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!

Lost! Book Separation Anxiety

As a little girl I developed the habit of taking my book-of-the-moment with me wherever I went. This was in part because I wanted to read at every available opportunity, and also because Saturday outings with my mum could turn into journeys across hell and creation. Having a book handy meant that I could wait in the car and be entertained while she completed her errands.

Although I manage my own time and errands now I haven’t abandoned the habit – I still like to carry my book with me. There is more of a risk though that I’ll leave it behind, since I’m doing the running about and not sitting in the car. In that instance, I could lose my book forever or go through a deal of trouble to get it back.

That’s the situation I’m in currently. I left my book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, somewhere in the library of the University of The Bahamas. I’ve spent a lot of time on its campus over the last few days for a literature festival. I’m at home on a break between panels, and was looking forward to reading it, but alas! I’m upset enough that I can’t actually think of anything else to write about. If it were a mediocre book then it probably wouldn’t have been this big of a deal, but I am really enjoying Douglass’ autobiography and have already begun recommending it to friends.

Narrative is the first of three memoirs that he wrote, and it’s very brief, around 100 pages. I expected to be finished by now – and since I’ve left it behind am wishing that somehow I was able to  – but this week has been really busy, with functions every evening, which is when I get the most of my reading done.

Douglass has me wincing on almost every page at the atrocities he witnessed and experienced. I am shocked all over again at the horror of slavery in the Americas, and am amazed that anyone at all made it through alive, much less generations of people. Douglass gives heart-wrenching descriptions of cruelties and his emotional distress, but at the same time his retelling feels more straightforward than dramatic. Indeed, the brevity of his memoir underscores this point. He sticks to the facts and allows their stark truths to do the work of proselytising for him.

I’m at the stage where it seems Douglass is finally going to break free from his captives and begin his life as an activist. I’m burning to know how it happened, since my earlier guesses – a kind mistress helped him? A freed slave woman’s husband started him on the underground railroad? He ran away after a near-death beating by one of his masters? – all proved wrong. So then how did he do it? And what was his life like immediately after, when he was very much a fugitive, without the protection of (I’m assuming) white abolitionists and his general popularity? I have to get my book back, and find out.

Carrie & Lowell

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One evening late last year I watched the pilot of a show that a friend recommended to me. It was ok, somewhat intriguing, and though I watched another episode or two ultimately I decided the show wasn’t for me. The pilot however gifted me with the best body of music that I listened to that year, an album that’s going to stick with me forever.

I thought the intro music was beautiful, so I went looking for the song that it came from. To my happy surprise, it was by Sufjan Stevens, an artist I already knew and liked. I replayed the song, “Death with Dignity”, over and over on YouTube, and slowly started listening to others from the album. This grew into listening to the album in full, and finally buying it.

The year was practically over by then, and I had heard a lot of other new music. When Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” came out I was impressed, and thought that it might be the defining sound-memory of the year for me.  After a few listens, the songs I wasn’t super comfortable with started to grate on me and I played it less and less. I thought I might not find an album of the year after all – no biggie, not something I typically look out for. Then “Carrie & Lowell” came along.

Stevens started composing after the death of his mother, Carrie. Lowell is his stepfather. The album was released in 2015, and each song sounds light and soothing. I hardly noticed the lyrics in the beginning, but the more I listened, the more I realised that they dealt with intense emotions and pulled the curtain back on his childhood and his grief. He cries out to the “God of Elijah” and wonders what the point of singing is if “they’ll never even hear you”. The album is intensely personal, and there are points in several songs that bring me near tears from the incredible mix of the beauty of the music and the pain in the words.

“Carrie & Lowell” is nostalgic, with Stevens remembering things like learning to swim, and his mother leaving him at a video store. It’s mythic and other-worldly, mentioning Greek gods, shadows, vampires. It’s woven together with the lightest of touches, primarily guitar, vocals, banjo and piano. And it’s incredibly honest. Stevens doesn’t hide the fact that his mother wasn’t the best parent – leaving him in a store as a toddler – that she suffered from schizophrenia, or that he was on the precipice of committing suicide as he coped with his grief.

