Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

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!