Discovering the Divine Humility of Language: A Weekend Workshop with the Divine Center of Queer Renewal

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THE DIVINE CENTER FOR QUEER RENEWAL IS AN OMNIFAITH MINISTRY AND SEMINARY, EMBODYING THE MAGIC OF QUEER RECONCILIATION TO OFFER OUR COMMUNITY HEALING, EDUCATION, AND WORSHIP.

This weekend I had of the pleasure of attending a spiritual writing retreat hosted by the Divine Center of Queer Renewal. I needed a little break from the city feeling the downs after coming back from my trip to California, so I signed up, packed the car, secured my dog in the passenger’s seat and headed upstate. Board Advisor, Padre Tony Amato, edited the first draft of my novel The Liberation of The Black Unicorn and I had never met him face to face. When I arrived, I was greeted by him at the front door at Executive Director Susan Corso’s home (so appropriately named Cupcake Manor) and the magic of the weekend began.

The retreat brought my such calm, creativity and spiritual grounding. I consider writing a spiritual act but I am only just beginning to write about my connection to my ancestors, my practice and the divine. The weekend was an opportunity for me to explore how I communicate my understanding of an inner light that challenges, heals and grows. The workshops led by both Tony and Susan guided me through two new chapters in my first draft and their encouragement helped me see myself as a lifelong novelist. Over cupcakes, home cooked meals, intentions and writing exercises, we opened ourselves up to share the progress of writing ourselves into spiritual growth.

I would recommend this workshop to anyone who is beginning to experience themselves as a vessel for the diverse meaning to spirituality and for those who are looking to bring that experience into their writing.

Here is one of the pieces I wrote based on a quotation prompt:

                                                  The Appointment

           We are on a journey to keep an appointment with who we are.
                                               – Gene Roddenberry

She was always on time, if not early. It was because her mother brought her to every appointment late. The attendance office even had a pre-signed notepad for her daily tardiness so she was not suspended from school.

Maybe she truly thought if she were late again, she would be suspended from life.

She woke early to decide what to wear. First the yellow dress she wore to graduation, then the pink pants suit she wore to her first double butch wedding, then finally the purple lace maxi dress, the one her grandmother gifted her that she always hated but on her passing, had learned to love.

It was a 10am appointment at an office downtown and the day was hot with a temperamental breeze. Her bag was a comfortable heavy on the train, always with a journal and pens, a book and cosmetics, candy and stones, always filled to the brim. She walked the half mile to the office, having never been before, and hoped she knew where it was. She had always given herself plenty of time to get lost and she always needed it because she was always getting lost.

But she found it.

It was an old brownstone with a tree in a tiny yard beyond the front gate. The stairs were lined with plants, some blooming, some dead and the welcome mat read, ‘You were always already home.’ She had forgotten which office and which floor but the door was already open. Still she wondered where to go. Something kept her feet moving down the hall to the back of the house to the office glass door shining warm with light. That door was open too and she cautiously entered.

“Oh child,” a woman said before she could open her mouth, “I’m not ready for you yet. My flowers are the only ones I’m up for this early in the morning.”

The woman was tall and glowing with wild grey hair and a Kente patterned gown. She was the kind of women who looked as if she were born one without an age or beginning or end. And she was singing out for the flowers to grow, singing a song she made up that morning just like every morning.

“I’m sorry. I thought we had an appointment at 10.”

“What appointment? If you woke up to see me, you came here on your own without that funny grown folks calendar time and you’re here now. And I’m sure both you and I will be thankful after I finish with the flowers. Now sit.”

She looked around as she took her place in a sofa chair. The bookshelves were floor to ceiling, paintings of trees and landscapes, statues of the same female figure in different poses over and over.

“It’s beautiful. Do you live here?”

“I live where ever I am. Now you’ll have to be quiet or the flowers won’t hear me.”

