Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, May 31, 2010

Arrival from China

My father came from China to Trinidad when he was 11. That must have been around 1936. He accompanied his own father on an exploratory trip, and then later as Akung (grandfather) proceeded to move his children - one by one like a lioness might move one cub at a time - from Guangdong (previously Canton) province. The adventure of that travel one can only imagine - by boat to Canada, across North America by train, and then by sea again on the Atlantic to Chinidad. Must have taken a couple weeks each way, each time.

Coming from a land so immense as China, what made my paternal grandfather choose these tiny islands in the south Caribbean? He must have heard about them from some other Chinese compere. The climate was similar enough, and there was need for shops, a niche which the Chinese happily filled. Akung was an adventurer, an extrovert, happy-go-lucky. He made several trips between China and Trinidad, bringing three sons and eventually bringing his wife and two smaller children, another son and the first girl. The last two girls (of that union) were born in Trinidad. But in the years of back and forth, he also started a Trinidad family, which he maintained a street away with the Chinese family which he brought.

So my father left childhood in China, was taught English in Trinidad by his godmother (Christianised but not converted or convinced) and went to work in his father's shops. First in Belmont, and later in Woodbrook, and also on the top of Laventille. His schooling was over the counter, roaming with the boys from Belmont and Woodbrook and Laventille on the streets of Port of Spain, from movies in "t'eater," and in the kitchen with his mother and father.

It was behind the shop in Woodbrook that he kept gold fish, a monkey that would run away across the rooftops, a couple "bad dogs," birds (parakeets, lovebirds, semp and picoplat). And it was here that he devised and experimented with the technology to build an incubator for chieken eggs, with success that led to his life's business - poultry farmer. That's a much much longer story.

Today, we remember a young boy brought to a strange land by a father who loved travel. I would say he was a quick learner, fearless, willing to make his life with his own hands. He never stopped to look back, never judged himself, and with his fiercely independent spirit, epitomised the entrepreneur that this country could use more of today.
Chinese boy, circa 1936

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Arriving and Where we be

Yes, it's good to acknowledge that all of us in Trini-bago are arrivistes, ambitious self-seekers looking for a brighter way. Not just the Indians because it is being celebrated at the time of the year when the Fatal Rozack brought the first indentures from India across the Kalapani (black water - the Atlantic Ocean) to Chinidad. It's about time that we agree that individually and collectively, we are on a journey - a very exciting journey with souls we can only call brother or sister, nothing less. And every day, we are constantly arriving.

Look, we just reached a new phase in our maturity as a nation, choosing 29 unremarkable individuals (a pick up side, some say) to be our representatives in government, full well knowing that at least some of the responsibility remains ours.

Once we can agree that it is useful to take a day out of the year to contemplate where we be, and how we going, it makes a lot of sense. This could be the day that means all things to all people. Not a day to be caught in the frenzy of a ritual observance, not for feasting or fasting, but a day to be spent in quiet contemplation. We reach. Or, look where we reach! The journey not so bad after all, or it could be better, let's make it so. A day of hope and inspiration - a pause to breathe and take stock. The still point on the journey that will change us all.

At the personal level, it should be no different. So much happens in a life, however briefly or however long you have been around. At the end of the day, remember, it's not how much you did or did not do, but how much joy you brought into the lives of those you touched.

(Seems to me, a lot of people start off with a surfeit of joy that is squandered as they grow older...)

Arrival Day: a little  hot spot to count your blessings, take stock, time out, see where you reach, check where you heading.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Citizen Sledge

My first encounter with Ishmael Samad was while working in the newspaper's editorial department. We received a letter to the editor laboriously written in long-hand on two-three sheets of lined foolscap paper. It was daunting because we had a 250 word limit on letters; or an extract. In 1995, Samad's letter, a well-written argument against the death penalty - just as Trinidad and Tobago was beginning to re-assert its right to hang convicted criminals as a preventive measure against rising crime - was an editor's nightmare, to read, to typeset, to edit. It would have been easy to dismiss him as a nut, but there he was in front the Royal Gaol on Frederick Street, with placard, protesting to all who would listen.

