(Note: Interspersed photos come from Spain, Belgium, and my road trip this summer. They are photos of photos. I hope you appreciate the perfect turtle near the end.)
Last Tuesday, I woke up before dawn to drive to New Hampshire for a day of election coverage. It was freezing out and the sky was a dark, muted grey, warning of snowfall. On the highway just north of the Massachusetts border, I skidded over a patch of ice and my car jerked to the left. My dread was brief but overwhelming: What if I lost control of the wheel? I didn’t, thankfully, but just a few meters beyond the patch of ice were a busted-up truck and a police car surrounded by a thin carpet of shattered glass.
I’ve passed many highway accidents over the 15,000 miles I’ve driven since June. Along the interstates in Tennessee, Texas, and Arizona, I’ve read electric signboards warning me about the number of traffic fatalities over the past year. Each accident is a jolting reminder of my own mortality and the fact that, by getting in my car, I am voluntarily putting myself at risk. I wonder about the victims. Who they are. Whether their families know yet.
I’ve been thinking about two ideas recently — the extent to which we’re in control of our own fates (a thought prompted by my brief driving scare), and the thousands of anonymous people whose lives touch us in some small way. Anonymous in the sense that they’re strangers to us, and we to them, like those injured in traffic accidents.
I often return to one person in particular, a man in Coimbra, Portugal. It was July 20, 2014, two days after Haley died in Germany. The morning after I’d found out she had died. I hadn’t slept the night before, and now I had to catch a bus to Porto, the penultimate city on my itinerary that summer. I could have stayed another day in Coimbra but it never occurred to me that I should stop. I wanted to keep moving forward. If I stopped my mind would dwell on the loss, and the loss would become more real, more painful.
At the bus station cafe, I approached the counter to purchase something for breakfast. My brain wasn’t functioning; I didn’t know what to order. My face was puffy and red from the crying. I must have looked terrible. The man behind the counter spoke to me in English, asked me what I wanted. I waved at some pastries and he bagged them up for me. Many, maybe five. He took a euro or so off my order and said, as he handed me the pastries, that he hoped I had a “bright, sun-shiny day.”
I think about that gesture every now and then. It was kind and unassuming. The man behind the counter saw a distraught foreign girl walk into his cafe and responded the best he could. I wonder what he thought of me. I wonder what he’s doing now.
I feel some guilt in not writing about the environment as I’d said I would in July. You see, I’d written that first note on July 2. The next day, I found out my grandfather was sick. Five days after that, he died of Covid-19.*
For years I have been drawn to writing stories about loss, but never more so than now, when the whole world is grieving something or someone. That said, I’m not sure what these notes will be. Things I see, people I meet. The environment, too. I’m hoping the notes will help me think through ideas about loss and joy and people who I miss.
As I mentioned in the last note, I’d love to hear from you. In August, I wrote an essay about my grandfather’s death, and the first editing process — feedback from my friends — was wonderful. (The essay will be published in a few weeks.) This is where life and work become one. Writing helps me process and clarify, as does correspondence.
On work: A few days ago, the Boston Globe Ideas section ran a story I wrote about a woman named Nicole Avila, whose Salvadoran husband Julio lives in New Hampshire as a TPS recipient.
I did several long interviews that day, but the Globe couldn’t take everything I wrote. So I’ll leave you with one story from a woman named Abigail Mintaa, an accountant from Ghana who I met at a polling center in Nashua. I followed up with her during an hour-long phone call the next day. She took the call while watching her kids (I heard one of them clamoring for attention in the background).
A style note — the Globe had me write these in the form of ‘as told to’s.’ I compiled and rearranged the interviews into a condensed form — editing, essentially — and put the stories in the first-person. Nicole’s interview appeared under her own byline, as told to me. The Globe also let me show her a draft ahead of publication, to make sure I was faithful to her voice and story. She had no changes. For more on the style and ethics of this testimonial writing, I recommend reading this interview with Elizabeth Rush, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Rising, who included several such testimonies in her account of sea water rise across the U.S.
I’ve showed the following essay to Abigail. She liked it, and she’s letting me publish it here.
The dignity of this country is very important to me.
Recently, I returned to Ghana for the first time since I moved here in 2012, after my husband won the visa lottery. I was talking to a friend, and when I asked if she would ever move to the U.S., she told me, “no, I want to remain safe.” She was talking about the coronavirus.
I was surprised to hear her talk like that. People in Ghana used to respect the United States. To us, the United States seemed like the most powerful country. Now, they’re not sure.
Where I’m coming from, we saw this country as the greener pasture. It was a place where you could really grow and be who you wanted to be.
I’ve always dreamt of becoming an accountant. I love math. I love calculations. I want to open my own service, but I’ve had to put that dream on hold. When you have a family everything changes. I have four kids. I couldn’t work 8 to 5 as an accountant, so I work as a fabrication technician instead.
In Ghana, it’s always summer. I had to adapt to the weather here. But I like New Hampshire. We bought a house, and the neighborhood is quiet. When you cross the street, the cars stop for you. In my country you don’t have that. If you want to cross the street it takes you a long time — no car stops for you.
Making friends was hard. I was new and didn’t know the culture. And I’m Black. In New Hampshire, there aren’t so many Black people. In church people are nice. They ask, “how are you sister?” We have a woman’s group, and that’s where I socialize. But outside of church, I haven’t made many friends.
My favorite verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That’s what keeps me going, now matter how tough life is.
I didn’t know that verse when I was younger, when I lost my brother and, a year, later, lost my mother. At the time, I was in Ghana, seeing my husband every two or three years. He was already in the United States. I was waiting to move, waiting to start a new life. To forget some of the pain.
Going back for the first time in eight years, Ghana was like I used to know it. When you go home, you have this sensation that you’re returning to your roots, to where you began. I talked with my grandmother about the old times, the little farm where the family grew yams and cocoa and tomatoes.
Ghana is still my country, but I am American. America is my home. It means a lot for me and my family.
This election was special with all the craziness going on. We always pray for the best. I’ve done what I had to do as a citizen to make this a better place. I’ve made my opinion known by voting. I look forward to embracing whoever wins the support of the majority. I hope the country can come together.
As for my children, I always tell them to use the opportunity that has been given to them. They have every means to be successful in America.
*note to email readers: got my dates wrong here, so I’ve changed on the web post. Those days blend in strange ways.