Early Mornings (are a health hazard)

I’m hoping this becomes a trend.

Waking up early, I mean. Not suffering from smoke inhalation. It’s day six (?) of the Retirement Dump fire in Montego Bayor as we who live close by call it, “too damn long”. It’s really uncomfortable to wake up and go to sleep in the smell of smoke. Even more uncomfortable to do yoga in it. Not to mention the laundry. My bed sheets are soaking up the smog as we speak, and I don’t even want to think about my hair.

 

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DEATH FOG

One of my favourite things about our house-in-progress is that we finally have work desks right in front of the windows. But peering out my windows to contemplate the flowers in the garden is now a health hazard because I have to contend with emissions of carbon and god only knows what else in the air.

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Please ignore the cables and focus on the haze of death fog.

So on top of the probably indefinite State of Emergency, St. James is now slowly choking to death or at least serious illness. If bad things come in threes, I can’t wait to see what else is going to kick us when we’re down. That’s not true, I can totally wait. At least until I can breathe again.

 

 

 

Hopefully we come out of this with no serious ill effects. You know, other than migraines, chronic cough, upper respiratory infections,  exacerbated asthma. . . I could go on, but run on sentences are harder to do when the air is full of noxious fumes.

Til next time.

the Beginner’s Guide to Calabash Literary Festival

Disclaimer: This post is unofficial and unaffiliated with the Calabash Literary Festival, and not endorsed by the producers either. Just my own opinions and reflections. 

Who else loves literature? If you raised your hand, you’ll probably agree with me that book fests are the new music fests. Let’s face it: comfortable seats and soft spoken word beats standing for hours having your ears screamed off any day.

After about a dozen years of impatience and envy (bruk pocket and bad mind) I finally managed to attend the Calabash Literary Festival, the best little festival in the best little village on the best little island in the world.

A brief introduction

Calabash (as it is affectionately known) was started in 2001 by Jamaican founders Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell. After being staged annually for a decade, Calabash now draws crowds to Treasure Beach every other year. And the wait makes it even sweeter.

The Locale

At first look, Treasure Beach is a happy sleepy little town on Jamaica’s south coast. Driving down from Montego Bay my first sight as I rounded a corner and began the downhill drive was a gorgeous green plain that melded right into the Caribbean sea, dotted with houses and tiny lakes. It was breathtaking.

Treasure Beach is friendly to the pedestrian and avid step-counter. It’s much easier to walk around than it is to drive and the scenery is so pretty you’ll constantly be stopping to snap pictures. One weird element – at least weird in my north coast opinion – is that the sand is actually a dark colour, nothing like the white sand beaches I’m used to. But it still has a rustic beauty to it.

Lodgings

Places to stay are hard to come by in Treasure Beach around the time of Calabash. Most hotels are fully booked out months in advance but we luckily got in touch with an AirBnB host and managed to secure a hut for the weekend. Yes, a hut. A ‘comfortable hut with options’ as the listing went, and it was pretty comfortable. Once we got past the outdoor shower (cold!) and strange scratching noise in the thatch roof at nights (despite my worst fears, we did not get eaten).

Food

For a Jamaican village, Treasure Beach has a wide variety of meal options. Tourism does that to a place I think. Aside from Calabash itself which sold breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are a number of restaurants along the village road. We tried unsuccessfully to eat out at a different place every night – Jack Sprat kept drawing us back in – and for the most part the food was pretty good. I was amused that everyone served pizza! And being Jamaica naturally jerk chicken was the most common topping.

For breakfast there was only one option: Smurf’s Cafe. I still have mouthwatering daydreams about this eatery, which is right behind a bar of the same name. They serve home brewed coffee and a delectable selection of local and continental dishes. I can’t sing their praises enough. Their reputation speaks for itself though, because every single morning of Calabash there was a large crowd of people waiting for tables to free up.

Festival Grounds

Walking into the Calabash venue you will pass stalls featuring a variety of entrepreneurs and artisans. Even though Calabash boasts no admission fee, you should walk with plenty plenty pocket money to spend on the jewelry, accessories, clothing, natural products and more that are all for sale on site.

And the books! Of course a book festival comes equipped with its very own bookstore, and the Kingston Bookshop came prepared with titles from all the speakers and then some. One complaint – the books were so expensive. It would have been a nice gesture to offer a festival discount so that those with less well-lined pockets could still buy a book and get it signed by their favourite writer.

The Festival!

Saving the best for last it seems. Calabash prepared such a refreshing blend of creative voices: novelists, short story authors, poets, writers who defy genre, artistes and DJs came together in a delicious pepperpot soup that I imagine left the audience feeling satisfied and sated.

Confession: I didn’t attend every single event. I was waist-deep in exam preparation that weekend, and I really love sleeping in. But the beauty of Calabash is its buffet style presentation. You can pick, choose and refuse events and sections without feeling like you’re missing out, especially since hashtags keep you in the loop from a distance with Twitter. It’s casual, a la carte and tech-friendly so it fits right in with the ethos of today’s evolving interconnected world.

One complaint: directions on the festival grounds would have been super helpful. The first night I ended up waiting in front of the main stage when the festival was going on at the adjacent property. Long time attendees may be in the know, but us newbies can get lost pretty easily.

Verdict

Am I hooked on the Calabash bug and totally enamored of Treasure Beach? Guilty as charged. The festival delivered, and was every bit as #LitUp as the producers promised. The Open Mic sections sparked my muse and now I’m excited to start writing again. Next time I’ll be up on that stage too.

Here’s to Calabash 2020, I can’t wait!

 

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.