I’m running another virtual Spoken Word workshop (COVID amirite?) and one of the participants, a young, queer, BIPOC musician asks me how they can become more resilient. Six faces in the Zoom meeting squares, staring at me, waiting for a response. I wanted to fire off a slew of motivational Pinterest quotes; or reference a poem I love; but I didn’t know how to tell them that just days before we met, I had had a panic attack in front of my 8 year old son. Or that I had been spiralling for weeks – months if we’re honest – struggling with anxiety, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy as an artist, a mother, and as a wife. There is an assumption that those who seem to have it all together, actually do have it all together. We know otherwise right? Because in that moment, my mouth became an anchor for guilt and I said, “I’m not”. Here was a person who was healthy, housed for the night, with access to technology and this digital community we were a part of. And yet, that wasn’t enough. To breathe and exist – to live – was somehow not enough to warrant celebration. This young person was surviving, thriving even, and somehow, believed that they weren’t resilient. I was not only gutted at this young person’s dismissal at their survival, but at my own.
Somewhere along the way of over 365 days of a global pandemic, Western culture has led us to water, not to teach us to drink, but to drown. We have adopted a way of living that prioritizes productivity over person. Where working from home means that the work never truly ends. To be in a constant state of productivity leaves very little room for community and care. In retrofitted home office spaces, the physical and mental corners we are backed into become the mold, shaping us to be better at adapting. Resiliency is the white film on my tongue after swallowing trauma. Resilience is the residue of grief and turmoil, and now it is a buzzword. We complement each other’s resiliency with good intentions, sometimes forgetting that “resilience does not come from maintaining a zen-like response to every experience that life throws at us- it is born from being in touch with what it feels like to fail, from understanding the pain of loss, and from an intimate insight into the experience of being overwhelmed and out of our depth.” (Bastain, 2019). While resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, for many Indigenous, Black & People of Colour, resiliency is a perpetual lesson that transcends time and space. We have been surviving for as long as the earth has required it. For some of us, resilience is our only option. Resilience is not an absence of fear, it is living in spite of it. If resilience is a response to pain, then self-care is the catalyst. As a poet, I have realized that my ability to create has always been how I take care of myself, and others. Artists, creatives, and poets, we are the bridge. We are responsible for telling the stories that our communities cry into us, but we are also responsible for giving them back, fully transformed into hope; into survival; into more.
For me, resilience is my response to having a baby then having a worldwide pandemic hit a few months later. Or suffering from postpartum depression but not being able to tell your family because some Black families aren’t ready for those realities. Or being denied your usual gigs because organizers see motherhood as an ailment to artists. Or expecting to return to your employment after your maternity leave only to be handed a layoff notice. Or expecting to apply for employment insurance just to be told that you are 7 hours short. Or finally having to admit that you need help when the ‘normalcy’ of life is no longer available for you to use as a distraction. Or not being able to write for months on end and feeling like anything you do write will never be good enough. Or applying for grant after grant and receiving rejection letter after rejection letter, feeling like you will never be good enough. Or having to explain to your 8 year old why they killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Or having to hear the pain in your baby sister’s voice when she calls to tell you that Peel Police killed D’Andre. Or having to explain to your 8 year old why police don’t get in trouble for killing George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s of the world. Or why the SIU cleared the officers involved in D’Andre Campbell’s murder and in the death of Regis Korchinsky-Paquet. Resilience comes after the realization that death is always around the corner.
But like Ebony Stewart says, “My God ain’t damned nothing in me”
So we keep living anyway. We live and we experience it all; good and bad. I had my tough moments. I cried. I screamed. I lashed out at everyone. I felt rage and despair. And then I slept. I dreamed of finding a scorpion and of chasing a white baby rabbit. I allowed myself to feel all the things. I listened to myself. I took time to start doing this thing I call the magic five. It’s where I say, outload, five things that are good or make me feel good about my life. It’s an exercise in gratitude that I started with my son for when he was having rough moments, now it’s for me too. We often hear people talk about “change your mindset, change your life”, but they never really tell us how hard that truly is. So I found a therapist that I actually like and could afford. I started reading again. I started setting intentions for my days, from things as simple as combing my hair to more complex tasks like answering emails. I started applauding every win, no matter how small. Did I eat a healthy meal today? Win. Did I drink a glass of water? Win. Did I tell my kids I love them? Win. And then, I started writing again.
