When I was a kid, we rarely took vacations during the height of summer, because that’s when motels were the most expensive. The best way to escape the uncomfortable position of being poor and hot in the city was to imagine your way out of it. On an episode of the ’80s dramedy China Beach, my older sister had seen that American nurses in the Vietnam War would put a bowl of ice cubes in front of a table fan to make themselves cooler, and so I’d do this, too, willing myself to imagine that the hot air coming toward me was cold. When that failed, I’d spend most of my days kissing the front of the electric fan, pressing my lips against the metal grid and terrorizing my mother with the threat of the fan’s blades catching my tongue. My sisters and I would practice singing into the fan, making our voices vibrate and hum on a different level, a language from a country that existed only in the feverish minds of sweaty apartment dwellers.
Our stories this week all concern escape and imagination. We have:
I distinctly remember the first time I felt like I fit in as a fencer. It was an unseasonably cold day in May toward the end of my junior year in high school, and my mom and I had taken the train from our home in Maplewood, New Jersey, to Penn Station. We made our way to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a huge sports center in midtown, entering to the sounds of fencing blades clashing and the smell of hard-earned sweat.
It was the largest fencing club I’d ever been in, and almost everyone there was some shade of brown. Dozens of kids were getting fencing lessons from coaches who were also brown. It was such a stark contrast to what I was used to seeing in my past three years of practicing the sport. I felt like a five-year-old at Disneyland: fencers who looked like me. Coaches who looked like me. To walk into a room full of fencers and not feel like the odd one out, to not feel eyes surveying my body, pausing on my hijab, wondering if my race or religion would prove an impediment to my success on the strip, seemed like a dream. I could feel the tension in my shoulders release as an immediate sense of belonging settled over me. I couldn’t wait to train there after school.
During my high-school fencing career, I could anticipate the stares that would follow me around a fencing match. Because it’s such a niche and predominantly white sport, I often felt all eyes land on me when I walked into a gymnasium for the first time. It’s glaringly obvious when you’re the only black person with a hijab in the tournament. Most of the time, I couldn’t wait to fence, so I could put on my mask and blend in with the other athletes.
When I was growing up, my parents made an extra effort to make sure that their children felt represented and like they belonged. But I was quite well-versed in being the odd girl out in fencing and beyond — the only black girl, the only Muslim girl, the only hijabi. My mom was a teacher and often brought home books about African American history (something severely lacking in my high school’s curriculum), and we were allowed to have only brown dolls, which meant I’d often come home from the toy store empty-handed because I already owned the one or two they had in stock. I’d even sew little hijabs for my dolls to make them look more like me.
No matter how much I wanted to fit in, or how hard I tried to find evidence that I did belong, my hijab signaled that I was different and I’d never be just like everyone else. When I got to university, the staring continued; I couldn’t help but think that people were looking at me, wondering what I was doing in their world.
I’ve never gotten used to the stares. When I got to a fencing match, I had to remind myself that once my mask was on, I could prove how good of an athlete I was. If people were surprised to see someone who looked like me on the strip, let them be surprised — and then amazed when they saw that I could hold my own.
Seeing past other people’s expectations and preconceived notions of me became one of my biggest challenges. That was compounded by the extra obstacles that came with fencing as a Muslim woman, like belligerent TSA agents pointing to my hijab and saying “Off, or no flight” while traveling to training camps. There weren’t any other hijab-wearing Muslim women at the elite levels of sports who I could look up to or who could inspire my quest to become a world-class athlete. I had to chart my own path and maximize my expectations for myself. It was clear no one else could do that for me.
But when I embarked on the journey to qualify for the United States national team after college, the national coach and my U.S. teammates had even bigger challenges for me. I had made the team after a year of intense training, and when I told my fencing family at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, they were elated. They knew how significant it was that one of us had made it — our unwritten foundation motto was “When one wins, we all win.” But as the national team and I worked toward qualifying for the Olympics, they made me wade through a minefield of microaggressions and psychological warfare that left me feeling suffocated by dismissal and exclusion. Team management intentionally wouldn’t book hotels for me while traveling for world cups and left me off of important emails. The national coach would frequently blame me for team losses and often pigeon hole me as only physically strong (a fate common for black athletes), rather than capable of tactical fencing.
