by Mia McKenzie
2013 was a pretty great year for me. It definitely had its ugly parts, including heartbreak and betrayal (two of my least favorite things), but those were balanced out by loyal friends (shout out to my homies, without whom I could not have gotten through it), writerly successes (my first novel, The Summer We Got Free, won the Lambda Literary Award) and new love (hey, sweetie). The best thing about 2013 is that I learned A LOT.
Here’s something you don’t know about me: I value growth as a human being above all other things. I’m kind of obsessed with it. And while I’m not a big fan of hard lessons (I mean, seriously, can I ever learn anything the easy way?), I’m grateful to be capable of learning at all. To be capable of growth and change. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
So, here are a few things I learned in 2013:
1. A broken heart means you had love, and that makes you lucky.
Heartbreak SUCKS. But one thing I realized in 2013, while dealing with my own heartbreak and the heartbreaks of several of my friends, is that some people never get to experience heartbreak. And while those folks may seem like the lucky ones when you’re going through it, the reality is that most people who don’t ever experience heartbreak don’t ever experience the love that creates the possibility for heartbreak.
Last year while I was in the last stages of nursing a broken heart, I had a revelation. I thought about the people I know, including family members and ancestors, whose lives have never been touched by the kind of passion and connection that makes you think you want to spend your life with someone, that you want to wake up and see their face everyday. Some people never know the pleasure of great sex or what it’s like to be held in the arms of a lover who whispers forever in your ear. And even if that forever wasn’t ever real, and even if you wish now that those whispers had never been spoken, it’s hard to argue that a life with passionate romantic love, however foolish, however painful, isn’t better than a life without it. And, shit-show that my love-life often is, I cannot deny that I have had a LOT of passionate love. And I’m grateful for it. While I can’t look back on my last relationship with any fondness or good feeling now, I know that when I’m eighty, I’ll be happy that I had moments of great love, that I’ll cherish faded whispers from even my most regretted relationships. Because heartbreak comes with the territory. And the territory itself is pretty wonderful.
2. Acceptance is good. It makes you feel less crazy.
2013 provided a host of things I hated but could not change. Among them were being betrayed, losing my shit in a moment of overwhelm and making a bad decision and not being able to undo it (um, why are time machines still not a thing? Even short-term ones? Usually, I just need to go back a couple of hours and everything would be great. Aries need time machines!), having random people project themselves into my life and make themselves the subject of some imagined action against them (steeped in misogynoir, I might add), and several other instances of what-the-fuck. The fact that I couldn’t change any of it was the source of a lot of bad feelings in me. The thing I wanted to change most, though, was how I was perceived (or imagined myself to be perceived) in relation to these incidents. Like having someone you barely know randomly project themselves into your work is bad enough (it’s awful, really), but being perceived as a villain because of it, because of someone else’s craziness, is even worse. Still, as bad as it was, as bad as all of it was, I couldn’t change it. I tried. And trying only made it worse. Because when someone makes up their mind to perceive you in a certain way, any and everything you do, no matter how well-intentioned, will be skewed to fit the narrative of you that the person has playing over and over in their head. It took almost the entirety of 2013 for me to figure out that acceptance leads to inner-peace. There are some things I can change. Many things. But there will always be things I can’t change, things that I just have to accept, no matter how much I hate it. Chief among these are what random people think of me. I am a confident black woman who isn’t afraid to say exactly what she thinks and who refuses take shit from anyone. I’m not supposed to exist, let alone be understood. If I spend my time worrying about how people who don’t know me feel about me, which is oftentimes based on little more than their own shit, I’ll drive myself crazy(er). No thanks.
There’s a saying: “What other people think of me is none of my business.” I’ll revise that to “What people who do not know me think of me is none of my business” and make that my motto in 2014.
3. The importance of clarity.
When I pray, which I do every day now, one of the things I pray for most is clarity. I ask for the ability to see what I need to see about myself (and about others, and about a situation) so that I can make good decisions, do less harm, and be a better person. In my struggle to be the best person I can be (and it is a struggle sometimes for someone whose protection instincts and defense mechanisms have been honed under the iron heel of oppression), clarity about myself is necessary. I can’t ever do better if I can’t recognize the things about myself that need work, if I can’t recognize the baggage that I’m bringing with me everywhere I go and how that baggage effects the way I walk in the world, the way I relate to people, the way I handle conflict. There are so many delusional people, people who convince themselves (and oftentimes others) that whatever the problem is in a given situation, it is never them. It is always everyone else. They are always the victim, always the wronged party. In their minds, it is always everyone else who needs to change. I used to be that way. I grew up in a family where self-reflection was a rarity. I never saw any examples of people looking inward in real ways to find the source of a problem, rather than just blaming someone else. So when anything bad happened in my personal life, it had to be someone else’s fault. It’s so hard to say. “Yes, I fucked up.” We fear the consequences of people seeing just how messed-up we are, we fear seeing it ourselves. But being able to recognize how and when I am the problem means being able to work on the things about myself that are creating the problem and then maybe I can actually have a shot at fixing the problem.