Fast forward to 2002 when the second General Election in two years was called. Samad turns up at the office of Citizens Alliance, a small and struggling third party determined to force a wedge in the status quo. Samad offered himself as a candidate, and was screened to represent the party in a Port of Spain seat. He spent a week driving around the tower of the then Attorney General - the man  who had himself split his own party open by quarreling with its leader - playing the theme song from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Just as abruptly, Samad quit the Alliance saying he smelt a rat, and headed into the sunset after the ruling party's bandwagon.

Eight years later, Samad must be an old man by now! But there he is, on prime time news flinging a sledgehammer against the ornamental bars of a gate identified as leading to the house of the person reputed to have mis-used plenty more funds than in the building of the new airport. He is there, he proclaims, to make a citizen's arrest. He swings a hammer that looks like Thor's. He has damaged his finger, blood oozing on an index finger, like voting ink. As he delivers his speech to the gate, the Police arrive, and he is transported - we are led to believe - on the tray of an open pick up. (How timely that tv cameras were there when he struck the gate, when he went without resistance with the Police.) He re-iterates his position with proclamations published as paid advertisements on May 22, Call me Sledge.

What's the point you ask? What's the point of channeling righteous indignation? Is there a point in protest? In tilting at windmills? Or even this, writing of blogs. Is there a point in throwing so many gestures, so many words, to the universe. Is it all just pissing in the wind?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wild mushrooms

Jumbie parasols, my mother called them. They would spring up overnight, pale and delicate and otherworldly, in a clump of dewy grass; on the pile of horse manure, on a piece of rotted tree stump. I imagined them providing shade for ethereal fairy folk. By the time we had gone to school and come back later in the day, the little umbrellas would be gone. On the occasion when we dared to pick them - don't touch them, they are poisonous! - they would wither in our warm hands.

When we learned their similarity with the big black mushrooms used in Chinese cooking, or the firm white buttons, or the canned ones we called eyeballs, curiosity teased us to try to eat these morning blooms. Could we fry them in butter? Would they have the effect of magic mushrooms?

The temptation to taste is great in human beings. Babies put everything in their mouths. Tender taste buds are so sensitive - seeking not just the obvious, sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but the subtle and infinite interplay of flavours and aromas like sensory notes on a scale. My infant son sucked on a canister of unexposed film before his lips swelled up like he'd kissed a jepp nest, before he would stop. Nope, son, it's not a good idea to put everything in your mouth. Experience some things with sight and smell and touch.

But wild mushrooms are especially intriguing. How do harvesters know which ones are good to eat - and the range of delicate, meaty, musty, chewy, saucer-sized fungi is wonderfully vast and varied? How did they first discover which ones would nourish, and which ones would kill?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Red or yellow

To vote or not to vote is not the question.
If only it were that simple.

Instead the questions are many and complicated. They reveal who you are in a society that is multi-layered and contradictory; whether you lean towards careful analysis and a calculated option or blind faith and trust or let's not rock the boat because what we have is "good enough."

In a democracy such as ours, what is more important: the greatest good for the greatest number (water, education, health, care of the vulnerable and housing) or legacy monuments (waterfront skyline for instance)? What would we choose if we realised that our resources are indeed limited?

Which is preferable: an administration that listens and consults, or one that god-like "knows what's good" for everyone else and rushes ahead to put plan into action?

What do you think is more beneficial for a developing population: engaging people in work that pushes them to access training and self-improvement; or paying them for "make work" projects?

What is better for today: the hope of being engaged in government - however imperfect it may be, whatever challenges to consensus may arise - or the certainty of being treated as if government is always an abdication of power to the hands of a few?

Dare we take the risk with a handful of imperfect persons to find out if there's a way to integrate who we are as people - richly diverse, contentious but cohesive -  into our unique form of government, or try not to lose momentum towards developed nation status,?

