Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Living for the light

First there's the fete across the valley pounding soca rhythms. When you think it should stop, there's the parang twanging like it's in your bedroom. And there's more - the old time calypsos now. And it is as if all the dogs in the neighbourhood couldn't wait for the party to stop before they create their own chorus of howls and woofs, piercing arfs and echoing barks. In the middle of cacaphony, some people can sleep. Others toss and wait for the silence. Me, I can sleep anytime anywhere, even standing up if I have to. But before the dawn is the time to be awake. From the cleft of a south facing hill slope, I watch for the light creeping through the mist. Maybe there's still the moon in the western sky, but it can't be seen through the fog. Only the light grows. A grey stillness waking the first parrots. Creeping dawn - everyday a new beginning! What wonderful promise awakens with this day?

The sun returns - this is Christmas every day!

Here's Rudolph in my tree - waiting for his moment on a dark dark night!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Christmas light

Not everyone likes Christmas. Apart from the many all over the world who don't share its central beliefs, there are a fair number of "bah humbug-ers" who could not be bothered with the trappings, trees or gaudily wrapped packages, far less the sentiments of peace on earth, goodwill to all men. And it is hard to disagree sometimes - with all the strife and anger and scheming in the world, right here in your own homes, neighbourhoods too.

But the spirit of Christmas is really about hope. It is the wish for a countervailing dynamic - peace, joy, contentment - against what it takes to live in the world. So whether you are hungry, or angry, underpaid, passionate and impatient about change, comfortable but still feeling low; whether there is plenty or sadness, this is what life is.

Just imagine. You are a mother whose child had to be born in a barn, warm with the smell of animals and manure. Only your companion - not even the child father - to help. You are cold, but on the move, because you hear there are soldiers coming to kill all sons under a certain age. When you do settle, there's a time of contentment when the boy is growing and playing and being as boys will be. But he is grown to be a man now - going into the world and returning as grown sons do. You cannot see the future. All you do is enjoy him in the present. He is bigger than you and comes to visit, picks you up and spins you around, laughing at your surprise! He has gifts, and he stays a week or two. This is the spirit of Christmas. This tiny respite - relaxation and rest - to laugh, to have meals together, to enjoy quiet conversations, to have hope. Because you cannot see the future, you cherish the good fortune of this time together, hoping it will bolster your child - against the cold, the tiredness, the pain, the just living, or dying, that is to come.

So yes, you can have Christmas at any time. But Christmas at Christmas is always to be celebrated!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas light

The appeal of the traditional tree has its origin in early Christian history when the rhythm of seasons in northern temperate countries was aligned with the church's calendar, and more specifically with the life of Christ. Remember the shortest day of the year is December 21; and in those early calendars "the sun returns"- the days start lengthening again - on December 25. We are creatures of light - our lives revolve around the sun. Daily rhythms - generally - follow the rise and set of the sun. Annual cycles too. Longer days in spring and summer signal increased animal activity and play. More sleep in fall and winter.

It may be argued that tropical peoples - those nearer the equator - have light all the time.  Perhaps we are more sensitive to smaller gradations in light. We too feel the "slowing" energy as the days get shorter in December, and the quickening in "mid-summer" May to August.

How and when we become imprinted with the symbols of the Christmas tree, decorations and presents are all too easy to figure out. Baby's first Christmas is followed by years of heightened expectations when the tree is mounted, lighted and decorated. To some, the perfect tree is the artificial Douglas or Norfolk fir unfolded from its box each year. To others, it's the real thing, or a tropical pine tree.

The point is that every Christmas tree today is a symbol - a whole set of cyphers for the meaning of life as civilized beings, as humans. Why else do we take trees - real or imagined, dried branches or actual living trees - decorate them to the point of gaudiness, and keep them as a place to accumulate wrapped packages intended as gifts. There are some people who do not "believe." But many of those who do, have actually seen "the light" - as the earth shifts around the sun - that is the promise of renewal, re-creation and another cycle of energy.

No tree ever looked like this! But it speaks for all trees!

Friday, December 3, 2010

What do you know...

What's my inner animal? My Chinese horoscope - based on the year of birth - says that I am a hare. Not the hare that sits in the moon according to the legend, but a metal hare, hard as flint - which incidentally is my Mayan birth symbol - flint knife which can generally cut through BS. In Western astrology, I am not even an animal, but the balancer, the scales - symbol of decision-making or in my case, indecision.

The other day, WWF (World Wildlife Fund) offered the chance to find out my "inner animal." Turns out I am the Giant Silky Anteater. This is an animal that - like the whale - gets to a huge size from eating some of the smallest creatures, termites. Anty is a loner - does not move or hunt in packs - and grows to about seven or eight feet long with a long bushy tail which it curls over itself when sleeping. Anty stands four feet high at the shoulders, like a big dog. She doesn't have any teeth, which gives her species name edentata (no teeth) Myrmecophagidae (ant-eater). Instead her mouth has an opening that is pencil thin, and a sticky tongue that can protrude to about 20 inches out.

Giant silky anteaters live mainly in the savannas of south America, with a range from Uruguay to Argentina, west to the Andes and up to southern Mexico. They find huge termites nests which they break into with long curved claws, three on each forefoot, each claw about four inches long. As the ants swarm to the breach, Anty laps them up with a long sticky tongue, swallowing thousands (maybe 30,000 a day) of the bugs whole and alive. With tongue flicks at a rate up to 160 times a minute, she doesn't feast for very long at a time, but will return to the same nest again and again. The nests are never destroyed but allowed to recoup before they are harvested on another occasion.

Female giant silkies bear one young at a time which is carried on the back of the female until it can fend for itself, about two years. It is noticed that the line marking the side of the animal lines up with the youngster riding her back, making the baby almost invisible. Courtship with the male takes place in fall in the southern hemisphere, (March to May) and the baby is born 29 weeks later. Adult silkies don't make much sound though the baby will grunt or squeal especially if it falls off mother's back.

Giant silky anteaters are a species thought to be over 70 million years old, already developed during the age of the dinosaurs.

So now you know something else about me!

Check your own "inner animal" on this site:
http://www.worldwildlife.org/inner-animal/inner-animal.html

My inner animal -giant silky anteater

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dreaming or shopping?

Christmas, the end of the year - this is my favourite season. But I don't think I ever got the hang of Christmas shopping. I wander into the shops without a list, and spend the time drifting from aisle to aisle, daydreaming. Here's a typical example. Oh, wow, there's a lovely ginger and orange blossom scented candle. Smells wonderful. Now who would enjoy this? I think that I would enjoy it, and it goes into the basket.

Or this: I need a star and some new baubles for the Christmas tree. But there are no delicate glass icicles to match the ones I bought four years ago. Only some rather crass and over-glittered bells and giant metallic shapes. I think I am prepared to look around a bit more...

On the other hand, my friend goes briskly and efficiently to the task at hand. Her basket is already full of decorations, the skirt for the tree, runners, and gifts for some of her friends. I sigh and wonder if I am missing an essential gene.

I  have brought in my tree, and it is a fantastic tree with its own character. Branches that look like they are dancing. Birds have already tried to put a nest where the star should be - maybe I'll let them.

Decorating - like shopping - will take its own sweet time, as I try to prolong the good feelings of this season for dreaming and wishing.

My dream tree: some say it's wonky - to me it's dancing!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More gifts than we know!

When we were little, we could never understand this saying, "it's better to give than receive." It was entirely beyond a child's comprehension. We wanted the world, but what did we have to give?

As a six year old, and the eldest with two siblings, I remember not the presents but the pleasure of receiving the packages from my mother's youngest brothers, barely out of their teens and already "working men." I loved the colourfulness and crinkliness of the gift paper. What special secret they could hold - I could only imagine. To this day, I savour the moment before the gift is opened. And I remember my uncles, the boys that they were.

