Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas choices

It's the day before the day before Christmas - the day called by some clever quipsters Christmas Adam (before Eve!) It's my best time of day - dark lightening to dawn - in the best season of the year. This morning, the rain of the last three days has held up. My lost dog has come home. There's a whisper of breeze stirring the trees. And I think of the early Christians and others inventing hope in the time when the sun was lowest on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, when the winter chill was setting in and the worst winter storms were still to come. Hope lived in the extra few degrees of sunlight returning to earth - across 93 million miles! - after the winter solstice (December 21). It is thought that December 25 was the first day that this "return of the sun" becomes discernible, and by "new year's" the winter sleep is almost certainly over.

But for this moment, let us warm ourselves around the fire of our dreams. Gather close the circle of friends and be merry!

I've found that as many persons dislike this season as those who embrace it. Families who have lost loved ones grow grimmer as the season advances - as if it was Christmas' fault. Families whose men are festive drinkers dread the holidays that give licence for excess in the name of goodwill. And there's the frenzied shopping and house cleaning, the gifting and feting, the traffic and the overspending, the materialism that turns so many away; even as the ever-righteous cling to their dogmas.

It all eventually ends in anti-climax - the litter under the dying tree, too much eaten, too much drunk, things to return to the shop. Like the monkey that was bought from a smart man as one year's gift - two days later, the owner drove by, whistled, monkey leapt through the open window of the car and that was that! That could be the story of Christmas but we can choose where to put our faith.

We choose the tree because it reminds us of evergreen life - going through cycles that look like decay that look like death, but it's life returning, constantly resurging.

We choose the lights because true light never goes out. It's the sun and the day and our love in many different forms flickering and hiding in embers but always warm.

We choose gifts because we are thinking of someone else's pleasure, we are thinking beyond ourselves.

We choose celebrations because we are not alone, we crave community and fellowship, warm hugs and warmer hearts.

Let us always choose goodwill and good deeds - not only at Christmas! Whether we believe or not, we can all benefit from behaving as if we do!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A chocolate a day!

The nicest thing about going to work at a chocolate factory is the smell. It hits you like a wave and draws you in. It's a toasty, roasty, liqueur-rich and comforting smell - a smell that makes you smile when you find it trapped in your clothes later on - that triggers the best memories of all the dark chocolate, all the best cups of cocoa that you've ever had. After a while inside the inner workings of the chocolate kitchen, you don't smell it anymore. But the chemistry of cocoa exerts its calming influence.

This day, the kitchen is quiet. The cocoa artist has again worked all night. A thousand chocolate treasures line up on every surface. Squares of dark chocolate with rosy curlicues signifying sorrel; pale pink and white enamel tops for guava. And these iridescent blue-green fish tails - pineapple and chadon beni with a hint of sea salt, the mermaid's kiss! The fern green X - a calligrapher's flourish - identifies the Paramin basil. Sealed in its crisp shell of dark chocolate is the silkiest infusion of Paramin small leaf basil: a taste of rich earth, aromatic sap and buttery cacao bean!

Most of the work for the apprentice is routine. Packing the bonbons in their crinkly paper cups and then storing in large plastic bins: you do this almost a thousand times, swift and delicate hand movements, and two hours have sped away. While your hands work, your head sorts out a million equations of your life. The joy of packing may be interrupted for a taste: a tonka bean and coffee dream; a nibble of coconut truffle. Or the architect in the next office coming in for something that broke or fell from the packer's hands.

Cocoa liqueur is going round in the grinder - the simplest low tech mechanization of stone on crushing stone - and the thump and whirr drown out all but thought, discourage conversation. The happy cocoa artist - so many flavors completed and coated and decorated - is glowing with accomplishment. And babbles on about new cocoa plans. The conversation meanders everywhere.

She wants to invent something unique. Yes, sure, the cocoa is single estate from Rancho Quemado in the island with the world's most desired cocoa, Trinidad; the flavors local, bold and evocative; the techniques build on age-old traditions around the cocoa world. It's not enough that she has marshaled so many disparate threads into the Cocobel line in which any one item is a hit on its own. She searches for the holy grail of chocolate. Cocoa butter cosmetics - body creams and lip balms - may be on the horizon. The chocolate cafe to be opened eventually: primarily a place of interesting interactions stimulated by cups of finest local cocoa or coffee, fresh confections to be sampled daily; a place of creative discussion growing over the art gallery downstairs. Or the design of the definitive Cocobel bar of dark chocolate - something that will amaze you before you devour it!

It's not her plan to distribute chocolates anywhere else in the world. "I don't want to have a big manufacturing company or to think about distributing all over the world," she says, even as demand for Christmas chocolates has cracked the whip on supply. "I do want people from anywhere in the world to have a distinctive chocolate experience here in Trinidad." She subscribes to Slow Food, and has participated in the Terra Madre celebration in Tuscany and Trinidad, but when lunchtime has passed in the rolling of chai truffles, she is content with fast food chicken and fries!

Isabel Brash is a chocoholic workaholic artist - she has centered herself here in the chocolate kitchen surrounded by bags of beans, and noisy thumping growling machines that do the work she once did by hand in her mother's kitchen. She says she has fallen down the rabbit hole of cacao. There's nothing to do but follow her nose.

By now, the sun is on the other side of the house. The apprentice washes her hands and closes the door behind her as the "night shift" comes in. She'll be back tomorrow to be cocooned and comforted by cocoa chemistry, to escape for a few hours the world without chocolate.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Art in a bowl

Image on a square plate by Bunty O'Connor
Pat Bishop used to say that art is the well-making of what needs to be made. Perhaps it was not the most complete definition, because it leads you to wonder about a lot of things that are efficiently well-made and mass produced. It also makes you wonder about what passes for art - is "needs to be made" a criterion? I dare you to ask that of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Picasso's Guernica, or the work of Bach or Mozart, Boogsie or Bishop herself. To begin to understand Bishop's definition, I use as a starting point the humblest most utilitarian objects - bowls! Their essence is containment - to hold water so to speak. Bowls have evolved as symbols of fullness (or emptiness), abundance, completeness. A bowl - its roundness, circularity, waiting to be filled - is a starting point.

