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SZA, My Spirit Guide

By Cece Whitlock

SZA by Elizabeth Wirija for British Vogue

I don’t think I have ever sat down and fully digested what 2020 was. As most people can relate, 2020 was a remarkably challenging year that doesn’t feel quite over yet. With a pandemic, the reality of police brutality, countless deaths, and a lockdown. 2020 put everyone into survival mode. I have never quite written down my thoughts on this past year (except in my private journal) until now. Personally, I feel privileged to be able to stay in the comfort of my own home and have my parents and sisters still with me, with a roof over my head and food at the table. However, a constant flaw of the human race is to belittle our emotions by saying: “well, there’s other people who have it much worse.” One of the hardest lessons I am constantly trying to remember is the fact that you are allowed to have emotions; and just because someone could have it worse doesn’t deflect from the truth you are feeling.

Emotions are a part of the human experience. Personally, I am an extremely emotional person. I feel things deeply, which is both a blessing and a curse. Transitions are hard for me. And last March, when I moved out of my dorm to go back home and leave the city for an unknown amount of time, my emotions went through a whirlwind. I write this today to highlight a way I survived through this year while fully expressing and accepting my emotions —past, current, and future. I encourage everyone reading this to do the same.

Grief is not linear, and healing is a daily process. If I learned anything this year, it’s that grief presents itself in many ways. It can be the death of someone, and it also can be the death of an experience, opportunity, or relationship. As famous R&B singer, SZA, sings in her song “Broken Clocks,” “I just take it day by day.” I do not think there is a better line to express my feelings over this past year. My brain is still trying to wrap around the fact that my freshman year in Boston was ripped away from me, and now two semesters have passed, and I am still at home. I am grateful to be home with my family, but I still feel like a big part of my soul was left behind in Boston —and I can’t gather it back yet. What do you do when you feel as though you were in a new stage towards independence and it suddenly stopped? What do you do when you were exposed to a whole different lifestyle? What do you do when you miss your friends and community so much, but because of a deadly virus, you cannot see them? What do you do to deal with this pain? This loss of youth?

For me, some of my questions were answered through music. Music has always comforted me in ways other mediums couldn’t. As soon as March 13th came, I reverted back to the artists who had always expressed the feelings that I couldn’t accept. Specifically, SZA kept me in a constant state of self-awareness, and aided my survival.

SZA let my spirits be heard in her 2017 album, “Ctrl.” I won’t go into detail of every song off the album, but it serves as an anthem to anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak of various degrees. Ever since junior year of high school, this album has served various meanings for me. This past year, it served as a constant source of comfort and understanding. “Ctrl” is about a woman’s journey after heartbreak. Through self-discovery, she ultimately comes to understand the role of control in her life.

In my life, I have often wasted vast amounts of energy trying to control the uncontrollable. In 2020, that waste of energy was unlike any instances before. How do you accept the reality of a pandemic, the reality that you cannot control, and how it will impact you? When faced with a challenging moment, it’s easier to lash out or blame every other source except the ones you can control. Although I am not religious, I was raised in a religious home, and SZA’s album reminds me of the Serenity prayer I’ve heard in the past: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I don’t really know if there is a God like the God I grew up learning about in the Bible, but I do believe we are divine beings in a universe, that there is a force greater than us, that each person has a purpose for being here, and that each experience serves as an opportunity for more self-discovery.

The grief of losing the college experience was my new heartbreak. In the fourth song of “Ctrl,” titled “Drew Barrymore,” the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the feelings I had all throughout the year. When something doesn’t work out, it’s easy to run through your head all of the ways you did something wrong. “Drew Barrymore” is a tale sung by SZA of a lonely girl who is reflecting on the past. The beginning line — “why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” —was the grand question I had for myself when I kept dwelling in the past by thinking of all the pre-Covid memories. I reflected while listening: Why didn’t I go out that night? Why didn’t I just tell X what I felt then? What if they forget about me? Getting stuck on the wrong kind of attention was my coping mechanism to deal with this pain for a while, as reflected in SZA’s line “I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth / We get so lonely we pretend that it’s worse / I’m so ashamed of myself, think I need therapy.” One of the greatest lessons I learned this past year was the value in being able to be alone, and that being alone compared to being lonely are very different things. I was so wrapped around the concept of the loss of my college experience that I was getting my oxygen from situations that didn’t serve me. My confidence in myself felt at a low; and, when I realized what I was wasting my energy on, I was disappointed in myself. The “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve-s” went through my brain every second of every day. I felt guilty for the ways I had been acting, and ultimately for having the feelings I had. I was overwhelmed by these emotions and tried to control everything instead of just listening to myself.

The biggest lesson I learned this year that SZA helped me realize is that grief is not linear, that your emotions are valid, and that you should not feel guilty for having whatever feelings you have. As I sit down and write this piece, I feel as if a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.

The grief of my freshman year is all-consuming; and, if I learned anything from this year, it’s that you have to realize what you can and cannot control. Because of my constant need for control, I was unable to be present. Through SZA’s songs, I found inner peace in acceptance that I cannot control the uncontrollable.

Tapping into your inner power is far more important than dwelling in the ideas of the past. SZA helped me realize and accept my emotions and helped me persevere towards my journey of self-growth. I realize we are far from out of this pandemic; but, for now, I take account of each day as a day to be in the present, to acknowledge my own power, and to make a conscious decision to only control what is within my capacity. Grief does not go away, but your relationship to it can change, and I thank SZA’s words for expressing everything I wasn’t ready to say.

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