This post has been updated and is reprinted with the express permission of the original author(s).
I’m so proud of my friend and fellow Temple University alum Saeeda Hafiz. When she told me she was writing The Healing – a personal memoir exploring the intersection between yoga, food and her own explosive experience growing up in a family plagued by domestic violence and substance abuse – I was in awe of her courage. Not many of us would brave laying bare all of our family skeletons, so publicly.
As of this writing, her book has achieved the highest customer ranking possible (5 stars) on Amazon.com, was a 2016 International Book Awards winner in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category, and has been offered a new publishing deal. No better way to celebrate, I thought, than to reintroduce my new readers to Saeeda through our original interview first published on my previous site.
Brew some tea, sit down and enjoy. I am a white male who does not practice yoga and grew up in a family far different than the author’s, but the wonder of good writing is an author can captivate outside her target audience. ~Amazon reviewer
Simply put, The Healing is the best memoir you’ve never heard of. Check out all the glowing reviews on Amazon.com and order your copy today. You can also keep up with the author at her website SaeedaHafiz.com, where the book is also available for sale.
Q: You talk about how difficult it was growing up an oddball (read: bookish “nerd”) black girl in a working-class Pittsburgh community. Surrounded by high rates of teen pregnancy, high school dropouts, drug use and poverty, and with few role models of success, what gave you the idea that you could create a different life for yourself? What factors ultimately led you to become successfully enrolled at Temple University in 1984?
A: I was able to create a different life for myself because I truly observed all that was going on around me. Everyone was looking for a quick fix to the pain or discomfort they were feeling and I observed that the quick fix only brought on more pain and discomfort. Even as a kid, I tried to see a holistic point of view. Uncles who were on drugs had to chase that drug all the time. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to work that hard. They essentially had no life, no peace. Teen mothers had to raise their kids and live a very different kind of life from a typical adolescent; I didn’t want to spend my time or money like that as a girl. I was already helping out around the house with the finances, I didn’t need or want an extra burden for my mom and me. Also, I was already seeing how that kind of life took away from discovering who I really was or who I wanted to become. Personally, I always wanted to travel and having a baby early was not a good idea. I observed that even if you were intimate with a boy, it didn’t guarantee that he even liked you, let alone would be willing to raise a child with you.
I observed and was told by my mother that education was a good way out of poverty. Overall, I liked learning. I still do. Most of my teachers took me seriously. And as a young girl, I didn’t know exactly where it came from but I wanted to be a businessperson and I wanted to learn how other people lived, especially around the world. I loved being pen pals with people from different countries. I felt that if I could have my own business I could create anything I wanted. As a kid, I used to play office and business instead of playing with dolls. My favorite toy was a calculator. I loved adding things up.
What successfully led me to Temple University in 1984 was I had always believed that I would go to college and finish. I wanted to go to the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University, but I also wanted to go to a school that was not in my hometown, so I started looking for schools like Pitt, which I believed I could get into. I was not prepared enough to get in, or go to CMU. So I started looking for schools similar to Pitt, and I was encouraged to stay within the state so that the tuition would remain lower. What drew me to Temple was that they had 15% of their student body as international students and 15% minority students. I was excited to be in a school with different kinds of people. I was a true nerd when it came to learning about someone different than myself.
Q: You went all in, in terms of exposing family secrets and dirty laundry. How did they react to you going public, and how would you describe your relationship with them today?
A: Surprisingly, most of my family has been very supportive. My dad confirmed that he became a man that he didn’t want to be. My mom, after saying that I was crazy many years ago and confused, now says “Well, it all happened.” She hopes the story will help other women who are victims of domestic violence. My brothers encourage me to tell the truth. My eldest sister hasn’t responded. Details in the book will illustrate why. My older sister said as long as I am talking about me and my feelings around events, it’s ok. Distant family members are starting to read it and encouraging me to get it out there. They remember some things I don’t, but things that are in alignment with what I wrote. I let key people read it before putting it out there and they were all very supportive and that allowed me to actually see this book into print.
My dad is tricky, because now after two years of having first read the manuscript, he says that I didn’t tell the whole truth. I didn’t tell why he is the way he is and what caused him to be like that. He is right. I didn’t have that information and I still don’t. He wants to talk face-to-face about it. Personally, I encourage him to write his point of view in a book of his own. He and I agreed that my book talks about how his taking actions affected the family.
Q: Readers of your book learn all about how you discovered yoga and holistic eating. That said, your flashbacks to the domestic violence of your youth – via the famous bus ride “meltdown” detailed in the first chapter – predate that journey. Had you not gotten into yoga and holistic diet, do you feel that you would have still gone on to confront (and heal from) the demons of your past?
