Seasoned Greetings

 

 

After the Door of No Return, a map was only a set of impossibilities, a set of changing locations…a forgotten list of irretrievable selves

                      Dionne Brand

 

 

i am a well-seasoned auntie / that’s what she said / refuting my claim to be dry / and I liked her for that

and it’s new year’s eve / and this auntie has seasoned messages to send (she thinks) /

to those she knows and loves / to those who / if she knew them / she might love too

 

tennineeight / she needs to share something / auntie words / with flavours of hope

inspiration / uplift / shift / change

Every year about this time / this is top of the agenda / the main menu

every year about this time / words fail her

 

Sevensixfive / hurry hurry / gobble the day

because it is the last day / because tomorrow is thinner, fitter, faster, more focused,

it has a bull’s eye / a rifle sight / a starting gun / a countdown

sevensixfive

get ready for a new day / for a whole new year / a whole new you

 

but it’s a no / from the irretrievable selves / who are not new

who bristle (the whole list of them) / poke holes in all auntie’s best wishes / good intentions

why the mad dash into tomorrow? / why the insistence on a self freshly made?

why so keen to leave today’s self so thoroughly behind / exiled / abandoned?

who exactly are you running from? / what exactly did we do / to deserve this?

 

Four, three / wait.

don’t count out / the irretrievable selves / who refuse to be relegated

to the past / to last year / to last place

decline to be suffocated / by new me’s / new ideas 

new year resolutions

 

I / she / you / we / well seasoned aunties

not up for / not down with

fresh herbs / new regimes / new spiritual practices

no need for / new bodies / new minds

no targets to set / no projects to find

hold the new shoots / keep the new boots / we are old roots

 

we are not about dashing ourselves / out / like overnight food / not yet consumed

we are well seasoned aunties / a set of changing locations / impossibilities 

tell us / tomorrow will come / three-two-one

tell us / next year 

we will taste / just as good / as now / possibly / even better

 

Revolutionary Mothering

In fifty plus years, this is a first for me. Mothering, considered as a revolutionary thing. Thank you to the women who brought their gifts to bear on Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, including Cynthia Dewi Oka who, speaking about the book, drew my attention to the power of mundane repetition. For my lack of knowledge of revolutionary mothering I have plenty of experience in mundane repetition, and this insight helped me to feel included. Wiping faces, changing nappies, holding hands, explaining for the umpteenth time some irksome fact of life such as the need to pick up after oneself – these iterations of mothering are the ones that I know well, so well that they barely register as action, much less as revolutionary acts. Cynthia helps us to claim mundane repetition, not only as action, but as a tool of transformation. She pulled my attention away from the seismic shifts and explosions that I think of as revolution and back to the daily practices on which we pivot in the direction of transformation. And, as she says, nowhere is transformative daily practice better embedded than in mothering.

I’m intensely relieved, if I’m honest, that back when I was a younger mother, I could be repetitive in relative privacy – that I didn’t have the choice of being an Insta mum, and so could do the wiping, cleaning, hand-holding stuff without having to frame it as art. I see my daughters’ generation literally framing their mothering – putting their best feet, faces, and smiles forward and posting it under the world’s eye. I wonder though, what it is that the world actually sees?

What worries me is that, as far as seeing mothering is concerned, we mostly come to it with dead eyes and consequently, as I did, easily miss its revolutionary nature. Mostly, what people really see of mothering is what they already think, and it is unfortunate that this thinking is done largely in terms of right and wrong. So, sometimes I am wrong for having five children (don’t I know the world is overpopulated?), but then sometimes I am right for having my children with a man who is my husband (all five of them? – applause!). Sometimes I am wrong because I let other people care for them (sleepovers? You can’t trust people these days and anyway GOOD parents look after their own kids). Then sometimes I am right because my children are polite and know how to greet their elders. Then I’m wrong when they play video games and right when they play the guitar. I’m also right when they’ve been to university but wrong when they drop out and don’t get a job, and wrong when they get drunk and throw up on the stairs. Still, even if I’m wrong because they answer back (rude!), I am sometimes right because they can express themselves and right when they’re happy and wrong when they’re queer, and right when they’re good at sport, but wrong when their skirts are short. When they enjoy reading Chinua Achebe I feel right, so it is perplexing when, in the very same day, as they lie around snacking on crisps and watching trash TV (Love Island – sigh*), I can feel so very, very wrong.

What have I learned from all of this? That revolutionary mothering can make me dizzy; also that there is an insistent part of me that exists solely to nag me about knowing what I’m doing, and doing it right. Too bad that I spend so much time not knowing and not being right. What sweet relief then, to consider, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs suggests, that by refusing to dominate my children, I am unlearning domination, and also to hear the other editors/contributors acknowledge the things that they have learned from their own children. One says that she learned from her son, that it is okay to want things and this strikes me as a fairly revolutionary thought in itself. Wanting things? Resisting the evacuation of needs (physical and psychological) that has become almost synonymous with mothering? Revolutionary acts indeed.

It would be easy for me to criticise the Insta Mum generation, but if I’m honest, I know what it is to want to be seen. I want to be seen too. It is okay to want to be seen – and recognised. I want the recognition that is recognition of revolutionary mothering as not a type, a style, a body, an age, a sexuality, or even a gender. I want the recognition that revolutionary mothering is not a status, neither a hashtag and definitely not a filter. I want to recognise the fact that mothering doesn’t always look good and that the practice and art of mothering that I know will never fit between the goalposts of right and wrong. The choices open to us – the most helpful ones – are not anyway between right and wrong, but between criticism and care. It is along this axis that we pivot towards and answer the call for transformation. I wonder then, from within this hot mess of opinions that we seem to be, how might we transform our criticism into care? Let’s see;

Insta Mums, I salute your industry, generosity and courage. Instead of criticising you for inviting the world into your homes, I send hope and good wishes, including the hope that you maintain a practice of checking in with your own eyes – your own seeing of you – so that you might recognise when you are being invited to abandon your mothering self in favour of some idealised or scandalised version of what mothers should or should not be. My wish for you, in your beautiful presentations, would be that you allow yourselves to be seen, not only by the world that is tempted to mis-recognise and judge you, but also by those who, as well as eyes, have the hands that are available to cook soup when you’re hungry, and the arms that will hold your baby when you’re weary, and the mouths that are ready to sing the songs that you have forgotten. Let us see you too, unedited, so that we might join. Revolutionary mothering is a practice supported by strong community. 

