What do you do when your fountain runs dry, and all the grass you watered turns brown?
What happens when everyone blames you for letting the grass go brown?
Did you ever really want to water that grass? Were you pretending?
Why did you let your fountain run dry?
Are you jealous of the grass?
We’re told life is short, and we should make the best use of our time on Earth. Life can also be very long, depending on how we live it – by our own choices or by whatever fate the Universe thrusts upon us. As I grow up, I am also learning that life can very well be what we make it, as far as choices go, for those who are privileged to have them. So what do you do when your fountain runs dry, and you can no longer water the grass that turned to you for growth?
I’ve been in voluntary service for 18 years now, working with non-profit organisations, NGO, individuals and small pockets of ‘do-gooders’ around the world. I started out at age 10, when most of my peers were still cushioned away from the labour of social justice, rights lobbying, and activism. I’m sometimes told that I do not have a single ‘business bone’ in my body, because one of the hardest things for me to do is monetize my work. My joy and reward come from seeing something I am a part of, contributed to, or created, come to life and provide solutions. It is in the smiles of the girls we work with after they have finished offloading their troubles, and taken in the encouragement, motivation and love we share with them. It is in so many other things that I sometimes don’t even notice, big and small. It is also in my knowledge of self, an understanding of my purpose in life, and a focus on the mission I’ve laid out for myself.
In carrying out this mission, I am often reminded that, despite all my achievements, I’m still human. I can be weak. I can make mistakes. I can do wrong. I am not infallible. I sometimes fail. I feel pain. I get hurt. I am vulnerable. And sometimes… I’m too hard on myself.
When you’re used to giving and giving – of your time, your energy, your resources, your knowledge, your heart, your mind, your soul – it becomes hard to deal with periods when giving is difficult. You know, the times when getting out of bed is a task you would rather save for the next day. When your phone rings and you feel a wave on anxiety, willing the person to stop calling and try again some other time. When your task list looks like Gambia’s blueprint, but you know you’re not fit to carry out any tasks. It’s easier to deal with when these things are for you… you can forgive yourself. It’s harder when it feels like a whole world counting on you, waiting on unfinished tasks, seeking your opinion, searching for your review and commentary. It’s hard to push away the feelings of letting people down, even when you know you can’t be blamed for any of it. Some days are just not it!
For several years now, I have waxed lyrical about self-care and how important it is, especially for people working in difficult situations. “Self-care is not selfish” is a slogan that has been stuck in my head since my MILEAD 2012 class in Accra, in a room with other young women leaders from across Africa and the Diaspora. This was significant because, for many of us, self-care was a foreign concept, despite the emotionally tasking work we do in our communities for the advancement of women and girls. How many stories of rape can you record and document before you have to face your own demons, and seek healing? How many times can you internalize the pains and struggles of the girls and women you work with before they start to manifest in your being, physically and mentally? How much longer are you going to keep pushing, and giving, and serving, and sacrificing, before your soul gives in and demands attention? How much water can you hold and share with the world, before your fountain runs dry? And when this happens, what next?
2017 ended on a high note for me. I got married to the most incredible, loving, and amazing man I know. I got to see my best friend again after more than 8 years. I started a new, better role at work. I got into grad school. I made choices and decisions that were mostly misunderstood, but made me very happy. I got rid of/left toxic spaces and energies that did nothing to contribute to my growth and new journey. And I finally got a vacation… which is where the light bulbs went on.
In that period, I was lost in a world where there wasn’t much to worry about. I had time for myself, which I could spend with my loved ones, doing the things that I love. It dawned on me that this is something I should practice intentionally, even when there’s no vacation. I spend a lot of time preaching self-care to my tribe of sisters, but hardly ever give myself any. In spells of self-deception, I chew on chocolate and read a book, with thoughts drifting off to the next task, the next project, the next work plan. In that period, however, my time was for me and I chose how to spend it, even when I was getting constant reminders that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to disappear. I had to be present for my people. I had no excuses. Even when the fountain runs dry.
It runs dry because I hardly take time to clean it up and replenish its contents. It runs dry because it’s too busy pouring into receptacles that take and take, but hardly peep in to see how much is left of the source. It runs dry because it feels too guilty to hold on to the bit of moisture that will fill up its own cracks and keep it from breaking. It runs dry, keeping on with the service of filling up others, even when there’s little left to give. It runs dry because it doesn’t know how to say no.
So I made a promise to myself for 2018: to safeguard my joy. Certainly easier said than done, but it is a promise I’m deliberately trying to fulfill. It is my gift to myself, for those times when the only thing that makes sense to me is me. It is a conscious effort at letting go of all toxic energy, immersing myself in all that’s good for me and society, and making intentional stops to take care of myself. It is also a promise to reconcile with my truth and stop making excuses for it, even when I stand alone, and even when it means losing support. It is understanding that there is only so much one can do, and it’s okay to stop when you can’t afford to, anymore. It’s allowing the phone to ring to its end, without feeling guilty or having to cook up excuses. It’s learning to say no, and knowing it doesn’t negate all the other times I’ve said yes. As I journey into older age, likability is not a goal I’ve set out to achieve. Acceptance of me and my work comes with acceptance of my very nuanced self, and the acknowledgement that I’m not perfect, even if I come across as a perfectionist.
In the end, when I lay down to sleep – at night or for the last time – I hope it will be with a feeling of fulfillment and appreciation of the fact that the fountain gave what it could and held on to what it needed. And in a world with so many fountains, some bigger and deeper, the grass always has a chance to stay evergreen.