This week, I experienced my first real snowstorm since I lived in Michigan in 2014, and I was surprised at my own level of excitement in the moment. While my brother shoveled the snow (thanks Chris), I put on my snow boots and 3 layers of clothes (thanks Dad for the nylon pants), and began walking through the streets of my neighborhood with my friend and walking partner, Rhonda.
Bless her heart, I probably seemed like the most non-New Yorker ever, practically skipping through the snowy streets on our hour break from work, but as any good friend does, she let me have my moment of unadulterated joy. I needed that. I needed to LIVE.
In the bible, there is the story of a man who was given a vision by God of a valley of dry bones. God asked Ezekiel "can these dry bones live?", to which he responded "God, only you know," an answer that I feel on so many levels, and a response I've given God so many times just this year.
But God didn't just stop there. He actually told Ezekiel to speak life and breath into the vast landscape of bones. Let's pause for a minute and imagine this for a second. I would think God was trying to play me. I mean we're not just looking at dead people. We are looking at BEYOND dead people. Dry bones. Cracked bones. Dusty bones. Skeletons! Uh-uh... this is starting to sound like the plot of a horror film, and God *knows* how much I'm not into all of that. But Ezekiel, however he felt about this vision, he still obeyed God.
As he spoke life into this very dark vision, he began to witness the graphic imagery of these dead bones coming to life. Now if I would have made it even this far in the dreamcycle, I would have been begging to wake up. But Ezekiel continued to take mental note of the miracle he was experiencing. And with that viewpoint, God interpreted the sight into a promise to rescue his people from captivity into safety.
"I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live again and return home
to your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken,
and I have done what I said. Yes, the Lord has spoken!"
- Ezekiel 37:14 -
As I reflect on this year, on all of the trials and disappointments, on all of the grief and heartbreak, on all the tears I've shed, I imagine that some of the dry bones in that valley are mine. So many hopes deferred, so much fear, anguish, and resentment to the point where I no longer recognized myself. My heart went cold and dark and the light dimmed from my eyes. But then I began to speak directly to my fear, my pain, my resentment, believing that the Spirit of God would restore my loved ones and I, not just to the life we had before things fell apart, but to a new life in a new land with... A New Hope. *cues Star Wars theme music*
Restoration is a rocky period; the instability that transformation brings has made me emotional, but it has also caused me to begin to believe anew in the promises of God for my life. I've had to do a lot of apologizing to the people closest to me, because they have been the ones in the "blast radius" of my personal implosion. Like Ezekiel, I look upon this valley -- a season of drought and despair -- almost shocked that God Himself would ask for my opinion about its feasibility to come back to life. Some days I laugh incredulously at the invitation to respond. Because God, only You know how we'll recover from this year. I'm exhausted of trying to figure it out on my own. This hour, and every hour, I need thee. Please show up.
In the meantime, I'll go beyond how I feel and choose to listen and obey. Let me start by speaking these words: Arielle, you will live again. You will breathe again. These brief moments of unadulterated joy will become the norm again. Through it all, you will never be alone. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
Author's Note: I was reminded about Ezekiel's story after re-reading my friend Janele's blog "The Valley of the Dry Bones", a collection of her writings as a cancer warrior. I can't believe it's been FIVE years since she began this journey, and she is an inspiration to me and so many others. Check it out and be encouraged, witnessing her story changed my life.
Update: 12/3/20 - I decided to put the original piece, "Renewal", in my personal vault, and leave only the photos public. I have my reasons, but one is that I was not writing out of a place of truth but a place of misplaced hope in the middle of a very sad time. It wasn't healthy for me, and honestly I haven't had the right words to express myself since. I'm doing the very best I can these days.
Pray for me?
