…like I don’t recognize me

A lot of my pleasure-seeking practices center around things I can hear. This would probably seem like a pretentious, overly flowery way of saying “I like the way listening to music makes me feel,” if that’s what I meant. But it’s a little more complicated, I promise. A few years ago, one of my professor-aunties who is also a beautiful singer and musician (I know her to play the guitar but I wouldn’t be surprised if she plays other instruments as well) was making a point about how a lot of Sade’s popular songs sound alike, and she sung a medley on the spot, each line from a different song flowing one into the next. The moment lasted probably about 10 seconds, and the only detail I remember clearly is that she ended on “…sweetest taboo,” but in my memory that sound acts as a sort of window into the thinking-feeling-knowing-creating place that I keep trying to look out of.[1]

Another example: when I was around 13 or 14, I watched one of those “True Hollywood Story” episodes about Destiny’s Child, and there was a scene where Kelly Rowland talked about and sang a few lines of the first song she ever wrote as a young person. The actual notes are lost to me forever and at the same time remain so vivid because I can remember exactly how ecstatic the sound made me feel, and I think of it often, wishing I could only complete the sweetness of the memory by hearing again what exactly she sang. Other sounds that open up windows into that thinking-feeling-knowing-creating place are the several instances of “good night” (as in “good evening”) I heard in Barbados; the creaking sound guitars make on acoustic recordings; Mel and her brother talking to each other in their very New York accents; whatever the effect is that makes the music sound muffled like you’re hearing it through the wall or from outside the party before the song actually starts [the most recent example I can think of is at the beginning of “Pull Up” by Koffee]; the low “I like my girls just like I like my moneyyyy…” playing in the background, much more audible when Kehlani performs “Honey” live; Sakeenah saying “Now, wait a minute!”; the swell of a symphony’s strings filling your ears; the sound of the word trill or trilling as well as the sound of a voice when it does what the word describes; Toni Morrison asking “Are you any good?” It’s not just that I enjoy beautiful sounds and want to hear them all the time. It’s more so that those sounds open up emotional experiences or brief moments of ecstasy or the black femme sublime, and remembering or chasing the sound becomes more about accessing the feeling they elicit, whether or not the sound is available to me.

To chase away the soul-bowing down feeling, I listen, searching under and inside the songs I currently have on rotation for those notes and trills and harmonies that will be windows to that “other place” where cubicles and office politics are a distant part of my past. Currently, my working days are soundtracked by Sza, poet laureate and patron saint of the delightful, depressed, and delusional. I haven’t listened to much else since the release of her album SOS before the holidays[2], and I’m still finding new ways to relate to/wonder about/laugh at, even after two months of listening. Far like I don’t recognize me… and I’m thinking about how much repression or denial of one’s needs, desires, and self as a whole in order to participate in the world of work, so much so that it is common for us to not “have time” for ailments of varying levels of seriousness, because who has time for their body to break when due dates approach and the bottom line has never had more zeros? 

Far like I don’t recognize me… and as soon as the pandemic was declared “over,” I feel like we accelerated headfirst into the worst of pre-COVID work culture, with surveillance, coercion, and conformity dressing up in the emperor’s finest clothes and calling themselves community-building. I am clutching with closed fists the boundaries I try to maintain between my full, real self and the one I must inhabit between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and in one instance from a few months back, I disappointed my self by making a petty comment about someone that I shouldn’t have, because whispered snark is often the conduit for channeling frustration at each other instead of towards someone more powerful with a heftier check.[3] I like my self the least on any given Monday until the sun sets, and then I am too tired to step back into the self whose fragments I left at home.

Lately, I’ve been finding it very difficult to reconcile the pressure to act “normal” as if even one of the million and counting lives that have been lost to COVID did not mean anything, as if people are not repressing and denying themselves round the clock for jobs that do not keep the cupboards full nor allow [what shouldn’t be] the leisure of pursuing pleasure or finding rest just for the sake of it, as if every single office and committee and system is not currently designed to ensure that the aforementioned tragedies keep happening so that the [at times, rarely] benevolent and wealthy few can have an embarrassment of abundant resources to spend and enjoy as they wish. I will save the rest for my journal, and as my friend Ami says, “If I [talk] about a job, it’s hypothetical or I’m lying.”