For today, this is how my criticism becomes care. Tomorrow, when I ask the question again, I will likely find a different answer, and that’s okay too. We would do well I believe, to ask ourselves the criticism-care question on a daily basis. Another mundane repetition maybe, and one on which revolutionary mothering might continue to thrive.

Props to my God daughter (and favourite Insta Mum) Remi (booksbabyandback), currently travelling, and showing her own daughter how big the world is.

 Respect and thanks to Barby Asante and Chandra Frank for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on revolutionary mothering at Tricksters Brewing Futures at the Tate on Saturday

 Love across the ocean to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, Mai’a Williams (editors) and Cynthia Dewi Oka for walking the road and offering the inspiration

YOUNG GIFTED & (why I sometimes think twice about telling) BLACK

You are Young, gifted and Black, we must begin to tell our young    Nina Simone, Weldon Irvine

To the Young Gifted and Black, Reni Eddo-Lodge

Congratulations Reni on the first anniversary of your book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’. It is a fantastic achievement. Thank you for the research work, the insight, the humour and probably most of all for the accessibility of the text. Now, instead of talking to white people about race I can (and do) choose to signpost them to your book. It is, as you say, ‘sometimes about self-preservation’. I was inspired to hear you speak at the Words of Colour event this week (big thanks to CEO Joy Francis), and to witness the intergenerational conversations that took place there. One particular strand of conversation made me sit up – not altogether comfortably I will admit – and has remained with me through my navigations of a busy week. What happened, you asked, to your generation? What happened to passing the information down?

I include myself in this ‘your generation’, because I am one of the fifty-plusses, who could be your parent, and who has children of your age, to whom I think you were referring. Thank you for your question. What you seemed to want to understand, was why you had had to root in the archives to excavate a body of the potentially forgotten history of Black UK experience. When you noted the relative newness of the Black Cultural Archives (though it is actually a lot older than its current home in Windrush Square) your frustration was palpable – a felt presence that asked questions directly of me, and others of my generation, who were there in the room. As so often happens, when faced with a good question, I had no immediate answers – or at least I spared you the ones that I had, which were probably borne of tiredness. I could have been reactive and defensive, but instead I let the question – and your frustration – stay with me. They discomfited me and rippled out into and through many other conversations within my week. Please don’t feel bad. I am a therapist. In my world, discomfort is also possibility.

Should we tell young people the truth?

 There’s a world waiting for you…

There’s a world waiting for you, Nina sings. An important question though, is what kind of world is it? A woman in the audience – someone from my generation who is herself responsible for mentoring young people entering her profession – asks if we should really be telling young people the truth. She, and others, are concerned about truth telling and question earnestly, whether our first responsibility should really be to act in ways that motivate and encourage, and give hope to young people. In this context, telling the truth – about our experiences of racism, discrimination, and exclusion – would be to risk snatching the wind right out of the sails of those coming up, before they’ve even had a chance to launch their boats. Even if we decided to leave out the catalogue of micro-aggressions that most of us have experienced so frequently that we get bored talking about them, I know very few Black people who don’t have stories, that as well as being hard to tell, are also hard to hear. Selective telling – even silence – are sometimes us not wanting to be discouraged or discouraging. Perhaps this contributes to the generational communication gap of which you spoke. My rippled conversations this week have stoked my curiosity about this gap and about what exists within it. I have wondered about things that are not being told, and the other things that are not being heard. We need to stop lying to ourselves, you say in your book, and we need to stop lying to each other. I agree. We also need, I think, to work out what this looks like in practice and how exactly we might stop/start doing it.

At what stage should we tell children the truth?

Your soul’s intact

It is true to say that the struggle to keep our own children’s small Black bodies and souls intact while living in London was a wearying one. You might conclude that leaving to raise them in West Africa was a form of surrender. In some ways it was, but it was also the enactment of a very basic desire – that the souls that we had ushered into the world might, in their formative years, experience a wider spectrum of Black possibility conducive to a positive sense of identity, self-esteem and confidence. We have no regrets, but it is important for the record I think, to acknowledge that there really is no way to outrun the reach of racism or white supremacy. Pertinent to this discussion is the reality that there is no escaping the truths that ask to be told.

During a trip upriver to the island of Janjanbureh (during the colonial era known as McCarthy Island, and Georgetown), we visited the ruins of what we were told was a former slave house. This was, it turns out, not accurate but it didn’t impact on a difficult moment between us, and the other family who were our travelling companions. Whilst we took our children inside the ruins they, who felt that their children were too young and needed protecting from this painful history, waited outside. We stood, as a family, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness and allowed the children to make whatever they would of the experience. They did this in their own ways – sometimes listening attentively to the local guide, sometimes exploring the walls with their fingers, and a lot of the time playing chase in and out between the dungeon-esque basement and the hot sun outside. Were they, I wonder, old enough for this truth? One of the challenges of being a parent is the imbalance between the heap of people who want to make you right or wrong versus the very few who actually want to help. Who can claim to know really, what it is that souls do and do not need in order to stay intact? What feels true is to say that the choice was one that we, as parents, were responsible for, and that notions of right and wrong were and are of little help.

How do we regulate ourselves while telling the truth?

