As a Black Woman, I’m Learning that Rest Is Resistance
Resting, in this context, is resistance.
So take your rest, intentionally—because they sure aren’t going to give it to you
The daughter of Malawian immigrants to the US—once trapped in financial precarity but eventually freed by opportunity—I am a quantum leap away from where my parents began, and I often feel an outsized desperation to hold on to the momentum of that jump. Any minute of rest is a minute I risk being caught slipping: caught with less than the King’s English in my mouth, caught in unplanned public mediocrity that observers could take as reason to declare I don’t belong. I’ve been told innumerable times in my thirty-eight years to let go, relax, just be myself—told by teachers, coworkers, friends. Usually white friends. But especially in periods of higher stress, which is to say periods where I am more likely to be on autopilot, I find it difficult know what that even means—who is myself, when I’ve so perfected the performance of American productivity that I sometimes can’t tell who is me and who is the simulacrum.
The beach I ended up choosing—a quiet-ish beach called Ocean Park Beach, in San Juan’s gentrifying Loíza section—was hot. Too hot, it seemed. I couldn’t believe people really chose to spend hours baking in the sun like this for “fun.” I’d been on many beach vacations but tended to sit at shaded tables or cafés that overlooked the beach, rather than settling in the sand. But I was determined to see this project of actual rest through. For me, getting a table meant sitting up, which felt too close to still being at a desk, and the shaded parts of the beach were far from the shoreline, which in my idealized beach day I’d imagined having just a few feet away. As I set up, I realized my beach nest was almost comically work-themed: My beach mat was a giveaway from my department’s summer kick-off party, my beach towel was from my team’s retreat, and the drawstring bag I’d brought most of my things in was from an admissions-office welcome event. The only thing missing were branded sunglasses; I’d forgotten them back in Philadelphia.
The sand burned my toes, streams of sweat rolled down from my hairline and stung my eyes, and the sun’s brightness was hurting my eyes despite my dark sunglasses. The wind that day was strong, so setting up took way longer than I’d expected because I had to keep anchoring the corners of my beach mat with progressively heavier objects. Windblown sand kept biting my face, and a nearby couple was blasting loud music from their Bluetooth speakers. Even the dried seaweed spackling the high-tide point looked gross and depressing. I’d only been there for fifteen minutes. I already wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep.
But still I made myself stay put. Half an hour into my repose, the heat of the sun became too intense, and I went for a swim. In the strong currents that day, “a swim” amounted mostly to dipping myself under the waves as they passed and tiptoeing over the softer parts of the ocean bed where I could find them. After swimming I took out my beach read, Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine, and despite the wind fighting my page turning I made solid headway through the book.
Halfway through the afternoon the wind let up and the sun had finally turned from burning heat to a pleasant warmth. My earlier forays into the water had tired me out enough that it seemed my mind was finally slowing down. The couple with the loud boom box had left, and the ocean had stilled; the beach had become slightly fuller but not outright loud. Between book chapters I found myself transfixed by a group of windsurfers a half mile past the breakers, colorful sails threading around each other and across the horizon. I began to see, and feel, why so many people made their vacations all about beach life. I felt deeply relaxed—my body felt anchored in place rather than weighted by obligation, absent of the normal nervous energy that otherwise drives me relentlessly toward productivity and planning in my day-to-day life. As I continued to lie there on the beach, I realized it had been a very long time since I’d allowed that feeling—immovability, but in a good way—to take up residence in my body.
Whether by hardwiring, family training, or culturally-implanted fear, I’d spent most of my life running from this sensation. In that moment, though, I understood why: You couldn’t make me do anything when my body felt like that. I couldn’t make me do anything. And for someone whose religion is work, that’s a frightening thing. For I am the kind of person who tries to have a justified use to every minute of my day, which sounds like a personal prison—and perhaps some of the time it is intended that way. A way of keeping my mind from wandering places it shouldn’t; a mode of holding feelings at bay that, without the wire mesh of constant movement, could explode to the surface and make a mess of everything. There is a comfort, however thorny, in this kind of self-rule, even when I know that anxiety is the real engine driving that push for insistent purpose in my life.
