The alarm pings and the piercing sound reverberates through the walls. My eyes blur to make out that it’s 6:00 am. I slam on the snooze button, praying for just five more minutes. I’ve woken up in a tangle of curls and with a crust of exhaustion around my eyes. I walk to the bathroom in a trance of numbness.Read More »
The thick warmth of the air engulfs me as I step off the plane. “This is it,” I whisper to myself.
I slowly pull my phone from my coat pocket, letting my fingers linger across the keyboard before finally mustering up the desire to send the text.
“I made it.”
A few seconds later, my screen lights up, almost dismal in comparison to the glowing African sun. “Do you still want to do this, Lani? It’s never too late to just catch the next flight back. Be safe.”
I picture my mother, sitting on her dark leather couch, the phone never leaving her hand. A six-hour time difference means nothing to her. She wishes I never chose to come here in the first place.
I was supposed to be getting married next month. As I worked through the motions of wedding planning, it came time to map out the order of procession. I feared tackling that moment my whole life. As a little girl, I dreamed of the day I would walk down the aisle in my pristine white gown, but the image often pained me. I felt an itch, a need to answer the relentless questions that pricked at the back of my mind; a dull, but prominent nuisance.
I felt like something was missing. My father.
He had been missing for a long time. My whole life, to be exact.
I found myself waking up in the middle of the night recently, drenched in sweat, with the same recurring nightmare. Me…standing at the altar, ready to recite my vows…when my father bursts through the door, panting. “I’m sorry,” he pleads. It is already too late.
I was about to blend my life with another’s, ridding myself of the only thing I have left of my father – his last name. I had to meet him. At least once. I had to look him in the eyes and ask the questions that have clung to my heart for all of these years.
Does he look like me?
Does he have the same hearty, breathy, belly laugh as I do?
Is his walk rhythmic and steady, with the slightest shift in the hips as his feet graze the floor?
Would meeting him be like completing a complex jigsaw puzzle, or would I realize that the final piece had been ruined and would not fit?
These questions bring me here. To Ghana. To the place of the current chapter in my father’s story. My mother wouldn’t tell me much about him. All I know is that he is a writer, a nomad, someone lost in the world with no settled place. His home is everywhere and nowhere. That’s why he couldn’t find a home with us.
My mother talks about him with disdain, but her eyes tell a different story. When she mentions him, her eyes soften, her breath quickens, and her face flushes. She loved him deeply, yet he broke her spirit the minute he grabbed his suitcase and walked out the door. No phone calls, no birthday cards, no congratulatory messages for graduations or promotions. At every stage of my life, I’ve peeked around, expecting him to pop up unexpectedly with an explanation; a long, convoluted story about how he had been looking for me all along.
After consulting a few of his family members on social media, I found his most recent address. Without giving myself much time to reflect, I bought a plane ticket for the fourteen hour trip across the world.
As I grab my luggage, I keep walking forward, one foot in front of the other. I hop in a cab, hand the driver a slip of paper with the address, and watch as we drive by a blur of red clay earth, vividly and brilliantly colored fabrics against the gleaming skin of the people.
My pulse is racing. I can’t control the rapid beating of my already broken heart. Every thump and mile feels like it is pumping my heart back together after twenty-seven years of loss, confusion, and fury.
I want to scream in his face, to bang my shaky fists against a wall, all to make him see how his absence had been like an invisible cloak, always weighing me down. My entire life, I’ve chased men, begged men to love me, and clung mercilessly to anyone willing to get close. I wanted them to fix me. To complete me. To affirm that even though my father didn’t want me, someone did.
I step out of the cab, in what seems like slow motion. My black off-brand sneaker hits the dirt road. In front of me is an ocean, its depth mesmerizing and terrifying. The sight makes me still. I battle a range of emotions – anger, excitement, hope, anxiety – the calming inflow and release of the rippling tide brings me back to myself. To Lani, the joyous, lighthearted optimist.
I let the tension release from my jaw and allow my shoulders to drop.