The moment is the gift! That piece of connection is the meaning of the gift.

So many years past now, so many gifts given and received.

And life does have a way of going back on itself. Who could anticipate that the child of more than a generation ago would one day appreciate "it's better to give than receive." Who knew that the turning earth always brings us back to ourselves. To see the child and to cherish her - precociousness and all. To say to those who wish to rush past childhood, to rush to open the gift, to rush past the moments that connect you to those around you, to who you truly are, "slow down, you move too fast, gotta make this moment last..."

And I give you today, and for all your special moments, this from Rabindranath Tagore - brought back to me as a gift that I had given many years ago:

"The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs
through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life
that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of
grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers."

- Rabindranath Tagore


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Home in the bush!

In Italy, in Holland, in England, spring and summer gardens are wonderful places. Even the woods in these temperate zone countries are comfortable, relaxing places to walk. The pine forests of the Carolinas in the USA and the high woods of the Appalachains and Catskills - Virginia through upstate New York and into Canada - are breathtaking in their autumn glory. Spring blossoms in Italy in mimosa, forsythia, magnolia and and hundreds of flowering trees more colourful and dramatic than in the tropics.

Try to have an ordered garden in the tropics, and you toil endlessly against "the bush." In the rainy season especially, there seems to be an overwhelming wall of green everywhere you look. The knowing eye will differentiate bamboo from cassia, mango and pommerac from poui - which after its brief flowering in April May - blends into the backdrop of northern range forest.

What then is the challenge for the tropical gardener - whose very raison d'etre is to order and control according to his or her artistic eye. It means being handy with a cutlass, and being willing to cut back determinedly and unflinchingly as necessary. If you want tall trees around your house, how tall are you willing to let them go so they don't endanger your roof? If you have lawn - large or small patch - how often are you willing to mow? Some tropical gardeners choose plants that they can control - maybe a single large shady tree and beds or patches of ground cover, small bushes, or several different types and colours of the same species - hibiscus, or orchids, roses, anthuriums.

My choice has been to co-exist with as many large tropical species as possible. After all, my house displaced a bit of Northern Range forest in Santa Cruz. So nearby there is bois canot and bois flot, which are now tall enough for the corbeaux to land on and spread their wings like judges robes to the sun. The three cassia grande which bear small pink flowers and long seed pods are now over thirty feet tall. Even the live fir trees planted from different Christmases are shooting straight skyward. Barbados Pride and Shower of Gold are interspersed with banana clumps, mangoes and the wild trees. I don't think I am much of a gardener since I am loath to cut anything down. Though I may have to chop back the ficus which looks like it wants to take over the hill.

In the rainy season, there are few flowers, but the diversity and complexity of  green leaves, branches, stalks and leaf litter are amazing. It's a jungle out there! Bats, toads, insects and without doubt, snakes too, love it! I enjoy a visit to the temperate woods and gardens, they are so easy to walk in, so calming. But the bush is my true home.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Christmas gifting

Christmas gifts, especially for those closest, become more and more challenging every year. You would like to give the moon and stars, but what your heart describes is just not available in any shop.

A friend once shared with me that she only gives what she is able to make. What a wonderful idea! And I think of all the things that I can make - cakes, ponche a crema, sorrel, ginger beer, and not just seasonal specialties, whole meals. So the year my house was being built, we prepared and served to the workmen on site, a full Christmas meal, ham, turkey, pastelles and all. But that won't impress the family I think - they expect such a meal, and more throughout the holidays.

I have started memory books - albums or scrapbooks with photos and writings - but always too late in the season to finish them properly. One year I did manage to prepare  hand-written books of favourite recipes for the now grown up boy and girl, with lots of blank places to fill in new favourites. Out of that, the blog was born, http://wildgirl-in the kitchen.blogspot.com. It's actually called Comfort Food, based on the comfort foods of my own childhood - my mother's meals that came to be associated with family and security.

This year, as the wind shifts and the days shorten, as the light filters from the south setting trees aglow, my mind turns again to what I have to give - from the heart. What you receive may this year seem like it required no thought. And yes, many will receive the usual - book, jeans, socks, bowls, toys, a bottle of something spirituous, hardly an exceptional treat. A few may receive something outlandish or extravagant - a rock or a handful of sand symbolising a place, a flowering plant, a photo of another land! Just know that all gifts are symbolic - warm intentions, imaginations, ciphers for what you most assuredly deserve!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where nature heals herself, she heals us

Wild places are fewer and harder to find, especially if you live on an island with over a million other souls. We are fortunate in Trinidad to have a few places where the wild things are encouraged and safe; even places which may have been cultivated a few generations ago but which are being reclaimed for the wild. The Asa Wright Nature Centre is one of these places - once a partial plantation, now a nature reserve and a safe place to experience the wild.
Looking south from Asa Wright
Today, Asa Wright - located on the south side of Northern Range, overlooking Arima - is a place where the earth is healing itself as it reverts to forest and attracts many of the wildlife and bird species indigenous to the area. What is even more fortunate is that Asa Wright was able to attract to its service people of the calibre of Dr Carol James, who has served as chairman of its board for six years, succeeding others like Dr William Beebe, Don and Ginnie Eckelberry who have also given time and commitment there.

Dr Carol as she is fondly called, once said of the Nariva wetlands - which had been flattened and dredged to make rice fields, the best possible use according to studies done there in the 1970s - that they should simply be left alone to regenerate themselves. That was nearly 20 years ago when  journalists with new-found passion to save the environment were yearning to "do something" to protect Nariva, and somehow in quick time, restore its manatees, red howler monkeys, blue and gold macaws and giant anacondas. Well, those years are passing more quickly than were imagined, and left largely to itself and in spite of humans, Nariva is recollecting itself, as Asa Wright has been allowed to.

One of the springs at Spring Hill Estate, the location of the Asa Wright Nature Centre
 What this tells us surely is that Nature needs no help from us. She is in fact better off when humans are not around. So there is hope in the future for the other slopes of the Blanchisseuse valley now under intense christophene cultivation or under severe quarrying. To stay out of Nature's way, and to have patience, are important lessons.
Off the beaten track, looking for the bell bird


Bamboo
Primeval forest?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wife at 23, mother at 24

My mother at an age younger than my daughter today - a wife, not yet a mother!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from my mother

Today is my mother's birthday. She would have been 83. The last birthday I spent with her, she was 70, and triumphant to have reached that milestone, plagued as she was with late onset diabetes - full blown after her last pregnancy in 1961 - which led to heart disease and complicastions of glaucoma and other organ failures. She would be a cautionary tale for appropriate nutrition and  lifestyle practices but for the fact that she was not particularly unhealthy in her eating habits or inactive. She certainly instilled in us a nutritional foundation based on three meals a day,  balanced with protein, carbohydrate and vegetables; and the values of hard work, as much of it as possible outside - in her garden. If there is a caution, it is that as a population - descendants of immigrants in a land where we fed on cane sugar, white flour, rice - we are prone to this hereditary disease, diabetes, that is promoted by lifestyle factors.


Our mother, Yvonne Assing, before she was a mother; and possibly before she was a wife! c 1950

My mother raised us well in every respect - but one. I don't think she ever considered  - even in oblique remarks - the complexities of relationships outside the home and family and social group, including sexual relationships.  I think she must have felt blind sided by boy friends and girl friends of other ethnic groups. other religions. Never mind that she did  grow up in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Trinidad and Tobago, and sent us to school in the golden age of equal education and opportunity. As a young girl, her marriage to a young Chinese shopkeeper raised no eyebrows, offended no social norms, and kept her within a traditional Chinese and Chinese descended social group.

