Wreaths and Reyez

Revolutions of a life


in First Person • Illustrated by Kat Zale Heller


I am obsessed with wreaths. Of all kinds. The ones that garland graves and coffins, the ones that hang on doors throughout Christmas. I love the white rose-studded wreaths hanging over the altar in between a couple sharing vows. I love the thistles and burnished brown leaves tied to make autumn wreaths. I love the wreaths that climbing plants make around the IMAX screen of the BFI, creating a green-filled must and shade as you walk into the theatre and sit in front of the abnormally large screen. Wreaths represent memory, as we revisit the memories of our lives, we see different events, with every revolution and every daydream we find things to mourn, to celebrate, to herald a return to. The routine of looking back gives us more opportunity to celebrate our lives, to fold our experiences into some form of elaborate decoration, and present it to the world. An invitation for people to come and be a witness.

I appreciate solo traveling. Walking through different cities without the burden of other people, I get to take casual strolls through unfamiliar towns, go to movies in different countries (for some reason egregious to other holidaymakers), sit for several hours at the local bar and drink whatever the local drink is, and just people-watch, reading a book and avoiding any real interaction while still looking. Lauren Elkin says in her book Flaneuse that “learning to see meant not being able to look away,” so I try to walk with open eyes, engaging with the streets fully, and greeting shopkeepers and market traders as I walk by. I have the privilege of being a large man, being able to walk around without the fear of intimidation, and I must accept this. No matter the constant anxiety that plagues me, the dangers of the streets usually pass me by. For women traveling alone, the streets can sometimes prove a challenge, either they are open to harassment or are assumed to be sex workers. Sex workers are allowed only one part of the city, allowed only to roam through the supposed red-light districts or any city or town’s equivalent. The joy and contemplation that walking gives should be open to both men and women. In writing about walking through cities at different times, it’s imperative that I highlight this and bring to light the many challenges women face when walking. 

To create as much home as possible within these spaces I build routines; walking paths that take me over most of the cities I visit. I choose an artist to listen to on every walk, repeating each song with every step, hopefully finding something new within their lyrics and the production, or hopefully triggering some deeper reverie into my past and finding something to celebrate, mourn, or write about. Henri Lefebvre in his collection of essays Rhythmanalysis says one should “grasp the rhythm of the city.” To be engaged with the rhythms of the city is to be present. I feel like completely subsuming oneself into the rhythms of the city does not help. It leads to a stasis of being. By that, I mean people who become engaged too fully with routine in my experience become robotic and an inactive part of the rhythm of the city. However, an intentional, critical view of the routines and roles of the tiny things within the city could be a source of comfort. Music was my method of engaging with the rhythm of the city. Whilst observing people, I worked on a rhythm that kept me just outside the city to feel the city move.  

I went on a four-day holiday to Marseille, a city I’ve been to before. I enjoy Marseille, to me, it is South London on the coast. A city that doesn’t bend for tourists and moves with an anarchic fury, with street hawkers and buskers, scooters (motorized and kick), and cyclists all moving in a haphazard fashion. There are skateboarders doing tricks in the middle of the street and people rushing across roads as trams blow their horns. Marseille, the anti-authority city where you might just walk through a dissipating tear gas cloud, eyes watering and sneezing before sitting down for natural wine and amazing seafood.  

I listen to Jessie Reyez, the Colombian Canadian singer/songwriter. YESSIE, the title of her sophomore album and a herald to her heritage, is a phonetic representation of the Latin pronunciation of her name. Jessie, is a master of weaving wreaths, taking memories, traumatic and joyful, and building a collage that ends with something rhythmic, encouraging, and wonderful. 

...and wreaths continue to fall in my winter
songs of a sunset falling like songs of a sunset
like songs of a sunset linked together on a
upcoming moon,

I escaped to Marseille for the first time experiencing burnout, depression, and anxiety. I had been working seven days a week, five days at the butcher counter of Whole Foods and two days in administration at my dream job, a small arts organization. I was also in my first year of a Creative Writing MA program. The summer was fine, I rode to work and enjoyed being busy, but the winter months came and soon my body wouldn’t move from my bed. I was sedated, locked in a single room forcing myself to get up and drink water. I was removed from the world, I spent November and December in bed, and eventually, I was fired from the butcher counter. I spent Christmas alone, lost and broken, only just holding on to the administration job. In these moments I found Jessie. FIGURES,” her breakout single, spoke to me. It seemed that I had really given life my all, and it had given me shit. I listened to all her music and began to watch her music videos, examining them whilst I lay in bed.  

