Old Pain, New Bones

There’s a certain laugh I never laughed again that is stuck in the broken doorbell at the side entrance of a restaurant on Hemenway Street. It sounds like crackle-buzz-dropped signal across fraying electric cables strung between now and seven years ago, like the punchline of a joke I heard that year, which I will only repeat if you want me to, like I’ve been pressing the buzzer for two hours but I’m really standing in an alley with my forehead and hands up against a brick wall because the restaurant closed for good and none of the students walking by with horns in black cases taller than them have ever heard of it and cannot tell me where it went.

Planted in the window box of the building with the white facade down the street is a spray of flowers pink like the inside of a bloody mouth, but on Friday evenings the flowers wither and waft away, leaving room in the bed for all the things I should and shouldn’t have done or be doing or do to sprout and gnarl together, stubborn roots twisting long and deep until they bear deceptively heavy fruit [it is always hollow], bitter and unsatisfying, and did you know the reward for obedience and conscientiousness is more and more labor and less and less passion and exhilaration by way of mistake-making until you die upright and steadfast and alone in the tradition of a church you have not entered in years?

Six of my left ribs and two from my right have been extracted, repacked, and distributed in the following locations:

the railing closest to the Mermoz side of the foot bridge across the VDN that I was always too late or too embarrassed to use for fear of appearing like a tourist or a stranger;

the lone three-legged iron chair sitting in the middle of a football park in Nyaniba Estates, one more seasonal storm away from losing the last flecks of green clinging to its back;

the copper wire beneath the yellow strip that opens the back door of the Silver Line SL5, specifically when you press and press and it doesn’t sound so that you have now missed the Downton Crossing stop and are now on another loop further away from your self than you have ever been;

the steel tip of the cane belonging to the green-suited man who unlocks the empty room for the art show and laughs when I ask how long until the end as if we didn’t all start dying as soon as the clock struck midnight and we were born;

the spring in the cigarette lighter you and I pass back and forth between each other as you and I stand at a bus stop in the January of winter and did you notice the you and I are shifting and slippery, a safe, convenient device for confusing my selves, the reader, and people I should not love [it is too late], for refusing to commit to any of these personas and making it impossible to tell who the message is really for [it is for you];

the ring holding the key fob to an apartment building with carpet rubbed smooth and bald in some places in the lobby and an empty pool with cracked tile that has not seen use since the 80s;

the cap on a bottle of wine that rolled away from the rest of the offering at the crossroads and all the way down Esplanade Ave until it fell into the water and sank;

the gold leaf in the manicure glossing at the end of fingers on a/my/your hand that I should not hold and bring to the cradle that is the point where my neck turns into my chest [it is too late].

Between the lines of code that make it so that the cursor flashes just so and the words appear neatly rowed, as difficult as their meaning may be to decipher, there is evidence of my undoing

<<set $shatter to true>> How am I still functioning when I have dissected every aspect of my physical and spiritual selves and scattered the remnants down the length of the scroll bar and across any winding road I’ve ever walked? How am I still whole? [I am not, but almost no one is, especially those who believe they are. None of it is pathological, unless it is].

I have picked at my selves and called it accountable and picked at my selves and called it self-regard and picked at my selves and called it grown. I have crouched and burrowed and hidden in the hollow where those eight missing ribs once sat and called it introspection, as if I am nothing more than a  collection of mementos that falsely prove I will never amount to more than the sorry sum of these parts that I am or am not. It is enough. Recovery must begin as soon as I can bear it or else I run the risk of leaving more and more smudges of my face on collars and shards of my bones on bus seats and hairs from my eyelashes everywhere until there is and I am nothing [left]. The long, winding beach road past Labadi or any other long, winding road is not my spine; it is a road at the end of which there is a house with wooden shutters and a deep clay-floored veranda or a loft with a ceiling of exposed beams or a low house where the life I am living spills out of French windows into a garden as alive as my pleasure and the work—pages to write, rice to boil, meat to marinade, clothes to wash, wounds to tend—is done graciously and with care if not always well [there is always tomorrow] and my hair is at its absolute fluffiest, perfect for someone—me/you/blank—to sink into with ready hands.

***

For listening.

The Sun Never Sets on Shuri’s Grief

It’s always golden hour in Wakanda. The light is always honeyed and slow-flowing with dust dancing in its glow, and the people are always smiling as they sample assorted items from street vendors, walk from building to building and down the street into the light, always brightly adorned and beautiful. Always, at least in the glimpses we get of everyday life there, including in Aneka’s stylish and airy house on stilts, as majority of the film focuses on the state’s royalty, and even then, those scenes typically play out in Shuri’s lab or in the throne room where the elders sit in council with Queen Ramonda. Almost always golden hour, unless they are preparing for or are in battle. Or, unless it is the deep night ideal for ritual or war strategy, or the seemingly never-ending midnight that is loss and grief.

I went to the movies ready to attend a funeral by way of Wakanda Forever, the sequel to 2018’s Black Panther, aware of the fact that a lot of the fanfare and excitement that surrounded the first installment would be muted this time, clad in white this time, head bowed this time, red-eyed this time, processing towards the burial site this time, sobbing softly this time. I was also bracing to be angry at the muddled Pan-African and Black radical politics bound to come out of the far-reaching and seemingly unshakeable propaganda machine that is Hollywood. I left thinking how dangerously seductive Wakanda’s onscreen world is, not only because Hollywood has lent it its glamour and shine, nor solely because of the high-cheekboned glory of the cast, but because my own internal, inextinguishable embers of rage were stoked by seeing powerful African women wielding violence against the literal foot soldiers of EuroAmerican empire.

I was thrilled to see those French soldiers on their knees, at least, until I remembered why Wakanda was at the UN in the first place and how participation in such “international” institutions entrenches the legitimacy of the white power structures and puts Wakanda in unnecessary contact and collaboration with its enemies; until Wakanda’s leaders call those same EuroAmerican powers on the phone to swop intel, or until they choose uneasy, unsustainable “peace” over solidarity and coalition with other indigenous people, in this case, Namor and his underwater kingdom, Talokan, against those same powers looking to destroy and rob these states for resources, as they have been known to do and are still doing today. I wished but knew I would never get the satisfaction of this film naming and fighting the real enemy with full-throated and unwavering boldness, not the defanged “colonizer” mentioned in jest, not vague references to “surface people” (though Namor and his people burning that Spanish colony down nearly had me in a one-person standing ovation), but the white hegemony who cannot rest until Black and indigenous people are dead, who require our death to consolidate their power and expand their empire. 

If, according to Toni Cade Bambara, the responsibility of the cultural worker from an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible, I am ashamed to admit that not only do I have no idea what that revolution would look like and what it would demand of us, but that I don’t know what I could possible write and say to convince people that “representation” and “seeing ourselves” through the glitter of Hollywood’s lens may feel like edification and humanity in the meantime, but that the meantime is a trap, a slow march to our own graves on a road paved with the “good intentions” of diversity and inclusion mandates, that entertainment that feels relatable and affirming does not freedom make. What could I possibly say that thinkers and artists much more well-versed in these matters and generally wiser than me haven’t already said and warned and sang and written, to convince people to hold on a little longer beyond the meantime, that something much sweeter and freer awaits us somewhere in a nebulous future?

still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler.

