From the Paris Review:
Back then, one of my favorite leashes to use on myself was a Scripture from Ephesians 4:1. Paul wrote: “Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.” I loved his words there because they spoke to something already on the inside of me: a sturdy addiction to a set standard, height marks on the wall. There was something in me already easily seduced by the faith other people put in me, because to be believed in is to have the best of oneself amplified, and what could be better than that in terms of fortifying one’s right to a body, right to a life? So there was me, always—on the way to class, in the shower, on the bus, in my room, in my sleep—reciting it to myself, confessing it over and over in my head: Walk worthy. Walk worthy. Walk worthy.
When I fell short of what I thought that meant, the whips I sent to my back were fearfully and wonderfully made. I’d left church—the place that made that kind of thinking possible—for a reason, but some of the lessons stayed. When I started writing my way toward the freedom that’s now mine, it was because I wouldn’t have survived otherwise. I was coming from a life of “must” and “should”; such teachers those words are, reminders that letters can keep you stuck, can make it too hard for you to show yourself mercy, and that we die without mercy. There are Scriptures for mercy, and for everything else. When I was younger, the ones we memorized at home were called confessions. We’d say them over our heads in unison: God fights for me and I hold my peace. Greater is the god in me than that which is in the world. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. I flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. I learned quickly that to memorize the Word was to be guided by its content—to be, always, in a state of prayer. To find Scripture I trusted was to be kept company from the inside and, one is likely only to obey what one knows and what one can easily remember. “This is the best thing I can give you,” my parent would say. I still agree. It was. The Word was always there, and so, inside my body, I never felt alone.
Now, postchurch, I turn to poems and songs in place of Bible verses, reciting words I trust over and over in my heart, assimilating slowly. Toni Morrison’s “You are your best thing” is a handy hook. A quote from Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters is an affirmation: “I love myself in error and in correctness, waking or sleeping, sneezing, tipsy, or fabulously brilliant. I love myself doing the books or sitting down to a good game of poker …” It reminds me—in a Psalm 139:1–18 way—that love follows me, that I do not have to be good in order to choose myself, to take my own side. “Somewhere Real” by Shira Erlichman is a Psalm of acceptance. You breathe better, I’ve found, when you remember that you don’t need to go through a thousand divorces from the selves you want to leave behind: you can just accept them. Most of what we fear and regret gets bored and floats off if we just look at it, anyway. Bassey Ikpi’s “The Heart Attempts to Clear Its Name” is a letter from the heart to my sometimes bratty mind, my body, the rest of me—a reminder that you do not, as Florence Welch has written, “beat your own heart”; that even when I cannot fight for myself, my heart works to make sure that my life remains possible. Sometimes the body—a realm unto itself—insists on being remembered, and we’re blessed when this insistence can come through language instead of force. The tone of Ikpi’s poem shakes me the way Job 38 used to, with its self-spinning questions. When the shame appears, when forgiveness seems elusive, when the truth around the fatigue is dark, Morgan Parker’s “Since I thought I’d be dead / by now, everything / I do is fucking perfect” on repeat does the work. It reminds me that the tunnel I used to be in was too everlasting for me to forget that it took great strength to exit it in the first place. On the rough days, in the tough times, when nothing in the world makes sense, I marry Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To The Young Who Want to Die” with some jazz—and together, they make me from scratch.