The emotional connection between self-worth and productivity is one I’ve struggled to break for years. Intellectually, I know that my value as a person is intrinsic regardless of how much or how little I have achieved on any given day. But I grew up constantly chased by the feeling that I had to prove myself worthy of the spaces I occupied—first as an immigrant child growing up in the US and Canada, then later as a returnee to Malawi desperate to prove I belonged despite only having visited once before. I decided early in my life that at least if I could universally win—conquer everything, in any space—people might grumble at my obnoxious determination but they couldn’t deny me my place in whatever system I was in: school, work, country, all of it. The downside of that kind of life theory, though, is that simply not winning quickly comes to feel like abject failure; stopping the engine, even for a few minutes, feels precariously close to voluntarily giving up my citizenship in a place. Behind the silence of doing nothing lies the fear of exile. Which sounds extreme, except that in a capitalism-driven society, productivity is absolutely pinned to one’s ability to belong: I’m not fully wrong for feeling this way. But in running myself down so hard to maintain membership to all of these places, I’m not fully right either.
My second beach day didn’t come without disturbances. I’d woken up to multiple messages from my family about a brewing family issue back in Malawi. A friend’s marriage was in full meltdown; during lunch I got a volley of messages from her. I received several work-related emails, not from my team, but from other people I was on a project with that week. On a typical Sunday back in Philadelphia, I would have gritted my teeth and sat down to grudgingly respond. But it was my second beach day. So I ignored the work emails—they could be dealt with on Tuesday morning. For the friend with the breaking marriage, I sent a few messages and then told her I would get back to her as soon as I returned to Philadelphia. And for my family, I told them I’d already spoken my piece on the issue at hand and wouldn’t engage in further argument about it. “I’m going to the beach now,” I wrote. “If it’s truly critical I’ll respond when I get back.” And then I switched my phone to airplane mode, packed my tote bag, and set off once more for Ocean Park.
That day I went a little later in the afternoon, so that the gentler hours of the sun arrived sooner into my beach stay. I brought a couple of additional water bottles and two beers—enough to feel tipsy, not outright blitzed—but left behind the extra towel, flip-flops, and sarongs. I set up my beach nest in an even quieter area, where the waves were bigger and rougher but there were even fewer people, perhaps on account of those same waves. I was almost all the way through the Gabrielle Union book and had brought another book, Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then, to begin once I finished.
The emotional connection between self-worth and productivity is one I’ve struggled to break for years.
As the sun moved farther down in the sky and turned soft once again, my body settled, faster than the day before. The struggle against resting that had taken up so much of my first beach day never appeared. I continued to read, I went wading in the water once again, I lay on my back with my knees up and my toes in the sand, the sky above me completely clear save for a few birds and some scattered cloud wisps behind the high-rises at the very end of the beach. I didn’t even need to consciously empty my mind—I slid into my repose and my daily anxiety quickly left my body, taking the typical churn of my thoughts with it. By the time I walked back to my hotel just after the sun slipped under the sea, I felt more than rested: I felt proud. I’d finally found the kind of rest that had seemed so out of reach for a person in my body, in my mind, in this life. I never wanted to lose that feeling again.
The most important thing about that trip was that it was something I’d wanted and then acted upon. Because Black girls aren’t supposed to openly want things, certainly not nice things, and if we do, we certainly aren’t supposed to actually get them. We’re expected to make a religion out of one day and someday; we’re seen as most virtuous when putting off our own life satisfaction in support of others. Even our own communities enforce this. The difference, in Puerto Rico, is that I wanted it and then I made it happen, in two weeks, and during Juneteenth no less. I rested in the sun, I spent more money on food than I ever did on my own in Philadelphia, I took a sunset yacht cruise on my last night there and arrived at the airport to find I’d been upgraded to first class for my flight back to the mainland. Good job, the universe seemed to be saying. You turned someday into today.