Some of us will go to the polls to stay where we are because "things are alright" at this time: these folk think their choice is obvious and easy to defend. Others will go to see if a change could make things better; these folk are optimists and always hoping for better. For many of us, however, the choice is oh too simple -  man or woman, yellow or red, today over tomorrow.

To vote is to exercise a democratic right and process. With this opportunity being presented with such frequency in recent years - four times in ten years - let's get some exercise, why not.

Afterwards, are we prepared to work, to make Trinidad and Tobago not just a rich country but a productive one?

Back to the stars

Be like a butterfly! (Image courtesy the Hubble telescope)

It feels like affirmation when something - from out of the blue - seems to reinforce what you are thinking! An editorial in the New York Times last week "The Being of Being" suggests that there is confirmation - from the Fermilab in Illinois and the Large Hadron Collider - that at the subatomic level, the neutral B-meson particle vacillates between matter and non-matter, thereby tipping the universe towards being. Can personal hunches be traced to that pesky B-meson particle going back and forth?

When science seems to validate art - Hamlet's most famous soliloquy "To be or not to be" - we wonder what other insights in human art and myth may eventually be considered to be "based in fact." How else are we programmed to act from the sub-atomic, or even the galactic, levels? Could it be that our future lies not just in our nature, but that our nature is indeed written in the stars?

If as the universe suggests, there is this tendency towards expansion, towards being (rather than annihilation), towards life, why should we not be more adventurous, take more chances? What predisposes us to security, acquisitiveness, selfishness? What would it take for us to live like the lilies of the field, who sow and spin not, or butterflies, or the dolphins in the sea, who neither plant nor reap?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Small changes every day

Yesterday's lecture was on "continuous improvement" which is now a management tool - practised by the Japanese in their Toyota factories for decades, and more recently proposed by Americans such as Stephen Spear and Don Kiefer. The crux of it is that we can - and do - improve in exponentially greater steps by consciously modifying routine tasks every day.

I know this is true because I go to the gym. Not religiously, but twice a week for most weeks. And in four years, my trainers have re-shaped the body so that it is more streamlined, somewhat stronger, and clothes hang better on certain parts. That's continuous improvement in the face of gravity and time.

For the last few months, I have started sorting trash and putting glass, cans and plastics into different bins. We take re-usable shopping bags to the grocery, and the amount of plastic bags (which would go to the vegetable man) has been reduced considerably. We hope that the other million or so inhabitants of these two islands, and the billions others around the world would also continuously improve their disposal of garbage - though it may take another 40 years to reverse the habits that have produced garbage patches in all our oceans, and eons to rid the same oceans of what has already been dumped there. It's the magnitude of some tasks that prevent us from taking even the first step.

But take it, we must. We must learn that while we can see the big picture, it's actually made up of many tiny parts, each important to the whole. So let us begin in this corner. Define the problem of this day, make the important decisions to get moving. Then, just do it. We are sensory and perceptive creatures. This means we learn, identify, modify, adapt, change - and improve - in the doing. This is what the most prolific artists understand - the art is in the practice.

There's always the next painting, song, book, the next day, to aim to be 30% faster, or use 30% fewer resources, to write 30% more words, to be better.

So what happened to Toyota?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

stardust and sunshine

Black holes exist, we are assured by Stephen Hawking and other scientists. They are the result of burned out and collapsed stars, absolute concentrations of star matter with infinite density and gravitational pull from which nothing can escape. You don't see them in the night - or day - sky, can barely detect their radio waves; and might only discern their influence by the wobble or pull on an adjacent star. But - the scientists propose - black holes are the equation that testifies to an origin of all matter, the big bang, and the expanding universe. Furthermore, as we approach a "black hole" - as if we ever could with anything except our mind - we would do so for a very long time, encountering an area called the event horizon which we would forever be approaching in infinitesimal acceleration. Sounds like purgatory! Now, there's a thought for a wild mind.

