Swimming Through a Sea of Roses

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I’m back from NYC now, and one of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the New York Botanical Garden. I’d been wanting to go for a while, but it’s all the way in the Bronx and travel time has always been a deterrent. When I found out that there was a Chihuly exhibit up I decided I finally would make the trip, and though I only ended up seeing a few of his pieces the visit overall was well worth it.

After walking past the closed-early conservatory (boo!) and wandering a little aimlessly across the grounds, I was happy to find myself at Thain Family Forest, full of centuries old trees and pieces of rock reminding us of the age when this part of New York was covered in glaciers. When I came out the other side I was at the Cherry Grove, and although the time for cherries has passed it was still a very pleasant experience, with the cute little trees lining the walkway and dotting the grassy slopes. It made me wish I could go climbing into their branches, and afterward enjoy a picnic with a blanket and a basket; picturesque, like the storybook picnics described in books from my childhood.

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Then the grove ended and I came to the lilac collection, which was also unfortunately not in bloom. I did read a little about how supposedly easy they are to grow and make into hybrids. Apparently they’re one of the most popular flowers in the US, which was news to me, but I don’t know much about plants or gardening really so no surprise there.

Finally, I came to the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, which was in bloom with thousands of stunning roses. Oh my goodness. The whole effect was exquisite, and there were so many different varieties, it was astounding. I took a few pictures and just kind of stood in awe of creation and the amazing God responsible for everything I was seeing. Then I made my way slowly back to the entrance of the Garden, past more beautiful flowers and greenery. Despite the disappointments about my visit, it was still wonderful and restorative, and I’m glad I made the effort to go.

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When a Subway Encounter Transforms You Into a Lactating Alien

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How often are our first impressions of people correct? Or, how closely does a person’s behaviour when we meet them match the way they truly – or normally – are? I had a baffling interaction yesterday that’s left me wondering these things.

I was on the subway, in between a catch-up with a professor and some thrift store shopping, sipping on a delicious golden latte. (Did you get into the golden milk craze? Turmeric was the ‘it’ spice of 2016.) The latte was so good, and I almost didn’t buy it, so I was feeling really pleased and ready to get to shopping. I was standing near the door of the car, and opposite me was a man reading the Bible. He was short, and brown, with shiny black hair that wasn’t quite brushed but not messy either. He looked like he could’ve been from the southern Caribbean. Was he a Christian too? Why was he reading? A little excited, I tried to decipher the chapter title upside down. He felt my eyes on the book, looked up, and thrust his face into my own, eyes flashing. It was a “CanIhelpyou/Getthef*outtamyface” kind of moment, and I was startled. I looked away, took a sip of my near-empty latte to help me recover, and spilled it on my blouse. Ugh.

Do you know how deeply turmeric stains? I was dismayed – this was my first time wearing this blouse! – and I wasn’t really able to treat the stain. Turmeric isn’t water soluble, but I tipped my water bottle onto a napkin anyway and blotted at my chest. Another reason to be frustrated. The latte spilled onto my right boob, so now it looked like I was lactating, except instead of milk it was some radioactive yellow alien-type fluid.

I was confused too, because ok, yes, it’s annoying for people to read over your shoulder, but come on, people check out what others are reading all the time on the subway. Moreover, this guy’s reaction was way over the top; certainly not what I would describe as Christian, so I guess that answered my first question.

About 15 seconds after the face-thrust the guy caught my attention and told me he was sorry. “Ok”, I responded, not sure if it really was, and went back to figuring out what, if anything, could be done for my shirt. Then, feeling a little sorry myself, I tried to explain my motivations to the guy. We had a brief conversation – he told me he read the Bible before for a class in college and was going over it again – and I learned his name was Alex. A little train harmony was restored, and I looked around for my phone to tell my friends what had happened and whine about my shirt.

Then! A few minutes later, Alex called my name and looking at me earnestly asked, “Do you want to be friends?” I laughed. Now it was his turn to be startled, and I realised that I might have seemed harsh. In reality I was shocked. This same man who two stops before shot daggers into my face wanted to be my friend? So he had apologised and now we knew a little about one another, but friends? That seemed like a leap. At least from his perspective. But I agreed anyway – why not? Worst case scenario I ignore him because he turns out to be annoying.

