In Eloghosa Osunde’s column Melting Clocks, she takes apart the surreality of time and the senses.
Back then, one of my favorite leashes to use on myself was a Scripture from Ephesians 4:1. Paul wrote: “Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.” I loved his words there because they spoke to something already on the inside of me: a sturdy addiction to a set standard, height marks on the wall. There was something in me already easily seduced by the faith other people put in me, because to be believed in is to have the best of oneself amplified, and what could be better than that in terms of fortifying one’s right to a body, right to a life? So there was me, always—on the way to class, in the shower, on the bus, in my room, in my sleep—reciting it to myself, confessing it over and over in my head: Walk worthy. Walk worthy. Walk worthy.
When I fell short of what I thought that meant, the whips I sent to my back were fearfully and wonderfully made. I’d left church—the place that made that kind of thinking possible—for a reason, but some of the lessons stayed. When I started writing my way toward the freedom that’s now mine, it was because I wouldn’t have survived otherwise. I was coming from a life of “must” and “should”; such teachers those words are, reminders that letters can keep you stuck, can make it too hard for you to show yourself mercy, and that we die without mercy. There are Scriptures for mercy, and for everything else. When I was younger, the ones we memorized at home were called confessions. We’d say them over our heads in unison: God fights for me and I hold my peace. Greater is the god in me than that which is in the world. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. I flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. I learned quickly that to memorize the Word was to be guided by its content—to be, always, in a state of prayer. To find Scripture I trusted was to be kept company from the inside and, one is likely only to obey what one knows and what one can easily remember. “This is the best thing I can give you,” my parent would say. I still agree. It was. The Word was always there, and so, inside my body, I never felt alone.
Now, postchurch, I turn to poems and songs in place of Bible verses, reciting words I trust over and over in my heart, assimilating slowly. Toni Morrison’s “You are your best thing” is a handy hook. A quote from Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters is an affirmation: “I love myself in error and in correctness, waking or sleeping, sneezing, tipsy, or fabulously brilliant. I love myself doing the books or sitting down to a good game of poker …” It reminds me—in a Psalm 139:1–18 way—that love follows me, that I do not have to be good in order to choose myself, to take my own side. “Somewhere Real” by Shira Erlichman is a Psalm of acceptance. You breathe better, I’ve found, when you remember that you don’t need to go through a thousand divorces from the selves you want to leave behind: you can just accept them. Most of what we fear and regret gets bored and floats off if we just look at it, anyway. Bassey Ikpi’s “The Heart Attempts to Clear Its Name” is a letter from the heart to my sometimes bratty mind, my body, the rest of me—a reminder that you do not, as Florence Welch has written, “beat your own heart”; that even when I cannot fight for myself, my heart works to make sure that my life remains possible. Sometimes the body—a realm unto itself—insists on being remembered, and we’re blessed when this insistence can come through language instead of force. The tone of Ikpi’s poem shakes me the way Job 38 used to, with its self-spinning questions. When the shame appears, when forgiveness seems elusive, when the truth around the fatigue is dark, Morgan Parker’s “Since I thought I’d be dead / by now, everything / I do is fucking perfect” on repeat does the work. It reminds me that the tunnel I used to be in was too everlasting for me to forget that it took great strength to exit it in the first place. On the rough days, in the tough times, when nothing in the world makes sense, I marry Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To The Young Who Want to Die” with some jazz—and together, they make me from scratch. Some songs say what I’m thinking before I can find the words. Msaki and Sun-El Musician’s “Tomorrow Silver,” for instance:
I’ve been thinking about peace and how to keep it once I’ve found it
I’ve been thinking about money and how to keep it once I have it
I’ve been thinking about love and how to keep it once I’ve made it
You’ve been my friend on days that I’ve prayed, and nothing has changed for me
Until the end, you have my heart with no defenses around it
Oh, no fences around it
Because lyrics can be Scripture too, in that quicken-the-body way, there are songs that remind me of my previous resurrections, like all of those on Ibeyi’s Deathless or the one on which Aṣa sings, “I’m the one with nine lives, you only killed me three times.” When the Cavemen’s “Teach Me How to Love” comes more and more to life over an arresting build in volume—“Teach me how to love, show me how to be”—what’s not prayer about that?
