On Feeling Sorry

Remember the piece I wrote about having eczema? How sometimes it’s debilitating? The very next day my sister sent me an article about a woman who is allergic to water. Even her own tears. As you might imagine, the condition dictates every aspect of her life, from once a week showers to being stuck inside when it rains or snows.  I asked my sister whether she’d read my post, because this woman’s illness is certainly far worse than mine (she hadn’t). Then, a few days later, I read a piece in the New Yorker about a woman who is allergic to light. There’s some controversy around her condition because dermatologists are sceptical of her claims and think that her disease is psychosomatic. Regardless of its root cause, the effects kept this woman in shadows for decades, sometimes unable to leave a homemade darkroom in her house, because of the searing pain that light would bring to her skin.

Learning of these women’s suffering underscored how mild my issues are in comparison. I could stop there and use that thought as a salve when I’m experiencing difficulty, but just because their skin isn’t as healthy as mine doesn’t mean that they’d want to trade their life for my own. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to imagine someone whose circumstance is worse than yours in order to make yourself feel better, about our tendency to do this either as a coping mechanism or to offer others a form of sympathy. It’s a slippery slope from those thoughts to reinforcing harmful stereotypes and belief systems. I mean sure they can give some small comfort, but what about the larger societal ramifications?

Both these women are citizens of a powerful, respected country; I’m not. The interplay of expectation and reality is upended in our case – me, the black woman from a recently decolonised nation, feeling sorry for white women from the nation that caused my own country grief and social problems that we still don’t understand or know how to deal with. As far as our health is concerned, the picture of wealth is reversed; if you were to sketch our desires, the arrows of longing would go in the unexpected direction. And so, the same must be true in countless other scenarios between the ostensibly powerful and weak, rich and poor, secure and insecure. How many times do we hear that well-worn trope in the media, that we should think of the starving children in Africa before throwing away our food? I’m sure you know this, but they’re not all starving. And there are plenty starving in the US and other developed nations too. Yet it’s so easy to jump to images of people in developing or war-torn nations, whose poverty, disease and disenfranchisement are paraded on our television sets for our pity and entertainment. Propping ourselves up with their misery dehumanizes them and assumes that there’s nothing good or redeemable about their existence.

So what there are no paved roads in their town, or their food supply is dwindling or they’ve been displaced from their homes? Maybe they have an incredible relationship with their parents, or they’ve found meaningful work or there is joy in their every day. Their lives are not defined by the hardships or limitations they contain. Everything in this world is relative; money can’t buy you happiness and all that jazz. I’m not saying that we should ignore the problems caused by corruption, greed and imperialism, or abandon the research that seeks to improve public health, social programmes and our stewardship of the environment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be grateful for the wonderful things in our lives, and reflect on those whenever we’re tempted to self pity. I am however saying that we – I – need to be careful to keep the nuances of humanity in view when we use the readymade images we see and hear in the news to bolster our mood. No-one  wants to be pitied, and we owe it to each other to treat everyone’s life, as troubling and unappealing as it may seem, with the respect and dignity we’d want for our own.

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Buying Shoes is Never That Serious

Yesterday I was at a shoe store so that I could return a pair of shoes. I walked in and joined a line that was about 5 customers long. I was a bit surprised to see so many ahead of me, since I assumed I could be in and out in 5 minutes, and then off to meet a friend. The line posed a challenge to that plan, but what was there to do besides settle and wait?

Whine and complain, as I was soon to learn. A few women joined the line right after me, and all of them were upset about its length. One went up to the counter to ask why only two cashiers were serving customers, and the manager explained that she was doing the best she could with all of her trained staff on the three levels of the store.The woman returned to the line in a huff, and a moment or two afterward another of the three left the store. This prompted that first woman to yell toward the counter ‘Someone left the line! You just lost a sale!’ As though that might magic up some more cashiers.

The blonde, middle-aged woman continued to grumble, mumbling about how the manager was doing a poor job and wondering why she was waiting on this line when she could get the same shoes for a comparable price across the street at a similar store.  The third woman, who seemed to be her shopping companion, agreed with her, feeding into the discontent and tension that was growing. The blonde woman decided to yell again, ‘Do you see the line is growing?’ And told her friend she was considering going back to the counter to inform the manager, in case she couldn’t see for herself.

