Edited version read at A Writer’s Life Summer Reading
An excruciating pain ran along my lower back, down the sides of my legs, and exploded in an agonizing jangling of nerve endings on fire. It began just before a five–hour plane ride and later, a four–hour drive to a writing residency. I had this travel with grueling pain on my return. A doctor diagnosed sciatica. The treatment was pain killers that made me sleepy and foggy, ice packs, and lying very-very still in between workshops, performances, and master classes. The excruciating pain began to recede slowly in the weeks after I returned home. I was delighted when I was able to restart my swimming regimen, forty-five minutes each morning, five days a week.
On my way to the pool the first day the sciatic pain allowed me to, Bessie Smith sang on the CD player in my car. When she began singing Careless Love, inexplicably, I began to cry. I pulled the car over to compose myself. I puzzled over why I was crying. I pushed a button and placed Careless Love on repeat. I listened to Bessie Smith sing this song three more times. The piano holding the melodic line and swinging the pace along lulled me close to this altar of sound. The trombone growling low and keeping syncopated time with the high sound of the trumpet repeating and embellishing Bessie Smith’s voice opened and washed through me.
I’ve heard this song in the background of my life in New Orleans. I listened on thirty–eight records, albums, blues and jazz radio stations, instrumental jazz versions played during jazz funerals and street parades, and in blues and jazz night clubs.
Love, oh love, oh careless love.
You fly through my head like wine.
You’ve wrecked the life of many a poor girl
And nearly spoiled this life of mine.
My throat and chest kept tightening and swelling. Tears kept spilling and dripping to the edge of my grief and rage. I knew this song. I knew the places the sounds and emotions came from. The song of was of betrayal, but worse, self– betrayal.
Love, oh love, oh careless love.
In your clutches of desire
You’ve made break a many true vow,
Then set my very soul on fire.
On that February morning in 2016, I felt betrayed by my country, betrayed by what Donald Trump represented as a nominee for the president of the United States of America. But much–more elementally, I felt my ancestors, African slaves and free people of color, had allowed themselves to be seduced and duped by the ideas and promises of the United States Constitution all of its amendments, declarations, and pledges, along with all its Judeo-Christian morality.
Bessie Smith’s voice, the wail of the trumpet, the moan of the trombone, and the melodic swing of the piano uncovered layer upon layer of the consequences of the United States of America’s carelessness within me. Promises of acceptance and equality coated in beguiling lies and inducements that were wrapped in forced dependence, self–exploitation, and unspeakable violence waiting at the ends of billy clubs, fire hoses, and ropes. I imagined generations of slaves and former slaves laying twisted and shattered or hung while smiling faces spoke to the terrified bereaved of boot straps, resilience, the healing power of forgiveness, and the faults and responsibilities of the vanquished for their degradations and deaths, those never fully human, those never white.
In the water, my first day back, I felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected again. The searing electric pain, I had been experiencing had dimmed to a faint whisper. I looked forward to the peace and rest of my sweeping movements propelled by my breath and heart.
Before I entered the pool, I saw the white woman, whose name I didn’t know, who had insisted, I shouldn’t be allowed to have access to the lap lane, so she could occupy it alone, even though she herself was not a lap swimmer. The woman came to the pool with swim shoes, swim gloves, a buoyant device wrapped around her waist, and exercised in one corner of the lap swim lane. She had ranted and raved with the life guards when they refused to remove the divider that made the lap lane. She had fumed and pouted when she was told that the lap swim lane could be used by whomever got to the pool first.
That first day back the woman was talking to a life guard, as I walked to the graduated entrance to the pool and entered the lap lane. She began her tirade, as I entered. Her hands and arms gestured and pointed my way. After almost fifteen minutes of listening, the life guard placed his elbow on the arm of his life guard chair and his chin in his hand. His stance was bored. His face was set in polite attention She appears to be in her sixties, like me, and not much more than five feet tall. She has a grey-white-curly hair, a pleasant grandmotherly face, a strong shapely body that has squared in the waist and hips, and plumped up in the thighs and calves into an easy gentle aging. I began my silent and vigilant forty-five minutes prepared at any minute to be interrupted by one of her intrusions.
Instead of raising my defenses that morning, I asked myself to see her, to see past the hate in her eyes, past the white privilege she was insisting on at my expense. I kept asking myself to let go of my fear, my anger at the disruption of my sense of belonging, and my self–admonishment, that I must not express my feelings for fear of not being believed, of police being called because of her experience of me as other, as dangerous, as a threat to her.
Once submerged the water muted all sound. When I emerged from beneath the water the walls echoed the sounds of splash, slap, stoke, a coach’s whistle, and the shouts of swimmers training and exercising. When my forty–five minutes were up, I got out of the pool feeling at peace and headed for the locker room
Just as I ended showering, I heard faint sounds of crying. At first, I thought it was laughing until, I was sure it was crying. I finished dressing and looked under a bathroom stall door to be sure, I was right about where the crying was coming from. I knocked gently on the stall door.
“Excuse me,” I said, “You don’t know me, but I hear you crying. Sometimes it helps to talk, even with a stranger, when we’re upset. I’m going to sit on the bench by the locker for a bit. If you want someone to talk to, I’ll be there.”
She didn’t respond.
I packed my swim bag, put my wet towels in the bin waiting for them, and sat on the bench waiting for a crying woman, I did not know, to come out of a bathroom stall.
Soon, I heard the stall door open and a very short woman with amber hued skin came toward me weeping. I stood up. She walked into my arms, all four foot something of her strong round frame. When we parted, I sat on the bench. She sat down next to me. I waited for her to speak. She told me that she had come to the center and found that all of her swim gear had been removed and thrown away by mistake. She had come to have a place of peace and acceptance. She had come to begin to lose weight and now, she felt not cared for, less than, defeated, her hopes of self–care dashed.
I told her my name and how long it had taken for me to commit completely to my own care, to come to swim consistently, to do it for myself, because I had come to the knowing, I was worth it. I told her about the white woman whose name I didn’t know, how I had kept my place at the pool, and had disallowed everything that would cause me to give up my swimming, to give up on myself. I supported her to talk to the swim director, to request that her belongings replaced. I hoped her request and their positive response would help restore her trust and her place at the swim center. When we stood to say goodbye, I held her face in my hands and bent to kissed her forehead. She wrapped her strong arms around me.
I left her gathering her things to go and talk to the swim director. When I went to the car, I cried in complete gratitude that I had not been careless, at least not with the amber hued woman who name I hadn’t known. “My name is Jennifer,” she had said to me in a surprisingly low–lilting–melodic voice.
Andrea R. Canaan