Show Your Work

I was going talk about identity and purpose today, and then one of my friends mentioned me in an Instagram comment about honest posting.

So instead I’m talking about social media representation, especially how sometimes Instagram and Twitter can leave us feeling ‘less than’. When you look at several smiling, sun-kissed, carefully curated and filtered images and then look at your own messy life you can wind up feeling disappointed and envious. God knows I have been “Best at Badmind” so many times, thanks to Facebook (this was pre-Instagram) and wedding websites like A Practical Wedding (yes, go and fall down the rabbit hole). Climbing out of that particular quagmire took years of practice and lots of growing up.

These days, even though I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and impostor syndrome, it’s gotten easier to remind myself that what I see on Twitter & Insta isn’t really what goes on when the camera turns off.

A conversation I had with my partner (who has dabbled in photography) when I was trying to learn how to take better, more engaging Instagram pictures:

Me: This website just suggested taking lots of different clothes on a photo shoot in case what you’re wearing doesn’t match the background. 

Him: Yep.

Me: They said that the different clothes and accessories make it look like you took pictures on different days, so that you can spread the posts out over weeks without being repetitive.

Him: Yep

Me: That’s insane! Who has time for this?

Him: Um, people who take it seriously? It takes work. 

And then I got distracted by something. Probably baking, or the cats. Which is why my social media gets updated maybe once a month. Can’t have you all noticing the pictures are really from the same shoot.

I’m getting off topic.

I’ve come to learn that a lot of social media is crafted and staged. When I browse Pinterest for hours on end trying to find organizational inspiration, it’s so frustrating when the pictures are perfectly aligned just so. How do these rooms look when they’re lived in? All these mommy bloggers with young children cannot possibly keep their houses this spic and span all the time. What does it look like in real life?

Credit: jordankrogmanphotograhy

That’s more like it.

One day I searched for real life pictures and the results were refreshing. Limited, but refreshing. There were toys on the floor, blankets thrown everywhere, dishes on the table. But underneath the mess was a certain cohesion, a level of deliberateness that gave a stable foundation to the chaos. It’s so much more inspiring to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into getting that curated, crafted end result; it’s so much more helpful.

If we’re all out here trying to live our best lives, and proud of it, what’s the harm in sharing the struggle that shapes the success? Congrats, you graduated from grad school but your Insta is all selfies at the beach. What about the late night studying? Awesome, you got promoted. But your feed is all parties and #gymlife. Why not talk about the coffee-fueled work-after-work that got you there? Cool, you post about #selfcare mani-pedis and yoga but what about the harder parts of self care like therapy and introspection?

I know the ‘rough work’ isn’t for everyone. God knows I hated having to do it in Math class. But for those of us social media users who are interested in the face behind the sunglasses or the story behind the popularity, this rough work is endearing and empowering. Showing the struggle reminds us that we’re not alone in it. Sharing the steps makes us feel like we can accomplish great things too.

At the very least, it’ll be helpful to figure out how the hell I can get that style on my bookshelf.

Pax.

P.S.

If you’re a nerd like me and love extra reading, this article on JSTOR is an illuminating and lengthy read on the topic of social media envy. Here is the link, and here is a tidbit:

Social media could help us feel less envious about vacations if it also celebrated quiet nights in; it could help us feel less envious of other people’s perfect children if it also celebrated the beauty of the bachelor apartment we just arranged to utter perfection. 

We could hold our collective breath and wait for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to vindicate the diversity our strengths and contentments. Or we could do it ourselves: by demanding honesty and vulnerability from our online friends, and from ourselves.

Thoughts?

‘Balance’

I started a 30-day yoga challenge a few weeks ago and as I sank my forehead to the mat for the first time the instructor asked us to think about the reason we started this challenge and what we hoped to take away. One word popped into my mind, strolling across my consciousness like the fantasy I have where I’m forty fifty years old with grey locs sweeping the floor, dressed in a mumu with my arms flung open like I’m hugging the world.

balance

I’m not alone, right? Please tell me all have weird visions of our future selves.