Humans have known their civilized selves for merely five or ten thousand years. Our own sun, we are told, has shone on a molten earth, a planet inhabited by dinosaurs, and will one day - hundreds of millions of  years hence - burn itself out and collapse inwardly into a black hole. By then, we may all be wiped out, vanished like T rex or woolly mammoth, or have found a way to navigate to other habitable regions in space, or have evolved into beings able to dwell in the event horizon. For the moment, and for this briefest of sparks in infinity and infinite diversity - our consciousness - how should we spend our time? How should we not?

My blog time is running out this morning, so it is a subject that I will come back to. But for today, let's hear Joni Mitchell: "We are stardust... We are golden... let's get ourselves back to the garden!" Let us appreciate what and where we are, and all that stardust can do!  (Image courtesy the Hubble telescope)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rain coming

Since Friday, we had one day of heavy rain, and two days of stillness and heat, humidity, mosquitos and swarms of bugs attracted to the house lights. Days and nights waiting for rain. We can smell it in the ozone, hear it in the parrots' daytime squarking, see the cobos spiralling down instead of up. We feel the changes in our blood and our bones.

In this interlude between the dry and the wet, we sense the change coming, sweat trickling down our backs, night time thunder distant and electricity in the air.  What kind of wet season can we expect, we wonder. Will it be one of torrential downpours overflowing the streets from drains clogged with the debris of careless litter? Will it be the drier hot and wet season waiting for intermittent showers?

The bush doesn't wonder. Trees on the hills are all shades of green already. Even the bamboo that had dried out, or burned, is sprouting again. Life in the tropics is amazing, abundant, expectant, constantly pushing towards the sun, even when it is obscured by the grey clouds of the ITCZ. Would that we could respond so readily to the changing seasons, climate change, and political storms coming.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Empty Hammock

Amerindians knew nothing of parabolas when they slung their simple bark fabric beds between two trees. Then, as dark settled sudden as a blink, and stars littered the heavens, they curled like commas and slept til the sky lightened again. Who knows what pattern of stars imprinted their dreams, suspended between earth and sky.

The hammock we are told, was a particularly clever invention. Made of bark or rope, it could be installed wherever or whenever convenient above the moist or muddy forest floor, beyond the reach of snake or scorpion, rat or roach.

Today, in a world of gadgets, machines, electronic inventions, it is an unnecessary and whimsical item, not worthy of being considered furniture. The hammock evokes trees, space unbounded, time beyond horizons, a pause, a suspension. To meditate on nothingness.

Most of the time, my hammock hangs empty, perfect curve, parabola of dreams.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Meditation on Mother

When we lived in a shop, my mother was the shopkeeper. When we moved to a farm on seven acres of land, where my father would realise his dream of hatching and raising chickens, my mother planted a garden. There were lots of fruit trees, some vegetables, but my mother's labour and pride went into flowers - zinnias, tuberoses, dahlias, gladioli, marguerites, morning glories, African violets. Anything that came in a pack or bulbs, she would try her hand at. Usually with fabulous results. She had a gardenia bush whose perfume scented the night; a strange "cinderalla" night blooming orchid. And at every opportunity when she was not involved in cooking or caring for five children, keeping the books for the farm or selling chicks, she would by hand or hoe ensure that weeds would not infiltrate the flowerbeds.

She put the same energy with which she would wield a heavy cutlass to whack at unwanted growth, into her children. Her love came with a strong dose of discipline, regularly administered "for your own good!" Purges with milk of magnesia or some other vile tasting traditional remedy were administered with regularity. She never wanted to hire domestic help, so her children had to pitch in on weekends, to strip beds, wash  windows, cobweb, sweep and dust the tiny house top to bottom. She believed in spic and span. She also believed in licks, administered fiercely and deliberately on occasion. Schoolwork frustrated her after a long day - can you imagine having to take on the job of teacher after a full farm day? For us, the best solution was to prove - as early as possible - our independence from her supervision or need to check homework. We were being shaped - she never told us specifically for what - to be good children, good people, honest, neighbourly, caring, kind.

As long as we knew her, my mother always worked at home. Housewife does not begin to define the skills and smarts which she developed as necessary to deal with life's challenges - and for her there were many, including diabetes, coronary illness and attendant conditions.

