2019 is gonna be MY year

How many of us have said that to ourselves?

“This is the year I get that degree/that promotion/that baby. This is the year I get my shit together.”

Well, guess what. They’re all your years. 2018 was your year, and so was 2017. And 2020 is going to be your year too. Because the years are your life, and getting that degree/promotion/baby isn’t the full stop at the end of the novel. It’s barely even a chapter break. 

This is a good thing.

This frees us from the limiting idea that we only get one year to do The Thing. It frees us up to realize that all those years that came before 2019 were necessary building blocks to get to whatever achievement you’ve set your eyes on. And all those years beyond 2019 are even more groundwork that you climb on to get to even more achievements.

Because the world doesn’t stop in 2019. The story of your life doesn’t end like a novel, with success, or a sunset horseback ride or a wedding. The story of your life keeps going, and isn’t that the exciting part? Turning the page after triumph or disaster and finding that the story hasn’t ended just yet. That you get to write more story, better story, sadder story, more brilliant and blinding story. That you get to continue learning and self-choosing, that one year does not cannot make or break you. 

I used to think time was against me. It just keeps going, keeps making me older (ugh), keeps dragging me through milestones that in hindsight are pretty silly (I should have been married/promoted/postgrad by now!). But the endless march of time is a gift. It drags us forward, through mistakes, through heartbreak, through painful immaturity. Time drags us (kicking and screaming usually) into knowledge and healing and wisdom.

It takes more than a year to build a life. And trying to cram success (whatever it looks like to you) into one calendar is about as useful as cramming the night before an exam. But we can choose not to do that. We can choose to look at life as a marathon, not a series of sprints. In this world of filters and customization and targeted ads we can choose the perspective that the journey, however long it takes, is just as important the destination. 

If 2019 is gonna be your year, let it be your year to hop off those crazy societal bandwagons and start walking your own beautiful, winding path. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Does anyone else struggle with the feeling that life is happening someplace where you’re not? Maybe it’s fear of missing out, maybe it’s an insecurity complex, maybe is bad min’. Maybe it’s just me. But I get so frustrated when I feel like I’m living in a ‘second class’ city on an island less than one tenth the size of that floating trash continent. 

Mobay people, you know what I’m talking about. 

Despite our avid loyalty to the Republic of Mobay, Kingston remains the hub of several sectors: automotives, business, art, theatre, literature, government, civil society. Most organizations and movements start in Kingston and then slowly trickle outward. I have to wonder if they don’t all feel cooped up down there in the little 480 km² that is Kingston parish. 

I don’t want to have to travel to Kingston to see a nice play, or join a book club, or volunteer with a youth organization, or grow my career. I want those opportunities to exist for people in the West. I want activism and art walks, infrastructural development, ideas, nightlife that is accessible to more than just tourists. I want variety, options. 

I can’t honestly say any more that nothing happens in Montego Bay. If you look hard enough we’re teeming with activities. The Rasta Village hosts a gathering every last Sunday (it’s called Irits and it’s great). UWI’s Western Campus has a couple public forums every semester (on interesting topics). Service clubs exist, and though networking is limited it’s there. (if you know of any others please, leave a comment). 

Maybe Jamaica is too small to have more than one thriving city, or maybe I want too much or maybe I’m selfish. Or maybe I’m venting on my blog because I’m too lazy to be the change I want to see. I haven’t quite figured out yet what to do with this yen for greater things. Some tasks are too big to tackle alone, and some feelings are too nagging to just go away. I want change, but I don’t know how to make it. That’s my rock and my hard place.

Someone hand me a chisel. 

Rape Culture Thrives in our Churches

On September 23, Dionne Smith and her teenage daughter were brutally murdered in their home by Fabian Lyewsang, Smith’s common-law husband. It was a vicious act, carried out by a man against the women he should have been protecting.

This is the kind of gender based violence that Jamaicans encounter every single day, but we simply pretend it is something less sinister, less insidious. We pretend, as two prominent pastors have argued, that this act of violence and others like it are the result of women. Women choosing the wrong partners, women choosing to stay instead of leave (never mind that they have nowhere to run), women choosing men who murder them in their beds and then drive off a bridge into the Rio Cobre.

