The streets of Oaxaca City were quiet and I a stranger sleuthing through the quieted darkness in May of last year, the eve before my 31st birthday. I’d arrived at the Oaxaca City airport a half hour before exhausted yet wide awake.
I felt like I could breathe again after drowning for most of the year: a traumatic event affecting a family member, a romantic relationship I knew deep down was wrong for me yet couldn’t let go of because I cared too much; the severing of once close turned draining friendships, discontent with my home environment, a loneliness which began with a longing to be understood and seen.
I told the Universe out loud I wanted a reprieve from the depth of all I had been feeling and cognitively churning through. I wanted a chance to exhale and not have to focus on coping from all the bad, all the drain. I’d been dreaming since early January about Mexico with an eerie amount of specificity.
I’d dreamt I was walking the streets with a warmth in my heart I hadn’t felt for a long time. By early April I’d booked a one-way ticket to Oaxaca City with a vague idea of when I’d return. It seemed crazy then and maybe it still is now looking back but I was being guided. My request for a reprieve had been heard and honored.
And so here I was, sleuthing in the dark. Dragging my suitcase up the stairs in the Airbnb I’d booked. Dropping the suitcase in a spare corner with a groan and flexing my fingers. Sighing while collapsing on top of the bed fully clothed.
Then I was asleep. And then it was my birthday. I woke up with text messages and my first thought was to memorialize this moment. I took a photo of the room as the sun was rising with the curtains still closed.
I went to lunch with a large group of women within walking distance from where I was staying. A vegetarian restaurant. The company and conversation drained me. The food was decent enough. Before we’d completed our meal, it started raining. The light drizzles met the top of our heads, our fingers, our arms, then our plates. Speed of the rain slowly intensified. Not a light, afternoon rainstorm. A torrential monsoon.
I looked down at my floral dress and my sandals and said a prayer. I walked back to my Airbnb only to remember I’d left my window open. My suitcase in the corner was sitting in a puddle of rainwater.
I write, talk and think about freedom a lot because I’ve never really known what it means to be free. Certainly not as a child and lesser so as I’ve grown and matured into a woman well into my adulthood. A few weeks ago I was sitting in silence on the couch before I turned the TV on the watch a show on Netflix when I thought to myself that I felt suffocated and perhaps had always been under the burden of expectation. I’ve felt suffocated because of my parents.
Being the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant is something I’m immensely proud of my. My Nigerian heritage is so much a part of who I know myself to be and often intersects in what I write about as well. But even things like my beautiful name, the name I’ve struggled to accept and love, came with responsibility I never wanted.
My name is given to the oldest girl in a Nigerian Igbo family. In English, it means mother is supreme and is in homage to what the mother is and acts as in the family — the nurturer, the glue, the person who holds the unit together through love and care. In so many words and conversations, my father, who is also the oldest in his family, explained to me my role, my responsibilities, the things expected of me.
The pillar I was expected to always be. As a child, especially as a child who was born and growing up in (Black) America, I lacked the cultural context for why this was important and why I needed to step up. I vividly remember being told in an ominous way that since I was the oldest I was to be the example and that my younger sisters were watching me. It was up to me to be without blemish.
The mother is the resting space, a space to return even as you grow and age. The mother is synonymous with home and never forgetting from whence you came. My name is not just what I am called and known as. It is a responsibility. To be seen as the role I hold in my family and within the greater fabric of this world at large — to care, to help and encourage others to heal, to encourage others to return home, whatever or wherever that may be.
My presence, my existence, the fact that I am here, a living breathing entity means I am here to be home to others. I have never felt at home to myself.
I didn’t want the responsibility it meant to carry my name. I didn’t want the weight of expectation. I didn’t want to have to shoulder the burdens and cares of others. But as I learned as I grew older, as the conditioning was deepened, this was who I was called to be. Holding tradition, humility, sacrifice, obedience, duty and obligation close as dear, treasured friends.
The past five years have been an unrelenting tussle between me trying to find a way to juggle all these things, what they mean as far as family, honoring and respecting them, and how to honor and respect myself. For the most part I didn’t find a way. I simply gave in. I collapsed underneath all the pressure. I played it safe because I lacked the bravery or conviction to do otherwise.
And sadly this is what I’ve done most of my life: the practical, logical and wise thing. I listened to my parents. I heeded their guidance of what was best for me. Their insistence of how I should lead my life meant at the age of 26 I had two degrees. I’d worked hard. Paid my dues. Done everything perfectly.
And I was miserable and empty.
There had to be more I told myself as a refrain muttered often. After graduating from Journalism school and before I started graduate school, I fluttered from paid internships to shitty part-time jobs. At one point I worked as a receptionist for a tax preparation service. I spent my time at the front desk bored and scrolling websites looking for writing jobs, emailing editors asking them to give me a chance. Nothing worked.
When I finally got my first full-time writing gig at a local newspaper in the metro Atlanta area, a full two years after I’d graduated from college, I let out a sigh of relief. I was sure this was it and I’d finally feel fulfilled. Six months into that job I found myself wondering if there was more. And when I finished my Masters degree two years later, that feeling only intensified.
There was more. I found the more in Spain. In the capital city of Madrid. I found freedom.
I found the space to figure it out. Start over. Piece together who I was thousands of miles away from home with zero distractions. Zero nudges of guidance from parents. Zero of the insistence of doing it their way, the way that had worked for them and wouldn’t work for me, distracting and confusing me. I owned my voice. I claimed my power. I began to have an inkling of what I was incarnated on this planet to do. And it was not, and had never been, dulling or ignoring my heart or my inner voice.
It involved listening to my own guidance, my own voice, my own desires. It involved…me. All of me. Only me.
This time feels different. This time setting out on a wandering journey away from home, the home I always knew, the only home to ever exist before it dawned on me home is a spirit inside of me, feels different because it is different.
I am different.
I am not doggedly packing up all I own into two suitcases and convincing people I’m brave to leave it all behind when I’m instead terrified and unconvinced in the person I am. This is not then. I’m also not running as fast as I can away from my life and expecting to meet a new version of it and me once I’m there.
I know, this time, my life never stops turning and I never stop living it no matter where in the world I may be. And I know this is the right decision for me and I remain unmoved of any negative feedback I may get. Although, surprisingly, there has been none this time around. And even if there was? I wouldn’t care. It would not move me.
My journey starts in Oaxaca City. I’m returning to the very city, as a starting point, which breathed life into a dormant version of myself full of this reminder I received in response to an email. An email I might add I wrote to the very man who had the courage to end the relationship I mentioned before that wasn’t right for me. Turned out it wasn’t right for him either. We both cared too much.
But he said this one-liner to me and it has stuck with me since. Hearing it from him, in a way, gave me a permission to take a leap:
“I don’t think you should get too down on yourself about your life. It may not be perfect, but it’s yours. Finally.”
My life is my own. Finally. All the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, disasters and exhilarations. It’s mine. All mine.