Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

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!)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Geckos in my house

These geckos are really so bold face. There is a different family, or two or three, in every room of my house. Imagine I am on the toilet, and sense some thing or someone staring at me. Look up and there is the bathroom gecko hanging from the top of the door. The study gecko sits (sideways) at the top of the window. I think that there is a whole family living in the study. The small ones go in and out through the window. And the two caught in the compromising position were doing it on the wall near the computer.

They have no shame. Stay in the living room a little later than normal and the tv gecko which lives behind Indra's painting comes out to berate you. Kek-kek-keeee, he screams, it's my dinnertime! This is a big one with dark mottled spots. As you watch, the moth or grasshopper has no chance against this hungry stalker. Well, at least they clean up the other insects (except bees and wasps), and leave poop and wings under the couch or the middle of the floor.

Living on the edge of the rainforest suggests that they come into houses from the bush. But I think geckos make themselves very "at home" in human houses. They can walk across ceilings, across glass, wood or concrete, hang any way up or down on doors and windows, on any surface except Teflon. This amazing feature has a scientific name - van der Waals force created by spatula-tipped "setae" (hair or bristle) on the pads of their feet.
Shameless little buggers!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The sins of the world

I was born with a sense of guilt and responsibility. Guilty because I felt responsible both in the way of being accountable, and in the way of doing things that a good kid never does. No one ever told me whether I spoke early, or late, or in full sentences, but I understood adult conversations. Even as a little kid, I remember sitting in corners to hear big people talking. In those days, kids didn't enter grown up discussions, questions from a child were frowned upon, and you spoke only when spoken to directly. So I would make myself invisible and listen to my mother, father, uncles, aunts, the maccomere, comperes, the workers. Listen to stories that everyone must have thought too mature for a five, or six or seven year old to understand - about other people's business mostly, gossip, the lives of others. I knew what was good and what was bad, and just having that knowledge made me not good.

My cousin, a few years older, would have long discourses with me about being Catholic. She had started high school - the same convent my mother went to - and joined the Legion of Mary. And to her credit, she earnestly did not wish me to go to hell, the fate that awaited someone outside the pale of the true church. So every opportunity we had to sit in a corner, she told me about sin, and sacrament and redemption, that my salvation would be through the intercession of Jesus Christ, but most certainly through his mother Mary. It's as if the saviour's mother would have more time to see about child sinners like myself. She was persuasive but I couldn't bring myself to challenge my parents' good judgment in raising me Anglican. So I did nothing but squirmed with the discomfort of inaction that could only lead to certain damnation.

I so wanted to be good in the sense that saints are selfless and generous. But I was vain and lazy and acquisitive. I would read "True Confessions" and trashy novels when I should have been cleaning the house, enduring the twinges of conscience as long as it took to read some sordid story of teen sex or illicit relations. I could not reconcile going to church, having faith in God, with losing this sense of guilt. The things I desired seemed always at odds with who I should be, who my parents' child ought to be.

I don't remember exactly when or how I started to shed this overwhelming sense of carrying - more like committing - the sins of the world. How did I learn to forgive myself. By sinning! By opening myself up to the world! Falling in love. Falling out of love. Being headstrong, unorthodox, willful.

There were other moments of absolution. Many of them in nature: the way sunshine filtered through the cocoa trees and made me part of the light. The rain. The sea, especially the sea, where I could lose myself like a drop of water on a wave. Love - from steadfast friends, brothers and sisters and family who accept me as I am; a mate not faultless but who has always loved me, children who don't ask me to change. Most of all from talking myself out of beating up on myself for things that nobody else noticed; or maybe other people were more generous in overlooking shortcomings, and therefore so I should. I dream of redemption. I still long for a quiet mind, a slow heart and freedom from desire.

For the most part now, I know it's not healthy to bear an exaggerated sense of sin and guilt. I hope for my children a conscience that is a guide, not a warden. That they feel good about who they are, and that they know they are worthy and loved. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Face to Face ... virtually

I haven't got the hang of this facebook thing. I stare at the box where I should say something about my status - every day, or any time of the day, just like that - and I am stumped. What should I say about what's going on with me? Am I really thinking about anything in the world worth sharing or worth inviting others to comment on? I don't get angry enough about anything. I don't necessarily want to post photos of myself. I don't think that I have any profound thoughts that can be expressed in 50 words or so. I do however appreciate the opportunity to flip through the albums of friends and relatives, and to peek into the inner lives, anxieties and celebrations of the people to whom I have linked myself in the virtual on-line community.

It's not meant to be such a serious process, my daughter says. Just think of it as a fun way to keep in touch, and post whatever comes into your head. Be spontaneous. You can be "friends" with lots of people without the headache of being a friend. Don't be so intense. Of course, she's right. You don't have to invite them home for lunch, negotiate a time to meet, or wonder if anyone will get along with your other friends, what their political views might be, or even if they are here in Trinidad, or on the other side of the world, in New Zealand say.

You can scan their photo albums, see the children growing up, the vacations and places they visit, and be in touch at a few key strokes. You can show as much or as little of your own life as you wish. You hope that others don't judge your low output of comments, photos, interaction, as a life not worth having; especially as days and weeks pass and you haven't changed the profile photo or indicated that you are still breathing.

For the time being, I won't give it up though. Thanks to the few friends who use it as a regular journal of their thoughts and lives, it's possible to become aware of issues where they are; to use it as a platform to pay attention to what's going on outside -sometimes way outside oneself and one's daily routine. It doesn't replace the friends that you call up, hail on the street, or want to see just to give a hug.

Five months on - and two blogs later, I have come round to facebook as a great tool to connect to another level of global consciousness, with the potential to enhance real life friendships. Connect and enjoy!

Thinking out loud

When you think about it, it's "thinking" that sets us apart.
Who else but humans "think?" If "think" is what we mean when we process unimaginable and unnecessary brain synapses into sounds, pictures, re-arrangements of matter.

By reverse logic, we figure that there is a cognitive process when we express - or try to anyway - ourselves by making things. At the earliest age, we make sounds, the simplest - da da or ka ka  - requiring no special effort. Pretty soon scrunched up little faces and personal sounds echo the gibberish that passes through our brain, and temper tantrums - like speaking louder to a deaf person - when these expressions don't have the effect we want.

Would we make words if we didn't already live in a world where everyone already has a vocabulary? I think we would. If words weren't there, we would be inventing them everyday.

My son never lets me forget the afternoon we had arrived at the beach house in Blanchisseuse, and after the first hour of unpacking and setting up, everyone else left for the beach as I sank into a deckchair, falling asleep on myself as I do.  Son returns to find mama dozing, knees bent, feet tucked under. Mama tries to rise suddenly, buckles at the knees as cramp catches the calves. "What's up, Mom?" She stands and tries to stamp out the cramp. "Too-ghee..." What? "Too-gheeee..." blurted out as explanation of the feeling - cramp in the calves, wobbling at the knees, weak in the head? Tooghee to this day.

Just one more to add to the others that seem to have been invented - others might argue to be mere re-arrangements of sounds - in our islands. Words like bazoodee, or obzocky, or hassikara, or tootoolbay, or suck eye. (See Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago)

By this reasoning, words are invented everyday. Those that take become vocabulary. Let's consider "palancing" or more appropriately "we palancing!" Does this not express completely the state of the nation, the state of most Trinidadian lives, the lightness of being...  Now, try to define it, or explain what it represents!