She sat mouth-less while the woman tilted her metal water can and hummed to her petunias. The woman swayed on steady feet, as if she were courting them to grow, asking them to stretch as wide as they could until they decided it was as far as they could go. When the women sat down across from her in the matching sofa chair, she placed her can beside herself, pressed out her gown on her lap and looked in the eyes of the women before her.

“What brings you to me?”

“Someone sent me.”

“Who sent you?”

“I can’t remember now. Someone gave me your card and told me I should come.”

“Oh child, I don’t have a card. I’m a story no one writes down. Are you sure you’ve come to the right woman?”

“I think so. Yes, I think I have.”

“Well then it doesn’t matter who sent you if you knew this was exactly where you needed to be. Now enough of the how, let’s get to the why. Why are you here?”

“I wasn’t sure what to do next. I’m trying to get a job and I’m not sure where to move and my relationship is ending and I think I’m just afraid to decide because I don’t want to be alone.”  

“No child. Why are you here?”

“Today?”

“Right now.”

“Because someone sent me.”

“No, no, now we are back to where we began. If you don’t remember who sent you, then no one sent you. You came because you were called to. So why are you here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me ask it in a different way. What do you love?”

She sat quietly for a moment, as if she had to think twice.

“I love to write.”

“And what is given to you when you write?”

“Escape. Peace. Freedom.”

“And what do you learn about yourself when you write?”

“That I’m more alive than I’ve remembered or at times knew.”

“And I can tell you there is more. That your words are your ministry. That you open something divine in the humility of language. That you heal others who’ve forgotten they could heal when you give it away.”

“I do?”

“I’m nothing wise. They’ve been telling you this all along. You just came with the open door of your ears and gave me the blessing of allowing me in.”

“So my purpose?”

“No child. Purpose is about doing. This is about being.”

She sat for a moment slowing the machine of her listening to take it in past her throat and heart down to her gut into her feet. The women knew what she was watching and when she felt it reach her souls, she spoke.

“Now do you understand what I’m asking?”

“I think so.”

“Why are you here?”

“To write.”

“So write and all the answers will come when you do.”

The women stood and went to the window. She grabbed the figure of a women standing tall, pulled down candles from her shelves and began to light them. This was always the way she started her day. By then, the women thought she had left but noticed her still sitting in the chair.

“Oh, you’re still here.”

“Yes, I didn’t know we were through.”   

“Of course we are. The day has only begun and I promise you, you have somewhere to be.”

She rose and began to say ‘thank you’ when the women interrupted.

“Don’t thank me. Thank why you came.”

She bowed her head as she said it inside and walked out the door.  

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At retreat, I asked Oya to guide me to write with the presence of my ancestors and to bring truth to everything I create. Blessings.

A Sunday Without Lithium

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I did something this weekend that I rarely ever do.

I ran out of Lithium on Sunday and instead of running to the pharmacy for emergency meds, I stayed on the couch. I’m dropping from my trip to California and was just too tired to move. I figured if I just stayed still and napped, I wouldn’t get manic. I’m fortunate it worked but on Monday, I literally ran to CVS and told them I needed a few emergency pills until my doctor filled my prescription. I’ve done this in the past and when the clerk gave me a hard time I said the following:

“Either I can have a mental breakdown here in these waiting chairs or out in front of the store on the street. I’d like to spare you from having to call the nearest hospital so I suggest you give me some medication for the safety of myself and others.”

Since then, they promptly and calming hand my meds over, no questions asked.

Then I checked in on my new medical insurance only to discover it still hasn’t kicked in yet. In California, I had a script refilled that I had to pay for in full to the total of $78. I’m thankful that I take a generic version of Lithium that without insurance only costs me $15. I’m fortunate that I even have the money to pay for it.

I can always feel when my Lithium is low. I start feeling fuzzy and very overwhelmed by any sorts of stimulus. I dissociate and I am always on the brink of a panic attack. My feet may be in motion but I can’t feel my body. These are the less severe symptoms.

