Monday, October 30, 2006


to ebb

1. intr. To flow back or recede, as the water of the sea or a tidal river: frequent in phrase, to ebb and flow.

2. b. transf. Of a ship: To sink with the tide. Of water: To sink lower. Of blood: To flow away.

3. 2. fig. To take a backward or downward course; to decay, decline; to fade or waste away

to flow

I. To glide along as a stream.
1. a. intr. Of fluids, a stream, etc.: To move on a gently inclined surface with a continual change of place among the particles or parts; to move along in a current; to stream, run; to spread over (a surface)
b. Opposed to ‘stand’
c.Of the blood or other animal fluids: To pass along the vessels of the body; to circulate.
d. With advbs. to flow over = to overflow.
e. quasi-trans. Of a river: To carry down (water) in its current.

2. a. To become liquid; to stream down, melt

I like definitions. Sometimes I like them because my immigrant ass truly needs them. But other times it's interesting to check the nuance of meanings. I knew what these words meant. But currently, it’s fascinating to realize certain submeanings. That the word ebb also is about sinking, that related to blood it means to flow away; also it has the idea of a downward decaying course, of fading and of wasting. And that flow also is about spreading over a surface (to me, that means thinning), sustained change (to me, that means exhausting), the opposite of standing (to me, that means instability) and that it can mean to circulate (around in circles?), or to overflow (runneth over). And a great one: to melt.

Fight or flight. I feel like I should run home to Cape Verde rather than be stuck in this version of my life. Sometimes. Especially on Mondays. Other times I feel like that would be cowardice. Then I play Madonna’s Jump and dance around my living room and I feel this breath of possible power just cresting but then I just fizzle. I’m fucking exhausted. In part cause I was dancing to Madonna’s Jump for 20 minutes (replay replay replay) but in part because I’m exhausted and I don’t want to feel this anymore.

The Corner

Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate, upon hearing for the zillionth time that his claim to fame was to bridge the gap between East and West through his writing yesterday said something like, “The metaphor of the bridge is so antiquated; my responsibility is to build new metaphors.”

It is indeed almost impossible to not construct these spatial metaphors for life: the journey, the trip, the bridge, the gap and the monument—be it mountain or tower or pyramid. I think it says something about humanity’s innate Creator complex, and central investment on building its destiny. Let’s face it, the Buddhist way of just being who and where you are is not as attractive as the Master of the Universe way of “if you can make it there, you’ll make it, anywhere, so here’s to you, New York, New York” . I would venture that we all have a little Genesis story inside: clay molding of ourselves. Destination: happiness. My metaphor exercise of the day is The Corner.

The corner of the world that I come from being so small, having allowed me such an expanse of choices and array of mistakes because I was invisible to most maps. A corner of the world particularly inflated with romantic, heightened expectations about the exceptionality of my life, my golden promise of making things impossible possible. This because I was told all the time that my being here was already tremendously miraculous. Everything I survived before coming to New York was proof positive I could survive anything. The Corner of the world that I come from could be extremely sheltered and brutal at the same time, thus making it hard to discern the my true limits and true potential. For better or worse.

The corner as the place where he has now returned to, to be that which many people like him are, a hustler. It is a place that contrary to the rest of the world, attributes him due praise, fame and fortune, at least as possibilities. A place where he is not just a man trying to make it, but The Man. A place where he can apply himself to something he likes to do, and does well, and reap predictable returns and provide for himself. Provide for himself a measure of contextualized dignity. The necessities of life. The fuel with which to put one foot in front of the other. The corner where he gets respite from the sense of continued failures. Where he gets the comforts of the familiar. The corner as a dead end place pretending to be a transitional place for so many men, for so very long. It has codes, uniforms, hierarchies, outposts and traffic-ridden paths. It has the tropes of everything else that lies beyond it. It has risk-benefit analyses predicated on very specific ethics (like instant gratification). It has life: a new girlfriend, new friends, laughs again, drunken nights, rowdy moments and quieter moments, a lot of weed, new beginnings, new ends. And, one would hope, dreams. And one would hope to not have to qualify or judge those dreams, one day, if that were possible. But for that to be possible one would have to be of that corner and I just am not. The Corner gets to have him in the end.

