Remembering how to Breathe

Inhale. I open the double doors to the patio of my third floor flat to greet a family of palm trees, the closest one lingers about ten feet from my window. I stare and they stare back at me.

View from the balcony of my flat in Siolim, Goa. 

Exhale. I can see lime green coconuts nestled between the fold of the giant palm leaves as the leaves plunge forward and pierce the blue sky. Behind the trees is a field of marshy green that goes on for miles. If there were no grass there, this would probably be a small lake. I find it fascinating that the water lingers so long since it gets up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon and it hasn’t rained since September. Midway through the marsh, I can see a cow grazing about waist deep. A flock of great white egrets speckle the green mass surrounding the cow. Some stand on his back. Others nearby. There is something majestic about the entire scene.

The marshy grasslands across the street from my flat.

Filled with the gratitude of this moment, I hold tight to each second as I inhale and exhale the crisp morning air. Five months ago, I made a decision to come here and five months from now, I will leave this place. Here I stand, smack dab in the middle of this journey. Oh, how the time flies.

I sit on my balcony and reflect on my journey up until to this point. I pull out my journal and flip through the pages hoping to encounter the Crystal of five months ago and to relive the excitement and exhaustion of the day that I arrived in Goa after the two-week AIF orientation in Delhi.

View from the plan as I arrived in Goa for the first time. 

It was September 16, 2017 and there was so much emotion and things to be processed. It was gloomy and wet from weeks of rain. I had two, very heavy bags that had to be lugged up three flights of stairs to my new co-workers’ apartment. It was our first time meeting. I wondered about her impression of me and my bags that probably weighed more than her. She smiled and introduced herself. She offered me food. I sat on her couch. I was exhausted from traveling from Delhi by flight and then taking a 1 hour car ride to Siolim. It was a long, scenic ride and I drifted in and out of sleep. We passed beautiful ocean views and grassy mountains. We sat in traffic as people whipped by on scooters but finally, i had arrived.

Long car ride from the airport to Siolim. 

I fell asleep on the couch and she told me that I could go and lay in her bed. As I lay there the fan hummed and the soft and steady drops of rain fell outside the window. I was nervous but I was here. I took out my journal in an attempt to capture the moment.


Journal Entry from September 16, 2017

I am entering my third week in India. Today, I took a plane to Goa from New Delhi and I am currently staying with a host family—two women who work at the organization where I will be working. One named Swati and the other, I don’t know her name [Alankrita]. They live about an hour away from the airport. Radhika, my mentor, sent a car to pick me up and when he dropped me off it was 1300 rupees—wow! Next time I will remember to ask for more information regarding transportation—what is covered by the host org and what I should cover. It was a long day and now I just feel drained. I am not sure how my coworkers feel about me… they haven’t said much.

Getting ready to board the plane to Goa from Delhi.

So many things annoyed me today! At the airport, the guy checking me in for my flight in Delhi tried to hit on me and I think it is because I am from the U.S. and not because he necessarily finds me attractive which is cool but annoying. At least he sees me as human. The men are so bold here. They see women as objects. They feel it’s ok to stare and undress you with their eyes. They are bold and inappropriate. But the women are bold as well.

“Is this your real hair?” She asks as she, a security guard, scanned me with the magic wand that TSA agents all around the world use to cast spells of travel delay on unexpecting travelers.

“Yes, it’s my hair” I have braids in but I just lied. No need for lengthy conversations since I am sure I will never see this lady again. It’s none of her business anyway!

Feeling really proud of myself for my first time traveling in India by myself!

Because I am black, people stare. Like…constantly. All the time. Some days I can confront it with a smile. Other days, it is just plain annoying. Today, I was somewhere in between.

I boarded the plane, alone. For the first time I am alone in another country. I am so PROUD of me! I did it and so far, I am glad I did. I got to my host home and I am exhausted. I feel like my allergies are flaring up. I have sniffles and as I write this journal entry, I am on the edge of falling asleep because I just took two allergy meds.

