She Used to Dream

sex trafficking

all she used to dream of was a future

honest wages for her family, a wide-eyed taste of opportunity

she boarded a plane on his words of assurance

that her life would improve once she criss-crossed the globe

but then promises turned counterfeit

and the neon lights of a new city faded to shadows of gray

he was in control now, an Armani suited pimp

she became his to command, as all her freedom disappeared

time no longer seemed to matter

as weeks stretched into months, and the earth reeled off its axis

a name erased from her grime-smeared face

the stamp of commodity on her bruised, starved, exploited body

her narrative is common, her affliction epidemic

another headline for consumption, another hashtag to retweet

yet these statistics fail to humanize

the person whose agency was taken, whose dignity was tarnished

injustice like that can asphyxiate the soul

but she is more than her ravaged hopes and crumbling spirit

her life is worth rescue, her freedom worth ransom

because the future she used to dream of is just what she deserves

 

Unity in Diversity: Embracing Our Differences in 2019

In the past two years, our nation has arguably suffered more blatant division and polarization than it has confronted in decades. And with a societal framework that has the capacity to turn partisan lines into bitter rivalries, we might fear those who are different than ourselves.

We might feel compelled to distrust our own neighbors, coworkers and even those we encounter in the grocery store aisles. If they don’t share our cultural norms and ideologies, too often, we’re tempted to view them with suspicion.

And still, many Americans are also determined to look prejudice right in the face. Sure, these institutionalized forms of bias have caused us to experience friction with one another, sometimes on implicit or unconscious levels. But the story doesn’t conclude here—it continues with a hope that we can rewrite the next chapter in love and acceptance of our equal humanity.

Instead of allowing our differences to thrust a wedge between us, we can choose another option. We can embrace the unity in this full-spectrum of diversity. The fact is, all humans are welcome at the table of community. Each of us represents a strand on the unique, vibrant, colorful tapestry that makes this nation an extraordinary place.

For that reason, the onus to resist discrimination is ours alone. We are accountable for harmonizing this country across all perspectives, backgrounds or affiliations. We can choose to treat one another with basic respect and dignity. We can resolve to change the discourse.

But we need to remember that people are defined in terms of their character and individualism—whether they are black or white, male or female, refugee or citizen, Muslim or Christian.

Socially constructed labels cannot begin to encapsulate the intricacies of a human soul. From the most powerful and affluent to the most overlooked or disenfranchised, we all add value. We all bear significance. We all can yield an impact. We all matter.

If these are intrinsic beliefs we strive to uphold about each other, then it’s time to mobilize some action behind the conviction. And as with any undertaking, it starts at the grassroots.

So we need to listen to the accounts of those who don’t share our worldviews and learn from those whose narratives we don’t know enough about. We need to start looking people in the eyes and affirming their worth instead of deflecting our attention from that which we don’t personally understand.

As stewards of the cultural fusion that is our American experiment, we need to behave like true United States. The well-being of future generations will depend on the harmony we reclaim in the present.

So as the lessons of 2018 become a launchpad for the possibilities of 2019, just imagine if our combined New Year’s resolution was to love each other with the radical, fanatical abandon of a movement poised to soften—and strengthen—the course of our history.

Politics aside, that is a cause we can all march behind.

unity in diversity

 

Why Do You Write Like You’re Running Out of Time?

write like you're running out of time

Two mind-blowing, earth-shattering weeks ago, I joined the ranks of people who have officially seen Hamilton.

And yeah, it’s just as phenomenal as what you’ve heard. But enough #humblebrags. There is a point to this besides me needing an excuse to talk about its genius. Although I will take advantage of the opportunity. No shame in this girl’s musical theatre game.

I knew that I would be enthralled and obsessed and astounded and moved to sloppy tears. I was right, of course. The stage mesmerizes me in ways I can never explain. And that soundtrack will forever blare inside my brain. But one detail of Hamilton has stuck with me in particular—the sheer force of language, the depth and soul of words.