The Corner where he first kissed me, the corner of 122nd Street and Riverside Drive. There’s a fence there. If you lean on it, because a man gently pushed you, your heels hit a ledge on the sidewalk and you naturally step up so as to be slightly taller. He propped me up those couple inches, leaned in, and quite frankly, kissed me in a way that changed everything. I have razor sharp connection back to that corner moment. There is a whole person I would not be that begins with that corner moment; there is certainly a first instance of womanhood and self-worth and confidence and. I own that corner forever irrespective of what it comes to mean for him or not mean for him. It's interesting to generate meanings with someone that only you yourself come to understand. But that first kiss corner is fundamental for me. I get to have that corner in the end.

The Corner for what it feels like to hear that he has moved on and is happy. Where I feel I was left standing, stranded, all my bags laying there and no ride home. No home to ride to. Now all my stuff, the stuff of these seven years, is just out here on this corner, subject to the elements, various degrees of deterioration, and when all of it dissolves like paper in water, I do not have more of it in some storage space. The corner where I am left to contemplate this depletion of my resources, this my waste, this my loss.

And finally, today, 79th Street and West End Avenue. Crisp and cold but sunny. The day where it all sinks in. I did not choose this. I was brought here by my life (kicking and screaming) but there is no use fighting maps just because you cannot see them and now suspect they may not exist. I’m not New York City, I am not a numerated, structured maze. I am not incrementally growing when I head North and losing when I head South. I am not beholden to solving a problem, simplifying this life algebra. I don’t really know much standing on this corner, waiting for the light to change. But I am ready to cross the street.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Problem of Articulation

I come in I sit in the leather chair. Everything looks the same but the furniture has shifted east slightly. She looks thinner—better maybe. I notice that this is the earliest session I ever had, at 8:30, and yet she is dressed very well, the same way she would dress at the other sessions, but I didn’t notice it then.

I look at her face and she greets me and I realize that I would have recognized her in a crowd but not as my shrink. I would have said hi and not known where I knew her from. I think that it’s been a while since I’ve been here but I have no idea how long. I have trouble with so many of the details and timing of the last 3 years or so. Last 5 years or so?

When was the last time I was here?

It’s been a couple of years.

And I know last time I was here it was something to do with him but what was it?

You had just put him out of your house.

And then I start to cry very hard.

You’ve been in and talked about some horrible, very difficult things, and you’ve never cried like this. What do you think about that?

I think to myself that this sort of line of questioning is why I, for the first time, avoided coming to therapy. It’s also the reason why I came anyway. And then I think to myself, two fucking years?

My problem with my problems has always been one of articulation. I know that even the idea that I can trace the origin of something as illusory as “my problem with problems” is…a problem, but this is what I do. So to tracing it back:

My first encounter with the little hell that can be one’s life was through the dysfunctions of my early childhood. I was what I today would call a severely emotionally neglected child. That still sounds a bit extreme when I say it but I feel that it is true. A few years back I wouldn’t use the terms because I thought they were too harsh. Now I know it’s not that, they are not too harsh, they just don’t give enough nuance. It is hard to properly describe but essentially I was being damaged, emotionally, as a kid, on a consistent basis. In that time I was told by my mother (the primary on the case) and it was confirmed by the rest of my (her) family that there was a reason for this pain I was enduring. My mother was a teenager who had been “forced” to have me at a very young age, thus becoming emotionally stunted and bitter and unable to do any better than she was doing—but she loved me. Yes adults thought wise to tell a child this.

I can’t lie: it made sense to me. She’s a mess but that’s not my fault. She treats me like shit but that’s not her fault. They said she can’t help herself: after all, she didn’t want to have a kid. No 16 year old wants to have a kid. Now what can she do? Pretend to be a grown up? She can’t do that. She must be this fucked up selfish person, she's never grown up, they said. I was happy to have A Reason since I didn’t have much else going on. I realize now that I grew up strung out on reasons. This is what my therapy is often about: me chasing reasons like a fiend. Life, it turns out, is deeply unreasonable.

There being A Reason began to connect quickly with There being No Reason For me to complain. Why complain if I knew the whole reason was... nobody's fault? I was told that was just a selfish thing to do, and something beneath me since I was such a precocious, good child. I knew better than complaining.