One day, during a fifteen-hour flight to a training camp in Beijing, I arrived at a moment where I said enough is enough — I’d spent years fighting for every win, every opportunity, every ounce of respect on my path to becoming an Olympian, and I was no longer going to allow other people to affect how I perceived myself or restrict what I was capable of. When people stared me down at a tournament, I didn’t know if it was a race thing or a religious thing or that they weren’t ready for change, but I finally realized: Why was that burden on me to figure out? I didn’t have the time to acquire their baggage or analyze why anyone wanted to make me feel inferior. I had a job to do on that team, and that job was winning a medal.
I wanted to win an Olympic medal to prove that it could be done. I wanted to change the negative narratives about Muslims that we’ve all lived with for far too long. I wanted black and brown kids to see me win, allowing them to grasp that aspiration, even if it’s unconscious, giving them the ability to believe what was once impossible was possible. I wanted to win so that the next time someone saw a fencer wearing a hijab, they’d know that nothing about their religion was holding them back. I wanted to win so that people could see themselves in spaces where they may have never been welcome. I wanted to win because I was sure that there were people who, along the way to becoming an elite athlete, were deterred because they didn’t believe it was possible to beat the odds that were stacked against them.
Winning the bronze medal at the Olympics along with my team was the sweetest feeling I’d ever had. I proved to myself that I — and everyone who has ever been made to feel different — have every right to demand a place at the table in whatever field they’re pursuing. Looking back at the Olympic Games, I don’t remember if there were any eyes uncomfortably fixated on me. What I do remember are the cheers of “USA! USA!” But to the people who still can’t help but stare: Go ahead. You’re going to love what comes next.
When my parents were college sweethearts, they answered a bulletin-board advertisement to drive a professor’s Volkswagen bus cross-country and fly back for free. They ditched finals week to do it. Later, when they were married, they bought their own bus — a 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia camper with a pop top and a leaky sink. My sister was conceived in this bus on a trip to Nova Scotia.
I don’t remember much about my parent’s marriage because they separated when I was four and divorced a few years later. They sold the house and moved into their own apartments. My sister and I were to live with our mom and see our dad on weekends. My parents didn’t fight over custody, but they fought over the camper.
I always assumed my mother got stuck with the camper in the divorce; I was shocked when I later learned that she had wanted it. Before she met my dad, my mother never went camping, and she never went camping again after they split up (“And that was fine with me” was her saying). But the camper was paid off, and their other car wasn’t. My mother had only a part-time job, and that was about to end. She needed the camper.
VW buses slowly entered the US market in the late 1950s, following the success of the Beetle. The buses were marketed as family-vacation vehicles for the nontraditional set. You had to be nontraditional because the bus looked like a loaf of bread.
In the late 1960s, hippie counterculture took an interest in used Volkswagen campers. If you were tuning in and dropping out, a camper was a cheap way to travel and live. It became a symbol of freedom, of rejecting the mainstream, of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was an extension of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — an appropriation of Eastern spirituality. It exuded a meditative self-sufficiency that comes from living in a tiny home on wheels, spending your days just going from one place to another. You could spread the word of peace simply by your presence. There was something missionary about it.
Volkswagen exploited the counterculture’s interest in campers, marketing consumerism with anti-consumerism, declaring different is cool: “You do yours.” Walk away from what oppresses you, the VW bus beckoned with its slogan. All you have to do is hit the open road. Freedom is yours. (As long as you have the funds and the privilege to pay for it.)
When she split up with my dad, my mother had two small daughters, no real money, no real job, and a camper. Despite having a master’s degree, she could find only secretarial work, and she drove the camper to her dreaded job, where she was sexually harassed by her boss.
A few months after my parents’ divorce was finalized, the camper caught fire while my mother was driving it. The bus filled with smoke, flames flicked out of the engine, and some neighborhood guy ran over with a kitchen fire extinguisher and tried to put it out. After the fire, the camper was dead.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I took a road trip by myself to the Southwest. My father had given me some frequent-flier miles as a gift. I had planned to use the miles to go to Mexico because I wanted to go to a modern-dance workshop there, but these miles were only good for the continental US. Phoenix was as far as I could get. I decided I would go hiking and camping by myself.