I can do this.
I prayed for this moment. I am here.
Breathing deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth, I stride calmly toward the door. I lift my fist, my palm dripping with sweat, and knock three times. Thump…thump…thump. No answer. I listen for rustling inside, for any sign of it being occupied. I look at the Post-It note in my left hand one more time. This is the correct location.
I drop my bags in one motion, discouraged. I make my way to the back of the residence, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father. I tiptoe around, thinking maybe I’ve gone to the wrong side, wonder if my father has stepped out to run errands. Maybe that is it. He has gone to the arts and culture center to bargain for a new outfit, or maybe to the market to purchase dinner. I will wait. What else is there to do?
I return to the front and give the door one more hard pound.
I flop my suitcase down sideways and sit down. This has not just been a physical journey, but also an emotional one. I’ve always tried to be the best at everything. Thought that if I won one more trophy, or achieved one more accolade, my father would come running around the corner and congratulate me. That he would exclaim, “That’s my daughter!” That he would see me.
Here I go again, going above and beyond. Traveling to the other side of the world to meet the man who denied me. I want him to see me. To see the woman I have grown so tumultuously and delicately into. To see what I have become without him.
I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Do you need some help, sister? Are you lost?” a man says. He doesn’t look anything like I imagined. “I live next door and I saw you sitting here for an hour. Can I help you?”
“Well, I’m looking for Benjamin Abara. Do you know where he is?” I mumble.
“Ah, my old neighbor. I’m sorry to tell you this, but….he…he left.”
“Left?” My pulse quickens.
“Yes, you see, he said he has a daughter back in the states. He heard she was getting married. He said he wanted to fix what he broke.”
“Whe…when…did he leave?”
“Well, ah, just about a day or two ago.”
I don’t remember how the conversation ended. I rise from my suitcase and run as fast and as hard as my feet will allow. The sand dances around me with every stride. I don’t stop until I am in the ocean, and the waves engulf me.
The waves crash around me, and I remember what it feels like to be free. To feel the rush of life take over.
He is looking for me. I am looking for me, too.
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The alarm pings and the piercing sound reverberates through the walls. My eyes blur to make out that it’s 6:00 am. I slam on the snooze button, praying for just five more minutes. I’ve woken up in a tangle of curls and with a crust of exhaustion around my eyes. I walk to the bathroom in a trance of numbness. I splash my face with cold water and look at myself in the mirror. I immediately hear my mother’s words, Tuck your pockets in your pants. Iron that shirt. Slick your hair down. Don’t look messy.
I tiptoe through my apartment over mounds of clothes that are arranged haphazardly across the floor and sigh as I look at the mountain of dishes that are spilling over in the sink. Again I hear those words, Gosh, you were always so messy. A chuckle often accompanied that statement, but somehow the implication remains etched in my soul as something I couldn’t shake.
Growing up, I was the girl who dove into mud piles and jumped into rain puddles instead of skirting my way around them. I often came home, much to my parents’ dismay, covered in dirt, sparkles, paint, and whatever else we used as supplies in school that day. I rolled down any grass hill I could find, squealing in delight, never thinking twice about the grass stains that would decorate the exterior of my clothing. I sought out thrill and adventure, knowing that the dust could be wiped away and the clothes could be washed, but the joy of leaning into my messiness was not replaceable.
Messy. The idea that everything in life has a particular place, and if not put there, it is deemed socially unacceptable. Frowned upon. A weakness. A crux. A mess signifies that things are outside of order and not confined to the box of perfection.
We are taught to believe that we must “keep up” or be pushed out, in the subtle messages that pervade our existence. Tame that frizzy hair means ‘your hair does not fit the Eurocentric definition of beauty’. Don’t raise your hand too much means ‘your thoughts, your opinions, your voice, your intellect does not matter and is not wanted here.’ Don’t ask for a pay raise means ‘your work is not as valuable as that of your colleagues’. Keep your house tidy means ‘if you’re messy, you’ll never find or keep a man’.