In the words of a Parkland shooting survivor, I call BS.

This is victim blaming.

This is the patriarchy.

This is misogyny.

This is rape culture.

This is the church leading the flock astray. Where I would have expected Pastor Glen Samuels (president of the West Jamaica Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (WJC)) and Pastor Joel Haye to lead the charge in holding men accountable for their actions, they have failed us all miserably. And they have failed the women in their congregations worst of all.

When two clergymen can feel comfortable getting behind the pulpit to chastise women for the “bad decisions” that put them in the path of dangerous men we have a problem. When the congregation listens and agrees, when a major news outlet (yes, the Jamaica Gleaner) blasts the story on the front page with the headline “Pastors urge women to choose partners carefully” we have a problem.

And the problem is the systemic, pervasive and frankly disgusting idea that if women would dress right, speak right, act right, choose right then men would not be able to hurt them. The problem is holding women accountable for the behaviour of women AND men, and holding men accountable for nothing. And it has to stop.

Fabian Lyewsang was responsible for his actions, not Dionne Smith. If it had not been Dionne it would have been some other woman. This fact is indisputable. Men alone – not women, not circumstance, not peer pressure, MEN – are responsible for their own behaviour.

When we fail to hold men accountable we fail to notice that 1) our women are in dire need of protection and 2) that our men are suffering from deep emotional and psychological scars. Until we can address these two issues – protect the women while healing the men – our society will stay stuck in this desperate pit of rampant murder/suicides.

When you realize you’re in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Pastor Samuels and Pastor Haye need to stop digging and work with our elected leaders to find a way out that doesn’t involve climbing on the bodies of murdered women.

on the question of choice

Time and again we debate our debating of the A word in Jamaica. In Parliament. On the streets. In churches. In the bedroom. In doctor’s offices. In back alleys. With hangers, with pills, with blood.

The ‘A’ word. Abortion.

The idea is castigated by our ‘Christian-minded’ nationalism and people get very upset whenever it’s brought up. Words like ‘murder’ and ‘human life’ get thrown around. Women are accused of being careless and cruel.

I think too often we get caught up in Christian morals to the detriment of our fellow citizens. As if we forget that slavery too was sanctioned by ‘God’. And I’m not saying that people shouldn’t read Bible, praise Jesus and pray to their Lord but the same way I stay out of Christian people churches is the same way the Church-State should stay out of women’s bodies.

Much like the buggery law it’s simply embarrassing that abortion continues to be a debate in government in 2018. Not even a debate, an issue so taboo we don’t even talk about it. Like sex education. Come to think of it, maybe abortion would be less of an issue if there was more sex ed. I digress.

It’s high time we doctors stopped pussy-footing around while women suffer. And it’s high time Parliament stopped ignoring the issue just because it makes the Church uncomfortable. If you not going to clamp down seriously on rape, stop bawl out when the victims are forced deal with the consequences.

Give women the choice, and get your damn hands off our wombs.

Another month older, another month wiser

I had about five paragraphs talking about how I planned to cut my hair and how hair is such a big deal for black women and why is it even such a big deal in the first place but it fizzled out when I cut my hair and realized how big a deal it wasn’t. So now my hair is four inches shorter and I am out of a blog post.

In lieu of some introspective self-reflection, I decided to share a snapshot into my life for the last month. So in no particular order. . .

1. In early October I learnt that a family celebration does not, in fact, have to break the bank, and birthdays can actually be commemorated with low-key gatherings and cake. Definitely cake. My purse and heart are grateful.

2. In mid-October Montego Bay hosted its very first Pride march which was also my very first Pride march. I helped carry the rainbow flag and it maxed out my feeble upper body strength. And though the actual marching was pretty short (can’t complain, the sun was brutal) the feeling was pretty incredible.

Pride was definitely an experience – a lot more head top and dash out than I would have expected, along with uncensored dancehall songs on the people dem good good Sunday morning. But overall I had a sense of bittersweet, well, pride. I was proud of the LGBT movement in Montego Bay for coming out and enjoying themselves, even as a good number of them opted to cover their faces. I’m already looking forward to Pride 2019.

