can from his cooler, icy and glinting in the bright sun with beads of condensation dripping from it. It opens with a loud pop. I grab it and gulp down a sip. I gasp, shocked at the bitter fizz but I know better than to spit it out. I hate it but it is the only thing available to drink besides the muddy water on which we float. I hand it back to him, careful not to spill it or scowl. My first beer. A Budweiser, I would confirm many years later.

Time passes. I tell my Dad that I have to pee. He asks me if I can hold it, an extremely risky suggestion since I am infamous for wetting my pants when I laugh too hard or when walking through one of my brother’s numerous homemade haunted houses. Dad makes a decision and sets the minnow bucket in the center of the boat. He tells me to squat over it and pee. I look down in disbelief at the skinny darting fish in the metal half-covered bucket. I don’t want to pee in it. I lie and say I no longer need to go. Minutes later my shimmying bottom and constant readjustment of my shorts gives me away. Dad threatens that if I don’t pee in the minnow bucket, then we’ll have to leave. And if I pee all over myself, then we’ll have to leave. There is no longer a debate. I quickly pee in the minnow bucket, never looking down to see if those tiny, silvery fish live or die in their newly polluted environment.
It would be almost 35 years later when I would fish with my Dad again. Just last summer, in fact. There were no boats, beers, or minnow buckets. Just my three kids and me, walking with him to our local fishing hole here in my neighborhood. Many things have changed for him and me over the years of his alcoholism, drug addiction, disinterest, abandonment, destruction, numerous brushes with death and eventual rehabilitation. But he still picks up Dunkin Donuts for the kids when he visits, and I still choose the Boston Crème.

This is a piece written by a participant in response to a prompt from my 30 Day Writing Challenge. If you are interested in telling your own story, or developing your writing voice, please consider joining us for the next Challenge!

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Five Ingredient Fresh Garden Salsa

Last summer, our garden yielded a wonderful crop of tomatoes, cilantro and chives. I was thrilled with this abundance, since it meant being able to make weekly batches of this easy, delicious Fresh Garden Salsa. Just add in some lime and sea salt, and you'll have a great topping for Mexican night or a lovely afternoon snack!

I am very imprecise with this recipe...I think it's actually impossible to mess this one up since all the flavors are so fresh and complimentary. So here's about what you'll need: 

1 cup cilantro (finely diced)
1/2 cup chives (finely diced)
6-8 roma* tomatoes (diced)
A lime
Sea salt 
*roma tomatoes work best since their insides aren't as runny

1) Dice all veggies (I'm not picky about how finely or evenly everything is diced)
2) Combine veggies in a large bowl and shower with juice of one lime 
3) Sprinkle with sea salt & stir

The salsa will taste best if you refrigerate and let the flavors sit together for at least an hour before serving. Grab a bag of tortilla chips or your favorite taco recipe and enjoy!

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Love Wins

Two years ago, we celebrated the fourth of July like many other families in America: with hamburgers and grandma's potato salad recipe and round after round of seconds. Two years ago, we celebrated in red, white and blue outfits, watching the kids play in the sprinkler and relaxing on the front porch swing, casually conversing about where to go to watch fireworks this year. Two years ago, we celebrated with mama's famous layered jello piled high on our plates, sinking into leather couches without a care in the world. 

Two years ago, all the kids greeted her big smile and golden hair with even bigger smiles and brighter eyes, because they couldn't wait to get to play with Ms. Loryn. Two years ago we sat down and chatted about all the characters in the office where we worked together, and what it was like being a student at The Ohio State University. Two years ago, she leaned in and asked me how a recent visit to be re-united with our foster son had gone, an ever-present sign of her tender, thoughtful heart. 

Two years ago, she waived goodbye and we loaded the kids into the car, waiving in return, never fathoming it would be our last exchange. Two years ago, she hopped into a car...two years ago, the world lost her in a tragic, senseless accident. 

Two years ago, our lives changed forever. 


As I have been thinking about Loryn's life and that tragic event two years ago, I keep watching the series of events that began to unfold in my own life in the weeks and months afterward. So many unexpected twists and turns, questions and confusion, healing and growth. In every way, I owe it to Loryn that this blog exists at all, that I found a way back to writing, and back to myself. 

One of the questions that I couldn't shake after the funeral, was about the existence and nature of life after death. I grew up with a very conservative, fundamentalist perspective on heaven and hell - heaven as a place of pure beauty and bliss reserved exclusively for those that had accepted Jesus into their hearts and lived their lives for Him, and hell as a place of fire and torment, reserved for everyone else.