I got off the plane, alone, I headed to baggage claim. Got my bags—easy! Found the driver—piece of cake! I made it here alone. All by myself. I am so proud of me for proving to me that I can do it! My emotions are all over the place—excited, scared, annoyed, uncomfortable but assertive all at the same time. This is the nicest I have ever been to me. I let me make mistakes. I keep rooting for me in my head. I hope these next couple of days fly by with rest and mindfulness. I hope that I get great sleep tonight.

Later that night I wrote…

As I took a nap today after a long exhausting day of travel, I had a dream that I was having trouble breathing. My nose was completely stopped up and my throat would close up. I would gag and try to signal to people that I wasn’t getting any air. Then all of a sudden, my mouth would open and the air would flow in and I would be ok. But then it would happen again… nose congested, throat closes up! And it was as if I would forget what allowed me to open up in the first place. I would panic and once again, reach out for help from people. But before anyone could help, I would finally start breathing again.


Reflections on this Journal Entry

The sun is almost directly overhead. The cool morning breeze has morphed into the warmth of afternoon. The cows and birds have gone—some birds are now perched atop the coconut palm trees outside the window. The sounds of scooters, cars, and buses has grown more frequent. The warm sun has extended its reach along my patio floor.

As I think back on the myriad of emotions and experiences from my arrival in Goa, I have a greater perspective on these experiences. I pour myself another cup of black tea and sip slow. I had forgotten the deep emotions of that day. There were so many “firsts” and things to be proud of. Since living in India, I find that I celebrate small successes in myself more frequently—and this was definitely a success. I moved with confidence and grace and even though I couldn’t see it at the time, I was setting myself up for the growth that would follow.

In this dream, I was forgetting how to breath—something so natural became a foreign task for me. And then I would panic because I know that the result of not breathing is death. I tried to reach out to other people to help me but they could not hear me or understand the struggle of my impending doom that would result from not doing what I was naturally designed to do. This did not happen once, it happened several times. It was scary and it felt like no one could help me. Each time when it seemed that I only had seconds to live, the breath would come. Like clockwork. It didn’t fail. Then the suffocation would happen all over again and I would forget my process for solving the problem the times before. I would, once again, reach out to people when I had my own answers all along.


I am learning, it is not always about seeking other people to help me through the struggle, sometimes it is a matter of resting, settling in to myself and trusting God to get me through the process. At some point, it would all come back to me. Those things that I already knew would resurrect and get me to the next point. Even when things seemed hopeless and it seemed as if I would die, it never failed, I would breath again. I am not sure if the solution was that I remembered how to breath OR if it was simply that the air forced its way into my nostrils right at the last minute. Either way, it didn’t fail me, I always remembered how to breath again.


Although unclear at that moment, the dream was very telling of my experiences to come. Breathing is such a natural and innate experience. We do not have to think about how to breath we just do it—even unconsciously. It is not forced, it is a flow. Breathing is not a learned behavior, no one ever has to teach us how to breath we just do it. Naturally. Without even thinking about it.

As I struggle to sort through my personal issues and make sense of my past, as I think about the possibilities of the future and what I will do next, as I ask my self the hard questions of, “Am I living my purpose”, “Will I ever find love”, “What will I do after this fellowship” I must know that the answers will come, unforced and naturally. No need to panic because the breath will come, God has not failed me yet. It will all come back to me and in that moment when I feel like all is lost, I always remember how to breath.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – SELAH.

Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message Translation)

Magby Wedding-0056
Photo of reflection from my 2016 photo shoot in Atlanta, GA. 

It’s Only India

I stepped off the plane. Any prospect of “jet-lag” had been overridden by the sheer excitement of this moment. I was in India. The smells, the colors, the sounds—All of my senses were overly stimulated by the newness of this place. Thousands of miles away from Atlanta, I was proud of myself for actually doing this.