But the world after the sixties was spinning too fast. And each of her children spun off in a different direction with persons who tugged at our hearts, whose parents like ours, were never asked - except in the most cursory fashion -  to give consent. Love affairs, marriages and break ups were neither destined nor life-changing, but simply phases of individual evolution. Painful, heart-breaking at times, but helping us to evolve character and spirit. We looked for pleasures and satisfactions, and were lucky when we found contentment and joy.

These days, as I study my mother's life - so much was never told to us, just passed on through osmosis of feeling and snippets of arguments and conversations caught in passing - I wonder what my own legacy would be. How much more do I need to express about loving deeply and living lightly, about being in the world yet being in one's own spirit. This is now the purpose and hope of a long enough life. And to wish that my children - through birth or influence or our direct conversations - might indeed know contentment and joy in relationships. That however fleeting these moments might be, that they provide resources that can be continuously tapped and replenished for their own long, healthy and productive lives.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hearts of darkness

Surely there's the potential to violence that exists in every human being. Dig deep and you must find it: the rage that a parent hopes to tap into to defend a child; the force that one expects to conjure in the face of injust assault or unfair aggression. Dig deeper and assess the strength in your hands - could you use these to strangle, wield a weapon, stab and yes, kill - with justifiable rage? (What is justifiable rage?) Unless we have practised some form of martial arts few of us might actually think about being able to defend ourselves. But with crime on the rise, we are encouraged to assess personal strategies of avoidance, or - if it comes to it - weapons, in our homes, on our persons, in our cars. The most powerful of all weapons, we are told, is of course, the mind.

However agile and responsive the mind might be, it's still very hard for the the body to outrun the bullet, to dodge the pummelling fist, the slashing blade. When you think about it, in the extreme circumstance, someone will be injured, someone dislocated, maybe even killed. So, many of us live our lives to ensure that we circumspectly avoid that which brings us in the path of danger - the people we associate with, the burglarproofing in our homes, the places where we work, lime and send our children - as far as possible. For the most part, we set our lives in such a way that we keep the low profile, under the radar of notice and out of the range of possible violence.

Among us, though, there seem to be many who never anticipate violence, and even if they do, never see it in themselves as a response to aggression - even brutality - in others. They seem unable to anticipate, and are therefore unable to avoid it. Even in the extreme, these innocents do not defend themselves. And so we lay to rest countless women in abusive relationships and children who never knew what hit them, wounding and maiming families with the stain of blood senselessly spilled. How can the meek inherit the earth when they are being destroyed?

No, and don't tell me that these women and families destroyed by uncommon passion and unexpected rage were "stupid" to have remained in such relationships. For we can't ever know what is in the heart of another, only in our own hearts. And how but by the greatest danger, the ultimate sacrifices, are the most violent hearts to be redeemed?

And so, as Krishna tells Arjuna as he prepares for the battle that is life, (forgive my ultra-simple paraphrase of one of the greatest texts of all time and read it for yourself), we go forth in our lives armed with true knowledge, hearts detached from pain or gain, slow to judge, seeking rightful action, leaving outcome to the universe. ("To see one changeless Life in all the Lives, and in the Separate, One Inseparable.") If we need to fight, then let that need be resolved with the detachment of the ninja. If one is felled, then "amen" (so be it).

In this Divali time, let us hear Krishna's words to Arjuna on the field of battle:
Fearlessness, singleness of soul, the will
Always to strive for wisdom; opened hand
And governed appetites; and piety,
And love of lonely study; humbleness,
Uprightness, slowness unto wrath, a mind
That lightly letteth go what others prize;
And equanimity, and charity
Which spieth no man's faults; and tenderness
Towards all that suffer; a contented heart,
Fluttered by no desires; a bearing mild,
Modest, and grave, with manhood nobly mixed,
With patience, fortitude, and purity;
An unrevengeful spirit, never given
To rate itself too high; - such be the signs,
O Indian Prince, of him whose feet are set
on that fair path which leads to heavenly birth!
(The Song Celestial, Bhagavad Gita, from the Mahabharata, translated from the Sanskrit by Sir Edwin Arnold)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

When fish fly!

The most beautiful koi I ever saw were in a pond in Kyoto. The memory is like an impressionist moving painting - all red and gold in the murky depths of a pool somewhere near a temple called "nightingale" because the wooden floors would sing when you walked on them. Nearby was a silk weaving factory where I bought a red and gold kimono in honour of the koi.
Koi pond at Kariwak Village

Vacations like that are so otherworldly in hindsight - and so many years after - that you wonder if they ever happened. How could that have been real? And, apart from indulging an appetite for the strange, the wild, the different, the plentiful, what are vacations good for? To say that I was there. That I saw the koi pond in Kyoto, the silk factory, the nightingale temple?

What difference does it make to this life? Was the vacation simply to make me feel better in myself for having had the experience? Was it to collect in my head thousands of kodachrome images so that I could talk about them, replay them as in some old art movie house? Alone in my head?
Among the ferns...

Fish do fly!

Vacation has never been a place of escape. It is instead a place of heightened awareness, of revelation, of understanding, of seeing "for real" what you may only ever have read about in a book or seen on a computer or television screen.

A vacation is a place to let your mind roam further than you ever thought it could!
Fish fly in the branches of the fern!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tobago love

Yuh bounce me...! The voice is loud and aggrieved.
Nah man, ah din't touch yuh!
What yuh bounce me for? Yuh know mih shoulder hutting mih.
No boy, buh if yuh want me to bounce yuh... And with that she jams her elbow into his ribs. There's a grunt of surprise, and he turns quickly to pinch her sharply on the fleshy back of an arm.
With that, she grabs the jug of cold water and pours it down his neck. Cool off nuh!
Is not me want to cool off! He rounds on her and puts ice cubes down the back of her dress.
It looks like there's a real risk of "fight fight!" breaking out. The uncomfortable observer wishes she could disappear, or could at least say the words that might de-escalate the heated blood and flared tempers.
With hot stares and last looks, two big people might pull apart and go their separate ways. But you can be sure there's some sulphur in the blood that's likely to ignite the next time they meet - good friends as they claim to be!

Or the conversation on the telephone.
You doh come in my house to make a mess yuh hear.
What, am I welcome or what?
I'll think about it.
Ok, tell me when I am invited. In the meantime ah booking my flight.

Hello, could I come home for a while? I need to chill out a bit...
Well, don't think it's going to be convenient. We are travelling./ We have visitors. / We have something else planned.

Or the vicious fight that does break out between brother and brother or brother and sister in which the most hateful words fly. Moron. Asshole. Whore. Should never have been born. I could kill you.

Funny isn't it, how some of the closest relationships have these apparently less than warm ways of expressing themselves. Is it that humans - as individuals - have the need to shape identity and separateness by being at times prickly and frequently unfriendly if not downright hostile?

As a child, I remember learning sarcasm. I loved the cleverness of the quick quip, the cutting remark. And would frequently say the meanest thing simply because it seemed to roll off the tongue so smoothly. I can still do it though I don't much anymore. I don't need to hurt anyone. If I do sometimes indulge in the clever retort, I try to make sure it is followed by the wry smile that says, you made me say it but you know I don't mean it. In my old age, I try very hard to add only good vibes. There's too much pain otherwise.

In Trinidad, we have a special term for this under the skin kind of endearment. Tobago love. It means we have the deep relationship where our love is understood, but what others often see is how we will fight nearly to kill... We'll make up - maybe. We'll probably not talk to each other for years and years. then out of the blue, we'll be getting on again like a house on fire. Except there is this undercurrent of past hurt always festering under the skin. But no one better come between us. Yuh hear?

