Life, death, and withstanding the weight of the world

In honor of Ming Mei

“Wayward: to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking.”

“If she could feel deeply, she could be free.”

Saidiya Hartman,Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Stories of Social Upheaval

Recently, my life has been in close proximity to a number of people who have died, or were ready to die. On February 15, at the university where I work, a young woman, Ming Mei Ip, hung herself because she could no longer stand the weight of the world. With this act, she became a sudden ancestor amongst us.

In the week before her death, a dear friend who worked with Ming Mei, wrote to me, and at the end of her email, left a prayer. It had been a difficult week, my friend wrote. “It is a question for me — how we stand things.” Simply, she asked, what does it mean to withstand things — namely, to live through the weight of the world over and over again? In addition to its own urgency, this question, I realized, has such great bearing for those of us who live near the source of violence, by choice, as our life’s work.

This student — a dancer, a writer, a remarkable artist — left behind a substantial archive when she ended her life, a gift for us in the living world. In Ming Mei’s written and visual works, she spoke about disordered eating, a disordered body, parental strain, and the internal and external pressure to perform — an act she referred to in the days before her suicide as an unbearable, disintegrating focus on “perfection.” In her final Youtube video, her beautiful face fixed on an internal terror, she speaks clearly, “I cannot work under pressure. I just need to find tools and ways to…” She paused, “…to just soften…soften.”  

Central to Ming Mei’s lived experience in the world, was her connection to a tiny, colonized island called Boracay in the Philippines. Boracay is a mere seven kilometers long, an archipelago encircled by the South Pacific’s rainbow of blue, its other islets, equally as gorgeous and mundane. In the last few years, Boracay has become a tourist-designed wasteland for the world’s citizens who have secured the luxury to come and go on a whim. Poet Warsan Shire has recognized that mothers risk their children on the ocean only when “the water is safer than the land” as a metaphor for both the initial, irreparable breach, as well as the ever-effects of colonialism. Theorist Christina Sharpe once referred to this landscape as the “New World scene.” As such, Ming Mei’s life was ordered, in meaningful ways, by Boracay’s history; by an inevitable displacement and effect of non-belonging; and by the many afterlives of a colonialism that lived within her as too much to stand.

Before the Spanish colonized Boracay in the early 16th century, it was first home to the Ati people, a small statured, black skinned Indigenous people, who the Spanish referred to, tellingly, as “Negritos.” Historians tell us that by the 16th century, black-skinned peoples were sturdily affixed to the bottom rung of a colonial hierarchy by Europeans, their traditions and animistic ways of life regarded as confirmations of the Ati’s position in the ‘natural order of things.’ But, the Ati had their own traditions for birth and death, and they honored the circle of human and animal life in their prayers and traditions. Notably, they called and remembered their ancestors by name. They titled and held annual celebrations in honor of their ancestors. And, as with all colonized, black-skinned peoples, they also found ways to secure — or syncretize — their life-giving beliefs within the value systems the Europeans forced upon them. As the Ati still believe, when a person dies, they become an ancestor. It does not matter how one dies; it does not matter how one behaved amongst the living.

To become an ancestor does not necessarily entail lineage or descent, nor temporal specificity. Ancestry, rather, depends on a self-originating kinship—that is, a connection to a friend, a lover, a shape shifter, a person studied from afar. Ancestors, the Ati believe, are with us, always: They are with us when we ignore them, when we are angry, or busy, or push them out of mind. Sometimes we forget our ancestors for a long time, and sometimes, for survival sake, the forgetting is intentional. Still, in some traditions, the worst thing a community member can do, is to not remember their dead at all. The Ati are Ming Mei’s people; Boracay is her beloved cultural and spiritual homeland.

I want to believe that death is not an invitation to remember incorrectly, as memorialization and public commemoration so often insists. Ancestry, rather, is an invitation to humanize our dead, as we were perhaps unable during a lifetime. Ancestry is also an invitation to learn, an infinite curiosity, to study the experiences, the decisions, and the pathways one forged during a lifetime. For many, the study is an invitation for change; for difference; for a gentler and better way to behave in the living world. It is, for others, an invitation to reflect upon the methods one employs to withstand life’s assaults and deepest traumas. For many of us, ancestry is a methodology for work that would otherwise be unbearable, as remembering our dead is also a lifelong meditation on how to withstand the unceasing weight of an anti-black world.  

Still, I wonder, how do we understand and bear the differing thresholds for violence and suffering that move, with more or less urgency, through each of us over time? After Ming Mei’s death, I recalled a decade-old conversation that softened my understanding of human suffering and the conditions that shape the human capacity to feel, to suffer, and to carry on.  

Years ago, I had a beloved therapist named Shulamit. She died, quite suddenly, of liver cancer in December of 2008. Shulamit was remarkable as a human being and remarkably good at what she did. Much of my work with her centered on sexual violence and the men in my life who had harmed in some way. Most were family members; a few were not. After the birth of my first child in 2006, I struggled mightily with the histories of sexual violence and incest in my family. In particular, I had a hard time with the guilt I experienced, given my position as witness, rather than receiver of my father’s most intense displays of physical violence in our home.