I realized most of this is my early thirties and changed a lot of blaming behavior then. But I never fully incorporated the practice of clarity into my daily life until 2013, when I was forced by so much relationship fuckery and sadness to say to myself, “Stop. What is it about me that is creating these situations? What am I doing to cause this? What do I need to see that I’m not seeing?”
The practice of clarity is essential, not just in our personal lives, but in everything we do, including social justice work, which, for most of us, is as personal as anything else. The first question we should always be asking is “What do I need to see about myself?”
Clarity is invaluable. Delusion, especially about ourselves, is counterrevolutionary.
4. The way I relate is broken.
I got a tarot reading in 2013 and was told that the way I relate is broken. Upon hearing that, I felt all kinds of things. There was probably some small part of me that wanted to push back against that idea. But mostly I wanted to understand it.
That’s a hard thing to consider about yourself. That the way you relate is broken. But it rang true. I am notoriously bad at maintaining relationships. For some of the reasons I will mention in a bit re: dickishness. But when I was told this, I thought I was at a point in my life where I recognized my shit and had pretty much fixed it. Or at least fixed a lot of it. The idea that with all of the work I had done, I was still “broken” in this way was a lot to hold. But when I looked at my life, at my relationships, I could not reasonably deny that something was still not working. The idea that it was me was actually comforting. Because the only thing I can change in most situations is myself and how I operate. If the problem is me, then I can fix it.
This meant I had to go back. It meant that I had to accept that as much work as I had done on myself, I still had not done nearly enough. That I was still fucking up. As someone who prides herself on doing the damn work, on being a little better every day, it was daunting to realize how far I was still from who I want to be. How much, despite my best efforts, I am still sometimes not as good as I want to be. Not as kind, not as considerate, not as careful with the hearts and souls of people I claim to love.
There are all sorts of reasons for why I am sometimes a dick. Many of them are easy to trace. Hurt people hurt people. But that’s not an excuse. Not for me. I want to be better. And in 2014, I’ll keep trying to be.
5. Accountability is the most important thing.
Accountability has been the most significant concept of the last year for me. I live in a place where everyone talks about accountability and almost no one practices it. This is maybe true in most places, but I’ve never lived anywhere where people talk about it so much while simultaneously never doing it. People get on stage here and recite poems about it. And then get off stage and do the opposite of it in their lives. Ah, the performance of goodness! It’s a huge thing here.
Now, I am flawed in many ways. I am mean when I’m angry, I am impatient, my ego is too big, and I have terrible impulse control, among many other things. I can be a real dick, frankly. But a lack of accountability is not one of my flaws. I value growth and evolution, and I don’t see a way to grow or evolve without accountability for one’s mistakes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t love being called out for shit. It’s no fun. But I believe that the ability to admit when you fuck up is necessary on the road to fucking up less. It’s hard. It’s very hard. But it’s necessary if you want to be a better person and do less harm in the world.
What I realized in 2013 is that true accountability is hard to come by. Most people aren’t capable of admitting to wrongdoing, to doing harm, to fucking up. For the same reasons that clarity is so hard for us, accountability (which is basically clarity revealed to others) is so hard. And, just as importantly, often the act of “calling out” itself isn’t actually based on a desire for accountability from someone. I’ve both been involved in and been privy to incidents of calling out where the person(s) who were called out made every effort to answer the accusations against them and show up to make it right. But because the point was less accountability and more to shame the person(s) in question, more to express dislike and disapproval of them than to actually foster accountability and healing, their willingness to be accountable was either painted as manipulative (!) or just ignored.
It looks like this:
Betty: You need to be accountable for A and B things.
Gloria: Ok. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. But I’m willing to show up and talk about it and own whatever I need to.
This kind of behavior almost made me give up on the entire concept of accountability in communities. Luckily, my close friends are people who also value accountability and seeing their examples make me feel like it’s maybe possible. Maybe. In any case, I continue to value it and practice it in my own life and will continue to seek out people who do the same.
So, yeah, that’s some stuff I learned in 2013. I’d love to hear stuff that y’all learned. Share it in our Say That! section.
Here’s to a 2014 that’s full of more growth, more healing, more evolution and revolution. And more-easily-learned lessons.
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Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous.
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel, The Summer We Got Free. It’s the winner of the Lambda Literary Award.
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