In “MUTUAL FRIEND” the music video opens on the atrium of a house, the colors are muted but homely, and the light is bright — though I feel like the weather is cold. Dancers in black shirts move in staccato, bending and caressing themselves with all the spirit of a skipped heartbeat, they lean against the stairs, against the corridor walls, seemingly atrophied holding all the tension of the steady piano anticipating a voice that shouts to the accusation of being crazy: “I know bitch.” The camera enters the bedroom, and another dancer’s forehead lies against the foot of the bed, hand raised in the same tension, but in this tension, I see devotion, a prayer to something higher. The bed sheets are dated, like something you would see in a Hallmark movie, and the walls are papered with flowers that are surrounded by a wreath of flowers that give way to just many of these flowers falling to somewhere beyond the floor. A lamp from the same era sits on a bedside table, and beside the lamp sits Jessie in a corset and ripped tights, three gold rings on one hand, and several bracelets. Toying with her costume, she sings about memories. The camera moves back to the atrium, the dancers are beginning to engage more, the tension slowly releasing into the fluid movements of their bodies. Then we move to the kitchen and dining room, a table set for two, but one of the plates is smashed on the floor. We return to the atrium, then the bedroom, then the kitchen. With every verse and every reveal, we are shown more of this house. Blossoms of the living room, the lounge, and the garden are peppered in, but interestingly, as Jessie goes over all the memories she no longer lives, the ones she has firmly put behind her, planting them in the fixtures of this desolate manor, flowers begin to erupt from the house itself, a white rose rises from a cushion on a dining chair leaving scattered moss and soil around to further add to the mess of the broken plate, and flowers turn up in the sink, drowning in the water from the open tap. Flowers turn up in the bed, and suddenly Jessie, now in white, sits on a beige sofa in a beige lounge, flowers surrounding her, intertwining through every crack in the floor. She is staring at nothing, a coy smile on her face, and as the camera closes in, she turns towards us and her smile widens, as she tells us, “I sleep like a baby.” All the memories have been laid to rest and she sits among a laurel of flowers that all bow to form a wreath around her.  

it seems like wreaths are on my mind, 
burning gold rings of layered memory
and if i'm talking about death let me remind
myself of every Halloween where we danced 

I walked around the city, its makeup being completely of hills and stairs. I was sweaty, and my thoughts turned dark, the steps and large white rocks looked inviting, calling me to stop and rest and maybe not continue to climb every staircase or walk up every hill, but the grit of Jessie’s voice kept me moving. It soon became a test I placed on myself, to find the paths with the most downhill steps and uphill roads. The first time I was in Marseille, I was fortunate enough to stay at a friend’s Airbnb, and the day I arrived — on only two hours of sleep, tired and foggy from the travel — they took me to the top of the Basilica Notre Dame De La Garde, a steep walk that I thought would kill me, but the views of Marseille from the top of the church was such a release, a sense of freedom and rejuvenation from all the tiredness. We sat on the steps of the Basilica and spoke for hours, finely attuning ourselves to each other, subtly learning each other’s rhythms, creating this wonderful dance of appreciation and welcome. I was surprised at how well we created this music of human movement and social interaction, we were aware of each other, looking at and recognizing each other’s need for space, sustenance, and solitude. I’ve been told I’m a good guest and I credit those before me like Elkin and Lefebvre for being aware of my surroundings and developing senses that supersede my anxiety. 