Amidst work obligations, family life and a depressing sort of loneliness, balance looks like working less, writing more and being kind to my body. It looks like weekends that are open to possibilities; it looks like returning to the yoga mat over and over again; it looks like expanding my circle of intimacy – finding new friends and staying connected with old ones.

Balance looks like aligning my practices with my goals. Just after graduation I spread my sails wide, wanting to test as many waters as I could. Now I’m finding my current and I feel a tug in that special direction. Away from some things, necessarily, but towards other things that resonate more deeply.

I hope that by focusing on balance in the coming months I can end 2018 with a little more stability and sureness of purpose. I hope my anxiety lessens (and so far it has ) and I hope my life aligns itself in the direction I’ve always intuitively wanted to go.

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Pax.

Dancing in Public Places

Do you guys know that video of the little boy yodeling in Wal-mart?

That’s me, but with dance instead of yodeling. Who even yodels in 2018?. My partner finds it hopelessly embarrassing, but whenever we buy our weekly groceries instead of walking through the aisles like a normal person I boogie and ballet my way from one frozen section to another. I pirouette around paper towels and cha-cha-cha past the chips and snacks.

I won’t lie, I’m no Misty Copeland, but I have rhythm and a certain amount of grace. I danced all the way through high school and university, so I’m not shy about my moves. More than once people have chuckled in my direction and my partner has had to intervene before someone runs me over with their trolley (accidentally, of course) but I still do it. Partly because it feels good and partly because supermarkets are really boring so I’m glad to provide some kind of entertainment for my fellow shoppers.

What I’m trying to say is, sometimes you should do the uncomfortable, silly, socially awkward thing because if people are going to laugh at you anyway you might as well have fun doing it.

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Renewing my Vow

I logged in to WordPress today with the weight a month’s worth of guilt about not posting resting uncomfortably on my shoulders to find the cheerful reminder that today is my seven year anniversary with WordPress.com.

Waaaay back in 2011 I was halfway through my first year of medical school. I wanted to transition from personal blogging on Livejournal to public blogging on WordPress. I started wellreadrobin with the hopes of posting regularly about everyday life and sharing my story for others to see. This was my very first post.

Seven years later, have I accomplished that?

My posting habits are best described as infrequent, worst described as irregular and uncommitted. Blogging as a form of writing is a form of creative expression for me, providing an outlet for energies that swirl around ceaselessly in my mind. I’ve been dabbling in other types of writing – journaling is one example – but I always circle back to blogging as a gateway to writing stories. If I can commit to writing true stories here on the blog then one day I’ll be able to write real fiction. At least, that’s the story I tell myself.

So for the umpteenth time, I’m renewing my vow to myself, the same vow that birthed Project 52 (an ill-fated attempt to share one blog post a week for 52 weeks).

It’s only 52 weeks. Only 52 essays or stories or random, coherent streams of thought. (Is there an innate oxymoron lurking somewhere in that last line?).  Only 52 attempts at something that has eluded me for far too long, something I should be good at, would be good at if I dedicated time to doing it properly. 52 ways I want to improve. 52 things I want to share with the world. 52 times my better judgment failed me (or impressed me). 52. Fifty-two. That’s all I’m asking.

-Well Read Robin c.2011

The promise is to blog with consistency and a reasonable amount of frequency. Once weekly, no pressure. Just to see if I can do it. Lord knows I’ve got more than enough things to say.

Back to Wakanda

Why am I a writer? I am a devout believer in the power of words. The right story can change the world. My writing found its genesis in sharing my story, because who else  could tell it? Along the way I learnt to share the stories of others, stories I believe need to be told. The right story at the right time in the right ears can inspire a revolution.

I believe in the power of the Black Panther movie – not to catalyse a movement, or change the status quo but to spark thought and ignite a flame in the minds of people. Especially young people. To show them a different future, a different present, to show them possibilities they may not have considered, and to widen the horizons of their imaginations. Isn’t that what stories are for? They make us believe in things: magic, science, each other.

