To live is to feel love and suffer loss. There are more of us who starve, punish ourselves mercilessly, have miscarriages, are sexually objectified, harassed, and assaulted, and recreate unhealthy family dynamics, than there are those who do not. What is also common is, in response to life’s bruises, we become and live small.
But the sole voice that will not applaud your smallness is the voice tucked inside the deepest nook of your soul. Mine hovered beside me, whispering, “I know who you truly are. I know who you can be, should you allow yourself to grow.”
It was so nice meeting you at Whole Foods! This is Carmen, the speech girl. So sorry I stalled the grocery line but I was so inspired by you. The universe most definitely set it up, I have no doubt in that. I read your articles and letters and wow, they lit a fire under me.
Reema, a while ago I ceased creative writing. My lack of self-belief was the catalyst to bury that love of writing for good. Yet it kept trying to get my attention. Now it seems that life wants to give me a second chance with writing. I have these ideas that I’m so eager to write about but I can’t bring them out on paper. These ideas are flying around in my soul like a growing mass of butterflies that I’m not able to catch. I’m curious if that has ever happened to you? Do you have any suggestions or perspectives? I also wanted to know where can I get a copy of your book?
Much love to you,
One of the many gifts to being a cashier is I daily interact with a few hundred people. Ever since I was a young girl, I have wanted these opportunities, to meet and talk to hundreds of people. To hear their stories and give what I can. To share love through the written and spoken word.
These letters and my book allow for that. So does my job as a cashier.
Every day, I clock into my shift, stand behind my register, and wait eagerly for the day’s truths to immerge. Given the sheer volume of people I meet daily and weekly, it is easy to trace patterns connecting us all in our larger story. I ask every customer, “What is a highlight from your day?” It prompts each person to pause and reflect on something they are grateful for or excited about. The answers are incredible, in depth and range.
It is stunning as well, the difference between women and men, in speech and behavior. Dear friend, in all the places I’ve lived, first in Bangladesh and Thailand as a child and teenager, then New York as a young adult, and now, Oregon, it is remarkable and heartbreaking, the many ways we women, globally, shrink our true breadth.
Some wear their smallness bodily. As we are a company that sells food, and a person’s relationship with food is one of their most telling characteristics, I can pull volumes from a person’s purchase. As a former anorexic, I have a sharp sensitivity for recognizing eating disorders. I can identify the bingers, the starvers, the purgers, not solely by their bodies but their posture, speech, and behavior. There is the pale girl, so thin she appears scraped out, who buys only freeze dried fruit. When we suggest she purchase by the case, to receive a large discount, she recoils as if afraid and declines — she knows, as I know, she will eat the entire case in one sitting. There is the plus size woman who laughs and apologizes nervously for buying “so many things.” To her, to every person, I smile and repeat, “You are absolutely fine.”
Some embody their smallness in their perception of their choices and rights. I am daily amazed by the number and frequency with which women apologize when they do not need to, for innocuous things like asking for a paper bag for their groceries, or, when answering my question, “How would you like your change, in small or larger bills?” Most women will stammer and apologize profusely while pondering this question of change.
Interesting, the words assigned to cashiering: register, change, shift.
Others manifest their smallness in their persona and intelligence. Daily, I meet women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, heavily medicated and botoxed, using science to numb the graze of life. They speak in high-pitched voices, affecting the tone and vernacular of teenage girls, gripping the saccharine persona like a life-raft adrift in time’s ocean. I meet teenage girls and women in their 20s and 30s who fill their sentences with “like,” “you know”, “but, no, yeah”, and “I dunno”, each phrase undercutting, second-guessing, negating what the person is trying to express. Were you to extract the filler phrases, the remaining sentence would resemble a moth-eaten sweater, the gaping holes courtesy of insecurity.
It was during one of my shifts, dear one, when you and I met. I asked what had been a highlight from your day.
“My speech class,” you replied. “I’m learning how to overcome my fear of public speaking.”
“For your career, or purely, for yourself?”
“Myself.” You smiled shyly. Then with your right hand you covered your smile, hiding the joy felt from speaking.
I asked questions to draw you out. We spoke in length, excited to have found a kindred heart. A few days later, you wrote me a gorgeous letter. Thank you so much for your beautiful words, and for sharing your story with me. I hold your words and your trust tenderly.