I used the leftover frequent-flier miles to rent a car and drive around. I borrowed a sleeping bag and a tent from my brother. I bought a pair of boots, which I needed anyway. When I told a male friend of my plans, he seemed anxious. “Look, just take a knife at least, OK?” he said.
When I went on this trip, I had a shaved head. I was very skinny. I am barely five-foot-five, and at the time I weighed a little more than 100 pounds. I was 25 years old and queer. One day, near Monument Valley, I was eating alone in a diner and I overheard a trucker ask the waiter if I was a man or a woman and if I was a prostitute. He was sitting at the table right behind me. When the waiter left, the trucker said to me, “Want a cheap date?” I moved to a table on the other side of the restaurant next to a foursome of clean-cut French tourists. (The Southwest was full of European vacationers.)
Another day, I had parked at a scenic overlook to take pictures. I had what felt like several hundred square miles to myself. Then a motorcycle gang roared down the road and pulled into the parking lot. Fuck, I thought to myself, and I started walking quickly back to my car. I didn’t want to run because then they would chase me. I didn’t know what they would think of me — this skinny, androgynous, shaved-headed person with a rental car. I thought if I could make it to my car, I could get inside and lock all the doors. If I didn’t make it, chances were high of my being gang-raped, or threatened with rape, or blocked from getting into my car.
I made it back as the bikers dismounted. I heard them talking as they took off their helmets and unzipped their jackets. They were all middle-aged German dads in polo shirts.
After my parents’ divorce (and the death of the camper), my father scoured the classified ads and bought a replacement VW bus for himself: a ten-year-old cream-colored 1968 Westy. It lasted the rest of my childhood.
When I went camping with my dad, I was prone to wandering off. My dad and stepmom would say I got lost easily, that I would often take a wrong turn coming back from the bathroom and be gone a long time. But the truth was that I walked off on purpose to get some space. Camping was supposed to be about being out in the open, but to me it felt claustrophobic. I can still hear the sound of the camper’s side door sliding shut, like closing a family-size coffin.
Towards the 1980s, Volkswagen shifted its ad campaign for buses. They went from promoting nonconformity to cheering for family values. The vehicle of Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Deadheads everywhere was now for respectable families who displayed the American flag without irony or radical claim. Dropping out was out. In its place was something to own.
I had just started college when my dad was laid off. He was unemployed for two years and spent his days at the public library reading the newspaper for free. He sold Amway products on the side as he watched his savings quickly dwindle to nothing. He was finally offered a job, a good job, in Iowa, heading an environmental-conservation group. He and my stepmom cleaned out their house in Virginia and packed the last of their stuff into the camper. Somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia, the camper broke down. It was towed to a garage next to a used-car lot. The fuel pump had quit. It was a Friday, and the earliest they could get parts would be Monday, maybe later. And it would be expensive. My dad couldn’t afford the repairs, and he couldn’t afford to miss the first days of his new job. He said, “I’ll trade it in. Give me whatever you got that can make it to Iowa.”
The current resurgence of the VW camper in its new, Instagrammable form (#VanLife) goes along with today’s trendy minimalism, of Marie Kondo–ing your life. It’s something you obtain to get rid of the clutter. Throw out everything that doesn’t bring you joy. Follow your bliss. You can be a digital nomad, hawking your lifestyle for paid posts and product placements in your feed. You can be free and sell your staged freedom to others.
Scrolling through #VanLife photos, you will see mostly heteronormative couples. The women do yoga. The men surf. Their bodies are toned and tanned and sometimes tattooed. They wake up to views of the ocean. They type away on laptops while lounging in a hammock. There is often a guitar and/or a dog, and sometimes a cute toddler.
