When Your Vote Precipitates a Near-Quarter Life Crisis

Path of Life

My right thumbnail is stained a reddish brown. The colour is in patchy striations, in harmony with the grain of my nail,  darker in some areas than others. It reminds me of modern art, and if I could somehow lift the pattern onto a canvas it would be interesting, if not beautiful, and belong in one of those hard-to-understand museums.

There is colour underneath my nail too, like a line of dirt. It’s stubborn; it bothers me. I rake my left thumbnail over this line time and again in an attempt to get it off, but it doesn’t lift. It will stay there until it is good and ready to leave.

The entire stain will be there until it is good and ready to leave. Or rather, until my nail grows out and away. On the top I can see the line where it used to meet my skin, a neat, faint U, and beyond that the ordinary purple-pink of my nail bed. The rebirth has already started.

How did I get this stain in the first place? I voted. In The Bahamas we dip our right thumbs into bottles of deep purple ink to indicate that we have cast our ballot. A purple thumb is a mark of pride and participation. People take pictures of them at all angles; they flood our social media feeds after elections. And this purple is tenacious. Some take to bleach to remove it. I am one of the ones who is waiting for it to fade away, though I didn’t think it would take this long. It’s been 11 days since the election.

As long as this colour is on my nail I can’t easily forget that day. This makes me think of the way other things in our lives remain long after we have encountered them. Exchanges and conflicts in relationships, and the sometimes-big sometimes-small choices we make throughout our days, have effects lasting as long and far longer than this ink on my nail, though many times they are much easier to forget. When I think about how each decision I make dominoes into others, how many relationships leave deep, lasting grooves in my life, I get a little overwhelmed.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s good to be shaken from sleepwalking through the everyday, or from having my nose so deep in the task in front of me that I forget to look up for perspective. This life matters, and so do each of the blocks I use to put it together. I pray that I will make the most of my days, with wise choices leading to positive stains.

When Your Vote Slays the Prime Minister

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                          Terrel W. Carey/Tribune Staff, 12 May 2017

The Bahamas held its General Elections last Wednesday, and the incumbent party was slaughtered by its primary opponent. I mean, there were 39 seats available, and the incumbents, who previously held 30 (of the then 38), kept only 4 of them.

The Bahamas is a parliamentary democracy politically divided into constituencies, each with a representative who advocates on their behalf in Parliament. The dominant parties are the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement, though there are always others vying for prominence, as well as a handful of independent candidates. The party with the most seats in Parliament wins governance over the country, and its leader becomes our Prime Minister. A consequence of this system is that people tend to vote for a party or party leader over their constituency candidate.

In some constituencies this past election the challengers won by a large margin, and in others the race was a little closer. Nowhere was as dramatic as the former Prime Minister’s constituency, one he held for 40 years. Literally. He lost to his challenger by only four votes. The night of the count, there were a few numbers flying around – did he lose by seven? twenty-five? could it possibly be four? The challenger was declared the winner, and the PM asked for a recount. The next day we found out that indeed, he received 1,905 votes, while the victor won 1,909. You could even say he lost by three, since there was one protest ballot.

Whether you count it as three or four, seven or even twenty-five, that’s a stunning loss. And a humiliating blow for the former Prime Minister. There’s plenty to be said about this, and people are having a field day with it all. One lesson that sticks out to me is how important it is to vote, and how every single person who shows up to the polls matters. We hear this all the time, but it’s hard not to feel like being one in 300,000 or one in 300,000,000 makes your vote irrelevant. But think about the four people who didn’t show up on Wednesday. Were they inclined to vote for the then-Prime Minister, but figured they needn’t waste their time since he was pretty much guaranteed a win?

A friend of mine lives in his constituency and posted this on Facebook:

Five years ago, before the last general election, I was told by my MP that my vote didn’t matter because he was going to win either way. He won by a landslide, despite my vote. This past Wednesday, I cast my vote again, not thinking that it would really make a difference, but playing my part anyway. And he lost by FOUR votes! Never let anyone tell you your voice or vote doesn’t count!

What if she hadn’t gone out, because when she voted last time her MP was proven right? Our democracy has a ways to go, but in cases like this one I feel its strength and the power of my one voice. Of yours too. We can pull down giants and lift up the small man. We can say enough is enough and throw a government out on its hip, or demonstrate our willingness to give them a second – or forty-first – chance, with the mark of our pencilled X. If you live in The Bahamas – vote! If you live in any democratic country, vote.

The Woman Who’s Mad I Went to College

moody library

Yesterday afternoon I went looking for people to talk to about the radio story I’m working on; one conversation in particular stuck with me. It started off ordinarily enough, with me asking a vendor about her work and her pleasantly sharing information about herself. It wasn’t long though before she got angry and railed against me.