You confess you had, for some reason, a while ago, stopped voicing your full truth. What I can sense is your lack of self-belief did not merely bury your love of writing; it limited the expansion and expression of your full truth. Thus I am compelled to ask what I often ask or want to ask most women, especially those who apologize for the very space they occupy in this world: What provoked you to bury your truth, and live as your smaller self? When did your gradual shrinking and silencing begin?
Physically, emotionally, creatively, spiritually, intellectually, professionally, how has your story of smallness manifested? You ask for my suggestions and perspectives on writing and life. You are so kind to seek my memoir. How I wish I could give it to you immediately for it holds everything you ask for, but it is not yet published. So I will give you pieces of my story now, parts that may pertain to you.
I was 15, it was 6:15pm, February 19th, 1998. Standing naked in front of my full-length mirror, I took stock of life’s ample disappointments. The sky outside, thanks to Bangkok’s escalating pollution, was streaked with gorgeous pinks and yellows. I had just returned from student-teaching at a slum kindergarten in the heart of the city. The five-year-olds to whom I taught art and music, born and raised in abject poverty, had so little. My stomach growled, hungry for the dinner I had decided to forego. In a world that starved children, it felt shameful to eat.
Regardless of the outer environment, our home, our supposed, protective refuge, was itself full of pain, sorrow, and instability. Downstairs, behind their closed door, my parents’ endless war ensued, their soundtrack reverberating off thin walls. Try as I did, I daily failed to mend, solve, buffer, or soften their wills. As is the case in most Asian, Black, and Latino families, cultures that largely perceive therapy and counseling as shameful practices, I, being the eldest child, was my parents’ make-shift mediator, counselor, and holder of secrets. Like the complaint box at a customer service booth, I was a receptacle of grievances, filled to the brim with noise.
When surrounded by harshness and filled with noise, one will either explode or implode.
The world felt ugly and its characters cruel. Amidst the uncontrollable, the only things I could shape were my body, mind, and emotions. That truth and strategy seemed, initially, purely logical and self-caring. Thus I internalized the noise, added my own, and starting from the very next day, I discovered what muted the cacophony was working out to the point of numbness and starving my mind of sound. When you deprive the body and mind of their rightful nutrition and care, you enter a deathly stillness. This cool silence envelops you in its tight embrace.
In two months, I lost 22 lbs. My eyes sunk into their sockets as if retreating from the world’s glare. My shoulder blades jutted like wings trapped under skin, begging for breath. The girls you see in school cafeterias around the globe, the ones who appear concave, bent from life’s blows and their own choices, they aren’t merely starving their bodies of food; they are ridding their minds of emotion; they are stripping themselves of speech.
The forthcoming years brought my grandfather’s passing, my parents’ divorce, and my being disowned, then re-owned, by my father. At school, I learned to reign in my intelligence and replace my opinions with servantile giggling. At 17, I started having sex mainly to feel “loved”. One by one, my middle school bullies became my boyfriends. At 18, I was stalked by my high-school psychology teacher.
Due my culture, I had grown up with daily reminders that women have very little agency. By 16, I had married myself to a simple mission: to be a voice for those who haven’t one. A career path that seemed to suit this perfectly was acting. I thought, as an actress, I could bring to life characters that would otherwise remain silent. Thus at 18 I moved to New York to study and work as an actress, hungry to sign the contract of freedom offered by the United States. I quickly learned freedom comes with many clauses, a fine-print choked with warning. Life here for a woman, although far better than in Asia, has its challenges. 22 would welcome my first miscarriage, 23 bookmarked rape, 26, a marriage which by 27, had depreciated into chaos. I also fell into modeling, like a person blindly stumbles into love.
Each experience compounded on the preexisting stack, further affirming the world is unkind, especially for women, and only things in life one can truly control are one’s mind, body, and emotions. Therefore, art, ambition, and anorexia were my safe haven, areas were I could train and sculpt common, mortal material like words, desire, and flesh into poetry, income, and beauty — things more pleasant than the surrounding environment.