On this trip, I am staying at another friend’s house, a beautiful villa, on the fifth floor of an estate with balconies looking out over the St. Charles Station, and as I move towards the Basilica again, I think of hospitality, I think of the comfort so carefully offered to me as I walk up the steep paths toward the top of the church, and I think how willing all my friends are to host me, to let me into their house, to allow my presence around their safe spaces. I start revisiting every time a friend has pulled out their sofa bed, has brought me blankets or duvets, has gently raised my head to push a pillow underneath, and I am grateful. I remember watching this friend’s wedding livestreamed on my computer at home during the lockdown and the bridesmaids were all holding wreaths made of white roses. I screenshot the image and kept it on my drive. Jessie had a lot of support; hospitality came to her in many ways: her music teacher allowing her to shut herself off in the piano room, a recommendation to The Remix Project a program for low-income musical artists to collaborate, and collaborations and mentoring from King Louie, Eminem, and Daniel Daley from Dvsn. Eminem told The New York Times that Jessie “sings like she’s not even trying, and she’s that good” and “her voice and her cadences don’t sound like anybody I had ever heard before.”

If I can return to balconies, I would like to examine how — in addition to the psychogeography of walking — they help in providing some relief from my anxiety. Lefebvre talks about the balcony as the place “necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside.” A place that is involved in the rhythm of the city but at the same time removed in order to examine the city. I use this as a method of removing myself from the rhythms of an anxious day — to see what is — and how to subsume myself in a different rhythm to have some catharsis. When I wasn’t walking through the city, I stood on that balcony a lot. In London, I live on the second floor of a council estate, and the most relaxing thing I can do on a good day is stand on my balcony and observe life happening on the estate.  

I reached the top of the church, elated, I looked around taking in the views, and after sitting overlooking the church gardens, I walked back. As I am walking back down, heading towards the coast, I dance with the track “MUTUAL FRIEND,” the momentum of a slope contributing to every body movement. I dance, and again, my thoughts travel to all the memories and events that have given me anxiety. Everyone thinks about their name spoken in absence, hoping that it is on good terms, hoping that people are either praising them, recommending them, or appreciating them in their absence. As I bop down the slopes, I calm myself, reassuring myself that any voices outside of my presence don’t matter, and that it’s better to just dance down these slopes and let the music wash over me. 

in these golden rings of burning memory
the weight of strong mixed drinks cracked
me open on the Halloween we danced and
 our fragile selves revealed a tenderness  

It is difficult for me to compare my experiences with Jessie Reyez. Her life, like everyone’s, has been unique, but also specifically female. Jessie moved to Miami with her parents, she worked the Miami bar scene and was involved in the nightlife, dancing and occasionally busking. She says it was a blackhole, sleeping all day, partying all night, her life was stagnant. I could imagine this, the glamour of nightlife, the antics of the drunken, the joyful, and the depressed. Hospitality gives you enough money to survive and — if you choose well — you might end up in theatre, music, or nightlife, working adjacent to famous talent, tips topping up otherwise terrible pay into something liveable. The rhythm becomes the drug, the work becomes monotonous, and a mist falls upon your every movement, occasionally brightened by a play, a concert, or an exhibition. Any creative inclination rises light and thin upon the surface of your consciousness and is consequently wiped away, like cleaning liquid upon the surfaces of the tables on a closing shift. Songs lost to the vacuum cleaner, poems rinsed away in the sink, portfolios of every wonderful thing the mind could muster given away with every napkin under a cocktail glass. The aimless nature of hospitality isn’t unique, I worked at a cinema for four years, able to watch films that satisfied my urge for culture and paid enough to be comfortable, and I let my creativity slip. I don’t understand what I mean by creativity, but I know that I instinctively wanted something concrete (exhibitable or publishable) to come from all the thinking and theorizing, all the conversations, all the ‘what ifs, the ‘imagine this,’ the hypothetical exhibitions and artworks I built in my mind. There are many films and television shows that portray that part of a person’s life. Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s Spaced, Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, the whole mumblecore film movement, and others. Films that portrayed aimless, intelligent, well-read young people having enlightened discussions about philosophy whilst working low-paid service jobs made me romanticize that life. I thought that because I read a lot, watched a lot of films, and listened to a lot of music, there was no need to create anything. This contributed to my struggles with depression, but at the time, I was so engaged in repression that I couldn’t recognize the precarity of my mental health.  

It seemed that every weekend, I ended up in a colleague’s home, drinking to the early hours of the morning, watching B-movies and concert videos on YouTube, and at times trying to get through a famous director’s filmography as a challenge for ourselves. The sunken sofa, the cans, the snacks covering the table, and the distinct taste of stasis still can’t be escaped. I lick my molars and the past rushes back, running to the newsagents to top up the beers, begging them to pause Cleo from 5 to 7. I kiss my teeth and think of the discussions and ideas that went nowhere as we handed out popcorn and large drinks to customers.  