They say sweetest love to sourest hate can turn. They say love and hate exist on opposite sides of the same coin. They say the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Study that.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dear Prime Minister

Someone should tell the Prime Minister that coalition governments have the seeds of their own demise  more firmly planted than in any other joint venture. But that these very seeds also hold the secret to success. In coalitions, the population is truly represented in diversity. The key would have to be how to make this diversity work without the discrete elements turning on each other and harming the whole. Truly, it takes work, and commitment, not just to be overly discreet and squabble in secret. It takes the understanding that the way to work for Trinidad and Tobago - like any big and powerful corporation, or even the smallest NGO or faith-based charity! - is to harness the skills and energy to a single vision and simple but easily communicated strategic intent.

The corporations call it "mission vision values" development. Even NGOs have their cause, their aspiration. But it's useful to look at how multi-nationals and conglomerates deal with mergers and acquisitions. This is how they build cohesive leadership teams, indeed how leaders are fostered in humane societies.

First, recognise the value that each individual brings - allow acceptance of shortcomings. Because the strength of a team is not in the strengths of the individuals but in the way the collective meshes and supports individuals and the whole. Then, create the opportunities - space and time and sometimes having to force the issue - many and regularly, for the team of teams to come together to work on common ethics, common aspirations, common messages. Deal with all the issues collectively - CLICO is not just a Financial problem; flooding is not just a Works problem; crime is not only a question of security. Collective mind power can present unusual solutions.

Take another page from the books of successful corporations. Create good governance with a code of ethics. Create a new brand - do we ever need a new brand of government! - in the way that good companies do, through the hearts and minds and wills of leaders. Be the change that we wish to see in the world.

We all know how easy it is to see the flaws. What is not so easy is how we communicate so that we can influence the change. I have tremendous respect for the prime minster and the good people in her cabinet. How I wish for the government's success - not because it is a People's Partnership government but because it is a Trinidad and Tobago government - because we the people deserve this success!

Now, how can we learn to hear the smallest child when he says that the emperor is naked!

But I am sure you know all of this already.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thoughts of the Unborn

If I work back from the date of my birth, there are 37 weeks to the day that my parents married. This surely means that I was conceived practically on their wedding night. In the old Chinese culture, a soul at birth is considered to be one year old - having spent 37 to 42 weeks accumulating enough matter to be identifiable as a person. This therefore would mean that I was conceived in the year of the tiger with traits and personality of a tiger rather than the rabbit personality that I have grown comfortable with. How confusing. From the single cells of each of my parents, certain things were likely already determined: what I would look like, hair, features, gender, life span, with certain abilities based on the brain wiring. Was I destined? Was original choice the only choice?

Isn't that a thought - that each of us is living the life of an original, perhaps chemical, perhaps electronic, perhaps reducible, spark that ricocheted between the cells that we crudely call sperm and ovary, that caused them to divide and sub-divide into multiple cells until there's a baby to be born, with joy or pain.  Does that not suggest that the original spark chose the womb, the circumstances of the birth, the tumult or calm of the childhood, the talent or ordinariness or destructiveness of the life.

What is this spark then? Some call it life or life force. But in each of us, it burns with slow steady intensity, regardless of fortune or favour, health or illness, without judgment or fault or contrition, and then moves on - disappears from the particular body - when it dies. It moves on.

If each original spark is the chooser of a body, a life,  an influence, a circumstance, saint or petty thief, politician, pauper, mass murderer or the child with congenital heart failure, does it mean that each of us is a circumstance set in motion for the amusement of the spark, a test, a diversion, an event. Now, think about the other sparks that you choose to spark off.

And then, what if there is only one original spark playing itself in multiple circumstances, in infinitely diverse variations of the game of living; of being predator and prey, eldest child or youngest, black white hungry haunted happy. Who am I? Who am I in relation to you? What am I choosing now? In this moment. In this life.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Petit Careme

Sun coming up, reflecting off an east slope
 October often gives us sublime days, that are neither hot nor cold, not humid, not dry, just cool so. You wake to sun glinting off last night's dew. Pale blue sky and maybe one two wispy clouds. But it is the light that's bouncing around the underbrush that catches your breath. It's the early morning light you see in cocoa estates, or the cocal in Manzanilla, or through the north coast hillslopes from Maracas to Blanchisseuse and beyond. It's glimpsed in seconds but saturates your being with a hint at eternity.

Don't think it will be the same light in a tunnel to Maracas.

The angle of light from the sun in October is special. In the northern hemisphere - Trinidad is just ten degrees north - it's just enough from the south that we can detect the subtle softening and elongated shift through the atmosphere. It speaks of shorter days, some respite from the rainy season, and in the early morning or evening, an afterglow. Some mornings, it bounces through low lying mists and breaks into a million rainbows.

The association of a hot dry spell in September into October has come to us as "petit careme," a French patois term. But who knows what it actually means. I like to think of careme as a blend of caramel and creme, something sweet and smooth, but also the best - as in creme de la creme. The best days of the year.

Today, yes, is another perfect day.
Sunshine sifting through tall trees on the Asa Wright trail

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Future food

The future is not in the schoolbags. It is not in the laptops. The future is in the hearts and minds and hands of young people like these all over Trinidad and Tobago. It's not in the bright children. Nor is it not in the "duncy form one students." It is in the trust and bright hope and eagerness to be taught that is here to be nurtured, and especially here in children who have made the Atlantic Seeds of Hope experiment a success in southwest Trinidad.

Children from Rancho Quemado show off their vegetable seedlings
Just look at the pride with which they prepare the plants which will represent their contribution to World Food Day in mid October. It is part of the tradition among the 4Hers to give away food plants and vegetable seedlings at this time - their thanksgiving gesture for the bounty they receive when they learn to germinate seeds, see them grow, flower and fruit, and care for home and school gardens.

Recently, they have also learned the rudiments of permaculture: of growing complementary plants to provide food for humans as well as other species - birds, wildlife, even insects - while maintaining the richness and integrity of the soil. They learned the importance of keeping waterways clean, to nourish the earth and their own communities. They learned the value of re-using, re-cycling and reducing the impact of their own lives upon the earth. They understand the carbon cycle and how every tree planted makes a contribution to offset what we produce through industry and daily living. And in the cycles of seasons - wet and dry, flowering, fruiting and returning to seed - they are acclimatised to growing, attuned to patience, and intuit that loving and caring produce the best and sweetest fruit.

A tree planting festival with the children of Salazar Trace
Here is the future we cultivate with "seeds of hope:" farmers, scientists, sportsmen, doctors, teachers, fathers, mothers, engineers, the kind of leaders who will ensure that there is not just a bright future, but that there is food.

Bodi seedlings

Butter stick cassava

Cucumber seedlings
Learning to plant leads to reaping and cooking and eating...
(Photos by Jenny Ramjattan, coordinator of 4H in southwest Trinidad)

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Death, thou shalt die" *

The art of dying is what this post wanted to be called. The movie is called Wit. It is almost soliloquy - played direct to camera, the spoken thoughts of an erudite English Lit professor Vivian, who knows she is dying of cancer.

She's checked herself into a hospital - a very sterile place all white walls, glass doors and drapes -  where she is told how sick she is. She has ovarian cancer. The doctors discourse over her as if she isn't there. They talk about her insides as if she is a blackboard for their chalk marks, a specimen being observed. Her belly has their attention, and she's making wry faces, and trying to follow the medical logic which turns out to be more about logic than life.

We see flashbacks to her childhood and recent life. As a child she reads Beatrix Potter; she learns the meaning of soporific - which is what happens when rabbits eat too much lettuce (it puts them to sleep). And later on, with the only person who cares for her, Susie the nurse, Vivian is ever the teacher:
Vivian: I trust this will have a soporific effect.
Susie: I don't know about that, but it sure makes you sleepy.
Vivian: [laughing] Soporific means 'makes you sleepy'.

In her classroom, she is hard on students who don't pay attention, or don't use their intelligence. And yet it seems - with all her intelligence, her wit - she has yet to come to terms with dying. It remains a mental challenge, a literary reference.