I know what happens when I begin the steady crescendo into mania. I can’t sit still. My thoughts race and I can’t remember anything. I talk too loud, too fast and too much to myself or to anyone who will listen. I sing the same over and over and over again. I forget to eat and sleep. I cannot keep track of time. I have grand spiritual and artistic epiphanies that make absolutely no since. I have sky heightened emotional responses and my childhood traumas come flooding to the surface. I cannot stop writing.

I make it my full time job to take my medication twice a day as prescribed. If I feel a manic or depressive episode coming on, I call my doctor immediately. But there are some very few days, I’m just too fucking tired to search for my med bag, count out my pills, get water and take them. But every time I roll my eyes and sit in defiance at my illness, I ask myself…

Do you want to go back to hospital?

The symptoms of the illness creep up on me so quickly that when I don’t feel like taking my meds, I have to remember what my life could look like on the other side. I could be wandering the streets talking to myself again. I could forget where I live again. I could become homeless or my behavior could get me arrested and because I am a Black women in New York City, this situation would not be pretty.

So I just take my meds.

I want to acknowledge my privilege. I have access to medication. I have a great psychiatrist who is not a pill pusher, who takes his time with me and informs me about every pill he prescribes. I have a therapist I’ve been seeing for years who knows my cycles and knows how to warn me when she sees them coming. I have access to health insurance that makes my medication affordable and I have access to money to pay for them.

Not everyone chooses to medicate in this way, but those who want to do not always have access to this option. I’m grateful everyday that I have the privilege of a system of well being and I’m grateful that for now my meds are working.

I say all this not just because I am a mental health advocate. I say it to acknowledge how hard bipolar living can be. It’s exhausting, frustrating, annoying and at times, makes me feel like I have no chance at normalcy and balance. As freely as I write about it, there are days where I feel like I really do suffer from it.

But something my mom (who also lives with bipolar disorder) once said really sticks with me on days when I feel like I just want to crawl in bed with my crazy:

“These are the cards we’ve been dealt and we just have to live with it.”

She’s right. I don’t have time to feel bad or make myself wrong about a chemical imbalance I cannot control. If I spent time wishing I could cut out a difficult part of myself, I would live in an endless cycle of mania and depression instead of doing the necessary work to create the healthiest life for me.

I would forget that I cannot go one Sunday without my Lithium.

So I’ve re-adapted her words into my own:

“Some of us never make it out of the woods. We just learn to live in them, together.”

Femme. Ish. 

Let me start out by saying, I love femmes. I have the pleasure of being surrounded by femmes who coordinate their outfits like natural born divas, style their hair and polish their nails as if they are instructed by the goddess and present themselves as people defining and redefining what it looks like to live in a male dominated society. They are women, men, trans folk, gender defiant, genderqueer, gender nutural and genderfluid. They fight for their visibility and support each other to preserve their livelihood. They are smart, sexy, out spoken, courageous and down right fun. 

But I have struggled with my own femme identity for quit some time.

I’ve been assumed femme since I entered into the Queer community. I say assumed because no one ever asked me if I identified as a femme before calling me out publicly as one. Okay so I will say that there is a lot of evidence for this assumption. I love dresses, always have. I’m obsessed with various shades of purple lipstick and just started wearing a black shade as a throw back to my goth days (and I have to say I look fucking fierce). I never go anywhere without jewelry on and wear my rings religiously. I rep Hello Kitty everyday, all day. I keep my nails painted with mostly glitter polish and always smell like lavender. But consent is essential. The idea of being called a femme began to rub me the wrong way when the identity was assigned to me without my permission.

Then there is the Black Lesbian stereotype of being either the butch or the femme in a same sex relationship. Someone once asked me in terms of my relationship with my partner which one was the butch and which one was the femme. I replied that we just don’t do that. We both identify as women who are fairly gender fluid in our presentation. As my partner’s former service girl, I always carried her bag when she dressed more butch and she carried her own when she presented femme. I always liked wearing a botton down with leather suspenders in jeans when I was in service but when we were out as “the girls” we wore dresses (sometimes the same one) or wore whatever the hell we chose. 

