When I was a little girl, my big dreams were to be a “grown-up” and to live in a big mansion with all of my girlfriends, have fun and be free for the rest of our lives. On career day, when my primary school in Milwaukee, WI asked students to dress up in the costume of the future career we hoped to have, I had the hardest time. In exasperation I declared, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up! How can anyone choose one career when there are so many wonderful things to choose from?! All I know is that I want live in a big mansion with tennis courts, a pool, a bowling alley, horses, everything fun, and that we will take care of each other and be happy.”

“But sugar plum,” my mom replied, “that is not a ‘career’.”

Though I felt deeply let down by this discovery, somehow I was able to settle into myself knowing that somewhere out there, this vision for a future career might become a possibility one day. You’ll see… I thought. These words soon became my personal mantra.

The first time this hunch was affirmed was when I watched The Facts of Life on television for the first time. Ah ha, I knew it! I thought. Boarding school is what I’ve been dreaming about. Mrs. Drummond and her girls were unique, funny, smart and silly. And they lived in a beautiful place where they were free from excessive adult supervision to be creative and laugh and occasionally get into entertaining snafus. This was getting closer to what I saw for my future since career day! So it was the natural and obvious choice when a representative from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire came to my Milwaukee middle school to give a “slide presentation” on the wondrous and academically rigorous adventure that an Eastern boarding school could be! I felt like the admissions representative was speaking directly to my heart and soul. In one slide, there were images of an annual lobster dinner tradition in which the entire student body wore goofy bibs and chowed down on succulent crustaceans! (Say what?!?) Other images that sparked my interest were of students horse-backing as their “sport” because there was no P.E. (What, what?!?), and the beautiful sprawling campus, with a pool, and dozens of recreational activities and festivities, clearly and easily sealed the deal. It was such an astounding version of an education, that I didn’t even mind that there were boys there!

When I told my parents that I wanted to go to boarding school, that this childhood dream destination which was nonexistent in Wisconsin, was a real possibility for me, they looked at me like I was from another planet, not comprehending my fervent advocacy for leaving the safety and familiarity of our family home. My mom was dumbfounded, while my dad found my sincemissporters01re passion both delightful and humorous, assuming that it was passing phase that I would outgrow. He was wrong. It took me a year of begging and pleading before I finally applied to schools and got accepted to Miss Porter’s School (MPS) for Girls in Farmington, CT. After a couple visits to the campus, even my mother felt confident that I would thrive there, heartbroken though she was to let me leave home at such a young age. I was a fledgling bird, ready to leave the nest at a startlingly younger age than she anticipated. I thank God everyday that I had parents who honored my adolescent need to push past boundaries, take risks and make personal new discoveries. I am grateful that my mother and father were wise enough to allow such opportunities as boarding school for me, so that I could take such important risks within the safety of a community committed to educating and empowering girls and transforming them into leaders and activists and game-changers.

At MPS, I did thrive. Unbeknownst to me on a conscious level at the time, my voice was being stifled in Milwaukee, or rather within the overall cultural landscape of a city with a particularly oppressive history toward African Americans. The uniquely depressing energetic tone and social and political landscape of an under-resourced city like Milwaukee is absorbed profoundly into the physicagetout3.0l and emotional make-up of its inhabitants. My instincts told me to “get out” in much the same way that Jordan Peele’s film Get Out suggests is the impulse constantly bubbling underneath the experience of Black people in America’s racist landscape. Upon arrival at MPS, I was quite shy, and surprisingly, I felt like more of an outsider looking in during my first semester there. Obi Okobi, the first true friend I made in my dorm that year, started to help change that experience for me. She was particularly comforting to me at a time when I began to feel confounded by a friendship that left me feeling betrayed and bullied. At such a small school, when friendships resonated more like familial ties, it wasn’t always easy to know who I could trust to keep private my most vulnerable and trampled on heart. But Obi was that friend from the start. She was loyal to a fault, devoted and loving in ways that included daily hugs and snuggles on bed covers as we dished and fantasized about the boys that very thankfully were not as huge of a distraction as they might be in a co-ed public school. I trusted Obi with my heart. And she always had my back. It was female friendships like this one that had helped me to thrive, to find my voice, to learn and grow in ways as an adolescent female that no co-ed public education ever would have done for me.

