Beauty, loss and their ‘side-by-side-ness’

– Jennifer Nash

My ‘nanni’ turned 90 this week. She’s seen it all, she told me recently. I’m ready were her words, in fact. I winced – I wince still – and squeezed her hand. She draws my attention to its contours – to sagging skin and veins standing to attention. I attend: I see her hand lovely, whispering chronicles of mischief, creativity and labour. Of chapati-rolling. She sees tired and old-looking: she tells me so. I clasp tighter. I can’t remember what I said, or didn’t say. I didn’t and don’t want her to be floating solo in that space-time – and yet even my very best empathy – the one all my training was really for – is not up to this moment, this today.

Luckily my empathy appears superfluous – she’s moved on. More comfortable terrain for us both? Or just a dip into another register? Either way, thank f*** I can’t help but think. We’re sat on a bench near an outdoor café surrounded by parkland, people-watching. This is part of her daily routine. Though a welcome call into the present, I struggle to keep up – my body is still contemplating the contours of her hand and life. But that’s not where we are now. Now, we are at SNACK TIME. She reaches into her pocket – thank you gorgeous hand. It’s not uncommon for the consumable to be housed in an old bread bag. Neither is she against sitting in the cafe whilst enjoying ‘bitings’ from home. This was recently reported to me in real-time on the family WhatsApp group – complete with photo. I laughed a big laugh that day. Sweet relief from sensing bygone yesterdays and disappearing tomorrows.

“Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” – Toni Morrison

I spend plenty of time in the yesterdays: as a therapist, tiptoeing in the past has come also to feel like home. My past, others’ past, or ‘pastness’, as academic and anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, calls it. Pastness being a position that we are never fully out of. On this ‘constant interplay between present and past[ness]’, I was sold many moons ago. And I am reminded of this today, thinking of Nanni and nudged by a paper titled ‘Writing Black Beauty’.

‘Beautiful writing is the form required to develop cartographies of black women’s losses’, the author and academic, Jennifer Nash, argues. The beautiful form, with the potential to move writer and reader alike and differently, are needed as a ‘strategy for understanding the messy places’, she says (also beautifully). These ‘messy places’ – these losses – are articulated as ‘absence, erasure, what is missed and missing, what is taken or stolen, what is unknown and unknowable.. experiences of invisibility and dispossession .. institutional arrangements that render black women unseen and disappeared, to describe persistent feelings of loneliness and alienation that are structurally produced..’

This insistence that ‘loss is only knowable through a proximity to beauty’ resonates in my yesterdays, todays and my sensing of tomorrows. As I flick through the former, my yesterdays, I realise that I have always sought poetry – in all its less literal forms – when attempting to join someone in their ‘messy places’. Anything else seems to fall short.

Nash’s writing centres those with amongst the poorest health and socio-economic outcomes in many societies: black women. Those whose losses – and riches to be lost – are in a register, or set of registers, of their own. And, the ‘side by side-ness’ of beauty and loss – as Nash calls it – seems an insight for us all to behold. So, I see those Nanni-related yesterdays more clearly today. They weren’t capital ‘B’ beautiful; not a Monet or Sojourner Truth ‘Aint I a Woman?’ kind. They were quietly beautiful. A feeding-the-ducks kind. My ‘big laugh’ was actually a big love – knitted and knotted with grief that Nanni has ‘more yesterday than anybody’.

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