I had struggled with this strict line in years past, but never with the intensity that I now wrestled, fighting through all the confusing and painful implications. So, if only those that accepted Jesus into their hearts went to heaven, what about all those kind, good people that died before their time? What about all those people born into other cultures and in other times? How could a loving God send a majority of the world population to a place of eternal torment? And why would I want to follow him if he did?

Before you fill the comment section with answers to all these questions, I should say, I know the "right" answers. I know from sitting in the front row during sermons for a decade, diligently taking notes, that none of us deserve heaven anyways. I know from my year of Christian leadership school and dozens of apologetics books the falsehoods that other religions teach and why the Great Commission is so urgent. I know from Bible studies and conferences and a half-dozen mission trips how to pray the right words with someone so that they can invite Jesus into their hearts, and how welcoming and loving he is when they choose to do so.

But there came a point, two years ago, when all the "right" answers just didn't cut it. Rachel Held Evans discusses this in her book, Searching for Sunday, and describes her own wrestling after witnessing a muslim woman being tortured by other radical muslims. Evans writes, "Suddenly abstract concepts about heaven and hell, election and free will, religious pluralism and exclusivism had a name: Zarmina."

For me, the name was Loryn. And like Evans, that name brought all my fundamentals, all my religious certainties and clear black-and-white answers, into a whole new light. That name taught me to stop and look further. That name helped me to embrace uncertainty and to grip ahold of love instead. 

I appreciated what Evans writes a few pages later, because it so succinctly describes my own train of thought during those struggles two years ago, "In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims. But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic, but by the people that they persecuted...If salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn't good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news."

Two years later, I don't have concrete answers for all my questions. I suppose in many ways, like grief, these questions will remain ever-present reminders of the loss of a loved one. They will ebb and flow in and out of my consciousness, forcing me to remain open, forcing me to remember, forcing me to feel all the joy of love and all the pain of loss again and again and again.

And although I have not come upon absolute certainties, and although the afterlife will forever remain a mystery this side of things, I have settled into a simpler knowing, a softer hold on what may be. Today, two years later, instead of knowing who is in or out, instead of carrying a map of how it all works out, I am learning to look into eyes around me and to embrace humanity. I am learning to accept the mystery and to believe that love wins. 


I knew it when I toured ancient temple ruins with the only Thai friends we had made during our 18 months of living in Chiang Mai - these Buddhist friends that welcomed us into their home, celebrated birthdays, fought for our son, taught us their culture. 

I knew it when I kissed Ahlam, first on the left cheek, then on the right - this Iraqi Muslim mother of eight, who recently immigrated with her family to the U.S. under refugee status, and now sat decorating cupcakes with Whoppers to serve us for our first meal together.

I knew it when Divya curled up in my lap and Jayanthi leaned on my should under the chirping monkeys of the banyan tree that shaded us from the hot Indian sun - these Hindu children of migrant workers who showed me worlds of kindness in their smiles and depths of love in their eyes that I had never before experienced. 

I knew it when I touched Loryn's cold hand, looked into her face and trembled at the stillness, knowing somehow, someway, this would not be the final goodbye.

I knew: Love wins. 

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On Grief: When 2 Years Ago or 20 Years Ago Feels Like Yesterday

We walked off the plane after over 24 hours of travel, into a crowd of welcoming, if not cautious, arms - a moment I had played out in my imagination dozens of times before. Only in my earlier versions, this moment was defined by sheer joy, dominated by victorious applause, doused with huge smiles and laughter and first meetings. In that version, we walked out even more sleep-deprived, yet even more exuberant, as our first son sat perched on my hip, ready for his grand debut. 

Instead, we walked off the plane with only our carry-ons in hand, and with a mountain of grief inside our hearts that we had not yet had the courage nor the understanding to begin to deal with.

I think few of us get through our twenties and thirties without encountering tragic loss of one form or another. Within my own little circle, parents have died of cancer, brothers have taken their lives, babies have been born blue, friends have fallen or crashed or wandered to their deaths, adoptions have fallen through, marriages have crumbled - all within the past decade. And I know every little circle, in every little corner of the world, is unfortunately familiar with similar tragedies and losses.

After losing a dear friend two summers ago, I found some degree of comfort in educating myself with every piece of literature I could get my hands on regarding grief and the process of recovery after tragic loss. I read book after 
book after book and flitted from one blog to the next, not in search of answers, but in great need of camaraderie and guidance. I didn't want concrete steps to follow, but I did need to know what sorts of things I could expect on this road of grief and what things had helped others along the way. More than anything, I wanted a hand to hold as I walked, to know that I was not alone.