The back and forth she said/I said don’t matter so much as the foundation for her antipathy. This woman, I’ll call her Elise, became aggressive and hostile because she believed the questions I was asking represented my own opinions, which she thought threatened her livelihood. She pegged me for an uppity, uncaring person, out to take all I could for myself and use people however I pleased on the way. She spoke vehemently against my education abroad – her one correct assumption – and exclaimed that I would make millions while she would receive nothing for our exchange. I tried to explain that I was playing devil’s advocate, that I was working basically for free, but she couldn’t hear me.

A wall of tension grew higher the longer we spoke, but still I tried to gently prod her and find out more about her position. I focused on not taking her barbs personally, and deflecting them back at the amorphous ‘them’ where they belonged. Thankfully by the end of our conversation I had eased her concerns and we parted on good terms.

I’ve interviewed all sorts of people, but never before sensed class as such a large obstacle to finding common ground. Our General Election is days away, so I couldn’t help but think about how a more politically based conversation between us might go – not well. I lamented the fact that Elise couldn’t relate to me because of the kind of life and prospects she thought I had. How do politicians do it? I’ve heard it said that appealing to the masses is a skill, but walking away from our conversation I wished I could have some of that magic. What could I have done differently? How could I have helped her feel at ease? I wanted to email my professors and ask them about difficult interviews they’ve done, and whether they had any advice.

Despite a hugely cosmopolitan history, including boatloads of political and religious refugees and 200 years of tourism, most Bahamians are black. There is a racial divide, acknowledged and frequently discussed; exploited, in fact, for political gain. Our class divisions, on the other hand, go by unremarked. Elise was angry at me because she believed my opportunities had twisted my mindset against her flourishing. It didn’t matter that we were both black.

Class seems like a far more ornery thing to fight than race. It emerges from the very systems that run our society. At least with race we can represent scientifically the fact that skin colour is among the shallowest biological signifiers. With class, either you have the money for particular schools or health care, or you don’t. Either you can afford to comfortably fit your family into a home, or you can’t.

The simplest take-away from our conversation is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about strangers and their intentions, but the result of that in this case points to a much larger issue. I don’t think there’s an easy answer; this is the subject many philosophers and economists devote their lives to after all. But I felt a poisonous negativity, a deep dislike and distrust of me based on nothing other than my background, and it was both hurtful and unproductive.

I Met My Grandmother at the Art Gallery

Story Teller“Story Teller”, Thierry Lamare, watercolour

Last week I went to the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas for a double exhibition opening: “George Cox, The Unseen Structure”, and “Thierry Lamare Retrospective: Love, Loss and Life”. I was expecting to enjoy the Cox exhibition because of my familiarity with the family and the work of both George – an architect – and his son John – an artist and the curator. I’d seen a couple of Lamare’s pieces in a digital newsletter and thought his exhibit would probably be pleasant. It completely blew me away.

The gallery was crowded with people, and still I felt as though I fell into each one of his paintings; I could feel the wind blowing, that slight stickiness that comes from salty sea air, and was warmed by the sun dappling my skin as it did his subjects’. Many of the paintings were of two older Bahamian women, Joyce and Ophelia, though there were others of different gentlemen and land and seascapes.

I bumped into a friend crossing the parking lot to the gallery, and after I walked through the Lamare exhibit on my own we viewed it again together, pointing out our favourite pieces and remarking on their unbelievable depth and detail. Through the shadowy windows of the women’s homes we made out bowls on tables and cups on sills. We marvelled at the subjects’ delicate wrinkles and veins and the way we could imagine the clouds passing in front of their faces.

Watercolour is a favourite medium of Lamare’s, but he doesn’t use it in that bright, sugary way I’m so used to seeing, with colours and images bleeding into one another. His paintings are rich and forceful, embracing the dark, and clean, clear figures. My friend loves lines and we commented on how they were so present we could feel them, although we couldn’t necessarily see them. From a distance you could mistake some of Lamare’s work for photographs.

The exhibit also included paintings on driftwood created with egg tempera, something I’d never heard of before, but I loved those too. The portraits of the men and women seemed to speak to me of their lives and their work: rigorous physical labour, constant, in the sun. I imagined them chastising me, questioning me and giving me advice, like my own grandmother, with love, wisdom and sometimes consternation. Lamare either had real relationships with his muses, or was amazingly talented since he was able to capture such personality in his painting; probably some combination of both. Then I turned a corner and read on a wall a letter he had written to Ophelia about his experience attending her funeral. It was tender and reverent, and gave us a glimpse into the ways he learned from and became close to her; she was more to him than just a subject. I was moved.