Bunty O'Connor of Ajoupa Pottery fell into pottery as a young mother of three living in Santa Cruz. And I wish I still had one of the little pots that she sold at Dina's art shop in Maraval. It was at Dina's too that I acquired bowls made of native clay by Vanessa Urich. In those years - mid to late 1970s - Gloria Harewood made elegantly symmetrical stoneware bowls. Linda Bower's hands formed more organic shapes and finishes. But it is Bunty who has made the longest journey in the well-making of bowls, establishing a contemporary tale of pottery in Trinidad and Tobago.

Even as she was developing her trade, it was inevitable that Chinese cups and bowls would naturally outsell and outnumber the elegant Ajoupa Pottery ware - patiently hand-glazed at an open air bench and depicting the birds and flora of our tropical islands.  China after all has a centuries older tradition in ceramics, and has given its name to fine porcelain and ceramic ware. It is that country's sustained attention to the craft and art of ancient pot-makers that has built its dominance in the manufacture of household and art wares. But it was appropriate that a potter like Bunty should arise in Trinidad where shards of ancient Amerindian pots - made from native clay - are still found; where others still carry on the traditions of Indian ancestors. It was to be hoped that many here would recognize and appreciate skill, craftsmanship and art -don't we all need bowls!

Bunty was ever the artist in her exploration. Not content with shape and utility, she used her pots as vessels of expression. Flowers, birds, forests and fish, villages of ajoupa houses flowed from her imagination. Knowledge of the clay, and shaping and firing techniques combined to produce exciting forms, textures and color.  Bowls, platters, table tops, mosaics and sculptures emerged from the potter's hands. Then, after decades of the craft that provided the artist's bread and butter, Ajoupa Pottery the business closed.
Quartet of Sea Sponge bowls

What remains though, is Bunty's impulse to continue to make well what is to be made. She recently started experiments with raku, the Japanese technique of hand-shaped, open air (low temperature) firing of vessels.  Her exploration is shared with classes of weekend students. The result is a line of calabash bowls - small, medium and large - and "sea sponge" bowls (inspired by underwater sponges). She has also created a flock of miniature chickens. These palm-sized creatures were easily shaped in the sitting room in the company of her 95-year old mother - "so she could see me nearby for the whole day." They have the feel of volcanic rock colored by fire, in shades of copper, slate and deep green.
Chickens by Bunty

Rooster with a ruddy copper based wing

In the store room, however, Bunty's art project grows. There's a turtle, elegant elongated heron vases, more calabashes filled like arks. There's also a group of macabre creatures that are the stuff of nightmare - misguided mutations, Bunty says, the result of man's inhumanity to the earth. She is worried that the collection "doesn't hang together." Life is the link. But we who have grown so accustomed to themes - in parks and entertainment and art - must resist the easy theme. After all, it is a lifetime of surviving, rearing children, minding parents, seeing the world, growing hands that are thickened and knotted by one's craft that are being poured into Bunty's new bowls. Art in a bowl, life in a calabash.

Medium calabash bowl

Medium calabash bowl

Calabash cut outs

Trio of calabash bowls

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Apprenticeship begins

The apprentice arrives - late on the first day. The plan for early afternoon slips to early evening. The chocolatier is anxious, running on little sleep, maybe also anxious about what an apprentice's expectations might be.

I am just here for a couple hours. It's my first time. I'll just watch today. Relax into the moment and do what I do best - observe.

She says she's making bark. These are shards of dark chocolate with generous sprinklings of flavor toppings: desiccated coconut and pineapple; candied ginger; nutty nibs of pure cacao. Liquid chocolate is going around in a large vat, recycling smoothly from a spigot. The timed fluctuations in temperature deliver the sheen and hardness that give the "snap" to well-tempered chocolate. The smooth semi-liquid is released - by foot pedal - onto trays prepared with silicone mats. In one practiced movement, she tips the tray to spread the chocolate then taps it firmly on the marble countertop to break up and release any bubbles. Braba-dap brap-dap braba-dap brap...  firm as a tap dancer's rhythm.

Before the chocolate sets, she scatters the topping heavily over the surface. In a few minutes, she deftly lifts the mat, transfers the now hardened chocolate slab to a board, and cuts elongated triangles with a big knife.

Her process is organic and habitual, the flow of movement easy, unaffected and efficient. It's hard to figure where an apprentice could insert herself. She's relieved not to have to make work for the apprentice. 

The chocolate triangles are weighed into cellophane bags. She's hardly over or under weight. As my mother would say, her hands are like the scale.

The next day is a small lesson in packaging. All labels and tags are printed, scored and cut on the guillotine, folded down and stuck on the individual packages, quarter inch from the bottom.

Nibble nibs on Cocobel bark

Cocobel pina coco bark
pineapple and coconut

Another day, the chocolatier is making moulds - tiny dark chocolate shells for fillings that are bursts of intense flavor, caramel, coffee, passionfruit, mango pepper. A foot pedal on the tempering machine controls the flow into the mould. Vibrate the air bubbles out of the mould. Du-du-dud-du-dud-dah... Tip the mould against the heated bars of the tempering machine and let the still molten chocolate in the middle drip out, creating the cavities for filling. Scrape extra chocolate off the sides and bottom, no waste, no mess. Deliberate steps, no panic. The chocolatier has choreographed mould making. She is patient but instructs the apprentice firmly. Scrape it off the bottom, sides and top. Hold it over the tempering drum. Forget the drips on the floor. A test of coordination?

The tempering machine has become one of the chocolatier's dearest friends. For old time's sake, she says wistfully, she might still temper a batch of the Cocobel single estate dark chocolate by hand.