I love what Glennon Doyle Melton says about grief in her memoir, Carry On Warrior, "Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone."

Perhaps the saddest part of our tragedies - more wounding and breaking to the human spirit than even the loss itself - is the way we treat one another in the wake of these experiences. How many times has someone in their grief been greeted with overly optimistic smiles and assurances and appeasements of why things happened the way they did? Well-meaning and kind-hearted people rush to provide answers, to wrap the messes of our lives with neat bows like, "At least he's happy in heaven now." or "God always has a plan." or "She's an angel now. The best one up there." Answers and justifications given before the griever has hardly even had time to ask the questions or raise the concerns for themselves.

And how many times has someone in their grief suddenly realized that nobody in the room is willing to make eye contact with them? Instead of bright smiles, they receive awkward glances and downcast eyes; instead of confident answers, they experience complete avoidance. Perhaps meals are dropped off for a week or condolence cards trickle in for a month, but all too often when the going gets really hard - when the reality of a lifetime without the loved one starts to sink in or the questions finally start taking form - the griever finds herself alone, left to feel as though she now and forevermore wears a Scarlet Letter, that her pain is too big or her healing is taking too long.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson speaks to this in her beautiful book, Rare Bird, when she writes, "It dawns on my that I’ve never walked beside someone in deep pain. I’ve been more of a drive-by friend, the kind who reaches out once or twice and hopes the situation will be resolved quickly. I care. I cry. I pray. But I don’t stick around long. I’m the type of friend you would want around for a broken ankle but not for chronic depression."

I understand Anna's words far too well - both as the giver of such shallow comfort and as the receiver. Grief is messy and scary and quite unpredictable - just the opposite of the neat, controlled lives most of us strive toward. We get lost in that unpredictability and rather than sitting in silence and patience with ourselves or others, we rush ahead with answers and will for life to go on as we once knew it. We hurry the griever into clean black and whites - answers that may in fact satisfy our own souls - without allowing them space to wrestle and cry and wander and just not know, perhaps ever. 

Anne Lamott offers this insight on grief in her book, Stitches"I’d given talks for years about how when it comes to grieving, the culture lies - you really do not get over the biggest losses, you don’t pass through grief in any organized way, and it takes years and infinitely more tears than people want to allot you. Yet the gift of grief is incalculable, in giving you back to yourself." 

I have fumbled on my words and overcompensated the discomfort of a situation with chatter and cheek-numbing smiles. I have wrestled through the muck of my own grief, not knowing how to ask for help or what help it was that I even needed. I have been quick to anger, quick to judge, quick to tears. 

Through it all, I have learned that there are guideposts gleaned from others' experiences to help mark our way and myths about grief and loss that we need to uncover. I have learned that there are stories that we need to hear and stories that we need to tellThat there is courage to be mustered for that painful but necessary task of staring our loss straight in the face. That there are questions that need to be asked and space - within a loving arms' reach - that needs to be given. 

I have learned that we still need to laugh. We still need to cry. And always, we need to know we are not alone. 

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Black and White and Gray Zones: How I learned to stop worrying & love the label


I'm honored to have my dear friend, Rachel Shain, guest post today in response to the recent Charleston shooting and Rachel Dolezal controversy. Rachel has been engaged in the race conversation for the past decade, and shares with us some of her story today.

An onslaught of race incidents this past spring has reminded the entire country that our allegedly healing race wounds remain fresh and open. I had spent several days thinking about Rachel Dolezal, aptly described as having “tumbled, fully formed, out of Larry David’s head,” when the most recent news came out. The mass shooting in a historically black church in Charleston left me little emotional room to contemplate the outer boundaries of race identity politics. Everyday reality is brutal enough.

A few days after first reading about Charleston, I nonetheless found myself returning to the case of Rachel Dolezal because her decisions highlight long-held questions about fighting racism. Deciding how to demonstrate a commitment to racial justice can be confusing for people outside the affected community. Activism is supposed to be sexy and passionate, but in reality the first steps—carefully listening to and building honest friendships with people in that community—produce nagging feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness. As uncomfortable as that is, it is preferable to finding yourself in the ironic position of trying to embody someone else’s story. There is much talk in certain circles of voicelessness, but sometimes the best way forward is not to give someone a voice by telling their story for them but to acknowledge that they already have one and listen up.