I found peace in the river
I found peace by quiet streams
And I found peace on the mountain
I found peace in fields of green
August makes one year of me uprooting my life again to return to a place I hadn't lived since I was still a teenager -- the closing of one book and the re-opening of another. I'd spent my entire twenties moving from place to place, but this one felt the hardest. Completely adjusting to a life in a small, rural town on the coast of a beautiful country meant that everyday I was given a chance to interact with nature in a way that until Ecuador, I was only able to experience when traveling on a brief vacation. But now, I was leaving the peace that I'd finally found around the new family I'd formed to return to the family that helped build me into the person God made me to become. Whew, torn is an understatement.
And I found peace in the desert
I found peace in raging waves
And I found peace in the valley
I found peace in what you said
Ecuador, due to its geographical location literally on the Equator is what allows it to be, though relatively small, one of the most biodiverse places in the world. While I lived in a more arid part of the country, La Costa, I was able to experience all of its other distinct regions: the Andean mountains (La Sierra), the Amazon rainforest (El Oriente), and the Galápagos Islands, all with a rich history and full of culture and life that welcomed me in unique ways. But though I sense the presence of peace in nature, it was in the voice of God that compelled me to return to my first home. And though I was deeply torn about starting over yet again, it is this same peace that led me back to where my life began.
Many of you have asked me the question: "So, Arielle, how does it feel to be back?" and I still cannot hear that without getting emotional. To some of you, my response has been short, largely because some days I just don't want to melt into emotional pudding. But no, I haven't been "fine", and things haven't been "cool." Even before The Global Pandemic, I was struggling to find where I fit, who my friends are, which spaces to occupy, where to work, how to stay healthy, where to enjoy life, how to seek God, how to not be annoying when speaking about my life in Ecuador, how to keep up with my friends and family in Ecuador without them thinking I forgot about them, how to exist in the present without longing every day to go back, and many many other thoughts.
And I found peace in the chaos
I found peace in suffering
And I found peace in confusion
I found peace inside of me
Through all of those emotions, and then with the pressure and pain that That Pandemic has brought into my life, it is the peace that carried me on that one way flight back to the US that has carried me to write this today. In the middle of confusion, in the chaos of being unemployed and trying to stay busy and productive, in the suffering of deep loss due to illness and death happening all around me, I held on.
I held on to the peace God gave me in the mountains of Cajas National Park, the peace God filled me with on the shore of Olón, the peace God spoke to me while snorkeling off Isla Isabela, the peace God instilled in my heart while on a canoe in Borbón, Esmeraldas and the peace he shined on my soul when my Dad and I trekked through the Amazon Rainforest outside of Tena. God spoke to me those years I was in Ecuador and reminded me that I still had work to do; first on my own self, and then gifts to share with the village that raised me and the village that took me in, mis queridos pajanenses.
Ecuador taught me a new way to live, a new way to breathe.
Oh, and I can finally breathe again
I can finally breathe again
I can finally breathe again
Although the suffering has not ceased, although I'm still struggling in many ways, I've made it this far because of my life and the love I received in that beautiful little country on the Equator in South America. Ah mi querido Ecuador, como te extraño! I haven't found my footing back in NYC just yet. But I'm breathing differently, and I am secure in knowing that the same God that created this beautiful earth I get to inhabit is the same God that will make all things new through Christ Jesus. And it is in Him that I find my strength, my peace, and my joy to keep exploring.
'Cause I found You in the river
I found You in suffering
And I found You on the mountain
You were always around me
[Lyrics in Blue: "Peace (Acoustic)" by Anna Golden]
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" - Luke 23:34
This famous quote is from one of the most known stories, and the most famous being in the Christian faith. As people were crucifying the human life of Christ, he exemplified his spiritual deity by choosing to forgive everyone. And He appealed to His father for help, because He knew that a key factor of a loving God - and a loving Dad - is genuine forgiveness. I know this because I've seen it firsthand.
For many, MANY years, I have watched Mike Benjamin, time and time again, turn the other cheek. Like Peter probably thought as Jesus healed the soldier who would arrest him on trumped up charges, I often responded to my Dad with bewilderment: "how could you let them run all over you like THAT?" And with pained but peaceful eyes wrapped in love, my Dad would often remind me that forgiveness is the only way towards freedom. Whew.