When you feel really low, there’s a great truth you should know

Professor Christina Sharpe, author of In the Wake, asks how we can memorialize transatlantic slavery when its afterlives are still unfolding. Another good question and one that evokes, for me, therapeutic work with trauma. Generally, we understand trauma work to be most effective once the person concerned is safe, and the actual traumatic event is behind them, in the past. The paradox of the Wake then, as Sharpe describes it, is that the past is not past, but instead ongoing and everyday. This is exactly the kind of ongoing trauma that we might naturally feel a pull to dissociate from – to lie to ourselves about – as a strategy for survival. At the same time, it is also a traumatic inheritance – a trauma that our children are born into, and for which we also carry a responsibility to speak truth to. Another of the paradoxes of Black being. Sharpe calls the processes of thinking through how to do, think and feel in this reality, wake work. The positioning of practices of parenthood/elderhood as wake workhelps me to navigate these paradoxes and impossibilities by reminding me that they are in fact, irresolvable. Sharpe argues that,

“Rather than seeking a solution to blackness’s ongoing and irresolvable abjection, one might approach Black being in the wake as a form of consciousness”

It is with this consciousness – of living in the wake of the past that is not past with an eye to the future that is not here yet, and that may not arrive – that I regulate myself. I regulate myself as a parent/elder in order to tell the truth, and sometimes, to withhold it. I am not convinced about the linear relationship that we have been encouraged to believe exists between history and time, (I am more interested in notions of the spiral and spiralling that came up in conversation with the fantastic Dr Karen Salt this week) but I am interested in the gaps with which it leaves us. Our historic timeline offers us generation gaps, information gaps, and gaps between what and where we think progress should be and what and where it actually is. Then of course, we also have the gaps between what we know and what we choose to tell. What I can tell you now is that, in managing the trouble and grief of the wake on a daily basis – and still being able to experience joy, success and love – I, and all the people around me employ many strategies. Possibly, you do too, which begs the question; how often do you/I tell the truth of these strategies – of the ways in which we get by? These survive–thrive strategies are, in my opinion, in urgent need of telling and sharing, parent to parent, elder to youth to elder, and across as many generations as we are able.

Bridging the Gaps

I am fortunate to be around younger people – my own children and those that I think of as my children but who technically belong to other people – on a daily basis. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, and even if I were you would be unlikely to be reading it because I am a long way from being able to utilise the internet and social media to its full advantage on my own. It is worth noting that the processes by which information can be passed on, have transformed in my lifetime. I wonder how easy it is to imagine the world in which I grew – without blogs and vlogs, email or mobile phones, and with no Black twitter to laugh it off with on rocky days? I very much appreciate the Black cyber-universe in which harsh truths can now be more collectively held, including our family Whats App group chat, where truths can arise, meet several minds and attract an array of responses. I like that we can now share and pass things on more easily. I especially like that when I’ve finished writing this, I will enlist the help of one of my children, and they will sigh and roll their eyes and walk me (again) through the intricacies of tweeting and tagging, and they will think that I don’t know that pictures of my confused but determined face are featuring in their Instagram stories. I like that it will all be good. These days, a lot of our truth emerges in this way, through collaboration.

Maintaining intergenerational circles

 There are times when I look back, and I am haunted by my youth

 I was tired when I arrived at the event where you were speaking. I am often tired these days. It crossed my mind that I would be better in my bed, especially when I saw all the people who looked so much less tired than me. I will admit, that it isn’t always easy to look upon youth, shining and sexy, and radiating success. It is hard not to fall into comparisons – to inventory one’s own life, cataloguing where you were at that age and what you should have done by now. Or perhaps it’s only me – in any case, I’ll own it. I could have snuck out, and legitimised it by reminding myself that I had already read your book, appreciated it, disseminated and recommended it, hence performed my civic duty. I am glad that I stayed, and heard you speak, and that I was there to witness your question. I don’t know if it took courage, but it did feel like a courageous question, addressed as it was, publicly to the elders. What happened to your generation?

You didn’t frame it as criticism and I didn’t hear it as such. I heard a curiosity, a stepping towards, an invitation to share, to be proximal and intimate, and to come into a circle. I wanted to respond at the time but was interrupted by invisible things – tiredness, time, the trauma of the wake – which is why I am writing now. I know that we (my generation) can be indignant at times, feeling that so called ‘millennials’ are not listening to us or valuing what we have lived and done and seen. To be listened to and heard is to be recognised and respected. We want this for ourselves, and I’m sure you do too. I dislike the term millennial when applied to people precisely because it sets itself up as a border – distancing and separating us as though we belong to different categories of humanity who need and want entirely different things. If we can prise ourselves away from the timeline – turn towards each other, form spirals instead of lanes – we can reduce this distance. We needto reduce this distance. In asking your question, respectfully and openly, you did just that – reduced the distance, at least for me. Thank you. In truth, it does pain me that I cannot now go back to give you, or any of my children, what you have already found for yourself. I can though, respect, appreciate and honour your finding.

 

What happens now?

But my joy of today, is that we can all be proud to say

When asked why you wrote ‘WHY I’M’, you said that it was perhaps the book that you would have liked to read yourself, that didn’t exist when you wanted to read it. You noted that the publishing industry follows the money, and in this way, has supplied us with lots of books on tidying up and far fewer on socio-political structures. I have similar thoughts about parenting; if I have wanted advice on weaning and potty training, there are shelves full of it. When however, what I have needed is help with explaining to my children, the world that they have been born into and the paradoxes of Black being – the shelves were bare. Perhaps I should follow your example, and write the book myself. Until then, what I am doing is recommitting to staying awake in this wake, and to encouraging all of us to be mindful and vigilant so that we might avoid the well-worn tracks to where the generational clichés live. Let’s give a wide berth to ‘young people are this’and ‘old people are that’, and think twice before we start sentences with ‘in my day’and ‘in your day’. These are all of our days, until they are not. The spiral spirals, not up or down, nor in or out; there is no right way to go. By continuing to make circles, stepping in and towards, gathering and talking (virtually and otherwise), and staying connected, we respect the truth of all of our days. More importantly, we simultaneously honour the past that is not past, and the future that is not here and the gifts of now. What a lovely precious dream…

 To be young gifted and black

Is where it’s at

Redirections for writers lost and found

IMG_1105I once humiliated myself at a writing workshop. It was a short workshop (less than two hours long) and I have a fairly robust poker face, so I like to think that I looked less humiliated than I felt. Still, twenty-plus years later the memory is a tangy one and when it comes to mind, my body vibrates with lowkey regret.