They’re like characters in the narrative. Breathing, pulsing, sweating, living just as the actors are. More than 20,000 words comprise the Hamilton manuscript, and a certain Alexander scrawls them into the art of revolution. What he creates with the flourish of a quill rouses the other Founding Fathers to pose my favorite question in the entire musical:  “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

I love it since I’ve been asking myself that same question for decades. So when I heard this turn-of-phrase chanted from the mouths of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Burr, my first thought was, “This could make a dope tattoo.” My second thought was, “Here’s my next blog post.” Because I relate to Alex—I too write like I’m running out of time.

I have always written from the moment I learned how. Since the time I grasped that letters form sentences which contrive stories which animate worlds. This became more than a desire or passion—it was a necessity.

Intrinsic as hunger. Insistent as oxygen. Writing for me is a matter of survival. And like my dude Alexander, I’m consumed with the notion that words can speak to life resistance and deliverance.

Words make poets and iconoclasts out of ordinary people. Those who resemble me, and those who don’t. Our contrasts are not important—words are the equalizers. Under responsible direction, words turn strangers into lovers, enemies into allies. Words mobilize warriors and actualize movements. Words raise a sigh into a clamor. Words inflame conviction. Words effect change.

Words are the product of human minds and tongues and hearts. And writing is the heart’s semantic. Traced with fingertips, fleshed out with ink. Alex understood that words can either be decisive or divisive, so wielding this power justly is a delicate mission to undertake.

But for some, there’s no option or alternative. They write because their souls demand it. Because each minute elapsed is one minute less to craft the message this world needs to hear.

One minute less to spawn a gender reform wildfire through a hashtag and a keyboard. One minute less to dismantle broken policies or biased ideologies with the stroke of a “publish” button. One minute less to scream out for children on the border, people of color on the margin, and females on the witness stand. One minute less to collude with other renegades who are done status quo-ing.

One minute less to exercise the sharpest artillery we humans possess—our voices and our pens. So I imagine that’s why Hamilton wrote like he was running out of time. Because otherwise, he would have been.

That’s why he wrote each second he was alive. If he was like me, Hamilton needed writing to survive.

The Art of Awkward

Dear anyone who is different than me:

I am writing to apologize. This confession will be awkward, but our culture needs more awkwardness. We have enough silence, denial and complicity to throw around. We need discomfort for a change.

And by this generic “we,” I mean the people who are like me. Those whom our institutions protect. Those whom our systems endorse. Those whom our establishments defend. Those whom our Constitution was originally penned for. We are sensitive to awkwardness because our survival has not demanded we get awkward.

Ours is the luxury to sprawl on our couches and binge episodes of Friends, unaware of a Black Lives Matter protest assembling down the street. Ours is the privilege to saunter through TSA checkpoints because our Western attire does not include a hijab. Ours is the freedom to spend an afternoon at Starbucks without the burden of handcuffs since whiteness is the only voucher we need.

But I’m not addressing the people like me right now. That would be too easy. That requires zero awkwardness on my part. I’m leaning into you—the person who learned to stomach these awkward encounters, stares and conversations because what other choice were you given?

I am sorry. That it’s taken me this long to discern you had a point. You asked me to lift my nose from the pages of a history textbook and read The New Jim Crow instead. You asked me to discover our joint passion for Hamilton rather than keeping my distance and assuming you’re jihadist. You asked me to denounce the powers that abused, ignored or disenfranchised you.

To poke a finger in the heart of injustice and inequality. To subvert backroom schemes or policies that refuse entire groups their dignity. To fixate my attention on what’s been corrupted for generations. You asked me to be uncomfortable, to get awkward and insurgent. You asked that I choose rightness over safeness. You wanted me as your neighbor, co-conspirator and sister.

I am sorry. That all the “wokeness” coursing through my veins is just now being mobilized. You asked me to notice your outrage and check my privilege, but I waited until the cause turned personal, opportune, convenient. I screamed “TIME’S UP” with all the fury of a lioness when my own people—women—came under attack.

I pounded out Facebook statuses of allegiance to my friends who started voicing, “Me Too.” And I unleashed the defiance of a feminist scorned on the patriarchy I deemed responsible. I tacked the banner of “advocate” on my Instagram profile, and I was ready for carnage. But mine was an armor fashioned out of empowerment, a weapon brandished out of entitlement. I took action when it suited me.

I am sorry. That it failed to register in my whitewashed brain how your activism is different—realer, harder, sweatier, truer—because it emerged from necessity. This story of combat and struggle and triumph and revolution has been yours for centuries.