Now this is not a performative forgiveness; on the contrary, this is a forgiveness that starts deep within - a complete, unshakeable belief that all that we see happening around us and to us is not the complete story about how life works out. No, life is more beautiful than the brokenness we've experienced, and as Bryan Stevenson wrote in Just Mercy: "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
True forgiveness has never been about the outward display, but a reflection of the restorative work that has taken place in our hearts. The way we respond to pain received from a person who means to do us harm is the tip of an iceberg of what this life has always been about: reclaiming our innate worth through seeking reconciliation and receiving redemption. And how can redemption be obtained without the harm being addressed and forgiveness being extended?
"and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us." - Matthew 6:12
I've always resented the story of Jesus admonishing Peter after he jumps to Jesus' defense. Love my enemies? Nah, no thanks. But that's because I've been looking at the act of pain, and not the brokenness of the heart behind it -- a heart not unlike my own when I choose to be honest. What my father and other father figures have demonstrated through different challenges in their lives is that while this sharp pain of transgression must be addressed, I've first got to release the bitterness before it takes a foothold in my soul.
"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." - Ephesians 4:31-32
Lately I've been resenting a lot, and I realized this because I was being SOOOOOOO cantankerous these past few weeks. Ask my parents and brothers, bless their hearts. 😅 So I decided to step all the way back, turn inward and seek God for the way out of bitterness and back into peace.
That's when I heard was the voice of Christ, the light in my darkness shouting:
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!"
No, this wasn't a message towards me, but a calling to show up like my God, my Dad, and many of the powerful men in my life have consistently shown me: to choose forgiveness is to acknowledge the pain, but then to reject bitterness and choose life, peace, wholeness and freedom instead. Like Jesus Christ did for me, and for you.
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." - Romans 5:8
Choosing forgiveness is choosing my future.
*This* is the heart of a good father, and I'm glad to be his daughter.
Some may say it was a physical manifestation of my inner being; the extra weight in my cheeks and thighs as years of heaviness dropped my emotional heart to my stomach and often stayed there, digesting and internalizing what my eyes saw and ears heard. I've since observed that anxiety presents itself in my life through binge eating, and stress the only contributing factor to my chronic body aches. Alas. It was not well with my soul.
Growing up a Black girl in the United States of America is a long walk towards an undoing. Because no matter how hard you work, or perform, or present, it is your Blackness doing the heavy lifting when it comes to how you're received. At some point, all that hard work, all that performance, all that presentation to make yourself fit in a world that was never meant for you to exist, let alone thrive -- at some point it's gonna to have to give.
"Like ships in the night
You keep passing me by
Just wasting time
Trying to prove who’s right
And if it all goes crashing into the sea
If its just you and me
Trying to find the light"
My parents have been spending a lot of time these past few quarantined weeks looking at old family photos. I see in my eyes exactly how I felt: I didn't like myself then. For all the effort my parents put into telling me I was beautiful, the world I lived in made it clear that something about my dark skin and kinky hair and puffy cheeks and pudgy legs made me a pariah of sorts. I knew it wasn't something to be proud of, let alone something worth loving. And so I actively rejected my parent's persistence. I decided I'd never be loved, so if God was going to make me stay here, I might as well make myself useful.
So I built ships for shoulders. I made myself available to anyone and everyone. I had no boundaries. I offered my services free of charge and often went into debt trying to buy my way into shaky friendships, fleeting romances and rocky partnerships. I was lost at sea; my ship-sized-shoulders took on way too much water and she began to sink. But I kept working, kept performing, kept presenting anyway. I cringe thinking about it now.
"Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest." The voice that cried out in the darkness of my soul beckoned me to lift my eyes to the hills; help was on the way. Like Peter, I'd lost my focus, choosing to fix my eyes on how much the world hates Black bodies, especially those with vaginas. (crude, but true) Until I began to readjust my vision. To look beyond the lies and embrace something stronger: the truth that God, who began a good work in me, would be faithful to complete it in this life while waiting for the hope He offers through Jesus Christ in the next.