Several days before leaving for India, I posted a very excited and admittedly dramatic post about coming to India. The post said something along the lines of my journey to India being a life changing experience and I was so excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity. One of my friends, who just so happened to be from India, commented on the post saying something along the lines of “Calm down, it’s only India”. At first, I was a little embarrassed that I had made such a big deal out of this small feat, I mean, he was right, it was JUST India.

Beautiful Day to fly! ATL to NYC.

But then, I realized that I had every right to be proud and excited about this new journey. Just a couple weeks before, I had put in my letter of resignation from a very stable job to take this once in a lifetime journey. I stepped out because I wanted something different. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to see more and learn more. I wanted adventure.

After living on my own and supporting myself fully for 2 years and finishing graduate school, I applied to fellowships because I wanted a traveling experience that was more than sightseeing. I wanted to do something that had purpose and meaning. I also did not want to spend a lot of money traveling. My ideal next step would be something that would give me the opportunity to travel/live outside of the U.S., it would allow me to use my professional/creative skills, and it would be something that I would not have to fund on my own. After about a five month process of applying, interviewing, and planning this fellowship to work and serve in India was finally a reality.

Not all who Wander are Lost…

I gathered my oversized luggage from baggage claim in the Delhi terminal and then headed to the airport lobby to meet up with the fellowship staff. We had been traveling for about 20 hours or so with about 15 hours of air time. We landed in Delhi around 7pm local time. My adrenaline was rushing as I snapped pictures of everything, attempting to capture these moments. I was traveling with about 20 other fellows from all over the U.S. This was truly an amazing group of young professionals. I found out pretty early that I was one of the older fellows. Many of them were fresh out of undergrad. Some were in their mid 20’s, and a very select few of the U.S. Fellows were late 20’s/early 30’s. One of the application criteria was that fellows would need to be under 35 years old. This was an impressive group. Everyone in the fellowship cohort had traveled the world and knew at least two languages—that is “all” except for me. I am the only fellow this year that only knows English and has never traveled outside the U.S.

All ready to leave Atlanta! Headed to New York to meet the other fellows.

We met with the fellowship staff after gathering all of our bags. We walked outside of the airport toward where our bus would pick me up. I inhaled this “new air”. Delhi was once the most polluted cities in the world, it now ranks number 11 based on a 2017 CBS news article. The pollution mostly comes from the burning of nearby rice paddies, burning municipal waste, and vehicle exhaust emissions. As we pushed through crowds, one of the first things that I noticed was that there just seemed to be a significantly larger amount of people around.  This was pretty accurate considering the fact that although the physical size of the US is about three times larger than that of India, India’s populations is  4 times greater than India! I had been warned by a previous fellow that this would be one of the first things that would stand out to me.

The sounds of car horns peeping, dogs barking, traffic swooshing by, and people having conversations in Hindi filled the smog air. My body was tired but my mind was well wake. The air was thick and humid. We sloshed through the damp street pulling our bags over dirty, shallow puddles of water. Plastic bottles and paper speckled the hill next to where we stood waiting for our bus to pick us up. Groups of people were sitting along the side of where we stood. Several stray dogs approached the group once we got settled to beg for bits of food. I remember hearing horror stories about mosquitoes before leaving the US so I shuffled through my bag trying to locate some bug spray. I couldn’t find it so, I just put on my jacket to help protect myself from potentials mosquito bites.

First International Flight on Etihad Airways. It was so amazing.


As we waited, the fellows continued conversations that had started on the airplane. I learned that some of the fellows had recently spent time in India. Some were Indian Americans. It was surprising to me that there were actually three African American fellows in the group. I was prepared to be the token black girl so when I saw two other black fellows, this truly warmed my heart and made me so excited. It was also very surprising how well our group seemed to be getting along. We had flown 13.5 hours from New York City to Abu Dabi and the 3.5 hours from Abu Dhabi to Delhi so that is more than enough time to generally get to know people. This had been my first International flight and we flew Etihad Airways. Since the flight was not completely full, we were able to stretch out and I slept so well. I really enjoyed the airplane food for some reason. It seemed like every time I woke up from a nap, they were feeding me again which was probably my favorite part! Lol.