Today: pain is never articulated. For me it’s metaphor, always. Pictures. Pain never is what it is, for me it is like something else. Today it still needs to be distilled or costumed to safely sneak into the world. Back in the day it couldn't come out at all. First it was like something that went up my throat and burned at the top of it, enough that nothing came out, no words. Just tears. And the tears, because of the burning, would be very hot on my face. And my face would get very hot and then I would get dizzy from the heat. Like motion sickness but while feeling immobilized. That was when I was little. But to this day there is a way in which I have trouble being hurt and saying so and if I muster up all that it takes then likely my head will start to burn up—it’s probably not real, say, to the touch. But I feel it burning.

Then a second phase where I discovered there was a "silent" way of speaking, and it was writing. Now pain was many images in my poems. An exit sign falling out of sight. A vacant temple raided by traceless people. Murder before morning time. Blood running down to the feet. Picnics with ghosts. And other images I can't remember. Precise ones. All evocative but with time, they are evocative only of a memory of having not felt the pain but of having expressed it well in poetry. I can't remember the way the pain felt, I just remember how the poem said the pain felt. The connecting theme here: distance and control. And not articulating the pain, just thoughts about the pain. Narrative. Words. Stories of why and where and when and especially a lot of stories of what next.

When therapy became a part of my life I could do a lot with it but not articulate the unallowable. I confronted then this problem of articulation. Feelings, you know, they need to make sounds. I am learning this right now when I am 30 years old. I feel like I learned it before and it was so messy that I forgot it deliberately. And yet here I was swearing up and down that all the lessons learned in the psych hospital had stuck. But not really: I had transformed all that real emotional work into really good "psych ward" stories to tell while drunk, but forgot the fundamental insight I attained there. Which is that what is inside making you hurt must come out of you, hot cheeks, dizzy head, terror, and all. You didn't control the coming in of the darkness, so you won't get to control the coming out.

Today I had a therapy session where I felt out of control for the entire hour. I did not know what I would say before I said it. I did not know how I would sound to myself and I was terrified. I felt like an idiot, I couldn't come up with any words really. So I cried and told myself, I gotta watch that next time around, I don’t feel like fucking crying in this lady’s office, this sucks.

The same's been happening at home. I have been crying a lot. I have been hurting in an audible way and it freaks me out. You have to cry into the pillow because it is very loud. Or crouch down like you are hiding from some horrible monster that's coming. Make sure your back is on a wall so you don't get jumped. Cover your head. Sit still in a corner for a whole hour and don’t notice it go by. All you can do is stop at the point where you are exhausted. I know I’m supposed to be articulating without the metaphors but just this once: sometimes it’s like a supernova of your insides, where it feels like your skin might burst at the seams; but, at the same time, all the air around you turns into these heavy things that are crushing you. So if something could be exploding and caving at the same time, and if that thing was you. If that happened, you’d have to sit and cry it out. Open your mouth. And not let it be done to you in silence anymore.
It’s just you and your life: you need no euphemisms. You are not faint of heart.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Mama Africa

A friend of mine who is an AIDS treatment activist working in Lesotho (and more generally, a human rights activist focused in Africa) wrote me an e-mail about what work is like currently in the village she is at. Her e-mail included great news about their setting up some farming systems and self-sustaining bio-responsible systems for the village that involve among other things I don’t understand, dual purpose chickens. It was fascinating. Chickens would lay eggs (duh!) and those would be sold in the local market and the closest nearby grocery and then the funds from that would go towards the cost of living and caring for the village AIDS orphans, which are numerous and in the care of a “care group”. And at some point in that cycle the chickens would eventually also become food, thus the dual purpose.

In speaking to my friend I often feel the worse part of my African guilt, which I won’t get into now but obviously as the name suggest has to do with my being an African who isn’t in fact, a human rights activist focused on Africa.

She was talking to me about all kinds of terrible realities and then focused on a very real problem she perceives rightly to be a huge impediment to good work in terms of AIDS—a seemingly “cultural” resistance to treatment and acceptance of this massive death rate. Her prior work had been in South Africa, in the context of a very active and hardcore grassroots patients’ rights campaign by the organization TAC. Her current work is in a village in Lesotho where folks are not that engaged. She said to me in part:

"But, work here is so very frustrating…. working here is entirely different to working in South Africa (or at least being at TAC.) There is absolutely no sense of urgency here… do you know what I mean? I mean that, coming here I knew all about the statistics—one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the entire world and a very high death rate to accompany that, a huge AIDS orphan population, and high rates of unemployment. What I did not expect to find was a (dare I say…) apathetic population who are largely too scared to talk about HIV, let alone test for it, and who would rather go to funerals every single fucking Saturday, rather than stare into the face of the pandemic that has swept their country. The population is just under 2 million and 66% is youth and children… there are 200,000 orphans (10% of the population…yes, 10% of the pop is an orphaned child….isn’t that insane?) The group with the highest rates of HIV infection is women 25-29 years old, 40% of whom are HIV positive. 40 PERCENT!"

