By Taj M. Smith
I have a habit of writing letters to myself. Whenever I’m in the dredges of a Big Life Change my hands begin to tingle in a way that tells me to pick up a pen and write my way through it. I recently came across a letter I wrote to myself in November of 2020. I hadn’t read it since I wrote it, but it was addressed to “February Taj” as in February 2021.
Thinking back to November of 2020, I was just beginning a career change while my partner and I processed the loss of their beloved grandfather, their aunt, and our dear sweet cat, Astrid. All of this was on top of the rage I felt at the continued devaluation of Black life in the US and the pandemic. At the time, I added them to my litany of names to honor the dead, lit a candle, and wrote a letter to myself.
At 35-years-old, I think of grief like an old friend and one that I usually feel comfortable enough around to show my most vulnerable self. Like a well-loved keepsake, my body carries grief with it everywhere it goes and it resurfaces each season as if to remind me that loss is inevitable. Its face may be different, but it is always there, waiting for the right time to make itself known. For me, the act of grieving is sacred, and writing letters to myself during the grieving process is a hallowed ritual.
This particular letter struck me while reading it. In other letters I’ve written to myself while grieving, I’ve focused on the person or situation I’ve lost, or I’ve detailed the memories that I want to hold onto. In the letters before this one, my despair was palpable, and I focused on the loss itself as if I could bring what I had lost back. This letter was different.
In this letter, the opening line in the second paragraph set the tone: “I’m proud of you, Taj.”
I read this line over and over, cherishing each syllable, noticing the shape of every letter in my mouth. With familiar feelings of sadness and rage at the ready, my body followed the seasonal script as anticipated, but, this time, along with the sadness and the rage, I felt pride and hope.
The number of times I’ve said that grief can coexist with hope and pride far outnumber the times I’ve actually felt these feelings together. Even though I knew this information intellectually, I had yet to really know it in my bones. Even more so, I had yet to begin to integrate grief into my understandings of hope, rage, change, and, ultimately, myself.
Integrating grief, for me, is a step towards joy. It is the ability to look at the pain I have endured, to acknowledge and feel it, yet not become it. The grief has not gone away so much as it has transformed into a source of power that propels me toward the future.
Today, I am “February Taj” despite having intended to read this letter a year ago. Amidst all of the rage and trepidation I have felt since writing this letter, I know that there is also pride, hope, and joy. All of it is me, and I am proud.
Taj M. Smith (he/him) is a writer, theologian, spiritual leadership coach, preacher, and speaker based in Massachusetts, originally from California. As a Black, transgender Christian, Taj’s work explores faith, spirituality, liberation and queer theology, and intersectional politics. He holds an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and has a creative passion for music and literature, particularly science fiction. Learn more about his work at https://www.tajmsmith.com/.