It was when I became a mother that I would wonder about my mother's internal life. Was she happy? Was she satisfied with her life? What dreams did she have that went unfulfilled?

What gave her pleasure was to have children and grand-children around in family celebrations - but this was after a lifetime of housewifely service, and many many hours of shaping not her own life - but those of five children. When I plant trees now, I do so in my mother's name. When I cook, I remember how she taught an eight-year-old to stew chicken. And when I look at my own children, I remember her saying how "they both have the same face." And when quiet thoughts of what else I could be in this life come unbidden to my mind, I think of my mother and the determination with which she made her life.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Trees for companions

Trees have been a comfort to me all my life. There was the guava tree  on the front lawn that I learned to climb. Imagine a girl in a large skirt trying to negotiate branches and then hang upside down ... and maintain decorum. Not a pretty sight. Not sure why the large skirt except that skirts were a fact of life, and one negotiated around them. When I tried to climb the orange tree, I was told that girls in the tree would sour the fruit! The cerise governor plum (full of tiny seeds, and hard so that it had to be softened before eating) kept us at bay with three inch long spikes at the base, but we still got to the fruit.

I love trees - they were, and are still, a part of my life. The breadfruit tree - a "magga" (Trini word meaning thin and barely alive, also "gnashy" - mainly of humans) almost leafless skinny thing - was prolific in season. It provided for breadfruit chips, mashed breadfruit made into a pie with minced meat, or boiled and served with butter. The five finger (carambola) and pommerac trees sometimes bore fruit directly off their trunks. And it was amazing that a stumpy little avocado could bear the weight of a crop of two or three pound pollocks - glossy green pears that ripened to the texture of butter. I adored the army of mango trees - Rose, Graham, starch, stone, zabico, long and Julie. But I didn't only love trees with my belly.

I look forward to the immortelles flowering above the cocoa. Poui, petrea, cassia, jacaranda, samaan, with their flowering and seeding, they all bear witness to changes in daylight and temperature, rainfall and weather patterns. If only we could be more sensitive to their signals. And their promise - in the direst dry season, the lime tree is covered abundantly with tiny white blossoms.

Today, my home is surrounded by trees - those of my planting, and those that have always grown wild on the hillside. I support all the calls for appreciation of what trees contribute (collectively) to human development and quality of life. As adults, we know their value - to water conservation, financial returns for timber, protection of soil, maintaining biodiversity, providing habitat for the wild things. But what I wish for is this: to allow children everywhere, to know and love a tree, as a friend and companion. To invent silly games like "one on a root" as we skipped across the above ground roots - like so many islands - of a giant "stinky toe." To play "pitch" among the orange marbles of a giant ficus. To whisper secrets into the bark of a towering flamboyant as they count to ten, playing tag or rescue.

I don't know how to force land developers to not clear-cut acres of forest. I wish for the help of the trees infiltrating young hearts and minds.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sunshine on the ground

My son was born in the height of the dry season, almost noon on a Friday under a cloudless blue sky and merciless sun. He was born with a knot in the cord. The midwife brought the cord to me, as if to say it was a miracle that he had not suffocated himself before birth. I was unimpressed I think, drained with the effort of delivery, awed by the emergence of this whole other person. I did think at some point that he had tied the knot himself with all that swimming around in the days before the womb became a tight fit. He's still a swimmer, and probably still ties himself up in knots, but manages to emerge unscathed.

Because we never tried to find out if he was a he or a she before the birth, we chose yellow (not pink nor blue) as the colour for his baby clothes and blankets - the colour of his season, of sunshine and shower of gold cassia, dripping cat's claw blooms and blazes of poui in scorched hills. He was the golden child - until we found out that he was born "with a touch of jaundice." The cure for that was to expose him in the morning sunlight a few hours a day. That gave him heat rashes. A month with a new baby is like a whole lifetime.

That year, the rains came a month after he was born. They were torrential but cooled us down. He ate and slept, woke bawling like a banshee and grew fat as a buddha. Happy birthday, son, have a great year too.

 Shower of gold cassia, and poui blossoms on the ground.