But that is not this essay. Right now, I’m thinking about the white cloth Shuri wore to two different funeral ceremonies, stamped with a pattern that resemble the Adinkra symbol “Nyame Due” or “tree of God,” symbolizing God’s protective presence, the meaning of which I had to look up to confirm, though I have worn the symbol as a pair of gold earrings almost every day since my mum got them for me when I was eight or nine. (That small moment of recognition, also a seduction.)[1] Since seeing the movie on Thursday night with a friend, I have not been able to get the image of those mourning whites out of my mind, and more broadly, the ways the whole film is shrouded under the veil that is the death of the first Black Panther, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, and the collective grief of the past two years, and how this weight, this inhale between cries, shows itself in Shuri’s aesthetic and sartorial choices, and maybe even in those same choices of Letitia Wright, the actress who plays her.

The last time I knew anything or closely followed anything Marvel-related was when I still lived at home and watched with my mum who was more of a fan than I was, so I know that there are lots of connections I’m missing about other attempts at centering grief in other narratives that have come out in the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. To think through and write this, I tried to read profiles and interviews of director Ryan Coogler as well as other members of the cast and crew, often holding back tears any time one of them teared up as they recounted how they learned about Boseman’s death, how they had no clue the pain he was in the whole time they were getting to know him as a colleague, friend, and brother.

A podcast review from the Spectrum Lounge podcast gave me so much language to understand my viewing experience, and also confirmed my observation that regular Wakanda life is rarely depicted, though it appears that might be the focus of forthcoming TV shows. Host ReBecca Theodore-Vachon also describes the loss of innocence that is evident in the film. This is the film that we should probably expect after two years of a pandemic with no actual end in sight and the violence that is the neglect of people most vulnerable to COVID, police killings, nonsensical and frightening anti-queer legislation, attacks on bodily autonomy, environmental catastrophe, mass shootings, famine and deprivation, and the push to keep laboring and consuming like none of this is happening, among so many other horrors. In the universe of the movie itself, there is also the afterlife of Namor’s mother’s grief over losing her home and land to colonization that he has inherited and seems to believe is the secret to his formidable kingdom when he says, “Only the most broken people can be great leaders.” (At this point, my friend loud-whispered “Is it every day? Is it every day glorify our trauma? Sometimes, some light romance,” which is still making me laugh.)

Wakanda Forever still has a fair number of moments of levity and sarcasm, but in Black Panther, Shuri is genius little sister snark personified, all scoffs and smiles and laughs and teasing, at least until Killmonger appears on the scene, all braided buns and chokers—a sort of 90s take on an Afro-futuristic look—and much more colorfully dressed than she is at any point in Wakanda Forever. This time around, the hard edge of a physical and fashion presentation is not lost on me or any of the number of Tik Tok, Twitter, and Tumblr users who are convinced that Shuri (and/or Letitia Wright?) is queer because of the way her style has leaned into more “masculine” silhouettes and performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every other video on my timeline for the past week has been a looping edit of Wright in a black suit jacket with square shoulders and white thread embroidery on the front, the camera positioned lower than her face so she is looking down as she shows of her golds. This is not the focus of this piece of writing, but I will just say that on one end I think people are enamored of her attractiveness and want to claim it or her for themselves (I’ve read several comments to that effect, “I don’t know if I want to be her or be with her”), and I also think there are ways even those of us who strive to refuse the “either or” trap of gendered and sexual binaries end up reinforcing them, because maybe not every daddy is a daddy just because they look like one, not like that, anyway.

Left: still from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler. Both images on the right: stills from Black Panther (2022), dir. Ryan Coogler

Much of her clothing in the movie looks more athleticwear-inspired than it did in the first installment, even if it’s not necessarily dark in color, like the red turtleneck and white jacket she has on when Queen Ramonda comes looking for her in the lab to ask her to go with her to the bush for a mourning ritual that Shuri is reluctant to participate in, ostensibly because of her “rational,” science-driven mind, but also because she doesn’t seem ready to actually confront the reality of the loss of her brother. Another much edited for Tik Tok moment is the purple tracksuit, square shades, and hand tattoos Shuri sports when she and Okoye go to MIT’s campus (why was I so excited to recognize parts of Cambridge on screen?) to look for another Black girl prodigy, Riri Williams, whose genius has inadvertently put her life in danger.

Left: Photo by Jon Kapaloff. Source: TeenVogue. || Right: Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic. Source: People.

Even off screen, the cut of Wright’s outfits is much cleaner and sharper. At the US premiere of Wakanda Forever, Wright has on a black Alexander McQueen suit with a jeweled harness over the jacket, a tribute to a similar embroidered outfit Boseman wore to the Oscars in 2018. She has worn many a suit before, but during the 2018 press run, they were more likely to be floral or multicolored, like the purple Prada suit that included a black bow tied behind her head and trailing halfway to the ground like a train. Back then, Wright appeared in looser-fitting and maybe even girlish outfits that you might expect Shuri to wear to a gala, with the same microbraids studded with beads or pearls or even straightened hair. These days, even her dresses have edge, metallic and almost like chain mail, a more fluid piece of a larger repertoire of armor.

It’s possible I’m over-identifying with celebrity (itself another seduction), and with what I perceive to be the shift in Shuri/Wright’s style post- (or rather in the meantime of grief), but after days of obsessing over the film, I recognize the way I have been forever changed by particular traumatic experiences and the ongoing grieving process of who I was or could have been. Before 2016, before maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen, I didn’t wear anywhere near as much black as I do now, nor did I own as much my twisted into the shapes of snakes, dragons, knives, and a pair of earrings that looks like my ears are in the beginning stages of being gauged with gold screws when I have them on. Before 2016, friends and classmates alike would always comment on how colorfully turned out I was, and I never ever cursed, self-censoring swear words out of lyrics as I sang along. After passing through the threshold that was 2016, I hardened in all sorts of ways: I shaved both sides of my head so that about a third of my hair was gone, my lipstick darkened (partly because I still took a lot of my style cues from my mum in the 80s and 90s), and more recently, I acquired several tattoos. “Edgier” clothing wasn’t my only armor. I performed a particular bravado, convinced my self I was reclaiming the word “arrogant,” wrote so many sharp edges (razors, knife edges, swords) into my work, started cursing freely and often, trying to fashion a self that might be untouchable, or at least impossible or less likely to scar.

