Today I am thirty-seven years old.
This is not a post about aging, about "older and wiser", or coming to grips with a changing body, or what it means to finally begin to feel how time speeds up--and cycles--the older we get.
This is a post about safety.
The first, clearest memory I have of feeling unsafe I was maybe eight. My parents and I had just moved into the house I grew up in, an unremarkable but comfortable split level home in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. It was a product of the post WW2, white-flight baby boom, it had the avocado-split pea soup-green accents and appliances of the '70s, and even a few stains from past pets lingering in the gray/beige shag carpet. We were the only black family on the street. We'd been in the house maybe a week, when someone--we never knew who, but I suspected the next door neighbors--egged our house. They broke my bedroom window. I don't remember if my father called the police, but I remember he was furious. I slept in that bedroom with a broken window, watching egg yolk drip and congeal on the outside glass. The broken pane was like a starburst in the center. We had it fixed right before I moved out, ten years later.
I remember feeling unsafe in the third grade, when the boy sitting next to me reached out and grabbed me by the pussy and laughed in my face. I have long since forgotten his name, but I have not forgotten his face.
I remember feeling unsafe when my mother would rage at me like her heart was breaking and it was my fault, and then an hour later would be sweet to me like nothing had happened.
I remember feeling unsafe when I watched Anita Hill on tv, and I learned (for the first time) that the people you're supposed to be able to turn to when your boss is unkind, inappropriate, when they make you feel ashamed and disgusted and violated, those people who are supposed to help will make you prove over and over that you were actually hurt, that you didn't just imagine it, and then, they won't support you or give you justice anyway.
I remember feeling unsafe when I was 23, and while sitting quietly and talking with a friend in his parked car, we were accosted by Sarasota police. When the officer asked for i.d. and I reached toward my bag for my wallet, he shouted at me. I didn't know if he wanted me to give him the i.d. he was asking for or keep my hands where he could see them.
I remember feeling unsafe when I realized how lucky I am that he didn't shoot me in the face then and there.
I remember feeling unsafe Tuesday morning, when I looked in the rear view mirror on my way to work and saw a Chicago p.d. cruiser, and I tried to imagine how to talk to my colleagues about why I wasn't at the meeting, or wasn't able to teach class because I'd been arrested for driving while black.
I remember feeling unsafe on Sunday afternoon, when I went for a run with my Mister, and our neighborhood was crawling with white people in "the uniform": blue jeans or khakis and black t-shirts, some of which said Metallica on them. Large groups of white people always make me nervous: in the blink of an eye they turn from citizens too interested in their own screens into irrational, frothy, bloodthirsty mobs. My Mister pointed out this group was particularly menacing because they were all dressed like the same way. Try as I might, I could not cast these people in the light of my friend Andrew Reilly, the Metallica fan: the metal head with a great brain, a sensitive heart, and a deep, abiding curiosity about others around him and their humanity. Instead, they only occupied the space of anonymous white person Metallica fan: they came to get wasted, rock out, raise hell, and I was just a black body in the way. Irritating. Insignificant. Disposable.
I remember feeling unsafe when, half a mile later, I saw Chicago p.d. standing on the lawn in front of the Field Museum. One of the officers was holding an AK-47 as casually as you'd hold a cup of coffee. I stopped running. I stopped breathing. I had a vision of a kerfuffle that began when I ran into a Metallica fan too busy making a joke to his bros to watch where he was going, of being picked off by the officer, a bullet slicing hotly through my spine, of my Mister with my blood on his hands, screaming, she wasn't armed, we were out for a run, she didn't do anything, what did you do, what did you do.
I want to believe in safety, I really do. I work hard to create a context of safety for my students and my clients, to be a beacon and a haven of safety for anyone I interact with in the course of my work. I want to create a context that communicates, you can be here and no one will ask you to be different. You might be challenged, and growth is seldom comfortable, but you have sovereignty over your own body, and together we will work with you body/mind to manifest healing, wellness, connection.
But it's hard to believe safety is possible in our world. When the fact of my existence is a hazard to my health, and when citizens and officers of law can execute me with impunity, all I can remember is how it feels to feel unsafe. When I consider what is happening to black women, to Muslim women, what we are teaching our children about race in America, it can feel hard to leave the house, much less make myself vulnerable to others.
The Gita would tell me to keep doing my work, of teaching and healing, and release my attachment to the results. If my life is taken from me in pursuit of my work, so much the karmic blessing. The religious tradition I was raised in would tell me any number of things: Jesus spent his time with the least of these and he would not survive in our current world, he's too radical; even to be gunned down or beaten to death will put you in the presence of the Lord, and isn't that what we all want; we're all white in Heaven. The yoga zeitgeist would tell me that politics have no place in my practice, and if I keep talking all this mess about justice and deconstruction of white supremacy side by side with mulabhanda and nadi shodana, I will alienate, and ultimately lose, students.
What does the divine spark inside tell me? If I listen closely, I can hear it tell me that though I should be grateful that I've survived to the age of thirty-seven as a black woman in America, that is no accident; that this work is my work for a reason; that my black joy and black health are beautiful and powerful, and perhaps even more threatening to those who are afraid of me than my hair, my voice, or any imagined weapon in my waistband or purse will ever be. Finally, it tells me that my blackness is not an identity or a label to shed or to transcend; instead my blackness is a manifestation of the divine, and those who seek to seek to shrink or dissolve it do not seek my liberation, they seek only their own deeper bondage. They are the ones who lack safety.