Chocolate coats the apprentice's hands, drips on the floor, and hardens. It's a start.
Cocobel ginger bark

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Prayer for grace

Dance! they said, my older cousins, the uncle who was pleased to teach me ballroom dance steps, aunts who were content to watch the teenagers win'ing, disco-ing, filling the family dance floor with frenetic moves and so much laughter. There will come a time when you will sit many out, they warned. After one time is two time... simple but ominous words to the young. At 18 or 27, you never imagine that you could let good music go to waste. But listening is not wasting. And in the twinkling of a lifetime, you have become your older relatives.

Gone are the long days - and nights - devoted to achievement, to reaching the target. So many nights spent beside a dusty carnival stage, hoping for the next costume or band to stop your heart and send you home fulfilled. So many stages for steel bands and their mesmerizing music. Gone in a heartbeat, alive only in the dim reaches of memory and the pages of an old style magazine made without the benefit of computerized typesetting. Wax and glue, paste up and flats (cardboard templates on which columns of texts were lined up with a keen eye and a sharp scalpel) - now replaced with publishing programs on computers. Gone the zeal for newness and personal accomplishment.

The young - oh how precious is the air of their invulnerability - are always wanting more, new territory, higher achievements. It is the time in life to go where no one has gone before, to push the limits, good and bad. Remember those impulses - going further, faster, higher, grabbing and getting more, being what no one thought you would be - even as they are being replaced by steadier calmer pulses.

Now that one time was then, two time now, we struggle to maintain equilibrium in societies that continue to be in adoration of the young. We desire more flexibility as we age, healthy bodies to keep our minds agile. Perhaps there's wistfulness for the shapes that we will never be in again. But no one should want to remain young. It is our destiny to be in the Age of Aquarius as people with experience and generous hearts. Let us always wish to be in touch with the young - in ourselves, in others and especially in the youth  - but let us open to the grace of being old. Let us grow gentler, more thoughtful, always encouraging. Give us comfort in being slow, deliberate as the heartbeat of trees.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Throwaway world

Today, I am trying to sort out the paper - bills, bank statements, what can I throw away? - clogging up the drawers that are getting harder to close, overwhelming all but the littlest passageway in my study. As I shred and wander off into daydreams, inertia sets in - to keep or not to keep, to shred, perhaps to burn...

We grew up in a household, and an era, in which you didn't throw out anything. Every container, glass bottle and its lid, plastic ice cream boxes, grocery bags, even paper bags had another use. Soft drink and beer bottles, out of glass, could be returned. We kept rum and wine bottles to store Christmas beverages like sorrel, ginger beer or ponche a crema; jars for homemade pepper sauce and pickles. My parents were teenagers in the last world war, and patterns of scarcity and rationing led to lifestyles that were conservative, and hoarding was a common practice. As long as she lived, my mother always had a store of canned food. As long as he lived, my father was always saving and re-using - even styrofoam containers - his philosophy, why throw it out if it's not broken.

Paper is always a problem. You bring so much home without even thinking. Newspapers pile up. We give stacks of old paper to the vet. Use some of it to keep bush from overwhelming young trees. But more comes in than goes out and there's always a pile. It's good for composting, but use the compost to grow food only if you are sure that the newspaper uses soy-based inks!

The phenomenal rise of plastic is worth its own study. But what do you do with it in your own home? How many storage containers could you keep? Plastic bottles are best recycled and if there's a collection point in your school or office, it's not so hard to take your garbage to work!

In less than one generation we have evolved into a throwaway society. We go through barely a season with  clothes. Our food purchases produce more inorganic than organic waste - and even our dogs are fat! And if you don't let the paper in your study overwhelm you, you can be sure it is overflowing somewhere else.

While most solutions require collective commitment, each of us must find the way to live the individual life that is conservative, contained, low impact and reduces waste. Here's an ideology that runs counter to the way we grow up in democratic capitalist societies. For while we are taught that "the meek should inherit the earth" our DNA is to survive, intimidate and conquer. Our civilizations are destined to rise and fall - Caesars amassing territory are not much different from executives paying themselves millions of dollars, or Wall Street magnates growing their financial empires.

And so, back to my personal inventory. I have what I need. Everything else should be sorted and given away!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taking back the wild

Look, where I living used to be a quarry. So they say. But to see it now, you wouldn't know that until you get down to the soil itself, loose limestone and uneven shale-y pits and cracks where the cobos still like to hang out. On first exploration, it seemed to be a dry gorge; but as time passed, we realized that no river ever carved these boulders and rocks left so haphazardly. The birds of course should have been a giveaway. Why would cobos seek out almost impenetrable underbrush to roost. It seems reasonable to conclude that the birds used to hang out here when it was bare rock - as they do on top the active quarry on the other side of this same hill - and continued to do this even as the trees in the gorge were growing. Now most of them are over 50 feet tall. These days, the cobos fly into the gorge crashing through small branches. We hear the purposeful beat of their wide wings, their squabbles. Who knows what else takes refuge down there? This flank of the northern range sees agouti and iguana, manicou, frogs, tarantulas (lots of spiders) and thousands of insects.

In the five years since we discovered the old quarry gorge, the fast growing bois canot and bois flot have completely masked the ground. Some of these trees must be over 60 feet tall, growing straight up. A couple other trees may be over 100 feet, their spreading branches sheltering other birds, epiphytes, vines and "spirits taking back the land."

So there's hope for all our quarried places yet. And there's hope for change in human hearts. It doesn't take long for land to be reclaimed by forest. All we have to do is get out of the way.

To see how others are working to re-forest exhausted mines and desert landscapes, google Eden Projects or go to

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wildness and the wild

Not long after you enter the Blanchisseuse valley from the east-west corridor, as you begin the ascent of this ancient river course, you come upon a monument to progress, shaped by the architects of nation's future.

Sculptor's tools, earth-moving machines zig-zag random hairpin bends to carve another piece of the mountain. Red earth and loosened boulders gather momentum. An abrupt thud and scatter, a cloud of dust. Another machine, and an adjacent mountain rising of pebble perfect gravel. Trucks arrive in convoy to be loaded, then make their way on roads dry as rivers of sand. Etched pale grey limestone, veins of red clay, slabs of shale and layers laid down over millennia, the heart of the mountain laid bare. Strange beauty, this incursion in a pristine valley of the northern range. Perfection in death!