Over a shared popsicle, Susie explains to her what all the doctors have not. They are as punctilious and enamored of their language as Vivian is of hers. What is left to decide, Susie says plainly, is what is to be done when her heart stops beating. The instinct of the medical profession is to keep the patient with them at all costs - code blue. But she does have a choice: DNR - do not resucitate. Vivian must choose, Susie says.

Vivian gets sicker and sicker. She has no friends - or none that she has allowed to visit her. Finally her professor colleague "EM"  - "Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause." -  creeps in with bag of books intended for a grandchild. She removes her shoes and eases into the narrow hospital bed to cradle a semi-conscious Vivian. She reads the story of "The Runaway Bunny" as to a child, and Vivian falls asleep.

In the end, there are no words, Vivian slips quietly away. We see the doctor's dramatic attempt to regain life. Susie charges in to preserve her patient's dignity. DNR, she shouts, do not resuscitate. The soul - like the runaway bunny - goes home.

(Wit is based on the play by Margaret Edson. It was produced for tv, directed by Mike Nichols, in 2001)

*Death, John Donne (1572-1631)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Changing season

Clay from the earth shaped by an artist's hands
It should be a sad time. My friends at Ajoupa Pottery have been closing down their business these past few years. They sold the land where the workshop stood, and have been clearing out the site for months now. Over 20 years of memories besiege my friend everytime she goes back to the workshop. There's no roof now. The kilns have been sold or promised. The last bits of pottery broken or as yet unsalvaged sit on shelves. Let's take them all home!

Looting the warehouse before it's turned to another use

It should be a sad time for my friend the potter, but if it is, she's kept it in her heart. Instead I look at her hands - the extension of an agile and perceptive mind. They are the hands of a potter: broad, roughened yet capable of executing the most delicate gestures as if the fleshy pads of her hands - and especially the fingertips - could feel the beating heart of clay. It is that sentient touch that brings her to care for the earth itself, the garden around their Chicklands home, and the garden that's growing with many others who have her saplings and seedlings.

There are lessons in Bunty's garden. These are the lessons of growing seasons, flowering, fruiting, birds and bats, fires in the harsh dry season and immense growth spurts in the wet. The greatest of all however must be rootedness. We all send deep roots to feed off our mother earth. What then is our place in the cycle of seasons, our gift to fertility and, yes, to future food and future inspiration and future contentment?

It should be a sad time, but instead it is a time that quickens the blood, makes the heart flutter and brings the breath faster. For it is the time of a changing season. Who knows what the wind is bringing? Surely, it is a new beginning, a  harvest from a lifetime of putting down roots and keeping one's head above water, and dreaming on clouds and clear blue skies.

So all of us who have our favourite bits of Ajoupa Pottery, cherish them with use, instill memories of happy family life. They will be clay again one day, but in the interim, they are the fruits of Bunty!


Cherish your bits of Ajoupa Pottery - no matter how little they are

Life as a tree!!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aunty's snore

She was calm plump and laughed a lot, baked the lightest angel cakes, the moistest Christmas cakes and the densest cassava pone! She was almost always cooking, when she was not in the shop which was her business on Dundonald Street. It was at her lunch table - as a small girl not yet ten - that I first noticed the balance of a meal of white rice, vegetables (usually cubes of pumpkin which I hated, or patchoi) a small piece of meat and gravy! There was always food in her pots, massive stews, pillowy piles of steaming rice. It was at  her home that the big family gatherings took place - Christmas and New Year's. She was the north pole for a family of many brothers and sisters, and her own family of nine children.

This aunty was my mother's oldest sister, my godmother. I loved her like the second mother she was to me.  We shared birthdays in the same horoscope sign - our dates were like brackets around that most sublime of months October - and I saw things in her that I wanted in myself.

As a skinny willful child not yet ten, I was intimidated by another side of aunty, her earth shaking snore! I would leave Tranquil around 2.30 or 3 and walk along Fitzgerald Lane - long and lonely - to stay in her shop until my father picked us up. In that hour, the shop would be closed. Even my pounding on the heavy wooden door sometimes did not wake aunty, who could snore to rattle the windows and shake the floor boards. When she did come to the door with sleep still on her face, I felt like the child in the fairytale waking the sleeping giant, small sulky and sweaty. But she was the soul of kindness and would always offer something - a soft drink (yes!) a piece of sweet bread (no thanks, because I would have to eat my mother's food!).

Aunty was earth to my mother's fire, to their other sister's air. On my father's side, there were many sisters too. And I believe there's a little of all these women in who I am today. Thanks, aunties! You are the threads that run through us, keeping us tethered to an idea of home.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Taking and giving advice

Have you noticed that people don't take advice? Even if it's the best in the world, and would help the situation. Unless they know you, you will be politely or utterly ignored.

It's like this. You've just met this woman at a function where they are serving shrimp. You refrain because you know you are allergic. She takes a handful - after all it's jumbo shrimp, and it's free! She says, you know I used to break out in blisters when I ate shellfish, but not so much anymore I just feel a slight itching sometimes, so I must be over it.

You say, you never get over allergies. The body just suppresses the reaction, and deals with it in different ways. From your own experience, you know the reactions that were once huge welts of mad blood, itchy throat and inflamed sinuses - in your childhood - moved to terrible dermatitis which lingered for almost a year, later on in life. But you can tell that your life story makes absolutely no impression on the woman who keeps scarfing the shrimp. Someone else says, that's what piriton is for; and it silences you.

Or the child you see playing in the street. When you slow down to say, please stay on the pavement, makes a monkey face at you and carries on. And you hope in your heart that God does indeed look out for fools.

Looking back, did I take advice? On average, maybe 50% of the time, and if I did, it was mainly because what was said might make me think: why are you saying this, what does it mean. Sometimes I didn't want advice, other times, even asking for advice, I went ahead and did exactly what I had intended - knowing the risk of course.

So we learn to live with the habits of people who should know better - it's not like you haven't said it a million times - and you accommodate those who are yet to grow into their wisdom. And you hope that even if you don't say the words, there might be something in how you live.

As Mrs Rutten says, everyone is doing the best they can! Yes!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Death in the family

My husband's aunt, 98 years old, died this week. She was a French lady who lived her life in the same country, possibly the same village, possibly almost the same house, for almost a century. What does that feel like, I wonder? To have lived through two world wars, and witnessed so many changes in the world - the advent of television, air travel, space travel, cars, computers, cell phones?

Is it possible that major changes happening all around could leave one unchanged? And if one does experience revelations, insight, enlightened thinking, revised belief - apart from getting older - what is the significance of such change kept to oneself?

I am just supposing that a person living 90 years must have all sorts of attitudinal and perspective upheavals. In less than 60 years, I have felt myself change every decade, sometimes in a year, or in a day!

What was her name, I ask my husband. I don't know I never met  her, he says. Which is more final, the death, or the impossibility of ever meeting a person. Can we ever know who in the family has her traits, her nose, her airs, her prejudices, her carriage, her stubbornness or her generosity? Do photographs exist to show what she was like? Was she ever curious about her sister's family, the children now scattered far from France? Is it worthwhile to know?

Have we "progressed" to live so far from native tribal lands? Or would we be better off to have stayed round the same fires, facing inward to the same village green?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday night fevers

Didn't seem so long ago that Saturday nights were the social centre of the week. Lime late. Stay up later. Smoky clubs and heart pounding beats. Those were the days of the discotheque, the dates, daring to stay out til dawn. Graduation from the family life Saturdays in which as pre-teens we invented ourselves in old-clothes dress up, colouring pencils for make up, pretend games and pretend relationships, nativity scenes and concerts, "playing" other personae, imagining ourselves as others.

Even when young children came along, it was the night of the late movie, the pizza dinner, a little slackness in a tight wound week. For the few years as Sunday Editor of a national newspaper, the family (not just me) spent Saturday nights in the newsroom, putting the paper to bed.