Even Lamare’s landscapes evoked emotional responses in me. There was a painting of the Hope Town lighthouse in particular that I could scarcely tear myself away from. I visited there with another friend of mine a few years ago, and the painting reminded me of our trip and helped me see the majesty of the lighthouse in a way I hadn’t before.

I came home gushing about the opening to my aunt, trying to find the words to explain Lamare’s incredible body of work. Two days later, out for drinks with the same friend I ran into at the gallery, we couldn’t help but talk again about everything we’d seen. Now here I am telling you that if you live in or will be visiting Nassau, you have to treat yourself to the exhibit. It will be up until September. I’ll be there again in a few days and I can’t wait. If you won’t have the same privilege, visit Lamare’s website, though understand that seeing his work online is a poor substitute for seeing it in person.

Nineteen

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When I was younger cats seemed so boring. Maybe you could play with them when they were kittens but as they got older they just laid around. That plus their reputation for being finicky and headstrong made them seem far less desirable than dogs. Then the summer before my senior year in college, one scary DC night, my roommate got mugged on her way home. We had tossed around the idea of fostering an animal before, but that night, between hugs and tears, we decided it was definitely happening. It was 3am but we looked for an organisation, filled out their form, and our first cat came a few days later.

He was black and very needy, completely turning my idea of what cats were like on its head. He always wanted to hang around whichever one of us was home – and I worked from home a lot so that was usually me – and was always under foot. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember the name of our second foster, Jelly Belly. She was another black cat, but fat and with the opposite temperament: incredibly skittish, running from us when we entered the room, hiding underneath furniture and on top of the fridge. I wondered what trauma might have made her so wary of people. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to live with either Jelly Belly or our first cat for the long term, after that summer I warmed up to the animals in general.

Then came Feliz, my aunt and uncle’s cat, who I lived with when I came home after college. She was sweet, much older and well used to being around people, so somewhere in the middle of the two from DC. I liked her relaxed energy and independence, and the fact that she was indoor/outdoor so we didn’t have to bother with litter. I started to wonder, Hey! Maybe cats are better than dogs! I liked that they could be great companions and also low maintenance.

So when I was moving for grad school and my new roommate asked if he could adopt kittens for our place, I agreed. Remus and Romulus were the cutest grey lion cubs I had ever seen, but they made my life a sneezing, itchy-eyed, swollen-face, sleepless-night mess. After that semester I moved out, my skin slowly cleared, and I resolved to avoid cats for the rest of my lifetime.

Fate had other plans however, and I’m living with a new family cat, Nineteen. We got him when he was a kitten, and he hasn’t caused me nearly as much trouble as Remus and Romulus – probably some combination of the fact that he’s indoor/outdoor and we share a much larger space. We’re almost never in the same room, and he spends a lot of time outside. Today though he came looking to snuggle, right as I was getting ready to write a new post, and I couldn’t resist petting him and letting him lie next to me. I was ok at first. I sighed contentedly and imagined years hence, in my own home, with my own cat. We’d chill sometimes and do our own thing other times, and it would be great. But then my throat started to itch, my nose felt a bit funny, and the spots on my hands and arms with eczema cried for attention. My dream went out the window, and needless to say, I’ve finished writing this in another room. It’s too bad, turns out I’m a cat person after all.

“Just Mercy”

Just Mercy

On Friday afternoon my mum and I went to the beach. It was a bit windy and sand occasionally whipped about our legs and into our faces. The sea was rough too, and there weren’t many people swimming. We ran into a friend who told us that the water was very cold, but I still wanted to give it a try and hurried in anyway. He was right. It took several minutes for me to be completely submerged, and though by then my legs were comfortable my arms couldn’t warm up fast enough; after a few strokes I headed back to our beach chairs. Mummy was relaxing under our umbrella, but I dragged my chair out into the sun. I pulled my book, Just Mercy, out of my bag and spent the next hour and a half reading.

When we got back home mum began frying fish for our classic Good Friday meal, and I read her the most disturbing passage from that afternoon. Just Mercy is a chilling memoir about the American justice system, specifically its handling of criminal cases and the abuse, neglect and victimisation of poor and minority populations. It’s written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has devoted his life to representing condemned criminals. The narrative alternates between the story of Stevenson’s developing career and his representation of one innocent man in particular. The passage I read for my mum was from the more general side of the memoir, about a boy who was sentenced to life in prison and, ostensibly for his protection from the adult male inmates, spent 18 years in solitary confinement. When I read about him on the beach I had to put the book down and take a few minutes before continuing. When I read aloud for my mum I made it to the end of the passage and then broke down into tears.