Others who would reshape nature whittle away in different ways. The farmer who has cleared trees and bush and covered the hillslopes with wire trellises so his little vines can run to bear a fruit that only man can eat. Questionable profit! Yet another dealer in death. Where will they hide, agouti, ocelot, armadillo, lizard, frog, manicou, bird, bachac, spiders, snake and a million creatures bringing life to the soil? Red dirt devalued to be re-injected with chemical fertility.

In big and small ways, we all reject the wild, with fences, air-conditioned high rises, cities on the sea coast, billions to feed, miles to go before we sleep, paving paradise, putting down parking lots! As a species, we almost cannot help it. We have "dominion over the earth" imprinted in our genes, and I defy anyone to disprove this. We are the wild, gone virally wild!

Higher up the same valley, the road is a contour line that clings between hill and drop. Tall trees brood. The forest closes in with hums and small sounds, vibrations skittering and repeated. If you go quietly, you will feel the trees pushing pure oxygen into your lungs. You will feel something else too. Is it pathos, a silent song? Covered in epiphytes and vines, withstanding wind, rain or nesting birds, they exude patience and fortitude. But even here, men with axes have been at work, cutting a stand to dead stumps, and starting subsidence along the edge of the fragile road.
Some trees are communities too!
Where the forest grows densest, you enter the Asa Wright nature centre. A tunnel of trees and underbrush converges over the path. The sound of water somewhere behind bamboo quiets the nervousness of the ride up, anxious expectation of a big truck round each bend. The city peels away. On the verandah you look down the valley. Toucans and parrots still roost in the far trees. Bananquits are jostling and jumping on the feeding racks. A jade green honeycreeper pecks on the edge. Agoutis amble on the paths. Few hummingbirds though: maybe they have gone somewhere else for the season. Just five minutes from the big house, you re-enter the rainforest.

The conservation of some 1000 acres of old plantations as a wildlife reserve seems just. In 44 years - the nature centre was officially opened on November 5 1967 - humans have allowed the wild to reclaim its own, with minimal interventions of stone paths, guide rails and rest stops. Over the decades, many continue to witness an amazing area of contestation and "nature". Inexorable life abounds. Vines and roots move rocks. Water moves earth. Termites and bachacs diligently create their indoor gardens with profuse tender foliage. And all support the animals and hundreds of bird species that bring the "serious birders" back year after year.
Diligent ants dismantle forest trees

Dinner time conversation turns to tales of tarantulas. Yes, they have toxins, but not deadly. Toads and frogs too, we know dogs that get high on a lick of toad! Adventure into bat caves created in vacant rooms of unused buildings. Go in the dark and feel wing beats and sonar pulses. Walk the trails at night and consider your good fortune to step back from a snake - macajuel or mapapire? The rainforest at dawn or dark is an amazing place - a necessary initiation for all humankind, now running past seven billion.
Somewhere quiet and safe to sit

A small group of earnest ordinary folk gathers in this setting. It is an annual rite: To re-commit to the vision, to re-dedicate and renew this purpose of conservation. To continue to believe that diversity is precious; that humans are both of the wild and of their own intellect; that there is balance to be strived for and reached that will preserve all beings and human beings in a necessary harmony. That there is a role for each of us in earth balancing - that dynamic tension that at every instant is already being maintained by forces outside our ken or control.

And so, finite beings with finite lives - environmentalist, financier, journalist, tour operator, forester, diplomat, lawyer, administrator, politician - we deliberate and assign duties. We will re-enter the world of our making, to find funds. Look for projects that will engage communities. Teach the children.

Looking south towards the Central Range.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fear of failing

I spent most of my early school life excelling academically. But in my family, there was not a lot of pressure to perform. As a child, I genuinely enjoyed math and english. In preparation for the (first ever) common entrance exam in the country, I had a book of math and english exercises that I worked through like they were puzzles. So I entered high school as a reputed "bright spark." You know how these things can go to your head - you start believing that you are good at everything! Cruisin' for a bruising' my friend would say.

In the auditions for the choir, I chose to sing next to a brilliant voice (she happened to be my desk mate) and the effect must have been that I was tone deaf. I refused to sing ever since. I learned to play the piano proficiently to grade two or three but to this day, I am convinced that I am not musical, cannot sing and will not even try. My younger sister on the other hand was a member of the choir! 

Sport too was a field to fail in. Active, outdoors farm life didn't prepare me for what sport is all about - regular practice, mental focus and perseverance. Long legs and a skinny torso do not an athlete make. Plus we didn't have that tradition in our family to be fit for fitness sake. Spare hours were to be spent at work, not play. I would have loved to be in a dance class, but it was one of those extras that I didn't dare ask for.

My first job was almost automatic - teaching at my high school. I didn't have to think too hard about university because a scholarship was offered. Qualifying for it included being recommended by the principal. Being of a particular ethnic group to round out the representative Trini quintet of the day - Afro-, Indo-, chinee, white and a red 'ooman -  was helpful. Grade point average was not a pressing concern, except to ensure that I would complete the degree efficiently in the time allotted, and get back home. My challenges were about writing papers! And if I failed a paper, it was not because I didn't know the material, it was because I wrote it badly.

Still, I wandered into my profession with similar nonchalance. Since I was little, I fancied myself a writer.  Getting into a publishing company was easy enough. Harder still was learning that writing requires readers. It was in this field - my chosen field - that there has been the most pressure. Texts submitted, and critiqued. Manuscripts provided and rejected. You would think it was not a big thing; that being reviewed, edited, having one's writing not liked and subjected to modifications are normal for any writer. It is, but the individual writer has to come to terms with this. I couldn't live - not for long anyway - with the feeling of always being less than, of not being perfect, of failing. There are options of course - go through hard with brave danger until you are accepted just as you are; change and try other tactics; never write again, at least not anything that you would show the world. 