3. In late October I recognized a full year of settling into my leadership role at work. It was a good chance to reflect on how much I’ve grown, how many leadership books I added to my shelves (a lot) and how many I’d read (very little) and where I plan to go next in my journey to becoming a girl boss.

4. I’m participating in my high school’s mentorship program for the second year in a row, and I’m excited to see what new adventures and experiences are in store us for in the upcoming school year. Last year was a blast of learning and growth for both me and my mentee, and I expect this year to be no different.

What have y’all been up to?

Your ideas suck. Now what?

Since my last super-optimistic post on the importance of having a vision, I have been taken down several pegs and come to a few realizations.

  1. It is not enough to simply have a vision. You have to successfully communicate that vision and get buy in from the right people.
  2. Unlike your friends, the right people may not be overwhelmingly interested in hearing your vision. In fact, they may leave the meeting at lunch time, when you’ve wasted the whole morning discussing reports, before you get to talk about your vision at all.
  3. Colleagues and work buddies will not always be as enthusiastic about this whole vision thing as you’d like them to be. Sure you’re fired up and ready to go but for everyone else it’s the same old boring meeting agenda that they always check out of. And don’t even think about asking questions in that setting. Not even the crickets will respond.

It’s exciting to have an idea that you think is great and will push the team in new, progressive directions. So it can be tough when your boss effectively says your brilliant new progressive idea is barking up the wrong tree. Ouch.

Hurt feelings aside (scrape it off and move on, this is business) it’s a great real life example of leaders being able to say we’re hacking away at the wrong forest. One silver lining in that cloud of ‘ooh, bummer’ is learning what kind of forest to look for when you’re at the top of that ladder swiveling your binoculars around. The uncomfortable experience of sharing an idea and having it critiqued is a powerful lesson in zoning in on the key issues.

For some people, I know, criticism makes them shut down immediately and not offer up any more ideas. But for me, I’m so eager to learn I don’t shy away from being wrong. In classroom settings I always attempt an answer, even if I’m not sure about it. Especially when I’m not sure about it. In the professional world I’ve been a lot more cautious about voicing my ideas. But I’m coming to realize that just like in class, getting things wrong can be a great way to learn how to get them right.

Visions (but not like, the high kind)

Lately I’ve been feeling really stressed out at work. Proper stress: headaches, stomach aches, feeling like I was about to explode from internal pressure. I was freaking out about my work responsibilities which seemed to loom ever larger in my paranoid imagination, but in reality were only so intimidating because I was setting the bar so very high for myself.

I started listening to this podcast a few months ago. And while it’s a kick-ass repository of career advice and entertaining conversations on how to be awesome at your job, it was also setting me up for failure. Every new technique I learnt, I wanted to start doing immediately. I judged my own growth against concepts and ideas from more experienced professionals and found myself painfully lacking. I threw myself into a fit, trying to ‘catch up’ and ‘do it all’. My control freak tendencies came out full force.

And week after week, my job resisted all attempts at micromanaging. Shockingly, people are impossible to control. I know this is breaking news to you guys, so maybe take a second to get used to this epiphany. Patients do whatever the hell they want, responsibilities and priorities shift all the time, colleagues do not share your work ethic, etc etc.

Mercifully, the culmination of all this stress was a breakthrough and not a breakdown. Driving home on the verge of tears for the fifth Monday in a row I let my thoughts swirl around the car interior like angry wasps. Then among the wasps, wisps of remembered conversations and podcasts snippets coalesced to remind me of a word I had forgotten in my desperate scramble to control.

Vision.

I didn’t have any. Or I had too much. I didn’t know, because in the middle of all this over-thinking and I had never actually stopped to think about what I wanted to make happen. I was furiously building a boat on dry land without ever having dreamed of the sea.

So I started dreaming, and I started writing things down. I wrote quickly, more concerned with getting the ideas out of my head before they exploded my head. I edited after, because I have standards.