Ryan Coogler’s depiction of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book king is making waves all over the world. The images of afrofuturism and black empowerment are phenomenal and people are responding in unexpected ways. In the U.S. and Ghana for example, grassroots campaigns have been started to give underprivileged children the opportunity to watch Black Panther. After Frederick Joseph successfully raised more than $30,000 to take Harlem kids to see the movie, the Black Panther Challenge took off online and people from all walks of life have picked up the gauntlet.

Black Panther showings in Jamaica began with flash in the pan fanfare when the well-dressed well-to-do thronged the theatres for an exclusive premiere. The movie continues to be wildly successful with shows sold out for weeks to come and three simultaneous viewings at the cinema in Montego Bay. Some of us have gone to watch Black Panther more than once – a privilege afforded to few. Let’s share some of that privilege. I propose a venture equally as exciting as the initial premiere, with more lasting impact. Let’s go back to Wakanda, with kids this time, so that the younger generation can see the superhero we never had growing up. Let’s get kids to watch this movie, just for the fun of it, and see what happens.

Back to Wakanda is a social activism campaign to raise funds for teens and adolescents in Montego Bay so they can watch Black Panther even if they can’t afford a ticket. We are starting with the Mandingo Youth Club in Mt. Salem.

We’re looking for sponsors and donors to help this idea come to fruition (non-cash contributions also accepted). Did you watch Black Panther once, twice, three times? Are you ridiculously good at planning stuff? Do you have links with people who can help this campaign thrive? If you’re interested in donating or just being part of this venture reach out to me here on WordPress, or on Facebook, Instagram or by email at stephenson.robyn@gmail.com.

Let’s make this happen!

P.S.
We accept donations via cash, Paypal or bank transfer!

on the Commercialization of Black Excellence

 

This past week I’ve been ruminating.

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Corporate U, a networking company based in Western Jamaica, is hosting a red carpet style affair for the premiere of the Black Panther movie, and charging $3000 for admission (roughly twice the cost of a regular movie ticket). Though it claims to be giving the profits to charity and though I love dressing up for fancy tête-à-têtes, the high-priced ticket is giving me pause.

The revolution will not be televised

My mind keeps turning over, uncomfortable and questioning. Black Panther has become so much more than a superhero movie, has evolved into a political statement: a blanket, a balm, a battle cry. Just look at Twitter, where the hashtag #whatblackpanthermeanstome has generated an outpouring of emotional and hilarious observations on the realities of black life. It feels cheap to take this movement and capitalize on it for material gain. Because charity or not, profits will be made and someone’s pockets will end up fatter.

The revolution will be . . . commercialized?

The second question, of exclusivity. That the celebration of black excellence somehow comes with a discriminatory price tag. “You must be this wealthy to attend this premiere”. I elected to skip the red carpet experience, with the distinct and discomforting awareness that this only deepens the divide between the haves and the have nots. Between the bawdy bandwagonist half price movie goers, and the tawdry trend-setting full price movie lovers. Further, between the curly-haired light-skinned BMW driver and the kinky-haired dark-skinned pedestrian. Drives home the distinction between ‘State of Emergency’ and ‘enhanced security measures’. The ropes around the red carpet isolate us ironically, at a time when we should be celebrating the things that make us the same.

The last question, of overthinking. Black Panther is just a movie, after all, not some kind of altar call for black power. No matter how poignant the timing is. Corporate U is just another business, doing what businesses do: making money. And the red carpet affair isn’t driving wedges between the hearts of Jamaicans any more than the latest all-inclusive party or ZOSO. My perceived discomfort is exactly that: perception. The people who want the full ‘African Royalty’ experience will go, and enjoy the many scheduled after-parties. And the people who don’t want or can’t afford it will watch the movie on discount night, same as always.

The world keeps turning
and only time will tell
which side of history we stand on

Sundays are for Gratitude (and Homework)

Today I’m sharing a post that was written quite some months ago, because it feels especially relevant. Just this week one of the wonderful women I mention in this post reached out to me through a belated Christmas card and suddenly all the memories and nostalgia came flooding back. Real life mail can be so emotional sometimes. Anyway, while I am busy doing homework on this sunny Sunday, do enjoy this short reflection on gratefulness and belonging. 