Attitude change is always the hardest. This is entirely you and yourself alone in your own deep dark corner. Why are you doing this? Who are you hurting if you fail? Of what importance are you to the universe? Do you allow "not being good enough" to shape you? Who and what are "you" anyway? Can you forgive yourself enough to go on, to allow yourself to be loved for who you are rather than what you do. These are hard lessons but worthwhile. 

I learned to say "thank you" to every criticism, every re-write requested, every rejection, every review; and to seek to understand what is being taught, the lesson for me. I learned that every writer needs a good editor; sometimes I am writer, sometimes editor. It becomes easier as the years go by. I lose ego, and maybe my writing is clearer. As a writer, I have my part in the world, good, bad or indifferent, a porous membrane, a channel. And I am no longer afraid of being rejected, of failing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yikes! It's Skype!

The wonder of modern technology. It so easily takes you where your mind wants to go.

A generation ago, school in the Blue ridge Parkway was like going to the moon. Contact with home sporadic at best. The occasional - once a month - dutiful phone call on a Sunday evening was no lifeline. The knock on a dorm room door summoning you to the phone booth halfway down a long hall.
Hello! Hello? Hello?
My Mom on the line. Prosaic news, or maybe no news...
Where to start to connect to read slow silence?
How to convey news no longer new? Exams passed or near misses?
The car crash that sent you to hospital for five hours, and a lump on the forehead that seeped to the eyes, making you look like the raccoon by Christmas. I am fine ... now.
On the highway next to semi trucks, walking for the sake of going somewhere. Went to the mall.
The chill of shorter days, the taste of snow and shivering in a thin raincoat. Yes, I am warm enough.
College life to people who had not gone beyond secondary school. I'll write. Letters were better.
I know now it wasn't about events, or what was in my head. She just wanted to hear my voice.

We used to send our children to the ends of the earth for better education, unafraid or innocent of the great gulfs forming between childhood and distances to go before you sleep. Was this wandering destiny coded in the genes from ancestors who travelled across worlds to find home. Distances are always there, miles, habits, lifestyle, time zones, needs, wants, friendship, hurts, dreams. But always, the yearning to connect.

So Facebook, yes. Email too! Instant texts on cell phones, Blackberry bbm. I am all for connecting every which way. Bring them on!

News now? What news? Just wanted to hear your voice, see your face!

London to Tobago

A lab in Amsterdam too!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blogging my write

Blogging may be inhibiting my other writing. I find when I sit to blog, my mind gets a sharp focus, and I know that I have to get to the point and be gone in four or five paragraphs. The first to set the scene - who, or what is the topic. Better to state it upfront and early. Don't beat about the bush. This focus is harder to find or just not there, on a blank Microsoft Word page with its infinity of blank space.

By the second paragraph, bring it to life. Is it about me on this hard stool at my kitchen counter. By this time, the chaos of impressions in my head makes me want to get up, drink a cup of tea, check on the dog, put out the garbage, start the laundry - do anything but continue what is a laborious process of sorting, and pulling out threads of thought, looking at them, discarding this one, testing that one, deleting and putting down something that might get me to the next paragraph.

It's not easy. But I have managed to keep my butt on the seat, and my fingers on the key board. Maybe now I can relax a bit. Breathe. Review what I have. Should I save as draft here, to come back later? Come back later - this virtual world can disappear in an instant like the five perfect paragraphs written two days ago that just were not there when I returned. Oops, something bad has happened was the response of the Blogger Team! Indeed.

It is at this point that what I call the "matrix thing" starts to happen. The parallel stories in my head start lining up. I see the patterns un-worded and chaotic though they are. This could actually become a series. I would call this one, Writing about writing. 

Except that writing about writing is like trying to describe the dirt in your own bellybutton. No one is particularly interested. Better to talk about the people and places to whom many more persons have connections. Steve Jobs and his insightful advice - how would you live this day as if it were your last. 
Which is about what you are doing, want to do, or have to do, but especially about the quality of that doing. Living today is the hardest thing you have to do. And also the most joyful.

Living to die removes fear, cuts you to your centre, gives focus and purpose, lights you up from inside. It's ten years since my first death ... But that's another story!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Green Face Bar

My grandfather was a very funny guy. "Ham goo mah!" he would greet us, throwing his arms out to catch a small girl in a bear hug. "Akung!" I would fling the response to his greeting (Call me, what you call me? was what we were told he was saying), wriggling to escape. In his day, my grandfather would be today's rapper, "Say my name. Say my name! Wear it out!" And we would dance around, "Akung! Akung! Akung!" to his joy. His conversations in gatling gun Chinese must have been amusing too, accompanied always by laughter and punctuated by his "Eh? Eh!"

We didn't understand his language, but we understood his jokes. "Gate," he called me Gate, the nearest his Cantonese tongue could get to Gail. My sister was Helling, and in case anyone mistook his meaning, he would clarify "Se-moke Helling," with bellows of laughter, smoked herring! Clearly, "r" was not to be found on his Chinese tongue. My other sister was "Macket!" or more specifically "Feesh Macket!" He understood more than enough to make puns of our names.

How or why he chose to come halfway around the world from Canton province (today's Guangdong) in southeast China, to Chinidad, will remain a mystery. We presume that he was leaving a place that was becoming more difficult to raise a family. In Trinidad, he raised two families. By the time his Chinese family was settled in one part of Belmont, the Trinidad family was catching up just streets away. He made no secret of either, and all the children - seven by each wife - carried his name.

I must have been less than a year old when he disappeared with me for a day. My mother said when she asked what I had eaten, he was dismissive, "Clix (crackers) and swee' drink. Gate belly full." He said he would take me to China. And I believe if she had even slightly agreed, he would have done just that. I had to be content instead with the bracelet he brought me. H.A.P.P.Y. were the letters on a circlet of Chinese gold disks.