In the sharp lines and sharper shoulders of suit jackets, in the rapper-esque bravado she seems to put on in front of all the flashing lights, in the grills, and chunky signet rings, I read in Shuri/Wright the same kind of reinvented aesthetic that has characterized how I’ve been dealing with my own lonely, my own darkness, my own private and painful breaking. A lot of her style evolution seems to have taken place as a result of her collaboration with stylist Shiona Turini, who was also responsible for so much of the memorable style in the TV show Insecure. Maybe the premise of this wondering or wandering is shaky, and Wright’s sartorial choices are due to her being a few years older than she was the first time she played Shuri and with access to better tailoring and a new stylist. This essay might not be much better than all the social media fantasies in that I have to gloss over the fact that I am projecting and theorizing around the self-presentation of a total stranger, and it’s probably safer to focus more pointed analysis on the fictional characters and not the people who portray them. Still, I’m inclined, or maybe I need to, interpret the suit jackets and jewelry as an outward manifestation of the loss of someone you loved and admired (sometimes that person is you) and almost losing your self, a glamouring in the form of the realization that you were never and will never be a certain version of your self again. I’m even wondering if the short haircuts both Shuri and Queen Ramonda wear are part of their mourning rituals, which, were that the case, would again speak to the ways grief externalized can sometimes look like a glamouring.

In “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire,” Nicole Fleetwood analyzes Rihanna’s own hardening and sharpening in the form of her aesthetic choices and expressions of sexuality and pleasure seeking after the way Chris Brown’s assault of her played out in public, and how her self-presentation was not coherent with widely accepted expectations of what the “perfect” victim and survivor of domestic violence should look and act like. I was such a fan of Rihanna pre-2009 that I cut several inches off my hair for that Umbrella-era bob, and my mum and I would belt out “Shut Up and Drive” in traffic jams on the way to school and work each morning. My relationship to the newly minted “bad gal” Riri eventually changed and leaned closer into confusion and judgment, especially when I was in college, because I think I was grappling with the tension between my desire to carry my self in similarly brazen ways and the conservative Christian values I had internalized, not from home, but from church youth leaders, public commentators, teachers, and all kinds of men who managed to be both lecherous and sanctimonious at the same time. In 2016, Anti and the “Needed Me” music video specifically brought me to a renewed, more mature appreciation for Rihanna at that time, and I reached back to that post-2009 version of her persona and her body of work as well, because I needed the release of imagining my self in vengeance, wielding power and pain against the object of my desired retribution.

Sometimes I wonder if I am clinging to victimhood and fixating on the past self lost to me forever, that maybe it’s time to burn the mourning clothes (in a symbolic sense) like Shuri does, to bring back some more bright blues and greens in more than just the few tops I have for work in the summer and a few of my winter coats. I don’t know if I still need the armor. I don’t know if it’s closing me off from more possibility than it is protecting me. I don’t know if it’s now clunky and uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to be brighter, with my teal fleece and head wrap to match, and I also want to continue to be mindful about whether or not I actually need new clothes and where I purchase them from. The byproducts of my growing and loving of self do not need to end up unusable and wasted in my own hometown or in other locations elsewhere enough that Western consumers do not have to consider their pollution and destruction. At the same time, I’m so much more in love with or at least more appreciative of the me I am today, still soft and open to possibility and growth where I need to be or where it feels safe, still trying to remember that in Ewe, sadness is not something you “are” but that either happens to you or that you “hold,” meaning that it will surely pass, and that you can put it down. At the end of Wakanda Forever, Shuri is wearing a cropped black hooded top, even though she finds her self on the beach in Haiti, where it is, as you can probably guess, golden hour, where, even as she recognizes that the self she was before is lost to her forever, she is hopefully open to a future of possibility and healing, a softening, a smoothening of some of those sharp edges.

Some of what I’ve been reading and listening to:

Official Black Panther Podcast, Chapter 1: Ryan Coogler

The Spectrum Lounge: Wakanda Forever Review

Wakanda Forever Gets Lost in the Marvel Machine

Black Panther star Letitia Wright: ‘Since Chad died I’m so afraid to lose people’

Rebuilding ‘Black Panther’: How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ Family Fought Through Grief and Injury to Create a $250 Million Superhero Tribute

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Doesn’t Have the Answers

With Namor, Wakanda Forever Does What Latine Media Will Not

Nikyatu Jusu and Ryan Coogler in conversation at the African International Film Festival 2022


[1]I’ve been in two minds about the cultural landscape of this onscreen world since the first film. I attended a talk that Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the fall of 2018 and gained a deep appreciation and admiration for the depth of research and painstaking detail it took to build that world. And, I’m also wondering what harm could come from depicting an assemblage of accents, customs, and aesthetics for audiences who, regardless of what they watch or consume, may still be thinking about Africa as a country and viewing people of African descent without nuance and complication. And then I remember the world I have tried to build for my novel, which largely takes place in an imagined elsewhere that feels vaguely like Keta, Haiti, Louisiana, and a little like Barbados, and also like none of those places at the same time, so maybe I’m sitting in a glass house with rocks by the bowlful.

A List of Quiet Things

“Are you leaving?”

“No, but I am shrinking.”

-from An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), dir. Terence Nance

“…tried

car exhaust? Holding your face

to the steaming kettle?

Primal screamed into

a down-alternative pillow

in a wood while tree-bathing?

Have you finally stopped

shoulding all over yourself?”

-from “Self-Care” by Solmaz Sherif

“I love my bed. But sometimes, I’m afraid that if I die, everyone will be too tired to remember my name. So, I take care of my little body. You, take care of your little body.”

-from “Take Care” by Tasha

The easiest thing to do where I am, in this current (and temporary) headspace, would be bite back at my own words almost as soon as I’ve said them, undermining my own feelings of being lonely, depleted, and homesick this holiday season. Self-deprecation comes too readily to me, like you are not the only one who has felt lonely when it’s cold all the time and getting dark at 4 p.m.; you are too extra and too overwhelming, nobody cares; you are a failure because you should be making more money than this by now;  you are not complicated enough to be misunderstood; you are a failure because you haven’t been on a [good] date since _____; you are self-obsessed, and even in your own writing there should be less about you and your anxieties, just look around at the world; this is tiring and everyone you know is tired of it and you, aren’t you tired?; you’re not the only one who has spent years away from home because of high travel costs or insufficient time off work; you’re a failure because when they ask you at work how you spent your weekend, you want to say “I spent it with x and did y, but your honest answer would be in tears and checking the bank; you’re not the only “highly sensitive artist;” you’re not the only one pinching pennies (farewell, pandemic discounts on rent); you need to let all this go. I’m only comfortable sharing these extracts of inner dialogue because they are relatively tame, because I’ve shared them here before, and for the most part I’m no longer talking to my self like this, at least nowhere near as often as I used to.