It wasn’t a workshop really, but rather a succession of talks. I remember that there was a novelist, a publisher and a literary agent and that when they opened the floor there were lots of questions about publishing – how to write proposals, create synopses and secure literary agents. What the younger me wants to know (and decides to ask) is how to develop as a writer when I’m not committed to publishing as a goal. I’m not sure that’s what I want, I say. It is I suppose, a kind of blasphemy. We are after all, here at a weekend event dedicated to black women’s empowerment, where we are being primed us to recognise our potential, define success and go out and get what we want. The basic assumption is that we should know what we want so that energies can be effectively applied to helping us get it.

My clumsy admission that I don’t really know what I want then, has the panel members looking sideways, perhaps hoping to offload my question onto one another. As the silence stretches on, their eyes roll into various corners, which could be locations for thought and equally could be places to rest while they wait for the awkward moment to pass. They are distinct and beautiful women, with different skills, and different stories of success, connected via their unanimous avoidance of eye contact with me – the person who has clearly shown up at the wrong gig.

At the wrong gig could be the title of my memoir (a second memoir – the first How the Hiding Seek) is already out.) I am frustratingly familiar with this odd-one-out, missed-the-beat, didn’t-get-the-memo kind of feeling of being the wrong person in the wrong place. It is a feeling I was born into and haven’t been able to fully shake off since. In truth, the world as presented to me has often been wildly out of sync with the world of my own experience. This has set up many more dilemmas (what to do, what to say, how to be) than I have space to write about here except to note that I have found myself hesitating to follow certain well-established dream pathways (e.g.  write, publish, make money, get famous, make more money) because the logical sense of them hasn’t aligned with what my actual senses are telling me. People have asked if I am afraid of success, and I have had to agree that this is entirely possible. People I love and respect have reassured me that money and influence don’t necessarily corrupt, and can actually be positive forces used for good – evident truths that still left my soul unsatisfied. I listened but continued to hover in a corner (of the wrong gig obviously), waiting for someone to re-direct me – waiting to hear a kind and confident voice say ‘excuse me madam, I think you’ll find that the door you want is the one just down the hallway there…’

I have no reason to believe that the women in that workshop were not kind or confident. In fact, I’m sure that they were. I think they couldn’t answer me because they had no idea what it what that I was asking or where I needed to be. The fact that they couldn’t direct me intensified my sense of being placeless and lost. That this lost-ness was exposed – so publicly – intensified, in its turn, my humiliation. I held it down of course – styled it out in some way or another until the time came when I could carry my humiliation home. I added it to a growing catalogue of self-accusations entitled – ‘girl, why are you like this?

And sometimes even a lack of direction is direction – an invitation to be with not knowing as a state of sensory openness. The state of unknowing that carries with it a capacity to see, hear and feel the way to go; the state of unknowing that is a magnetism, alert to the taste and pull of whatever is required. I didn’t know but I continued to write, albeit shyly and quietly. I began to encounter – in person and through their work – various writerly soul companions. In the soulful company of artists, writers, psychological practitioners, and academics, I developed a relationship to and with writing. This relationship offered deeper understanding of the power of writing – of what writing can be, and what writing can do. I began to appreciate why it was that I needed to put ideas of publishing aside in order to embrace the writing practices that supported my being.

Even now, when I have published work, writing remains for me foremost a technology for being. And this technology of being sustains me in a world that routinely tries to render my being – as a black woman – invisible, or to compress and flatten it inside stereotypes and single stories. I write to disrupt this – to disrupt it for myself as I become the reader of myself on the page, and also in the hope that this disruption is present for other readers too. I write my way into the imagination that bell hooks suggests is at risk when we despair at our marginalisation. I keep writing up against the lie of the blank screen and the desiccated imagination. I pulse, as Tisa Bryant1suggests, in the continuum…to conjure new senses of being. I conjure, and write spells for living and for imagined futures. I write to navigate difficult days, and to celebrate the days that delight me. I write as an expression of the life force that flows through me, and through my fingers, and onto the page. I write to breathe. I write for the ancestors who breathe through me.

I’m older now. I facilitate workshops for people interested in writing, specifically for those who want to write experimentally – as their blood beats2– and for therapeutic purposes. I also occasionally sit on panels, always with one ear open for a question from the floor from a once-upon-a-time me — someone who just writes, or wants to write, and doesn’t know why. It’s a question that hasn’t come yet, and I will admit that I sometimes feel daunted by the questions that do come – or perhaps it is just that I am in awe of the questioners, who seem so young for the perceptions and insights they articulate. Most times they ooze confidence and purpose, and hold themselves in ways that suggest not only that they are at the right gig, but that the gig was made for them. And I still speak to them about writing, because writing is not just a technology for the lost, but also a technology for getting lost – for finding the necessary locations of unknowing where imagination is free to weave possible futures. So, lost or not, published writer or not, if you are reading this I invite you to shake yourself loose from the myth of the door down the hallway. You are the door. If I have I redirections to offer they are these; Write. See. Feel. Know. Don’t know. Be curious. Seek soulful company. Write. Share. Write more.