The compulsion toward work and against rest is a compulsion to prove usefulness and necessity to the world. Except emancipation isn’t found at the extreme edges of productivity—it’s in rejecting the notion of worth as something to be earned. We can’t hustle our way to worthiness. We have worth because we’re here, whether we’re cranking out presentations at our desks at the office or binge-watching whole seasons of bad Netflix shows in a single sitting at home. I know that as a Black person especially, even momentary nonproductivity often feels like a fatal risk—the risk of confirming the very lines of reasoning that have underpinned the institutional subjugation of Black people in America since the beginning of the slave trade, through colonialism, Jim Crow, and beyond: that we don’t have worth unless we are being put to work. But truly flipping the tables on those beliefs means intentional refusal to adhere to them, at least not beyond reasonable limits. As my conference friend declared: We must give rest, these exits from the hustle, to ourselves. America’s institutions may not have been designed to see us as deserving of rest—but intentionally taking it is precisely what protects our definition as human.
My nest of rest was not just a physical location but an emotional and psychological one. A place where I defended my right to be still, to reject the burdens the world habitually set on my shoulders and indeed the shoulders of Black women as a rule. Though I only spent two full days on the beach, my body had needed it so badly that, by the time the sun set on my second day, it felt like I’d experienced months of unwinding. On that trip I briefly but fully lived the truth that not only would the world continue to turn if I cared for myself, but my own life would begin to come into the kind of bloom I’d always dreamed about but that constantly seemed just out of my reach. In Puerto Rico I learned to rest, but because that rest also required me to be directed about protecting my time, I took home a second lesson too: that as much time as I gave to others, I needed to give that same gift back to me.
By the time the sun set on Juneteenth, I was thrilled that I’d devoted two days to the project of rest. One of my best friends in Philadelphia, a Black woman who used to work at the same place as me, was shocked I’d actually done it; she was accustomed to my habit of “doing the most,” as she used to needle me about each time I complained to her about exhaustion. “You really did go offline,” she mused quietly, looking at me in amazement as we sat in one of our favorite coffee shops. And I had. I hadn’t disengaged just from work and family problems but also from my ordinary orientation toward compulsive industry, toward the insistent usefulness that so often feels like one of the terms and conditions of American citizenship—especially for people in Black bodies. Instead, I had absorbed and then embodied my human birthright of rest.
The project of taking rest has many levels. I was able to do it with few worries beyond my own personal struggle to allow myself that time because I am single with no dependents, and I was at a stable job with good health insurance and paid vacation. I had the time to take off and I could afford to travel while I took it. But so many people live in structural precarity, and serious, elemental rest remains out of reach when rent is due and everyone needs to eat. Though the initial impetus to take rest must come from the individual, then, it must also necessarily be supported by society’s structure. And this is where America drastically falls short—the system itself precludes the possibility of rest, because under capitalism people are treated as completely expendable resources. The margins for pushing back in a system designed to wring everything out of its human resources are desperately thin. But the initial spark for systemic change is the refusal of individuals to accept this state of affairs anymore. Resting, in this context, is resistance.
I won’t claim that after Puerto Rico I completely turned the corner. I returned to Philadelphia on Tuesday morning and jumped immediately into a weeklong virtual conference at my office Tuesday afternoon. By the following Monday, I had departed on another transatlantic flight, this time to a school reunion and a birthday party in England. And four days after returning from England I went to Texas for two back-to-back work events. The Juneteenth weekend didn’t necessarily make me adopt rest as a permanent personal philosophy. What that vacation was, however, was a turning point in my compassion for myself, my understanding of my physical and emotional limits, and my belief that taking breaks and clearing my life of anxieties was not optional but necessary to my health. Nobody can work without end. On my next vacation, I’ll finally know how to rest.
“If you prioritize yourself, you are going to save yourself.”
Michelle Chikaonda (she/her) is a nonfiction writer from Blantyre, Malawi. She is a Voices of Our Nations (VONA) Workshop fellow, a Tin House Summer Workshop alumna, and has presented at several Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) conferences. A contributing editor for nonfiction at Electric Literature, she is also currently published at Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, the Broad Street Review, Business Insider, and Africa is A Country, among others. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @machikaonda.