Horizon at Sandy Point

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:

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.