Yummy airplane food! lol.
September 2, 2017. Delhi Airport after a long day of travel.

Finally the bus arrived. We loaded all of our bags onto the large tour bus and boarded. The air conditioner was on which was pleasant after standing in the thick, damp heat for about 15-20 minutes. We sat two to a seat and the fellowship director shared with us that we would be staying in a Japanese Business Hotel. She said that there were about 10 Indian fellows who were already at the hotel. We would have breakfast in the hotel and then meet for orientation at 9am the next morning. Honestly, I thought she was joking about meeting that early after such a long day of traveling but it turns out, that was definitely not a joke. This fellowship orientation would be filled with new sights and new experiences. This was only the beginning of a journey that I wanted to challenge me and change me. And I believed it would. After all, it’s only India.






September 1, 2017. 2017-18 American India Foundation Fellows in the JFK Airport in New York City.  This photo only includes the U.S. Fellows since we all traveled together to India.

Let me be Clear…

I remember that time I volunteered like it was my job. This is not an exaggeration. I was the first person to arrive and the last person to leave. I created plans, strategies, and processes to get the work done and inspire the young people I worked with. I wrote poems, plays and monologues. I organized rehearsals with detailed agendas and galvanized volunteers to support the teens. I flew all around the country speaking on behalf of youth in foster care. I lead workshops. I did poetry in front of thousands. I stood up for the voiceless. But me, I always stood behind the curtain of “good deeds”.  I never allowed myself to step up, center stage and let the spotlight illuminate all of my glorious honesty. Instead, I avoided the opportunity to pull back the curtain and see a 6-year-old me balled up in the corner. I was waiting on someone else to just call off the whole show because there was a bigger issue that needed to be addressed here. But no one could address it for me.

Do you remember the scene in the Wiz when Toto pulled back the curtain to see Richard Pryor pulling the strings and pretending to be this big scary Wizard? Yeah… It was something like that with me. I could put on a really great show but when it came to standing on my own and really embracing the fullness of my gifts and my failures, I always shrunk back .

However, in these roles as a volunteer and an advocate I stretched beyond what I thought I was capable of. I had leaders who pushed me and challenged me to go further and dream bigger. And I was loyal, VERY loyal to the mission. I turned down other opportunities so that I could be fully present and available for the work that needed to be done. At that moment in my life, my service was necessary and it fed me more than physical food. There was no paycheck attached to my work but my heart was sewn in tight, stitched closely within the fabric of obligation and necessity. I believed this was a calling, THIS was the necessary thing.

For close to two years, I lived like this. After being laid off from my regular 9 to 5 job, I served in ministry and I did contract work to meagerly support myself after the unemployment benefits ran out. I went all in but, let me be clear, I was changed. I was better. I did things that I didn’t know that I was able to do. I inspired hundreds and dare I say thousands of teenagers through theater and the creative arts. I spoke on stages and attended conferences with the heavy hitters of child welfare. I got so much fulfillment out of working for a cause and giving all and seeing lives changed. It was a positive addiction. And all of the affirmation and encouragement from people was comfortable and I came to trust the pat on the back from others more than I trusted my own voice and intuition. So when I decided to step away from this and do something from me, very few people were left to stroke my ego and tell me that I’m great. And I thought I needed that affirmation from other people because I knew that when it stopped, I would have no other choice than to go behind the curtain and have a conversation with my insecurities and that was the scariest thing of all.

There is something called “compassion fatigue” which is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper. I am not sure this is what I experienced. For me, it was a hatred of being alone with my own thoughts and my own voice. I stifled my own voice, I second guessed myself, beat myself up so much that I didn’t even know what I sounded like. So when this badgered and blocked version of myself screamed out to me after suffocating for years under a blanket of “good deeds”, I was startled.


She protested.