But, I’m still upright [mostly, as frequent gym-going seems to have given me runner’s knee that I should be resting more] and seeking sweetness and pleasure wherever I can, and have recently signed up for piano lessons so I can maybe go back to the skill 15-year-old me had for being able to listen to songs and play the tune to my self, maybe relearn all my lost music vocabulary and knowledge so I can explain more clearly what exactly I like about particular sounds, maybe creating even more windows that open based on my own desires and ability to make them materialize, maybe having more frequent encounters of the black femme sublime.

[1] A door or a path into that garden of my mind would be more like full pieces of work I watch/read/listen to in order to access that place, whereas memories of brief instances like this are windows because I can see that feeling place through them even if they don’t necessarily carry me there in full.

[2] If “Kill Bill” had been released in 2016, you would have been sick of me posting side-by-side lyrics and gifs from the video with Rihanna’s “Needed Me” alongside yet another post about how angry I was at the time. Good for me [and you, and him] that I am no longer in that place.

[3] My guilty conscience is most over-active and most punitive when I feel smallest, and I have been caught in endless loops of self-questioning, “Why would I say that? That person has been nice to me before and I’m therefore a terrible person for thinking or saying uncharitable things about them.” At some point I need to tell my inner voice to calm down and find some real trouble to get into if these are the things keeping her/us up at night.

Listing to One Side

I initially intended to post this on my planned return to Instagram, because I realized I’m missing so many people I keep in touch with there. But then I decided to stay “offline” a little while longer (I’m still on Twitter, help), because it’s easier to keep eyes on one’s own work and one’s own life without real-time and/or carefully curated updates about everyone else’s, as lovely as they may be to look at.

What I’ve been up to offline, though as I said before I “left,” if you are really invested in this information it means you probably already know what I’ve been doing and thinking about, and maybe secretly hope I would be quiet sometimes, which I know is a lie, and I can already anticipate the people who will text me to say they wish I would stop projecting and let them listen to and love me:

Replaying every interaction with other people because being “outside” still feels uncomfortable, wearing my trusty “snakeskin” boots rain or shine, work or play; overthinking all [not so] recent instances of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or what happens when walking on eggshells doesn’t guarantee you won’t end up causing someone else hurt or harm; writing lots; reading even more; dreaming up tattoos I can’t currently afford; trying to be a good listener and a steady shoulder; trying not to lose my self while I do; losing my self;

buying new masks, buying perfume I can sometimes smell through said masks and wondering if it’s too strong; wishing I could explain [more, or better]; buying earrings I can’t comfortably wear with said masks; swiping left and hitting “x”; waiting for SiR’s new album; waiting for payday; taking my self out to bars and cafes after the deposit; trying not to care about looking silly and green at the gym; missing the bus, catching the bus at the expense of sleep and breakfast; [rarely, though I’m on a good routine lately] catching the bus well-rested and fed; acting like I’m fine; being fine; not hiding when I’m not fine; thinking about how “good employee” often means “who can be coerced easiest or can deny one’s self—or at least pretend to—the best,” missing the bus some more; trying not to despair. 

sharing e-books with my mum like it’s 2004 and I’m reading the books from her shelf she told me not to; listening to Jesmyn Ward interviews while I work; listening to Megan Thee Stallion while I work; listening to Honey and Spice while I work; trying to remember my self while I work; forgetting my self; thiefing sugar; missing the nail salon; missing all the places I used to go that have closed for good, pandemic-because; missing people I shouldn’t; saving up for braids only to realize I didn’t miss them as much as I thought I did; going to doctor’s appointments on my own like it’s 2017, even though there are several people who care enough to go with me; leaving and getting left on read; saving recipes I am too tired or too anxious about money to try;

obsessing over [in]correct Ewe spellings and accent marks in my manuscript; obsessing over ancestors whose names I do not know; obsessing over the ones I do; wrapping my head too tight on cold days; refusing to act like all this death did not and is not happening; burning incense until I’m congested; worrying that the congestion or the tickle in my throat is COVID; thinking about how lucky I am to have older relatives I can talk to the way I do; walking instead of asking for rides; forgetting to tend to my plants even as they keep sprouting and flowering, even now; losing sleep; going to sleep at 8 pm; going to sleep alone;

despairing; trying not to.

