Going Back Outside After the Streetlights Come On

TO CREATE A SELF YOU NEED:

Soil
Seeds
Water
Food
Sunlight
Attention
Care (This is not the same as attention)

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You start out with soil and seeds and as you go along you nurture what you want to become. I wanted to be a forest. And, in the beginning, I was on my way.

My family, bless their hearts, are a physically active bunch who believe they aren’t because we don’t look like Sports Illustrated covers. But all we’ve been doing is moving our bodies.

At least as far as my grandparents, we’ve been farming, running, throwing shit, skipping shit, just plain outside doing shit as long as the street lights would let us come home.

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My parents got me into a lot of sports – and I guess extracurriculars in general – when I was real young and that helped me be really comfortable being outside. What really made this happen is that I wanted to do things and the things I wanted to do would not be tolerated in the house, So you better take it outside.

And when you’re little, the backyard of your grandma’s house is an entire universe. You can skateboard and scooter and dig holes and throw balls and scream and throw rocks onto the garage roof and collect pieces of outside in your pocket to take home and play jungle gym on your grandma’s Cadillac (and have your cousin snitch on you even though they could’ve joined in) in a grand stroke of genius while sitting outside on a summer day.

That little bit of parking lot that was surrounded by the front yards of our townhouses on one side, a scramble of trees on another, and a grassy hill up above is more than enough for your imagination when your mom picks you up. She’s the one who taught you how to rollerblade and play hockey and rides your bike to see how well it moves. She and her sisters and mother teach you and your sister to double dutch and just move and you learn to move with her.

You figure when you go down south to visit family and friends with your father, that of course you take turns riding bikes with your friends because you couldn’t bring your own. You play hide and seek in the woods, and roll down hills and jump over blood splattered rocks in rivers as long as you don’t tell your mother. You climb your grandma’s willow tree, and sneak into the trunk of your Pop Pop’s car with your little sister tucked beside you, staring at the clouds through the sunroof, hoping if you’re still long enough, you don’t have to go back home.

There’s so much you can do outside! There’s so much open and space just like your imagination and you’ve always been creative! You only have to be scared when you go back inside.

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My trees did not reach the heights I aimed for. My flowers did not always petal. Sometimes my grass flattened under rocks that shouldnt’ve been moved. It’s hard to tend to a forest all the time, especially when people’s words and eyes and hands demand that you do the opposite of grow. But, despite them, I still grew. Just slower. I’d go outside and the outside would recognize the forest in me. I’d listen to the trees by my house ’til the branches in me learned to reach back.

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Before there was the abuse (I’m assuming), there was my little kid body and playing outside.

While there was abuse, there was my little kid body and then my not so little kid body and still playing outside.

Then there was an accident, and I realized I was the common factor in all this hurt. Then there was no longer my body and there was no longer playing and there was no longer outside.

What I mean is this.

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Being outside made me feel infinitely closer to my dreams. I wanted to play in the WNBA by the time I was in middle school, wanted to be a famous writer even sooner than that, and believed I could get anywhere I needed to in the whole wide world as long as I had my bike. I couldn’t get to where I needed to go staying in my house, so I kept going outside. I kept going until I didn’t think I’d survive it anymore.

When I dribbled my basketball, outside the townhouses, looking at the trees, I wasn’t worried about my family disowning me for being gay. When I went for walks I thought about solving plot holes and making rhymes – not what men told me about my lips. When I was on my bike, I believed I could get to other places by myself, and nothing could stop me from getting to the other side of this. I was gonna get free.

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being outside let me be a person.

Tor, author of the survivor blog Somatic Strength: Speaking When The World Sleeps, wrote this: “Having a self is dangerous when you’re being abused. Having a self is the most vulnerable thing you can have. A self is up for ridicule, scrutiny, a self might be destroyed if it’s determined your self is sinful. A self is a thing that is in direct defiance of abusers who have told you that you are nothing, you are worthless, you are supposed to be whatever they want you to be: nothing more and nothing less.”

Inside the house, I was whatever an adult needed me to be. Inside, I couldn’t be a self.

Until I got boobs and really worried about how I was gonna make this gay thing go away – I was about getting to the park at the end of the block before the swings were taken, throwing myself upside down on the metal bars at school, and swinging from monkey bars and running up and down jungle gyms that I was definitely too old for.

Being outside gave me a self I could hold on to.

I never realized how much I needed that ‘til after it was gone.

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In June, right before I went to high school, I was playing on my scooter outside. A lot of kids were out and I was coming down a hill two blocks up really fast when a car started to come through. The rule was whenever a car came, you must get on the sidewalk and I was nothing if not a rule follower. There was a little dip in the sidewalk near my house and I was moving towards it, faster than I ever have before, when I screamed at one of the kids to get out of the way. I’m thinking I didn’t jump off because there were cars and I didn’t want to dent them and get in trouble and I was following the rules so nothing bad should have happened. Nothing bad should’ve happened. She didn’t move out of the way fast enough, I didn’t think and do something different fast enough. All I remember is the blood pooling under her head on the concrete.

There’s a running (ha) joke in my family that is: Me. When I think I’ve done something wrong, I don’t stick around, I don’t ask for help. I disappear.

When I was five or younger, I accidentally turned the TV in my granddad’s den to snow, and my whole family remembers watching me book it the hell out of there. I did not ask for help. I did not try to stay and fix it. I did not stick around to find out if I was in trouble because by then it would be too late. I ran. I run.