From my laugh onward I felt the dynamic of our relationship change dramatically. I didn’t see Alex as a hostile, territorial man anymore. He just seemed like a small, socially awkward guy – which could explain his initial aggression and subsequent offer of friendship. He fumbled nervously on his phone as he tried to take my number and suggested we could also connect on Facebook. I asked him if he used WhatsApp since I didn’t have a US number, and he said no, but he could download it. That seemed unnecessary, but at he was already saving my number. He said he’d message me once he was off the train and had service, and I repeated that texting me would be futile, so he made a note of my name to look me up on Facebook. Then he wished me a good day and sat down, returning to his reading. My stop was next, so I got off and made my way to the thrift store.

I haven’t heard from Alex, and at this point I don’t think I will, but that was definitely a memorable encounter. I experienced a gamut of emotions and had an accelerated relationship with a stranger on the subway. I wonder what further conversations with Alex might reveal. In any event, my shirt is on its second soak in a bowl of vinegar. If for no other reason, that turmeric stain ensures he won’t long be forgotten.

3 Things I Love about NYC

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Brooklyn Bridge, by Elora Williams

I’m in NYC! I came partly to visit and partly to finish up a podcast episode that I’ve been working on, and will be here for a couple weeks. I have been looking forward to this trip for months, and was so excited the night before my departure that I couldn’t sleep. Then that morning, as I was getting ready to go to the airport, I was too excited to eat! That is some crazy level of enthusiasm. I can’t remember the last time I was that excited, but it was such a good feeling to have again.

So what is it that I love so much about this city? First of all I think the fact that it is a city. I’ve never met one that I didn’t like, and so I think I’m just a city kind of gal. Pittsburgh, DC, London – give me plenty of people bustling and hustling and my eyes will open wide to take in the energy of it all. Aside from that, here are a few things I really appreciate about New York and have missed since being at home:

  1. The parks. Central Park is obviously the New York park, and it is a truly wonderful place. I’ve been there 3 or 4 times already this trip, and still haven’t had enough. But there are other great parks here too, like Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill. I used to live right next to them and went on many a morning run and evening walk through their paths. I’m staying in Washington Heights and have happily been able to pick up this routine again. It might seem strange that the first thing I talk about is parks after all the characteristically urban points of city living, but I do love being able to escape to green spaces and marvel at the natural glories of the earth.
  2. The bakeries. Um hello! I cannot get enough. I love cooking and food in general, but even before I was responsible for feeding myself baking was my thing. I haven’t met a loaf or pastry at Amy’s Bread that I haven’t liked, Levain has spectacular, ginormous cookies that I’ve described in detail to all my friends, and Empire Cake makes the best dairy free hot chocolate. In addition to hitting these places I’m heading to Chinatown to carry on my new affair with steamed buns and puzzle over the delightful texture of particularly spongy cakes.
  3. Walking. New York is way more pedestrian friendly than Nassau. You could walk all of Manhattan in an almost completely linear fashion if you wanted, cross bridges to the other boroughs and walk through those just the same (though I know less about the Bronx and Queens). It’s so easy to just get up and go, whether or not you want to use public trans – which is so far ahead of what we’re dealing with in The Bahamas I’ll get upset if I think anymore about it. I spent a semester in Ghana my sophomore year in college, and that was something I loved about being there too. People walked everywhere. I walked everywhere. I have flat feet, so they end up being pretty sore after a while, and sometimes for days afterward, but that just means I ought to get better shoes. 😉 Also! You end up real close to people and pass more slowly than you would in car, allowing me frequent “YAS GIRL! Strut your stuff!” and “swoon that is such a well dressed man” moments that are thrilling little bonuses throughout my day.

There are so many other great things about this city, it would be fun to sit down with you and gab about them all. Have you been to New York? What are your favourite things about it?

A Dark Warning

Do not antagonise the police. They have authority, they have power and they are under stress.

Daddy, August 20th 2016

I wrote this directive down last summer, right after getting off of Skype with my dad. He was asking me about the climate in NY after the slew of police violence against black Americans. He wanted to know – Did I feel safe moving around? How did police presence affect my life? What about the protests? Watching from The Bahamas, he wasn’t sure how to imagine my daily experience.

