Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am 23 (that I have a whole life for things to happen that haven’t happened yet, to have mistakes and triumphs I’ve never stressed over, to brush the impossible with my palm). Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am 23 (that there are too many people who never had a chance to see that; that the world sometimes seems desperately hungry for black skin, for the heads of those who dare to daydream of the most ‘wrong’ of the sins, that innocent one. That my very next breath could be the last time I get to taste the air and forget to savor the soft sweet of it).
In all that 23ness, sometimes it gets really hard to love myself. Not every morning is spent in the mirror trying to muster up the strength to look myself in the eye—child, believe me though, I’ve had my moments—and this isn’t to say that I don’t like myself, but to love myself means to take care of myself, to place myself in the best possible position, and to make sure that I am doing those things that make me feel whole. What is love if it isn’t a flood to fill a canyon, an endless rain that you pulled from the sky yourself?
So what waters shall I wade myself through? What banks do I haunt and let tide me over? How do I love my-lil-self? Self Love has many shapes, all the perfect size to hold and nurture you (here’s where I start giving myself some much needed advice in the second person). Self Love is community. It’s the East Madison Community Center, it’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, it’s the 6, it’s the LGBT Campus Center, it’s OutReach, it’s a job you care about. It’s everywhere skin is. What is Self Love if it’s not loving the people you pass on street in the middle of their own autobiography, if it’s not a choir of names to hold close, a warm winter song. To surround ourselves with the love, work, and presence of other people is human, is the best err we have.
Self Love is loving the jiggle of every roll, the way your love handles mimic the music, make you feel against the sheets and in their hands (should you choose their hands). It’s knowing that you are a beauty unlike any other, that you rival Helen, that someone would start a war for you. It’s also tea, and going a day or three with no meat, and less pop, and more water, and running. It’s always running.
Self Love is painting, is singing a little too loudly walking down the street, is dancing everywhere, is writing a poem on the back of a receipt, is building that table you’ve been thinking about, is making that video with some friends, is starting that reading group you’ve been thinking about, is turning that vacant lot into a garden, is expression, it’s being always busy with creation. It’s also video games and bad reality TV, hopefully not spending so much time engrossed in someone else’s world that yours starts slipping out of focus. Self Love has to be balance—not always equal, but a flow between doing and doing nothing at all. An eternal dance between what drives us to work and what tells us to sit still for a second.
Self Love sounds corny and is necessary, is the best gift you can give to yourself. A gift that if you give it to yourself, it can’t help but spread and spread and spread until we are all drowning in the sweet of it. And how sweet it is, to know that there is a beautiful man that loves me with soft, brown, scarred skin and a smile that brings me a sunrise in the mirror. How good it is that he loves me.
Danez Smith is a poet/playwright/performer/teacher from St. Paul, Minn., now living in Madison, Wis., where he recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He is an advisor for the First Wave Urban Arts Program at UW. He is a Cave Canem Fellow, a nationally ranked slam poet, and a decent cook. He likes tattoos, food, reading good poems—sometimes he writes one, too. He’s been published in PANK, Vinyl, Radius, and other places, and is a regular contributor to his mother’s fridge.