Now, children have flown the nest for some four or five years. Night time holds few attractions: the thought of being out and about on the roadways after dark is a little dismaying. Saturday night has become  meditative and introspective - a particular time when no one calls or messages; email is quiet; even facebook turns a blank stare. Is it that everyone else is about something nocturnal and exciting? Is it that my life has turned a corner, we are the older generation now? Or is it that everyone - the world over - is breathing out a sigh, inward looking, not just a quiet time, a silent non-communicating time; believing that that rest of the world is dancing to some other lively beat.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

the baby in the family

My baby brother is ten years younger than I. This means that at 10 or 11, I was changing his diaper, making his bottle and rocking him to sleep. Between my brother and me were three other siblings, two girls and one boy. Although our mother cared for each of us and all of us, it often fell to the elder children - three girls - to look after the younger ones - special and long-awaited precious boys.

At seven, eight and five, the three girls were "old aunts"  with the first boy. He became our living baby doll. And we rolled him around the yard in a dolly's pram which would tip backwards whenever we let go of the handle, resulting in loud wails as the live baby fell backwards.

By the time the baby brother came along, we knew better how not to treat him like a doll. What stays in my mind is the evening ritual, shared with my sisters, one nine and the other a mature seven at that time. Maybe we took turns, I don't remember. At or around seven, the bottle would be made - it had cereal in it so he would have been six months  - and baby on one shoulder, bottle and bib in one hand, we mounted the stairs to my parents' big bed. Baby would be fed - or coaxed to feed if he was fussy - burped, changed and lulled to sleep. If he had trouble falling asleep, I would sing hymns from my prayer book. All things bright and beautiful, and For all the saints, to Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea! Good or bad, the hymn singing usually did the trick.

In the next ten years of growing, life on the farm is a blur of memory with moments like stills that stand out with technicolour clarity. The Poppy Club: Saturday afternoons shared with close cousins. Cleaning and grading eggs after school. Searching for secret places to hide and read. The brothers grew up too, largely unnoticed. By the time I was back from university, they were young men in high school, trying to grow their hair past the tops of their shirt collars under the eye of a vigilant principal.

Eventually they both went to the USA for university education, where they remain to this day. I can't say how like me they might be, or how different, what - apart from the parents genes - bind us together. I don't often look down that long tunnel of memory; but today is the baby brother's birthday and there's that love that lingers since he was ours to look after.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Learning in the world

September 16, 2010, my father would be 85. He would most likely still have an amazing mind, sharp as a blade, even as he might have become more impatient, or maybe more tolerant. Who knows?

He's been gone more than eight years. But when I am struggling with thorny accounting calculations, trying to figure out how to make, use or spend money, I remember him. He would be rocked back in his recliner, the television on some travel or food channel. The look on his face, the counting gestures with his fingers - was he writing on air or talking with some business guru? - told us he was deeply engrossed in some new scheme, either for his own business or to invest in. He bought shares in Trinidad, whenever an IPO was launched and especially in the banks, but in Unit Trust, National Enterprises - he believed in the productivity of this country - and ventured into real estate and computer companies abroad. He could read all the signs of an economy, and was deeply interested in the stock markets of the world, this man who had to learn English as a second language, and graduated from primary school before entering the job market as a shopkeeper. He learned Trinidad like a new subject, this man who came from China.

When television first came to Trinidad, he bought one of the first sets. We looked at Bonanza in black and white through reception snow - the mountains of Santa Cruz cut out more than 50% of the picture. Long before that, my father was a theatre peon. He learned a lot about the world from the silver screen as a young man. Many years after, when his fortune was made, he travelled for pleasure. He did business with suppliers in the USA, and learned about poultry rearing, breeding, incubation and specialty birds from them. In every field that he put  his mind to, he excelled.

He believed in the talent and native intelligence of his children. He didn't push, just allowed us to find our own paths. For all his life, he accepted his responsibility as a parent. His house was always open to his children - food was always available in his kitchen, and if it wasn't he could whip up something fast. There were never lectures, no advice - except maybe "buy these shares" - but he showed the way to care for a family.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No Entry! Road closed 3pm to 7pm weekdays

This road is closed to those unfortunate enough not to live here!

Trust the bigshots in Fairways to not want any and everyone driving through their ritzy suburb! Since September 1 (so I was told) the main road through Fairways is closed between 3 and 7 pm, to everyone except residents of the area.

They don't have a shopping mall, a cinema, a market, or any particularly attractive houses far less any that are not behind five foot walls! There is a road, however, that helps to ease the traffic on the Saddle Road which is still the only road through Maraval: the only road from Port of Spain through the densely populated valley up to Perseverance, Maracas, Santa Cruz. The Fairways road already has a lot of humps so you can't go fast anyway. It is longer than the main road. And those who do use it from time to time, just want to get away from bumper to bumper driving once in a while.

The act of closing off the road - deliberately to prevent anyone from driving through their precious suburb - seems undemocratic and at some very visceral level, stingy and spiteful. Like thumbing their noses at people who don't live like them and therefore should have no choice but to suffer in the lead-laden lanes. Clearly, the ability to put guard huts at two ends of a long and winding street, and electronic automated barriers (for both lanes at both ends) and to have these checkpoints manned by uniformed guards who steadfastly insist on turning people back, speaks of wealth and power! I mean who would think to prevent motorists from making shortcuts through the residential streets of Woodbrook, or St James, or Barataria.

Is this about fighting criminal elements using the road in the peak of daytime traffic? No, it's a selfish act to frustrate already irritated motorists at the end of their working day. Was it advertised in the media ("The residents of Fairways wish to advise ...")? I didn't know that you could close off a public road by decree of the residents. So who lives there that is powerful enough to create their own system? And who would want to drive through there anyway, knowing that they are regarded as trespassers?

This is another symptom of the times and place in which we live that makes me want to retreat and become a recluse in some deep Northern Range valley! But whoever did that would  be sure to be followed by those who would want to close off the valley.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Changing lanes

Do you notice how you responded to that last close call on the highway? The car weaving across your lane. In a split second, you hit the brake, checked the mirrors, and seeing nothing in the on-coming lane, pulled sharply over, avoiding impact by a hair's breath. By the time you are safe and cruising again,  your breath is coming in gasps, your blood pumping, heart racing. Another narrow escape that seems to leave your memory as soon as your body is calm again.

What about the time that the car weaving over did make contact with your bumper. You recall it afterwards in mini-second slices. You see the car weaving over, check mirrors and realise that you can't swerve into the other lane, can't speed up, can only try to stop. So you see the collision in slo mo; feel the crunch.You are super calm, almost out of body. The adrenalin rush happens after the impact when there's no possibility of a "flight response."

What interests me is the heightened awareness that we seem able to tap into when there is a crisis. Is this real in our brains, or something that we conjure up after the fact? How does the brain slow down time so that responses are felt and remembered in an expanded version?

You would be surprised to know that this power to slow down time is something we can actually turn on. Check: http://www.mindpowernews.com/SlowDownTime.htm

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spaces for the spirit

This photo of the chapel in the Tower of London helps me remember how it felt - even with all the people filing past behind me - to be in a sanctuary, almost cave-like.  How inviting to stay on one of the basic straight-backed wooden chairs, and soak in the light from the arches bouncing off the warm stone of these massive pillars.

The architects of churches - indeed of all spaces deemed sacred - understood what would inspire awe in people, bring them to their knees. I have seen it, and felt it in so many places - Salisbury Cathedral, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and sometimes in tiny chapels in remote European villages. The steeple rises above all other buildings, a beacon for the faithful. Inside, the high vaulted ceiling takes your gaze up. The long central nave draws you forward to the focal point, the altar. (Even if the floor and walls in so many of these old churches are cluttered with effigies, tombs, crests and other furnishings and paraphernalia, there's always the ceiling!) In the oldest cathedrals, the chairs or pews seem to me redundant - here is a place for being on your feet basking in the light of an ancient stained glass window, or on your knees.