You endured the Middle Passage. You withstood the Japanese internment. You rioted at Stonewall. You marched to the Mexican-American border. You are the fighters, the crusaders, the bravehearts, the renegades. You are the heroes of our nation and the shapers of our culture. You turn awkward into courageous.

I am sorry for remaining quiet when I couldn’t articulate the words. I am sorry for retreating from the keyboard when a social media debate called my comfort into question. I am sorry for remembering I had an opinion just when it served my agenda.

Tell me your experience. Share with me your narrative. Introduce me to your world. Not for the benefit of people like me. But for a kinder, bolder, undivided future—one that belongs to the people like you.

Teach me the art of awkward. I want to understand.

On Befriending My Body: An Inside Job

Me and this body of mine—we are not friends.

Or rather, I’m not friends with her. She is the new girl in the high school cafeteria, and I am holding court at my designated table with no intention of leaving her a space.

She is the partner I am stuck with in a group project at whom I invariably point the finger if our score doesn’t equal A+.

She is the subject of my inane after-school gossip. Omigosh. Did you notice how my Body looked today? Who told her that was attractive? Such a loser, right? Like hire a personal trainer STAT.  

Our lockers are adjacent. Our classes are the same. We constantly brush shoulders but never honestly connect. Her nearness is unnerving. I sidestep her glances as we dart around each other in the hallway, and I scowl at her retreating form as she melts into the shuffle.

I resent her for existing, but I have no reason why. She’s just too close for comfort—a reflection in the mirror of a truth I deem intolerable.

She is me. I am her. And that’s the problem.

I discredit, disavow, distrust myself. And this body suffers the blame. She is the martyr in our relationship, the workhorse I bridle and tame, the machine I pump every last ounce of battery from.

I was 8 when I realized this body wasn’t small and submissive like the other girls’ bodies. I was 9 when I determined she was unsafe and unreliable.

I was 11 when she morphed into a stubby, chunky, lumpy frame I could not contain. I was 13 when I declared warfare against her inadequacies.

I was 15 when I learned to ration just enough food to keep her alive. I was 17 when her colorless eyes, vigorless bones and lusterless skin exposed my secret methods of coercion.

I was 19 when, together, we entered a treatment program that could “heal” our perverse dynamic. I was 20 when that approach didn’t work.

I was 21 when I became aware that bodies are objectified and exploited by outside forces too. I was 23 when I resigned us both to a lifetime of undercover opposition.

I was 26 when all the barricades, deceptions and assurances that “I’m fiiiiiiine” came screeching to an impasse in one cataclysmic swoop.

Now here we find ourselves at the age of 27—this body and this soul. Naked, disoriented, afraid. Tender in years though hardened in combat. I regard us both as enemies. But maybe we’re just strangers who never had a proper introduction.

So what caused this fragmentation, this departure from myself? I don’t think one precise moment bears the onus altogether. It’s a series of chain reactions and domino collisions which framed the dogma I succumbed to 20 years ago.

A dogma that’s informed my actions and decisions ever since.

A dogma that hissed: Little girl, be delicate. Little girl, condense your space. And little girl, for the love of God, don’t hunger. It’s unfeminine, unattractive, unacceptable. To hunger is to be human, and you should rise above that—an object of desire, a model of perfection. 

So I reached a conclusion then and there. Hunger is what makes little girls fleshy, greasy and messy when they’re supposed to be anything but.

Hunger is weakness. Hunger is mediocre. Hunger is repellant. But I am invulnerable to hunger. Or so that delusion told me.

Which meant abandoning this body. “Voting her off the island,” as Glennon Doyle words it. Dissociating from a part of my own essence. Dissolving into a pretense I felt stronger, steadier, safer behind.

I made a choice, so this body never had a chance. And in the fallout, we stopped knowing each other.

I didn’t know that she is complexity and intricacy, beauty and artistry. I didn’t know that she is resilience and vibrance and exuberance. I didn’t know that she is toughness and softness and fierceness. I didn’t know that she is precision and imagination and captivation.

She is a miracle—I just didn’t know.

I starved the wonder right out of her until she was all bones and no being. Physically and spiritually emaciated, both halves famished to unite again. But maybe I can restore these drifting islands into a single, undivided me. Remember the oneness. Reclaim the miraculous.

