To My Mama Alwin Mana

There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.

You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.

Taking up too much space.

Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.

The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to externalize it, to carry on as if I don’t know that I am the main one picking myself to pieces at every turn. Constantly ready to berate myself in anticipation of mistakes, when I actually do make one, it feels world-ending in a way that it wouldn’t if my mind didn’t work the way it does. Between job-searching while trying to be present with students, and navigating relationships and life in general, my self-policing/self-silencing/self-punishment mechanisms have been working overtime, even in the face of exciting news.

I recently started a part-time job, an incredible position I didn’t think would  necessarily be an option for me, as the Editorial Assistant at Transition Magazine, and I’m optimistic about finding another part-time position to add to it. I’ve been reading a whole lot, and writing not as much as I should be, but still writing. Yet, I can’t shake the heightened urgency and anxiety that has characterized my approach to life for the past few years: Nothing is ever enough, especially not myself.

I feel guilty and sorry all the time, just for being the way I am, and for being at all, because my default positioning is that any personal crisis could have been averted if only I had just tried harder to be better. Some of the time, this is actually true. Self-centered, I know, because no one woman [has] all that power*, but it’s hard not to feel like every wrong thing rests on some lack or failing on my part when the imp just won’t shut up and allow me to make sense of life.

I am also terrified of isolation, so much so that I might end up isolating myself anyway as a result of my behavior, or things I say, or things I leave unsaid. I’m trying to stop “unsaying,” and to listen more carefully to myself and to other people, and to try to understand myself as more complicated than the sum of all my wrongdoings, as more than an ever-growing list of the ways I have or will hurt myself and other people. I absolutely want the people in my life to hold me accountable for my actions, and to be able to hold myself accountable, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to do this without it hurting so deeply. Or maybe it has to hurt, and you just have to eat some of that hurt and put the rest in your pocket for later, for when you start to feel lazy or complacent, for when accountability turns into a buzzword instead of an ongoing practice.

Most of all, I’m realizing that a lot of the work of realizing that I’m not so terrible as the imp– me myself– would have me believe has to be internal, with a lot of help from an amazing therapist, and voice notes from my mother late at night. On another note that isn’t as unrelated as it may seem, I’ve been thinking and dreaming a lot about my great-grandmother, but she hasn’t actually said much to me in those dreams. I’m not sure what I want to ask her or want to hear her say, if I’m honest.

Because today is a more clear-headed, less anxious day, I must also add that I’m feeling grown. Grown like my mum mid-90s with more confidence than you’ve ever seen, and the fluffy roller set and denim minidress combo, except without the child (yours truly) she had at the time. I feel grown, settled into my newly 26-year old body in a way that allows me to see how troubling it is that so much of this blog consists of me turning against myself obsessively, pointing out every flaw I can find in my own thinking, my feminism, my writing, or my actions, and with a strange impulse to do so publicly, as if I’m anticipating other people will chime in with their own harsh critiques of me. These small acts of tearing myself down haven’t been productive in the least, nor have they necessarily made me a better person or writer. It feels exhausting to look back through some of those posts, and I’m so grateful you are still here reading when I tend to say the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways.

And this is where the fear of personal writing usually kicks in, the fear that there is something disingenuous about trying to find the prettiest and most evocative language to describe real life pain, yours and that of other people. And doesn’t the narrator always make themselves martyr, the long-suffering yet still dazzling star of the show, if all the reader can see is through that narrator’s eyes? Now that I have fully devolved into a cryptic babble, I will take it as a sign that this post could have ended a few paragraphs earlier than it has. So I pause, for now.

***

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I miss her all the time, especially these days.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

-through an intercessor because I am too afraid to say

Dadá, you are mother in life, and in memory, which means you live still

And you didn’t enter a room like an avalanche clearing a mountain side only for your child to carry herself like this, to be sifting through pebbles looking for the fractured pieces of good sense she has dashed to the ground

She is looking for you on streets in places too frigid for your spirit to land:

Sweetie, you know what time the bus coming?

They say

Bon…I lost my stop, cherie, you know where I can get the number 1 bus?

