It was around March 18th when I noticed the trucks, and the grown-ups (presumably parents) with their SUVS parked in front of large buildings, frantically packing their children up. It was before mandatory face coverings, but I started to wear a scarf around my own face just in case. I was warped by the shuttering of schools and subsequent confusion around pandemic remote schooling. I think seeing the trucks, or the posts from those who frantically left— maybe it was school— allowed me to dig my feet into what was happening a bit more. A series of events led to a large-scale sense of us vs. them in the city. It still exists in some respects.
While Cynthia posted photos from swimming holes and an expanse of greenery in mid April, she wasn’t “them” by any means. She left shortly before our city’s stay at home orders due to the untimely death of her father. She drove across the border in the early morning, well before our city folded into parts. A trip to say farewell to her father, turned into five months in a country she hadn’t lived in since she was a teen.
At the surprising passing of your father and his funeral, you went back to Canada before the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders in NY and, subsequently, Canada. Can you share more about that experience?
I received a phone call at 5 AM on March 13th that changed our lives forever. My father had passed away suddenly, after years of physical rehabilitation from a stroke he had a decade ago. I immediately packed our things and drove seven hours north to Canada. Two days later, New York City’s mayor announced that all public schools were closing and moving to remote learning due to coronavirus. Four days later, the funeral home shared with us we could no longer move forward with our funeral plans as the province of Quebec had banned large gatherings.
To make it even harder they had also banned burials which forced us to break centuries-old African traditions. We could not bury our father and had to get blessings from our family in Togo, West Africa. It was truly devastating. To end the week, the Canadian/American border was closing indefinitely for non-essential travel. We decided to stay in Canada and never left.
We quarantined with my mother, who is an obstetrician gynecologist and still works daily in a hospital at 65-years-old. I’ve been in awe of her courage, determination, and professionalism during this time, along with all essential workers willing to sacrifice their own safety and well-being to keep our cities running. We owe them so much.
You’ve been a New Yorker for many years, and now your “short stay” in Canada has been almost half a year. Compare and contrast the version of you that used to live there long ago and the one that now lives there with a child.
I believe my father brought us home to make sure we were safe and healthy in a country that knew how to deal with a pandemic, a country with a true leader. I honestly had forgotten what it felt like. I was 15-years-old the last time I lived at home and 21 when I moved to New York from Montreal after graduating from college. I took so much for granted at the time. Now being a full-time mom with a full-time career, I am very much aware of the quality of life and social benefits Canada offers: a well-developed public health system and public education system, strong government-mandated family programs, government funding for maternity leave—the list goes on. I’ve also noticed that the majority of my friends in Canada are homeowners unlike in New York. I’ve been curious, after living so many years in New York, what life would be like in Canada. I got my answer.
Can you tell us more about your morning and evening routines up there?
I normally absolutely hate routine! I’m someone who goes as far as taking a different route to the train station each day, just to make room for the unexpected to happen. In these unprecedented times, however, with so much uncertainty, no structure, no office or school, routine has been essential.
So, it starts with making green juice every morning. My dearest friend had been raving about her juicer and all the benefits of juicing. I finally took the leap and bought myself that horizontal juicer for my birthday. It has been life changing. Juicing is cell nourishment that doesn’t require any effort from the body. It is also great because it’s a routine I can share with my daughter. My daily juice is celery, ginger, cucumber, cilantro, and green apples.
In the evening, we always share our favorite part of the day and read a book. Now that she reads, she sometimes volunteers to read one of her favorite books.
Bell Hooks often talks about this shape-shifting that Black women do, and I wonder how has your life as a Black woman, and your community, shape-shifted in what we painfully and playfully dub, “corona-time”?
I love the notion of shape-shifting and that representation in Egyptian mythology. Isis, the goddess of family and health, was represented as a cow or decorated with the horns of a cow. Nephthys, a protective goddess who symbolizes the death experience, was depicted as a bird of prey or as a woman with falcon wings—a symbol of protection. As Black women in America, we have no choice but to shape-shift, to take steps towards empowerment, to find ways to fight patriarchy, and systems of oppression and class domination every single day. There is no way around it, it’s a daily reality.
I have mostly felt paralyzed, feeling so far away from our community, our neighborhood and our friends, especially during the uprising movement that took place in the States. While friends were protesting daily in Brooklyn, I reflected on how to better show up, even from a distance. Professionally, I used this momentum to have many uncomfortable, overdue conversations that ended up being the catalyst for change at our photo agency and in the photography community as a whole. I chose to continue to support initiatives organized by dear friends like “Pictures for Elmhurst”, which raised over one million dollars for Elmhurst Hospital Centers in New York City and “See In Black”, a collective of Black photographers raising funds through the sale of original prints to support organizations like Know Your Rights Camp, Black Futures Lab, and The Bail Project.
What are your plans when it comes to NY, if you can share?
I have never been so indecisive. I’ve spent entire nights awake trying to figure out what to do, brainstorming with friends, and researching potential new homes. Quality of life and education are the two biggest pieces of the puzzle for me as a single parent with a demanding career. Most elementary schools in Canada are reopening at full capacity in-person without masks. Sending my daughter to school here versus managing remote learning would be a dream.
At the same time, we miss our home, our community, our chosen family. As of today, we plan to travel back to New York very soon to reassess in-person. It has been too long. I’m very aware it is a privilege to have options. Ultimately, I know we will choose the path of least friction.
What has been most beautiful about this time? The most painful?
Slowing down and simplifying our life. Quality time with friends. Reconnecting with nature. Choosing to make the best out of a tragic situation and practicing gratitude daily.
By far, the most challenging aspects have been living with family for over five months at 39-years-old and managing my daughter’s first grade school work.
When it comes to your time in Canada with your daughter, I see a certain kind of peace unfold through your photographs. Can you share more about her experience as well?
My daughter has embraced spending more time with her family, making new friends, living in a bigger space, daily swims, bike rides in the neighborhood, speaking French, and planting cucumbers and tomatoes. Everyday with her is a gift. I am so inspired by our children, who have adapted and been strong and resilient throughout these last few months.
Finally, any words of wisdom?
Embrace the reset, a chance to pause (for some of us). Find your purpose and rethink our busy lives. This is teaching us what truly matters in life. It’s the silver lining.