If you Google “solo female van life” you will find a lot of listicles of things you need to “stay safe and have fun on the road.” They recommend bear spray, a taser, a Leatherman tool, a hammer, an emergency beeper that can send someone a message if you don’t have cell service, and a container to pee in so you don’t have to leave your van if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
My first night camping, I tried to heat up a can of vegetarian chili over my stove, which was just a can of Sterno. It took forever to become only lukewarm. It was June, but as the sun set, it was freezing. I did not know that it got so cold in the desert at night. Why do people go on road trips? Why go camping? To find these moments that you couldn’t get if you stayed home? To face your fears? To be in nature and live out a fantasy? Is it even possible to live out your own fantasy without being the object of someone else’s? Is it possible to live your life without being tricked into a codified version of it by branding strategists? I climbed into my borrowed tent with my very small pocketknife and read by flashlight.
I didn’t go to the Grand Canyon because I thought it would be too crowded. Instead, I drove for miles on precarious switchback roads without passing another car. I held up my camera to the dashboard and randomly took pictures because everything was beautiful and otherworldly. I got lost on a seven-mile hike and burst into tears when I spotted the small pile of stones that was the trail marker.
Toward the end of my trip, starved for a shower and companionship, I arrived at a crash-pad motel, the sort of place listed in guidebooks as a way station for campers and young people and crunchy types. I gave a ride to a trio of queer girls to get their car fixed. They were also dancers with short, crumpled, unwashed hair, and I felt I had bizarrely run into my people in the middle of nowhere. They were on their way to a dance-jam workshop or Burning Man, or coming from one and going to the other. We ate lunch together in the local coffee shop. They rolled their eyes and laughed when an older hippie dude walked over and asked their names and cooed at the beauty of one of them, working his oozy, warm, slightly high, sexual vibe, holding on to her hand too long. He said if they were having car trouble, he could probably give them a ride in his camper. “I’m sure I’m going where you’re going,” he said. She responded, “I’m sure you’re not.”
I wasn’t hungry for a partner that fall. Thirsty at times, but certainly not starving for a relationship. After finally severing emotional ties with a guy who mastered the carrot-on-a-stick approach, I was taking well-deserved time to focus on other things that would keep me satiated: a shift in my career, the new creative opportunities that crossed my desk, my family, and the upcoming holiday season.
He’d likely tell you the same thing, but still, we came to each other unexpectedly. He was experiencing something similar: content in dating casually and creating freely. He was a full-time freelance photographer; his physical presence at events was the linchpin to his potential projects, clients, and a way to meet new people.
I’d say the stars aligned the night we met, but they were likely hidden from the city skyline. Like most evenings, I was at yet another event wearing my usual hats: part guest, part publicist who was tasked with taking iPhone photos for a client’s social media, coyly sipping cocktails while mingling with the new faces present. He was there to photograph, too — equipped with more impressive gear than mine — capturing the candor of the event attendees and the beautifully plated dishes as they left the hands of the chef.
The aroma of warming spices floated in the air and my stomach growled quietly. Was it time to eat?
“Have we met before?” a baritone voice said. His intrigued eyes locked with mine, catching me in a stare.
I smirked, flirting subtly. “I certainly would have remembered,” I replied with a smile.
The night went on, and a formal announcement asked guests to find their way to their tables for dinner. The first course came from the makeshift outdoor kitchen. Between passed plates and small talk with others, the photographer and I would exchange glances and just enough conversation to keep each other coming back for more.
We were serving a meal of our own. As the next course came out, we shared a smirk with a side of flirtation.
A full stomach was my exit cue. I started to bid adieus, making his my last.
“I’m going to head home,” I said to him reluctantly.
“Same for me. How are you getting home?” he inquired.
“Gonna grab a car. I live in Harlem.”
Lucky for me, my assumption that he was a Brooklynite was pleasantly disproved as he offered to share an Uber uptown. We exchanged business cards before I headed out of the car. At the turn of the key into my apartment, my phone illuminated: “Do you like duck?” the text message read.
“I could eat duck,” I replied, salivating at the thought.
The following day, it was a date.
Off the Grand Street stop, the sticky and subtly rotting smell of durian wafted from around the corner. He chivalrously took to the street side of the sidewalk, slowing the pace of my metronome-like stride. I accepted the hand he offered to me as we weaved through the crowds.
