gall and gumption

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Matilija

My mother gave me this camera when I was in St. Kitts. She is a rather geeky person, she loves cameras and camera accessories and computers. The great thing about having a geek for a mother is, of course, the hand-me-downs. I used this as my work camera when I was running the paper in St. Kitts. Left most of my photos there, in the office computer, along with the majority of what I wrote. I haven't used it for a while and I took it on the trip to Santa Barbara for no other reason than that it happened to be in the bag. When Caroline and John proposed this trip, rather impulsively, I equally impulsively threw in the camera. Actually I packed a totally redundant and excessive watercolor painting kit along and only threw in the camera just in case. No painting occurred but it turned out to be a piece of good fortune that I brought the camera. I look at the pictures I took and I think of Al and I think of my friends.

A woman I know who has lived in Washington for some five or six years told me today that she has dropped all her American friends. She herself is Canadian-Jamaican. A large part of the reason, she said, was that the war got between them. She found herself getting too angry with people who said things like land mines were OK because they helped Americans have jobs. Or who didn't feel outraged at the bombing of children in Iraq. It happened to her, several times, in this crowd that she ran with, that people would ask her, "Do you consider yourself to be white or black?" Her mother was a Jamaican, her father is French. This woman I know would hold up two fingers and say, "This one's white and this one's black." But then she got tired of the question and began to answer, in some irritation, "I don't come from the US and so I don't think about myself in those terms." Which, she told me, always silenced them.

She wondered how I managed. I said I didn't have any friends who would say such stupid things. I told her that probably if I had not found my little circle of friends I might not have learned to live in the U.S. at all.

On reflection I don't absolutely know if that's true but I know that it would have been very different. I came here at 17, this really rather muddle-headed Jamaican teenager. Now that I am living with my father, who only really settled in this country about 10 years ago, I am reminded daily of what I brought with me -- the feelings of the exile. Very strong feeling that "I am not really here." An accent and a way of using language that exposed me sometimes to teasing and sometimes just left people staring blankly, unable to comprehend my words, perhaps, or my thinking because it was in English but a different idiom. As if I didn't have all that generic exile experience, I had my own special private reserves of misery that set me apart, at least in my own mind. When I moved to the States in 1977 to go to college I was struck by how everybody had the same things: everybody was running around in Dolphin shorts, those lightweight high-cut running shorts. Everybody had a stereo in their room. Everybody was sporting expensive sneakers. There was the respectable backpack and there was the pathetic backpack. I had no expensive sneakers, no Dolphin shorts, my backpack was pathetic, I had no stereo. All this, in addition to being, for a long time, quite unintelligible, was also financially out of my reach. I couldn't afford to look like everybody else when I was in college, even if you subtract the factor that I was a person of indefinable racial makeup and would never look like everybody else anyway. When you're 18, even if you don't feel envy over these things or even resentment, sometimes self-doubt happens, and I was certainly susceptible to that feeling.

Even though I had always been at or near the top of my class in all the various schools I attended, I was having a hard time with my studies because I had never been expected to memorize large chunks of material before and it bored me. I had really learned to learn in a very different way. The fact that I loathed competition didn't help me in my classes either. I was a science major at that point and while other students visited professors to try to find enough stray points on a test to bump them up a grade point or two, I disdained such measures. I was revolted when people stole the sample exams, or the recommended reading, so that other people couldn't read them and share the advantage. I didn't want to be like people who would do such things, I didn't want to have anything to do with them, and my science classes were full of that sort of thing. All this was deeply discouraging to me, And the misery. Did I mention the misery? I was nearly out of my mind with it, I was a wounded person.

I've known people since then who were setting out from much greater hardships than I had. I hadn't suffered any positive evil in my life until then, but I had experienced some negative ones, subtly negative ones, and I had been beating my stubborn head against them for three years when I boarded the plane to go off to California. Having failed to get them to yield, I left my father's house feeling like a failure, feeling cursed.