During one of our sessions, Shulamit shared that for many years before becoming a therapist, she had worked at a rape crisis center. I prodded her for more details, anticipating a reasoned response that included something about “wanting to help women who had been assaulted.” Instead, she shared that she had become a therapist to better understand why the women she had worked with, responded with profound difference to their traumas. Specifically, Shulamit added, what kept her endlessly, painfully in question, was working with a woman who had experienced sexual harassment at work –a flirting boss who began touching her leg during work engagements –, while simultaneously supporting a woman who had been raped by multiple men over a period of hours. Both had been her clients at the rape crisis center. The first woman, Shulamit shared, quit her job, fell into suicidal depression, and was unable to work for a long time. The second experienced a distinct afterlife, undertaking anti-violence advocacy work for other women. Her work at the center, Shulamit added, constantly entailed these extremes, and it confused her: How could it be possible to live through such disparate scales of sexual violence and then, experience each in such seeming disproportion? It was this unsettling query that had first lead her into a serious study of trauma, and it was this question that she would spend the rest of her life as a therapist seeking more gentle, clarifying answers to.

Over time, Shulamit understood that our thresholds for pain and trauma entail a unique “life force”—as she called it—that, in part, helps explain each experience and each response to traumatic events. Shulamit’s idea about the magnitude and gravity of violence, its individuality and its effects, opened up a new world of gentleness for me in 2007. As I understand, we withstand and bear the force of violence in the world, in part, given the bodies we are born into. The body knows trauma uniquely, and many among us are capped in our capacities to build a body more than once, or over and over and over again, as some difficult life experiences do demand. I see indications of Shulamit’s idea everywhere in the histories I read — in the narratives of enslaved people, and especially, in the actions of enslaved women who systematically had their bodies and children stolen away. Shulamit’s idea has helped me extend a wider humanity to the people whose lives I study and the people I encounter each day.

As a mother, I have come to believe that we also withstand trauma’s magnitude in relation to the love we feel from our families, biological and chosen. My biological mother was drug addicted most of her life. She took great care not compare us—at least outwardly. She also took care not to disparage me with her words, although she may have, at times, tasted them inside her. She did not spank or hit me, even when I stretched the limits of permission well beyond what was acceptable for a child. Even when I talked back and ran away and slammed doors and refused to speak for hours—or days. I can remember that we once drove, silently, to Florida from our home in Baltimore, Maryland,  a two-day drive. I was so angry, for reasons I can no longer recall, that I refused to speak to or look at her for the great duration of the trip. What I experience as love, now, is the even and soft tone of her voice during our drive; the long lulls of her silence in our pickup truck; and the crackling feeling of pain in her chest that I knew, contentedly then, I was causing her. I now know that she was able to do that, to express a love with such restraint and generosity, because she loved me, and because her father had loved her and learned (albeit much later in life) to also express his love with such live-giving, permissible restraint and generosity.

Knowing love with permission and restraint, I believe, allows us to withstand some things.

I am thinking, finally, that some formative memories also allow us to withstand the world. For the last 30 years, I have regularly dreamt of my father’s 100-acre farm in upstate New York where I spent my childhood — land he purchased to escape the forceful enclosures of a life he resisted growing up in Newark, New Jersey. In my dreams, I have seen myself alone at our creek’s edge after breakfast, trapping crayfish and minnows in mason jars with wild fists of unkempt morning hair, and after lunch, eating wild strawberries all the way down the pathway to our pond’s edge. In my dreams, I am alone in our tilting and enormous barn, propping an old wooden ladder to ride its long slope on an old winter sled down into piles of damp hay. I am walking home from the pond at sunset carrying a vibrating, metal pail of frogs and then, slipping through opaque stalks of vegetables to abscond with the sweetest peas from a neighbor’s garden, undetected. On the farm, I am alone most often, and my mind is quiet in a way it has since refused.

These memories have remained fresh and alive in me. And these memories have curiously flooded my thoughts when life has felt unbearable. There have been many such moments over the last three decades, and still, the same memories return as if to say, “See, your life has meaning there at the edge of that creek. Yes, the wild strawberries are delicious. And remember: you were once quiet and content on the long walk home from the pond at dusk.” These memories, I believe, have assisted me time and time again in my darkness, because they are memories of a life so delicious they cannot be taken away. My capacity for loneliness is there on that farm. My capacity for fear is also there. The edge of the creek, the silted mouth of the pond, are also shorelines that may be reached again. I can, in memory and deed, build a life back to the earth, to another body of water, to another farm, where I found god in me and decided then, that I loved her fiercely against all the odds and the wide earth I roamed as a child.

Memories of a beautiful lifeline that cannot be stolen, I believe, can bridge us back and help us withstand some difficult things, too.

Perhaps living memories –of ancestors, love in restraint, and nostalgia — can become an art, a kind of waywardness, that is practiced as we continue to put one foot in front of the other. In her new book, Saidiya Hartman writes about the lives of Black women in the early twentieth century living with the impossible, yet insisting “living as an art.” Waywardness is a thought in the act, “to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking.” It is also “an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, where there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move.”

“It is,” she finishes, “the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.”  

 

 

 

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