I lick my molars and I’m frying plantain before we sit and watch Beyonce’s Coachella performance and all I wanted to do was write about Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” interlude between “Drunk in Love.” I kiss my teeth and I’m pouring a beer whilst thinking of the homage Beyonce gives Nina, the performance of a song about love in the time of drunkenness, the layering of the erotic, the intertwining joy and messiness to the somber enormity of Nina. The filthy cavorting with the sweet and heady.  

I lick my molars and I’m watching Yeelen in the same living room, thinking about how the supernatural attains divinity. I kiss my teeth and I’m sweeping popcorn in the theatre, realizing that divinity is the ability to leave behind knowledge encased in a fragile white orb and start again. It is all circular, with flourishes and flair, but still all circular.  

cracking under the weight of strong drinks
ready to throw my shirt to the floor dancing to
reveal a tender fragile body
moving to a song that reached into the future, bodies 

I eventually am removed from the situation. I lose the job at the cinema and start working at a gallery, and the sudden change in environment grants me the space and freedom to enroll in a writing course. I finally start making things but also start moving towards allowing myself to be a performer, to exhibit my thoughts in a place that isn’t buffeted with the comfort of close friends and alcohol. I finally am allowed to revisit all the memories within. 

I take a rest on a bench in La Plaine, I watch the skateboarders perform tricks and fail. One of them is holding a DV camcorder, compiling their tricks for a mixtape. I’m always fascinated by the obsession certain skateboarders have with average-quality videos since there are high-definition cameras now. I walk to the local bar and buy a glass of diluted pastis, licorice in a cup, and sit back down on the bench. I sip this broken memory of absinthe and watch the skateboarders more intently, realizing that they exhibit a freedom I cannot, an effort to create something that looks like the memory of freedom. They might have seen Video Days and thought that only if the footage is grainy, only if their trainers slightly meld into the surroundings in blurred pixels will they find freedom, willing to seek that they fall in every different way they can, and when they land a trick, successfully capturing it on the camera, I cheer with them.  

I leave La Plaine and continue walking to the harbor, the glittering water and the seductive islands call to me. “FOREVER” begins playing, a collaboration between Jessie and 6LACK. This is one of the few joyful songs in Jessie’s oeuvre, a song that harkens back to hospitality, to welcome, to being so happy and comfortable with a person you need. Their collaborations always create something special, and I look forward to any moment when both are on a song. 6LACK’s smooth and gentle voice, gives up to Jessie’s powerful tune, and, in turn, she graciously offers him the chance to soothe in the next verse, whilst he affirms everything she just sang.  

The music video for this song is interesting because Jessie’s videos usually take place in homes, empty houses that reflect the crackling emotion of her voice, echoing as she sits distraught, or maybe practicing distress, evoking a personal chamber for herself and her audience. As if she was saying ‘if I can exist here alone, sing, erupt with every emotion that plagues me, the walls are here to take it.’ If she has dancers, they are silent, moving as the undercurrent of emotion, the hidden life, those odd, deformed creatures that exist deep under the sea, actions that work and hunt in the darkness of our psyche.  

However, this song takes place outside, in the forests in front of a lake. It’s interesting to find that when Jessie is surrounded by joy and comfort, she throws off the shackles of a building, a home, the place where supposed comfort lies is not enough for her. She dances in front of a lake, sits on top of a large truck with 6LACK, and sometimes the film changes from high definition to digital video quality, to reveal that 6LACK is recording her dancing with a DV camcorder and vice versa. “I want you to stay / save the moment / gotta put it on camcord.” Again, the necessity to capture joy in bad quality surprises me, joy here is retrospective, nostalgic. Black and white photos, bad quality videos, anything from the past that is brought to the present with some accessories, with some alterations, the green branch that snakes through the brown leaves, the autumn fruit that hangs next to the old acorns, it all creates a layered witness, a palimpsest of memory in the flowers of lyrics, leaves of images and presented to us as a thank you for being present. Jessie’s EP Being Human in Public moves through themes of performing through anxiety, her persistence and tenacity to make and share music despite her shyness. She would only sing in front of her family if they all promised to close their eyes, despite her family being where she is her most comfortable. Shyness and anxiety have plagued me as well, making it difficult to attend classes without the utmost personal preparation. Therapy has helped me be a bit better, but there were many instances where I was stuck holding on to the door handle of a seminar class in university. From outside the classroom, I would watch the blurred figures of my teacher and coursemates discuss the lecture, my sweat would coat the door handle, and I would shiver, step back, make a short run up, and grab the handle again. Intently watching the shadowy figures to see if they stopped, if they turned, if any of them noticed me, at times I would be outside the classroom for 10 whole minutes before I gave up and went home, I missed out on a lot of my undergraduate through anxiety but determined to fix it. I found therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, I got friends to help me recognize when anxiety would strike and help me prepare, I walked through university days before class started just so I was confident enough to find classrooms and said hello to the cleaners and security guards so I always felt comfortable approaching them for help. Years before reading Elkin I was following her advice on being present and aware of the ‘streets.’

