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!