I once wore a reflective suit of armor crafted from impatience, resentment, and cynicism. At the time, I believed that it protected me from the pain and suffering of both my internal and external realities. It was a shroud that kept people at arm’s length, even when I let them believe that they were a hair’s breadth away. I was hardened to the point where even the lightest tap on one of my weak points could shatter me completely; it was a suit composed entirely of Achilles Heels. I believed that each time someone found a weak point, I simply needed to reinforce it. But I stand by one of my main mantras in life: armor can just as easily become a form-fitting prison if you’re not careful.
My name is Mercedes, and I’m twenty-four years young. My name is of Latin origin, meaning “mercies,” and took root in Catholicism when the Virgin Mary became an idol of mercy. My birth mother was from Spain. She chose my name. For as long as I can remember, that was the only reason I tolerated it. But now I realize that it was her parting gift: my name is a recurring lesson, a prayer, a reminder.
I once thought that being “hard” and “tough” were admirable qualities. Despite my gentle nature, I did everything in my power to adopt a cool, rigid exterior, hoping to impress, intimidate, and rebuff. I craved at-a-distance adoration. I wanted to be a shiny toy soldier that was interchangeable in the lives of everyone around me. See this immaculate surface? That’s my ego. Paint what you want on it and I’m yours. But don’t be surprised when I chip it off tomorrow so that someone else can take your place. I am fleeting; I am ephemeral. Watch me as I morph.
On a whim, I moved across the country, leaving behind my family, friends, and the life that had built me. To be transparent, I needed the time and space to unpack and process every my entire life. I was not the type of person that could heal in the environment I grew sick in. I had become trapped in my own toxic air. My armor was snuffing the life out of me, little by little, day by day, entirely by my own design. People I love watched as I wilted, but could do nothing to help because they didn’t have the key to free me. I did.
What came next was a flurry of heartbreak and euphoria and lessons and beginnings. In the two years I’ve spent in the South, something magical has taken place. I do not think it is a coincidence that I ended up here, now, at the breaking point of civilization, at a considerable distance from my primary support network. This was all very intentional on the Universe’s part. I am bursting with gratitude, yearning to tell you why.
The South is another world. People are not in a hurry. Strangers greet each other as if they are warm friends. There is rapturous appreciation for simplicity and comfort. Time is allowed to stand still. Kindness creeps around corners, then floods torrentially. Everything is a marvel. If you’re growing impatient with me at this point, please keep reading: this is so important.
When I told people I was moving to Alabama, the most common responses were ones of disbelief that I would move somewhere so “openly hateful; so backwards; so archaic.” I’d visited several times and always felt nothing but peace and contentment each time I’d been immersed in the green and the humidity and the song of the cicadas. It was puzzling, but I understood the concern. The South has a dark history on which today’s comforts are built. I have become extremely aware of that by means of the privilege of becoming immersed in it. I have felt the blood in the earth where human beings were tortured and seen the grief in the eyes of those whose history is filled with pain and persistence. I have walked the streets that incredible leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Recy Taylor, and countless others walked and enacted monumental change. I have worked on the ground with Black men and women, striving to end the violence endemic to our cultures. I have listened and learned and dedicated every waking moment to understand my personal responsibility in perpetuating systems of abuse that have been committing slow-motion genocide from the moment the white man set foot in this country. I have achieved this because I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by Black women in my workplace who are willing to have tough conversations with me and tell me how I can do better. I’ve simply started listening whenever possible. I’ve always cared about these causes, but emotions are fleeting. As Los Angeles-based doula and activist Brandi Jordan stated in a podcast I recently listened to, at some point, you have to do more than care. You have to act. Every part of the country is infused with racism; at some point, we have to look inwards, rather than pointing fingers outward.
So, with that in mind, I leaned in. I leaned into the niceties and the slow-motion. I indulged in human interaction, which was something I had never done before. I indulged in adventure and newness and possibilities. I began using my discomfort as a compass for which direction I needed to be headed in. I no longer needed the armor. So every “good morning, y’all,” every “this is what We need from You,” every “you want cornbread or biscuit with your barbecue, baby?” was a panel removed, a liberation from my personal incarceration. With the help of the dear friends that surrounded me, I became myself in all my soft and rippling glory.
The roundness of my hips carry the compassion I have for the misunderstood. The rolls of my tummy house the bone-deep comfort and contentment of the here and now. The softness of my thighs deliver me into thrilling adventures regularly, and the roundness of my face reflects your light like the moon to guide you home in the dark. I am no longer chiseled and angular; I am buoyant and effervescent, so now when people try to paint me to their liking, it does not stick. I have been baptized by the omnipresent dew in the Southern air. I am Here and I am Whole. I understand that there is strength in softness.
Where once I was laden with impatience and doubt, I now radiate faith and abundance. What I have learned as I’ve unpacked not only my own trauma, but our country’s trauma, is that true power is in persistence. To Suffer is to Become. Yes, the fight has escalated. Yes, things are uncertain. But certainty is an illusion. We are more connected than we’ve ever been as a society of human beings, and we must lean into that. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other. Let us put down our armor and bring up our collective shield. This is only the beginning. Please: soften. Listen. And persist.