1I borrowed these from Tisa Bryant. Her brilliant essay in ‘Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing’ is a must-read

2Tisa Bryant again – here drawing on James Baldwin’s advice to ‘go the way your blood beats’

 

 

 

Mind the Doors

I arrive at the top of the stairs and blow hard as I watch the back of the train pulling out of the station. Every small delay – the tourists blocking the escalators, passengers with heavy bags taking steps one at a time – feels like a defeat. It’s not yet three o’clock but I’m already focused on avoiding the rush hour – on getting to Ealing Common and back again as quickly as I can. The district line, with its various branches, isn’t my favourite – too many stations, and too many destinations mean that I now have to wait another eight minutes for the right train. Eight minutes doesn’t sound like much I know but in Brixton, where I live, the train-every-minute Victoria line sets the standard. So, eight minutes is an age but also, frustratingly, not quite long enough for me to pull my book out to read. There is no part of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the world and me that can fit comfortably in an eight-minute time frame. I stand with his words in my bag, with my back against the wall, some distance from the platform’s yellow lines. I’m in a hurry, but I’m still cautious. People fall under trains, and occasionally they also get pushed. Ta-Nehisi has my attention focused on black bodies and the violence enacted upon them. I am keen to keep my own body intact. Perhaps that’s why I don’t put my headphones in. Perhaps not. If I’d been wearing headphones I wouldn’t have heard his greeting me – the young man who passes – though no doubt I would have seen him, tall and composed, with dreadlocks tied back to expose high cheekbones and a penetrating, apparently uninhibited gaze. He is looking at me.

“Hi” he says.

I’m not friendly in public – some people would probably say aloof – but I am always polite.

“Hi”, I say, giving him a brief glance before looking away.

He carries on walking and then turns back.

“Which train goes to high street Kensington?”

“Any train” I tell him. “It’s only two stops away.” I also like to be helpful. It makes up in part for not being friendly. I check the board, which says that the next train is still five minutes away. He doesn’t seem that interested in checking for himself.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

A red flag starts to wave in my head. Lyrics? Really? Is he seriously moving to me when it’s obvious that he’s half my age – even less probably? If I had to guess I’d say he’s mid-twenties. I could get annoyed, or wave him away but I haven’t been twenty for decades. I feel that I owe myself more than this.

“To you” I say, “my name is Mummy.”

It is a rebuke of sorts, and a more fragile ego would have jogged on by now, but for whatever reason this guy hasn’t. He remains composed, looks me in the face, says,

“So, Giver and Sustainer of life, what do you do?”

An unexpected title. Uninterrupted eye contact. I’m taken aback.

“As I said, I’m a mum.”

“And what else,” he says. “What other things do you do?”

What’s up with this brother? Presumption? Boldness? Absent boundaries? Genuine curiosity? Should I respond or look away? The information display board switches from four minutes to three. The train is not coming to save me yet.The red flag flutters, telling me I need to take charge of this conversation.

“Yes I do other things,” I say, “but what about you, what do you do?”

He tells me he makes films, says,

“I was at film school but_” and then spends a few seconds mentally distilling the experience of film school – trying to voice the ‘but’, during which his facial expression momentarily hardens. “They wanted me to do something,” he says, “and I wanted to do something else.”

It crosses my mind that Ta-Nehisi might have relevance here – that he might have something to say to a brother trying to live his dream – but I resist the temptation to quote him, and give life to a conversation that I am waiting to end. The platform heats up, accumulating bodies as the display flicks from three minutes down to two.

“If you could make the film you want to make,” I ask, “what would it be?”

You may know – though he doesn’t – that I’m a therapist. This means that I know about asking questions – know how to get people talking about themselves. He offers me the title and a short synopsis of his film, which is set in Birmingham. The premise is quirky and thought-provoking. The plot is intelligent and offers lots of scope to illuminate his chosen themes of connection and community.

“It sounds like a film that needs to be made” I say. He nods. I add “and I hope you get to make it,” because suddenly, I really do hope that. His response – if indeed there is one – is lost in the thunder of the arriving train. Bodies press forward towards the yellow lines, every person for themselves and yet still, right up to the sliding doors, he is by my side. He talks as we go, asks me if I have Insta or Linked in, rebukes me when I scoff and shake my head, for sheltering in the past and ‘refusing to show up in the present.’

“Just trying to bring some of what’s good about the past into the now”, I say. It occurs to me that I am making excuses.

Inside the carriage it’s standing room only. To reach the only remaining grab handle I’m forced to manoeuvre around a woman carrying a big tote bag, and stand at an awkward angle. I’ve recently experienced a certain loss of faith in the steadiness of my own body – a disproportionate fear of falling down, or in truth, for the consequences of falling down. People tell me I am too young to be going on like this which I guess is supposed to be flattering, but does nothing to mitigate menopause, muscle atrophy or osteoporosis.

When he asks, ‘what about email?’, I flip it back to him by asking him if he has a card. Is this really happening? Am I really asking a strange young man on the tube for his number, and if so, why? What possesses me too, when he says he doesn’t have a card, to reach into my bag and give him mine? I register this act as uncharacteristically impulsive, even as I am performing it.

“Thanks,” he says and then he reads my name out loud, accepts my correction of his pronunciation and asks me where it’s from.

“It’s Yoruba,” I say, “like my father.”

He seems satisfied – “You’re Nigerian” he says and I decide to leave it there rather than offer any of the stories that would illustrate the ways in which this is, and isn’t, true.

“What about you?” I say, which again surprises me because it’s not the kind of question that I would normally ask. I suppose I’m still being driven by a need to deflect the spotlight and re-direct the flow of information.

“Nigerian too” he says, “maybe” and then he shrugs. “My ancestors did one of those long internships in the Caribbean”.

I smile. A painful and recognisable truth.

“Which island?”

“Jamaica” he says.

“Like my husband” I say.

“Is he a good man?”

This guy is not shying away from intimate questions. It is disarming.

“Yes,” I say, “He’s a really good man.”

“You should tell him that.”

“I do,” I say. “I’ve been telling him that for thirty years.”

The train brakes, and arrives at Sloane Square. Passengers disembark, not enough of them to free up seats but at least as we pull away again, we have more space to breathe.

“What do your kids do?”

As far as questioning skills go, my man is giving me some stiff competition. I give him my own synopsis – run through the achievements of two daughters and three sons – and it must be that while I’m doing this that something changes, perhaps my voice or my facial expression, because when I’m done he says,

“You feel really good about yourself, don’t you?”