I want to acknowledge that their once was, and in some places still is, a necessity in presenting as a butch/femme couple particularly for people of color. In places where it is not safe to be a woman romantically holding the hand of another it is safer to look like a heterosexual couple as not to be the target of violence. And aside from matters of safety, there are just some couples that choose to align themselves with those identities which is ofcourse their right. In my partnership, we decided not align with those particular roles and quit frankly, I am more attracted to women that move in between them. I assert that this has much to do with the fact that we are a Queer partnership, not Lesbian identified, and we choose to present based on how we feel in the moment.

In terms of being femme identified, I’m still on the fence. As a result of my experiences, I have often had moments where I literally yelled out ‘I’m not a femme!’ as I slipped on my lace nighty and my Amethyst stone necklace. I say it with a volume of defiance just because I don’t want people to label me something I’m not. And I’m realizing now that maybe it isn’t that I’m not. I just want the space to yell out ‘I am a femme!’ as I define it and have others identify me as what I declared first and on my own.

I’ve struggled with becoming a women which relates directly to my struggle of being femme. I started estrogen because I produce too much testosterone and my body changed from blocky, hairy and smelly to curvy, soft and flower scented. My fat tummy feels more comfortable in a dress and I’m just happy that I love them anyway to make my plus sized body feel less confined. I walked around being very unaware of my pretty privilege for quit some time and as a result never fully embraced being feminine. And because I will probably never wear heels and haven’t shaved my legs since high school, I’ve thought that I simply would never fit the definition of femme. 

So being femme identified is very loaded for me. It has everything to do with my body, stereotypes, womanhood, genderqueerness, the binary and a limited shoe collection. It’s an identity that I haven’t fully owned and am not sure I ever will.

But I have to say, there is something really nice about the femmes I admire seeing a little femme in me, like a sparkle I’ve kept a closed eye to. Maybe there is a femme in me, waiting to be called out by my own proclamation. Maybe femme is already in me and I’m just not ready to own it.

All I know is that I am learning to own my evolution and whether that journey is defined by a thong or briefs isn’t really as important to me as the complicated work of being okay with being myself.

So for now, just call me Ashley or a Black Unicorn and we can grow from there. 

Accepting Love in California

Foundation at a secret rose garden in the hills

In this moment, California is guiding me in accepting love.

Love has always been complicated for me. At the foundation of my history, love has always been confusing, scary, painful and numbing. Love has come with conditions. It was something I had to earn, to be good enough for and to piece together in times of scarcity. Love has been something I truly believed I did not fully deserve so even when it was right in front of me, I simply could not even open myself up enough to feel it.

But something has shifted for me during my stay in Oakland and my visits to San Francisco. I was warmly welcomed into homes that felt like sanctuaries. I was given space to write and think deeply about the ways in which conversations have touched me. I was held physically in a spiritual expression of my sexuality and trusted a love one to move and heal my energy. I was introduced to new ideas about my relationships that I never thought possible. I was embraced in safe spaces that honored my identity as a Queer Black poly kinky witch woman. 

I felt safe inside the space love made for me and was asked for very little in return. 

I know that Liberation is a journey in loving myself. When I first realized that, it felt out of body, foreign and down right disgusting. I am now becoming so shockingly present to how long I have hated being me and being here and that self loathing has blinded me from the possibility of truly loving others, letting others love me and having the willingness to love myself.

I’m realizing that until I am ready to dive into the experience of loving myself, I have to let others show me the way by letting them love me.

And honestly, it all still feels a little weird. Self love feels like something I still want to roll my eyes at and bulldoze over with sarcastic laughter just to feel safe talking about it. I mean what does it really look like to love myself? Mani pedi’s on Saturday mornings? Walks in the park with India Arie blasting in my headphones? Naked midnight howling at the moon? I’m guessing it could be all or none of these things.

I’m guessing that when the time comes to fully feel it, I’ll know.