Because the story I’ve told my self about my self is that I must always be the person who knows exactly what to say and/or do, including when to be still and listen and hold, in response to the sorrows of other people, and because my empathy is not a story but a very real part of how I try to move in the world, I am often horrified by my own inner dialogue, because it would never even occur to me to think about let alone speak so cruelly to another person who was hurting, never ever. I excavate my inner world for problems and failings that I would never even identify as such in other people. As in, I can’t remember ever referring to someone else as a “dumb bitch” when they make a mistake, and yet, if I’m the maker of the mistake…

Before I listened to this Therapy for Black Girls episode on loneliness, I resolved to try an experiment in which I would talk to my self in second person, to see if I could trick my self into turning to my own worries with the tenderness I try to practice for other people (the inner wicked voice is saying: you are not all that you think you are to other people; you are giving your self too much credit). The podcast validated this approach by discussing how depersonalizing your experience of loneliness can help to offer some more balanced perspective, helping you see beyond your self and misery that can at time feel all-encompassing and immovable. (They also talked about volunteering and engaging with surrounding communities as a way to see past your self while supporting other people, something I used to do and need to pick back up.) So here I go:

Even if you are extra—in size of sleeve or earring or laugh or joke or dream or flourish of hands—that is something you love about your self, and it is something many people who know and see you the best love too.

That italicized voice is coming from a place of self-protection, as they said in the podcast, a manifestation of the fear that you will be rejected if you do reach out to a loved one paradoxically existing alongside the desire for connection and to be seen and listened to. She can be cruel, but she is not your enemy, she is just scared and living in all the moments of emotional and other kinds of injuries you have experienced. She will most likely resurface when you are reminded of those injuries, but you do not live together. She is not even a temporary houseguest. If you want, she can be as transient as the voice of someone having a loud phone conversation on the street bouncing off the walls of your building and eventually, away.

It is ok to wear your heart on your sleeve, but sometimes, give that thing a scarf or put it in your pocket, or something. [The analogy is falling apart]. There is no shame in being vulnerable, even if you may at times feel or be rejected. Sometimes, it matters just that someone made themselves available to listen, even if they changed the subject in a rush to try to cheer you up or stared blankly, saying nothing. Sometimes, you just have to accept saving certain topics for your therapist, even if you feel shame that someone who is essentially a stranger who is paid to listen has to do so where you wished it could be someone you love deep and love for real. [It was your therapist who told you that there’s no shame in wearing your heart on your sleeve.] Sometimes too, you just have to be quiet. Be quiet and turn to your pages.

There is also no shame in caring what other people think about you, especially when you feel your side of the story is missing, but you need to let it go. And again remember that you probably can’t and shouldn’t share everything with everybody, that you can strike a balance between being open and upfront and refraining saying things you would be ashamed to stand by in public; you’ve become a lot better at this, and it is human to slip.

You are never as alone as you feel like you are, especially these days. For example, you just spent a lovely stretch of hours with a friend you met at your lowest [you didn’t even know how low you could get then], and you are both still here, in each other’s lives. 2016–2018 you would be proud of you, because you live on our own with lots of plants and fresh fruits and veggies in the fridge that do not spoil because you have the time and energy to prepare and eat them.

And no, those people who said or did this or that were not right about you. You need to let those stories go, too. No one is powerful enough to take you out of step with your self.

Turning inwards and falling silent is probably ok when important deadlines loom, but don’t become so remote from your own life and from other people that you run the risk of your soul crouching and preparing to die. Unfortunately, the solitude it requires to take one’s art seriously often creates or deepens cravings for meaningful connection with other people. But the version of you who had multiple jobs and little time will always be grateful for any uninterrupted time to focus or dream or sleep, even if the house is so empty, it echoes.

You are neither as miserable nor as grandiose as your delusions would have you believe. You are just fine.

***

Repost from March 2019:

“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”

-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.

Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.

This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.

This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.

Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?

Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”

Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.

Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.

My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.

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?

Tripping

When I took this photo, I was waiting for the same Silver line I mention later, on my way to take part in a poetry festival organized in part by the same friend I describe. For the blur and crookedness of the image, I will blame the heat, the 30-minute bus delay, my attempt to snap while on the phone with my mum, shyness to squat to get the right angle, and excitement at seeing faces I have not seen since pre-pandemic times.

In the summer of 2013, I decided to get a job at my college that came with free on-campus housing so I could stay in DC for the summer. Work study paychecks weren’t enough to pay for a ticket home, and I couldn’t stand for my mum to pay for things I didn’t consider absolutely essential. I know my reluctance and at times outright refusal to ask for any kind of help (material, emotional, or anything else) causes her distress, though my own unbending self-reliance is something I learnt from her.

My fear of coming up short and anxieties around scarcity meant that I convinced myself that the Safeway across the bridge from my campus was more affordable than its shiny counterpart in the middle of the multimillion dollar neighborhood the school shared with politicians and various other people with wealth of dubious origin (Is this a misnomer? If one is that wealthy in the face of so much suffering, isn’t all the wealth acquired by dubious means, or in other words, stolen?) Whether that store branch was actually cheaper, I can no longer remember, but on any given weekend or day off work and regardless of weather, I would faithfully find myself across the bridge for my weekly groceries. This mundane errand became some sort of anchor for me, so much so that even when carrying it out wasn’t ideal because the weather was too wet or too hot, or if the window of time I had to get to the store and back before my next work shift, I would still insist on completing this ritual. When my boyfriend at the time came to visit, I forced him to accompany me, even with his [justified] complaints about the heat, the distance, and the impracticality of the whole affair. As we waited for the bus that would take us home, he waved his hands in frustration towards the line of empty taxis waiting for passengers, even offering to pay the fare if money was my concern. I refused, and we carried the groceries on and off the bus and all the way back to my dorm.

There was no way to explain what was happening in my brain to make me believe that if I deviated from my usual routine, I would be in some kind of danger or experience unbearable panic turned pain, in short that some sort of catastrophe would materialize or if I failed to complete this senseless mission. It was almost as though a circuit had tripped in my mind, leaving sparks and a lackluster puff of smoke where my good sense should have been. Even if I had these words at the time, I don’t know that he would have had the empathy to receive them well. That summer was fraught in our relationship for several reasons, not the least of which where the endless spirals of my emotional reactions and his harshness. I don’t know what it is about straight men and their insecurities that transforms their admiration into contempt, unless perhaps what initially appears to be romantic interest and admiration was really just a desire to possess and control another person. As was often the case with us, I would have to make up for my behavior when it was my turn to visit him, and we walked the whole way from his local grocery store back to his apartment so I could see what I had put him through, a sort of vengeance on his part. I have no interest nor do I gain anything from casting someone I haven’t spoken to in years as a villain, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting for a long while afterwards to think about how the beginnings of my mental unravelling were treated like self-indulgence, selfishness, nonsense, by someone who claimed to love me.

Five years later, my state of mind was much the worse for wear after grad school and after having borne witness to and experiencing all kinds of banal and spectacular cruelties that Boston’s racism had to offer. I was also graduating with a number of publications and other “achievements” to my name, and I needed the longest, most extra ponytail to match my teal blazer dress and silver boots and the overall fanfare of the moment, whether or not a full-time job with benefits was waiting on the other side (It was not). I mapped my path from Somerville to the big beauty supply on Mass Ave, its outer walls like an old dollhouse drained of most of its color—there were closer options, but I was going to be downtown for other errands, so my good sense told me to take this route—80 bus to Lechmere, Green line to Park Street, and then SL5 to Washington Street at Mass Ave.