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The Yoga Barn, our retreat program space at Menla

Fast forward 23 years to April 2, 2017 at Menla Mountain Center for Health andHappiness in Phoenicia, NY: I am playing host and co-facilitator to ten incredible, dynamic, brilliant, kind and generous women for Pause + Press Play, a retreat experience curated specifically for women of color. My co-facilitator, Marla Teyolia, and I had the intention to use our retreat to foster community, heal, practice the art of self-care, and play. As we prepared for our participants’ arrival, I behaved like a giddy school girl. And in many ways, this retreat harkened back to my school girl days and my time at MPS in a multi-cultural student group there called Watu Wazuri, established with a similar intent to support the unique needs of the girls of color at MPS from diverse backgrounds and experiences. At Menla I was so excited and could hardly contain my enthusiasm to begin our weekend of activities and leave our participants and ourselves overflowing with tools and love, all fueled by a little girl’s dreams dozens of years prior. Dreams do really come true! Unlike other retreats or trainings I’ve led in the past, this one felt deeply personal, and my own experience blurred with those of our participants. In other words, it felt impossible to merely hold space for the women around me, but necessary and natural to allow myself to dig into my own “stuff” as it bubbled up, unpack what I could, and sit meditatively and lovingly with the rest and watch it change slowly, gradually within my heart.

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Digging deep and doing the work together

By the end of the second day of my retreat, a participant and new friend checked in with me to see if I was ok. When I mentioned that since the mid-afternoon, my heart seemed to be feeling a kind of heaviness, or unexplained sorrow, she remarked that she could see that in me. Immediately I felt guilty about my own experience of the deep work we were doing through exploration of breath, yoga, mindfulness, release and intention creation practices perhaps interfering with the experiences of our participants. This was a retreat they paid for and should be about them.  Yet my impulse to put on a happy face so as not to take away their experience did not feel right or work when I tried at all. Marla affirmed that the nature of this retreat required that all present, be present and in it, and that whatever came for us was valid and important to go through as much as it was for our participants. This was not what I was used to doing in a facilitator role, but I was grateful for the permission I was being granted to practice a kind, curious and mindful attitude toward myself as much as toward the women I shared community with over the weekend.

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Our altar of intentions and remembrances

That evening, I fell asleep, deeply. I had vivid dreams about altars and purifying fires. I woke Sunday to a familiar woman’s voice, calling in a persistent if not urgent way “ Crystal. Crystal.” The voice was so loud and familiar that I woke with an unusual alertness for that wee hour of the morning. It was so clear that I wondered if the voice had been in a dream. Yet as I flipped through the dream-state images still fresh in my mind, I did not recall anyone in particular in my dream with me. For a moment, I considered that Marla, whose room was next to mine and through the wall behind my bed, had called out to me. So I called back out to her, “Marla, are you there?” I called to her again, wondering if she was merely around the corner wall in my bathroom, “Is that you, Marla?” No answer. And wouldn’t she just come and knock on my door?

Then I remembered the last time I had heard such a voice call out to me from a deep sleep. That time I had had a dream about my mother being unwell, and when I called home immediately on waking in the middle of the night, my father confirmed that it was in fact my sister who was unwell and in the hospital, and that my mom had left to go to her. Something in my soul knew that something was wrong with these women, the women I am more connected to than any others on Earth. So at Menla, I immediately leapt for my cellphone, dialing my childhood home in hopes of contacting my mother right away. Yet, Menla was far from any cell towers and had no phone service! I would not be able to touch base easily until we departed that afternoon at 1pm. Though I felt unsettled, there wasn’t anything I could do until then. Thankfully, I discovered that all was well with my sisters and mother on the ride back to New York City. Though I remained somewhat puzzled by that mystic moment of being called to “wake up”, I left Menla feeling lighter and opened up to the natural state of grace that life presents to us in every waking moment. Being in the company of women practicing the art of self-care, my mind felt fresh, my body felt new, alive and very much awake, indeed.

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With my two sisters

My soul, like an inner teacher, directed me from an early age to note the magic and depth of spirit that arises when feminine energy is explored in community in effort to support, restore, empower, and have fun with each other. During the weekend retreat, I was present to the blessings that have been

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With my first yoga business partners and friends in Oakland

bestowed upon my life from the many women’s circles that I’ve belonged to: my two sisters and mother, my childhood school girlfriends, my girls boarding school sisters and family, my many college girl crews that held me up from Ujamaa freshman dorm at Stanford to my “off-campus” girl crew, my Oakland house share girl roommates, my yoga girlfriends, my artist girlfriends, my educator girlfriends, my first NYC

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After my class at Solstice Times Square 2015 with some of my NYC yoga-girls

women’s circle, and now from one women’s retreat to another. In many respects, the most significant moments of my entire life have been a result of a dream seed that was planted long ago, when I first became aware of how sweetly miraculous it is to be female. I have blossomed time and time again in the company of women, and I know and trust that it is my destiny to do so continuously, and support other women to do so as well.

