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My mother was a praying woman—kept the scriptures at her fingertips and The Great I Am on her lips, in service to her faith. Didn’t too many Sundays pass by when Bettye wasn’t tugging on her church hat in the bathroom mirror at 9 a.m., and out the door five minutes later, headed to a day’s worth of Bible studying, gospel singing, Good Lawdy exaltation and the occasional jog for Jesus. She was dedicated to the ritual, found solace in The Word—strength in the believing. I like to think that despite the chaos of being a Black woman in America, she found a bit of peace
in the praising.
I didn’t really understand it all when I was a kid, sitting in the pews in itchy tights, watching the grown-ups around me work themselves into a frenzy, bouncing around the pews like pinballs, arms raised in surrender. While I liked the music and the community, that spiritual connection fell flat
, and as a young adult wholly incapable of divorcing the spiritual from the baggage the religion carried, I chose to sleep in on Sundays rather than drag myself to somebody’s sanctuary.
It wouldn’t be until the birth of my daughters that I tried harder to harness that peace my mom found every early Sunday morning. Their conception, their birth, let me know for sure that there is something so much bigger than me—a something that required attention. Belief. Faith. Still, I wouldn’t find that peace until I let go of trying to walk my mother’s path and found a route to my own.
That foundation was laid for me by the great opera diva Jessye Norman, who, as we wrote her memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing, encouraged me to take up her daily practice of watching the sunset every evening. It is in the still, she insisted, that you find the peace you seek.
Understand, doing this was no easy proposition, not with all the plates I tend to simultaneously spin in the air. But the mandate was clear: to get my mind right, I had to get to the source of my joy, and that required me to step away from the computer, turn off the devices and do what fulfills me. Sometimes, that was a trip to the museum to see art, which I love; other times, it was hanging with friends, whom I love and who make laugh and feel full. Eventually, I made staring at the sunset a nightly habit that quickly became a ritual involving candles and sometimes wine and Kirk Franklin and D’Angelo and meditation and stillness that felt like prayer as reds and oranges and pinks slow-danced across the sky, making way for the moon and the twinkle of the brightest stars. This became my church—nature as sanctuary.
And it was in the still of those moments, watching the sunset, or meditating by bodies of water, walking barefoot in the grass, running my hand across the bark of trees, that I found the source of what fills me up—a physical flow of energy that I imagined my mother felt when she heard a good word and the spirit moved through her body and took her to that place of euphoria, where she would “get happy.”
Getting happy is an inside job, you know. Someone told me that once. I thought the idea all at once simple but profound. I am responsible for my own happiness; I can’t wait for anyone to bring that to me, I can’t go buy it from a store. I have to decide what will make me happy, which isn’t an easy thing to do, right? Because it’s ever-changing. And then go out and make it happen for myself. The moment I embraced that concept is the moment I understood true joy.
The popular word for this these days is manifesting, but what is manifesting but a prayer? And what is a prayer but faith? And what is faith but a belief in something greater? And isn’t a belief in something greater the ultimate freedom? And isn’t freedom… peace?
This thing, this quest for peace will forever be a part of my growing, my learning about who I am and what it is that I like and want—what motivates me to constantly seek authentic happiness. What is real to me. The energy I expend, the personal choices I make, the people I choose to concern myself with, each of these things are verses in my freedom song.