ME: This is not truth

I had burned myself out. I wasn’t tired of serving, I was tired of lying to myself and telling myself that there was some magical end to my service. Telling myself that I wasn’t good enough to stand alone, that I had nothing to offer. And nobody did this to me and most people around me didn’t know about this invisible war I waged against myself as I tried to come to terms with the fact that at some point, I would have to face ME. It was just so much easier to drown out my own disappointments and pain by focusing on healing someone else’s. I had such low self esteem for not having a place of my own to live and not having a job and it was time that I actually faced this truth. And no amount of serving or good deeds would magically give me what I could only give myself.

So I decided to just ask my self;

ME: Crystal, what do YOU want.

It’s so crazy how this conversation went down. It’s almost like I had to pry myself away from the religious jargon. I would respond,

ALSO ME: I just want the will of God for my life…

ALSO ME: I just want to do what I am called to do…

ALSO ME: I just want to do what I am passionate about…

ME: (Side eye stare…)

My conversation was plagued with these types of mindless phrases that allowed me to exit stage left when I knew my fears were center stage.

I had this back and forth conversation with myself for months. Encouraging myself like;

ME: “Crystal, it’s ok to want something for you”

ALSO ME: But I want to give back, I want to do something noble and good.

ME: (rolls eyes) But how can you do that when you have nothing….

ALSO ME: (Silent flinches…)

ME: “Crystal, its time for you to be selfish. Focus on you.”

And finally after pinning myself against a wall and forcing an answer, I realized that I wanted to go back to school.

ME: Ok great! That’s a start. What do you want to study?

ALSO ME: Something broad and useful… how about business!

ME: Ok, cool! Whatever you want, I trust you.

And before I knew it, I had passed the GRE to attend Georgia State University to get a M.B.A. with a focus in organization management. Then I was like;

ALSO ME: Hey, I think I want to live on my own. I want to make money! I want to get a new car. I want to work out more!

For the first time in my adult life, I was letting my personal desires drive my actions. I moved out of my sisters house and for the first time, I had my own apartment on a totally different side of town far from just about everyone. One of my contract gigs offered me a full time position which I took. And I just let my self live on my own terms.  During this time, I stopped volunteering altogether. I had exchanged taking trips across the country to taking trips to the grocery story, speaking on stages in front of thousands to speaking to coworkers over the edge of cubicles, leading youth in rehearsals to leading conversations with myself about what I wanted. These conversations were not always productive, mind you, sometimes it was just processing through the previous night’s season finale of Scandal but at least I was getting used to giving myself time to hear and know myself. I spent a lot of time alone.  And I needed that. I deserved that.

As I started to near the end of my M.B.A., i thought about what I wanted next. By this time, that little voice had gotten a little aggressive with being selfish since I spent so much time attending to myself and less time attending to others. She screamed at me a litany of things she wanted.

ALSO ME: I want to do something different when I finish M.B.A. I may want to switch career fields so maybe something that will give me a little breather. I really like traveling, building relationships, youth, and creative stuff. I want to step out of my current box. I want to stretch myself a little. I want to shake things up.

ME: Daaaaang girl! You want a lot! Let’s do it! I trust you!

After that, I checked to see if I sensed any hesitation in my spirit and I had peace so I was like, why not? I kinda just put all of these ingredients into a pot and started stirring. I did not hear a “Noah build a boat”-sized proclamation from God. I just let myself listen to me and I figured, if God lives in me and then better start listening from within me! And I had to be OK with the fact that sometimes, I get it wrong and its pretty darn embarrassing. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I believe God provided all the right urges and spices and conversations and sauces that, when mixed together, give me a better direction on what was next. And I did just that.

Now, a year later, I am in India doing something I love. I am growing and learning every day and I continue to give space to that voice that eggs me on from time to time saying,

ME: “You got this girl, look at you! YOU ARE REALLY HERE! You are the bomb! I trust you…”

And on and on. Sometimes I pause and check behind the curtain and that 6-year-old me is trying to curl up in a ball again. But instead of just going on with the show, I stop. I sit with her. I ask her questions. And I make space for growth, I make space for me, I make space for just being.



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