build something human
thoughts on sabbath and softness (and new cohort news!)
"night vision" by Lucille Clifton
the girl fits her body in
to the space between the bed
and the wall. she is a stalk,
exhausted. she will do some
thing with this. she will
surround these bones with flesh,
she will cultivate night vision.
she will train her tongue
to lie still in her mouth and listen.
the girl slips into sleep.
her dream is red and raging.
she will remember
to build something human with it.
You may have come across this poem by Lucille Clifton from one of my newsletters, or on social media. It is one of the ones I have committed to memory. I recite it when I am feeling both tired and frustrated. Or tired and angry. Or tired and stuck. Let’s just say…tired+.
For me, this poem expresses a unique vocational call, to rest, remember, and build something human.
I study and write about vocation in the way that I do because prior to doing my own reading on the subject, it was hard to disentangle the word from “work.” Conversations on vocation used to feel individualistic, privileged, and out of touch with everyday life.
Just think about these commonly asked questions:
What do you want to do with your life?
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
It is hard to answer those questions when you are hungry and all you can think about is your next meal. Or so tired that all you dream about is a week (or month) to sleep until refreshed. Who can think about the next 5-10 years when you are in school and all you can think about is working to pay off your student account before the next semester…and you’re not sure you’re even going to pass the one you are currently in. See where I’m going?
Questions of vocation cannot be separated from material realities. This poem makes that so clear for me in so many ways. I quote Dr. Patrick Reyes’ definition of vocation1 a lot in writings and interviews because it was a catalyst for reframing my thinking. Reyes begins his book Nobody Cries When We Die with a reframing of vocation in light of basic human needs for safety. There are those of us who cannot begin to ask who we are called to be until we’ve established that we are called to be. That living itself is a vocation of its own. For Reyes, it was a call to live and survive.
Practicing Rest as Spiritual Formation
I also found comfort and affirmation recently from Cindy Lee, author of Our Unforming, who writes this:
Our current spiritual formation resources alienate the working class. I think of the many immigrant parents I know who work long hours and cannot get away to recuperate. I think of those who work multiple part-time jobs without getting paid time off. What does spiritual formation mean for those who are exhausted and overworked but don't have the privilege of self care? We need in our formation liberative spiritual practices of work and rest that are not just for the privileged but for the poor, for the immigrants, for the working class. Work and rest or justice issues that affect our every day speech formation. Sabbath establishes a liberative spiritual practice to address our unjust an ethical systems of work.2
My call to rest came to me rooted in the story of my tired Black body. It emerged in the space where I could no longer dream. I saw nothing of the future to want because I was so deeply exhausted. Even my ability to care almost entirely disappeared and my heart felt hardened.
So embraced a call to softness and to reclaim my time for rest as a vocation.
And I am not on this journey alone.
I have seen many take an approach to the soft life as a luxury-based, individualistic, capitalistic. I am not here to tell anyone how to spend their time/money, but I am here to communicate an invitation to softness that takes a communal approach. I see it as an approach to life that is about seeking balance, embracing community, slowing down, and making the most of ordinary moments.
I am passionate about rest for all people, but I am especially concerned for Black people. Within that concern, I see those who have been socialized as women and what we have taken on and I wonder….what might it look like for us to shape a communal space for gentle landing?
I am not on this journey alone. I am surrounded by rich relationships that continually unfold new softness in me. People who help me cultivate night vision.
I am not on this journey alone. You don’t have to be either.
Night Vision -A Cohort
I hope this cohort can be a space for us to ask these questions so that they may continue to unravel the hold these systems of oppression have on our tired bodies.
Black diaspora women and nonbinary people, this space is for us. An invitation to rest, heal and play. Learn more here.
If you read this and are not the target audience for this cohort, I invite you to consider funding scholarships for Black women and GNB people to experience this space. How wonderful would it be if we could fully fund scholarships for Black women/GNB to rest?!
If you are the target audience—hey sibling! It can be an intensely vulnerable thing to admit you are exhausted beyond your capacity. You may be talking yourself out of applying because “someone needs it more.” You deserve the space to rest, heal and play, in the company of others who know exactly what your inner monologue is telling you.
I quote Dr. Patrick Reyes’ definition of vocation a lot in my writings and interviews because it was a catalyst for reframing my own definition. It’s important to note how his definition is deeply rooted in his story of surviving adulthood. https://bookshop.org/lists/formation-footnotes.
From Our Unforming: De-Westernizing Spiritual Formation by Cindy S. Lee, page 88. Also available in the link in the last footnote.