A 2020 Prism Commission, Aferro Publication No. 32
To quote a bodega philosopher (we called him Yoda): ‘It had to happen this way.’
How else to stop the world when we wanted to get off? A world, by the way, that seemed insistent upon functioning with all the immovable, trickster cruelty of a child’s swing build 6 inches in front of a solid brick wall? Perhaps Yoda was right. They probably would have theorized that just maybe, the world needed to get sicker before it even considered trying to get better.
Each of us has been hurled into a constant process of creating new coping strategies. My go-to reactions usually include a pressing need to change my surroundings drastically when I feel something massive and untenable on the way: so, true to form, I bought a ticket and flew. As the weeks passed, and countries began to close borders, keeping me in a state of suspension, I decided that my survival mechanism would be to take pleasure in my suspended state. I could either wake up furious on a daily basis, or flow with it. Flustered, I hoped to take a yogic approach and Be Here Now. After all, the entire planet in this moment, is a yoga teacher’s dream come true: we all have to be in the present. We can’t plan, or plot, or logic, or pay, or pray, our way out of any of this. We are, in the most literal sense, forced to go within (stay inside) and shut our mouths (wear your mask!) The present is all we have.
Not for everyone, this Be Here Now thing. Most days, when it’s effective, I feel vaguely silly, and on days when it isn’t, I veer towards rage. But! I’m learning the differences between ‘self-care’ and ‘self-soothing’: the former has positive side effects (hot baths, meditation, self-loving, gardening, mirror work) and leaves no scars. The latter (binge watching/eating, drastic haircoloring, 80-proof rum, to name a few) just serve the purpose of taking the edge off. Admittedly I have (and do) indulge(d) in both, followed by the inevitable regrets. But both approaches are generating some excellent 2020 stories to tell in 2030, when we look back on All This. Yes, I still believe that we humans have lots to look forward to.
Every morning, I read a new quote. Today’s was from Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ and how timely: “That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” I try to remember that this is what everyone is trying to do, survive. And it reminds me try to lead with kindness. And hope.
Whatever works, really. This is a mantra for me these days, and it is so freeing to give myself permission to do whatever makes me feel good that is also good for me. Movement is good self-care because it keeps me in the moment, and it’s self-soothing. It sorts my thoughts, and people only stare for a second or two when they witness the ferocious debates I have with myself. So I walk.
Now, my walks are no ordinary walks. They are true journeys, albeit without destination, and miles long, along a meandering West African corniche. I wander down winding hills of foamy cliffs, past apartment buildings with 70s style architecture, which looks oddly, and self-consciously mod in present-day 2020. Dis-inhabited by the colonial French, they are now home to expatriates from every global corner, who prefer to live in the electrifying and vibrant town center, miles away from the interior of Dakar, where most Senegalese live. I walk, hyper aware, and oddly comforted by, the grand and majestic presence of Goree Island in the distance. Indeed, Goree takes these walks with me, a spectral reminder of origins, endings, and new beginnings.
Onward and outward. The city unfurls and tumbles out at my feet, like a banquet spread before me. I pass Senegalese, most of whom greet me with ‘Ca va?’ between labored breathes, as they exercise vigorously on the sand, and bid me farewell with ‘jamm ak jamm,’ which means ‘Peace, and more peace.’ in the Wolof language. The dualities in culture: in language and social graces, specifically, are never lost on me, and every day I am, by rapid turns, confused, amazed, often irritated, and yet always, and in every moment, deeply grateful for having manifested the privilege of being here. I pass shops, piled with merchandise, everything from babydolls to baguettes, and stop inside to browse and rest. The owners welcome me, and offer attaya, the 3 courses of Senegalese tea. The ceremony represents the three stages of life and friendship: the first course, lewel, is bitter, representing life’s early difficulties, the second, sweeter course is called naarel, and represents midlife, family, and love, and the third, nettel, representing the sweetness of old age, is a veritable sugar bomb. The ritual is elaborate and conducive to extended conversation; like, you can’t just sip & run. It’s also communal and performative: the liquid is poured from heights, creating a foamy texture, and before that, the water alone takes half an hour to heat, as it’s warmed on charcoal, giving the tea its’ distinctive smoky flavor. In recent days the conversations have taken on new urgency and segue directly to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and, as if they cannot bear to speak his name, ‘that person your country elected’. They ask many questions, ones that, as of late, I am too emotionally raw to engage, as we all are now: pandemic/death/protest/pandemic/death/protest. My hosts are empathetic: I sense them sensing my spirit shutting down and moving inward. I bid them farewell. They promise they are praying for ‘American Blacks’ and advise me not to worry. On the long walk home, I consider the chronic, low-grade anxiety of Black American life that has all but melted away in these past months, only to be triggered by thoughts of home, and then replaced with a weird brand of survivor’s guilt. Home now, I step onto the elevator to what sounds like an echo of the thought I was having at that very moment:
‘Why are you here with all that is going on there?’ blurted a neighbor from Lebanon, one who is in the habit of whispering ‘Kunta Kinte’ (their code word for Black Americans) to her children and giggling whenever I enter the elevator. A bit of background: I am the only Black person that lives in this apartment building, much to the delight of her lecherous husband, and (therefore?) her chagrin. The fact that I am Black, but not employed by them and can afford to live near them, is apparently a point of contention. Interestingly, I learned that non-Black foreigners are accustomed to white privilege in Senegal: I’m told that the logic is, well, if you aren’t Black, you’re white. So the performance of white privilege for some often means living in an African country, and performing racism. What some had not bargained for was American privilege: it transcends ALL. A Senegalese friend observed these mind-twisting goings-ons and declared “They are upset because you are being treated better than the white people, but you aren’t them.’ Listen, I get it. It was news to me too. But I’m not in the mood for this. I pivot on my heel, exit the elevator, and leave the building. I’m tired. But I keep walking.