One saving grace throughout this last year has been having the privilege to participate in and host virtual workshops. Almost all of the workshops I have hosted have been around mindfulness and mental health through my new favourite art form, Affirmation Poetry. And this hasn’t been by choice, it’s just been the most requested workshop considering how much all of our lives have changed and everyone is looking for ways to cope and become more resilient. It has been emotionally and artistically fulfilling to hold space for older adults and people as young as five years old. It’s amazing how something so simple as identity affirming statements help to centre our individual needs and provide access to our own emotional and spiritual well being. I use simple “I Am” statements and teach participants how to use literary devices such as metaphor and alliteration to transform those statements into poetry. For groups with different accessibilities needs, I use a fill in the blank style worksheet. With this method, everyone has a chance to speak life into themselves and feel comfort at the power of their own affirmations, even if they’re not writers. I am a firm believer in the supreme magic of words. When we tell ourselves we are beautiful, we see beauty. When we tell ourselves we will wake up tomorrow, we look forward to the morning’s first light. So when we tell ourselves that we are resilient, we smile at what we have already overcome.
“How can I become more resilient?”
I never gave that young talented musician the answer they deserved. It’s more than just surviving your suffering. It’s walking through your storms and emerging a rainbow. Pain is not the only recourse in obtaining resiliency. It’s also holding yourself accountable to softness. BIPOC artists know too well the subtlety of suffering. It is in our art, our life’s work, it fuels our ambitions and for some, it is tethered to our creativity. But what of healing? What happens when we choose goodness for ourselves?
So to every single artist or creator who will read this, and to that young person in my workshop, and especially as a note to myself:
You do not need to become more resilient. You do not need more suffering. You do not need more pain. Resilience is in your blood. What you need now is a soft palm. What you need is to be held. What you need is validation for your feelings. What you need is to be heard, understood and appreciated. What you need is stability; a safe home, a warm meal, a loving family. What you need is community and a place for belonging. What you need is to see yourself as the beautiful miracle that you are. What you need is rest. What you need is to celebrate all of your small wins. You deserve applause for surviving the darkest nights. You deserve the kind of energy that causes us to grow and stretch beyond all limitations. What you need is to know and believe that you are enough.
Bastian, Brock. “The Resilience Paradox: Why We Often Get Resilience Wrong.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 20 Feb. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-other-side/201902/the-resilience-paradox-why-we-often-get-resilience-wrong.
WANpoetry, director. Ebony Stewart – “Mental Health Barz” @WANPOETRY. Performance by Ebony Stewart, YouTube, YouTube, 13 Jan. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIGWWPwJlNY&t=59s.
Amoya Reé (she/her) is a Jamaican-Canadian performance poet and 2018 Canadian National Champion. Her writing is rooted in her lived experiences as an immigrant, mother, & community worker. Exploring the cultural significance of things like race, mothering and love, she often blends historical fact with present realities, making for a poetic experience that is both informational and inspirational. She began exploring performance poetry in 2008 & since then she has shared her stories in classrooms & boardrooms across Ontario. Affectionately known as Reé, she sat as captain of the 2018 Toronto Poetry Slam team who were semi-finalists at the National Poetry Slam in Chicago and went on to win the Canadian National Championship in Guelph, Ontario. She has had featured performances at the coveted When Sisters Speak (2019) and at Toronto Poetry Slam (2019). As the Artistic Director of KTV Media, a virtual production enterprise that promotes Black art and excellence, she lends her talents to producing, directing, and hosting virtual arts events and initiatives. Reé was recently crowned the 2021 Toronto Grand Slam Champion and is currently working on her debut collection through support from the Canada Council for the Arts.