And incredibly I felt lighter. The stress had shifted from an angry hornet’s nest to a more manageable ball of barbed wire. I knew what I was aiming for now, what the end result should look like, and I had something I could show to other people and ask for help so I’d feel less alone. It was incredible.

In his seminal work, Stephen Covey talks about how important it is for a leader to have vision. He makes the analogy of a group of people in a forest working to clear a path, with managers directing the machete-wielders to chop down the right set of trees. But the leader is the one who climbs up, looks around and yells, ‘Wrong forest!’

And honestly, I understood that when I was reading it. Yes, obviously vision is important. 2+2=4. Duh. But I didn’t really get it until I had finished mapping my own visions and realized, with great humility, that this was the most important part of the job all along.

on Internship

Please enjoy this post I wrote 2 years ago while struggling to survive my intern year. The level of optimism is truly remarkable considering I was on my Paediatric rotation at the time.

The shift from medical school to internship is the shift from dipping one’s toes in the swimming pool to diving in the deep end. When you’re a medical student, duty ends at 10pm. If you can’t get an intravenous access, you call the intern. 12 o’clock is always lunchtime.

Suddenly, it’s July 1 and the minutes don’t roll over. Free paper has been burnt. You have passed the dreaded MBBS and received, in return for your labours, more hard work. Harder work, in fact. Your duties extend for 24 and 48 and 56 hours. Sleep becomes a concept. Lunchtime, a luxury. You become the person the medical student calls when they’ve destroyed all the veins in their quest for an IV access.

Why am I here again?

If you haven’t asked yourself that question at least once in the last six months, consider yourself lucky. You might actually want to try your hand at the Lotto.

If there was a buzzword for internship, disillusionment would be it. When asked what lessons have been gleaned from the “Internship Experience”, one intern from a hospital which shall remain nameless (we’ll call it the Really Tall One) responded with an outburst,

“Old doctors want our experience to be as frustrating as theirs to ‘build character’.”

You know it’s time for a paradigm shift when you point out workplace inadequacies and your boss responds with,

“You merely adopted high patient loads and low resources. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t have the luxury of readily available investigations until I was already a SR and by then it was an insult to my clinical acumen.”

It’s admirable to want your interns to be the best they can be but there are practices in medicine that in any other profession would spark the ire of an entire HR department. But I digress. This isn’t meant to be a call to arms.

Sometimes the answer to that ever-present question is positive. Real life patient care (as opposed to the dabbling that’s done in medical school) can be and has been rewarding and invigorating. The General Surgery rotation is particularly satisfying in this regard: patients enter the hospital bleeding, broken, dying and with the flick of a scalpel, the swish of a stitch (and some strong pain meds) they survive to maim themselves (or someone else) another day.

Lest this turn into a clichéd trope about the satisfaction of a job well done, I do have some misgivings about the surgical field. Once a patient expressed their profuse gratitude for having their infected digit amputated. You’re . . . welcome?

As uplifting as those moments are, they seem to be outweighed by the downsides of working in the public system. Like McGyver and Miss Lou, you has to tun yuh hand mek fashion. Whether it’s performing an entire sepsis screen (including lumbar puncture) on a neonate without assistance or manoeuvring a 250lb patient with bilateral skeletal traction off their stretcher and onto the CT machine, provided the CT machine is working. One disadvantage faced by every public hospital is inadequate funding, but necessity is the mother of invention. If you haven’t made an IV drip stand out of a curtain hook or a chest tube out of a Foley catheter, you haven’t really lived.

There is a certain satisfaction to seeing patients managed conscientiously despite low resource settings, but can medicine be equally reward and punishment? Ours is the lot of sleepless nights, thankless hours and the constant threat of occupational exposure (latent TB, anyone?). Is the smile of a mother when you tell her yes her baby can go home really worth the stress of q4hrly bilirubins?

As the most junior member of the medical team that stress of ‘getting it done’ rests squarely on the intern’s shoulders. It often feels like we’ve been left in the deep end of the pool to sink or swim, complete with Yoda-like figure declaring “do or do not, there is no try”. Coping mechanisms become currency as we try to stay afloat despite the setbacks. Periodic nervous breakdowns, the impenetrable veneer of cynicism and a strong tendency toward smoking and alcohol are only a few of the methods employed.