My whole life, I’ve received questions from people—inside myself and out—who are baffled by the way I happen. Though it has hurt me sometimes, it hasn’t surprised me, since most of my life I’ve been asked similar questions—sometimes nonverbally: Why would you do that? Isn’t that beneath you? Why didn’t you move like this or that, when that’s what a sane person would do? How come you can’t see that this is inconsistent with what someone who has the things you do should be? Why are you acting so clearly unlike you? Ever since I was born people have decided for me what is like me and what is not, what is beneath me and what is too good for me, what I do and don’t deserve based on who they hope I am. For a while, this helped me. Being trusted to be good helped me carry myself with what people refer to as dignity, which in turn opened certain doors for me—because good behavior is, after all, currency. But as the years have swelled, as the hourglasses do their thing, I realize that the people who define me in absolutes have begun to grate on me in unbearable ways. What used to free me is now a trap; what was once a long corridor for me to stroll down is now an obstacle, the thing standing in my way. Some people want me maskless and consistent. Others want me masked and omissive. I’ve been that way to other people, too: terrified about the parts of them that fell outside of what I’d thought was possible—because it feels like turbulence sometimes, doesn’t it, when you’re convinced you’ve understood a person and then they act outside of that understanding? There, just like that: your perspective, in pieces. A disorientation.
Years ago, seas away from where I live now, I learned what a schema is—“a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information”—and I learned why people need their schemas to feel safe. (To have a framework is to be able to decide what to gravitate toward and what to stay away from.) All of us live by schemas. Most of us keep ours fixed, because, again, who wants to change all they know? But what we refuse to know shapes what we will fear, shapes what we will label dangerous or wrong, or unsafe. Fear has its roots in our lived experiences, and does not have much to do with what’s outside us, staring us down. Time teaches us, if we’re lucky, that shame is durable in useless ways, that grace is the strongest arm alive and yet it forces no one. Grace transforms us simply by being itself. It’s what we’ve all always needed to survive. It’s what I’m trying to get better at giving, and getting, because our capacity to rewire what we know when we receive new information also rewires our nervous systems, also widens the world in our minds. It is both hope and grace that make editing, learning, and adjusting possible. True. But sometimes I want to run from grace. I want to pretend I have never met it. So I do, and it lets me leave it whenever I feel like. It stands patient, refusing to unintroduce itself. When I return, it doesn’t punish me.
It’s because of grace that some of my schemas currently look like this:
What is discipline? The ground floor of freedom.
What is a floor? The thing that mirrors the ceiling.
What is a ceiling? Wherever your imagination ends.
What is an ending? Necessary. See also: inevitable.
What is normal? Not compulsory.
It’s because of grace that I am open to change. When I edit my schemas, I can sit inside myself and not run. I can stay with myself, without needing to fly out of an ear or peep into my body through a nostril, or to beat against my back asking for a door. I can live without wanting to climb my spine and hang upside down. I want, finally, to happen to myself; to happen with myself, as myself.
Danielle Mckinney’s paintings keep trailing my heels. I’m thinking now, of specific paintings of hers like Let’s Be Real, like Thin Line or Spare Room: all reflections on what it means to be still, to give time to being. A painting is a decision—a painting being an amalgam of permanent choices—and a meditation, and is a collage of many tiny faiths in every stroke and line, every curve or curl, every hue or shade or texture. My favorite pieces of art are about simply being, more than they are about capturing something in motion, because simply is how I want to live—peacefully, too; joyfully, wholly. My favorite artists are the ones who think it worthwhile to sit for hours painting a figure asleep on a couch or quietly sitting down, lying down reading a book, smoking a cigarette in a room. Khari Turner. Elladj Deloumeaux. Delphine Desane. I’m thinking of Kerry James Marshall’s Nude (Spotlight) and Untitled (Beach Towel). Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s Dance of Many Hands is important to me, for its depiction of a person who stands like she knows what she wants to take away from life. A figure who isn’t ashamed of happening, no matter what shape that takes—one who reminds me of the ex-lover who looked at me one night and said through her red-lipsticked mouth: “I’m terrible, and you love it.” She was absolutely right about that. Swami’s Hard Light reminds me of what I need the most these days, as it becomes even more important for me to be the kind of person who lets the people I love be free to fail sometimes, to falter, and be told to “try again”; the kind of person who lets myself receive this care, too. It reminds me how often an embrace is the salvation, the amen—when we’re beautiful, sure, but especially when we’re ugly, have been ugly, are tired in places far deeper than we can point to. It’s what we often need; what we are sometimes given and what sometimes makes it irreversibly clear what we’d never had before. Chinazo Agbor’s painting Pink Shoes is the type of work that calls you close to its world but makes you stand by the door, thankful to be a witness. Girl With The Green Hoops and Westwood and Cigarettes travel the same self-assured vein, smeared with bright colors, unforgettable hues that remind me how free I am to shine. And Mercy Thokozane Minah’s paintings, depicting queer and trans people living their daily lives: simple miracles; lushness and leisure; dyed hair and eyebrows; books and tattoos; lovers on couches, braiding each other’s hair, feeding each other food, resting lazily in bed, loved and worthy, loved and chosen, loved and together. May there be more.