Initially, these women’s outrage fuelled frustration in me. What was mild disappointment quickly turned into agreement with them that it was unbelievable that only a few cashiers were stationed to serve a growing line of customers. After hearing the manager’s explanation, and slowly moving closer to the front of the line, I realised the system was working just fine, and those women were being more than a little impatient. I mean really, they complained from the minute they stepped onto the line, before they had waited for even a moment. The blonde woman in particular was the most obnoxious, talking nonstop; and I could feel her repeatedly looking my way, willing me to chime in. There was no way I would give her that satisfaction! In fact, I was actively wishing she would be quiet, and rest. In my calm waiting, I realised that little time was actually passing, and that although the cashiers seemed to have issues with each customer, this line was a wait like any retail other. If the blonde woman was so bothered, she could have left. No one was holding her there. But I noticed that she didn’t mention any pressing appointments to get to  – she just wanted to be finished for finishing’s sake.

Finally it was my turn to get to the counter. Walking away from from the nagging woman I gave a small sigh of relief. But, since she was right behind me, it was my good fortune to be standing next to her while she lit into her cashier about her experience:

Cashier: Hello, how are you today?
Blonde woman: I’m terrible actually. I had a horrible experience on line. Your manager is really bad. I think I’m going to make a phone call.

Mind you, the manager was maybe two feet away from the cashier, so she definitely heard all these comments. The cashier tried to apologize, but the woman kept at it, grumbling about the poor service. I watched the cashier’s body language change; she angled her body away from the woman, in my direction, and her eyes looked everywhere but in the woman’s face. The cashier ringing me up was upset too, and muttered something under her breath. ‘I’m sorry?’ I asked, before I realised that she wasn’t talking to me.

A few minutes after I went to the counter, my return was complete and I made my way out of the store. And you know what? The whole thing took 11 or 12 minutes. Standing in line and going through the somewhat stalled return process at the counter. I know because I texted my friend as soon as I joined the line, and she texted me when she got to our meeting place, at which time I was all done and ready to leave the store. My feeling that the wait was hardly long was right, but if you heard this woman carrying on you’d think we were standing there for 11 hours.

While I was waiting to be served and after I had left the store, I thought about how she and I handled the situation so differently. I stood calmly, without any emotional distress. I don’t know how I was able to be so easygoing about the situation – I’m not a very patient person and I dislike standing on lines of any sort. Meanwhile, the blonde woman seemed to have her day and her shopping experience ruined by having to endure the injustice of the line.

There is so much to unpack in that. In the grand scheme of all that is going on in the world, of everything that has happened in the last two weeks – especially Hurricane Matthew wreaking havoc across Cuba, Haiti and The Bahamas, and the 100+ children killed in the Syrian civil war – what is it to stand in a well-lit, high ceilinged, air conditioned building to purchase a pair of shoes to add to your collection?

When black people of all ages across the US are exponentially more likely to be shot dead by the police going about their everyday lives than their white counterparts, and then have their killer minimally, if at all, punished, how is it an injustice to have two or three (black) women at a counter to serve you, rather than seven? How can you really allow that to make you spittingly mad? There is something incredibly wrong with that picture.

I wonder, did blonde woman tell family and friends about how the shoe store ruined her day?

Ugh, the more I think about it, the more it makes me sick to my stomach. The woman doesn’t know that it is her incredible privilege that makes her feel so entitled to a particular kind of service, and to speak so rudely to people trying their best to do their jobs in a high pressure situation. If you want to look at it from a racial angle, from a developed versus underdeveloped nation angle, from an economic angle – she has a lot going for her here.

I’m not all mad though. In fact, after I get over my own huff of disgust, I remember how peaceful I felt on the line, and how really I’m just sorry for blonde woman that she couldn’t wait quietly like the rest of us. God has been teaching me a lot about patience in the last year and a half. I’ve been waiting for a few things, all of which have yet to be fulfilled and/or revealed to me. My earnestness for answers has not diminished, but I have learned to be a little less anxious. In those times when fear and worry threaten to overwhelm me, I am a bit better at walking myself away from the edge. I guess those skills have spilled over into other areas of my life. Moreover, because I’ve come to cherish so greatly the truths about God caring for us, knowing our lives intimately, and being altogether good and wise, I have a better perspective on the everyday stresses of life. I feel like I’ve noticed a change for the better in that direction anyway, and it’s a trend I want to continue. Blonde woman doesn’t seem to have that. I’m thankful for a saviour-friend who keeps my mind and heart still through the unpleasant, disruptive moments life always throws our way.

