I Am Not An Island (Though I Imagined Myself To Be)

Dear Friends,

The last few posts have been about island life, and this post is anti-island life. Let me explain. For years, I’ve been a woman unto myself. Don’t get me wrong, the best people have made their way into my life and given me the gift of friendship, but I’ve also always had it simmering in my consciousness that at any time I may lose one of them. It was always necessary for me to be self-reliant and never get too attached to anyone. It was my habit to disconnect or detach myself from anyone who started to get too close… it couldn’t be helped.

When I was nine years old, my parents left Jamaica and moved to New York state to set up a house and a new life for us in Long Island (yet another island in the list of islands that have been home). My story is like that of millions of other immigrants across the globe, and it’s prevalent in Caribbean society. (I don’t pretend to be unique). One or both parents will leave children behind while moving to the “Land of Plenty” to build a new life for their family; they’ll work fourteen-hour days, buy a house in a “nice suburb” or a nice enough neighborhood and then send for their children to join them. I lived with my best friend and her family for a year (it’s called “Boarding”). Her family, naturally, became mine. My best friend’s mother, Aunt S, was a second mother to me and treated me like her very own. She introduced me to everyone as her daughter; however, I knew, as much as we loved each other, I wasn’t her very own and I was essentially alone. My parents were gone; it was my first disconnect. When my friends at school would ask me where my parents were, for the longest time I never told them.

In the year that my parents were setting up life in New York, they visited Kingston often. They would bring gifts, things that were unavailable or extremely expensive in Jamaica at that time: Reeboks, American apples, chocolates, clothes. God, I was so happy to see them… I remember when my father would come how I’d run and jump on him and hang on, and when my mother would visit I’d marvel at her clothes, high boots and thick red sweaters. (How often would we see women in boots in Jamaica? Never, unless they were visiting from “farin”). The moments of joy replaced all the sadness I felt at their absence.

My life was happy in school; like any other child, I’d run at recess, until I was sweaty;  jump hopscotch, play Dandy Shandy and eat Chippies banana chips and suck on Kisko pops and red-syrup suck sucks and drink Kola Champagnes and Tings and laugh with my friends, but at night, I was alone. I shared a room with Tan and we’d talk half the night about dancehall songs we loved and shows and the boys that liked her and the one I secretly liked. Even then I was a night owl, and I’d stay up hours after she slept. I remember being afraid to go to sleep, because I feared going blind in the night. Sometimes, education is a bad thing (it was shortly after learning Beethoven went blind that I began to fear losing my sight). I’d face the wall, trying my hardest not to sleep, listening to the dogs outside howl at each other, the moon, the tamarind tree.

It’s funny, but when my parents, my brother and I reunited, we never once spoke of our year’s separation. (This is how my family works anyway, we pretend things never happened). Somehow, I think my parent’s migration to the States made me a stronger person. Stronger, but infinitely more pathetic. It became second nature to cut people out of my life, even people I loved. I refused to form strong attachments. I wouldn’t ask anyone for help. Once when moving, instead of asking for assistance, I moved a couch from the sixteenth floor to the ground floor by myself. I lifted it on one side, shoved it into the hallway, into an elevator and into the garbage room of my building. I thought I was strong, but I see now, that I was pathetic. Why not ask for help? My parents leaving then, meant that I could leave at anytime. It was never hard for me to be thousands of miles away or on any continent, because I knew what it was to face a wall in the dark.

I’m writing this post at 4am, because I see that as much as I tried to deny it, I need people. Last night, I thought I’d had the last straw with my roommate: the noises, the sniffling, the loudness, the temperature controls. I decided that it was time to move out and even sent my rental agency a move-out notice for March. Enough was enough I thought; despite the cheap rent, it was time to get out of a shared space. When I came home tonight, I told my housemates of my plan to leave in a month, and the genuine care, support and suggestions made me see that with a little help from them, I’d be able to continue for a while longer. We’ve been here for just a short time, but there’s an inexplicable feeling of camaraderie in Borderless House Oshiage. Plus, my rent’s crazy cheap, so I’ll continue to take each day as it comes, and when it gets to be too much, there are rooms I’ll sneak into and sleep in. As much as I love and adore Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” and thought for years that it pertained to me, I’m so grateful to realize that it doesn’t.

