Undressed by Florentina Staigers

September 1, 2015 | By | 2 Replies More

When I was a little girl, years before I wore my mother down with my Tomboyish ways, she would sometimes coerce me into a dress on a holiday or a church Sunday. I remember one bright yellow dress she had sewn for me when I was in the third grade. She took a lot of pride in her sewing, a trade she had learned growing up in El Salvador. The material was dotted with white polka dots and trimmed with lace. An underlying layer of netting supported the skirt so that the fabric bloomed outward like an up-side-down tulip. Two strands of cloth tied into a neat bow in the back.

I thought the dress was beautiful. But as much as I admired the artistry of the clothing, I crinkled my nose at the thought of wearing it.

On Easter morning, about a week after she had completed the dress, my mother jammed me into its pleated folds for mass.

“Que linda. You look like a little doll,” she might have said to encourage me as I frowned.

Church itself was already one form of restraint, and the dress only compounded my misery. As the organ hummed, the priest chanted, and the late morning light cascaded through the stained glass, I squirmed, I picked, and I scratched at the cloth like it was a straight jacket. When it was over, I bolted into our house and down the hall into my room. I kicked my shoes across the shaggy brown carpet and peeled down my thick cotton tights. Then, with an urgent pull of the bow and yank on the zipper, I liberated myself from its trappings. The material dropped into a heap on the floor surrounding my feet, and I stood there, my eight-year-old bird chest heaving with relief. My body, exposed to the cool air, felt weightless.

***

There was a time in my life when I believed I had everything. After I finished law school, I had anchored myself into a secure career, and I was settled in the suburbs in a cozy house with a fenced-in yard and a vegetable garden. I would hang out at happy hours with friends I had met in college and we would drink half-priced beers and talk about the good times. I could visit my family—just an hour away—on the weekends. To top it all off, I had a big diamond ring on my finger that promised to unite me with a person I would love forever. On the societal checklist of ‘Things You Need to Be Happy,” I could safely mark off most of what was required and the rest was on the horizon. So I believed I was happy.

Yet beneath the daily motions and movement, the gathering and grasping, collecting and nesting, there was a truth that I was afraid to see: that it all meant nothing. Life is simply a game we take so seriously. But in the end, no one ever wins. We all get old and die, taking nothing with us. Though, at that time, I had no perspective. I was striving hard to arrange the pieces of my life to match society’s ideals; even while deep down, I knew there was something more to it. I became restless. I would ask my friends: “Don’t you get tired of doing the same things, visiting the same bars and seeing the same kind of people?”

Then, I had one of those shake-you-to-the-core experiences that gives you the chance to alter the entire trajectory of your life. I caught my fiancée cheating on me just two months before the intended marriage.

On the day that was supposed to be my wedding day, my 90-year-old grandmother said to me, “It hurts now, but one day you will look back and see that this was the best thing that ever happened to you.”

I could never have imagined it then. At the time, I just felt lost and scared. I no longer had a map for the future and what’s more, I felt like I’d been stripped of all relation to the world. Life felt empty and uncertain.

But in the midst of the loss and heartbreak, I made the most important decision of my life.

I chose to look for happiness within me instead of externally.

I began to invest all my energy into knowing myself. I started going to a therapist and support groups, reading self-development books, meditating, practicing yoga, and attending a new church every week to see if any of them resonated with me. I was gathering all the tools I needed to truly see the face in the mirror.

What I saw was a prisoner. I was restrained by space, society, others, myself, my job, my education, my beliefs, my perceptions, the past, the future, hopes, fears, compulsions…even love.

The things we bring into our lives—whether a lease, a boyfriend, or even an idea—narrow our view of the world. We let these things limit our opportunities so that in exchange we feel safe and secure.
So, little by little, I began to remove the shackles and expand my perspective.
At first, the feats were small. I joined a book club, took writing classes, and searched online for new places and events. Sometimes I’d just get in the car and visit a place I’d never been. With each small change, I became surer of myself.
After a while, I was ready for more substantial changes, so I applied to the Peace Corps to volunteer in Africa for two years. I quit my job, moved out of my apartment, gave away all my possessions, closed all my accounts and said goodbye to my loved ones.

***

I spent two years in Cameroon helping to establish a women’s advocacy organization. During my time there, I often felt like there was nothing holding me in place. Without anyone or anything to relate to, I was a blank canvas. I was no longer a Latina, or an attorney, or a daughter even. I was forced to let go of the many identities to which I had previously clung and the security they had given me. I was forced to reinvent myself every day as I moved through unfamiliar spaces, unaware of the cultural norms that set the limits or guided them. I was simply an outsider in an alien land, a Nassara, the Fulfulde term for foreigner.

Yet, this also gave me the opportunity to be anyone.

One day I attended my town’s public planning meeting for International Women’s Day. The meeting was a formal affair crowded with women dressed in bright traditional ensembles and regional political delegates wearing suits. At one point, the delegates passed a microphone out to the audience. Before I even had time to think about what a bad public speaker I was, I found myself in the front of the room with the microphone, speaking in merely passable French to the crowd about wanting to share American culture. After I sat back down, I was stunned. I didn’t know what had just happened. Because the person I knew was afraid of public speaking, and certainly terrified of public speaking in French. And that’s when I realized. I had set aside my beliefs about myself and broken free from one of my own labels.

***

In Cameroon, I would sometimes catch glimpses of lean figures crossing the desert savannah, and I would be left in quiet awe. These were nomadic tribes of Fulani Muslims. Most Fulani are lighter skinned, tall and thin, with sharp facial features, and they are easily recognizable by their traditional tattoos and scarification. They hold all of their wealth and worldly possessions in the cattle they herd. Each time I would see them, I wondered what it would be like to live in this state of impermanence and groundlessness.

One night, a few months before my volunteer service ended, I woke up in the middle of the night and could not fall back asleep. With the end of my time in Cameroon coming into view, I wondered what it would be like when I returned to the United States.

I felt the same emptiness and uncertainty of life as I had felt before when my life had been broken apart by the break up. Once again, I felt I had no ties to anything.

But this time, instead of grief, I felt joy. I felt like that little girl again, breaking out of my Easter dress. And in the middle of the night, I realized my Grandmother had been right, that the single most painful event of my life had become the best thing that had ever happened.

I now knew what true happiness was for me. It was freedom.

I decided not to return home. Instead I would spend almost a year traveling alone through Africa, Asia and Central America…

Florentina Staigers is a student in the non-fiction MFA program at the University of New Orleans and a social justice attorney with a background in sociology. She writes personal narratives in order to examine the human experience through the self and to try to shift the consciousness of readers.

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Category: Being, Prose

Comments (2)

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  1. Tiare Snow says:

    Florentina,

    This piece really resonated with me. Thank you. I feel as though the vignette I submitted ‘MAP’ which is also featured in this issue is a brief summary of what you have just described; searching within to find happiness.

    Good luck on your journey.

    T

  2. What a wonderful tale of dueling narratives. You might have been stuck in the narrative you were writing but a curve ball forced you off your path and your inner growth helped map it out before your very eyes. Such a wonderful feat to come to your own conclusions and to take the sorrow that life hands you and make rain. Love, Rachel

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