A dear friend was also going to be downtown and wanted to spend time together, so I asked if she would mind going to the store with me before we went on to get some ice cream or whatever else we felt like. I had been repeating the sequence of my journey in my head like an incantation, as if I couldn’t follow this route with my eyes closed: 80, Green Life, Silver Line, 80, Green Line, Silver Line. But as soon as my friend walked up to me and asked, “Which store are you going to? Can we walk?” that circuit tripped and replaced my good sense with panic. Instead of suggesting we wait for the next bus or that we walk down Washington Street along the same route the Silver line would have taken us, I somehow decided we should go the “scenic, long way,” down Boylston past the library, the Prudential, and the Brooks-Brothers clad populace most likely to be shopping there, and eventually a left turn on Mass Ave, maneuvering around music students carrying instrument cases twice their size.

When we reached our destination, I braced myself for the sneering, the contempt, the threat of punishment, but my friend only stamped her foot and play scolded me like the Trini junior-auntie she is, and we went inside to search for my ponytail. She had a way of knowing things I had not told her, mostly because that is one of her gifts, and maybe because of the way she loves, so it’s possible she knew that my confusing actions had their roots in some unspoken pain within me. In any case, we proceeded to have the sweetest evening, including ice cream and a chance meeting with two friends of hers on the street outside the hair store, both black women, one who was mother to a child named Zora. There would be no atonement for inconveniencing or frustrating her, nor would I have to produce evidence of having been previously unimpeachable as a friend (another time I might tell you about the period of time that ex assigned and subtracted points, supposedly as a joke, according to the satisfactory [or not] nature of my actions…) to justify this one transgression.

My fear of retribution was informed not by anything in her character or prior treatment of me, but rather in the contempt I seemed to elicit in the past for not having “my shit together” in the words of that distant ex. I can say with no tongue-biting or hesitation that majority of the people who have met my chaos or my pain with [willful] misunderstanding, refusal to truly see me, or outright malice have been men. This piece of writing is not intended to excuse treating the people around oneself as collateral damage for one’s depressive or incoherent behaviors, nor do I mean to render friends who have extended me abundant care and grace as long-suffering martyrs. I just have the “sheer good fortune” to be loved by so many women as friend and sister, and I spare no opportunity to show them as much praise and appreciation as I can muster, knowing that it can never be enough for the glory that they are.

I’m trying to take a moment to revel in the contentment I feel now, in the immense space that has opened up in my mind now that anxiety is largely absent, meaning I can listen to music that is totally new to me; take different routes around the city than the ones I may have memorized; or deviate from any daily routine without fear that my life will collapse under the advent of anything different or unfamiliar. I’m thrifting clothes in the light colors I used to wear before my fear of financial lack and determination to be as practical and responsible as possible stocked my closet with a uniform of black leggings with black t shirts for warmer weather and black turtlenecks for winter; thrift rather than brand new to try and participate as little as possible in a garment industry that takes lives in exchange for the most flattering high-waisted jeans for someone living in wealthier locales. I do not include this detail to be sanctimonious, but rather to express that I can’t be at peace while knowing that the things I use to adorn my body come at the cost of the lives of factory and agricultural workers, many of them women in places like Indonesia and Bangladesh. I have a writing residency stipend that allows me a living situation I thought I would only ever be able to afford if I moved to a cheaper part of the country. After about a three-week period of feeling despondent, low, and small in spirit and imagination, I’m trying with all the strength I can summon to be the exuberant 7-year-old version of myself who could and would not shrink even if she tried and to refuse the pressure to participate in my own diminution for the benefit of whoever’s check pays the most bills. There is still pain, grief, worry about money and survival, and I hope the positive turn at this ending is not a “Pollyannaish” (as my therapist loves to say), narrative of tripped circuits finding repair and new, brighter light after a period of disfunction. Because I believe in something called the black femme sublime, I know the sparks, the smoke, the glitching connections, and the brightness of all-that-is-possible can coexist; I’m just trying to do a better job of documenting the good as much as I tend to the hurt.

Dizzying/Against Balance

I didn’t know you well enough to know what you were going through, but I really wish you had stayed around a little longer. I hope that you have found peace.

 ***

For the past few weekends and a few after-work evenings in between, I have spent time in the presence of some of my favorite people in Boston and in general, wearing the same grin almost the entire time with them, and on the inside for hours after. I have been feeling so much joy that I am always tempted to apologize to the people who have the misfortune on the receiving end of my excited chatter, even faster than my usual high-speed speech. My grandma still gets frustrated trying to decipher all my running together words, and tells me to speak Ewe because she knows my brain unfortunately moves much more slowly when I have to translate thought to speech in Ewe.

Usually, I will undercut my own joy with a sense of foreboding, with the fear that my rightful fate lurks around the corner ready to yank me back into the misery which I deserve and in which I belong. As unsettling as this type of joy can be when it is accompanied by anxiety, I also feel most like myself, like the little self with the Afro puff or 2-4 braids (the extent of my mum’s hairstyling prowess when I was little) winning dancing competitions at your birthday party and your cousin’s too, like the me who would not be skipped ahead to the next class because I couldn’t be contained in my seat after I sped through all my work (the teachers thought I was too immature, but in my defense, I was five) the me who earned the nickname Dizzy because that’s how I made everyone in the house feel.

This isn’t the temporary euphoria of the “I took my meds, now I’m healed, let’s hang out” variety. I feel deeply at peace and able to tackle the difficulties of building a life as an adult thousands of miles away from majority of the people who love you the most. Two years ago around this time, four wisdom teeth out, a pinched nerve­­—sit up straight at your desk beloveds—and wrongly processed insurance claims leading to hundreds of dollars in bills where there should only be tens would have sent me into a downward spiral of self-loathing, of feeling stuck and unworthy of anything positive.

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“Was there ever a little girl in the whole wide world who was so loved and as loving as you!” -from a journal entry my mum wrote to me, dated December 31st, 1993

I would’ve been feeling as though the universe was conspiring to ensure that I would receive the punishment I surely deserved, which in turn made working through challenges even more difficult, leading to the spiral extending further downward and so on. I’m almost tempted to go as far as saying that what my mother and my therapist both call “the vicissitudes of life” feel easier and nowhere near as insurmountable when I’m not trudging through depression’s swamp. I am less inclined to apologize for things I didn’t do, to state plainly when I feel offended and better at expressing myself without the anxiety of trying to figure what the other person wants to hear, to recognize when I’m wrong without it turning into self-loathing, to believe that my low moments are some void of misery threatening to swallow anyone who gets too close. I feel more capable of staying at the surface of my life. Who knew this would be possible?

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This was actually a low moment, but I look in this photo how I feel these days. You can catch me singing along to whatever is playing on my headphones at any bus stop near you. I am now one of those people. (February 2018)

When my mother came to visit soon after what happened had happened, I was newly on the mend, and I was talkative, and energetic, and dizzy. She kept telling me to calm down, and I folded into myself, offended at the suggestion that I was being too much, manic (not in the clinical sense) even.