Mockery? Is that what this is? My prize for unguardedness – to be crushed in a moment of genuine vulnerability? He doesn’t laugh. His expression doesn’t change. The moment is not crushed, but held, and in it I realise that it wouldn’t even matter if he were mocking me because what he said is true. I do feel good. I own it.

“You’re right,” I say, “I do.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Why not?”

“Do you have children?” I ask, trying to hold up my end of the questioning. He shakes his head.

“No, but I’m the best uncle.”

He’s interrupted by an announcement. High street Kensington is the next stop. He talks over it, telling me about his nieces. The love and care in his voice – also the pride – are clear.

“I tell them I am their best uncle” he says.

“What do their other uncles have to say about that?”

“Yeah,” he says, his words slower now, “unfortunately my elder brother passed away in April.”

“I’m sorry.”

“He committed suicide.”

I receive this – his own moment of unguardedness and vulnerability perhaps – without words. I hold his gaze which, as inadequate as it is, is all I’ve got. The train is already slowing down, and any moment now the platform at High Street Kensington will appear, and he will get off, and this unlikely exchange will come to an end.

“I guess at least he got what he wanted,” he says. “On his own terms. I hope he has peace now.”

“I hope so too,” I say – such inadequate words that say nothing of what I hope, or feel, but we are already here and the doors are sliding open and there is only this moment and there will be no more. Before disembarking he opens his arms and leans forward and tentatively – respectfully, briefly – we share the lightest of hugs. He steps out. The doors close. I sit down. I take Ta-Nehisi out from my bag only to find that I whatever space I thought I had for reading is occupied now, with hopes – new ones. I hope that a young man who took his life is in peace, and I hope that another young man’s film gets made. I hope that I get to see that film and sooner than that, that I reach home safely today and get to tell my husband that he’s a good man (again). I hope someone tells my Victoria to High Street Ken travel companion the same thing about himself, if not today, then some day soon. I hope, when the world renders me hard and insular as I know it does – and will – that the gifts of vulnerability remain with me. I won’t bother hoping to turn into a friendly extravert who likes nothing more than being chatty with strangers in public (it’s just not going to happen), but I do hope to remember to leave the doors open – even a little bit. I hope that posting this story will remind me to mind my doors. And if it reminds you to mind yours, all to the good. I’m glad we could share a moment.

Tales of the Unbroken

for mumI am not (what is) broken– the title of an upcoming conference addressing mental health in the Black, South Asian and Muslim diasporas. Most days, I know this – that I am not (what is) broken – but there are also other days when it’s not so easy to remember.

The internalisation and privatisation of problems has become a dominant (and accepted) narrative, and this makes it easy to feel broken. To feel anxious is to be broken, to feel depressed is to be broken, to be broke is to be broken. Worse still, as we locate the brokenness firmly inside of ourselves, we conclude that these are problems that belong to us as individuals. My anxiety belongs to me. My depression belongs to me. As the owner of the problems I am also responsible for managing them, and preferably – given that they are signs of ‘broken’ – fix them. It’s a tough call. Is it any wonder that problems individually owned in this way can so very quickly come to own us?

In my world, not being the thing that is broken is a story worth telling. I use the words story here, and narrative (above), deliberately. In my work as a therapist I use narrative approaches partly because they insist on making clear distinctions between the problem and the person experiencing it. Allowing the problem to have an identity of its own can create just the space that we need to be able to view it more clearly and tease out its favourite storylines. These stories, while they may well depict us as broken characters and, in that way have a significant impact on us, are not us.

Working with narrative means embracing a performative account of identity. This means not basing our identities on an internalised psychological structure or set of components (self, ego, id, inner child, true self, etc.) but rather, understanding ourselves as beings, continually creating our identities as we live. Our identities are then, the stories that we tell, and perform. Given this understanding, what stories are you, or for that matter, am I?

What can I tell you? That I am a woman, a woman of colour, a middle-aged woman of colour, a middle-aged woman of colour and a parent, a middle-aged woman of colour and a parent, who works as a therapist? How interested are you in the headlines I’m offering you? Should I go on? How about if I add that I once attempted suicide, or that a few years back I found myself on a wall outside a secure psychiatric ward, weeping as a bemused psychiatric intern looked on and finished her bar of chocolate? Are these stories more engaging or less? I wouldn’t blame you for being more curious about my difficult times. We may not be what is broken, but we are certainly interested in what is, not, I think, because we are unsympathetic or ghoulish, but because broken is a way in. Broken is the trigger that so often marks the beginning of a story, a crucial piece of the narrative arc, a crack through which the light breaks in. If we can navigate the shame (‘Shame’ is an epic tale, with seemingly infinite chapters) the broken places create openings and provide opportunities for connection.

I appreciate the authors who have shared their stories (http://iamnotbroken.light-inc.org) precisely because of the opening, and opportunities for connection that they offer us as readers. I am reminded that stories can serve different purposes and can, for example, inhibit, or subsidise, a sense of possibility. These are stories that hold hope, but also show how the stories that other people tell of us, or of who we should be, can work to make us feel less hopeful. We do well to remember that words are important and that, as well as being descriptive, they are also intentional. Words do more than simply describe what is; they also determine what it is possible to know. We can use them to expand – to tell stories differently, starting from different places, exploring new territories and including other perspectives. What happens, for example when we view mental health journeys as victories, rather than defeats? We can engage in therapeutic storytelling using different mediums – conversation, writing, art, movement, or other creative means of expression – and all of these can function as tools for being with, and being curious about, whatever might feel broken.

Writing and storytelling have served me well as therapeutic tools and I do draw on them in my practice, but even outside of the therapy room, I value and encourage narrative conversations. Narrative conversations – collaborative and interactive journeys taken with ears open for gaps between words (what isn’t said) and talk that sings (phrases that resonate or evoke curiosity) – can also happen in everyday life.  Narrative conversations view people as the experts on their own lives and they don’t aim to find solutions or give advice (e.g. get more exercise/a divorce/a counsellor). They are instead, gently and genuinely curious. They aim to identify some of the stories that could be told and invite, if so desired, various tellings.