They say

She is looking for you in the scarf creases of someone else’s grandmama or tatie, in metal shopping carts rocking on uneven wheels, and inside old money bills folded between scrap paper with a fading phone number scratched across in blue ink

It’s embarrassing, Dadá, frankly she is embarrassing herself on your account, look

She is calling you all kinds of names and you do not come, names she never knew you as:

Mama Mana

Dadá

La Vierge Noire

Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre

Star of the Sea

protector, protect me, she says

“Voice la Porte de L’éternel, c’est par elle qu’entrent les Justes.”

She is leaving smudges of herself everywhere, kohl watered and blurred on her fingertip, face powder smeared on her shirt collar (a few shades off for August skin) dust sitting on the ridge of her bed’s headboard, and round the rim of the bath, scum

All this, and your back is still turned against her. And if it wasn’t for your usual no-tune hum hanging around your head, she wouldn’t even know it was you

Dadá, she has failed because she isn’t the kind of steadfast you borned her to be.

She cannot bear to tell you herself, and so she sent me

***

* Kanye *slavery was a choice* West has been on the outs with a lot of us for a long time, but this quote felt appropriate in this context…

(Image: Taken in Somerville, MA by yours truly on Wednesday 8/8/2018. I decided to take the longest walking route home, and I passed this Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church on my way.)

The Tougher than a Mother…

Her back has ached for years, carrying the bags she never unpacked filled with regrets and out of touch friends; artsy and interesting British friends she could have still had if she had followed one fork in the crossroads and not the other. But she carries her burden with style and grace, and an exquisite, hard-earned handbag held tightly against her body in the crook of her elbow. The high-flying echelons of society, the supposed crème de la crème of Accra never really accepted her; her neighborhood was not on the approved list of addresses where ladies who lunch recline on stiff brocade covered sofas and complain about their house-helps. They hated to admit it, but the aura of independence and self-assuredness that preceded her into a room, tinged their self-conscious laughter with envy. She did not live under the cloud of the constant possibility of one bad business deal crushing an entire empire and snatching away the first-class flights and gold-fringed kaftans.

She brushed of any underhanded attacks on her dignity and her unexpected achievements. When she helped her daughter shed the standard Ghanaian “tea and bread” school uniform for the green and white stripes that were synonymous with wealth and a stamp of the word “privilege” on the forehead, she laughed and agreed when someone said snidely, “This is what you have always wanted”.

Neither did the single mum’s club welcome her with open arms, her laugh was too raspy and raucous, more like a cackle really, she seemed to at ease and content, free from the hard-edged bitterness entrenched by all the pointing fingers “Her husband left her and now no-one is looking for her.” But that suited her fine, she did not wear single motherhood like a blood-stained medal of war on her right breast; she just got on with the business of living, devoured good books and drank good wine, and discussed the joys of singlehood with the few who were just as irreverent as she was in the face of materialistic, vapid women with lukewarm sense of humor.

She sat cloaked in pride and joy through award ceremonies and piano recitals and dance shows and open days every last day of the term, until her smile froze painfully on her face at the thought that her daughter did not share her last name. She had to endure the constant corrections to enthusiastic teachers, “No I’m not Mrs. So-and-so, but she is my daughter”. Maybe you should have given her your name after all, but how would you have faced the accusatory inquiries into your strange situation “Srowo de? Where is your husband? She has brought a baby from Amereecah with no fathah.”

She soothed her back pains with the ointment of success, of a dream fulfilled, for her entire life’s purpose had transformed into making sure she raised a shy little girl into an accomplished young woman. She cooled her forehead with prayer and praise, baring her soul to the Heavenly Father every night like clockwork. She did not even mind when people paid her unintended backhanded compliments: “Ah in fact, you must be a man, no woman can do this by herself.”  Yet the dull ache in her back remains, with the neatly packed cases of everyone else’s burdens (she seems so capable in that steely-eyed, pointy-nosed way, so of course one extra bag won’t kill her). Her back has ached for years, but hopefully this time she will learn that she really does deserve to pack light.