“Why are you telling me to calm down? Isn’t this better than me being miserable?”

“Baby, it’s about balance. You just need to find a balance.”

At the time, I didn’t think to tell her that I am not and probably never will be a laidback person, and that if I have appeared laidback or reserved on and off over the past few years, that is what my misery looks like. I didn’t think to tell her that if balance means risking talking too much, slightly grating even, uncontainable joy and where I was that evening in March, then I don’t want balance. I was not upset with her, because I think she just forgot how Dizzy could be. I know I had. Because I’m blessed to be the daughter of a wonderful mother, I was able to explain to her how unsettled I was feeling about her reminders about balance. She apologized and admitted that her advice was coming from a place of concern that I might have been experiencing mania; what she described as an “armchair diagnosis” on her part, an attempt to make some sense out of a state she had never seen me in prior to that week in March.

I’m feeling dizzy, and joyous, and loved without condition or caveat. I’m feeling more like myself than I have since the Afro puff, like the painted-on self I have been pretending to be in order to get by and to appear untouchable. There are certain kinds of balance that I’m seeking; between rest and work; between enjoying retreats into my inner life and closing off from other people completely. I’m also seeking to open myself up to people and to love without fear of saying or being too much.

***

And here are some more things in which I delight: 

Orange line, rush hour, conversation between a mother and child:

Child: It’s a rainbow!

Mother: Where do you see a rainbow?

Child (undeterred by the mother’s doubt): Rainbow!

Mother: Ok, I’ll take your word for it, but mommy doesn’t see nobody’s rainbow.

A baby wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of a sloth along with the words “slowly but surely, I’m going to bed.” It brings me great pleasure to add that the baby’s name was Zoë!

My therapist using the phrase “feminist utopias” during a session

A woman on the phone with small hands and lots of silver rings who reminded me of my friend Philippa

A house on my new commute with bushes growing over its white wall that look like bougainvillea; reminds me of home

Random parts of Cambridge that look like New Orleans (and I don’t mean gentrifiers whitewashing and taking over historic Black communities and make everything soulless glass and metal)

A Black girl with amazing boots and a T-shirt that says “radical and soft”

The swelling sound of the strings on “Eros” from the Beale Street soundtrack

Small talk with a Liberian woman who had lived in Ghana for years that started because she complimented the beads on my wrist and showed me her similar bracelet

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “Love is still the most powerful force on the planet”

A person wearing a T-shirt that says “I nap periodically” where I N-A-P was spelt with the periodic table symbols for iodine, sodium, and phosphorous

(I realize a lot of these are babies and T-shirts.)

 

 

 

In Which I Delight

Note: For those who might need a heads up, this post discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts.

 

 

(VCCA grounds, June 2019)

***

for someone I know who ultimately chose a different way

I’m sure I’ve written before about how terrified I am about wishing away time, of not being present even when the circumstances are difficult. The sort of presence I try my hardest to practice feels impossible while I working at a place where the desperation is not quiet, and most bonding between people is done in whispers–at times bitter, at times distressed, many times both– about such things like “higher ups” family trips abroad and holiday homes outside the city. Meanwhile a trip out of state is a stretch for most everyone else, or God forbid, an unexpected medical expense. Meanwhile dignity is synonymous only with title and power, a distorted order of things made more frustrating and even more painful by the almost mandated performance of enthusiasm, gratitude, and community, and the belief that all the “good” the work is presumed to be doing out in the world allows room to sidestep the irony of bloated grants and paychecks that could directly transform the lives of the people about who we claim to care so deeply. Have I described the non-profit where you work?

I’ve been trying to remind myself that me being disposable in the work machine does not make it so in real life. In real life, I have agency, and should be able to move beyond whispered grievances in someone’s office doorway to a place where I decide how to seek and hold on to joy and work with meaning. Unfortunately, depression also exists in real life, as evidenced by the average of 45 minutes it takes me to get out of bed on most work days, and the frequent stepping away from my desk for a quick cry, or a moment to sit outside the building and just breathe. Even with Beyoncé’s Homecoming on a loop, or interviews with Toni Morrison, Dionne Brand, Jesmyn Ward, Julie Dash, and other Black women whose work sustains me playing in the background, I am increasingly absent. So much so, that I can go days before realizing I have lost track of the date, and that I have worn the same combination of black leggings and black shirts far more drab that what used to be my usual. But I can no longer afford this sort of absence from my own life. As hard as I have tried and laughed and joked and made grand pronouncements about “surviving,” I am not able to successfully insulate myself from the discontent (justified and understandable though it may be) that coats the  office walls and the feelings of being stuck that keep me fixed to my swivel chair.

On the last Tuesday of March, a few days before my mum was due to fly into Boston before our trip to New Orleans, I tried to end myself. It was in a small way, relatively speaking, but the despair and feelings of worthlessness behind my actions were not small, and neither was the harm I was working myself up to, one which a growing part of myself hoped would be more final. This wasn’t the first time I had seriously considered and even planned suicide, like 2017 4th of July weekend when one of my roommates coming home earlier than expected save me from my own mind, or the summer of 2014 where I drove my mum’s car faster and way more aggressively than I usually would dare because I didn’t care what the outcome could be, or all the times before I left home where I explained away my own sorrowful feelings as being “moody” or “dramatic.” But this time, what terrified the larger part of myself that loves life and wants to continue living it was that for the first time I had the means to succeed, namely three months’ supply of an anti-depressant that I now know was not doing its job. Everything I’ve said prior to this point might point to work as the primary source of my misery, but the conditions I have tried to summarize are just the backdrop against which so many other low moments converged in my mind on that Tuesday night. I honestly can’t remember what happened that day, all I know is I was on the train trying to sniff back my tears until I could get home to let them out.

All at once, I was standing and walking in all the public places I have cried; the 80 bus, the road sloping down towards Medford Street from the corner of Highland Ave and School Street, a significant stretch of Broadway from Powder House Square to the CVS in Magoun Square, the 86 bus, the entire length of the red and orange line platforms at Downtown Crossing, the 86 bus, the car park in front of the giant Kappy’s that would be so much more convenient as a supermarket, the 88 bus, on Cambridge Street down the road from the nail salon and the dentist, the Lechmere-bound green line platform at Park Street, the complicated highway I have to cross to get to my otherwise wonderful apartment, any number of places in Harvard Square and Boylston Street downtown, and the beginning of yoga class in Dudley Square while everyone’s eyes are supposed to be closed. There was the weight of reflections of myself I didn’t recognize and with which I’m constantly struggling; selfish, needy, demanding, burdensome (whether you think you are hiding well or not), and waves of grief about things I have been terrified to reckon with, things like “Maybe I didn’t really say no. Maybe that didn’t happen.”

