“The soul is your innermost being. The presence that you are beyond form. The consciousness that you are beyond form, that is the soul. That is who you are in essence.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
Last summer, after watching the movie “Girls Trip” with some of my sistahfriends I was inspired to let them and all the sistafriends in my life know how much they meant to me and how grateful I am for their love and sisterhood. This year, some of my sistahfriends and I went on an actual girls’ trip to New Orleans to the Essence festival for the first time and I wish I could have bottled all the feelings and emotions I experienced throughout these few days in the Big Easy. That is how powerful it was. So, no, I could not bottle them and bring them back with me to sip on every once in a while to remind me of this amazing time but I still brought a lot back with me. A lot more than any souvenir I could have bought on Canal Street (and God knows you can literally buy anything on Canal Street:-)).
Walking through the large crowds of magnificent Black women and handsome Black men in the long aisles of the Convention Centre, in the hot streets of New Orleans and every night inside and outside of the Superdome, I admired the richness and variety of our hues, the versatility of our hair, the uniqueness of our looks, the loud laughters echoing everywhere, the dapping and head nods between brothas, the sincere compliments and spontaneous gassing up of sistahs who did not know one another. It felt like such a safe space for us and so much more than a festival. We were existing carefree for a few days away from the nosy gaze of all the Permit Pattys, BBQ Beckys and Pool Patrol Paulas who might find our celebration of ourselves too outrageous for their taste and try to ruin it for us. Nobody was going to touch our hair except if we willingly participated in a style and beauty workshop, nobody was going to shoot odd looks at us for having a full blown party at the entrance courtesy of a DJ who knew how to welcome a crowd and put it in a mood for all that was ahead. Nobody was going to make us feel like we did not belong.
While there, I got even more inspired to go after every single one of my goals and I spoke 2 things into existence: 1. One day, I will be on the cover of a magazine like Essence. 2. One day, I will attend the Essence Festival as a guest. Now, that you are in on these bold dreams of mine, I am counting on you to hold me accountable as well.
As I said, there is a lot I took away from my time at the festival, not the least of all being the importance of being surrounded by supportive sistahs who can uplift you, support you and love you like no other, but the most unexpected takeaway, for me is a reflection on the meaning of the word “essence” itself. According to Merriam-Webster, it is defined as “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person” and I see it as what is left when you peel back all the layers of someone’s identity. Who each of us is at our core. The lasting impression we leave on others. The energy that emanates from you. The first thing that comes to someone’s mind when they think about you.
Although I like to say and think that my father is the person who knows me best and understands me the best, I have come to the realization that there is nobody in my life who knows all of me. I don’t even know all of me, yet. I am still discovering who I am in certain situations and specific scenarios. I have come to the point where I know who I am in general and what the essence of my being is, and that is the result of years of work on myself after a battle of depression, following a back injury sustained in a car accident a week before my 22nd birthday. When I say that my father knows and understands me better than most, I truly believe it. We operate on a very similar frequency intellectually and speak a very similar language. He is not the only person who can make identical claims when it comes to their knowledge and understanding of who Habiba is, they are a select few, and if they each talked about me to strangers, I’d like to believe they would describe the same person but with variations that are unique and specific to their relation to me, their experience of me, and the part(s) of me I have shared with them. My mother can pick clothes, shoes, accessories for me with her eyes closed and 9 times out of 10, she would hit the nail on the head. The “misses” are the few instances where she would select something that screamed her name rather than mine. My big brother gets me on a level that can be compared to the way twins relate to each other. The codes we have, references and inside jokes we share are our very own. A members-only club with us as the 2 only members. A bond so strong, it feels like our mother gave birth to two halves of the same child two years apart. My besties, the sistahfriends and brothafriends I am the closest to, whether they are related to me by blood or to the mysterious substance that glue together people who belong together, know me, too. The things I share with these folks are the most personal and dear to my heart. So, as you see, there are people in my life who can say they know me and would paint a picture of me I could absolutely recognize. Yet, none of them know everything about me, and for the picture to be complete, they would each have to include the Me they know and I would have to fill in the blanks. This will never happen because there are pieces of me that are just for me to know and others that have yet to be discovered. I am talking about me but it is all of us and I believe it is ok. For such a long time, I believed what society taught us about relationships in general and friendships in particular: that for them to last, be genuine, meaningful and survive the test of time, there should be no secrets whatsoever between parties. It is a romantic idea that looks great on paper and in practice, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to disagree with it. Why am I am not fully on board, then?
The phrase “you are only as sick as your darkest secrets” exists for a reason and if you have ever had to deal with family secrets, either directly or indirectly – I have – then you know how destructive and devastating they can be both on the person keeping them and on the people who end up finding out about them. The secrets themselves are usually heavy enough to take a toll on their keeper(s) thanks to the feelings that accompany them and make it difficult for us to tell the truth about them. There are many reasons why we keep secrets but all of them have something to do with fear and shame. The fear of not being understood, the fear of making things worse, the fear of getting in trouble, the fear of being judged, the fear of hurting others, the fear of being exposed, the shame of being seen in a different light. The facts themselves can be messy, shameful, scary, dangerous but not always. However, when fear gets involved and the decision is made to keep quiet and turn those facts into secrets, that is at that specific moment that our lives become affected. As the keepers of the secrets we carry the weight on our shoulders, we wonder if we should ever tell, when and how we should tell, we often lie to cover up the initial story and keep it buried even deeper and in more or less insidious ways it starts affecting our well-being and the longer it festers in our insides, the more it starts manifesting itself in different areas of our lives, often with negative consequences for us and others. The people we attempt to protect by keeping the secret from them, when they find out are often more hurt by the deception than by the facts themselves, and that alone should be evidence enough of the damaging power of secrets.
All secrets are not created equal, however, and as I grow older, I appreciate more and more and enjoy having a secret garden of things about me that nobody but me knows about. These are not things that if known would change the essence of who I am and who I am known to be but some of those things would probably surprise and even maybe shock some of the people who know me best. Avoiding their reactions is not why I feel so strongly about keeping certain things to myself. I do it because I need to know that not all of me is available for consumption, scrutiny, speculation, and discussion, I am not hurting anyone by not sharing them, and it adds to my happiness. Also, they are nobody’s business but my own. Far from taking away from my essence, I feel like this secret garden actually elevates it. It is because I can have and cultivate this garden that I am able to show up into the world as myself, every day of my life, flaws and all.
For many years, mainly my teenage years and early adulthood, the very concept of essence would have been foreign to me. I did not have the beginning of a clue about who I really was. Other people’s assessment of me was not helpful but rather confusing as I could not relate to any of the positive traits attributed to my character. As much as I tried to trust their words and rely on this image drawn by loved ones, I could never get there because the math I kept doing in my mind every time somebody said anything complimentary about me did not add up. It is probably not a coincidence that I was holding a lot inside and I had yet to uncover all the painful truths that weighed my soul down for so long.
Years removed from the beginning of my self-discovery and self-love journey, I can now see that although the image my loved ones had of me then was not quite accurate, mostly because nobody knew about the constant turmoil going on under my skin, the essence of who I truly was had already started forming. Working on myself, being tested by life over and over again, and falling in love with my whole self, has allowed that essence to flourish and become the steady and strong force it is today.
Essence, the festival, reminded me of what matters the most: our essence. My essence is safe as long as I stay true to the person I have grown to be, continue to tell the truth about my struggles and inadequacies, and maintain the sanctity of my secret garden.
What does essence mean to you?