One of the last memories I have of Akung was at a place called the Green Face Bar in Point Cumana. Continuing his free spirited lifestyle, Akung didn't settle in any of the homes he had made. Instead he was running yet another shop, this time with a bar on the side where he sold rum and whisky by the shot, cigarettes by the stick. We were to have lunch with him - did I say he cooked lavish feasts?

On the Sunday, around noon, the shop was closed and we entered through one of the big shop doors painted green. Inside, the long counter was converted to a buffet table. Bowls and chopsticks at one end. A steamer of rice. Bird's nest soup. Vegetables cubed and stir fried in a chow. Giant black mushrooms in a salty "oyster sauce". Roasted pork belly with a crispy skin, chopped with a sharp chopper into bite sized pieces. Jumbo shrimp cooked in their shells. He was a social generous man still wanting to be loved by his family. His "Ham goo mah" received our chorus of "Akung!"

When he died, I understood he had passed away from the effects of too much alcohol and cigarettes. His favorite was the harsh unfiltered Anchor Special in the yellow pack. He always had a lighted cigarette dangling from his lips. Long after, sometimes on the farm, I would catch a whiff of Anchor and sure enough, I hear again, his throaty laugh, "Ham goo mah!" Say my name! Akung!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Belmont Shop

My grandparents had a shop on St Francois Valley Road near Waterman, opposite the girls school. It was the place where my father and his siblings - my aunties and uncles, and a couple cousins - grew up. I don't know if the building still stands. I hardly spent time there as a child, and everyone who did was glad enough to leave. It was no ancestral home, but a stepping stone to independence. The ancestral home I understand is a two story stone cottage in China, that up to the last time my father visited (1999?), still stood near a busy freeway - its walls decorated with old photos of children and grandchildren in Trinidad.

The Belmont shop was up a slight incline from the road. With its doors open, it was all counter, a wide  and welcoming front. But we weren't expected to visit across the counter. Through a side door, we entered the place where the goods were stored, and a right turn through that, the kitchen cum dining-living  area, the heart of the house, cool, dark and unventilated. To the right a single large bedroom. Straight ahead through a feedbag curtain, the shop.

In those days, a hundred pounds of chicken feed came in bags made from printed cotton fabric - floral, paisley, plaid patterns. My grandmother would wash the bags after the feed was sold by the pound (in brown paper bags from envelope small to five pound) and unpick the coarse cotton with which the sides were sewn. The fabric would be used for clothes or curtains; some of it together with balls of the unpicked cotton twine went back to her family in China.

My grandmother was always working. In the shop, a woman who barely spoke English transacted business all day long. She weighed and measured, took money, gave change, and barely smiled. Her hair was always a tight bun on the nape of her neck. Selling everything from salt pigtail to flour, sugar, cooking butter, she wiped her hands frequently in an apron. Inside, there was usually a pot on the kerosene stove. I remember a soup made in a whole winter melon placed in the wok. It must have been simmering all day. But it may have been my grandfather who was the cook.

Usually an uncle or auntie was in the shop too. It was a busy operation. I remember the wooden pigeon holes that held small items - "blue" (used to bleach clothes), clothes pegs, spices - and the shelves with canned or bottled goods. "Credit slips" - pieces of brown paper with names and amounts owing - were also tacked to the shelves. Most of the staples were in drums or containers under the counter. Stiff slabs of cod, crusted white with salt, rested in an open wooden box. Nearby pigtails swam in a barrel of brine. And close to both, a chopping block that was a cross-section of a tree, with a sharp chinese chopper - a whole tail or fish would be chopped swiftly and neatly.

Just under the counter on neat shelves were the brown paper bags, arranged according to size, and stacks of neatly cut brown paper - to hold anything from a a dollop of lard to pigtail or a few ounces of cheese. My grandmother knew exactly which paper to pick up to weigh four ounces of flour, and deftly crimped the sides and rolled the top with two tightly turned ears to seal the package. Shop paper fascinated me - I would try to wrap with the same speed and dexterity and end up making paper boats. I loved the way this paper held the marks of a soft pencil! It was my preference over the slate and its scratchy stylus.

One of the memories I have in this shop. Someone - my grandfather I think - was sick and being ministered to with all manner of pungent ointments, strong smelling brews and a haze of something burning. Not a death bed because he was soon up and about again, but the smell of sickness that was sombre and scary to a young child. The smells of this shop always assailed me by the door. They are probably the most enduring memory: the sticky sweetness of brown sugar; grain scent of feed; rice; the stink of pigtail and cod; all mingled with the smells of old cook fires and spices and food soaked into walls whose paint you could no longer discern. And the smell of the people - dry, papery, damp, faintly oily.

Chinese to me is a smell. I find it in the groceries from Miami to London and Charlotte street. It's the pleasant licorice flavor of preserved prunes; the dust of black mushrooms; five spice powder, star anise, shilling oil and thousand year old eggs. These combinations in these newer establishments are not the same, but sometimes a whiff of something dark and unknown strikes the note and instantly I am back to this shop in Belmont.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Woodbrook shop

I grew up in a shop. Many of my early memories are playing behind or under shop counters. But even before memory, I was told that my father would take me with him to a shop he ran on the top of Laventille hill. Less than a year old, I was content to lie or play in a large toilet paper box, goo-gooed and gah-gahed over by whoever came to "get message" - as shopping with a list was referred to.

So, when we moved to a shop in Woodbrook, corner Gatacre and Baden-Powell, he brought a couple of his helpers from the hill. I think there was a Tallboy, Laglee and a woman they called Red. At  lunchtime everyday, the shop closed until three. This meant closing two pairs of big heavy mahogany shop doors with dead bolts into the ground, and a plank on brackets. In the semi-darkness, while the "boys" slept on top the stacks of hundred pound bags of brown sugar and rice, my sister and I played behind the counter, uncovering the barrels that contained salt butter, Crix and Mopsy biscuits. Later in the afternoon when the shop re-opened, the fresh bakery goods would arrive - slabs of butter cake with pink icing, a large white cookie crusted with sugar called couvertie po cham (literally translated "cover for the chamber pot"), rock cake and bellyful (a kind of bread pudding).