Islamic mosques with the high central dome - representing heaven - congregate everyone in a circular space. Surely meant as a symbol for equality!

Wherever we are, it's worthwhile to look for places of sanctity, sanctuaries for the spirit. Here are some of these havens for sanity that I visited. The first four photos are of Southwark Cathedral - at the end of Borough Main Street by London Bridge.



These photos are two years apart - the first time we walked by Southwark was in the winter of 2008. Against a summer sky in 2010.

Inside Southwark, the mind is drawn to the spaces above. Outside, a mound in tribute to the Mohegans brought from the New World, who died in England.

And in Amsterdam, a church to find your way by - the towering steeple of Westerkerk centred us by day and by night.

The steeple with a crown on top - Westerkerk can be seen from streets and canals in Jordaan, Amsterdam. At night with a full moon!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sheeba loved a bullfrog!

Sheeba was an addict. She was frothing, jelly-like foam on her muzzle, eyes rolling back. This was the third or fourth time she lay spasming on the ground, her head arcing back as if there was a steel spring located somewhere along her spine. She howled in what sounded like desperate pain and then lay still. She's going to die for sure, we all thought.

"Run and get the homeopathics," the mother yelled, "get lachesis, bring aconite, belladonna ... and arsenicum." Thinking to battle toxins with essences of poisons.

"Maybe she's been bit by a snake," the father shouted. There was no swelling, no way to look for a snake bite in her night gray coat in the dark.

"Push some salt down her throat," suggested the friend, "that's what they do to make dogs gag..."

Eventually, we just did the simplest thing and rinsed her mouth out with water from a forceful hose. Then we got her up on four wobbly legs and made her walk around. Back and forth, round and round, we walked this unpedigreed but patient loyal pet until her eyes began to focus and she was walking without crossing her legs.

We had found her by her voice, a six-inch scrawny black pup dropped by a stray, bawling in a drain, soaking wet and trying to climb out of the water, with a sibling that was ready to call it a day. As she grew, her fur changed to a grayish fuzz. We called her Sheeba. Orion called her Lagahou, a netherworld creature more spirit than form, silent but ever-present. Sheeba was the typical stray, always expecting to be abandoned, just grateful to be noticed. Her favourite pastime was chasing lizards, hunting toads out of their daytime hideaways in the smelly earth under the ginger plants. She would emerge with her muzzle foaming. She didn't kill the toads but seemed to want to get them in her mouth. We think she enjoyed the natural high!

If we had to characterise Sheeba, we would use words like independent, introspective, appreciative, self-effacing. For eleven years - without pups, because she miscarried her first litter and it was thought best to spay her after that unpleasant experience - she was the soul of devotion. She attacked no one and would lie silently by the door, groomed and licked and loved by the other dogs. She forever chased lizards (and iguanas) and licked toads. And in her final days, howled as if she were high - again and again, until we realised that there was no froth on her muzzle. This was dry pain.

May Sheeba's spirit live on, and help us to appreciate loving gentleness even in damaged creatures.

Travels with my aunt

Who knows when or how a child develops the yen for travel. Being moved from Trinidad to London to Africa will certainly condition the children in one family. But "reward trips" given for passing exams, however few and far between are wonderful incentives. Books spur mental travelling, but nothing compares with setting foot in a new country for the first time. A body feels the earth differently, perceives the angle of the sun filtering through clouds or blazing from blue sky, feels an unusual wind bringing scent and heat, or cold. 

I fell in love with airplane travel and being in a different place when I first visited Miami in the early sixties. Miami as a frontier town, just opening up new residential, shopping and amusement areas! Always a beach front. Every bit of the experience is stored in some brain cell, easily ignited by smell or sound or just the way the sun feels on bare legs - a Miami state of being.

The feast for my travel senses came more than a decade later when in my second year at university, my hot-foot traveler aunt took me as her companion around the world. We started in May and arrived in Trinidad in August. Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Victoria in Canada. Hawaii. Hong Kong. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto in Japan. Malaysia and Singapore. A day and a night in Bangkok. Istanbul in Turkey. The Greek Isles. Geneva, Switzerland. Paris, France. Rome and Naples in Italy. Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. Lisboa and a bullfight in Portugal. Amsterdam, Holland. Copenhagen, Denmark. London, Brighton, Leeds in England. Not necessarily in that order! In most of the places Auntie had a friend or friend of a friend to stay with. Hotels, guest rooms, pensions in Europe were a different kind of treat.

Of course, it was too much to take in - far less absorb - even with the agile mind of a 20-year year old, (so many different currencies - my aunt took care of that, she was a bank manager!) two Samsonite hard-cases and city maps, and the most basic Kodak camera. Don't know where the memories are stored, but they can be called up by an idea, a smell, a feeling, a passage in a book. Black cherry juice and hot pretzels on the Bosporus in Turkey. The Blue Mosque and the smaller Sofia in Istanbul. Small flowers in crags on a stony Greek hillscape. The sweet sicky smell of durian everywhere in Malaysia. Buying a silk kimono in Kyoto. Sweating for a tan on the shores of Lake Geneva before plunging into icy waters. Mini-skirted and bareheaded at the Vatican, and denied entry. Taking the ferry in Hong Kong. And walking, walking, walking - the breadth of Paris on the Seine; cobbled streets of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, London.

Auntie was a world traveler for as long as I knew her. The quintessential Auntie, glamorously decked out in the highest spike heels and tight skirts of the 50s, fully employed, independent and financially astute, she helped raise her sisters' children; had hundreds of god-children, official and un-official, staying for members of the family as well as the families she was adopted into from her work at the bank. She continues to be sister, friend and auntie of many scattered in countries around the world. How lucky to have her make my introductions to cities, to so many feasts, and guide me to see the world through all my senses.

I think human beings have a gene for going, for setting out and for exploring. It's strongly linked to the other gene - the one for coming back, the one that takes you home.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Comings and goings

Once, many moons ago, I thought I could be a flight attendant. The rolling stone life - life in a suitcase - seemed to fit my mood as a twenty-something out of college. Even though I was interviewed I did not get the "stewardess" - my mother would have said "high class waitress" - job. I like to think it was because I was not a national of the country whose flag the airline carried. No, it was not Beewee - and even when I did land a job at the Caribbean airline much much later in life, I thought long and hard about going away and did it as little as possible.

Today, preparing to spend a week - far less two, or a month - becomes a campaign that must be mapped and planned long in advance. And it's not just figuring out how much dog food and wishing they could help themselves to it, or what to pack (what to leave behind!) - figuring out the theme to dress by - will it be colour or monotone? - the car arrangements (who gets us to the airport, and back), it's a thing in the head that I think I've suffered from since childhood. The pull of inertness, the pressure of gravity?

I hated going back to school. The end of the vacation bothered me yes, but even more, the apprehensions and expectations of re-entering a space where I would have to "perform." By the time the term was ending, I dreaded the days to be spent working on the farm, in the house, without the "freedom of being away." In the groove of being on vacation, I wished to be on vacation forever. Other times, the routine and rhythm of the school term was comforting. Would that it should go on, rather stopped just to restart.

Going to college, the fear of "leaving home" materialised in being strange in a strange land with people who looked at me as if I had landed from space. But whenever I came home, there would be a huge emotional hump that came with the blast of humidity at the plane door, the bulk of the Northern Range black on a dark sky, that left me sulky and moody for days, until my head - or heart - caught up with the place my body was moving in.