I told him that I did feel safe on my own, but that seeing the police made me nervous and hyper-aware of my blackness/alienness. I hadn’t physically run into any protests but I did feel connected to them and their cries for justice, empathy and reform. The reports of deaths and serious injuries seemed never-ending, and were an assault to my psyche.

I had actually written about how I was feeling a few weeks before we had this conversation. I intended to also write about what my dad told me, but whenever the time came for another post, I didn’t want to go to the difficult place that it would have taken me. I can’t just let his instructions get lost to memory though, so here I am, finally addressing them.

I had never heard my dad talk that way about the police before, not that he ever had much to say about them. His sentences were clipped, forceful and urgent. There was no room for me to offer an alternative picture or open things up for discussion, which was one of the things that made his statement stand out the way it did. My dad is a pretty easygoing guy. The most controversial subject between us is religion, but even those conversations are comfortable and involve an exchange. Though part of a broader discussion, this statement was closed, unequivocal.

Another striking thing about my dad’s statement is that it was borne out of a race-based discussion. We don’t talk much about race or institutionalised oppression and discrimination, so it was a surprise to hear my dad bring up the violence in the first place. I knew he would have been paying attention, but only because he follows the news. His questions felt rooted in his conceiving of me as a black person in the US, not just any person, or just his daughter. Now is probably a good time to tell you that my dad is white, and I’m black. His questions made me feel like he recognised the extra challenges I face because of my skin colour, or that he’s at least aware of that possibility; that’s not something I’d ever felt from him before.

The final thing that surprised me about my dad’s instruction was that I’m grown! It’s not like he was telling me this as part of the other lessons to be learned as a child. I was 26 when we had this conversation, and I thought I was past the point of my parents giving me this kind of obvious-seeming, (super)protective advice. It was almost like he told me not to drink and drive, or shoot heroin. I felt kind of like, Duh Dad, if I thought antagonising the police was on the table before, watching all these black men and women get murdered for breathing has surely shown me otherwise now. His directive felt both sweet and sad. Sweet because I was 26 but he was concerned enough to tell me, sad because he was concerned enough to tell me. I’d shaken my head at things online about black parents having to teach their children not to bother the police, how this was part of the special training needed in the black community, but I felt removed from that aspect of American culture. Now I didn’t have that separation anymore. I knew what it felt like to have a parent warn me about the police. Not good.

Now that this conversation is months behind me, it feels less dramatic, and I can think of ways to relate it without any reference to mine or my dad’s skin colour, or my dad’s interest in my skin colour. In that moment though, I received it thoroughly as a black woman, because I felt so keenly my status as a black woman. After we hung up the phone I sat in stunned silence for a little bit, and faces of all the friends I could call or email to tell them what happened shuttered through my mind. Did my dad really just tell me what he did? What kind of world am I living in? It made the events of that summer even weightier. It underscored my feelings of sorrow and frustration. One small conversation between a father and daughter that captured so much of the fragility of social relationships in the US at the time, as well as the nature of being an immigrant away from family. It shines a spotlight on love too, when you are in a serious situation and your parents have little but words to give you.

City Soundscape

New York is blue sky through grey steel, grey sky through grey steel, urine-funk, garbage-funk, cigarette smoke-funk, and endless, endless sounds from millions of people living and striving and near-expiring all on top of one another.

Of course out and about there’s the noise of traffic: so many angry, impatient drivers quick to lay on their horns and slow to get up off of them. There are conversations in all kinds of languages, some I’ve never heard before. There are people asking for help, reciting for help, selling for help. Emergency sirens wail and obnoxious people subject us all to the music from their phones and stereos. High heels clip clop. A shuffle-murmur emerges from the friction of bodies rubbing against themselves and against others as they push in and out of the subway and around one another on sidewalks.

Despite living in the outskirts of Manhattan, there’s plenty of noise in my neighbourhood too. I spend the average day in my apartment, and my morning used to be heralded by the little birds who live outside my window. Their cheerful songs made me happy, and they reminded me of the cooing pigeons that soothe me on lazy afternoons at home. Now I hardly hear them. Instead, my alarm is the pounding of a jackhammer, forcing its way deeper and deeper into the earth. Road construction started a few weeks ago, and though I walk by the site regularly, I couldn’t tell you what it is they’re doing. Some days, before the crew gets to work, before the sky has even properly started to lighten, I hear garbage trucks or snow plows creaking and groaning on their rounds.

