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.

The Prime Minister’s Middle Finger

Our Prime Minister flipped off a critic at a party event on Monday night. The person wasn’t actually there, but the PM wanted everyone present to know what he thought of their thievery allegations.

When I heard this news, I was disgusted. It’s ridiculous for our 73 year old PM to be behaving that way, and this is the kind of incident that sets the tone for rudeness, aggression and violence in our community. When our own Prime Minister can’t conduct himself properly in front of a crowd of sycophants, how can we expect better of people who see him and the rest of our politicians – consciously or not – as models for how to live and relate to one another? I want to be able to look up to our leaders and be inspired by them, not shake my head in disbelief and wish for them to demit office.

Recently, PM Christie described our society as the Wild West because of the increasing number of murders. His finger gesture makes him look like a hypocrite, since it displays the same disrespect, callousness and lack of self-control necessary to take another human life. If he – a career politician and our chief public official – doesn’t have the discipline to manage conflict in a dignified manner, how can he criticise young, disenfranchised men for not doing the same? He certainly isn’t setting an example for them to follow.

Christie isn’t the only disappointing politician in the news. So many of our leaders are nasty, corrupt, greedy and rude. I long for a change in our government, when there are more people to admire than to be frustrated with and to disdain. I don’t have to support their positions, but I would like to be encouraged by their work ethic and thankful for the way they esteem their office. Obama showed me that this is possible, and so I hope. God raises leaders up and makes others fall, and so I pray.

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.

Thankful for Community, in Sickness and in Health

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I was out and about this weekend, all over Nassau. Saturday was spent with my uncle, and we got an early start. First in the west, then central, then the downtown area in the east. There was equipment to move, a building to inspect, and a couple of fairs to go to. The first was organised by his church, a steak-out to raise funds for… I don’t know what. The endowment? The second was the Tru Tru Bahamian Festival held at the grounds of John Watlings Distillery.

There wasn’t much to the steak-out, we arrived at the very beginning of the event so there weren’t many people there. The music was incredibly loud for the small courtyard where it was held; definitely loud enough to attract passersby but far too loud to make staying there for a long time at all comfortable. I can’t imagine how the people who worked the grill, the dessert tent and other jobs must have felt at the end of the day.

The Tru Tru Bahamian Festival, pictured above, was bright and colorful, bustling with people; since I’ve been away there were many to catch up with! I know I’m not alone in loving celebrations of local businesses and artisans like this. The day was beautiful and the sun wasn’t hot. There was enough going on for it to be lively but not so much that it was overwhelming.

Lunch at the church fair kept me from being very hungry, but I got a green smoothie and my mum and I shared a cajun lobster snack (what Bahamians call any protein paired with fries). Neither of us enjoyed it. The lobster tail was smothered in who knows what combination of spices and tasted like too much and nothing all at the same time. “I didn’t know it was possible to ruin lobster,” Mummy commented later. I’ve never cooked lobster and don’t eat it very often, but I was surprised by how badly the dish failed all the same. Seems like it failed me a second way too, since Monday morning I woke with stomach pains and had to go to the bathroom, there to remain for the next seven hours.

Seven! I’m not sure I’m really sorry to have shared that detail, since I don’t know if anything else truly conveys the magnitude of my illness. The first few hours were spent in ways you can easily imagine. The last few I lay on the floor, in and out of sleep, too weak to move anywhere else. When I found the strength to leave the bathroom I moved to the couch, and there I remained for the rest of the day, into the night. Paradoxically, I was almost immobile from nausea. I didn’t even know that was possible.

Oh it was terrible! I vowed never to eat again, and decided this was the kind of punishment people should wish on their worst enemy. Today, three days later, my neck and stomach muscles are still sore from the violent retching. I’m feeling heaps better though, and am so thankful for everyone who helped care for me and checked on me.

That was one thing I was genuinely happy about in the midst of the misery. Last year when I was sick because of my students I was all alone. It sucks being sick when there’s no one to make you tea or bring you water or medicine. I wonder if it doesn’t actually prolong illness, since you have to drag your weakened body to care for yourself, or forego treatment entirely because you’re unable to administer it on your own. I’m thankful for my community! Whether mingling under palm trees or measuring tablespoonfuls of medicine, they make all the difference.