~*~

I am thinking about gratitude.

How grateful I am for the women on LiveJournal who raised me, nurtured my budding social awareness, adopted this internet orphan, were my tribe in a time when I desperately needed to belong somewhere.

When I talk about my strange fixation with white women it probably started here. With these amazing wives and mothers (white and black) on LJ who lived and breathed feminism in an era before that word was so conflicted. They showed me that women could do anything. These women who coded and built their own websites, designed amazing graphics, wrote powerful stories, raised strong families. They showed me a version of life that I never would have known if I was left up to the devices of day to day Jamaica.

So I am eternally grateful for these women and the indelible marks they have carved on my path to adulthood. They didn’t have to accept this ‘little black girl from country’ as one of their own but they did, and I felt empowered to be among them. Not because they were elite (they were not) or foreign (mostly) or feminists (all), but because they admired and respected me the same way I did them. And that was a powerful lesson.

Notes from a State of Emergency

Sometimes I forget why I like writing so much. It’s not a habit or some intrinsic drive. Lord knows if I had internal motivation this blog would be updated with something resembling regularity (perish the thought). I like writing because I’m convinced that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and I am the one who needs to tell them. Like the nebulous dreams in The Land of Noddy (credit: Roald Dahl) waiting to be caught and dreamt, there are stories floating in the ether waiting to be heard and written. This is one such story.

This post has a soundtrack. Plug your headphones in and enjoy ‘Caution’ by Damian Marley.

Living in Montego Bay these days feels a lot like living in a fish bowl. Everyone keeps peering in at you and tapping the glass, wondering how you breathe in the same fluid that you keep pooping in. There’s a distinct ‘This is Water‘ kind of vibe, and most residents are aware of the Elephant in the Room in an abstract “Oh yes, that’s a problem” way. The Elephant is, of course, gun violence. St. James has been running hot for a while, with a body count that far outstrips the rest of parishes in terms of people murdered since the start of the year. We closed out 2017 with a record 335 murders.

The government’s initial response to the wave of crime sweeping the country was the creation of ‘Zones of Special Operations’ which gave soldiers and police officers license to set up shop in specified communities where they could question and detain ‘persons of interest’. The first ZOSO was in Mt. Salem, and at the time I lived in a neighbouring community. The ZOSO didn’t really change much about my day to day life, but then I have the privilege of (1) being a woman and (2) living in a community with significantly less stigma. Additionally, I don’t bleach my skin and I don’t drive a so-called ‘scammer car’ (you know, the super expensive ones that ghetto youths buy overnight) so I didn’t fit the typical profile of a ‘person of interest’.

Fast forward to January 2018 and the establishment of a State of Emergency for the parish of St. James. The SOE again grants police officers and soldiers the “power to search, curtail operating hours of businesses, access places and detain persons without a warrant” (JIS, 2018). The Prime Minister reassured citizens that law enforcement officers have been trained in human relations and are expected to treat all persons with dignity and respect.

But the gap between the rich and the poor looms ever wider.

Privileged business owners like Jason Russell complain that the change has hampered Pier 1’s delivery of the ‘tourism product’ (read: Pier Pressure lock off too early). Meanwhile people from poorer communities retaliate futilely against the invasion of their homes and lives as in the case of Lasco, Lost and Found. Overcrowding in the lock-ups creates a public health nightmare, and some of these ‘persons of interest’ are as young as 16 years old. Always the scales are tipped against the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the uneducated. If the US struggles with systemic racism, then institutionalized classism is Jamaica’s cross to bear.

The system designed that stony is the hill dem cyaa climb

Too much, cry the privileged whose lives are only hampered by violence when steps are taken to prevent it. Long lines of traffic at parish border checkpoints cause frequent delays. Businesses forced to close early lose profits.