Personal Use

Here is my latest paradox: I work full time and recently went from a fully remote job to one on a hybrid schedule, leaving only narrow slivers of time for long, laugh-full phone calls; moving my body, long, tear-full phone calls; endless voice memos; my writing; and shame spirals about how the amount of effort one puts into work never seems to quite align with material gain or stability. In this money-mad, murderous matrix[1], doctor’s visits cost, lunch costs, and rent costs 27.5 times more than both combined, and somehow the ends remain the twain never to meet, no matter how many hours one puts in to work. [Did the bootstrap theorists lie? The answer is yes.] Because I am a full-time cubicle-sitter and a less than part-time artist, I feel less deserving of room to be still, to be left alone with my bibliographies and research rabbit holes and the nagging, joyful, enticing, desperate voices of the characters I brought forth into being. Classic upside-down thinking that only makes sense in my anxious brain: I have limited time to do my work because capitalism calls, and somehow that means I don’t deserve the solitude necessary to immerse my self in the kind of work that feels more like loving, that keeps me alive, because I’m not a “real” artist. This is particularly absurd and unnecessarily harsh on my self in this current reality where I’m getting reacquainted with some approximation of pre-pandemic work life at a new job and where I’m experiencing all kinds of unpleasant side effects—nausea, dizziness, itching like being bitten by insects moving too fast for you to catch, something that isn’t dizziness but feels like you’re falling for a split-second, fatigue, generally feeling out of sorts—from getting off the anti-depressant medications I’ve taken for the past four years, no matter how slowly I try to take the tapering process.

I am also always reminding my self that I am a person first before I make art, and I have convinced my self that being a person means being readily and consistently available to touch, commiserate, cry with, calm down, and cheer up the people dearest to my self. One of my biggest nightmares is being the sort of person who is so single-minded and takes their art so seriously that they are unreliable or absent, with no room to turn with love to other human beings who exist beyond the blinking cursor and the lined page. Even bigger than that frightful thought is the possibility of not being useful or not being needed or not being light in spirit and presence whenever the situation demands. Eight years and other relationships have passed, but the echoes of “you are selfish and use your emotions as an excuse for behaving badly” are faint but not dead. It’s been four years, and any time I call someone with tears instead of a joke or a reassuring word, I still feel the slight sting of “things are great when you’re funny and we’re having fun, but when you’re down it feels like carrying a burden because no one else is there for you the way you need, so I have to be” or “when you check in it feels like you care more whether I’m upset with you than about how I’m doing.” I feel a little ashamed for remembering these and other painful words so clearly all these years later, because I should be “over it” by now, because sometimes I think my mum is disappointed that my upper lip isn’t a little stiffer.

When I wrote about falling silent [and here] in the summer following my master’s program graduation, it was in part because I heard “I prefer when you’re fun and funny,” resulting in the overwhelm of anxiety that my mental state was a tremendous void waiting to swallow anyone who accompanied me too close to the edge of my life, that I wasn’t hiding my tears as well as I thought I was, that I was taking up too much space just by being, and most importantly, that lots of my other friends felt the same exhaustion with me and just hadn’t said so aloud. The part of me that tries my hardest to be careful on the page with people whose words or actions have hurt me feels like it might be unfair to present these memories with no context, but honestly, the full stories from my perspective would probably make those people sound worse, which I’m not interested in doing. What would be the use? This is just a small part of my ongoing efforts to excise the harsh voices that have become part of my inner chorus.

There is also the issue of the posture I take towards my self, one of punishment and self-denial, because various friendships and relationships that twisted away from sweet and turned bitter and sharp made me feel like I needed to do penance for the fact that I was [just was, and was the way I was]. In my mind, I’m still atoning for the time I spoke green-tinged snark behind the back of a younger schoolmate who I’m pretty sure overheard my comment, or all the times I missed office hours and appointments because I could no longer get out of bed, or some others of my most shameful moments where I was not behaving like my best selves. According to some of my closest friends, the things that keep me up at night are so tame, I might need to consider living even a fraction as wildly as my aesthetics and poems about knives suggest I do.

This punitive posture looks like not being able to fully enjoy New Orleans or New Year’s at a hotel in Accra with my mum because of some unspoken vow of austerity that means blaming my self for any financial precarity because the cost of that ring or roll-on perfume oil could have paid for about 1/5 of a grocery trip, or probably even less, the way these prices are looking. [Considering my undergrad and my current place of employment, can I blame Saint Ignatius for this? The answer is no, because since when did I listen to saints, but I thought this was kind of funny.] It also means taking being an ethical and responsible person and artist to the furthest extent, because I should not be able to sleep soundly or lay on a beach when so many other human beings must starve and die to make my leisure possible.