Turning a sharp corner, he led to me down a small alleyway that housed an inconspicuous storefront: “Fried Dumpling,” it read. How did I, foodie resource to my friends and writer on the topic, not know about this gem? From its entryway came the sound of a sizzle escaping a flattop where pan-fried dumplings were doled out quickly to customers. He entered, confidently sounded off an order, and passed me the tools I’d need in my arsenal: plastic fork, bottle of vinegar, Sriracha, and a couple of napkins. He grabbed his iPhone and took a shot of me, plate in hand and a genuine grin across my face. I sunk my teeth in the piping hot dough, allowing the steam to escape, added vinegar to the pork and chive filling, like I had on many dim sum occasions, and savored the rest.
I talked about my favorite chefs and places at which I’d recently dined. Between bites, he made mention of the change in Chinatown’s real estate, the restaurants that once were and his favorite dishes from each. My ears perked up at his voice’s cadence and, much to my surprise, at the names of chefs and other eateries — many that had been on my list — he’d experienced through photography and personal interest. As he finished off a veggie dumpling, he informed me that he was vegan. Interesting, I thought. Assumptions that his dietary restrictions would throw a wrench in our courtship began to consume me — until he started to tell me the story of one of the best dishes he’d ever eaten: the Long Island duck at The Four Seasons restaurant. He recounted the grand setting of the prominent property. His eyes lit up as he spoke of the crispy skin and addictive plum sauce. I knew what that spark meant. My worries were put to rest as he escorted me to our next destination.
The remnants of roasted pork hit the storefront’s glass window, where rows of duck hung on display. He gave our order to the gentleman behind the register. Shortly after, a small Styrofoam container made its way to my hands. It was filled to the brim with warm duck, pork, cabbage, and rice: poor man’s food turned headline for NYC cheap eats.
With our takeout in hand, we made our way to the park to people-watch. A game of chess was under way, and a chorus of women sang in Chinese, their voices seeming to accompany the game. It was there on that bench that things seemed to slow down. He scooted closer, and I savored the taste of my meal a little longer than usual.
I was well fed.
Six months had passed since that bite in Chinatown. Time flies when you’re having fun, and, in our case, that was when we were eating.
An assignment led us to Staten Island, where I was covering Sri Lankan food. Weeks prior, I had scoured the Internet to pull together a list of potential eateries, many of which didn’t have publicists to coordinate a visit. Personal phone calls with my cold pitch ensued, and I set the day’s itinerary with the two restaurants we’d visit. He made his way to the driver’s seat of our Zipcar and input the destination into Garmin. With voice recorder and notebook on my person, I took to the passenger seat and organized his photo equipment at my feet.
A bell jingled as we opened the door to a small outpost off Victory Boulevard, the main artery of Sri Lankan food on Staten Island. There, son and mother welcomed us and plated a traditional breakfast pie stuffed with mutton and a side of bright red-orange katta sambol.
He brought his charisma and genuine interest in people to the table, asking questions about the family’s exodus from Colombo to the States decades ago. I pressed the red circle of my voice recorder and asked our hosts about other components of Sri Lankan breakfast, adding asterisks to my notes. We were escorted to the kitchen, where the father and cook added a light batter to a curved cast-iron pan. Instinctively, he rotated his wrist, and within minutes, a crepe-like vessel met an over-easy egg. Flashes from a Canon captured our breakfast and the vibrant yellow from the curry we were to eat along with the fresh appa. As we took our first bites, the family stared eagerly, anticipating our reaction. So simple, yet prepared perfectly. He smiled at the humble presentation and took another morsel.
He was well fed.
Fresh pasta at Eataly, Tibetan in Jackson Heights, Ethiopian uptown, and vegan at home. A ubiquitous influence in our respective upbringings — he a Jamaican-born Vermonter, me a Black Caribbean raised in the suburbs of Florida — sustenance is love. It’s one of the ways in which we come back to humanity, and to each other. Like a recipe passed on for generations, modified to taste with no exact measurements, the final product pleases the palates of its recipients. From seven-course meals and takeout via Seamless to plastic-wrapped utensils, chopsticks, and our own hands: whatever the setting, whatever the tools, food is our language.