I finally reached out & showed up at my first appointment with a licensed therapist on October 20, 2017 in Guayaquil, Ecuador and began the hard work of my undoing. Things got darkest before the dawn, but as I began to learn where my boundaries had to be placed, and began to remove the ships and allow my shoulders to just be... shoulders. I found rest for my weary soul at the feet of Jesus.
The past few years has been me on this continuous process of learning to be more and more comfortable in the person God had always made me to be:
I went off script last night during a group conversation, and I freaked out afterwards, thinking I said all the wrong things and brought bad energy to the gathering. I asked a few good friends about their take on it and was reassured that I was in my head. One responded that I always seem to know what my boundaries are, and when I'm being pushed in a way that may cause it to break, I will express myself. Ha, well, that's a confirmation I'm on the right track, closer to freedom than I've ever been.
I'm coming out of hiding. No more anchoring myself to destructive lies. Black girls and Black women are beautiful just as we are. We must no longer work so hard, perform so polished, nor present an image of what we think the world wants to see. Loving a Black woman is a risk that seemingly few are willing to take; but I see you, and I finally believe you.
I haven't been able to write for months now. Like you, I didn't see 2020 going quite like this. It's been the best of times; It's been the worst of times. A year that started as a memorable trip to my patriarchal homeland has become a time when it's felt like life has even tried to tear my own family apart.
A tale of two lives, two cities, two months.
By the end of February, I began to see this beloved city that I had spent 13 years away from fall apart in so many ways. Like the wars I've only heard about, the Novel Coronavirus came and flipped everything I've known and loved upside-down. But unlike a war, there is no visible enemy; no one to retaliate against; no human with whom to plead for mercy. Reprieve has only been temporary; pain has come in waves from unexpected directions. Experts have been warning us about this for years, yet we've been woefully underprepared for a country that boasts itself on how great we are and how great we'll always be.
I wish I wasn't being histrionic, but prayer has been my only option. Selah.
It's easy for anyone who is not directly connected to the impact of the disease to distance themselves from its grave reality; that was my privilege also -- up until March 15th. But as the stay-at-home began, I've been thrust into an alternate-reality of sorts. Life in NYC has been suspended into the clouds above where people are just dropping out of the sky like rain; the rest of us still misty gray clouds, unable to reach out and save them from the harsh ground. Death and all its friends have been more than dark clouds passing over our doors, but uninvited dinner guests now overstaying their welcome.
Initially, I was able to maintain life as usual, helping others wherever I could, keeping busy, and turning to my normal coping mechanisms that I've built over the last 2 years since, as Brené Brown calls it, my own "Spiritual Awakening." But as people began to get very sick all around me, the feelings of survivors remorse began to resurface and overwhelm me. That very first week, I tried to drown my pain in the usual balm of long distance running, but instead I overexerted myself, collapsed on my bed and could not get up for hours. Much like the panic attack that took over my sense of reality in 2018, I knew I had to get help immediately.
And here I am, over one month later, having been through some of the worst days of my life. I'm still not happy with how everything has been, but I've been able to learn how to take life one day at a time. I am learning to trust God to "give [me] this day, [my] daily bread." To "not worry about tomorrow" because just getting through today is just enough to keep going.
My Dad often repeats a proverb to us in Haitian Kreyol:
"Piti piti, zwazo fè nich li."
Little by little, the bird builds his nest.
Little by little, piti piti, poco-a-poco -- I am placing my future in God's hands. I am no longer allowing the past send me into a downward spiral; meditation has helped me to refocus my mind from the negative memories to the beautiful moments that have come from this season. I am validating my heartbreak but not letting it destroy my soul. I am taking heart, being of good courage, and standing strong in the hope that God will keep me every step of this hard road.