I kept looking at her crying, wishing she would stop crying, freaking out because I didn’t know how to make her stop crying. If people heard her crying then they’d know I did it and then I’d start crying not because of the concrete but because of hands or worse. I didn’t know the first thing about saving anyone and she was dying oh God she was dying oh God I killed her I killed

One of the little neighborhood boys ran up the block and knocked on her mother’s door and there were ambulances and my sister and I did not stay. I ran inside crying. My mom went outside to help and I put my scooter behind the basement door where the monsters were and she’s okay, she’s been okay and her mother’s okay and everyone’s okay –

but I stopped going outside to make sure it stayed that way.

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TO DESTROY A SELF YOU NEED:

Clippers
Concrete
Ignore history
To not look back
but most importantly,

A way to make sure whatever was growing before can only do one thing: choke.

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We all know that to be black and alive is to carry guilt and hopeless optimism and always worry (that you’re not doing enough to make your family/your ancestors/your anybody proud, that you will be the best and it won’t be good enough, that you won’t be good and it won’t be enough). You carry it in your heart, your legs, your arms, your spine, anywhere you can make them fit in your body.

To be black and alive and outside is to carry all this with a target you can’t scrape off, stitched into your back. To be black and alive and outside is to mistake alive for not dead.

This goes for every part of this story. But I don’t realize that yet.

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After growing up in a predominantly black and brown school and neighborhood, I went to a predominantly white high school and spent as much extra time as I could there.

I hate to admit it, but I went because I wanted the opposite of everything that I was. I wasn’t skinny or straight or white, but I believed if I surrounded myself with it, I could be.

I figured if I was close enough, I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting my history, they’d come and suck it out of me.

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I gave up on the basketball dream and a lot more with it. I convinced myself I was an inside kid and that meant keeping everything on the inside.

I saw the basketball team as free. One of my friends told me she walked in on two of them kissing in the gym freshmen year. There was no apology in it. I never thought I could do something like that, even down the hall from the gym where I was in the theatre, hidden away in the spot loft, shining light down on people to make sure the attention was always kept away from me.

I pined after white girls even when black girls flirted with me, comforted me, made me feel more at home than I ever thought I could be. I turned my back on them, they looked too much like what my freedom wanted to be.

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I was taking the train back home today and I hate hate hate going through DC because it’s gentrified and I don’t even know the place where I grew up anymore. But this time I sat on a different side of the aisle – you know how I am about my routines and needing to stick to them – and I glimpsed one of the streets we used to ride along.

it looked the same, it looked like I still could belong there.

It made me think about how I need to break the magical thinking of rituals and just get back outside. I don’t know, there’s a thread there somewhere.

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Point here is there was a certain amount of safety that I took for granted.

You don’t worry about not coming back home until someone tells you that’s even a possibility. When my parents, and grandparents, and the news and everyone else told me that staying outside could keep me from making it back home, could keep me from making it back alive, I started to see the possibility of death everywhere.

When I was the reason for that possibility, I couldn’t see why I was allowed outside anymore.

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I don’t get on my bike anymore. I stay by the tables at cookouts. I tried sitting outside during a panic attack once and could only think how ridiculous it was that I was sitting in really cold water.

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I spent most of my life at my grandparents’ house. We never used the front door, only the back one that let out into the yard and the alley. In the summer, they’d keep the door open with the screen door closed.

After running through the house, outside and back over and over, my grandma told me and my little sister that we had to make a choice, we could stay outside or we could stay inside – we couldn’t waffle between both.

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It’s hard for me to look at the past because it seems so obvious what I should’ve done back then and there’s no way now for me to fix it. I keep looking back forgetting that I was doing the best with what I had. It’s like nurturing a forest. It’s easy to say oh you should’ve added more sunlight here, built some protection there. But I was six. I didn’t think past playing in the dirt.

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I made it out of school alive, just barely. I nearly died a lot after I walked down the Basillica steps. I nearly died less when I started intensive outpatient. They made us walk once a week around the neighborhood. I didn’t know the trees still wanted to talk to me. I touched the concrete inside of me. It hummed.

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Last week I was talking to my sister about the accident (she was outside playing with us):

I just said, “Yeah I cant drive because of what happened with Camila” and before I could go on she goes, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense – but you know it wasn’t all your fault right?”

“There was a sixteen year old neighbor next door who was two timing with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was coming at the same time the side man was leaving and he pulled out of the lot too fast. That’s what made you swerve. I know it doesn’t like make what happened not happen, but you shouldn’t be carrying this like that. You were eleven. I was nine. She was six. If anyone in that situation should’ve taken charge, it should’ve been the sixteen-year-olds. We didn’t handle it perfectly and of course the blood is gonna seem like too much – any type of scrape or bigger in the head area is gonna gush regardless, you just have a lot of blood up there, its inevitable. But keep in mind, those teenagers all saw what happened and none of them came to help.”

This absolutely changed the way I thought about it, about myself, a lot of things you know? And it made me think – I’ve kept this secret to myself for years. I wonder how much sooner I could’ve healed if I’d let it outside.

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TO SALVAGE A SELF YOU NEED:

A place to start (soil preferable but sometimes concrete will do in a pinch)
Seeds
Water
Food
Sunlight
Attention
Care
To remember history

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A lot of days now, I stand outside and just listen for a minute. Feel the sun and the rain and the snow and whatever the sky is giving, touch my face. I shiver, I sweat, I feel concrete and grass and dirt and rock beneath my feet. I’m twenty five and cannot believe it. I look up at the trees and the leaves look back. I never thought I’d see this.

Apparently growing up is finding the kid in you and trying to be brave enough to take them outside again – without warning them about coming home before the streetlights come on.🌲


edited by carmen.


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Alexis Smithers (Lex Lee) is a black nonbinary person creating on the East Coast. They've volunteered for Winter Tangerine and currently are a Web Development Student at Bloc. A 2015 Pink Door Fellow & 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer, you can find more of their work on their website and listen to them scream about poetry & other interests on Twitter.

Alexis has written 27 articles for us.