Maybe I can befriend this body. Maybe I can do it after all.

And maybe she can teach me a lesson or two in love.

love warrior

Open Letter to the Girl Who Fears She Is Too Much and Not Enough

We don’t need an introduction because I know you. I get you. How you think, feel and experience the world. Our stories are entwined. We’re unique but we’re the same.

Even if our paths never actually intersect, we are in this together. Because I see through your lens. I understand.

Isn’t it refreshing to be known?

It has been for me because I didn’t feel known. Not for decades. People made the effort, but I recoiled from their advances. I mistrusted proximity, so I deflected it. The closer someone inched, the more suspicious I became. It was only a matter of time until they learned the truth.

That I was too much for them to handle. And not enough for their approval. So I was caught in the tension, stretched between incompatible forces that somehow merged inside me.

Too much and not enough.

At. The. Exact. Same. Time.

Does that sound familiar? Can you relate?

You’re the girl who shrinks down and folds in because your presence is inflated. Supercharged. Excessive. More than anyone can endure. Or so you might assume. You squelch the wildness, the overabundance which threatens to spew out. You barricade the leaks and fissures, but still you have to wonder: Am I uncontainable? Is it all too damn much? 

You’re also the girl who makes an entrance with your tattooed arms, crimson lips and four-inch heels because without the extra trimmings, you couldn’t measure up. Ignored. Irrelevant. Insignificant. That’s how they might label you. If they even notice you. And now the question remains: Do I walk around unseen? Is any of this enough?

But hey, no judgment. I feel you, sister. I have been there—tattoos and all. I know the contention, the confusion you’re up against. That shame of occupying more space than anyone deserves. That fear of vanishing through the cracks, withering into obscurity.

That push and pull.

Two polarized sides of one identical coin.

What if I told you something different? What if I introduced a new concept into our discussion? What if I leaned in and murmured just for you to hear: You’re not both. You’re neither. 

There could never be too much of you. The world pants for an unbridled, authentic human with eccentricities that are yours alone, freebird. And since we’re on the subject, you are more than enough for this moment. In the packaging you came with—no enhancements needed.

You can shrink down or surge forward. Inhabit all the space you want. Humanity will recover. I promise they’ll survive.

Mute the volume or make some noise. Assert your presence in a crowded room or amble through the backdoor. You’re no greater or smaller of a person, whatever route you choose.

Who are you then? Too much? Not enough?

Pause. Timeout. Wrong question, remember?

Girl, you are yourself. No more. No less. Just this. Whole, broken, imperfect, exquisite. And that is all you’re required to be.

So be.

too much not enough

Its Name is Humanity.

It’s in the onyx colored irises of the Ethiopian orphan’s eyes.

Ravenous for a nurturing caress that she has never known.

It’s in the desert toughened leather of the Syrian refugee’s brow.

Etched and imprinted with the carnage of his nation’s diaspora.

It’s in the painted on smirk of the Cambodian stripper’s mouth.

Concealing her body slick with sweat and debased with bruises.

It’s in the russet grime and grit of the Mexican immigrant’s feet.

Straddling a border that divides his home and a fate unknown.

It’s in the viscous crimson ink of the suburban teenager’s wrists.

Serrated, muffled tears which she punctuates by a razor’s edge.

It’s in the faint tremor of the varsity quarterback’s shoulders.

Fearful of an urge inside him that finds other boys attractive.

It’s in the bold, defiant keystrokes of the rape survivor’s hands.

Resorting to a hashtag when the courtroom denied her justice.

It’s in the clenching rage of the Starbucks customer’s jawline.

Hauled away in handcuffs for the crime of his chestnut skin.

It’s in the sacred chiffon wrapping of the subway rider’s hijab.

Absorbing the tension of her fellow passengers’ surveillance.

It’s in the sinewed, pulsing veins of the eleventh grader’s neck.

Fraught with panic that today his school might be a graveyard.

It’s in the boardrooms of Wall Street.

It’s in the brothels of Chennai.

It’s in the privilege and on the margins.

It’s in the protests and the marches.

It’s in all faces, on all tongues.

Its creed is universal, and its name is humanity.