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Category: yo yo yo yo yo

remittance

What does it mean to be on the brink of collapse? What does that collapse look like? How is it different from that verge, that moving toward collapse? How do you know when you have arrived at the terminus: collapse?

Both words are motion words. The moving towards and the destination, they run together in an arc that angles down, turning vertical. The collapse is the legs giving out; the brink is the wobble. But, where is the floor?

August 2018, the last time you were there, the windows in your old neighbourhood were still shattered, evidence of rocks thrown during a surge of violent demonstration in the street over a sudden, monstrously-planned spike in fuel prices. Your friends were tired, worried, morose. They didn’t want to leave, they said, but so much daily precariousness was exhausting, and it was slowly breaking them. The ones who couldn’t leave, no papers and no paper, they were swimming on as best they could in the volatile currents because that is what you do when there is no land in sight and sinking is not an option you’ll give yourself. You keep swimming, keep the aches of your muscles quiet and speak aloud in gratitude that you can still feel the sun on your face and thank you God it is nice to have air to breathe.

The last time you saw R was over a year ago, August 2018, and it had been over a year since the time before that. You asked after his family (his wife died) and after his best friend (his wife died, too). The little boy you used to go with him to pick up from his special needs school was now taller than both of you, he said, pulling a hand out of his jeans pocket to hover a flattened palm just above his head. His mustache had gone grey and his voice seemed thicker. You passed him a couple hundred dollars to help with school fees, with rent, with whatever he needed. Your family had always done this: childhood memories of hiding cash in envelopes, cash that was set aside bill by thin bill week after month, and then sent off with some traveling relative or acquaintance to deliver to your peoples Back Home to help with doctors, with plumbing, with whatever they needed. This was not Back Home, but it had been home, graciously, at one time. You had been grateful when you landed back, a visitor, and he answered your call, that he still had the same beatup Nokia with the same phone number, but cursed yourself for not trying to call him months before, before his wife died, before she got so sick, before he had to pull his son out of school, because maybe you could have sent him some money, maybe they could have done something different, maybe things would be different.

After you left in August 2018, so much changed. The protests nonstop. The massacre. The murder.

You delete twitter, but even still your instagram and your whatsapp fill with photos, videos, screenshots of these massive strikes and marches. You message with friends during their lock downs. Three days, seven days, ten days without being able to step outside to work, to school, to market. Nearly out of water, nearly out of cooking oil, the stores shut down and emptied, the market women’s bellies twisted with anxiety over not being able to sell, the growers’ bellies twisted with anxiety over not being able to sell, businesses burned, roads blocked with barricades, rocks flying, too much of the air blackened with tire smoke and live ammunition.

Three thousand miles away on the other side of the island, your friend has surgery to remove bullet fragments from his face. A week later, or, I don’t know, two weeks maybe, you get a message that another friend has been shot and you’re caught off guard by how quickly all of the breath leaves your body. You slump, deflated, but it turns out to be a rumour. Just a rumour. Just a rumour.

Three thousand miles away in the desert, you can’t stop buying groceries. Your fridge and freezer and cupboards have never been so full. You can’t afford this shit, can’t afford yet another bag of rice, or the frozen cauliflower, or the smoked fish, or all this dried mango, or these multiple bottles of wine. You look through your kitchen, your first kitchen that is yours and not a sublet and not a housesit but yours by name with your first lease in over ten years, you look through your kitchen and assess how many days you could survive without going outside. How many meals is this? You measure and divide with your eyes. Is there enough fresh water? For how many days? And for bathing and dishes? I should fill more containers.

And power? Do I have enough batteries? What if I lose electricity? When your phone drops below 70% you reach immediately for a charger. You have many muscles, and one of the strongest is the one that remembers blackouts, remembers lockdowns, remembers that anything and everything can simply run out: water, energy, safety, goodwill, time.

Three thousand miles away, you try calling R and are grateful to find that he still has the same beatup phone number, but a woman answers. R isn’t there right now. Try him again later. So, you try. And you try. Over two weeks, or, I don’t know, three weeks by now? you try and you try, try because there is a Western Union to pick up, and sometimes the phone is off and sometimes the call doesn’t go through and one time the woman answers again, and her voice takes on a familiar honey when she calls you chérie, but 30 seconds in the audio starts to loop in a strange glitch you don’t understand, you cannot explain, and the ghostliness impeding your conversation starts to feel unbearable and mocking. You hang up.

You stopped writing in this space in 2015 because you were on the brink of collapse. You suspected this at the time, of course: that you were on the downward side of an arc, in the act of collapsing, but had no concept that there might be an end point, a finality, a static position that looked like collapse, the act of collapse at completion. You know it now. Back up off the floor, and many miles away, you know it now.

still

Émotion: la douleur de voir partir ainsi pour toujours quelqu’un qu’on a aimé éperdument, ne serait-ce que l’espace de 12 secondes et 3/10.
 [Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer]

A year and a half of nonstop bouncing between geographies has left some marks. Six weeks lost in New York’s wounds, two weeks of sighing over Toronto’s halting flakiness, eight weeks floating though the light and open longing of Lisbon, seven weeks of tender patience and uneasy alertness in Port-au-Prince, plus handfuls of lovely or bewildering stops elsewhere thrown in between. Lather/ rinse/ repeat, for the nineteen months since I left my last home (temporary, still) in the Caribbean.