This week, I've been able to regain parts of my life that I wasn't sure I'd be able to think about again. I'm reading and writing again. I started applying for jobs so that I can restart my career after this life sabbatical. I've been able to support BioGals, Inc., a non-profit organization that I recently joined as its newest board member. I'm thinking again about graduate school and how I can support my community, family and friends in ways that connect my God-given talents with what people need.
With my own personal dreams starting to come back into reach, I can begin to hope again. I'm believing that God will heal my church, my neighborhood, my country, mi querido Ecuador, mi patria Panamá, my family in the US Virgin Islands... and this whole wide world, wherever you are reading this today. Let's keep holding on. Together.
Little by little, we'll rise again. Trust the process. ☼
New Year's Day, I sat in the home of my Aunt's mother, a woman affectionately called "Lolo", someone who I hadn't seen since I was 6 years old but who welcomed me with a wide smile, open laugh and big heart as if no time had passed. Had it really been 25 years? Lolo definitely didn't act like it. She introduced us to all of her children, grand-children and great-grands present as "family from the States," and I was so overwhelmed that I felt like I would burst into tears at any moment.
So to process my emotions, I turned inward to imagine myself as I was a few months earlier. There I was hiking with my father and a guide as we absorbed the elements in the breathtaking vastness of the Ecuadorian Oriente, globally known as the Amazon Rainforest. After two hours of our journey along a rocky and muddy decline, we arrived in a beautiful oasis -- a natural pool carved into the side of the rock, which Dad climbed and jumped off into with 80% adrenaline and 20% glee (I, however was 100% nervous, lol).
He emerged from the depths of the lagoon with a smile on his face so bright that it could have eclipsed the sun -- a smile not unlike Lolo's when we pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex and walked back into her home and her life like long-lost friends. Except because of the complexities of life and the stories that it brings, we were more than friends. We were family: no questions asked.
And the thought came to me like a whisper in the night: my family tree is more like a rainforest.
All I'd understood about my paternal lineage was that we'd come from enslaved Africans who made their way towards freedom and survival in St. Thomas, St. Croix and most recently, the United States. It never fully occurred to me that pieces of my family were seeds of their own, scattered amongst the lands my ancestors had traversed, and had, in the same timeframe, developed lush gardens of their own.
In a rainforest, there is an entire ecosystem that operates with or without the influence of human life. In the Oriente, there was a butterfly with wings that were completely transparent except for a red stripe on its tips. There were plants that were in various stages of their lifecycles, each contributing to the continuity of their environment and our world as "Earth's lungs", cleansing the air we breathe even thousands of miles away.
These plants, like my family, have roots that run long and deep. It is not a clean flowchart of nuclear families; some would call us dysfunctional and broken. But what others would see as messy is a real-life Monet filled with the complexities of lives fully experienced with wide smiles, open laughter, and big hearts -- big enough to open the door with outstretched hands and begin the process of welcoming us to a piece of our home again.
Before leaving, a group of the youngest kids spilled out onto the lawn in front of the complex, and asked me to facilitate a race. Standing like a tree at our determined finished line, I extended my hands as 15+ children ran towards me as fast as they could, like I was offering prizes. "Again! Again!" they shouted as my younger brother joined to help me run the impromptu competition for a few more rounds. A day earlier, I would have been a stranger to these screaming kids turning the grass into a football field. But Lolo chose to take the stories that were meant to separate us and created a path toward the oasis of connection.
This time, I decided to jump in. And my smile indeed eclipsed the sun.
We take an awful amount of risks in this life.
Consider a baby learning how to stand on her own two feet; falling countless times until her knees lock in, and her muscles hold up her weight long enough for her brain to figure out balance.
Consider this same baby, five years later, repeatedly falling off the two-wheeled bike, dusting herself off to try again, try again, try again... until she makes it to the corner of her block.
Now seven, she floats on her back, no longer sinking beneath the surface; chest puffed up, chin pointing to the sky, arms open wide, eyes closed tight as the bright day bakes her sun-screened face.