Author Chimamanda Adichie speaks beautifully of the danger of a single story, referring specifically to the ways in which this marginalises Black people. Certain metanarratives (‘Big pictures’) promoting stereotypes and presumptions about groups of people, contribute heavily to the plot of the stories we live, as people of colour. We are right to challenge single stories – not only when others try to shoehorn us inside them, but also whenever we are tempted to do this to ourselves. It is all too easy for a dominant story such as a diagnosis of mental illness to become a single, central story that scatters whoever else we are to the margins, and alienates us from our many-storied-selves. The best way to resist the single story I find, is to tell more stories. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to not-being-what-is- broken, we can never have too many reminders.

Wakanda Therapy is This?

BlackPanther-Women

Can a film be therapeutic?

The first time I watch Black Panther, at the IMAX cinema, I don’t feel great. If feeling good is the definition of therapeutic then, my first answer is no. Courtesy of 3D glasses, my stomach lurches through various chase and fight scenes and the vertiginous land-sky-scapes of Wakanda – the fictional African nation in which the film is partly set. I leave the cinema feeling jittery and out-of-sorts and the husband who is with me seems equally agitated. We up the pace and step our overstimulated, cortisol-fuelled selves around Waterloo station to the bus stop. On the 59 bus, we briefly compare our emotional responses to the film, (joy and sorrow among them), but are too overwhelmed I think, to really nail the source of our mutual dysregulation. We just agree to avoid 3D films from now on.

I usually avoid action movies altogether actually, but Black Panther is more than this. Watching is a visceral, evocative and emotional experience that, for me at least, requires some internal processing so the following week I watch it again, only this time in regular 2D in the hope that I’ll understand more without the sensory overload. It turns out that blaming the third dimension may have been reductionist. In terms of dimensions, the film opened, and offered a glimpse into, several dimensions at once. Some of these I believe, have therapeutic potential and are worthy of more detailed attention.

A Fourth Dimension: Visible Black Worlds

A superhero with an afro; a silver-dreadlocked queen; a Black female army; a braided scientist spearheading the development of a technologically advanced nation. A Black world-making so stunning, and so rarely seen that it throws up a certain level of cognitive dissonance. I, by the way, am a middle-aged Black woman working as a therapist. I consider myself educated, and ‘woke’. Perhaps it won’t surprise you then to hear that I believe it is important for the healthy psychological development that a Black child is able to see themselves represented in ways that include beauty, intelligence, agency, and creativity; Also, to be able to recognise people who look like them, interacting, collaborating, problem solving, imagining and creating. As therapists, we generally accept that an important factor in psychological development is recognition, which psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin describes as a ‘confirming response, which tells us that we have created meaning, had an impact, revealed an intention’. In a poignant moment towards the end of the film, a young boy looks up in awe at T’Challa (Black Panther), who has just arrived on the streets of Oakland California in an impressive piece of air travel technology, and asks who are you? This boy recognises that he is seeing something he has never seen before and his face is a picture of wonder and watching him, mine is too, because for those few seconds, I am him. When I return to my middle-aged reality I find the wonder of things-not-seen-before is tinged with sorrow. Surely, I was once a child who also needed this recognition, and found it lacking? A beautiful moment in a great film thus marks a moment of realisation. The lack of representation with which I have grown – like an unseen parasite – has become a part of me and formed into a particular self-state so familiar that I think of it now, if indeed I think of it at all, as normal. We remain robust and continue to challenge Black underrepresentation in the media (see Ava Du Vernay, Lenny Henry, Idris Elba, Jacob V Joyce) but for a few moments, as Black Panther expands my experience of possible to include what could, would and should have been, I allow my heart to break.

A Fifth Dimension – Thicker Narrative

Like any therapist working with narrative I appreciate that no single story can encapsulate or handle all the contingencies of life. In seeking a bigger picture with more scope for understanding and ‘re-authoring’, therapists work to encourage ‘thicker’ narratives – not a single story, but stories told from different points of view by different ways and means. In my personal life, I am grateful that in response to the thin narratives offered to me in relation to “Africa”, and my own African heritage, I was able to find others that were ‘thicker’ and more layered. Growing up in London through the sixties and seventies, my childhood world was one in which Black people were either absent from screens or characterised as dumb, dependent and savage. Where Black characters did exist, their lives were often short. [If you believe this phenomenon a thing of the past, I give you Godless, the recent Netflix series – spoiler alert: The Black characters are two-dimensional, easily bamboozled, and they all die]. Having survived this toxic environment into adulthood then, as parents to our own five children, we sought to offer alternatives. This was challenging and after a few years of struggle we concluded that nothing short of living on the African continent would do.  There followed ten wonderful years in The Gambia, during which our children grew within and became a part of layered narratives of what it could, would and should mean to be a Black, African child. Their worlds were expanded as were our own, to a large extent, but it would be false to claim that this experience obliterated the thinner, racist, narratives – legacies of our own childhoods – that linger within, despite our best attempts to file them away.

A Sixth Dimension – Black agency

In an early scene in the film, Nakia – Black Panther’s ex’ – is in Nigeria, having infiltrated who we imagine to be a parallel universe version of boko haram. She, T’Challa and Okoye (general of the elite royal guardians the Dora Milaje) liberate a group of women and girls held at gunpoint in the back of a truck. Nakia shows mercy – stops Okoye from killing one of the gunmen who she explains, is ‘just a boy – also kidnapped’. Okoye turns to the now freed captives and instructs them to ‘speak nothing of this night.’ This clear reference to the real-world problem of girls being kidnapped speaks to me of Black agency – and this representation of Black people ‘saving ourselves’, (as we surely regularly must have been, to still be here), is another rarely seen thing. Granted, Vibranium – the fictional metal that is the source of Black Panther’s superhero suit, and of the super-advanced technology by which our heroes arrive – does take some of the hard work out of the ‘saving’. The image, notwithstanding, is a powerful one.