Rachel Dolezal’s story also engrosses me because I ran into significant roadblocks in enforcing my own chosen racial identity on the world. I was raised to ignore the question of race altogether, not because my parents naively believed that race did not matter, but because they wanted to personally protect me from the American racial labeling system. The historical legacy of the one-drop rule put a man of my father’s complexion in an awkward position: being biracial was not an option in his time, so he could either eschew both identities or adopt a fully black identity. He chose the former.

For the first 18 years of my life, I self-identified as white simply because I did not know what else I could be. I do not speak African American Vernacular English. I first had soul food in college. So I always checked the “white” box. But society denied me my chosen label. Society told me I was not white enough to claim whiteness.

Society was right. In my mid-twenties I finally held the proof in my hands: genetic testing confirming a substantial percentage of sub-Saharan African ancestry. The moment was strangely anticlimactic. Numbers are less definitive than what a dozen white hair stylists had told me over two decades with their furrowed brows and perplexed comments about my voluminous and suspiciously curly hair. Numbers do not inform a lifetime of strangers asking me, “What are you?”

My first race incident happened on the sidelines of a soccer field when I was in elementary school. A teammate stood up and pointed at me, chanting tauntingly, “You are bla-ack, you are bla-ack.” I did not know what it meant to be black, but it sounded very bad. I adamantly denied the accusation because I did not think anything was wrong with me and ‘black’ was clearly wrong. In junior high, a white hair stylist enthusiastically suggested that I chemically relax my hair, and I followed her advice. My low self-esteem about my hair remained as full-bodied as ever. I decided to stop relaxing my hair six years later in college—if I hated my hair anyway, why spend all this money relaxing it?

Going back to my natural hair turned my life upside down. Black women began initiating conversations with me about natural hair. Black men started hitting on me. I once went into a Greek Orthodox cathedral. All the Greek Americans seemed to assume I was Greek, but the one black man in the room approached me and asked if I was a black American. One time when I was visiting a coastal city in Guatemala, two black local women walked into the restaurant I was eating in and looked around the room. They began having a private conversation, gesturing several times in my direction. The pair then walked up to my table, which included several white people, including another woman. I was singled out and asked if I wanted my hair done. It turns out they were selling on-the-spot braiding services.

All these incidents and a thousand more told me the same thing: I am not white. Over time I learned to love my hair, my complexion, and my roots, and I am indebted to my kind black friends who embraced a confused mixed girl and patiently answered naïve questions.

Two pregnancies have made my hair substantially less curly, something I still grieve. I am now even more of a walking racial Rorschach test. African Americans frequently claim me, but usually with more questions than previously. When I fly to Latin America, I get handed the Spanish entry forms. I have to explain that I am an English speaker, feeling a little sad to have disappointed. I lived in France for a year, and people there often assumed I was from a North African background (or the perennial “maybe Jewish?”). I have caught myself several times on the way to a Muslim-owned family grocery trying to guess what might constitute modest dress in Islam. I worry they might think I am a bad Muslim in my usual clothes. (I am not Muslim at all.) And then I debate with myself whether I am being prejudiced to think that. I find myself hoping I can be excused from prejudice in this instance, but I recognize that even spending my entire life as a mirror for other people’s assumptions about race does not give me license to spew my well-earned paranoia at every perceived threat.

Why a white woman goes mostly unchallenged in adopting a black identity for many years, whereas I could not manage to do the opposite, is an excellent question. The answer goes back to the one-drop rule I referenced earlier. One drop of black blood makes you black: racist thinking at its finest. But when millions of people adhere to the same set of rules for hundreds of years, trying to change those rules involves constructing a fantasy world and playing make-believe that everyone lives there with you. Sometimes the best option is to live in defiant conformity to the old rules, reinterpreting them with your own attitude and imbuing them with new meaning: Black is not wrong. Black is good. Black is beautiful.

Our historical and cultural contexts mold us into the people we are. We are not clay to be formed by our own hands. It never occurred to me to continue to insist that I was white because, frankly, everyone else’s interpretation of my race made more sense of my experience than my own interpretation. People say that race is a social construct, which it is, but that does not make it less real. A woman insists that she is black because she identifies as black. Not so. Nine people in Charleston could not will their way into another race when they discovered they were about to be killed for theirs. As powerful as the will is, it cannot make us unaccountable to our history.

I hear we ought to be reveling in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This month, I will not be doing that. Instead, I offer a toast to my dysfunctional relationship with the trio that created and then solved all my identity problems: community, responsibility, and 
limited self-determination.

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