Too little too late, cry the families whose lives have been shattered by gun and steel. Just last week my hairdresser buried her 26 year old son, gunned down with his baby mother on their way home. He was three months younger than me.

***

I straddle a world of relative privilege (a world I work hard to stay in), but my eyes are glued to the harsher realities that exist outside of my immediate bubble. The struggles and paradoxes that perpetuate our systemic inequalities have continued to be forced into a harsh light by the social media coverage of this State of Emergency. But not many of us are ready to see it, to stare without blinking at the uncomfortable truth.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

This is water. Pay attention.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night

It’s the season of giving, also the season of receiving, marked by our usual rampant consumerism. Traffic and cashier lines lengthen as we scramble to find the perfect presents, decorations and baking supplies. The festive season is more frustrating than celebratory. Isn’t that right, Mr. Grinch?

But as little Cindy-Lou Who reminds us, Christmas is more than just packages, boxes and bags. In the spirit of the holiday I want to share ten things I’m grateful for in this maddening season.

1. Despite the upward spike in crime in St. James my family and I have so far been spared from any direct attacks of gun violence.

2. I can afford to by Christmas presents for the people in my life. Just a few years ago, I would never have been able to.

3. Barbados and a few other Caribbean countries voted against Trump’s Jerusalem agenda in the UN referendum. They give me hope.

4. Technology helps me stay in touch with friends who are travelling the world. Kind of like if the Wise Men had Skype and Amazon Prime.

5. Even though I don’t own a car, I have unrestricted access to one. And even though it isn’t perfect, it’s never left me stranded.

6. 2017 was a year of plenty forward momentum in my career. I am grateful that I continue to grow and learn so much as a primary care physician.

7. Christmas breeze ah blow! I am very grateful for my water heater that saves my toes from frostbite.

8. I recently got an oven and I look forward to brushing off my rusty baking skills. I am grateful for the promise of Christmas cookies.

9. A lot of people I know have to work this Christmas, especially at the hospital. I’m grateful that my Christmas holiday involves staying home, sipping tea and petting my cat.

10. These candles are making my house smell like warm cozy Christmas nights, and I love it.

What are you grateful for at this time of year?

Reflections and Re-purposing

It’s officially a year since I left hospital medicine and ventured into the clinics and primary care. Like Lot’s daughters I never looked back to watch the world I once lived in burn, almost literally. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced this strange new territory and I’m coming to think of it as my home.

There’s a lot going on with primary care in Jamaica. One news story just a few months ago reported on the high level of dissatisfaction patients have with the way service is delivered. Primary care is plagued by low resources, for a number of unfortunate reasons. And primary care as a system is badly fragmented. There are many gaps in this new world.

When I walked sprinted out of secondary care I did it with a vow in my heart: I would try as hard as I could to prevent the untimely deaths and strokes and heart attacks that were caused by manageable chronic diseases. I was eager, I was willing and I was hopelessly naive. Stepping into clinic was like being splashed in the face with cold water; determination would only take me so far, about as far as the burnt out bridges of patient behaviour and system capacity. My sprint slowed when I realized this could not be the only direction I expended my efforts in. I needed to study the system to understand how to improve it.

So I began to learn, as much as I could and as often as anyone would let me. I didn’t just start to learn about holistic patient care, I started reaching for every training session that passed my way. The closer I got to the source, meaning the Ministry of Health, the more I was able to identify the gaps between protocol and reality. We play a hard-core game of Chinese telephone with our standards that usually ends with the front-line health care worker simply doing the best they can with what they have. This system was a mystery I was determined to unravel, and that curiosity illuminated an unexpected career goal.

I love organization. I love rules and protocols and standards and guidelines. It tickles my fancy to improve system efficiency, to find innovative and easier methods to meet goals and targets. And as it turns out, all those things that people in high school called me weird for liking are actually super important to the world of work. Those skills and interests can translate into actual jobs, with the right qualifications to back them up.

So it seems that after all these years of worry about a loveless career I am now falling, stumbling, eagerly crawling toward a purpose that resonates with my own ‘weird’ frequency. Hurrah.