I remember cheese that came in wooden boxes. Pale cheese cut in thin slices or cubes on Crix. People came to the shop to buy a hops and salt butter and salami; and these items were sold by weight like that, two slices of salami, a slap of butter, an ounce of cheese. That was a meal in brown paper. At Christmas, the smell of apples and grapes lifted out of the sawdust from a wooden box was heady as the spice in boiling sorrel.

Our shop was a whole kingdom to three and four year olds. There was the public space on the outside of the counter when the shop was open. We weren't even allowed inside the shop when it was open. (If someone asked us for a sweetie or a bottle of cologne - "Chinee girl, gimme that" -  we would just hand it over - not good for business! It took a bit longer for us to perceive value in the large copper and silver coins, far less the paper notes.) If we were not in school, we would be in the single large bedroom bouncing on the bed or climbing to the top of the wardrobe using the dressing table beside it. The kitchen - another place we were seldom allowed in - was a dim room with a food safe (its doors made with fine mesh to allow ventilation but keep out flies) and a smoky kerosene stove. I think we had a fridge and freezer because my mother made "kool-aid ice blocks" to sell in the shop.

Part of the L-shaped yard was the garage for my father's Vauxhall; the rest featured lines for drying clothes, a piece of galvanize for a "bleach" and tanks for the fish that were my father's hobby. Sheba, a tiger striped brown dog, was always tied in the day, let loose in the night. I think my father promoted her reputation as a fierce watch, and a biter. We weren't allowed to play with her.

Into this environment my second sister was born. I clearly remember the day - though I had to be told later that it was a Carnival weekend. The midwife came to us. My sister and I were put into the car parked in the garage, and told to stay there. Not to come out until we were called. How many times could two small girls tumble from the front into the back seat. How many variations of sitting, lying, crawling, tugging on the steering wheel could there be. It seemed like hours before we were called and shown the new baby sister.

On reflection now, I think it was her arrival that gave us more freedom on the streets. Freedom in the fifties is relative. Remember we had helpers in the shop who always had an eye on us; an uncle - my father's younger brother who sometimes lived with us - and neighbors whose business was to mind the business of everyone else and the children. We spent the waning hours of most days going "round the block" (we were not to cross any streets) in the company of the children who lived on the block - I remember the Constantine, Lewis, Leotaud, Lee Sang families, Miss Steele and Miss Dabreu, and Boysie the coal man.

Living in a shop didn't mean we were more fortunate than others. We lived simply, with a strong sense of order and routine. We provided service in a community. The shop opened and closed at specific times: Thursdays were half day, closed in the afternoon. We were open on Saturdays until late. My father delivered "message" by the box load on Saturday nights. Closed on Sunday. If a customer really needed something, a quiet knock on the back door could do the trick.  Much later on in life when we had moved from the shop to the farm, my father applied the same service ethos. Though we tried to contain business to certain hours, you could buy a duck or some eggs on a Sunday morning as long as someone was at home.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Write or go mad?

This is my hour of the day. In the dim light just before the tropical day breaks bright open. The thoughts swirling around the back of my mind for days now may be ready to come to my fingers. "May be?" - I never know until I am here - fingers to the keys, butt on chair. The sleek shiny surface of the new Mac is a tactile impediment. This computer feels like a new brain... almost empty. Some people like a clean desk. I long cultivated the ability to be amid noise, clutter, people and children talking, dogs barking. It was a survival mechanism in a newsroom, or having a desk in a corner of the living room.

The process of writing is not so complicated. In pajamas or office wear, you look like you are doing nothing. You look like you might be asleep except for fingers clicking keys. Inside you worry, have I read enough (meaning have I done enough research), should I have made a more detailed plan, was there someone else to talk with, another place to have gone. Should I have project managed this? But those are worries not thoughts.

Here you are, ready or unprepared as you are in life, and the only thing to do is start. The first word, the first sentence, the first paragraph. Perhaps you will come back later and delete most of it, change it, reach a different place, a new conclusion. But this is your hour, your time. The light is growing, birds waking up. The dogs have gone back to sleep. It's almost time to have a banana or breakfast. Is this all you have done?

The brain feels like it is the only part alive. There's urgency now. And a list of things to knock off - perhaps you can come back to it later today - after lunch, before dinner? The best prospect might be to wait for another pre-day.

But wait, you've started! The thoughts are lining up along the brain stem. Don't lose the thread. Keep the sentences coming. Write every day. A blog if you must. Write, re-write, edit, repeat. You are making the matrix for your life.

When Pat Bishop was making music, she was also painting, but she was writing all the time. When I am cooking, I am making recipes in my head, and writing about food.

So, my daughter, when you are swimming with the fishes, measuring small organisms, doing the tedious and mundane, or having adventures in some far corner of the world, shivering in a train station, alone, tired,  or happy and energized, think about this - you are writing your life. The process of putting it down in a paper, a blog, a status on fb, is a matter of sorting, connecting the random cards in a game of sequence.

Friday, September 9, 2011

State of uncertainty

I've always been afraid of police. A completely irrational fear that exists alongside fear of being locked up, fear of not being good enough, fear of being found out, and so on. The idea of police makes me trembly and wary. It's not that I think they are bad people in the individual sense. Those that I have dealt with recently were courteous, helpful, even friendly folk. It's just that once I know you are police, I look at you hard, wondering what goes through your mind about me. Do you sense that I too am a criminal at heart? I have the same irrational fear in front of immigration officers, soldiers and some security guards.

Every time I have to visit a police station, my heart thumps in my chest. I probably remember every single occasion that I've had to present myself, timidly, expecting to be bouffed, and trying to be careful and polite.

So I bolstered my courage to go to our community station to request the pass so that I could drive to the airport to meet the daughter arriving at eleven. A perfectly normal outing, except we now need permission to be on the road between 11 pm and 4 am.

