When Fossils Lead to Deeper Friendship

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Pine Forest in South Abaco Blue Holes National Park

I’ve learned this year how cool it is to see my friends at work, to get a peek into the ways they spend their weekdays. It was a little strange recognising the thrill this gives me – like, is this weird? What is so exciting about this? But I realise now as I’m collecting my thoughts that these are new experiences for me. I’ve never been old enough before to see my friends do the work they talked about doing and spent years studying. Now I’ve crossed that threshold.

The first time I had this feeling was several months ago, in the dental hygienist’s chair. My friend Toni loves teeth and posts about them all the time on instagram, but this was my first chance to see her in action. She was wonderful! Told me all about my teeth and oral health in general. I left with a sparkly mouth, a heads up about what will likely need to happen with my teeth in the future and new information to incorporate into my cleaning routine.

The second admiration-inducing moment was a few weeks ago when I met up with Elora, a photographer. I’ve worked with her before on a few fun projects, and we talk often about the hours she spends editing pictures and developing her business, but this was the first time I was behind the camera with her. She explained the basics of exposure and helped me navigate the dials and menu options on the DSLR I’m borrowing from my uncle. I had an idea about the technicality involved in her craft, but having her as a teacher for a couple hours provided a deeper level of insight and, correspondingly, respect.

Then this week I’ve been in Abaco, an island in the northern Bahamas, visiting my friend Kelly. She’s an anthropologist for the Antiquities, Monuments & Museums Corporation of The Bahamas, and the office here focuses on natural history. She’s driven me around the island, telling me all about the environment, ecology and history; I alternate between awe at all that I’m learning about my country and Kelly’s fluency in this information.

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Dan’s Cave, South Abaco Blue Holes National Park

Today we went to her office and she showed me prehistoric fossils found in blue holes on the island, preserved almost perfectly because of the anaerobic environment at the bottom of the holes. We don’t have crocodiles or hutia in The Bahamas anymore, but Kelly has sifted their bones from sediment, cleaned and labelled them and taught schoolchildren about their historic presence here, along with other animals that are still around, like bats and wild boar.

Watching my friends at work, or listening to them talk in detail about their work, gives me a glimpse at another side of them. I learn more about the things they’re passionate about and the ways their minds differ from mine: Wow, this person must really enjoy biology/I don’t know if I could ever memorise all these things! I appreciate them in a whole new way for their contributions to our society, and the high standards they hold for their work. As life lasts, I look forward to seeing more friends in action, and the sweeter level of relationship this brings.

An Early Morning, A Gift of Rain

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I woke up too early this morning. I could tell because there wasn’t enough sunlight squeezing into my room. But I felt rested, so I didn’t try to go back to sleep, and I got up to open the blinds. The view was mesmerising.

The sky was blanketed in one big cloud, and reddish grey from the sun that was trying to make its way through. It was a quiet, resolute colour, as though the morning was holding back on itself. From the red sky came a gentle rain, which made a soft whooshing noise that I only noticed because I was looking out the window.

The greens of the three types of palms I could see were muted in the rainy, red-grey light, as were the hibiscus and varieties of crotons. Their leaves moved only slightly, swaying under the direction of the falling water. This was a gentle rain, which made a soft pitter patter on the plants and the ground, whispering its greeting.

After a few minutes, it stopped. I woke in time to see the very last of the morning stretching its way into the work of the day. Then the Saturday that I’m used to came through: the sky, gradually a more vibrant shade of blue; the sun, growing fiercer as it warmed the sky; birds singing to one another. I love the weekend for the way it allows me to savour the beauty of my island.

Yet, as well as I know what it feels like to drink in a weekend morning, I realised this week that there is still plenty about this island that can surprise me. I’ve been driving the same streets that I have for years, with the same trees and flowering plants lining their edges and populating the yards of homes and businesses, and feeling excited because I’m somehow seeing them in a new way. Maybe it’s because I’m older now, and have stood in awe of the greenery produced by other climates, that I can appreciate what gives mine its particular splendour. Everything seems more tropical, or very tropical, somehow. (How can it be more than, or very much so, what it simply is?)

I crested a hill the other morning, driving away from my friends’ house. Looking down at the tops of palms and dots of bright red poinciana flowers I wanted to get out of the car to stand and stare. It looked like the scene on a postcard, or a book cover,  the kind of landscape you read about. Yes, we have the ocean and it is incredibly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. But we also have woman’s tongue and silk cotton trees, poui, gumelemi and mangroves. I read about the oak, birch, redwood and spruce; my island has its majesties too, more than palms, more than exotic fruits. I am thankful for new eyes to see them, rainy mornings to study them, this space to tell you about them.

A Stranger Calls… 12 Times

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8.23: “Now’s probably a good time to call that number I saw on the sign. Not too late, but likely after dinner.”
8.24: ~mindless redial~
8.25: “Seriously? How have they not picked up. People are glued to their phones.”
8.26: “Ok, maybe you’re in the bathroom but I know you carried your phone in there.”
8.27: “Hello! Pants should be on now!”
8.32: “The noise from flushing lasts about 10 seconds. And who washes their hands if all they’ve done is pee?”
8.35: “All this waitin’s got me snackish. Am I feelin’ sweet or salty? – Wait why is this even a question. Ice cream.
8.39: “Ooh yea neapolitan. Let me just get this quick call in before I kick back.”
8.40: ~redial while grabbing spoon~
8.51: “Guess I’ll give it another shot. It’s been freaking long enough, what with that ice cream break.”
8.52: “Um hello? Does anyone live at this number?”
9.07: “Pick up the phooone dammit!”

***

Is it just me or is this unbelievable? Someone – a stranger – called me 11 times in 29 minutes. There’s no way I would ever have imagined anyone would call me this often. I’m trying to get an apartment building rented, so frequent phone calls are expected, but this person took the cake. And! They called in the middle of a dinner party I was hosting.

Thankfully my phone was on silent and I was busy frying potstickers, steaming rice and coordinating table set-up, so it wasn’t until my phone lit up from the last call that I knew someone was trying to reach me. When I realised they had in fact tried 10 times before, in such a short amount of time, I had absolutely no intention of answering if they called again. Clearly they were rude and inconsiderate, and who would want a tenant like that?

As it happened, when they did call the final time – a whole 15 minutes later – my friends and I were seated at the table and one of them said I should answer in case it was urgent. I was pretty sure it was not, and thought the number looked familiar, but since I had only glanced at my phone the time before I couldn’t be sure. My friend succeeded in convincing me, and to my dismay I found my instinct was right. The person on the other end was inquiring about an apartment, and after I hung up and reviewed my call log I confirmed that it was the same pest from before. I was disgusted.

Well, I’m over it now and thought it might be fun to imagine the caller’s inner dialogue. There had to have been one, right? Who can be that obnoxious without rationalising their actions? Thankfully I never had to deal with them again because, wouldn’t you know it, the apartments didn’t suit their needs.

The Woman Who’s Mad I Went to College

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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.

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.

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.

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.