* T sharing natto with me, because he wanted to “share his favorite.”

I appreciate that this isn’t me…but love it all the same:



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8 thoughts on “I Am Not An Island (Though I Imagined Myself To Be)”

  1. Va!
    So true your sentiments about being what I call “a solitary”…a person who can be alone and not freak. I am also of that ilk…capable of solitude, even needing it to maintain sanity. I share the same ability to detach from relationships both familial and otherwise. I sometimes wonder if there is something going on with me, especially when I see some people practically glued to others, forming attachments that baffle me as to origin and necessity. I’m definitely not that sort of person. However, being self-sufficient doesn’t preclude the need for other people in your life, it merely speaks to your ability to cope in the absence of company. Cherish it as it serves people like us very well.

    BTW…I would go crazy with the roommate noises you describe! (LOL)

  2. Thank You Ms. Val for opening up a dialogue that brought a wave of emotions through the household of those I hold near and dear. When I first starting sharing your adventures with my Mom, she felt and still feels ” you share to much” , “why must she share soooo much”…Lolol… I laugh because she is like most “Old School” Jamaicans, what goes on at home stays at home. This last post brought to the forfront something alot us caribbean women share “keep at arms length, so no unnecessary hurt will take place”. Rock equates strength and living as an island as a woman, though can be achieved is not what I want. My mom was apologetic in her own way with the feelings that were shared and asked me to not take the heartfelt moments and share with world like Ms. Val…Lolol.. She can appreciate your free spirit and hopes your enjoying yourself. My response is we all have 1 life, live it to the fullest. Thanks Ms. Val and I look forward to reading about your next adventure.

  3. Indigo, thank you! I understand your mother’s sentiment as most Jamaicans are raised to be very private. Too private. All this sharing I’m doing has only happpened in the last few years and it has been quite freeing. I’m happy that the post led to a discussion, because keeping things in gets draining, no?

    I’ll quote two artists who essentialize all I’m feeling and doing on this blog:

    R.E.M: “Oh no, I’ve said too much; I haven’t said enough,” and

    Simon and Garfunkel (again), “Silence like a cancer grows.”

    Thanks for the good wishes and I wish for you the same.

  4. Vanessa, you’re absolutely right that “being self-sufficient doesn’t preclude the need for other people in your life.” I wanted both: people around me when I desired and complete solitude for the other 68% of the time. The problem is that life doesn’t work that way… well, not without a lot of hard feelings. I guess I took self-sufficency too far at times.

    As you pointed out, it’s about balance. Thanks, as always.

  5. Quite insightful. I have always admired your strength/ability to take up roots and travel to the corners of the earth. I was boarded out too so that I could attend Vaz Prep. I have also feared losing my loved ones and have lived my life with the anticipation of loss. Didn’t know that you have similar feelings.

    I guess we are not Ibetha (the island) as Hugh Grant claims to be in ‘About A Boy’.

    Your blog is great!

  6. Meg,

    I think anyone’s who’s boarded out naturally builds up a shell based in fear not strength. How could you not when at some level you’ve been forced to be self-reliant, if even emotionally and at the same time repress your feelings? As I said, my story definitely isn’t unique, and I think we should really take a closer look at the “boarding” situation. Since most of our parents did it when they were in school, it was never seen as much of a big deal.

    Thanks for reading and your comment!


  7. This is a great post, Val. I, too, learned the hard way that I need people. I boarded at one school and there were so many rules, it was wack. My sisters boarded in high school, and they’re traumatized. I boarded again in University, and it was awesome!

  8. Thanks HL!

    I think the age of the boarder makes all the difference. Someone who’s too young emotionally or chronologically will be affected much more than an emotionally developed/adept individual. I think by college, it’s natural, welcome and necessary to live away from home.

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