by Jedidah Isler, Ph.D.
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
It has been quite the week. Quite the two weeks. Quite the month. Quite the year. Last week, I found myself in a malaise that I couldn’t shake. Yes, I was tired. Yes, I was sad. Yes, I was angry. And I couldn’t get around it. The reasons had settled out from tall pillars of clear, present, acute pain to a dull, distributed and persistent ache. There was nothing I could point to specifically, because the things that caused me pain were (apparently) last weeks news. But they weren’t. I was (and am) still hurting. I couldn’t find a satisfactory reason to do astrophysics last week. Not one. It seemed as if nothing I was doing mattered. It was as if every day presented an example that Black lives, which includes mine, didn’t matter. So if my soul didn’t matter, why should my work? Or my activism?
Unbeknownst to me, I slipped into a space that only my sisters, past and present could help me out of. I spent two evenings watching living, breathing genius in the form of Misty Copeland (A Ballerina’s Tale) and Gabrielle Douglas (The Gabby Douglas Story); both actively living, dreaming… mattering. And it saved my soul. I sat under the watchful words of June Jordan as she reminded me that, “Some of Us Did NOT Die.” I read Lucille Clifton’s poem that opens this post; a poem my husband sent a month ago, that finally found its right moment to speak into my life. “…come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and failed.” Then it hit me.
My life, my work, my passions matter. Precisely in this moment of exhaustion, of burnout, of overwhelm. I was anxious to write this piece because in the middle of experiencing the 3 classical symptoms of burnout, as it related to work and, I suspect racial trauma, I realized that I had not died. I was mourning the egregious and unnecessary loss of life, but I had not died. Many of us had not died.
“I realized that regardless of the tragedy, regardless of the grief, regardless of the monstrous challenge, Some of Us Have Not Died.”
Not only did some of us not die. Some of us woke up with the awesome privilege to pursue our dreams; to think on the things seen and unseen on this Earth and in our Universe that inspire, engage, excite and fulfill us. We are (sometimes haltingly, sadly and mournfully) living out a revolution. To be free enough to pursue the highest ideals of our minds, while still recognizing our proximity to the basest of behaviors. We are revolutionaries, here in this STEM space. Persisting in a system that wasn’t built for us, but building, innovating, creating nonetheless.
To borrow from Natasha Berryman’s beautiful statement of truth from just last week, “STEM doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” That means that the work we do matters not just because we do it, but because we do it in an ecosystem that is tainted, broken and unfit for our intellectual gifts. Here’s the revolutionary part, though. We don’t do this work because the system deserves it, we do it because it is the work that feeds our hearts and minds. I am my most free when I am thinking about the Universe and about the world. That’s revolutionary.
“To live means you owe something big to those whose lives are taken away from them.”
So if you’re still wondering if your work matters, it absolutely does. It’s a revolutionary act to pursue your purpose in spite of the odds. Yet more if you’re helping to equip the next person to walk this path a little better. The devastating truth of the matter is this: more people of color will die as a result of the evil of racism and complicity with it. Things will get worse before they get better, BUT we will not all die. And if we live, we must dream, work, strive, innovate, and revolutionize for those who have died too early. So when you’re ready, pick back up the mantle of scientist, of thinker, of doer, of revolutionary and carry it with pride; for in so doing, you honor those who never got to live those dreams out. Your life matters — and your science does, too.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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