Gumelemi 2016

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For the past 10 months I’ve been working on the latest edition of my digital magazine, Gumelemi. This issue commemorates Hurricane Joaquin’s historic battering of the southern islands of The Bahamas in October 2015. I’m so proud of it! I’ve never worked so hard on any of the ones prior. The main reason for that is that I became responsible for a lot of the content, so there was a lot of legwork on my part to find interview subjects, interview them and then transcribe our conversations. The magnitude of the storm and its damage also presented a challenge. I didn’t want to just have stories from survivors, I wanted to give readers an overview of Joaquin’s characteristics, touch on how the aftermath was handled and provide information about supporting the ongoing recovery work. Additionally, there were many people represented so I had a lot of moving parts to coordinate and stay on top of.

Producing Gumelemi is a labour-intensive exercise, but I really love pulling it together. There’s something about the nuts and bolts of it all that I find exciting and fulfilling. Moreover, with each new issue I’m rewarded with better design skills, new or deeper relationships with people and a great sense of accomplishment of having a story, or stories, well told. I hope you’ll read and enjoy!

Itching and Addiction

How do I explain what it feels like to be in the middle of an eczema attack? I mean the kind where I’m itching so badly that I can’t do anything but scratch. My mind is focused on stopping the itching, going on the offensive to get it to go away. Or maybe it’s really a defensive move, since truthfully scratching is the surest sign that I’ve been beaten, despite my mind’s conviction that the opposite is the case.

For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horrible flare up on my hands. It started first on the right, then appeared on the left, and now it’s crept down my right forearm and is spotting on my left forearm too. There’s a patch on my back that’s been around this whole time, and in late winter and springtime the rash showed up on my face and different parts of my legs. Thankfully those are pretty much gone now. But my hands. They are where I have to fight a battle on a daily basis. In the most terrible moments, I move frantically from one hand to the next. As soon as I quiet the itch in one place I become aware of the sensation in another, and another, then it jumps back to that first place. All over the backs of my hands, my fingers, in between my fingers and now even on my palms. The desire for relief is totally consuming, and everything stops but the clawing. I’m paralyzed. Does that sound horrific? That’s fine, it is.

When I say paralyzed, I mean that literally. In the middle of a conversation, on my way to the shower, chopping vegetables or combing my hair, there is no time or activity that is off limits. The scratching goes beyond my hands too, it affects my entire physiology. My breathing becomes shallow, I feel strange sensations deep inside other, seemingly random parts of my body like my leg or arm, far away from where I’m scratching. My stomach becomes embroiled in the episode too, rolling and tightening. I find myself squeezing my abdominal muscles. I don’t know whether that’s my body trying to help itself or if it makes things worse. Though anytime is an importune time for an attack, I’m most vulnerable at bedtime; I get caught in this silent struggle, this manic feeling behaviour, in darkness, silence and solitude, magnifying the psychological challenges of the episode.

I am so grateful that the worst of my rashes is confined to my hands, and even more so that these flare ups have become rare in my life. They’ve also helped me empathize with people who suffer from addiction; the complete tunnel I feel encased in during an attack must be what it’s like for them when they feel a yearning for a fix. I was listening to a podcast about the connection between prescription drugs and illegal drug addiction, and one interviewee, a heroin addict, described his inability to fight his body’s cry for the needle, despite his best attempts to become clean. Not long after that – possibly even the same day – I had one of the attacks I’ve described, and my understanding of the addict’s position clicked in a way it never had before. I don’t know if you can really get it unless you feel it in some form yourself – how your mind is near-powerless to think its way through the tsunami-like impulses from your body, coming in urgent, insistent waves. My experience with eczema has become another warning to stay away from dangerous substances; I can imagine how hard fighting to free myself from dependence on them would be, how awful it would feel to be trapped in my body’s impulses. It makes me want to comfort those who are striving.

The itching that I feel, it’s a form of pain. When those compulsions from deep inside finally cease, a wave of calm rolls through my body. I relax entirely, and usually am shocked by the degree and extent of the tension I was holding. My breathing evens out, it feels pleasant and even sweet. When my mind clears, it’s like a fog has lifted and a siren is silenced. Not only can I return my focus to whatever I was doing before the paralysis, I can entertain other thoughts as well. What luxury! Even after the cessation of less insistent sensations, I am surprised by how much I was distracted by, and consumed with, fighting the itch. It’s not like having a mosquito or sandfly bite, jellyfish sting, or even the chicken pox. I am hopeful that this flare up I’ve been in will heal completely soon, but the lesson I’ve learned this time around will stick with me forever. I can do more than tolerate addicts or agree that there should be social services to help them overcome their illnesses. I feel compassion for their struggle, as I know what it’s like to fight your own body over self-harming behaviour.