On the Monday following that Pause + Press Play weekend retreat, I received a call from Madame Athena Chang, a fellow “ancient” (alum) from Miss Porter’s School. She called to tell me that my dear friend Obi Okobi had died that day. My chin dropped and I was stunned. As tears streamed down my cheeks, I prayed that I had heard incorrectly, and that she had said Obi’s mother had died. Athena clarified that in fact Obi had passed while waiting in the emergency room at St.Joseph’s hospital in Baltimore, MD, not far

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The late Obidimma Okobi

from her home and the school where she was a principal. The turn of events made no sense at all, and were hazy in my mind at best. Obi had fallen while taking her dog for a walk… She felt unusual and went to the hospital… They discovered pulmonary embolisms… The doctors put her on blood thinners… She went home and felt worse… She called a friend for help… Her friend, Odi, came over to Obi’s home, and soon they returned to the hospital as Obi’s symptoms seemed to worsen… Obi sat in the waiting room for SEVEN hours…even with a chart that included details of the blood clots found earlier at the same hospital… She went to use the bathroom and had a seizure and died on the bathroom floor…

And just like that the bright light of a powerful woman is extinguished.

It made no sense at all. But it was true.  Obi, my most trusted confidant during adolescence and one of the best human beings on the face of this Earth is gone.

The next day, I was haunted by the lack of synchronicity of it all. In my mind, we were going to collaborate on an educational project or yoga program or something to support our communities one day… How was this and Obi no more… Still trying to process Obi’s death, I turned to Facebook for comfort in the words of so many commemorative tributes to her life and the meaningful friendships and communities she created during her time here on this plane. And then suddenly, I remembered that voice from the two days before that woke me up at Menla. “Crystal. Crystal. ” it said. So familiar, and urgent, though not frightening at all…

I began to sob like a baby, right on the New York subway. It wasn’t my mother, or sisters who were calling to me. It was one of my other sisters whom I hadn’t been in touch with regularly, yet still held a deep, unbreakable soul to soul tie to. The hairs on my body stood on end. Wake up, Obi was telling me. It’s time to wake up, remember who you are and let go of the past.

In preparing to attend Obi’s end of life services in Pittsburgh, some surprising baggage from high school began to reveal itself in preparation for being with what I imagined would be all of Miss Porter’s School. Adolescence is a profoundly impressionable time. And from what my now very experienced and wizened adult self can understand about all the changes that are occurring in the adolescent brain, many of the hardest things.

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Ancients and members of Watu Wazuri hold daisies as part of a Miss Porter’s School tradition at Obi’s funeral service in Pittsburgh, April 22, 2017

I endured during high school were essentially trauma. I had so much support and was surrounded by so much love, but I was also deeply hurt and lacked the tools for how to overcome the suffering and anxiety that I faced daily. I had been deeply wounded by a female friend, new uncharted emotional territory for me; add to that the break up of my first true love/boyfriend back in Milwaukee, and I was a wreck. Yet I held important responsibilities as student Head of School, Head of Student Council, Head of Dance Workshop, as a Perilhette (MPS’s a cappella group), and the academic rigors of being a senior at an esteemed college preparatory boarding school. Over two decades have passed since high school, and yet during these many years, I had developed the habit of hiding from Miss Porter’s and some of the connections I made there in effort to avoid reliving that “boogeyman” called traumatic stress. Today, Obi’s passing has literally woken me up, both literally in Phoenicia, NY while on retreat, and figuratively within my own heart to the fact that I am a grown ass woman and there are actually no boogeymen who can scare me when I open the closet door anymore. I am moved to tears when I realize that even in suffering and death, Obi has proven to be an extraordinary girlfriend and human spirit. I am so grateful to have had the treasure of her friendship. I am devastated that she is gone, but I will cherish it always.

IMG_4464Every time I think of Obi calling to me, persistently and firmly saying my name, only the hairs on my body that stand on end and a deep hollowness in my gut can confirm that it was truly “her”. It’s hard to explain why I know this to be true. It is a knowing that comes from the depths of an inner most soul-connected wisdom. And this is what happens when women commune and a little girl’s dreams come true: miracles, healing, clarity, safety, freedom, gratitude, levity, beauty and the grace of the Divine Feminine.