Beginnings and endings are fraught with risk, but also loaded with possibility.  It's easy to be turning over like a perpetual motion machine. (Is that why some people don't take vacations?) Much simpler to not have to think or be alert for every unexpected thing that will happen when one shifts gears, goes to a different country, engages a foreign language, or just decides to move in a different space, a new frame of mind - like retirement.

So although the heart might wish to stay in one place, still as a rock; when the mind says "move!" it's time to go. So long as there are reasons to keep moving, you know that you are still alive!


Today I am a living being, wishing to be a rock!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Funerals and food

When I was little - six or eight - my father would take me to funerals with him. Maybe he wanted company because my mother would not go to the funeral of someone she did not know. I never knew these persons either, a compere of his parents in the Chinese community, the relative of a customer from the shop, someone from Laventille or Woodbrook, my father's circle of acquaintances was wide. I would watch and absorb the range of emotions, stony stoicism, sombre and respectful sobbing, to the wild bawling (oh gawd oh gawd oh gawd ...) at the gravesite. It was as much cinema as the westerns and epic movies that I also saw with my father. So my response to funerals was conditioned early.

When Daddy died - after months of protracted treatment, and pain, for stomach conditions which turned into cancer - it was hard to drum up emotional response. His suffering tormented me so that the end, his emaciated body sedated with morphine, was a relief. Guilt too - wondering whether I had ever done enough - ever been enough - for  him. He was a practical, generally unsentimental, tough cuss, but a family man who spent his life making money to make sure his family was taken care of, and as far as possible enjoying travel anywhere and all over the world, and food! Yes, cooking was his way of expressing love: all kinds of Chinese food, pows, fry dry fish, beef jerky and charsue pork! The funeral service, held in the Anglican church at midday - for all his life, he was non religious - served our purpose, but it was hard to think of him there, or in the cemetery plot which he shares with his father and mother. We think of him when we are ordering food in a dim sum restaurant, when we see the sea off Carenage or Chaguaramas and imagine him racing his boat - he loved speed - so we had to hold on against the wind!

My mother's funeral was as empty of her spirit as well. She had already been cremated. In a large modern space for worship in Florida, we spoke of her in proper sentences, and her grandchildren read passages out of Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God. The service brought some of her living relatives together, but was entirely surreal until the final hymn, played on a crackly portable boom box, recalled the Sunday broadcasts on Trini AM stations - played at top volume around the neighbourhood while small children tossed in their beds in the afternoon heat, unable to nap!

For a while after each death, my mind was empty of them. Not deliberately so, I just didn't think of them any where, any time. But time passed, and I would catch glimpses in an occasion, my own turn of phrase, turn of thought, actions and habits. In a taste, a smell, a dream, they come back often. I have so few photos, or things from them; but I realise they are not in the pieces of furniture I inherited. They are in me, in my brothers and sisters, and their brothers and sisters (uncles and aunts) still around.

One last thought: I don't want a funereal funeral. Fill up the house, have a feast. Play the music that I love - Paul Simon's Late in the evening! Joni Mitchell's Child of God! Rudder's Bahia girl and Calypso Music - to wash away the unlovely! - and Byron Lee's Tiny Winey. And if possible, sky burial or throw my body to the fishes in the deep blue sea! Joy to you and me!

Please, always be silly in my name!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Eat little, live long!

Hunger is the best sauce!

By the time I knew him, my mother's father was living in one of those modest - but elegantly proportioned - Woodbrook gingerbread houses on French Street, the lower part between Ariapita and Wrightson Road. (My mother would tell us that they had moved there from Methuen Street which she was certain is Naipaul's Miguel Street.) What I remember about the house on French street is how open it was - as a child, I loved its nooks and corners and was intrigued by the understorey, the crawl space between the floor and the ground that seemed just right for little people.

This grandfather - a wizened but sprightly man who allowed small people to jump up and down on his bed, while he was in it! - would always have a treat for us. From out of nowhere he would produce a packet of iced gems, coin sized cookies with a minaret of hard coloured icing. They were made by an English company (Huntley and Palmers I believe) and imported to the colonies. This was the treat, but if there was a meal -  his youngest boys (the adolescent uncles who would play with us) and a daughter with tiny tots were still living with him - everyone shared, no matter how miniscule the portion. Eat little and live long, he would say by way of encouragement for us to eat up, not to waste even tiny morsels in small bowls!

As kids, we would play interminably. Food was furthest from our thoughts. I don't think I ever registered a sensation of hungry until I was a gangly fast-growing teenager.  And even if we had more food on our plates living on the farm, we were expected to finish what was there: Milo and cheese toast or eggs at breakfast; rice and meat and vegetables at lunch ,and noodle soup or bread and something for supper. For school, the midday and evening meals were inter-changed - sandwiches for lunch and the hot meal at supper. Saturdays were special: a feast of Trini street foods made at home, accras and bake; black pudding and hops; souse. Snacks were what we foraged from the trees: mangos ripe or green with pepper and salt; plums; five fingers; guavas with or without worms, tamarind with a sprinkling of pot soda! (People wonder how I can pick a fruit straight off the tree and eat it!)

My other grandfather would cook elaborate meals - a tradition that his son, my father, would carry on - for special occasions. We would wait one, two or more hours past the meal time. "You hungry?" he would ask frequently, gleefully, as he stirred his pot. He would build up the anticipation to our devouring the meal: hoisin-flavoured crispy skinned pork, black mushrooms swimming in a yard fowl stew flavoured with rum and ginger, jumbo shrimps in tomato, wood ears (tree fungus) stir-fried with vegetables, all served on steaming white rice in small bowls and eaten with chopsticks! It's easy to use chopsticks when you are hungry!

Generally,  food was a prized commodity, not to be wasted, not to be indulged in excess. On those occasions when it seemed that the table was too small for the number of dishes, it was always because the whole extended family was gathered. Food in abundance as a tribute to the wealth of family, an extraordinary ritual. How then did we evolve, in one generation - and with smaller families - to expect food everywhere all the time. And the food! Chips, cookies, giant bottles of sweet drinks, fast food everywhere! Is there a way back to eating little and living long? Because surely as the sun comes up, we can eat ourselves to death.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fascinated by death

Death and disaster - impending death - draws us. Daily news stories headline the numbers who have died in landslide, flooding, by murder, bombing or accident. The greater the calamity - more deaths - the bigger the story. Where - or when - does this interest in dying - suddenly like planes falling out of the sky, or slowly by painful disease - take hold in our lives? At what point do we turn as moths to a flame to become witnesses and to expect certain death as destiny. 9/11, tsunami, hurricane, world wars - the theatres of death are full and fascinating - morbid rejoicing that we are still on this side?

For a time when I was a teenager and people would ask "what do you want to be?" I would say "old." I had this mental picture of old oriental woman, wizened, agile and wise. I believe I wanted to be wise; but I hadn't really thought through the process. It was just an idea, and if you asked me about "wisdom," I might have said "I want to see everything, experience everything." Death was not a threat or an option. I still don't believe in it. If that sounds like hubris, it's not. But it is that desire, that appetite that drives the routines, the ups and downs of a year in your life, the getting up to see what each dawning brings. Tony Hall calls it "jouvay every day" - the daily celebration that defies the hundred year sleep, and your spirit's realisation that it still occupies this body.  It's life that's the real challenge.

It's easy to wait for death - more inexorable and uncompromising the longer you live. It's harder to be alive. To wonder what's for dinner while negotiating the latest procurement contract; or to figure out how you will get school books for the child when all your possessions are soaking wet or floating out the door from a half hour downpour on some distant mountain top.

Death does not define us. It's what we do in the face of death that marks us. It's the little or large gestures that give our living meaning, that the spirit craves. And if - or when - we do die, let it be from a life fully lived. Who knows what comes after - we still should not spend our days mourning the finality of life as we know it.

(Hope this doesn't sound half-baked or presumptuous... still groping toward the light!)