A Seventh Dimension – Kick Back ‘n Chill.

A friend laughs, and wants to know why he finds us Black folk watching Midsomer murders and Miss Marple on TV. Truthfully? Absence is sometimes preferable to misrepresentation. Do you remember Crimewatch angst, waiting for photos of suspected criminals to flash up on screen while silently pleading please let it not be a Black man? If so, I’ll guess that you might be Black. Low representation in a toxic environment means that any black character in film or TV becomes someone to worry about. Those few-and-far-between Black characters, shoehorned into a position where they had little choice but to represent us all, needed not to look, do, or be, bad. Fortunately, because it is rare for Black people to venture to Midsomer or Miss Marple land, in these locations we get to kick back with mugs of tea and relax while white characters roam free being whatever it is that they are, and as rotten, dirty and murderous as they like. Comparing Black Panther to Midsomer Murders is admittedly ridiculous. Still, it was great to be able to watch a film without having to brace myself for extermination, reduction, ridicule, or one-dimensional existence as a vehicle for the plot lines of more nuanced white characters. Kick back ‘n’ Chill; a feeling so unfamiliar that I’m still practicing. Apparently, anticipating stereotypes, bad endings and bad deals has become a way of life.

An Eighth Dimension – Black Beauty

A simple enough point; the characters in Black Panther are gorgeous. Plenty of commentary already exists so if you want to read more check Noel Ransome describing the journey from the childhood message that ‘Your black ass ain’t shit’ to feeling ‘pretty fucking beautiful’ and Danielle Dash on her joy on the shattering of the myth that black women – specifically dark-skinned black women are undesirable. Anecdotally, I give you Anansi – the character I reeled out every year on book days, as a dress up suggestion for my children. My eldest daughter still asks why I dressed her in an African abaya for the school nativity play (she has the photographic evidence) and thought a gele was an appropriate Easter bonnet.  What can I say? Sorry girl, Nakia, Okoye and Shuri weren’t around. Can we call it water under the bridge?

A Ninth Dimension – Untold Stories

A ripple of laughter in the cinema when Shuri calls a white CIA agent ‘colonizer’. A nod to the ideas of psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer Franz Fanon, when the villain Killmonger, enraged at Wakanda’s neutral position on international affairs, proposes armed revolt. Various shout outs to the ancestors including those who jumped from slave ships, and, as Killmonger remarks, ‘preferred death to bondage’. Black Panther tells stories rarely shown on the big screen, which in itself is therapeutic in that it is a ‘recognition’. In the film, Wakanda’s governing council grapples with the equivalent of real world dilemmas. Should Black people, for example, be protecting ourselves and our creations (from being hated, killed and appropriated) by staying quiet and hidden? Or is it better to persist with efforts to connect and explain and share in this humanity, even if that leaves us vulnerable and open? Again, no one story can provide an answer but what stories can do is stretch our minds in the direction of possibility – for good or bad. Some of the storytelling in Black Panther attracts critique, rightly and usefully. Khanya Khondlo Mtshali reminds us that watching a film is not an act of resistance and that there is more work to do. Patrick Gathara reflects that the film’s portrayal of Africa is in many ways regressive and neo-colonialist and questions if it really offers anything to Africans on the continent. Living in The Gambia we became all too aware that many of the things that surprised, touched, and excited us sometimes puzzled our friends, neighbours and colleagues. Why were we making such a fuss about a Black doctor or scientist? Why should we feel ashamed of a Black thief when he has clearly done wrong? When stories are missing, as they have been for us, perspective changes. We, who have grown not seeing ourselves, take note of anomalies and celebrate victories, however small. Diverse geographies, histories and experiences mean that we have a range of needs, and that there are many stories in need of telling. The reach of a telling like Black Panther, cannot however, be underestimated.

Wakanda Therapy?

Seeing Black Panther again, I do feel better – good even – and I maintain that ‘feeling better’ falls short of defining ‘therapeutic’. The dictionary gives us healing, curative and medicinal but I’m going with a definition from the field of Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP), because this in an area of specific interest for me. Hunt (2000)[1] , discussing the therapeutic dimensions of autobiographical writing, proposes that ‘therapeutic’ denotes beneficial psychological change, the components of which might include inner freedom, greater psychic flexibility, a clearer or stronger sense of personal identity and an increased freedom to engage with other people as well as in creative pursuits. Therefore, whilst we may be tempted to describe a trip to the spa as ‘therapeutic’ because it puts a spring in our step, we might also consider whether it helps us to achieve these specific outcomes. A journey along a therapeutic path I believe, is different. Whether that path be through creative writing, or a relational path, travelled with a therapist, in truth it doesn’t always feel better. Therapeutic paths are neither straight nor smooth; there will be grit along the way. The grit, when we have opportunities to feel and think with it, is often a catalyst for psychological change. Black Panther is neither flawless, nor a panacea for what ails us, but it does open up pathways – with twists and turns and enough grit for therapeutic potential. The opportunities to feel, think and converse that Black Panther has given rise to are worth celebrating. Writer and activist Audre Lorde[2] offered that our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge and proposed that examining feelings can lead us to new ways of understanding and ultimately be the beginning of new visions. Black Panther offers a new vision and along with it dimensions that, if we dare to experience and explore them, are gateways to a range of therapeutic possibilities. I hope that this conversation continues. For now, I end with James Baldwin, who in his preface to the 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son said,

I am what time, circumstances, history, have made of me certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.

Black Panther is a nod to all of this – to the circumstances, and to the history and to the more that we are. Wakanda therapy is this? If we stretch our imagination we may well find out.

[1] Hunt, C. (2000) Therapeutic Dimensions of Autobiography in Creative Writing. London:Jessica Kingsley Publishers

[2] In an interview with Claudia Tate in 1982