As a child growing up in Jamaica, I dreaded bridges. My overactive imagination found me holding my breath whenever we went over one of our few but renowned bridges. The historic and indomitable Flat Bridge, the Spanish Town Bridge and the most modern during my childhood, the Causeway Bridge, spring readily to mind. I just knew in my young fertile brain that if I did not hold really still and focus on the other side, something horrible would happen before we completed the crossing.
That fear of crossing literal bridges eventually faded however, as the rest of life’s challenges kicked in. My Jamaica, ‘land of wood and water’, was indeed a world with many rivers to cross. The challenge of making friends, of doing well in school, of laying a path to the future in a culture and economy without too many lucrative options, necessitated bridge building of all sorts. Though the main crossing that many aspired to make was that across the Caribbean Sea to first world America, ‘land of opportunity’, many of us were content to live in our spicy tropic paradise despite the lack and needs thereof. The resourceful, resilient spirit of the culture captured in phrases like ‘we likkle but we tallawah’ or ‘Tu’n yuh han’ mek fashi’n mek substitute’, made it a society full of stream-skippers, gully-leapers, river-jumpers and bridge-builders.
Raised in Whitfield Town, which was perhaps a middle-class neighborhood in its crown colonial hey-day, gave me a front row seat in my formative years to observe how post-colonization affected ordinary people on the micro-level. The humble folk plying their trade — hot-peanut sellers with their whistling carts, the pepper-shrimp man with his basket of crawfish on bicycle bars, or the fish, callalloo, or hominy corn sellers with their distinctive cries, peddling their wares up and down our streets, all seemed to happily hold their place. Yet all had dreams that kept them going. Dreams for children or grand-children to finish school and become the teacher, the doctor, the nurse or the lawyer. All believed and expected their progeny to cross over society’s boundaries to the next level, all with the one clear instruction to ‘mind your mannahs’, as that is what would ‘take you far’.
Our family was no different. I learned how to maneuver a wide cross-section of our society: respectfully honoring the older generation, be they side-walk higgler or the grand dames at the teachers’ college’s ‘old-girls’ luncheon; studiously hurrying by the idle, cat-calling bunch of guys by the corner shop or humbly accepting the compliments of peers in my literature tutorials at the university; carefully choosing my words to the taxi-driver as I offered what I was willing to pay for the trip to Half-Way-Tree, or formally presenting the minutes to the PTA at the Catholic school where I taught Language Arts for two years; writing and performing on conference stages with my church’s performing arts ministry or deftly leaping over the squalor, strewn about what was left of sidewalks downtown, Coronation market, to catch a bus to Cross Roads.
My heart was mercifully enlarged and stretched beyond typical youth’s self-centredness. I was taught to match the template of the soul of my people, presented in our literature, history and poetry, to those I encountered daily, through the Biblical and culturally relevant instruction I received from a pastor with a vision for the nation. I owned the little windscreen washing boys by the stoplights of the city square, asking where they lived and sending them home after giving them what little money I could. I felt truly affirmed by the broken down old guy smoking on the bar curb, who called me ‘teacher’ even when I was still in school. I knew what it was to relax my dignity and enter into the jovial camaraderie of an overpacked minibus and to feel a real blush, after disembarking, when its hapless conductor, one day, dangling from its steps as it pulled recklessly away, called back to me, ‘Yuh look like a fluh-wahs!”
So I soon became at home with bridges and encountered them everywhere: a smile is a bridge, a welcome gesture of trust between you and me; a hand-shake bridges gaps, pulling us into promises, contracts and bonds that bear weight; the spoken word — a bridge of communication, launches lingua francas for our progeny to ply trade across cultural and geo-political lines for years to come. The longer I live the more I see that the entire matrix of societies that endure, do so by a system of bridges – codes of interaction tried and true beginning with compacts, constitutions, laws and covenants, like marriage, and bills of rights. History bears out that their longevity was usually predicated on their starting places, their foundations. That one Bridge which is most far-reaching in its effect, spanning the gulf fixed between God and Man, being the ever-living Mediator, Christ Himself; and the means by which He accomplished it, His Cross. Jamaica: land of the wood of His Cross, the water of His Word, and the Church His Body, the Bridge, enfleshed.
Small wonder then that my marriage, migration, parenting and subsequent life pursuits, including writing, have all been processed through this filter of bridges. I can think of no better existence than to be one who facilitates the meeting of varied and searching hearts on a sure and well-founded bridge that leads to the ultimate crossing.