18 years. Ian Manuel was arrested when he was 13 for shooting a woman in the face, and though the two later developed such a close relationship that she advocated for the courts to reduce his sentence, her pleas were ignored.

Just Mercy is full of awful stories like Manuel’s, in addition to the heart wrenching tale of Walter McMillian, the man whose case we follow in the most detail. Stevenson is an excellent writer. Both sides of his memoir are equally engaging and despite its difficult subject matter the book is hard to put down. Each reading experience is intensely emotional; from the very beginning I’ve been having bad dreams. They are vague and unstructured, but the overall themes are impending death, gloom and restriction. I wake up with impressions of prison and feelings of sadness and unease, although I don’t recall any faces or particular storyline.

In addition to sharing his clients’ experiences, Stevenson explains the precedents and shifts in the US legal system, both in terms of the letter and the intent of the law. This paints a fuller picture of the scope of the problem and underscores its connection to other systemic prejudices in US society.

The horrific actions and court decisions reported by Stevenson are more than mistakes, the result of pressured officials or eventually forgivable bad behaviour. The meanness runs deep, and there’s no way to describe some of the cases he reports as anything other than barbaric. It’s unconscionable that human beings can treat one another that way, especially children. It’s frightening to know that these cases have been tried in my lifetime.

Reading Just Mercy on the heels of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass clearly evidences the legacies of slavery and the many issues and attitudes that remain unchanged, despite the centuries between them. I never did find out how Douglass escaped his chains, since he kept this information secret in order to protect the journeys of others. He gloried in his liberty but still had to contend with disenfranchisement. I wonder what he would say if he could read Stevenson’s account now? What about other Americans who lived and died chafing under slavery?

The crimes against the many men and women described by Stevenson are rooted in a poisonous evil that weighs heavy on my heart. I am in awe of this man who has sacrificed so much of himself to be their champion, and am reminded of my own responsibility to do justice and love mercy. His book will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I hope it will influence my own work for the better.

Two Truths and a Lie

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My first few weeks of college were filled with orientation activities. I had to get to campus early for a week of sessions for international students, and after that went through the standard programmes for all incoming first years. I don’t know how many hundreds of people I met – literally, there was a huge game night called Playfair with everyone from our class – and I played countless icebreakers as leaders tried to get us comfortable and engaged. Two truths and a lie was one of them, and I thought I’d do a written version here just for fun. Can you spot the lie?

  • After I graduated from college I took a serious look at the disconnect between my real and imagined eating habits. I grew up in a household with a label-reading father, a salad-loving mother and a minimum of processed foods. I didn’t exactly throw the training they gave me out of the window when I left home, but after four years of free cookies and pizza at every school function, plus all the food I could eat at our d-hall, my diet was way out of balance. When I realised that the way I thought I was living was completely different from what was truly happening, I knew there needed to be a change. One of the habits I picked up was making green smoothies, which I still enjoy regularly today. They’re a bit time consuming though, so when I discovered that I could make a quick tonic with aloe vera gel from the plants growing in my backyard, that became part of my daily morning ritual. Aloe is such a super plant, I don’t know why it doesn’t get more attention!
  • When we were little, every day after school my siblings and I met a bowl of prepped fruit for us to snack on. I think my dad might have been the one to insist on this, but my mum was equally supportive of this structure as well. The fruit held us over until dinner time, and if we were feeling very hungry then we’d have something like bread or cheese, but there was no junk food in the house. Rarely, anyway. I remember many disappointing conversations with my dad, who did the grocery shopping, in the food store. I would plead with him for chips, cookies, lunchables, dunkaroos and whatever other cool thing I saw my classmates eating, to no avail. I continue to rely on fruit as a snack, and love all kinds. Bananas are one of my favourites, and because they are so cheap I found myself buying them all the time in graduate school and in New York. I ate a banana every day for 3.5 years, and the streak has only been broken since I’ve come back home.
  • Don’t let all this talk about fruits and veggies fool you – I enjoy plenty of sweets and treats, and am a big fan of food in general. I’ve always loved to bake, and after college got into cooking too. Most of the blogs I follow are food-related, as are the accounts in my insta feed, my go-to tv shows and a couple of my podcasts. When I was in New York I’d find myself easily losing an hour trying to choose a place to meet a friend for dinner or take a guest for lunch, and I enjoy picking apart the best and worst elements of the meals I’ve been served. You can imagine my thrill when I found out that one of the places featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was down the street from my residence hall in graduate school. I lived in a small town in Connecticut, and this diner has been an institution since before I was born. I’ve had a few breakfasts there, including of course the amazing french toast that was featured on the show. Delish!