Shine Bright Like a Diamond
The souls of some people shine so bright, that even their shadows bathe us with light.
~ Shakieb Orgunwall
A few days ago I was talking to a dear friend who I admire for her grace, intellect, and the confidence she effortlessly exudes. As a surprise to me, she asked how I was able to be so openly confident and speak about my accomplishments without reservation. I took a pregnant contemplative pause and realized the enormity of what she said. Without fully realizing it, I had arrived at a moment in my life where I could easily own my worth and know that what I brought to the table was valuable to others. Yet, as two women talking candidly, we were both shocked at how easy it was and wondered why we are so fearful to admit we have gifts to share with others. Is it because we are women and conditioned to acquiesce and make more space for others than ourselves? Is it because the cultures and homes we were raised in told us confidence is the opposite of humility? Or is it just because of the way society is structured we have never allowed ourselves the grace to honor our intellect, beauty, and strength the way some men easily swagger and share their worth with the world? Whatever it is for her, for me, or for you, it’s allowing us to hide important parts of ourselves from the world.
What I have learned is that we as women can say we are smart, beautiful, and have something to contribute without lightning striking us for being conceited. It comes down to the truth of knowing ourselves, but also realizing that these gifts reside inside many people, some have just gotten to a place of clarity to see it. Arriving here for me did not happen with ease.
There is a phenomenon that happens in the lives of girls as they get older that I have been grappling with as I think about raising my daughter. Their light dims at some point and they minimize themselves to fit into the expectations and perceptions of the world around them. I think back to myself as a toddler. The memories are blurry, but I can recall the way I felt around others and how I could make them feel. I had a light that drew people to me and left an impression. I was kind but strong-willed, gentle yet also a little feisty and I cared about others and how they felt. I had a light that shined bright until the world started to dim it.
My four-year-old daughter already shows me this power and depth in her awareness of the world and others. My daughter is the light in my life. I don’t know how to capture her essence or spirit onto the pages of a blog, so I have to begin with what I wonder and fear about this power she possesses and the awareness that it can so easily be shut down by the world.
As I raise her I am aware of the social constructs of gender that surround her and become the unconscious fog she breathes in. So how do women counter those messages of minimizing our personalities, fitting into prescribed boxes, and sacrificing parts of ourselves to be accepted and wanted by the world around us? My goal is to teach her to be confident in who she is but also give her humility to realize that there’s a larger purpose for those gifts beyond herself. It has taken me forty-three years to come to that conclusion. Now I need to understand where my light was lost, to know what guidance I can influence on her path as she holds onto hers.
For me, that dimming happened fairly abruptly. I entered kindergarten in a public school in the affluent city of Bethesda, Maryland. All my teachers and the majority of the students were white. In itself, that difference didn’t impact me, until I got the message that being white, blonde, and blue-eyed was better than whatever I was. So all the messages of acceptance and love that came from my family were countered by a group of girls who bullied me about who I wasn’t and what I looked like.
Some people are strong enough to keep their light when someone tries to extinguish it. That was not me. Those days of elementary school got worse as I got older and started to contemplate who I wanted to be and who I was. I was desperately seeking validation from being seen as one of the white girls in my classes instead of valuing that being a brown girl was part of my light. Between the movies and the books I read, that message was really clear. Being Marya was not what the world saw as beautiful or smart, I had to be and act differently. It led me to believe that I blended in with the walls. With it came years of grappling between embracing and rejecting parts of me and the perspectives from the world. My light was dimmed because I did not own the value it possessed.
Looking back at the men I gravitated toward, that same message was reiterated in different ways. Whoever I was showing up as was not what they wanted and therefore not valued or appreciated by them. Whether they intended me to feel that or not, the impact was that internalized message and with it, my light continued to dim.
My marriage was an extension of that message with a heavy emphasis on intentionally minimizing my light. It was as though as soon as the flame would flicker he would get the signal that it was time to say the words or make the moves that blew it out. A woman with light threatened the positionality of a man who had been told he was the prize and always placed on a pedestal. So even though I helped prop up his pedestal and encouraged him to grow or recognized his charm and ability to accomplish things, I was a threat because I simultaneously grew myself. A person who is that insecure requires their partner to stay stagnant in order to retain the power dynamic. I convinced myself I could build him up and minimize myself for the exchange of dedication and support from a man I loved deeply. If he had really known me and I myself, it would have been clear that that could never happen. I have never been one who doesn’t seek to develop and grow.