The construction continues through the morning, 6 days a week. In addition to the jackhammer, I hear drilling, the warning beep of reversing machinery, the clang of metal against metal, rocks and dirt piles being scooped and dumped, men yelling at one another, and the steady rumble of their vehicles. My windows face the street, so to escape the intensity of the noise I work in the living room.

That isn’t an altogether quiet place, however. After the morning construction noises have died down the neighbour on the other side of the kitchen wall, Spanish Evangelist, blasts Christian network television in the afternoon. I recognise the sound of prayers fervently prayed, sickness rebuked, blessings bestowed, and the majesty of God proclaimed, even though it’s entirely in Spanish. Something about the character of this kind of television seems to remain the same, regardless of language. At other times, Spanish Evangelist listens to gospel radio, so loudly I can hear the ads for exercise regimes and insurance agencies in addition to every lyric of Kirk Franklin’s and whoever else.

Evening falls, night comes, and I often feel my ears and cheeks burning from the discomfort of listening to Pleasure Hunter on the other side of my bedroom wall enjoying riotous sex. Really there’s no time of day that I can be assured safety from these sounds. In the broad daylight, I gather up whatever I’m doing and run from my room; in the minutes before sleep, I fumble groggily for earplugs. As glamorous as sex is portrayed in the media, as much as people seem to enjoy watching others having sex on television and in movies, being a silent witness is something entirely different and intensely discomfiting.

My upstairs neighbour Professional likes to walk around in heels for hours at a time, which aside from being confusing – where are you not going? – disturbed my visiting friend from sleeping in the morning. A mysterious outside neighbour has recently picked up the habit of honking their horn for 6 to 10 seconds at a time in the hours between 10pm and 6am. Two nights ago it was so bad, on and off for several minutes, that I heard other neighbours yelling SHUT UP! and the less polite SHUT THE F** UP! in protest. Thank you, I knew I couldn’t be alone. Then there’s the clichéd Partier neighbour below me, whose music drowns out all thought, much less anything I was playing, and makes my legs shake.

My ears have been assaulted by all these unwanted noises lately. It feels like there is always sound, never sanctuary. I guess that’s what the park is for.

More Than a Picture, a Reminder of My Need for Grace

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I took this picture a few weeks ago, when my mum came to visit. That’s her on the staircase, white handbag in stark relief against her black outfit and the muted colours of the landscape. I almost wanted to shout at her to take it off and hide it or throw it down to me, so it wouldn’t ruin the shot. But I was just killing time as I waited for her to reach the ground; I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to that much effort and possibly change the  atmosphere.

When I first got to the bottom and looked around, everything seemed ugly. The bare tree branches, brown and muddy earth, sputtering rain, pale grey sky – we were in a park but it certainly didn’t feel fresh or restorative. Then I don’t know, watching my mum descend, umbrella overhead, recalled the photos I’d seen of people walking the same way; the moment gained some dignity, my mind allowed it a reluctant beauty. I could have a picture of my own like that, unscripted.

Looking at this photo I remember those simple feelings, but also the not-so-nice impatience I was struggling to keep in check. The only reason this picture is possible is because I bounded ahead of my mother on this and two other staircases, tired of walking in step with her and eager to feel a little like flying. My mum had mobility issues on this trip, so she walked slower than usual and pain caused her to need many breaks. This, combined with being unused to winter and having to wear borrowed boots, meant she was not the agile person I am used to spending time with. I found it difficult to maintain the pace that was comfortable for her, which led to more than one instance of frustration on my part. Then I would feel bad for being selfish and unsympathetic, and coach myself – with prayer – to slow down, and consider that she was more put out and emotionally affected by her mobility problems than I was.