There are days when I listen to “Carrie & Lowell” intently. On those days I can’t help but mourn and muddle through the fog of memory and imagery with Stevens as he does the same. Yet there are other days when I play the album in the background and enjoy the lovely river of sound it creates. Some songs I always have to stop and sing, like “Eugene” and “Death with Dignity”. I find comfort and calm in Stevens’ music, despite feeling almost pierced myself with his heartache. Thankfully, I still have all of my parents, but his album gives me a glimpse into what it might feel like when I lose them. For its emotional depth, sweet melodies and coherence, “Carrie & Lowell” is an album I’ll be listening to and sharing for years to come.

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Living With Palms Open

I always had something I could give to somebody else. I’ve been so blessed.

Grammy,  February 2017

Grammy is the OG of generosity in my book. When I was a little girl I saw countless people’s faces light up with thankfulness for a kindness she had done for them, either in that moment or at some time previously. Everyone was always so glad to see her. I watched her buy food, clothes and shoes to give away, and she could never pass up a sale because though she rarely needed anything on offer, she was sure she’d find something useful that someone else would. Her car and her time were open to others as well – we regularly picked up strangers (mostly women) we passed on the road to give them a ride to where they were going.

Now that she’s older she’s less mobile, but she still finds ways to give to others. A few years ago, when I’d regularly take her and my Grandad out on errands and to church and doctor’s appointments, I’d watch her roll up bills and surreptitiously tuck them into clerks’, priests’ and nurses’ pockets.

Grammy isn’t only generous in these smaller everyday ways either. Even more extravagant items, like a computer, a car, or a house are in her giving history. And these are just kindnesses that I know about!

Grammy lives with palms open. Everything she owns flows like a river from her hands to another’s. She grew up poor, and never had a high paying job. She never went to high school and was a government auditor for her entire career. She had to have been thrifty, and prioritise giving to others over having a more comfortable lifestyle, in order to be as generous as she has been. But as she explained in her own words, it never felt like a sacrifice.

That’s the thing that I wonder at. This generosity in my grandmother is like a gift of the Spirit. There is no hemming and hawing, or reassuring herself with the knowledge that she’ll reap greater rewards. In the conversation that I quoted from, she was telling me about the little boy in the house next door when she was newly married and living in England. His family was poor, and he would regularly stretch is arm out over the wall, hoping for a token. Grammy would oblige him with something like biscuits or candy, because, as she said, she always had something to give away.

These sidebar statements are sprinkled through all of Grammy’s conversations – she loves to  exalt the Lord and his blessings on her life, and glorifies him with continual thanksgiving. He always took care of her, she knows she can count on him, which is why she doesn’t think twice about sharing with others. I want to be as generous as my Grammy is, but to be honest it feels like more of a difficulty for me than it is for her. Generosity seems as much a part of her personality as her impish wit and love of food. It’s one of my favourite things about her, and though I may be always striving to be as open-handed as she is, I’m glad to have her as an example of the everlasting contentment that comes from a life of regular giving.

On a Nature High

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I’m writing from my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. I so love the sun. It feels like every day since I’ve been home I find myself exulting in the weather. It is so beautiful! How can the sky be so blue? How can the flowers be so richly colourful and the greens of trees, grass and plants so vibrant?  Then there is the persistent kiss of sun on skin. How glorious! Simply being outside I feel it embrace me, like a lover who missed me dearly  and is bursting with exuberance to see me again. I take great pleasure in being able to walk outside in shorts and a tank top, to leave the house in a sundress and sandals. What luxury, to sit on my grandmother’s porch, run on the beach, drive with the windows down. I love being warm. I love being warm.

I surprise myself a little with the depth of my enthusiasm for the climate and the flora, though I remember even as a girl I marvelled at the environment and took advantage of opportunities to be outside. Perhaps now that I’ve lived away for extended periods, and in much colder parts of the world, I have a better sense for how much I appreciate the easy pleasures of these islands. What bliss, to wander the yard barefoot! To look up and see a vast expanse of crisp, clear sky! It is a tonic for my of-late weary soul, a shot of energy and thankfulness more swift and sure than any caffeinated drink or online article. I look outside my window, I step out the front door, and I feel reborn.