I felt, by this point, that I wasn't even a typical Jamaican any more. I hadn't lived there for two years when I went off to college in California. I had spent a year at boarding school in England and when I wasn't at school I was touring around England with my mother, going to museums, plays, restaurants, historical sights, all this culture stuff that she and my stepfather were sort of dosing me with at every turn. I quite liked all the things I saw, I had a lot of curiosity and, as always, was responsive to beautiful places and, sometimes when I was apparently being a silent sullen teen I was trying in some way to soak up as much of the environment as I could; besides, wandering around some old castle ruin was really quite enjoyable to a person as given to brooding as I was/am. Which all meant that if I had returned to Jamaica to live I would have sooner or later found out how much I had grown different. I had adaptability, at some emotional cost. So by the end of my first year in college, I felt like I didn't know who I was or where I was from any more. All through that year, people would ask me the eternal Two Questions of Freshman Year: "Where are you from?" and "What's your major?" I would tell them where I was from and what my major was. A lot of them didn't know where Jamaica was. But I didn't know any of the places in California where they were from. And, because of my exiled state, I wasn't interested in where they were from, because I was not really in California. I was there, but when someone told me she was from Coalinga, for example, or Mill Valley, I might as well have been in Jamaica for all the interest or meaning this information had for me. And I suspect that it showed.

The other thing I didn't have as a result of this difference was complete possession of the Platitudes of Attitude that were current at the time. I literally didn't speak the idiom, but I also didn't think it either. My bluntness and unconventionality of opinion and my smaller gaucheries elicited clucking disapproval which shocked me because wasn't this California where people were supposed to be tolerant? I wasn't asking for a lot of tolerance: just so much as you need to have a conversation. And I certainly wasn't asking for it in some sort of personal way. I saw their rather passive intolerance as making them boring. That living in an atmosphere where my difference isolated me and sometimes exposed me to contempt was something to take personally just didn't occur to me. The failure to realize what I was dealing with -- in myself and in them -- was a blessing, as it happened. A rather perverse blessing. I was living on rage, it was like a special high-energy diet. One person in the world could hurt me, and he had, and my rage over this left me little time to notice other people except from a distance. But from that distance I was seeing a creature I had never seen much of before, the product of American suburbia. Conformity was its highest virtue, and it just happened coincidentally, that what they were conforming to was a late 1970s cocktail of social cliches and attitudes with which I was mostly unfamiliar. When they became preppies a few years later they were the same, they are the same now. They were the most unconversational people I have ever met, and I come from a culture where people had a way of saying whatever came into their heads because no one was ever shocked by speech. That California -- in so far as these folks represented it -- was less tolerant than Jamaica was came as a huge surprise.

Now, at this point, I must say, you can begin to see the tint of the rose around my memories of Jamaica in addition to my failure to see something in myself. It is true that Jamaicans - and Caribbean people generally - indulge richly in their right of freedom of speech. They don't just possess it, they use it. If you express an unpopular opinion in a company of Jamaicans you find yourself in an argument, carried on with great gusto on all sides. If you express only irritation or exasperation -- well, the more color you can put into it the better, it is a very flourishy culture, big on rhetorical excess.

It was purely the chances of life that helped me find my way to the College. I arrived there and sort of declared my presence there, quite unintentionally, as a talent. Which is very nice, especially in a place that values talent as much as the College. But it's terrible to learn that you have talent before you really know how to use it. And that was the situation I was in. It took me years of blundering about and being a general pain in the ass before I learned to work, and by then I had friends for life, friends who for the sake of my talent had treated me with incredible kindness. What I found, when I first arrived at the College, was people who were talking and thinking and writing about books the way I had thought about books. This was something I had rarely had in my life before. Most of my friends were hardly aware of how much I read, or if they did know, they were not curious, I was a pretty girl who was also known to have a brain, but a brain was not considered much of a social advantage. At the College it was different, it was as if this one little bit of sanity in my chaotic misery-filled inner life had found a home.


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