Beach Days

I miss swimming. Especially in the ocean. When I was younger my mum used to take my siblings and I on many spontaneous trips to the beach. My dad too. I remember one summer, when my mum was transitioning between jobs and my cousins were visiting from Canada, she took us to the beach every day the entire month they were with us.

When my family wasn’t at the beach, we were at my grandparents’ house, in their pool. Many a party was held in their backyard. When I was a very young girl we lived in a community of condos with a pool at the centre, and we spent a lot of time and had parties there too. That might even be where I learned to swim. My best friend and I whiled away countless hours in that pool, until our skin itched and her hair turned green from the chlorine.

As I got older, earned my driver’s license and greater independence, I would go to the beach with friends. Summers home from college were synonymous with at least weekly trips to “Cabbage” in particular, with its wide sandy beach and big, aggressive waves. I would go for quick swims on my own too, the same way I saw my mum doing as I grew up. Sometimes we’d wake up and she wouldn’t be home, or she’d take longer than expected to return from work. Her absence was always explained by the fact that she was at the beach.

I haven’t been home for the summer, and I was away all of last summer too. I haven’t been swimming in so long that I don’t even have a swimsuit anymore. The elastic in my old one dried up and I threw it away. There are public pools here, but I haven’t visited one, in large part because of a shoulder injury.

Thankfully, I live next to the Hudson River, and I go and see it at least once a week. It’s amazing how much joy it brings me; my whole life opens up, my chest feels lighter and fuller and my day is immediately brighter. I didn’t know I had such a need to be near water until I went to graduate school. At one point on an out of town trip with classmates  we drove past a river, and I yelped in happiness. “Island girl!”, one of them said to me. I grinned. I missed the water so much! I just hadn’t realised. My undergrad school had a lake in the middle of campus, so that must have satisfied me those four years.

As nice as the Hudson is, I long for the ocean: its mesmerizing, awe-inducing beauty and boundless expanse; swimming out as far as I dare from the shore; propelling myself from the sandy bottom into front and back flips and full body spirals; treading salty water as I’m buffeted by the waves; playing and talking with friends and family as they do the same weightless dance; walking along the shore; lying on the sand with a book. I miss the hunger brought on by a day at the beach and the way the whole inside of my mouth would be puckered and wrinkled by salt water. I miss the gentle swaying sensation of being pushed and pulled by the current that my body would remember at night, lulling me to a sweet, beach day sleep.

The aquamarine and cerulean blues are like another member of my family, and I hope these long absences aren’t indicative of what our relationship is going to be like in the future. Until we meet again, I’ll continue to visit the river, and I’m considering buying one of those little water features for my home. I’m surprised at how strongly connected to the ocean I feel, and am intrigued by the ways it, and water in general, have influenced my personality and feeling of being, of positioning, in the world. It’s a question I’ll continue to ponder. I’d trade the answer for a day at the beach though.

Against Omphaloskepsis

The other day a food blog I follow led me to a YouTube vlogger. I got swept up watching her videos and learning about her life, then found myself on her website and her instagram, trying to make sense of her product and her brand. Her instagram was probably the most fun. I admired each perfect image, and wondered at the way her presentation of herself makes her life seem absolutely perfect, blissful. Both her pictures and videos are full of light and there are vivid colours from stunning flowers and landscapes. The vlogger herself is tall and svelte, with long, dark wavy hair. Even now that’s she’s eight or nine months pregnant, her physique has stayed the same with the exception of her round belly, and she still wears high heels, mini-skirts and dresses, and body-conforming clothes. She’s positioned herself as a fashion and lifestyle guru it seems. With all this curated content, I wondered at what goes on behind the scenes of her life. Surely there is sorrow, surely she has arguments with her husband, though in every vlog scene I saw him in they were dreamily sharing elegantly plated, perfectly portioned, healthy (albeit bland looking) meals, which never failed to start with a kiss.

It would be so easy  to slide down a slope of dissatisfaction and envy from viewing all this enchanting content. I thanked God that, for whatever reason, I felt more curious about her life than envious of it. Maybe it was the absolute rightness of everything and the knowledge that this couldn’t be true that saved me. That and the fact that she doesn’t know Jesus, who I wouldn’t trade for her world. Still, I realised that it would be so easy to put her life on a pedestal, to worship the amazing combination of peacefulness, accomplishment, beauty and freedom from want that appears therein. Not long after having that thought I read a comment from another instagram viewer – she confessed that her vision board, the images she meditates on each morning and wishes will come true, are of this vlogger’s life with her husband. I was amazed. This person has fallen into the very trap I had imagined, and I feel sorry for her. How can we ever desire another person’s life so much? How can we, knowing that every human is fallible and no one’s life is perfect, yearn so deeply to be someone else? Even if her vision board comes true, it’s built on an illusion and there will be no lasting contentment for her there.

