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.

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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.

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.