And she wrote also about struggling to understand where that apathy came from:
"The thing is that I remarked on this lack of urgency right away, but sort of tried to understand it in its own cultural context… I don’t know if it’s part of the culture—this inherent understanding of the impermanence of life and the unquestioning acceptance of that fact, or what. But, I am struck daily by the lack of urgency with which people deal with this public health crisis. Not in a judgmental sense more in a sociological sense. The Basotho are now attending a funeral every single Saturday, the current life expectancy (debatable) is 35 years of age, there are close to 200,000 orphan children living in a country with a population of just 1,800,000, the central market of Mafeteng town is full of coffin-makers, makers of coffins for every size corpse.”

And about the challenges for women’s ability to negotiate their own (sexual) health:
"I know it sounds naïve, but I think that a society, any society, can not claim to be enlightened, until a woman (the average woman) can negotiate sexuality with her partner. Is the U.S. enlightened, in this sense? Again, we all know that there are “two Americas.” For women of my cohort, yes, I think I can say that yes, they can indeed and most often, do. However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic would not be spreading as fast as it is amongst many populations in the U.S., if this were the case for all American women."

And finally, about the hurdle created by the “traditional” healers:
" A traditional healer who makes one feel comfortable, provides care, attention and emotional support, or prescribes indigenous herbs as remedies for illnesses is not only acceptable and permissible, but actually it is essential for successfully combating HIV/AIDS and the multiple ways it attacks society. The human resources crisis is so intense in the health sector in Lesotho and in most Southern African countries that there are not even enough healthcare workers to test, treat, and care for AIDS patients. Traditional healers have an advantage in that they are usually trusted and respected by the community and they can take time with each patient. If treatment activists could effectively collaborate or ally with one another, both recognizing their shared interests and the collective benefits of partnership, to deal with the public health crisis, there would be a creative synergy as opposed to a dangerous and distracting dichotomy... [Unfortunately] There still exist “witch doctors” who advise that HIV can be cured by having sex with a virgin (or worse yet, a small child) or who prescribe cutting the patient to “clean” the blood.”

Not easy stuff to deal with. And as an African, not easy stuff to hear in way. Because I know my friend is a toughtful and committed person and if the reality on the ground is what it is, then the conclusions that she draws are legitimate. But of course they are not legitimate to me because I refuse to believe certain things. I tried to tell her and think for myself about another angle on this issue.

It seems to me (and I have the advantage of actually *not* looking at coffin makers in the markets every day) that people can only be who they are. And that adversity alone does not change that--various various circumstances have to converge for people to rise up in their own "defense" so to speak--nevermind to do it successfully, in a way that is not self-destructive and pointless in the end. Whether we're talking Lesotho or America. I think hindsight is 20/20 and we often get this linear thinking that connects going through hardship with rising up in a social movement and we forget how many other ways the story goes. I'm sure there's a so-called complacency in the people, but there is one here as well--there is that everywhere.

All the time, my feeling about Africa is always that the DISASTERS (all of them, civil strife, genocides, droughts and famines and AIDS) are so extreme that the rest of the world comes to expect exceptional human behavior from Africans in response. The world looks at that continent and expects that Africans—against human type and norm--be strong and stand up for themselves in dire circumstances, that they resist corruption and violence and other normal human inclinations under strife, that they shake off their own cultural context and trust Westerners, that the women negotiate rights they do not have and never have had, that they opt out of their medicine in favor of another from people who have never done much for them-- another medicine they simply don't understand.

It seems not fair an expectation but I hear it in people’s frustration with “Africa”. Even I fall prey to that. In the end, whether "we" Africans (and I put the quotes on the we fully aware that there's all kind of Africans) are dying in massive numbers or not, we are only ordinary people. Like everybody else. We are no more willing or inclined to face a pandemic than the next person say, in the States, who is unwilling to face that their government is a nefarious influence in the world; that their country systematically condemns millions to "Africa-like" poverty and despair though it calls itself a democracy; that not getting tested for HIV or not wearing a condom is really dumb.