Although at the time I was only trying to get a nice umbrella’d-walker shot, another memory for the album of my mum’s visit, this picture has come to be more than that. I can’t look at it without remembering the mental adjustment that happened at the bottom of the staircase, from dissatisfaction and impatience to calm and a bit of rainy-day wonder. It’s a stand-in for the other times I was frustrated with my mother too. Patience is not a strength of mine, and one downside of living on my own is that I don’t have regular outings with family or friends to practice waiting and compromise with loved ones. Mum’s visit was also a glimpse into what it might be like caring for her when she’s older; in addition to adjusting for her moving slowly, I was always observing places she could have a seat, modifying my expectations of our pacing so she could rest, and adapting our outings to minimise time she would be exposed to the wind and the cold. (Not to make her sound like an entirely sickly person, we had an amazing time together with marathon days of sightseeing, shopping and museum visits, just with lots of little stops sprinkled in between.)

Living on my own, it’s also easy to feel like I’m doing ok in the sin department – that I’m not as bad as some other people, or that I’ve improved leaps and bounds from the place I was in a few years ago. The ugly, self-centred feelings that came out during my mum’s visit chastened me for that complacency, and this picture is a reminder of that chastening. I need God’s grace a thousand times to help me to live the way he wants me to: for things I’m aware of, for things I have a tendency to forget, and for things I have yet to learn.

A Night in the Village

Last night I went on a magical, meandering, frosty walk through the streets of Greenwich Village. I had a couple of hours to kill, waiting to meet my cousin at the West 4th St station. Initially I thought I’d spend the whole time reading, but it was cold underground and it occurred to me that it would be good to get moving and fun to see the neighbourhood late at night.

And it was late at night. I left the subway at 2am, headed down a familiar route – past a piercing and tattoo parlour, the moderately famous pizzeria where I planned to take my cousin, and the mish mash of bars, small restaurants and other piercing and hookah places on MacDougal. Then I looped back onto 6th Ave, remembered finding an amazing looking bakery on Bleecker and decided to head in that direction.

The temperature was below freezing, and it wasn’t long before I stopped being able to feel my toes. The streets and sidewalks were so much emptier than I was used to seeing them. I stared into store windows, read plaques posted on gates, imagined the lives of the people behind lit curtains. I wondered a few times – is this safe? wise? – but felt comfortable and kept moving, prioritising bright paths and main roads.

I love the tumbling, intimate feel of the Village: the buildings and individual stores so much smaller than in other parts of the city; the many trees and green spaces; the creative, transgressive, atmosphere; the streets narrow and at odd angles to one another, in contrast to the grid in most other parts of Manhattan. Usually I’m miserable when I’m that cold, but my stroll felt like getting better acquainted with a friend, and I revelled in my discoveries.

I read a little about Christopher Park, and finally went over to get a good look at Stonewall, a diminutive, two-storey building for all its infamy. I noticed the Northern Dispensary, an abandoned 19th century clinic, for the first time, and found the fun Paparazzi Dogs statue; though I’d never heard about it before I realised immediately it must be one of those ‘things’ that people go looking to see. I was jolted out of my quiet wandering by a loud accident – two vehicles fighting for space in a single lane, the loser, a taxi, driving over a cement median. “Oh shit!!” said a woman nearby me, the only other pedestrian in the vicinity. The second vehicle, I think a big truck, zoomed on uncaring. The woman and I stood frozen, watching to see what the taxi driver would do, curious about what must have been serious damage to his car’s undercarriage. After getting out and glancing at the road, he hopped back in and took off as though all he’d done was drive a little too fast over a speed bump. Unbelievable. In case I’d forgotten I was in New York City.

I peered through the bars of Jefferson Market Garden and read about the kerfuffle caused by the ‘too dignified’ Jefferson Market Courthouseturned-public-library next door. I saw for the first time one of the medallions placed on 6th Ave’s corners: Canada’s coat of arms hung from a rusty piece of metal on a lamp pole overhead. I smiled at Christmas trees, lit hedges and two men transforming the inside of a restaurant with boughs of white lights. I wished I could take pictures of the wonderful things I saw, but my phone is on the verge of collapse and I didn’t want to risk it dying from an overwhelming ‘use the camera’ command.

What a lovely night, an impromptu adventure, at an hour I would usually be in bed. Who knew that would be a good time to go on a field trip? I walked as slowly as I liked, not worrying about holding anyone up or causing them to trip when I stopped abruptly. I looked up and around, got a little lost, then found myself again. And isn’t that the best way to learn a new place, the best way to enjoy a place you love, the best way to spend the gift of free time.