I continued to think about the vlogger’s life, and how far she’s separated from the chaos of war and the stress of poverty. I’m separated from those things too, so I wasn’t feeling self-righteous about that; I was wondering how the time we (I) spend admiring the lives of the rich distracts us from the harsh realities of the poor and marginalised that need our attention and compassion. It’s not that I think it’s bad for us to see how wealthy people are living, just that too much time in that world not only breeds dissatisfaction with ourselves, it makes us more selfish, or at the very least nurtures a tunnel vision so that we cannot see the needs of others. It’s crazy that there are so many wealthy and mega-wealthy people, and at the same time there are many more who walk miles for water, risk their physical and mental health in oppressive factories for unthinkable “wages”, and cannot walk the streets of their home for fear of warfare and political retribution. We cannot ignore them. We cannot drool over lives that look supremely comfortable and happy and forget how comfortable (if not necessarily happy) our lives are.

Then what do you know,  later that day, I listened to last week’s episode of This American Life. It’s a heartache-inducing piece on refugees in Greece. They are stuck in limbo, their children are traumatised and have missed endless days of school, their days stretch out long and uncertain before them as the already-crippled Greek state struggles to shelter them and provide them with services. Their reality, and the realities of refugees all over the world, is exactly the kind of thing we, or I, am in danger of forgetting about by feeding my desire for personal success and accomplishment by falling down these instagram and other social media and celeb-news rabbit holes.

It’s fun to see how the other half lives, and sometimes it inspires me to work hard and persevere, but it can be dangerous too. It’s difficult enough to be committed to serving other people and caring for their needs while battling my own selfishness. I don’t need any outside help to make me more callous, self-centred and dissatisfied. What’s that saying, comparison is the thief of joy? Well, it’s true. And if I’m not content with my own life, how can I look around me to give freely to and empathise with others who need my help? So a warning to myself, then, to watch out for following too closely the lives of others that seem wonderful and complete compared to mine. A reminder that focusing on all I have to be thankful for is what will keep me contented, and equip me to think more of others and less of myself.

Lament

There have been incredibly disturbing, frustrating and upsetting events in the news recently… but I guess when isn’t there disturbing news? We live in an awful, ugly, fallen world.

In the US, the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile made me question, for the millionth time, my safety and especially the safety of every dark skinned male that I know and care for that lives here. With that question follows another – why stay? Or, why try to stay? After watching the video of Philando Castile’s slaughter I broke down into heaving, sobbing tears, gasping for breath, overflowing with sorrow. I couldn’t believe the depth of my reaction. This man and his family were strangers to me. I witnessed the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement  while I was in graduate school. Each time I was horrified, unsettled, grasping for ways to understand this country that I live in. I fought to keep up with the rhythm of my work, but I never reacted the way that I did with Castile. Perhaps his death was just the last that I could take.

In the days that followed I struggled to mark the gravity of his and Sterling’s death on my own. I prayed alone and called a friend to pray with her. I am stunned at the injustice of their and every other innocent black man, woman and child’s death. I am anguished by the way their lives are so easily and thoughtlessly taken. How can this go on? Is anything really changing? And if it is, how in heaven’s name did people live day to day decades ago? Here and elsewhere. How did my grandparents survive? And their parents? This fear and racism disgust and slay me.

Then in France, on a happy, sunny, Bastille Day, people were chased down by a van and rolled over, trampled, mowed down. More shocking, senseless violence.

What can I say really that hasn’t already been said? What musings on the need for love, forgiveness and communication? I was reminded after Sterling and Castile’s deaths that it is good, and right, to spend time mourning the terrible things that happen. We don’t have to jump to solutions and attempts at reconciliation right away.

It has been 32 days since Alton Sterling was killed, 31 days since Philando Castile was killed, and 23 days since 84 people were killed on Bastille Day. These words of David in Psalm 6 (beginning at verse 2) are also my own:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of my foes.”

The opening of the psalm is a reminder that our sin is at the root of these horrible events, and also that God is angered by injustice:

“Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.”

But it ends with hope in the knowledge that God hears our prayers and will bring about justice on our behalf:

“Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.”

Amen.