I think people are always afraid and excepting very few individuals (like my friend and others like her, all over the world whose work is about human rights) prefer to cling to the notion that they should get a break and be allowed to "just live a happy life" without having to get into a fight for the death about it. Or without having to change the way they've lived. Or something. I think that it would be actually odd if folks in Africa were anything but aclimated to the idea of premature death and other loss. You know? It seems contradictory but I think it’s about a reaffirmation of a whole continent’s humanity that we can’t get it together—how could we get it together? WHO could get it together under the circumstances Africa is under? Personally, I'm scared to even visit certain places in the world and see life in certain states of disarray. I’m still devastated that I let myself watch the Frontline special on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. That's how much I am naturally inclined to run from that shit and I'm not even at stake; I don’t live there.

I think on a positive note, that people like my friend make a huge difference. Cumulatively. If you read about movements, all kinds of movements and currents of change, they start very very quietly and small and so slow. Way before there's something on the radar of "world history", or something that can be spun into "a book" or an entry in wikipedia or a movie with Denzel Washington and what not—way before that, there's people like my friend and the villagers she is collaborating with, and the health professionals, doing day to day work. And working in the face of odds that would make most people just sit and weep and walk away. There's people who use their place slightly outside of that despair to come and shake things up a little bit and say there should be another way to deal. But you can’t expect someone living and eating and breathing that despair to just up and say, oh today I’m going to be hopeful and combative and proactive about this. Today I’m going to affect change in my life that has an expectancy of 35 years. I think it’s not fair to expect anything from a human being who is not allowed to expect to live past 35.

It's going to take everything (from grassroots local stuff, to international human rights activism stuff, to science, to medicine, to money to government to sheer luck and the graces of the gods) to correct the path of the African continent, and when I personally think of that, that terrifies me because I don't think what happens in Africa upsets enough people. Is it because the place is so damn fucked up every which way or is the place that fucked up because most people don't care about the place? Pointless chicken and egg question, but it does come back to the notion of complacency, doesn't it? Just because my friend can't see sometimes how the work that she is doing is affecting the larger scheme, it doesn't mean it's not.

But in the same way, just because we can't see a visible and familiar manifestation of a people's anger or resilience or will to live, it doesn't mean it's not there. It doesn't mean they don't care. Every day life can speak its own (fucked up) truths to us and what happens really becomes "all that can happen" but I refuse to believe there is inclination, anywhere in Africa, irrespective of what we think we understand about the people, towards letting themselves just die off. Because fundamentally that makes no sense. Human beings just are not built that way.

It occurred to me something when I was thinking about what she wrote me about complacency that a comparison of sorts could be made to the mid east and suicide bombers. I suppose they could be considered to be the ultimate "non-complacent" people, in a sense. But we all know that what they do with their despair has another profound human tragedy quotient as well. I think the root of it is the same, right? An acceptance of death at the hand of unjust circumstances, a resting of hopes in false witch doctoring prophets, a disenfranchised human being's own inadequate "adjustment" to a fucked up fate. If someone internalizes all of that and decides to blow themselves up in a bus vs if they just decide to die quietly in a village in Lesotho--which is better for whom? Which rattles the conscience of the world? Some would say neither if the conscience of the world can’t be bothered. Having posed the hypothetical question, I am full aware that the question itself is immoral. Just like the realities in the question are just immoral: human beings just should have the right to better options than a pointless death.

I get “Africa frustration” all the time. Especially when I am thinking about corrupt governance, “war lords”, child soldiers, rapes and ethnic genocides and all of that shit. I often have those un-PC thoughts of “how fucked up are you people, goddamn?!”—but I have those same thoughts about my people in Africa as I have about my people in the ghettoes of American cities. And in both counts they’re not real convictions, just the rude frustration. Same as when I lose it with my son and accidentally curse at him. Symptomatic of my exasperation but not my conviction. Fact is that if it is true that poverty breeds dysfunction and that the two are proportionate, imagine if ALL of America was the lower 9th ward of New Orleans or West Baltimore or DC or the South Bronx? Imagine if all the people here lived in the same conditions that some live in the reservations? If all of that dysfunction was not imbedded in this hugely wealthy, hugely expansive country whose government more or less controls the world? What would this country really look like? And further, what would its people look like for "putting up with it"? Pretty culturally inclined to apathy and complacency, I think…