Familiarity

Familiarity is the jacket I wear even if it’s hot outside.

Familiarity is remembering where every pothole is on the streets of my hometown.

Familiarity is the white noise in the background, the golden yellow paint on my bedroom walls, the countless race bibs hung nicely near my calendar.

Familiarity convinces me that there’s no point in getting comfortable in other cities. Why walk around the campus of your university? You’ll be home in no time.

Familiarity is coming home at 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night, the feeling of pajamas against a shivering body,  the aroma of home-cooked food.

Familiarity says your second semester schedule should be more like that of the first,

that you should take the same routes home,

even if it’s less time-efficient.

But I wish I could unzip the jacket of familiarity,

bare my skin, despite the wind.

Give me time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Wouldn’t discomfort soon morph itself into familiarity?

What are now unknown road signs are the signals that will soon lead me home.

Reclining on the couches of my university’s campus will eventually feel like hanging out in my bedroom on a Friday night,

Braless and weary from hours spent typing on my laptop.

But I want to feel free to get up at any time,

and handstand against my bed,

hang upside down in the staircase,

run around the house singing Lorde’s “400 Lux.”

I replay the same song over and over in my car,

to give myself the illusion,

that nothing is changing.

I can deal with new changes, I tell myself.

But the subconscious mind can’t keep its mouth shut

if I’ve been at school for eight hours,

and all I can think about is staring up at the same bedroom ceiling before going to sleep,

wearing the same pajamas,

hanging my clothes in the same parts of my closet.

But maybe soon I will peel away this jacket,

this attachment to familiarity,

though I know that I will undoubtedly return to my gym of seven years,

the bright yellow ‘Gold’s Gym’ sign luminescent in my mind’s eye.

I will continue my quest of morphing discomfort into comfort,

linger along the sidewalks of unfamiliar towns.

If I can just get my feet wet,

perhaps I wouldn’t mind if the water were cold.

The body eventually adjusts to the temperature.

The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.

 

 

Freedom Living

Lying on the ground, I acknowledge the rough carpet touching the small of my back. Blood pumps through my temples, my arms, my neck, as I rest calmly. I close my eyes, placing my left hand over my stomach, the other over my heart. Visualizing the dance that invited this restfulness, I relive the burst of creativity that I experienced as I improvised dances to countless songs. My mind’s eye watches as my body stretches into a standing split before gently collapsing into corpse pose.

As I was dancing, I occasionally closed my eyes. I couldn’t see my body but I could feel… feel energy rush into my lungs, fueling a fire in my veins. The music notes have become a part of me, they live through my very being so that they, too, may be present in this moment. I arch my back to open my lungs, briefly resting both hands behind my head. Oxygen is a luxury, neither scare nor too abundant. My heartrate quickens as the dance intensifies. Standing split. Bridge. Warrior two stance. Corpse pose. Stretch every muscle in the body, feel the limbs take up more space. I open my eyes. It appears that the ceiling is growing further and further away from me. Creativity has no bounds, space is limitless, and I— I have found my outlet for free expression.

Tightrope

Walking along the tightrope, I incessantly shift my weight. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Hundreds of people are watching; their judgement only mirrors my self-criticism. I glance down and see darkness. How far am I away from the ground? I try to force my thoughts to become quiet, but the mind chatter grows louder each time the audience gasps. Don’t hold your breath. Safety is only a few feet away. I observe the length of the tightrope, but my final destination seems so distant. My furrowed eyebrows reveal fear; feigned confidence is useless now. Stand up taller. Embrace your core muscles. I take another step, gradually growing more confident. The stable platform grows nearer. Open up your heart center. Don’t be afraid. The audience is here today not to grieve over my almost-falls or my imperfections. They hope for safety as much as I hope for it for myself. To them, I am more than human. I am a performer. Just a few more steps. You are so strong. I reach the platform safely, and the audience bursts into applause.Standing in the spotlight, I wave at countless unfamiliar faces. I dismount the apparatus and watch the next performer take his first step onto the tightrope. The audience is silent. His countenance reveals effortless confidence, his body long and lean: a true performer. The clock ticks; I’m worried that he might beat my record time for walking across the 50-meter rope. The performer’s footsteps are quick and agile, and in no time, he is only a few meters away from the platform. I watch him without blinking. The audience holds their breath. The finish-line grows nearer. As I begin to raise my hands to applaud, the performer stumbles. His body twists in the air, falling for hundreds of feet into darkness. My heart beat quickens as I rush to the mat where his body landed. But he was so confident. I thought he would make it to the other side. EMTs rush over to help him. You become everything that you condemn. “Is he alright,” audience members inquire. Fear masked behind feigned confidence.

 There is a sharp rift between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The former affirms that we are confident, safe, and comfortable in who we are. But the latter comes alive through our actions and is far more powerful. The performer wears confidence but isn’t confident. He hides fear, but he is fearful. Perhaps it is not falling that we are afraid of. Perhaps it is the power of our deepest wounds that we are afraid of.