OPINION: The little boxes we pack ourselves into
I packed away my grief when my uncle died. I put it in a tiny, compressed box, lodged somewhere in my body, perhaps between my collarbone and ribcage: a space I would visit when I had the time to collapse into the flood of tears that I was perpetually holding back.
Our 9 to 5 work lives, other responsibilities and roles often do not allow space for the full weight of grief, beyond allocated time-off for immediate family deaths. As if grief can be abbreviated to fit the span of a week. As if it is neat and abridged.
Often it seems there is too much to do, too much that demands our attention: deadlines and tasks that leave little space for unbridled emotion. The world carries on, even as for you, it is brought to a halt.
But it caught up to me a few weeks ago.
Writing a column, under a deadline, I put on headphones to sink into the sounds of Lianne La Havas's new album and shut out the noise of a busy newsroom. The primarily mid-tempo songs, with a few slower interludes, steered the words that I typed, occasionally pausing to allow thoughts and ideas to settle a little more clearly.
It was a familiar Monday morning, and everything was much the same, full-steam ahead, until I heard Good Goodbye, the last song on the album. As La Havas sang words that spoke to my grief: 'all these memories / too much to lose / no one ever leaves you / I don't need faith / I just need proof / no one ever leaves you' something loosened between my collarbone and ribcage. Something came undone. Something could no longer hold.
That tiny, compressed box unfolded and expanded in what felt like seconds, and grief came rushing in. Surrounded by an office full of colleagues who were not my own, as I worked in a friend's office, I was overtaken by all of the tears I had packed away. By everything I had tried to ignore and not process. It was that tightly-bound centre that could no longer hold.
There are many other boxes that we house within ourselves - where we pack away and compartmentalise aspects of who we are, for many reasons.
We lock away our accents, languages, sexualities, personal struggles and anxieties and other parts of ourselves in spaces designed not to accommodate them: from our workplaces and institutions of learning to sidewalks and restaurants.
In many ways, to loan the title of Karen Joy Fowler's award-winning novel, We are all completely beside ourselves. On one level extreme emotion can be constantly beneath the surface in spaces of quiet violence. But on another, there are aspects of ourselves that the spaces we necessarily frequent, like work and school, that demand that we wear carefully curated faces. It is, in some ways, a slowly violent evisceration of who we are. It can often feel like an out-of-body experience. It can feel like being perpetually beside your self.
We are, in some spaces, parts of ourselves, because there are radical implications to bringing our whole selves - with all their complexities - into these spaces, that are often made for bodies to fit a particular idea of 'normal', and shut down the full breath of human emotion. It's not that we are not ourselves, but are often the most 'acceptable' form of who we are: an acceptable version of ourselves that is more fitting to the requirements of a pre-determined mould.
A mould that is often Western and lived according to white supremacist, mentally healthy, heterosexual, urban, capitalist, patriarchal and other norms. A mould that can dictate that you have to pay an extra fee to stay in your university residence room over vacation above already expensive accommodation costs, determine how you compress overwhelming grief in a workplace, or demand that you take a portable gas stove to a creek at the Henry Hudson bridge to boil your Korean soup soy sauce, because your neighbours complain about the 'strange smell' of the food of your upbringing, roots and tradition.
A recent Mail & Guardian profile on Lesley Wright, a teacher at Redhill school in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, has had me thinking about the radical bravery required to bring your full self to your workplace (or any other space) and the kind of environment that is necessary to make it possible. Wright, a phenomenal drama teacher, is open about her life and sexuality in her classroom, brings her wife to the matric dance, and encourages 'critical thinking about race, class and gender' among her students. The profile is an incredibly moving, honest and beautiful portrait of someone living beyond imposed limitations. Those limitations are often incredibly stifling.
In many ways, this is what student decolonisation movements are attempting to allow space for: to reform institutions into spaces designed for our whole selves, from the languages we speak, to the money (or lack thereof) that determines and defines our student experiences, and curriculum that centres on singular, dominant views of the world, its history and peoples, and sites of study.
What would a world that accommodates our whole selves look like? What form would it take and what would be required to get there? What would we have to reconsider, and what would we have to give up? These questions are at the centre of thinking about how we can begin to design a world that allows us to live differently. From the tiny parts of ourselves that we close down, like grief that is contained, to the abbreviations that we are forced to make, because spaces aren't designed for our full selves, they are questions that are increasingly being probed and investigated. Because living perpetually beside ourselves can often feel like barely living at all.
_Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: _ @daniellebowler