bent towards another’s and warmth and all
i can ask is that i exist in this hazy room, my
vision spinning like every vinyl played on an autumn evening,
like every whiskey sipped on a cold night 

I pass through Vallon des Auffes on the way to the beach, I see the long arms raised of a bronze woman looking out to sea, bordered by an arch that dedicates her as the eternal sentry to the dead of the East Army. Lonely, her largeness against the expanse of the Mediterranean Sea causes me to pause, she cannot quit her performance, her everlasting salute to the dead, and I think about how hard it is for me to deal with anxiety and depression, but still want to make things, to perform my thoughts for people, to create something. I return to the thoughts of me wasting my time and realize I have wasted nothing. All the years of reading and watching have accumulated a wealth of knowledge. I have a garden, rich in musty green and earth, a garden that I can weave into whatever. I take from all those years, I gather and glean every branch, fruit, seed, and leaf and make something for myself. In “BEFORE LOVE CAME TO KILL US,” Jessie is surrounded by flowers, and even though she is singing about lost love, those memories surround her, keeping her focused on where she is now, fixing her to the present. When listening to “NO ONE’S IN THE ROOM” I like to call up the memories of the times I thought I was stagnant and remember what I was reading or watching at the time. Through therapy, I have been trying to be more assertive in the thought of myself as a creative person. In the music video of that song Jessie attempts to call upon everyone’s true self, despite sitting in church pews, she reveals the secret ‘vices’ of the priest, the altar boy, and the nuns, but comforts us, asking us to be true to who we really are, that these ‘vices’ are what make us, and it reveals our truth.  

I start walking towards Malmousque, the busy motorways and buzzing cars make for an unattractive walk, but soon the roads give way to small lanes and tiny pathways, the coast comes closer, the permeating peace of the sea covers everything and the hustle and bustle of the town turns quiet, I sit down on the white rocks with a book and a beer, some local young people are smoking and diving a few yards from me; it reminds me of an Eric Rohmer movie, and I laugh to myself. I think of the many different branches and flowers I have gathered, how their thorns and toughness all contribute to the beauty, how there is a need for tumult, revisiting tumult, and learning to walk through it. “BREAK ME DOWN,” another song revisiting past relationships, but focusing on the good parts, a final sweet twist, a braid of something sweet that is lost. Lefebvre says, “musical rhythm has an ethical function” in that it “illustrates everyday life… purifies it” and finally it “brings compensation for the miseries of everydayness, for its deficiencies and failures.” I sit on these rocks, fully compensated, weaving wreaths in my mind, the serenity overwhelming, and slowly I fall asleep.  

and let me sit here and witness so i can wrap every word
from my friends mouths and weave them into a wreath
that i wear around my neck, hang above my door
that blesses everything that follows me

Labeja Kodua Okullu is a Ghanaian-British writer who lives in London. After studying English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, he went on to complete The Novel Studio writing course at City, University of London and is currently working on his first novel. Labeja has published poetry with Forward Poetry and the Rattle:Poetry magazine and has contributed a poem to Interior Realms published by Theatrum Mundi. He co-edited the flagship research project publication Urban Backstages Theatrum Mundi. He is also the programmer for Theatrum Mundi presents, an artist moving image film event that highlights new artists and their short films.