I grew up in a household with a lot of physical and verbal abuse from my dad. He would sometimes cry and say, “I promised myself I would never do this to my kids.” But he did stuff anyway, even though he knew it wasn’t right. I think he got into the cycle of abuse because my grandfather grew up as a black boy in the South going to a Catholic boarding school in the 1920s. I can only imagine how horrific his life must have been. And what happened to him must have been passed down to my dad.
I was one of those scaredy-cat kind of kids and pretty gullible. Dad was an artist in New York City, and a single father for most of my life, which was unusual for that time. When I was five years old, my family lived with two relatives who abused me. So I had a lot of deep sorrow—really deep sorrow— that I held even as a tiny child.
Fortunately we moved away and the abuse stopped. That’s around the time my mother divorced my father and left me and my little sisters with him. So I was basically abandoned by one parent and immediately put in the role of an adult. Even though I was only seven and couldn’t remember how to spell my sister's name (I barely knew how to spell my own name), I was the one who registered one of my younger sisters in school.
The adult teachers were incredulous and really angry that my father refused to come in and take care of it himself. It was totally reinforcing their stereotypes about people of color and laziness and whatever else, and all that anger and prejudice was being funneled towards me. I was trying to fulfill my family obligation and be a dutiful daughter, and I walked away feeling bad and wrong. I went home to ask my father for all the information I didn’t know and he got mad at me too.
All of this left me feeling really broken in a lot of places. But it also developed in me a certain kind of resilience—a determination to never let other people define me—a determination that means that I just don't give other people my power. It taught me to know what I can do. And this determination has helped me in so many areas of my life. For example, I’m a dance teacher, a big black woman teaching a kind of healing dance that is usually associated with skinny New Age blondes. And instead of feeling lesser than others, I have learned that my size is something I can offer others. Just being me gives people great permission, because people take one look at me and think, “Oh, well, gosh, if she can do it, I know I can do it!” So I can be inspiring to people who might not think of themselves as dancers, or who might be very self-conscious and concerned about what they look like.
In my own way, I am extraordinary, because rather than letting my past stop me, I have turned all those things into a really powerful offering.
The fact that I came to OM at all is really amazing when I think about it. I was taught to call my body “the pocketbook,” and to keep my pocketbook closed. And even though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I had enough religion to end up thinking that OMing and anything like it was surely how you go straight to hell and a definite recipe for the eternal fires.
I had a sort of hierarchy for humans in my mind. The really top, super-good humans, like a nun or a priest were high on the scale, because they were beyond the lowliness of the body and probably didn’t even have genitals. It’s hard to feel like a good person when you have certain things happen to you, and at such a young age. I definitely had a scale of goodness where I wasn’t anywhere near the top.
At first, because I’m a person of color, it was difficult for me to find partners I felt comfortable OMing with. But over time that changed. One important thing is getting to have my own voice, to be able to be specific about what I want and what works for me instead of being embarrassed about it. I am now capable of being detached from frustration when things aren’t going the way I want—both in OM and in life in general—and feel encouraged to speak my needs in all situations.
I’m learning to be with my feelings and sensations, both comfortable and uncomfortable. I’m learning to hold those feelings and sensations without needing to distract myself and “go away” and shut down. And I am having a different relationship with men. For the first time in my life I am able to see men as allies that can be trusted and counted on. And part of the trust that OM is helping me build is me finally realizing that I can’t put everything in these neat boxes, where things are only appropriate under a very specific set of circumstances, or people are only “good” in very narrow moralistic terms. I’ve been very rule-bound in my life because it helped me feel safe. And that’s changing.
The practice of OM has helped me get over the notion that seeking pleasure is going to make me not respectable. I had been carrying shame ever since I was five. I’d been carrying shame for 54 years. Today, I carry a lot less shame than I did. I'm a lot less self-conscious. And I'm done with feeling bad about myself.