A teenager, she applies to colleges, furiously writing essays and completing applications, hoping a school will offer her admission and the financing to begin. Those college applications soon give way to job interviews and grad school personal statements, each a bigger risk than the last.
These are all risks because they come with the fear of the unknown and a strong possibility of rejection. A love unrequited; an article unpublished; a song unrecorded; a dream deferred.
When I made the decision to leave my job and join the Peace Corps three years ago this month, I was fully aware of the risk. Perhaps I've been living off the adrenaline of it all, having jumped off the side of a metaphorical cliff (with a parachute), floating in the air of new ideas and adventure, reuniting with a dormant side of who I've always been. But now, I've hit the ground of a new mountain to climb, and it seems that all the training wheels are off, there is no turbo start, and the costs of the risk I took are piling up like a brick wall in front of me. And there is no adrenaline to push me over this time.
So knowing where I need to venture next is a bit daunting. I am working to get back into the engineering world, after almost 3 years of being away, but with a revised outlook on life and a heightened focus on how I should build and utilize my craft. It feels like I am returning home; a cliff-jumper now looking for a way back into the life she left, hoping for an open door to a familiar face with a renewed mind. This feels like the riskiest thing I've ever done, and I am scared.
I sent out three job applications for roles I really want, and the pressure to not fail sent my anxiety into a tailspin for hours afterward. I washed it down with old habits that surely die hard, if at all. But I need to find a different response mechanism; something that takes the anxiety and converts it to strength, not succumbs to weakness.
Grace. An interesting concept, sometimes hard for me to grasp because anxiety robs me of the ability to be kind to myself. I've heard often that grace is a free and unmerited gift. The grace of God is the love he offers me to accept, even when I turn to old habits in moments of risk-inducing anxiety rather than to him.
So I am choosing to lean into grace. To be kind to myself as I figure out this new stage of life while putting my dreams back out there. As I risk rejection in my career, I return to the place where this journey began. Scared as I am, I put one foot in front of the other. Poco-a-poco. Grace is the buoying force that keeps me afloat in this great wide ocean of possibility.
And, thanks to my Dad, I've been floating since I was seven.
"Grace that restores. Grace that redeems. Grace that releases me to worship. Grace that repairs visions and dreams. Grace that releases miracles."
I have been living in New York City, my hometown, for just over one month. I officially left my residence in Queens Village back in 2006 as I began my collegiate education at Howard University in Washington, DC. A lot can change in thirteen years. Most notably, me. :)
This return to my birthplace, my training ground, and my foundational community has been satisfying. I have never moved to a place in my adulthood where I felt more at ease, protected, embraced, and well-received. There is no pressure to "integrate into the society" (my PCV friends will understand this, haha) because this is where my roots run deep.
Here, there's no pressure to make myself known because I am already understood and loved deeply by so many. It has been such a joy and a peace beyond anything I can truly articulate. I am glowing from the inside-out and my smile has never been brighter (if you let mi abuelita Jean tell it).
"I am so happy you're home. You belong here!"
These were the prophetic words offered to me in the midst of a warm embrace as I walked around my church, Bethel Gospel Tabernacle, during offering. A Spiritual Mother looked at me with twinkling eyes and offered me the words that encapsulated all that I was feeling. The sense of belonging that had eluded me for so many of my childhood and adult years. This secret emptiness; a silent prayer filled in God's perfect time. A prophecy fulfilled.
"Oh, I'd fainted had I not seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!"
It wasn't just that I already knew how to swipe my MetroCard, when to show up on the block for alternate side (READ: free!) street parking, or could navigate the back streets to Brooklyn to avoid traffic. While those idiosyncrasies of being a New Yorker definitely helps, I know that being back in Queens is deeper than any #lifehack or #protip. I am here because I belong here; maybe because I've always belonged here, but it took me traveling from place-to-place to prepare me for this return.
Welcome to my new blog as I transition to my new life in the world where my heart has never left since I was a seventeen year-old excited about my future. Alas, that future is now! To God be the glory; great things he has done, is doing, and will continue to do. Let's go!