 

 

(Downton Crossing, Wellington, Home, Savin Hill)

Mostly though, I was exhausted in every way one can be, just wanted so badly to sleep, and was not really concerned with whatever lay on the other side of that sleep. Recognizing I was putting myself in danger, I called my therapist’s voicemail box, and she called back right away because she happened to be working late. I refused to check myself in to the hospital no matter how much she insisted, because even more terrifying than what I was trying to do was the prospect of checking myself in on my own. I promised to go in to see her the next day, and I did, after going to work and before going to a yoga class that I feel strongly helped me save myself that week. My therapist could not convince me to go to a psychiatric ward, and I think the only reason she stopped insisting was because I promised I could hold on until my mum’s arrival on Saturday, and more importantly that I wanted to live, that I had been making plans for my future, as uncertain as it all seemed.

 

 

(Swimming back to the surface + candles and some high-maintenance plants)

I spent the rest of the week swimming furiously back to the surface of my own life. I took a personal day from work and bought the plants I’d been meaning to get for a while, as well as an overpriced tea from a café on the way, I called my mum and told her about the plants, about the much better tea I could have had for free at home, about the spring weather finally coming in, about how healthy my hair was looking, but not about Tuesday night. I wrote this in an effort to ask for help while still remaining partially in hiding, I brushed off any concerned messages following that post about silence with a mention of “work stress,” I cried on the phone to my friend Mel and yelled back at the rude neighbors who complained that I was crying too loud. By the time Saturday arrived, I was feeling stable enough to make my café date with my gem of a friend Abigail (we meet every few weeks at a different café and sometimes in between for film screenings, author talks, museum trips, general catch-ups etc.), and then on to the airport to wait for my mum. By the time my mum walked through the arrival gates, I was in tears, a mix of relief that she had made it and fear of what I was about to tell her.

 

 

(Myself and a gem: Abigail and I a few days after what happened had happened, and again this summer)

New Orleans could not have come at a more perfect moment, and before she went back to Accra a few weeks later, she was sure to tell as many of my Boston people as possible that she needed them to check on me because she knew I wouldn’t call. I was grateful she did, because I would have just kept hiding and got on with it as is my wont. My swim to the surface included actively looking for a new job (which I now have and will be starting at the end of August), writing, Zumba-ing, and yoga-ing because it really did feel like my life depended on it, and most importantly, trying not to be silent about what I tried to do. People who I love and who love me, especially those I have not yet told about this in person or on the phone, I hope you will understand why I had to write this. Saying everything out loud gives the silence and the low moments far less power over my self, and I promise you with every part of this self that I am ok now. Moving back home isn’t what I want to do right now even as I see how much that might put you at ease, and as much as I would love to be there right this minute. There is still so much I want to do out here, such as it is. I need to choose to live everyday for myself, because that is what I want to do, and not only because of the fear of letting other people down. I hope you will not be angry with or disappointed in me.

Here I am at the surface of my life, present and accounted for by Alwin Mana and by her mother Lolomo who loved me even before she knew who I would be. I have been actively trying to re-orient the way I think so that I don’t sink to those depths again. I had bloodwork, a general check-up, an appointment with a psychiatrist, and a change in medication. Bank accounts, work  drama, the inhumanity of borders, and the rising sea levels are still on my mind daily, the last two far more urgent than the first two, but I am loving and listening to the inner self assuring me that I must hold on, and that I must keep choosing life daily. I can no longer afford self-deprecating humor about depression; I can’t afford ironic pessimism; I can’t afford to keep hiding behind sarcasm, although I do not at all intend to shame other people who use these as coping devices. Personally, I just cannot do it any longer. I am choosing life. There is nothing to joke about.

Choosing life also looks like trying to find small things in which I delight as often as I can. I got the idea from a lovely person I met during an Alternative Spring Break program in college, who posts “small and beautiful things” she observes as she moves around New York City. Trying to do this daily over the past few weeks has shown me that Boston can truly be as miserable as people make it out to be (seriously, there is nobody as mean and abrasive as someone yelling at their fellow passenger on the MBTA at 8:45am), and especially if you are not a well-off white cis person. A lady at the hair salon once described Boston as “Atlanta for white people” and I have never heard anything more accurate. Trying to find things to delight in where I can instead of every day has made it much easier and much more pleasant than putting pressure on myself to find any hollow thing to be happy about every single day. Because this is already so long, I will only post some of my favorites for now. I am choosing to continue living this life, and in this life I will delight.

***

An [initial] list of things in which I delight: 

A wide-eyed little girl wearing a t-shirt with the words “Small Wonder” printed across the front

A woman with a New Orleans accent making pleasant small talk with her neighbor on the train

The words “fly blackbird” carved into the brick on the platform at the Davis T station (and running into other lines of poetry on unexpected pavements and platforms around the city)

A new shoot finally pushing through after my asparagus fern’s sickness

Surprise “Have a good week” texts from a dear friend who was just on my mind

A baby giggling on a bike ride (although I generally find it frightening to see small children strapped behind their parents on bikes)

In someone’s front yard, a sunflower taller than me with a bee kissing up to it

 

 

 

 

Happenings

I’ve been finding it really difficult to separate the idea of my “worth” and my self from the dollar amounts that people are willing to pay me for my work. At times, it’s so difficult to remember that institutions don’t really care about you as an individual, so that the fact that there never seems to be any money for increased hours or pay has far more to do with the fact that they are trying to maximize the amount of productivity for the most reasonable (read: lowest) cost, than it does with you in particular. It’s not personal, and never has been, but it’s hard to believe when your personal well-being and personal bank account are directly at odds with how hard and how well you seem to be doing your job(s).

With this in mind, I’m trying to step up my compartmentalizing game. Work is just a place, and I am a whole person who belongs not to that place, but to myself. I am a whole person who is permitted to make mistakes (as long as other people do not end up being collateral damage to those mistakes), including but not limited to; sending a late-night text that will surely go unanswered in an attempt to figure out the reason behind someone’s  ghosting, deciding 9pm on a Sunday is the best time to wash my hair, and continuing to purchase knockoff earphones even though I already know they will only last for about two weeks.

My writing life is also sitting in its own little compartment where it is flourishing in it’s own slow and steady way. Over the past few months, the following *cool writing things* have occurred:

  • My essay “My Secondhand Lonely” was included on the Notable List in the 2018 edition of Best American Essays.
  • I wrote two reviews for The Washington Post, one on the Well-Read Black Anthology edited by Glory Edim and Damon Young’s memoir What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
  • My flash fiction piece “Miss Freda Pays a Visit” made it to the penultimate round of the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by the baddest, Warsan Shire. This piece was also selected to be included in the 2019 edition of the Best Small Fictions Anthology.
  • I interviewed Ayesha Harruna Attah about her book The Hundred Wells of Salaga as part of the Boston Public Library’s Author Talk Series. I love watching artists give lectures about their work/take part in the “in conversation” sort of thing; sometimes I play them in the background at work to stay motivated throughout the day. It was such an honor to take part in an event like this, especially with a Ghanaian woman author interested in the afterlife of slavery as Saidiya Hartman puts it [and the domestic trade of enslaved people in Ghana in particular]. She was a delight to talk to. I hope I did my secondary school English Literature teachers proud with my close reading and questions.
  • I was accepted to do a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, which means in June I will have uninterrupted writing and research time, a huge luxury for any artist/writer trying to live life and pay bills at the same time!