A: I don’t know if I would have ever confronted my family had I not discovered yoga and holistic eating. Sugar is a powerful drug. It keeps us numb from most of life. Then add lots of dairy, meat, and simple carbohydrates, not to mention fast food. I think I would not be in touch with my feelings much at all. I would not have been sensitive to the fact that I was hurting or had been hurt. I imagine that I would have gained a lot of weight and had to deal with other physical problems more than my emotional problems. Change in diet and practicing yoga gave me a kind of courage that I am still trying to figure out how and why that happens. Honestly, if it weren’t for food and yoga, I think I would be living someone else’s life, not my own self-defined life.
Q: Previously you worked for the San Francisco School District teaching healthy cooking skills to adults, but for twelve years prior to that you taught same to students in grades K-12. For those who – like you – may not have had the means or support at home to reinforce these learnings, what was your practical goal? What type of lasting influence did you hope to have on the health of this next generation?
A: I considered myself to be a farmer of sorts. I planted seeds. I exposed staff, students and their families to the most beneficial conditions. Some things take root right away and grow and flourish. Some lay dormant. I gave students the best I could and encouraged them to do their best. I knew that they might not stop eating fast food or drinking soda right away, if at all. I knew that their families may not buy in to this kind of care. But I also knew that each student deserved the exposure, and ultimately the choice, to good nourishing foods and activities. We never know when a teaching will kick in. I might be well out of their lives when the student decides to implement a thought or a teaching. They might never have had the chance if I didn’t take my job seriously. I was there to plant the seed and hopefully better holistic health will grow.
Q: For other young women of color out there struggling with some of the same issues around toxic environment and sense of belonging that you write about, what are the 3 most important actions they need to take, right now, to thrive?
A. One, listen to your heart. It can be an excellent guide. Discover who you really are. Be yourself, even if people don’t understand you right now, even if you don’t understand yourself. They will and you will eventually. Two, read The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. Dare I say it, read my book, The Healing. Because in both books you will see that life gives you many opportunities to be your best self. Three, take yourself seriously while having a great sense of humor about it all. Understand that this is a journey. The road will look different from time to time, but keep moving along the road. There are some amazing things to be a part of.
The Healing, Chapter One: On The Bus (reprinted with author permission)
Pittsburgh seemed like 20 degrees as I waited for the bus, 71A Negley. It was late winter 1990, and I just wanted to be at home in my new apartment. Warm, comfortable, and safe. When it arrived, I quickly got on. Tucking my long, black, wool coat around me, I nestled myself between two other passengers. I removed my burgundy leather gloves, placed them inside my matching Coach purse and looked down at my wet mahogany boots. In this outfit, I felt like an African-American career girl from Essence magazine. As a 23-year-old corporate marketing database manager, I was That Girl, from the 1970s TV show, which portrays a woman who chooses to have a career first instead of getting married and starting a family. So between That Girl and Essence magazine, I had grown up to be – That Black Girl.
As the bus drove to the next stop, I wiped the steam from my glasses, and suddenly tears crowded into my eyes. The “ding” from the stop-requested bell transported me back to a scene from my past.
I am five years old. My father comes home from being out late. The door slams shut, and just like the “ding” that started the Ali-Frazier fight that I’d watched on TV, I’d hear a ding inside my head, signaling that the fight in my house was about to begin. All night I listen to my father beating my mother. The next day I see her black eye peeking out from behind her dark sunglasses.
Even though I was looking down, I knew that we were passing the Kaufmann department store building with its spring fashion collection in the window, an image I’d see twice daily, month after month, as I rode the bus back and forth to work. Again, I heard a “ding.”
I am eleven and sitting beside my paternal grandmother. She pulls bright shiny brass knuckles from a brown paper bag. Drunk, she whispers, “Your grandfather uses these on me. Don’t ev-er let a man hit you.”
I looked toward the bus driver, then out of his partially defogged window. The round dormitory buildings belong to the University of Pittsburgh. “Ding.”
I am thirteen and my mother has just thrown a sewing box filled with sharp needles, scissors, thimbles, and thread at my younger brother. It misses him.
Head hung low, teeth grinding, hands shaking, I pulled the cord, hard. “Ding!” Inside my head, I yell “Stop! I want to get off.”
At Negley and Ellsworth, I staggered off the bus, wondering why I was suddenly having these horrifying memories for the first time.
My legs shook as I walked across the street toward my apartment. Blinded by my tear-speckled eyeglasses, I fumbled for my keys.
Emotionally exhausted, the small flight of stairs left me winded. I opened the door to my apartment, took off my coat, and sank to the floor, back against the wall. I looked around at the empty rooms, bare walls, and curtain-less windows, seeing only a futon mattress for sleeping, and expensive All-Clad cooking pot, a professional chef’s knife, and a secondhand four-piece Mikasa fine china dish set.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford to begin furnishing my place. The truth was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I didn’t want to fill it up with the should-haves from the latest TV commercials. It was my first place, and I wanted to decide wha furnishings best represented me. Part of me liked not having furniture. It gave me the feeling of building a new life from the ground up.
I started to cry again, and my salty tears came down like a monsoon with snot hanging from my nose. I sat on the floor like a four-year-old, hugging my knees. Then I heard the voice of my mother inside my head…