As I began to internalize these messages, I fought vigorously to meet everyone’s needs, praying it would soften life’s disappointments. I often wonder what happened to that carefree girl – the one who wasn’t afraid to get messy.
I often wonder what happened to that carefree girl – the one who wasn’t afraid to get messy.
For as long as I could remember, I was always involved in a host of activities. I threw myself into dance, sports, and took on any leadership position that was open. I clung to titles, chasing after the next shiny and impressive feat. As the world around me felt like it was crumbling, I buried myself in applications, more work, more time at the gym, and creating this image of someone who was void of flaws. I sought after opportunities and people that didn’t serve me because they looked good – they fit this perfect visage of the person I was trying to portray myself as – not as the woman I was growing into. On the outside, everyone saw someone who was put together as I carefully crafted which filters I was going to use as I framed and cropped my life. I was living in a constant state of comparison and spent precious time mindlessly scrolling through the feeds of other’s lives while editing and filtering my own. I aimed for my presence to be seen, rather than felt.
The public saw the degrees, the job promotions, the vacations, the positive quotes, but I didn’t dare post my messiness – the grappling with my mother’s alcoholism, the absence of my birth father, the throwing myself into one-sided, toxic relationships to fill voids, the trauma of inhabiting a woman of color’s body in a society that polices and disrespects my existence.
I thought if I could be perfect or at least appear perfect, I wouldn’t be subject to criticism. That maybe the blow to the fall wouldn’t paralyze my sense of self-esteem, that I would feel accepted and not so alone in a life where I internalized that everyone eventually left because I wasn’t good enough.
I started creating a checklist of everything everyone told me I needed to have to be successful.
But still, the critique came.
I was on a high from praise. My sense of self-worth went out the door with people’s fleeting judgments and opinions.
A conversation with a friend made me finally awake from the trance. As I sat across from her with a glass of red wine in my hand, I griped and complained about not having enough time for myself, how I felt like I couldn’t seem to get away from the criticism, and couldn’t live up to the hype.
“C.,” she mused before taking a deep breath, “when was the last time you let yourself just be? When was the last time you did something for yourself and not because it looked good?”
I went home that night and slept restlessly with those questions. As tears dribbled onto my crumpled sheets, I knew it was time to stop skirting around the messiness and start trudging through the mud.
We often don’t see the failures, the fear, the anxiety. We see how others take their messiness and put a filter on it or crop it out entirely. Life isn’t about evading or dodging the mess – it’s about running headfirst and embracing it. As I started to dig deeper into why I was so afraid of coming to terms with my mess, I realized how unsettling and scary my thoughts were; it was a terrain of unknown. I learned it was my own thoughts that stifled me. I was my own critic. All of the critique and judgment I whispered to myself only showed up around me because I was watering its growing reality. By running away and numbing myself with busy work, I was fueling an ember I could’ve easily extinguished by remembering the little girl who loved to roll in the dirt for no reason other than it made her feel alive.
Life isn’t about evading or dodging the mess – it’s about running headfirst and embracing it.
When we lean into our mess, it opens up the space for others to do the same.
I admire people who are unapologetically messy – the people who dance through the mud as a badge, a recognition, and a celebration that the messiness can be scrubbed, but the overcoming joy cannot be sacrificed. Bring the mess out of the darkness. Find what things no longer serve you as you learn how to shake the dust off more easily. I now know my messiness is nothing to be ashamed of. The specks of dirt may cling to me, but I’m not as frightened. I’ve redefined my understanding of mess.
Messy doesn’t fit within the rigid boxes of a checklist. My checklist doesn’t look much like checks anymore, but rather a series of question marks, squiggles, and erasures.
It now means taking risks, tasting the crisp air of adventure, and finally doing things for me. Not because they look good for anyone else’s momentary pleasure, but because I’m no longer numbing myself to my shortcomings, open to feeling every sensation as I re-teach myself what it means to feel alive.
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