May there be more.
Writing the best work of my life thus far was an exercise in asserting my own worth. Am I worth telling audacious stories? Yes. Sometimes, I still can’t believe how hard it was to believe myself worthy of the kind of freedom I know is possible. I can’t believe how long it took to believe myself worthy of my own imagination. So many ideas get stopped that way—on the way to that belief. It’s such a long road. The other day I felt that I was perched on a tree, looking down. There was something like an animal there, a beast—and it yawned, looking up at me. It was also me: the creature who produced my book, an animal with a wide hunger. That self left me with the ending of the book, which is why I can watch it from afar, from a whole other body. That wasn’t always true. When I looked at it with my full focus, it would yawn. And I can swear it winked a little. It sometimes still baffles me that I am alive outside it, beyond it, because there was a time when there was more of the book in my body than there was of me. I feel more spacious now, and sometimes I use some of that space to think, What magic, to get the chance to live for whatever it is you were willing to die over. What magic to be able to see that I am worth my own words, that I deserve to enjoy the substance of my own audacity.
There is something that finishing that book has done for me. A considerate person has turned down the volume of whatever din lived inside me. I think that person may have been me. I think I woke up one day—without an internal unquietable alarm or the need to phone my head asking for an ambulance—and turned the bass down. Everything is quieter. Because everything is quieter, I have time to detangle goodness from worthiness. They are not a braid. What frees me to accept this fact is a lesson I learned recently about how even God isn’t good all the time. Good is what we say God is when They do something that creates relief, but ultimately, God is free. And freedom is commitment. God can be good when They are committed to it, which—depending on context—might be often, but not always. Because everything is quieter for me now, I remember that my favorite kind of art—the kind I strive to make—doesn’t even pretend to face people who are Good; it is made openly for vagabonds of all kinds, outsiders, unbelongers, and also the Young Who Want To Die. My favorite art wakes all my senses. My favorite kind of people whisper to my life through their life: Forget fitting the mold or being correct, just be, just be, just be.
The way I’m able to keep my mind is by remembering that no one can take anything from me that they didn’t give me, and that most of the things I have that matter were not gifted to me by anybody with a body; they are mine from the inside, mine from my spirit, mine from my destiny. They’re not anyone else’s to take, and if they’re not anyone else’s to take, I can rest. No one can take me from me, hard as they try. No one can take me from me, fear as I have in the past.
Sometimes I run into fears that were raised with the same legitimacy as I was, fears that had their own puberties, their voices breaking and deepening, fears that were given meals and affirmations and that grew up on the inside of me. They have voices as real as a sibling’s. I respond to them with language and with art, which is also scripture. When I used to worry obsessively about being difficult to read or define, it was because people fear what they can’t trust to stay in a box, and what people fear they ultimately villainize—but even at my most tame, people make up their stories anyway. They are free to conclude what they like, and I’m free, also, to simply become more myself. Sometimes I, too, have looked at myself with a terrorglint in my eyes, but I know that none of this makes me, inherently, terrible. I respect my silences because of this; I respect my own inactivity and disappearances, remembering that not everything in a shell is hiding. It was never fear that made me want to do better, anyway. It was always grace. It was always the realization that I’m free to be anything, so why not choose something generative? I’m my longest-standing witness, the keeper of all my archives, the one who knows all the roads inside me—which leads to shame, which leads to rage, which leads to peace; I am the town planner of my internal landscape. Where have you been? I ask myself sometimes, And where are you going now? Ultimately, I’m interested in moving away from right or wrong, and toward responsibility and freedom.
So, what did it mean back then to walk worthy of my calling? To stay away from sin, to stay away from whatever corrupts the spirit. I saw making mistakes as breaking a hedge that protected me; I thought it weakened my spirit as a habitable place for the presence of God. When I realized how ill-fitting that is for what I know now about why I’m here, about Who I answer to, I remembered myself. We’re in these skins for all sorts of reasons. This is mine: not to be right or to be accepted, not necessarily to belong or even to be worshiped, but to wring my heart out properly, to happen to life as it happens to me, to be transformed from the inside. I still recite a part of Ephesians 4:1 over my heart: what used to be a leash is a freedom. When I wake up, when I fall, when I forget myself, when I’m a dream, when I’m a nightmare, in my confusion, in my successes, in my flaws, in my laughter: Walk worthy, walk worthy, walk worthy of you, which is now to say, Walk as yourself, a way to say to myself:
Take your own advice,
you’re allowed to be alive.
Eloghosa Osunde is an artist and the author of Vagabonds!, out now with Riverhead Books. She was the winner of the 2021 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, for her short story “Good Boy,” which appeared in issue no. 234 (Fall 2020).