When Your Vote Precipitates a Near-Quarter Life Crisis

Path of Life

My right thumbnail is stained a reddish brown. The colour is in patchy striations, in harmony with the grain of my nail,  darker in some areas than others. It reminds me of modern art, and if I could somehow lift the pattern onto a canvas it would be interesting, if not beautiful, and belong in one of those hard-to-understand museums.

There is colour underneath my nail too, like a line of dirt. It’s stubborn; it bothers me. I rake my left thumbnail over this line time and again in an attempt to get it off, but it doesn’t lift. It will stay there until it is good and ready to leave.

The entire stain will be there until it is good and ready to leave. Or rather, until my nail grows out and away. On the top I can see the line where it used to meet my skin, a neat, faint U, and beyond that the ordinary purple-pink of my nail bed. The rebirth has already started.

How did I get this stain in the first place? I voted. In The Bahamas we dip our right thumbs into bottles of deep purple ink to indicate that we have cast our ballot. A purple thumb is a mark of pride and participation. People take pictures of them at all angles; they flood our social media feeds after elections. And this purple is tenacious. Some take to bleach to remove it. I am one of the ones who is waiting for it to fade away, though I didn’t think it would take this long. It’s been 11 days since the election.

As long as this colour is on my nail I can’t easily forget that day. This makes me think of the way other things in our lives remain long after we have encountered them. Exchanges and conflicts in relationships, and the sometimes-big sometimes-small choices we make throughout our days, have effects lasting as long and far longer than this ink on my nail, though many times they are much easier to forget. When I think about how each decision I make dominoes into others, how many relationships leave deep, lasting grooves in my life, I get a little overwhelmed.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s good to be shaken from sleepwalking through the everyday, or from having my nose so deep in the task in front of me that I forget to look up for perspective. This life matters, and so do each of the blocks I use to put it together. I pray that I will make the most of my days, with wise choices leading to positive stains.

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.

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.

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.

Possibly Too Personal

I live next to a park. I can see trees and sky from my windows. As winter gave way to spring, I watched new life emerge from the earth and heard it transform the air. Where before the ground was rocky, barren and still, now there are plants pushing their way to the surface, trees returning to life and animals scampering across the rock face. Where there was relative silence, punctuated by traffic noises, now there are birds ever-chirping. I love my bedroom. I love this park. On weekends, when I can waken slowly and luxuriate in its sights and sounds, I am filled with a sense of wonder and peace, and the possibility of the new day shines brighter, seems greater.

I will be leaving this park soon. Much sooner than I would like or am prepared for. This is a city of transience, where people rarely come to put down roots. I heard this sentiment just Sunday, in church. I don’t exactly want to put down roots here either, but I do want to stay a while longer than I’ve been here so far.

I’ve struggled a lot in the past year with frustration at this world I’ve been born into, with its political systems and antiquated ways of conceiving of and policing the individual based on more or less arbitrary boundaries and bastions of power. It’s hard to focus my frustration on such abstract notions, as real and oppressive as they may be, so I’ve also struggled with resenting people around me who have greater freedoms than I, and thereby greater access than I. It’s a feeling I try not to dwell on, and move to snuff out when it arises – especially because I know have benefited so much from any number of privileges – but it’s a struggle all the same.

Another reality I’ve had to come to grips with is my dispensability. Many times in the past year people have been unwilling to fight for me because they know I’m replaceable. I say “know” because it’s a fact. I am. Sure I have a unique blend of skills, personality traits and experience, but at the end of the day another person could do my job or provide romantic or platonic relational fulfillment. The same is true of all of us; it’s how the world keeps turning. Again, I know that on some level we each touch lives and contribute to the world in individual ways. But sometimes, when business sense or the law or emotions dictate otherwise, we are passed over or cast aside in favour of another person or non-human solution.

So here I am, preparing to move away from my park, to a destination yet unknown. Working to find my footing and direction in spite of realities that oppose my freedom and confidence. Moving ever-forward, pushing past frustration and setbacks.