Any small niceties I allow myself cannot be fully indulged or enjoyed without lengthy considerations about why I’m not deserving or whether this momentary pleasure is worth all the horrific consequences rippling far beyond my little life. Is it a sign of hubris or self-centeredness to obsess over the fact that the cost of the palm oil in my beauty products are the lives of women laboring on plantations in Indonesia every time I line my eyes? Am I casting the Ivorian cocoa farmers and their children who have never tasted the chocolate that is the product of their work as unwilling background characters in my circular, neurotic thought processes? Without having read too much about why people take on vows like silence and austerity, my first inclination is to ask what the use is of denying one’s self pleasure if that denial cannot necessarily guarantee the alleviation of other people’s suffering? What is the use of symbolic solidarity? I’m not talking about strategic boycotts called for by the people or groups most harmed by the production of a good, like BDS for example. I’m talking about making a monastery out of a one-bedroom apartment you can sometimes afford on a good day…And again, it wouldn’t be just symbolic if enough of us committed to consuming and accumulating less so that someone else might breathe a little bit easier, would it?

What I’m trying to get at is that I lose sleep over the high price that capitalism exacts for small luxuries we don’t actually need but are told we cannot live without, and there should be enough humanity in the world so that we should all be losing sleep, and we should all come to a complete halt any time there is a person in tears asking for money outside a store in the city’s wealthiest neighborhood or any time a child dies mining for the metal we use for our soon-to-be obsolete gadgets. Every time the police gun down a Black child at home or at the playground or in their front yard or in the earliest bloom of their life, the sky should not be so blue and there should not be so many people strolling with dogs and grocery bags down a street, and there should not be money changing hands and work meetings to attend.[2] [But such humanity would demand a completely new way of organizing the world that would make it possible for us to stay home from places of commerce—without losing livelihoods—and pleasure to keep each other safe, to hold each other, and to mourn millions of lives lost to a pandemic.] So. This oath that I did not realize I took means that to me, missing out on the bar or the beach or the spa is a miniscule price to pay for someone else’s life, and that I do not “deserve” rest more than the person who would serve me my cocktail avec too much water, syrup, and tiny toothpick umbrella.

If nothing else is clear, I can plainly say that years of being underpaid for work I love and that felt important when I was doing it and the story I have told my self about the use and utility of my humor and touch and calm mean that I am terrified of withdrawing those things even when I am depleted or even when I want to give more than thin slices of attention to my writing, the thing I am so thoroughly in love with and need most in this world. I have a little over three months to submit my second round of novel revisions, and so far it feels like it’s going well, it feels lush and like ritual (or at least the idealized, flowery, and fragrant way I imagine ritual to be—sometimes, I wonder if my ancestors are satisfied with fruit and cups of tea), like a trance-like state where I have to loosen up and surrender enough to let the words arrange themselves how they must. And it also feels like shame, because that severe part of my self—at total odds with the part of my self constantly seeking beauty—doesn’t think I should be indulging my self so much by enjoying the process of making my art.

I’m not just writing about writing and how much I wish I could do it, nor is this post about refusing the urge to put one’s self on display in ways that prioritize the luster over the pain. I don’t feel that way about social media, because alongside the tattoo thirst traps and the group selfies are as much vulnerability as I’m able to share about the times I wanted to walk over the edge and keep falling. It’s more about releasing the need to avoid or disperse other people’s disappointment if I am slow to answer the phone or if I say I can’t meet at whichever place at whichever time because I am with my work or because funds are tight until my next payday, and about letting go of the fear that the people I love will no longer have any use for me if I am a little less present than usual.

I’m inviting you to bear witness to me taking my self seriously enough to take Michaela Coel’s advice to writers to be unafraid “to disappear and see what comes [to me] in the silence.” I need witnesses who will remind me that my sole purpose is not to be of use in all the different and at times conflicting ways that other people may need, that I don’t need to punish my self so stringently to be a kind, ethical person, that trying to do work that might be of use to a reader somewhere also looks like sitting still with my words, even if it feels like love and not like that soul-bowing-down feeling that most work brings. I am always available to those I love, but/and I know that I am loved even when I am not. And, I must be wholly available to my self first before all else.  

