a life of my own.

freedom, life, solotravel, spirit, travel, wholeness

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.

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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.

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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.

Finally.

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My skin was a mass of prickly, raised bumps because of the frigid temperature in the media room with a projector turned into a makeshift classroom. The air was always so icy in that room, able to zap through even the thickest and fluffiest of sweaters, encouraging teeth to chatter.

The year was 2011. I was a graduate student in a pseudo MFA program, a program I applied for and told no one about except for my boyfriend at the time, because I had been yearning to become a better writer after plateauing just two years after leaving J-school. I needed to feel the magic about writing again. I needed to be excited about pieces I was working on, about sitting down to write, even. That excitement had dried up and disappeared it seems, lost in the shuffle in being unable to find a full-time writing position for almost two years after graduating.

I’d survived the first two semesters of grad school, much to my surprise, much to the sacrifice it had been. I was still a full-time reporter, spending eight hours every day calling, emailing and scrounging the internet for newsworthy tidbits in the metro Atlanta area. I somehow found a way to balance both of these worlds — the world of reporting which I’d haphazardly, unexpectedly fallen in love with during my college years and the the new world which seemed to be opening ahead of me, of writing that existed outside of reporting.

But then again, I can’t say I really survived more like fought desperately to remain afloat. My typical day was eight hours of doing reporting followed by four hours in being in class by the evening. Then driving nearly an hour to get how at the end of each day and doing it all over again, three times each week. Looking back, the time and effort I exerted for grad school seems out of reproach. I don’t know how I managed it but reaching for our dreams often seems second nature even if we are embroiled in situations and environments which leech from us.

This course, in the icebox classroom, was one on intercultural communications. It was an entire semester dedicated looking at how we can communicate with each other, internationally, with the cultural cues which often differ. And how to reconcile those differences so communication becomes smoother and reciprocal. Each of us had to pattern an avatar, a person of a certain age, gender and nationality and then choose a book which was representative of the fictional avatar we had created.

I chose Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s first novel and the first book of hers I read which touched my heart. When I heard some weeks ago that’d she be in Arlington doing a talk at a local library, my heart sang and fluttered with joy. This would be the moment to soak up the knowledge and prowess of a writer, a woman I admired so deeply.

And while, for a lot people, the admiration and respect they have for her is merely just because of her talent, her eloquence and precision of which she speaks (evident in the many lectures she has given and TED talks which she’s now known for) and how she seems to have effortlessly captured the world’s attention by interweaving her Nigerian heritage into her works, it’s much deeper than that for me.

It’s personal.

I think about when I first started reading Purple Hibiscus back in grad school. I think about how I was in a precarious, fragile state of discerning both my Black American and Nigerian identity. I think about how reading that book gave me the courage to even begin to accept both parts of me as real, tangible and not warring at each other in the most violent of ways.

And it moves me to tears. Just like each work of hers has ended in a pool of tears in my lap, with a few stray tears tapping on the pages, making them wrinkly and noisy.

I read Purple Hibiscus and started to imagine that being Nigerian wasn’t something weird or misunderstood, as I had been led to believe throughout all my childhood and the teasing I had received for my name. And the rampant questions about whether or not my father was a prince or king, commenting on the “smelly” food that Nigerians often ate and calling me cruel names which elicited rounds of giggles from my classmates but a barrage of tears for me in private.

I read The Thing Around Your Neck and felt so intimately how being Nigerian impacts so many things and how Nigerians, Africans, are human, too. We are not some spectacle to be examined underneath the looking glass. There are complexities surrounding our relationships with others which are real, just like everyone else has.

I read Half of a Yellow Sun and ached for my ancestors and the atrocities of the Biafran War. The stolen lives, the stolen sense of peace, the stolen memories marred by a war which shattered families and hope for a better future.

I read Americanah and understood to a greater degree what my father, an immigrant to this country nearly 40 years ago dealt with. How he must have felt confronting what it meant to be Black in a country predisposed to othering him instead of trying to understand his difference. I understood to an extent that I had never before how difficult that must have been and how assimilation, though detrimental to me and my sisters who went through most of our lives lacking the proper context of what Nigerian culture and tradition is, was a means of bitter, double-edged survival to him. From softening his accent (which after all these years still rings through) to opting that people refer to him by his English, more widely known name instead of his proper Nigerian one.

And while hearing her speak last week, it was comforting. It was this same sense of a gentle understanding, of being made to feel that who I was, Nigerian, is okay.

She was candid in talking about her father’s kidnapping and visibly emotional. She apologized if she at all seemed off but admitted it had been hard to cope for her because her family means so much to her. Instead of just speaking for an hour, she spent her talking time taking questions from the audience. She paced herself as she spoke, being careful to insert the needed pauses, the emphasis on certain words and to laugh where she saw fit. But there was also a sense of ease, grace and calm that ran underneath each of her words.

It was an ease, grace and calm I hope to one day as effortlessly impart to others who come into my space and come into contact with me. It was refreshing and admirable.

There was a point where someone asked Chimamanda what her name meant. And as she explained the meaning of her name, my God will not fail me, there was hushed silence that fell over the room.

A sense of awe.

It was the same sense of awe I felt as I lined up behind many, many others after a thunderous round of applause was given after her answering questions was concluded to get my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun signed, a book signing I didn’t even know would be happening until after I had arrived and found a seat.

Those manning the line  apparently told everyone to write their names down on a slip of paper to expedite getting their name spelled in the front cover of their books. I missed this, completely, although I wondered what the slips of paper everyone was holding were for. I didn’t think to ask because I was so enraptured that she was literally sitting feet in front of me.

Then it was my turn and I was rendered speechless. I silently put my book down in front of her, turned to the cover page where she was signed. She looked up to me as to ask what my name was and I feebly said, “Nneka.”

She looked back up at me and repeated my name, with a smile, “Nneka.” Saying it in the way I’d heard my name pronounced all my life by my father, deep and throaty with the strong, Igbo Nigerian accent which I’d always loved (and wished I had).

And yet again, all the feelings of insecurity surrounding my name and all the pain it had brought, all the teasing, all the declarations about how weird or strange my name was, all the mispronunciations, all those asking me if they could call me something else because pronouncing my name the proper way was too much of an inconvenience for them — were quelled and I was reaffirmed in that moment. There is beauty in my name, there is acceptance, there is a knowing. I am a Nigerian Igbo woman.

And I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie, a fellow Nigerian Igbo woman. She knew my name. She recognized my name. She said my name. She knew how to spell it. There was no hesitation. No head cocked to the side in confusion. There was no awkward pause. There was no attempt to ask me to spell it again and again and again (and still spelling it wrong). She knew how to spell it. She wrote my name in a couple of strokes, one and done.

There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because of that. There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because I am me.

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