We are well fed.
Shanika Hillocks is a digital strategist and freelance food-and-drink writer based in Harlem. Her musings can be found over on shanikahillocks.com.
I will never forget the feeling of waking up before everyone in my house in the morning before a school day. The sun would sing with me as its rays beamed through the living room and stretched into the dining and kitchen area. Every moment I had alone was a gift in a house of seven. I’m the eldest daughter in my family: I have three younger sisters, plus a younger and an older brother. Suffice it to say, our house was dominated and run by the girls.
We’d do morning prayer together. Hooya, our mother, would light frankincense, and we’d line up after taking turns performing ablution in the bathroom sink. Feet touching, we’d pray in sync. Almost all of our daily tasks and the routines that involved taking care of our bodies and our survival were communal. From helping each other wrap our hijabs to swapping items in one another’s closets to cooking and divvying up the chores, I rarely did anything alone.
As much as I loved my “me time” in the morning, I loved the symphony of movement around the bathrooms, mirrors, and kitchen. Getting ready in the morning felt like being a part of a disorganized assembly line — our limbs reached around one another to grab breakfast foods, hair ties, or extra pens and pencils before the school day. I, without anyone asking, would take it upon myself to “delegate.” Tasks that would be lonely without the four of us became entertaining. Even when I wasn’t trying to be a tyrant.
Time doesn’t slip through your fingers like sand when everyone has a hand in trying to achieve something simple, like, for instance, detangling a head of hair with cornrows and laid edges. On the weekends, as we got ready for the school week, Hooya would put me to work. I was responsible for my youngest sister’s hair. She’d sit right under me, bracing herself for the tugs and pain of the detangling process. Before it even started, we would be red in the face. I would be visibly sweating, partly because of laziness, and partly because doing hair is a workout, and we’d all wear a hijab to school anyway. As she’d yelp in pain, my other sisters or aunties who would come through would step in, annoyed with my outward displays of defeat. Four hands combed, detangled, and braided her tiny head, and she’d gleefully run to the bathroom mirror, in awe of what had been accomplished.
As the eldest daughter, I grew up with a God complex, and with a lot of bold, different personalities under one roof, fighting was inevitable. Even on our best days, my sisters and I would argue. My father would always gather us together and talk to us about how we’re stronger together. He’d take a bunch of pencils, wrap rubber bands around them, and ask us to try and break them in half. We’d all take turns with our tiny hands and weak wrists, trying to prove his theory wrong. Then he’d ask us to try and break the pencils one by one, and each of us would break the pencils in half. He’d tilt his head in a nod; his body language said, See? Although I fantasized about how my life might have been if no one had been born after me, I later came to the realization that my siblings, this community in our house, didn’t take anything away from me. I learned how to put aside time for all of my siblings’ concerns. There are days where they all call me at once, frustrated. Our father’s passing put me in a position where I needed to parent them and at times fight for them to do the things I was never allowed to do, because together, we were unbreakable.
In Minnesota, where I grew up, I was comfortable. I had my entire family. I was friends with the same people for more than ten years. The mosque was a second home to me. My hometown was filled with big, Black Muslim families like ours that had similar traditions of gathering in prayer, in mourning, and in action. Islamically, we believed that we had an obligation to look out for one another. In times of crisis, the community raised money. A couple of phone calls and my mom was able to find a math tutor for us. After my father passed, women from the mosque brought enough dishes and groceries to our home to last us for months. When we were applying to colleges, the older girls who I grew up with told me to venture far out, to whatever city I wanted to live in. They edited my essays. They encouraged me to start a Blogspot for my writing. Instead of seeking out a mentor, I was lucky to have a community that believed that the success of any one of us was everyone’s success. I was raised by a village that was surrounded by lakes and barns, but a village of Somalis nonetheless.