If you are stranded amidst the sea of disillusionment, clinging to the battered lifeboat of responsibility it helps, I think, to remember the reason you started out on this journey in the first place. Sankofa, my friends. It is okay to look back for that which you have forgotten. Whether it was the personal fulfilment you get from helping other people or the determination to be consultant someday, internship is decidedly BYOM. Bring Your Own Motivation.

At six months in we’ve already committed to this gestation period, for better or for worse. And when we are delivered in another six months, freshly registered and happy to be out of the frying pan of internship, we’ll look back from the fires of Senior House Officer year with the same clouded nostalgia as the consultants who believe that their internship experience was the only one worthwhile.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

 

a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

Inventing Language

I have two entirely different and diverging spiels to divulge about this topic. The first, which I’ll probably (forget to) talk about later, is inspired by Dr. Eric Levi’s post about changing the culture of medicine by changing the words we use when we talk to each other.

The second, which I’ll talk about now, has to do with the way we produce and consume Jamaican literature. I say Jamaican specifically, because I think the Caribbean on a whole is doing much better with producing stories that are told in the language of the people. But I can’t shake the feeling that as Jamaicans we aren’t quite there yet.

Prolific writers like Erna Brodber and Kei Miller (among many, many others) must be commended for following the ample footsteps of Miss Lou and putting our dialect on an international stage. But when I read The Last Warner Woman (Miller) or Nothing’s Mat (a recent release by Brodber) I don’t feel like I’m hearing the voice of the man or woman on the street. The dialogue and narration tend to feel like a weirdly off-brand version of Jamaican dialect, the distinction growing when they employ the use of Patois. It’s not that they use Patois wrong (because it’s a language with its own rules and I’m very adamant about that but I should probably leave that argument for another time) it’s just that it doesn’t feel right.

Of course I might be judging their writing too harshly. It’s much easier for me to say that Tamika Gibson captures the essence of the Trini accent perfectly in her YA novel Dreams Beyond the Shore because I don’t live in Trinidad and have no reference for the nuances of their everyday conversations. But I know what I expect Jamaicans to sound like, and the bar I set might be too high to realistically reach on the page.

Another reason for my discomfort with our language in print might be that the sounds and phrases I hear in Montego Bay are noticeably (albeit only slightly) different from the turns of phrase used in Kingston or other parts of the island. So maybe Miller and Brodber are staying true to their own ears, while alienating mine.

In either case the point remains that I have yet to read a Jamaican novel that rings true with authenticity*. It either feels like I’m watching Jamaica through the eyes of a foreigner or like I am the foreigner with strange and altered expectations for the writing. It doesn’t help that most Jamaican writers live abroad, and I have often wondered if it is easier to write home from the Diaspora or if the distance does something to the translation. As if in their habit of making our language and culture more palatable for the foreign audience it loses the vivre that makes it appeal to the local one.

Where does all of this thinking leave me? Tamika Gibson mentioned in an interview that she wrote the award-winning manuscript because she wanted Trinidadian youngsters to have a book that was in their language. Growing up all the stories she read were about foreign places and foreign people and she didn’t want that to continue.

Neither do I. But as I grapple with the idea of writing an authentically Jamaican story I recognize that my struggle is in the physical act of putting one word after the other. Having read so many novel and stories and poems generated by a largely cosmopolitan author base certain phrases and descriptions spring readily to mind. Certain combinations of words naturally trip out of my fingers, but none of these fit our local setting.

There’s no set or pre-defined way to describe Montego Bay because it just hasn’t been described often enough. So the task that rests with the writer who talks about home is really to build the language brick by brick in a slow meticulous operation. Because it’s never really been done before so you have to pay attention to get it right.

It’s the difference between moving into a densely populated neighbourhood where all the houses have been around for centuries and moving into a neighbourhood where all your neighbours are still building the houses from scratch. It’s grunt work, fantastic work, and it will take elbow grease, grit and determination. Luckily, we’ve got those in spades.