This feels like it needs a sign off, though it is not an ending, just giving in wholeheartedly with all the fear and shame and relish and uncertainty— 

[1] This alliteration feels extra and a little corny considering what I’m trying to describe and considering what “literary” writers are supposed to do, but I kept it in for the 14-year-old me who learnt about the “punchy 3” and alliteration in English class and became obsessed with spotting and coming up with examples of both. I think she would be really proud of grown us.

[2] This is about more than empty, useless guilt and DEI committees and 30 seconds of silence preceding business as usual. We should be so maddened by exhaustion and grief that we tear the world to pieces in hopes of pulling something better out of the wreckage. And many people already are. But also, what am I doing materially towards this/these end[s] beyond this page? I don’t know that I can accept that my job is to say the words that steal your sleep at night in the hopes that you “act,” the implication that making art is itself not a worthy way to “act,” more overly harsh, upside-down thinking?

There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets —

Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my […]

There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets —

“Aspiration. Aspiration is the word that I arrived at for keeping and putting breath in the Black body…we yet, reimagine and transform spaces for and practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing, and of being in the wake as consciousness; as a way of remembering and observance that started with the door of no return, continued in the hold of the ship and on the shore.”

-Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, page 130

There is death, and there are spreadsheets, and I am here, still.

There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets

Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out…

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There Is Death, and There Are Spreadsheets

Image of overlapping Excel tables with the words death toll entered into every cell.

Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, and I open up a new workbook in Excel to tally the points I must earn for my completed tasks. Hundreds of thousands of people die around me, around us, and I count feverishly so maybe I will be rewarded with a raise that will leave my account at a comfortable $45 overdraft instead of $150. Hundreds of thousands of people die, and I apologize: sorry for my oversight; I took some time off and I am now behind; I took some time off and I missed your email; I took some time off and now I must be punished. Hundreds of thousands of people die with saltwater where their lungs should be, hundreds of thousands of people die as the land burns and the shore sinks below itself, hundreds of thousands of people die and the horizon’s promise retreats further out of reach.

Millions of people walk to the edges of their own lives and jump over, no longer able to withstand the discord between and subsequent fracturing of self, spirit, and body. Meanwhile, I apologize again: I’m sorry I’m a little overwhelmed, a little behind, a little out of step with reality, a lot incredulous that I am to carry on tallying points and meeting quotas as if Belly Mujinga made it home from work to hug her baby, as if Breonna Taylor was early enough for work this morning to stop for an iced coffee, as if Uyinene and Priscilla and Ruth and Ruth and Priscilla just sat down at their desks for a new school year, as if Nina Pop waved good night to her neighbor before settling herself in for a quiet evening in front of the TV.

“Big Men”—their appetites bigger than hundreds and thousands and millions can satisfy—where I am from move their masks down their chins to declare that they are sending schoolchildren to their deaths, but not their own, their own children will put on their whites,not for a wedding (read: business merger) nor for an outdooring (read: delivery of luxury European car paid for in cash and in full), but for a charitable cause, to “raise funds and awareness” for problems their fathers have created and could solve with a little less “procurement” and a little less greed. [All these quotation marks, even in rage I can only speak in euphemisms about the wealthy few toasting and taking tequila shots on top of the coffins on the rest of their “fellow Ghanaians.” And again, with the euphemisms…I first learned this tactic from the news on GTV with my grandma’s impatient teeth-kissing in the background]

We are asked to talk small about favorite books, foods, things we are most proud of, I can’t say:

 I don’t have one right now because my tears have melded the pages together and turned them into mush;

I don’t have one because too high a cost will always overrule taste and nostalgia for what we used to have for Friday afternoons at grandma’s–some cousins prefer shito and others ketchup;

Today I am most proud that I haven’t looked directly into the screen and cursed the meeting host and everyone that loves them, or asked them one or two questions:

Do you know that this is dehumanizing? Do you know that whiteness itself and your commitment to it has compromised your own humanity, and that your capacity to feel more strongly  about quotas and deadlines and points than you do about human life is an aberration? [The Big Men where I am from are afflicted with the poison of whiteness too, ever since their fathers brokered our freedom in exchange for suit trousers too-small seats, ever since military men and mindless intellectuals fought each other for the right to rule and the right to  murder the ruled.] Do you know that your imagination has been so deprived of space to stand up and stretch wide that you are resigned to the reality that how well you meet quotas and deadlines and amass points will determine how well you eat or comfortably you sleep, or if you get to eat or sleep at all?  Do you know that I am somebody’s child? Do you know you are?