When I first left my hometown, I dealt with a gnawing emptiness because of how my community was embodied in my daily routine. For me, building and fostering community is essential to my survival. It’s not always sunshine and happiness; the greatest loves and the greatest heartbreaks I’ve had have been with the women in my life: my mother, my sisters, my friends, my aunts, and my cousins. When I got to NYC, I made it my mission to seek out and hold space for new friendships and sisterhoods. I had to ask myself: How does one build community when capitalism isolates us from one another, forcing us to put our work before anything else? Humans are dependent on one another; all living things are. I cared too deeply about anyone who I came across to not replicate the networks I had back home.
The first place I looked for community was online. I’d search tags I was interested in on Twitter and Tumblr, and I followed everyone en masse. Our mutual exchanges on the dashboard and timeline turned into group DMs, private DMs, and it wasn’t long before their numbers were saved in my phone. My closest friends, my Somali NYC girl crew, have held me up in some of the most hectic parts of this year. Ifrah is the classical Libra: diplomatic, charming, and avoidant of all confrontation. Asiya embodies everything about a Taurus: she’s reliable, practical, and devoted to everything she does. Iman is the other water sign in our clique, a Cancer: sensitive, kind, bubbly, and charismatic. I met both Ifrah and Iman on Tumblr, and I met Asiya through them. The Internet probably knows more than it should about me, but I’ve also met some of my best friends there, so I don’t mind.
I noticed that in New York City, people didn’t speak to each other much, and as a Minnesotan, my body physically rejected that. Thank God it did. One of my first jobs in the city was as a nanny. I would spend a lot of time in the park watching as the kid I was looking after played with friends. The other nannies tended to be older, mother-like figures, and though they would talk to me, they normally talked among themselves. But one day, there was a Black girl at the park, also nannying, and my hands were kind of ashy, so I asked her if she had lotion. That is the story of how I met one of my favorite people on this planet, Mali. She said, “Of course I have lotion; I’m a Black girl,” and the rest is history.
The friendships I cultivated with these different women are magic, and I would like to believe that I have multiple covens of women who conjure the best out of me. Mali is one of my smartest friends; she is also an Aquarian woman to the nail. She sleeps early, she does what she wants, and she’s quick-witted. She sets boundaries with the sharpness of a knife, and she never compromises them. My friends Catherine and Yohanna and I catch up on all things pop culture; they’re both passionate and brilliant and offer me perspectives that are different from the ones I see online. Reva and I hit up every other party in the city together; she’s talkative and refuses to settle for anything less than she deserves. Ivie is sharp and has a calmness that I strive for. Her hustle is unmatched, and she never lets the petty stuff distract her; her focus is laser-like and contrasts with my busy, scattered energy. It’s soothing. Sydney is similar to her in that she stays in her lane; she’s a calm Taurus who loves the finer things in life. They were the first two writers I met that I found a community in, but we didn’t only talk about work — and that taught me that we were always more than the work we were doing.
My favorite moments are when everyone gets to meet and I act as a facilitator between the friend groups. By now, most of these girls have met one another, and sometimes they’ll even do things without me.
I'm a Pisces: I’m emotional and intuitive, and I have no tolerance for self-doubt. My impulsive attitude stretches across all the covens I belong to. When a friend is in doubt about unfollowing someone, I say, “Fuck it. Block them if that’s what you want to do.” And if there is a confrontation, I’m right there, backing them up.
On the first weekend of this year, Ifrah, Asiya, Iman, and I convened to set our intentions. Together, we burned sage and lit our intentions on fire — allowing the smoke to clear the way. Other times, we just meet to eat and catch up, allowing ourselves to talk about everything we don’t feel comfortable speaking about among other people. I can’t help but pick up on everything everyone is feeling around me. This care keeps me grounded; it gives me purpose and allows me to be a kinder person. Not everything is a transaction, and in that way, I understand that I am very maternal. I care a lot, and though we are taught to put ourselves first, I strike a balance by putting aside time in my day to make my rounds of calls or get coffee with old roommates, just so that I am reminded of a humanity that still exists in this world.
Seeking out friendships, carving out the time to listen to one another, and holding space to emote exists in the traditions of the women around me. I allowed myself to care and built a community I can always fall back on. Even as my mother raised all six of her kids, she was intertwined in the lives of all the other people she was mothering. And she made a mother out of me too.
Najma Sharif is a writer and shape-shifter living in NYC.