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.

If It’s Monday this must be Lucea

You might be wondering where I’ve been and what the hell I’ve been up to. I’ve been wondering that myself. My absence from this space hasn’t so much been a lack of things to talk about as feelings of uncertainty “am I allowed to talk about that?”. I will say that the confidential nature of my job isn’t exactly conducive to a personal blog, especially when most of the things I want to talk about are not always ‘fitting’ for ‘doctors’ to talk about, and I feel like my insignificant opinions carry more weight now. Self-censorship is hard to get over.

But I’m back. Because I feel as if I will burst if I do not write or yell something into the void. More catharsis than infomercial, this writing for me is therapeutic and I ask that you allow me the space to untangle my wrapped-up tied-up experiences.

My life these days is a delicate balance of work and school and relationships. Adulthood has a lot to do with balance, and I tend to measure my success as an adult by how well or how poorly I keep all these balls in the air. (Spoiler alert: I do not juggle well).

Moving up the career ladder from Senior House Officer to Medical Officer came with a new batch of responsibilities. This might seem logical to you, but I was wholly unprepared for later working hours, deadlines, reports and programme coordination; getting a new clinic off the ground, meetings with international stakeholders and the subsuming world of regional politics. It’s more than a mouthful, but it’s work that I’m excited about: making an impact on patients’ lives, experiencing infrastructural issues firsthand, being in a position to effect change, however minimal. I feel like I’m laying the foundations for the rest of my career so even though the building blocks might be heavy this groundwork will pave the way for something glorious. I hope.

In the same breath, I have been lucky enough to get a scholarship for an online Diploma programme taught by UWI St. Augustine. It’s a year long programme in the Clinical Management of HIV (an area I have grown very attached to) and I am in month two. I am discovering never before seen time management skills. They’re still new, like a foal on wobbly legs, but I haven’t missed a deadline yet which means progress. Yay, personal growth.

But like any of those ‘pick two’ triangles, one side just can’t seem to fit in with the rest.

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My grandmother likes to complain about, among other things, the way I seem to be too busy to spend time with her. To my credit as a granddaughter I only screen about 10% of her calls and I see her almost weekly but I’ve noticed that parents and grandparents get more sentimental as they get older. I also missed my best friend’s birthday because I forgot to account for time zone differences and I haven’t seen my other close friend in months because of our crazy schedules (she’s a new mom and I work in a different parish). The point is that balance gets harder as you get older, and if like me you didn’t have much practice before it will take a lot of stretching to get it right.

I’m not including moving house and furnishing a new apartment, keeping my cat happy, maintaining a healthy relationship with my partner, trying not to kill the houseplants or my second and third jobs in the hospital and elsewhere because that’s another mouthful. It gets stressful and frustrating and I’m constantly questioning whether I’m making the right choices. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially with all the background noise of the rest of the country and the wider world. Violence, bullying and bigotry seem to be run of the mill these days but I still have to follow through on the paths I choose to tread.

Of course there are times when I drop the ball, when I miss the mark for perfect daughter/partner/colleague, times when I have to say no for my sanity instead of saying yes for a million other reasons and the negative self-talk threatens to drown me in tears. But I am learning that adulthood, at least for me, means walking on these wobbly legs until I’m strong enough to gallop in the direction of my dreams.

 

Unlearn: Self-Love is Paramount

Often as children in Jamaica we are not taught to love ourselves. The prevailing mindset is that children should be seen and not heard, displays of emotion are frowned upon (worse if you’re a boy) and the needs or wants of a child in a family with many older members are usually overlooked.

Contrast the technicolor televised images of my childhood where Foreign children are raised with so much self confidence it seems like entitlement, where people are consoled when they cry and where parents/extended family seem attuned to the emotional needs of the younger relatives.

Because I had the privilege to be exposed to this alternate experience of childhood, I was aware that the way we do things here is not necessarily the best way. I also had the opportunity to observe the difference in outcomes when children are raised in a loving and nurturing home instead of a yard where every man is for himself, and I remain convinced that the way we parent in this country is largely responsible for the way we deal with the deeper problems that plague our society.

But why is this relevant.

Most of the time I write because I hope that something in my words will resonate with the right person at the right time. Hoping the current of the universe will push this cobbled craft to the person who needs it when they need it most. A lot my posts start their lives as ‘what I wish someone had told me’ and I’m vain enough to believe that if I needed to hear this, then someone else does too.

So this is relevant because we need to be reminded that it is okay to love yourself. The lessons I learnt growing up as a child in Montego Bay (bloodthirsty and falsely cheerful Montego Bay) are lessons I had to unlearn as an adolescent (and which I’m still unlearning as an adult): sadness, disappointment and insecurity are not things to be ashamed of. Wanting affection, support and stability is not a sign of weakness.

Lessons I am working hard to teach myself are exercises in self-care, developing my psyche and feeding my soul. Giving myself permission to make mistakes, backtrack and be better than I was. I’m being deliberately vague because this process is different for everyone, and in the various stages of your life self-care means different things.

But everyone should start from a position of unconditional positive regard for who they are. There will be aspects of yourself that you think are flawed and fucked up, there will be voices in your head with many negative comments (likely honed from a lifetime of hearing  those comments out loud) but the first step is to open your arms and love yourself.

It is okay to love yourself; it’s actually a good thing. It doesn’t mean you’re prideful or you won’t get into heaven; it doesn’t mean you’re conceited or you think you’re better than people. And newsflash: negating your self-worth will not make people like you more. The sooner you learn this the better.

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