I eventually realized that despite that sacrifice, I was expected to shrink. It’s one thing when a man needs his ego to be stroked, it’s another when a man can only feel his strength by breaking someone else’s spirit. His masterful manipulation had me believe that I had more shortcomings than gifts. From the movement of my hands when I talked to the way others perceived me, he could magnify my flaws so that all I saw was what I wasn’t rather than valuing what I was. I spent years wondering what I needed to do to make him love me more and how I needed to change. He had this down to an art that even after four years of him being unemployed while I worked and made a commute that was over an hour and a half each day, I still was not enough. My contribution to our lives as a mother and wife was subpar and showed my selfishness to put my needs first instead of his. Rather than question the validity or sanity in his words, I accepted them and continued to strive to be even more. This marriage could have crushed my spirit and with it turned the light off for good.
The resilience of women with light is more powerful than the shine. We do not stay dim for long. We find the cracks and loopholes where we can until we can radiate brightly without restriction like our four-year-old selves once more. My gift and grace in life were that I worked with women who possessed light and no-nonsense attitudes. They allowed me to see that the world was so much bigger and opportunities to be light were still there
In 2011 I started a graduate certificate in Equity and Excellence in Education with a cohort of close friends. It was there that I began to rediscover my light that was not only meant to shine but meant to guide others to shine as well. For the first time in my life, I was validated for my intelligence and deep thinking. For two years every other Saturday was spent in a 6-hour long class. I didn’t walk out drained but rather rejuvenated and motivated. Partially because of the learning that empowered me to feel like I could be a change agent as an educator, but also because I was seen as a voice that had something important and insightful to say.
I remember driving home from class wanting to hold on to that feeling of affirmation and appreciation before entering a home where none of that was recognized or acknowledged by the other adult in the space. I survived my marriage because my light was fed and given space to grow outside my home. These experiences saved me from atrophy and the extinction of myself. It might have been how I stayed so long in something that was fundamentally the wrong relationship for me. My soul was fed just enough to be a dedicated mother and keep a home functioning, while also having a career. I could compartmentalize where I was bright and powerful and where I would shrink and acquiesce. I turned on and off my light in order to make plenty of space for my husband to feel he was a man and provider.
Until the year my perspective changed and I began the break from my marriage prison. When I left my husband I started to build the vision of my new life. I spent the first year searching for myself again, and in that, I rediscovered the ability for my light to shine without choosing where and when. It led me to venture out of my home without a safety net and join groups like an urban soul line dancing class and a pop choir. I realized the light that my husband was so fearful of had the ability to draw others to it and helped me meet new people and expand my perspective of the world. The women and men I have met continue to feed my curiosity of the world beyond my vantage point and lead me to new places.
When Covid hit, I felt my passion for life start to slip because I was no longer outside my home creating connections and learning about life from others. This led me to write and the light I discovered was something stronger than I anticipated. I had found a way to interact with the world beyond my door by sharing my story and energy through words and vulnerability. The light came from the darkness I struggled through as a way to shine a path for others around me. Today I have the same enthusiasm and curiosity as my younger self with the wisdom of my veteran years. It’s a strange but beautiful thing.
For many, it’s too much and I can see right away who will block the growth that is inevitable. The difference is now I have learned how to set my boundaries around these blocks. I know what dims and what ignites me. I feel my emotions and give them space to breathe and live without judgment or blame. I speak out freely and vocalize when I am unhappy. That one is requiring more development and nurturing, but it’s improved over time. I found my soul and it exudes light. People can be drawn to that light, but many who come close also run away because it can be scary. Now I know that being with a man who can embrace and value who I am and who I continue to grow into, is non-negotiable. Grow with me and I will be a light in your life, but I will no longer accept being shut down or invisible.
Light is dynamic and living so it needs to be fed and nurtured to shine brightly. Light needs a space to live and blaze. Somewhere along the lines, we have been told that being proud of our light is boastful. But I believe and want my daughter to know that being someone who shines bright is powerful, it’s all dependent on what you do with that power. My power has always been to use my moments of weaknesses as trials to learn from and capitalize on my strength to build others up. So if you have met in the past three years, you know that. I may have directed you to the person who knows your craft, helped connect you with someone who has the skill you are looking for, counseled you through a challenging time, or provided some next steps for you to see the bigger picture you sit in. Light is meant to shine for others to see themselves and the possibilities beyond. My light is simply a conduit to get others where they were intended to go.
I love who I am and what I bring to the people I interact with. It’s genuine and comes from a place of love and connection. I hope that my daughter knows and sees her ability to own the space she stands in and the impact she has already at this young age on the people she touches. She is light but not just mine, she is her own light, and where and what that means for her journey is yet to be seen. All I can hope is that she never gives it up because of the messages she hears from the world or the people in her life.
Lights are meant to shine so that we all can see better. So those people in the world who are the light, own it, sit squarely in it, honor it and seek out how your light can help someone else see past the darkness or shadows.