I’m also trying to remember that even if none of these things had happened, and in spite of the rejections that have come in between these opportunities, I would still be a whole person worth more than the sum total of resume lines.

Facebook Post-writer

In my efforts to document not just my low moments, I must also report the following;

  • I took a trip to New Orleans (the place where I’ve felt the most at home in the US so far) with my mum. I’m back in Boston, but my spirit (and tastebuds) are most certainly not.
  • I’ve started going to a POC yoga class that apparently has been going on for about 5 years, a year longer than I’ve lived in Boston. It feels amazing to share that breathing space with so many kind people in a city that can feel rather stifling at times, especially when the cold weather drags on. If I may say so myself, I’m not half bad at it either. Every week, I’m surprised at how satisfying and freeing it feels to see how far I’m able to push my body in terms of the stretches and movements we are called upon to do, but not in a scary hyper-competitive way, just in a “ok, sis who knew we could do this” way.
  • Most importantly, I am reminded everyday that I am loved and not alone. Who knew that living somewhere for nearly 4 years would lead to so many meaningful and loving connections? Even when that somewhere is Boston, when the city’s latent and overt hostility to Black people and non-Black people of color and its high cost of living makes building community feel impossible.

Some of my snaps from New Orleans, including my mum living her best life at the Backstreet Cultural Museum and flipping her hair somewhere [on the quieter side] of the French Quarter.

Another important point: I am here. And choosing to keep on living.

A List of Quiet Things

“A list of quiet things: the sun, snakes, stars, Aminah’s heart every morning, the thick forest surrounding Wofa Sarpong’s farm, seeds, millet seedlings bursting from seeds, the furry mold sprouting on everything, Hassana since arriving on the farm, Wofa Sarpong entering Aminah and Hassana’s room at night, his excited exhalations, Hassana breathing by Aminah, Wofa Sarpong slinking out, the night, heaviness falling and contouring every part of Aminah till morning came, Wofa Sarpong’s wives on the goings-on in Aminah’s room, moonlight.”

-page 86, The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

 

For a person who talks so loud and so much, one would be surprised to know how often I choose silence (here as well). Maybe other only children or people who were the youngest siblings by far can understand the fact of inhabiting worlds that you’ve mostly imagined and rarely or never share with other people.

Choosing silence used to feel freeing; it meant climbing trees I was too scared to jump down from, inventing languages only I could understand, and reveling in the sweet secrecy of it all. Sometimes it still feels this way, like when I laugh to myself as I witness irate passengers on the Orange Line huffing and puffing as though it will make the train move faster/make it less crowded or more fragrant-smelling, or when I think the funniest thought while crossing the street made all the more hilarious because I know I will never repeat it to anyone else. Sometimes, it feels like receiving good news and keeping it to myself for a few days or weeks, not because I doubt that I deserve the news, but just to savor it privately like smiling behind my own hand.

This evening, I’m choosing silence only to a certain extent, because writing this blog still feels like speaking out loud, except that I’m free to withhold or conceal whatever I want in a way I probably couldn’t if I called a friend or a relative in tears. I’m choosing silence because no matter how many times I’m convinced of the contrary, I’m always seeking confirmation for what I believe to be true, which is that my frightening lows and exuberant highs are too confusing and just too much to expect other people to navigate with me.

This silence looks like scrolling through my phone and coming up with reasons not to call each name that flashes across the screen: it’s too late there; she’s been a little distant lately and is probably struggling herself; she is definitely struggling herself; they are definitely struggling themselves; she has exams to prepare for; she is teaching; she will panic; she has too much work already and too many responsibilities; he will worry too much and call everyone else; so will he; it’s too late there.

Then there are also the warnings from recent and more distant pasts: [don’t call because] you will eventually overdo it; you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate; you will bring down the mood; you will be too negative; you will be an uncomfortable presence other people will have to tiptoe around when they are also trying to be well; your sadness is inconvenient and even worse, contagious; you will take up too much space, you will confuse/overwhelm/frustrate– as an aside, I met someone new, but he has disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and I fear that it may be because I have shared too much and confused and overwhelmed and frustrated him. It’s also possible he’s just trifling. Who knows?

Today is a Tuesday, which means a long day, but not as bad as Mondays when I split my day between two different jobs. Today’s silence sounds like drumming my acrylic nails on the desk for exaggerated comedic effect, and talking faster and louder and trying to land more punchlines and more laughs. It sounds like responding to several text threads, gifs included, through tears as if nothing is wrong. It sounds like comforting and encouraging someone I admire with a gentleness and conviction that I rarely if ever show myself. It sounds like trying to cry quietly while I call my therapist’s voicemail box, and trying even harder when I hear my roommate in the other room because I don’t want to worry her (I get through because luckily the therapist happens to be working late.) It sounds like my phone buzzing on my bedside table from the people I did try to contact asking if everything is ok. I know I will not answer tonight. Maybe tomorrow, so I can say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m fine!”

Even in this post, I’m saying a lot without saying much at all. What I am able to say out loud is that I am working at a place where I feel my soul bowing down a little when I walk through the door. It feels that dire because I witness and experience all kinds of belittling and disrespect almost daily, and because I see so much wealth and power being hoarded in the name of “justice and equity” or “meeting goals and targets” or “turning theory into action,” meanwhile the world grows ill and dies while we have an unfair share of the necessary remedies. (If you know where I work you will probably ask why I expected it to be different). I am so exhausted and also ashamed for feeling this way, because I would not exist if my mothers did not have the fortitude (something I fear I am lacking or deficient in) to choose to live in the ways they did. I also know they would not want me to despair.

Because of this shame, I was hesitant to include the quote in full at the top of this page, for fear that it would appear as if I was drawing a disrespectful parallel between my life and Aminah’s experience of being commodified and enslaved in colonial era Ghana. Aminah lives most of the novel in her mind, and more importantly she was written in honor of the author’s own great-great-grandmother who was enslaved in Ghana during that era. Aminah means so much to me because she is almost always turned towards herself and her internal life, and I was lucky enough to be able to share this impression with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author, when I interviewed her at an event at the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago. Most importantly, I love Aminah because she occupied a similar time period as my own great-great-grandmother, whose story I hope to honor one day.

My own list of quiet things continues to grow, especially because it includes memories and events I’m still terrified to think about, let alone to speak aloud. I’m choosing silence just for this evening but hopefully not for long after this, as I know that I can only poison myself eventually if I continue to hold some of these things in. I am trying to remember that I am not too much for seeking to be heard and loved in particular ways, and also that not everyone I choose will be able or willing to choose me and my breaking silence.