You can get good at packing and unpacking. That’s not hard. You can rise above the physical exhaustion of constant motion to let those motions become normal. Everywhere, deflecting the same questions on loop — Where do you live now? How long are you in town? — automatic, ritual, white noise. The hardest adjustments are internal. The spaces between people are not the same everywhere, our connections linked by different inputs/ outputs, and you are the international travel human adaptor. When you don’t have a single default or home, there is no normal to disappear back into after a particularly rattling trip. The trip doesn’t end. Everything feels weird all of the time — most of all, you.

One week you’ll greet everyone you meet with a kiss on the cheek, smile warmly, accept the dried fruit or steaming coffee offered, answer thoughtful queries from near-strangers on the health of family members, on the health of your heart. The next, you’ll be in a place where people you’ve met twenty times will pass without a nod. You’ll remember, slowly, that this snub is normal here, back in the place of fickle moods and ritual ghosting of friends and lovers. Here, spaces between people can stretch so far, the waters between them can run so cold. Adapt your touch accordingly.

(Once, freshly arrived from that place and not yet warmed to the new vibe, I breezed past an ex and his friends at a bar without a glance. I did it without thinking, cool walls still up. He confronted me later, face imploringly close — Why didn’t you say hi? — and I felt shame. I couldn’t be this way here, with him, and didn’t want to be this way anywhere, with anyone.)

“We’re going to the beach.” K pings me on WhatsApp mid-morning on a Sunday. The roads were clear, a blessed, temporary opportunity for escape amid weeks of blockades. “Call J to pick you up. He’s leaving his house.” Fifteen minutes later, afternoon plans pushed off, bikini on, towel rolled, ready for a day with the sea. Late afternoon on a Tuesday, a source calls to say she’s stuck in traffic, or there’s been a breakdown, or someone was shot, and could we meet across town in an hour or two instead? Time, space, mortality, everything fluid and unfolding, shifting according to the tides of the moment. That place, full to bursting but always flexible. Then a connecting flight brings you, like a space ship, to this other place where time is rigid. It’s FB invites and advance guest lists, emails that begin apologetic for the late notice, but are you free a week from Friday? R.S.V.P. Interested in attending? Maybe. V busy. LMK. Time flows through spaces differently, and vice versa. Adapt your clock accordingly.

Passport stamp from a teeming city of openness and eager ease for exchange to a smaller city of territoriality and fragile selves. Both, my cities. From here, where you listen tense and watch wary for danger before you turn the corner, to there, where other women walk carefree and alone at night with headphones on ten. Another plane to another place, where male gazes are predatory and pointed, and then off again, to where males are too nervous to give their feelings away with anything intimate as a gaze. The spaces between bodies, inviting or dangerous or confusing. Adapt your heart accordingly.

Adapt, adapt, adapt.

There’s a way you come to know yourself in motion: limber, unchained, unsupported by the usual pillars, a guest and unentitled, at mercy of the winds, carrier of changing skins and privileges, torn-out pieces of self buried lovingly throughout. It feels nothing like the exiles I threw myself into during my twenties. With exile, you’re always confronted by what and where you are not, existing in contrast.

I’ve been reading Dany Laferrière (L’Immortel!) and Mia Couto together this past week, sinking into their respective exiles in 1980s Montréal racism and lust or wartime Mozambique bush imaginary from my still-temporary bed in Toronto:

The cycles of light and of the day were a serious matter in a world where the idea of a calendar had been lost. Every morning, our old man would inspect our eyes, peering closely into our pupils. He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise. This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s star emerge. By the light preserved in our eyes, Silvestre Vitalício knew when we were lying and when we had allowed ourselves too much time between the sheets.
— That pupil’s full of night.
At the end of the day, we had other obligations that were equally inviolate. When we came to say good night, Silvestre would ask:
— Have you hugged the earth, son?
— Yes, Father.
— Both arms open on the earth?
— A hug like the one Father taught us to give.
— Well, go to bed then.
 [O Afinador de Silêncios]

I admitted (finally, again) to myself that I’d like to try to sit still somewhere for a little while (again, finally), at least longer than it takes to finish a TSA regulation mini shampoo. A default home base, a combination launch/landing pad filled with books and artwork liberated from their boxes, my notes and files all in one place, a mailing address, a single normal to relax into between overlapping worlds. Sitting still will help me think, I told myself. I’ve been wanting so badly to write, to read, to just be, without the consuming distraction of booking flights, organizing sublets, shipping, visas, exchange rates, negotiating which shoes to bring, recalling which belongings I have stored where, keeping track of my SIM cards, or swapping out slang and pop culture currencies so damn often — operational code switching ramped to an international scale. (How I managed a transition from news to longform through all of this is baffling.) More than anything else, I’m tired of mourning the distances that matter. I’ve missed some important goodbyes, and it’s hard to forgive myself for those. Friends doubt that I can sit still anymore, and say so to my face. No no, I insist, it will be a relief to give myself freedom from movement.

Beginning to plan for stillness, just considering gig offers and longer-term sublets and imagining alternate lives in a couple of cities, has thrown me into the worst creative block I’ve experienced in years. My active bouncing fighting mind, panicked, held itself hostage through most of December. Come on, I coaxed, we have deadlines to get through. It, too, will have to adapt.

 

a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

478776_284503574966763_134493706634418_634211_135992285_o
James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.

 

interlude

 

I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara

 

It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.

My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.

And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?

I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.

But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.

Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.

In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:

no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.

Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.

“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.

*   *   *

 

[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]

welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

 

 

 

On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.

Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?

I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?

It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.