Although my intention was to empower and protect, I trained and sculpted until I shrank and muted myself — I buried my truth. By 27, being an actress no longer felt expansive or empowering. Memorizing and reciting words written by others meant mine were silent. Inevitably, memorizing and reciting truncated my intelligence, confidence, and self-ownership. And my penchant for behaving small and performing under another’s direction bled into my personal life. Mainly, my first marriage. Although I had sworn I would never recreate the power imbalance of my parents’ marriage, I had done precisely that. I had shrunk myself to near disappearance.
None of the above makes me remotely unique or special. To live is to feel love and suffer loss. The above bullet points are shared by most women. There are more of us who starve, punish ourselves mercilessly, have miscarriages, are sexually objectified, harassed, and assaulted, and recreate unhealthy family dynamics, than there are those who do not. And more often than not, we will be given then withheld love by the very people who are supposed to love us unconditionally. What is also common, normal, and ordinary is, in response to life’s bruises, we become and live small.
Daily, I am handed other women’s stories of sorrow, loss, divorce, and marred, broken, or never-lived dreams. We hear ourselves in each other. In nearly every female life, there is a decisive moment or more likely, a compounding of moments that incite the gradual silencing and burial of one’s true expansion. Our true self begins to contort, growing smaller with passing years. Until, unless, we decide to no longer live as our smaller self, and choose instead to breathe into our fullest.
Most of the challenges we encounter are obvious to identify. Each one tests and strengthens our loyalty to ourselves. But the slyest and sometimes gravest tests are the ones disguised as rewards. Largely why we become and remain small, and for as long as we do, is because we are enthusiastically rewarded for doing so, and punished when we dare to behave otherwise. All through my 20s, as an actress, model, girlfriend, and wife, I was highly and lucratively affirmed for behaving small. In fact, it was when I spoke from my full personality and intelligence that I invited trouble: I would endanger the latest relationship or be denied the job, on account I “did not fit.” To dare to live boldly meant I would threaten spilling over the preordained lines. The rules tend to be very simple: reign in your truth, or, be socially and professionally unsuccessful.
The sole voice that will not applaud your choice to live small is the voice tucked inside the deepest nook of your soul. Call her what you wish. Your inner voice. Your better self. Your guardian angel. God. A deceased beloved ancestor. Mine I know as my imaginary best friend from childhood whom I never released. While I continued my smallness, she hovered beside me, whispering, “I know who you truly are. I know who you can be, should you allow yourself to grow.”
At 27, in the dark quiet of night, I would lie awake beside my sleeping husband, the distance between us spreading like a jaw without a hinge. A gorgeous man who enjoyed me when I agreed with him, loathed me when I didn’t, and although he initially adored my intelligence and my whim for endeavoring great dreams, had grown to resent those very things. Thus, to keep our relationship calm and continuing, I had dulled my voice to a pleasing, docile purr.
My inner whisper soon grew to a roar. See, our inner voice is the part of us that exists and evolves untouched by social messages and family conditioning. Mine had grown according to her own wise, wild truth, and asked, “What would happen if we stopped living as our smaller self?”
We all feel love and we all suffer. Extraordinary are only those who step into their true, boldest, brightest selves. They shimmer with the faintest mortal magic.
What could I create, who will I become, what will life look like, if I filled into my truth?
What could and did happen:
Which I embraced as my new lease on life. In your words, dear friend, a second chance.
Desperate for joy and laughter, I enrolled in improv and sketch writing classes. I wrote and produced songs. I started drawing, selling small then large then massive pieces of art, and presently, visual art is my main source of income.
Most importantly, I started writing. I decanted my voice. I soon realized the street-smarts, instincts, and discipline I cultivated to navigate my past, were perfect resources for writing. My entire life has been preparation and is source material. I have never taken a writing class or been in therapy. Everything you read of mine comes from the raw marrow of life.
Each piece in our seemingly fractured selves has a reason and a destined purpose.
At 30, I shifted from New York to Oregon, from acting to solely writing. I wanted, foremost, to write a memoir. I felt a flurry of smallness, wondering, Am I enough to fill a book? I quickly remembered that by virtue of being human, I, like you, am and can be plenty. Thus, I wrote and reclaimed my narrative. Instead of starving, I started filling myself emotionally, creatively, physically, intellectually. I wrote the manuscript, signed with a literary agent, and started a side project called Dear Reema, to offer love to others through the written word. As an actress, I was largely focused on gaining attention, applause, and love. As a writer, I focus instead on giving. And, in this art form, I do not need to whittle myself to fit a preconceived role. Unsurprisingly, my entire world has bloomed.
