dear kristen: a love letter

dear kristen,

since moving to st. louis, i have developed a real love for writing letters. or perhaps renewed my love for it. i’ve written a lot of personal letters this year. some of which have been sent off across the atlantic. (it still astounds me, sometimes, how much trust we instill in our world’s mailing system - that i can send a letter and know, with more certainty than not, that it will arrive where it is supposed to arrive.) i’ve also written to my parents back home in california. my sister. a dear, dear friend in portland. and new york. and off the coast of florida. and to my partner. from our early days till now, with doodles and all of those warm and fuzzy feelings. with gratitude, and vulnerability, and reflections on the depth of the world we are building. and i’ve written open letters. to white people. to catholic people. to people who choose to violently assault marginalized folx every day. or, who choose to pretend such assaults don’t occur. i’ve written more letters over the last year than maybe throughout the rest of my life combined. but i have struggled, immensely, to ever write a letter to you that i felt was worth reading.

so now, just two weeks after completing our twenty-fifth lap around the sun, i’ve decided to try again. recognizing that even as i write this, i still have no idea where this letter will take me. but perhaps i should put one foot in front of the other. so. happy birthday. i felt compelled to write to you this year, as your twenty-fifth orbit came to a close. maybe it’s the romantic in me. or the poet. but somehow, this year seemed more important than those that have come before. maybe, though, it’s because it is. maybe, when you find yourself in reflection - trying to determine pivots and turning points and the moments that changed everything - you will remember so much about your twenty-fifth year of life. so maybe, there is some grand or existential reason, beyond my comprehension, that has contributed to why i feel compelled to write to you at this time.

and i suppose i’ve been wanting to talk to you about fear. and about the necessity of pushing against it. your life has been operated, often, out of fear. choosing one outcome for fear of another. you have also, of course, been incredibly bold at times. like that time you told your partner that you loved her. the will that it took to steady your voice, so that she would know that you meant it. that your love was not wavering as you said those words. i love you. you wanted her to know that loving her was the act that made you feel most steady, most true. and there have been other moments of boldness. the choice to cut your hair. to wear a bowtie. to burn, even if only metaphorically, those dresses in your closet. to change all of the things that physically, made you feel so little like yourself. you would spend hours looking into a photo, your body in a dress, attempting to find your joy. attempting to find your likeness. and there was so much courage and bravery in the moments in which you chose to say no to all that. and to choose to physically manifest all that was on the inside. i am so happy for you. that you made those choices. because it seems to me that you are becoming more yourself every day.

and so i write, in this moment, to encourage you to continue to push against that fear. but maybe, to also keep trying to discover its roots. where does it come from. why is it there. who put it there. was it you. was it someone external. was it something external. keep finding the place where the fear flourishes. and grows. where the light hits it just right, and it finds a way to keep moving through you. because, then, maybe, you’ll be better equipped to ward it off. or to learn something about it. and about yourself. and you’ll continue to be able to make choices that are based in love and your liberation.

i think i would be remiss, here, to speak about this past year for you without mentioning therapy. i have so much joy when i think about the fact that you chose therapy for yourself. that you chose to prioritize your mental and emotional and physical health. and it brings a smile to my face when i consider how much joy and comfort the process has given you. but also, the ways that it’s challenged you, and insisted that you grow. and damn, the ways you have grown.

you have discovered so much during those moments in therapy. but it seems to me that perhaps the most valuable tool has been learning how to reconnect with your body. what does it mean when your stomach seems to be ripping itself apart. what does it mean about your anxiety. and fear. and uncertainty. what does it mean when something like winter falls over your body. and you’re trembling. with no real explanation. what does it mean when that feeling of heaviness weighs onto your head. seeming to threaten your vision. can you even see the world around you in those moments. can you see yourself. you’ve reconnected with your body. and recognized that those physical manifestations of all that is going on emotionally and cognitively, do not have to be your normal. that you can respond to them. and be gentler with yourself. and that you have the tools to breathe tenderness into your life. it’s been a beautiful thing to witness in you.

so maybe you’ll look back and think about therapy. maybe you’ll look back and think about the fears that you’ve overcome. and maybe you’ll look back and think about your art. the beginnings of it. or, the beginnings of being intentional with it. the fact that it is your art that has given you the power to begin this letter. because maybe you’ll be sitting in a studio, your studio, walls covered in your photography and paintings and quilts and sketches, and a stack of your books in the corner, and you’ll be flipping through your old notebooks. maybe you’ll cry over the fear that you had to overcome to keep writing. or maybe the tears will be those of jubilation and pride. emotions that your ancestors, despite their trauma, found a way to gift to you. what a gift. so perhaps all of this will happen and you’ll know that in your twenty-fifth year, you made the right decision by embracing the art that lives inside of you.

your twenty-fifth year was filled with challenges that you’ve never faced before. and courage that you did not know you had. seriously. there have been moments when i just look at you and think, damn that was brave. so i hope that one day you’ll look back with the ability to recognize the beauty of it all. and maybe you’ll write that letter to your ancestors that continues to breathe inside of you - asking them to help you to continue to understand you. to help you be more gentle to you. and thanking them for finding a way to radiate such light when the world insisted that they shouldn’t. and maybe, by the end of that letter, much like this one, you’ll begin to understand more of who you are, and come to recognize how magical it is that you choose to write in flowers each day.

in tenderness, in love,

kristen

dear haileigh: about the color purple? thank you.