In two months, I will be 33. My love, a truth I’ve learned is the world will treat you precisely how you treat yourself. Meaning, it will bestow the identical portion of love, respect, kindness, calm, and admiration you give yourself. Meaning, if you live diminished, you will attract, fall in love and work with only those who enjoy and encourage the shrunken version of yourself. As I’ve grown to treat myself more kindly, so have others. As I’ve grown to respect and love myself, I’ve met only those who give me the identical care. I’ve left behind friends who no longer find me pleasing, found new friends who enjoy my truth, and my relationships with my siblings and parents have deepened in authenticity and love.
I think quicker now. Stunning the differences when one nourishes the brain with food, habits, jobs, people, and pastimes that enhance mental acuity. I remain, in essence, the same role in my family as I was before. Only now, the seismic contrast is over these past three years, I’ve cultivated the emotional equipment to shoulder that role without imploding from its weight.
I like to think I have filled into myself. I want to fill my self and this life with such abandon and abundance that we spill over, again and again. Darling one, nearly every human being will feel great love and loss. We will be sifted through adversity, time and again. Our one redemption, salvation, and responsibility is to transform the wreckage into something meaningful. Useful. Beautiful. It is tempting to confuse adversity as reason to live small, quietly, without ever attempting expression. But actually, adversity only primes talent. Pain, like love, is our deepening. Don’t allow pain to swallow your home. Don’t leave it by the door. Lead it by the hand to sit by you as you write.
My love, I do not know from whom or where or what you come from, or where or with whom you live. I do not know what incited the gradual silencing and burial of your truth. But what I can discern is you are fundamentally ready to uncover your truth and dust away the dirt. The world is not ugly, unkind, unwelcoming, but merely complex and beautiful in its complexity. Most importantly, it needs your voice.
And I can hear, your voice, your butterflies, are ready to soar freely.
True freedom cannot come from an external force, be it an assigned or assumed identity, a relationship, a job, a role, or another person. True freedom comes from within. I used to think being controlled and beautiful would protect and empower me. I thought assuming certain identities would grace me freedom and security. What I’ve learned is true empowerment and security come only from self-ownership, awareness, and gratitude. Once you have owned your authentic self and filled with sincere gratitude and self-awareness, no earthquake can shake you. Such is the deepest, purest freedom.
Fear is why we ever stall the risks we wish to endeavor. Fear is why you have been hesitating to write your truth. Fear is why you’ve questioned your value. Fear, frankly, is not interesting enough a reason to deny the world or yourself your gifts. It isn’t worthy enough a reason to shirk our collective task, of turning pain into poetry. The only way to soften fear is to walk through it. And the only permission you ever truly need, to walk, to write, to be, is your own.
Shame is why we shrink and silence, whittle and diminish. As girls and women, we have been and will be told, often and enthusiastically, that to feel fiercely, think deeply, speak passionately, and endeavor freely is inappropriate, displeasing, and ill-fitting.
Our ability to feel fiercely, so fiercely that we absorb, shoulder, and react to the feelings, wounds, needs, and voices of others, is not weakness. To call this power “weakness” is soundly incorrect; its name is empathy. And my love, in this fractured world of aggression, greed, linear thought and apathy, empathy is what civilizes us. You and I and all the women I meet daily, we, the deeply empathic, are the engine keeping the species alive. We, the ones who absorb, shoulder, and react, are those who care for the children who have been forgotten, who see the story beneath the story, who read patterns others cannot perceive. We are crucial for the creation, continuation, and care of the human spirit.
We women are a big deal — the stark opposite of small. It is therefore our duty to think deeply, speak passionately, and endeavor freely.
My love, bloom into your rightful space. Fill into your boldest, brightest, truest self and be it publicly or in the pages of your waiting narrative, author your own lines. You are human, thereby vital, with an extraordinary story to share. Shed disguises, shirk needless apologies, and become the one authority permitted to steer this stunning, lovingly built ship christened “I.” Travel the seas of your most earnest, riskiest dreams.
Set free the song of your soul. See it dance along the water. Feel its ripple inspire others.