i believe i have inside of me everything that i need to live a bountiful life. with all the love alive in me i’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree. and i’m thankful for every day that i’m given. both the easy and hard ones i’m livin’. but most of all i’m thankful for,  lovin’ who i really am. i’m beautiful. yes i’m beautiful. and i’m here.
— celie, the color purple the musical

dear haileigh,

do you remember  when we were transitioning into and out of college, respectively, and realizing (in the solitude of our minds) that we fell somewhere on the queer side of the sexuality spectrum, and feeling all of the terror and uncertainty and loneliness that comes with that? i wish we had known to talk to each other. that we could have confided in one another. and i wish that we had known how our blackness and existence and magic would be threatened and assaulted by this world in the years to come. i'm compelled to think we would have huddled closer to one another. that we would have learned to hold each other in case the folx around us couldn't. i’m grateful that, since those days, we’ve begun to learn what it means to hold one another close.

when i started thinking about creating radically tender, i talked a lot about salt. and reflected on salt. and reread salt. i still talk a lot about salt. when i’m trying to explain this project to people. or trying to explain myself. nayyirah waheed’s poetry has become something like a point of reference for me. handing over a book of poetry to a stranger and saying, here, this will help you to understand me. but, in actuality, i think the beginnings of this project started with the color purple. the musical. cynthia erivo. black girl magic. which means that it started with you.

do you remember when i was visiting you in new york for the first time, in april of last year, and we were walking through times square? that was when you mentioned the color purple to me for the first time. the streets were breathing. shouting. fighting to be seen. and heard. but their noise could not come close to competing with you in that moment. you were a black womxn inspired. you had seen yourself, i think, on that stage. and you wanted the same opportunity for me. which made me want it too.

i read the color purple nearly a decade ago (damn. how?) in my high school english class. with a white teacher. which is perhaps a reflection for another time. but, the fact is, i never really got it. what all the excitement was about. but i remember walking through times square with my sister and my parents, on our way to the theater last year, and feeling like my life was about to be changed.

and it was.

it’s beyond words. or maybe the words just haven’t been created yet. or discovered. or they’re found in a language that is not the one i have learned in this country. but it was that feeling of being so fucking proud to be black. a feeling that i had not really encountered until a few months prior. the feeling that comes when you see yourself on stage. when you witness the excellence of black womxn in their element. black womxn taking up space. black womxn telling their stories. writing their stories. owning their stories. black womxn as tender. black womxn wrapped in flowers. black womxn learning their worth. from each other. and rediscovering it every time they look in the mirror.

and it was radical.

i don't always have the words to describe the show to other people, but i do have the most visceral experience listening to the soundtrack these days: i can feel it building in my chest. that feeling of being understood. of kinship. and community. the memory of communicating with you after the show in expletives and sound effects (i.e. wtf, ahhh, etc.), because, really, the magic stays with you. and the awe and joy and energy was all-consuming.

about half a year later, after reading salt, and starting therapy, i recognized this theme writing itself into my story: i needed to start showing up for myself. i needed to listen to my body when it was trembling from that anxiety that feels like winter. i needed to hold me. i needed to learn something about self-love. and flower work. and tenderness.

so, today, as i continue navigating my story and unfolding my vision for radically tender, i’m grateful for cynthia erivo. and the color purple. and you. it seems, fitting, doesn’t it, that my project started because a black womxn that i adore insisted on sharing something profound with me?

you’ve given me such a gift.

with love, and tenderness,

kristen

 

an open letter

to anyone, to everyone:

you don’t know me. but i’m going to share part of me with you. because i feel compelled to share all that this project represents for me. and the place from which it emerged.

yesterday, my therapist asked me which part of my identity i claimed. which part of your identity do you claim? the question has stayed with me. to give you some background, i started therapy back in december, ultimately, because i didn’t feel black enough. what the hell does that even mean? i can't say explicitly. but i can paint you a picture. i suppose, having grown up in predominantly white spaces, having spent years being called out as an oreo, or for speaking differently, etc. etc. something in me has been convinced that i am not an adequate enough black person. that i don’t have an intimate understanding of our culture or our struggle or our joys. i’ve bought into that on most days. and find that each day presents new obstacles that involve feeling unworthy of wearing this beautifully melanated skin.

over the course of these last few months, my therapy sessions have turned into a litany of identity studies. mostly, how i don’t feel adequate in any of my identities. how i don’t feel affirmed. or worthy. and so, yesterday morning, i was telling her how i don’t call myself a writer. like, i wouldn’t put it on my business card. and, likewise, despite something like eight years of photography experience, i won’t call myself a photographer, either. i do those things, i told her. but i cannot claim my identity as a black creative; because i simply don’t feel worthy of that designation.

we have talked, at length, about how my inability to accept myself has led to a lot of my suffering. we have talked about the opportunity i have to grow and to experience joy and to feel affirmed, if i could only figure out how to extend myself some compassion.

a couple of months back, there was a moment when my therapist got fired up, and told me that i needed to start showing up for myself. that i needed to be my own source of safety and comfort. that the capacity to show up for myself resides in me. you have everything you need, she said. and continues to say. i was compelled by this idea. showing up for myself. and wondered how other people do it. how other people have developed the capacity to actually be their own best friend. their favorite person in the world. a humxn that they love, unconditionally. i didn’t know how they did it. and i wanted to know. so i began to ask. what does tenderness mean to you? how do you choose to be soft with yourself during the hard seasons? how does that choice impact your health, your relationships, your community?

this is the space that this project has been created from. a space of suffering, honestly. and confusion. and lots of insecurity. it has grown with every instance of my therapist telling me, you have to learn to extend yourself some compassion. and wondering what that looks like and feels like. it’s an exploration of self-love and tenderness, in a way i’m not sure i’ve ever really understood. and it’s the recognition that to be black or brown and tender is a radical act of resistance.

thanks for reading.

kristen