Me: Good morning, I came to request a curfew pass. My daughter is arriving at the airport tonight and I have to meet her.

Woman police officer (WPC) in well-pressed uniform to corporal in dark blue sweater sitting on bench behind me: Who supposed to give out passes?

Corporal: You could do it. I will sign it if you want.

She fetched a photo copied blank curfew pass, and a big notebook. I showed her the travel itinerary, my TT ID card. She filled out the pass with my information.

Corporal: Only you must drive the car. No one else.

Me: My husband could accompany me? Do you need to see his ID?

Corporal: Don't need that. Only you driving.

Me: Does my daughter need to get a pass in the airport? Does this pass allow me to go and come?

Corporal to WPC: You responsible. (To WPC) Write on it in red, 11 pm to 4 am

Me: Do I have to display it on the windscreen?

WPC: You just have to show it if you get stopped.

She turned the big ledger towards me for my signature next to name, address, contact number. I am still perplexed at how simple it is, how little information is actually required (not even the car make or number), no passenger information. Is a badly photocopied piece of paper going to get me through police checkpoints?

WPC to corporal: I signing the pass...

As I receive the letter sized sheet, the corporal says, I'm not going against the officer, but you could display the pass somewhere.

I ask for their names, and in police style, they give their surnames. I leave, still feeling uncertain and inadequately covered.

As it turned out, I drove through deserted streets to the highway (not a hotspot) - busy as ever. The airport carpark is full, and people are standing around the terminal (as usual) waiting to meet their family or friends coming off flights. Many of them have the lettersize sheets in their hands. Going back home, my pass taped to the inside of the windscreen, there's one checkpoint - a WPC smartly uniformed and everyone else (the men) in jeans and t-shirts - at the junction to our hotspot region. The valley seems unpeopled, not another car on the road. It's an eerie nervous quiet, being outside during curfew. The state of emergency feels like someone is always looking over your shoulder. But who?

Friday, August 26, 2011

In silence

Her request was that no announcement of death should be made until "I am safely laid away at Mucurap..." However, "should the news leak out, take me to All Saints  in the plainest possible coffin..." Then, "let the priest say the absolute minimum. Let there be NO MUSIC. Ask people to sit quietly for a little while, half hour is quite long enough."

So it was Wednesday, August 24 found me sitting quietly in All Saints (left side front half of the church) full of family, friends and Lydians, thinking about Pat Bishop again, and knowing that she was released. There were two readings of Psalms, and one from Paul's letters to the Corinthians. In between, there were long periods of silence. No one spoke. Tears flowed in silence.

Psalm 39:
I held my tongue and said nothing, and while I was musing the fire kindled: ...
Behold thou hast made my days as it were a span long; and mine age is as nothing in respect of thee; and every man living is altogether vanity.
For man walks in a vain shadow, and disquiets himself in vain: he heaps up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

Psalm 90:
The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though man be so strong that they come to fourscore years; yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon it passes away, and we are gone. 
So  teach us to number our days; that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Like many of her sisters who were raised in that school between Abercromby Street and Chancery Lane, Pat struggled with a highly developed sense of duty and responsibility. She fought the idea of failure, battling the mortality of her body - underactive thyroid, bad heart - to make the most of her threescore and ten. "I am tired, it's time to go," she said this to those who were near in the last months.

Someone said, "It's as if I woke up one morning and the Northern Range wasn't there." Too melodramatic!

In the end, I see the fruits of a life lived hard and full, with no need for regret. In the end, I see a wealth of painting, music, her wise words on behalf of many artists, and the influence (by word and touch and deed) in the lives of many. I hear a single message: love who you are, and do the best you can.

Like Bunty said: "...a beautiful thought occurred to me as I was smoothing one of my calabash bowls this morning: when I walk in the forest I sometimes see a scene of devastation where a giant tree has fallen as they eventually do, everything seems to be in ruins. But the sunshine comes pouring in to the space and the little stream finds another way around the debris and best of all, millions of little saplings of all different kinds come struggling upwards with their leaves turned to the light.  I think I will think of Pat like that fallen tree, it gives me great comfort and hope.  Only good things can come from the people who loved and admired her - you will see."

Pat's wish
As she wanted to be remembered

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Remembering Pat

Pat Bishop died yesterday. She collapsed in a meeting and never woke up. My immediate thought is for the speeches and features she has given me to read, with the intent to publish them with a few of her paintings in  a monograph. And the next, that her tortured soul has returned to rest, to the perfect knowingness that she pursued in music and art - the two languages in which she expressed herself more completely than with words.

Pat was my friend, and it is for the loss of my friend that I mourn silently and tearlessly. Not the artist, nor musician nor the eloquent speaker with messages so barbed that she alienated one person after another. And I can keep her alive in my head knowing that she is now beyond "this mortal coil."

The Pat who came back to Bishop Anstey High School (BAHS) in the late sixties - to hold philosophical discussions with us in sixth form - was a glamorous sophisticated miss. I remember her low voice and the ease with which she discussed the "-isms" so many of which went over the head of a mathematics major. She fascinated us with her poise, the round full Afro of the day, and the romance with John Sewell, the white Anglican priest. We were devastated when that broke apart - how much more she?

Fast forward seven or eight years to the production of the Trinidad Carnival magazine. Pat's commentary on the steelbands was a staple soon after I joined the publication in 1974. By 1977, her remarks, her attitude, dominated - one can say shaped - the publication. She was on staff at Key Caribbean and had a hand in the other magazine publications, Homemaker, the BWIA in-flight magazine Tempo, and Environ a publication about architecture in Trinidad and Tobago. Health problems and a vision too advanced for an enterprise that was essentially an advertising agency for the Kirpalani's empire pushed her away. But I cherished our discussions that celebrated and nurtured Trinbagonian cultural expression. We were always talking about "what if..."

Pat did more than dream. She pushed herself to make the dream. Dalinda the opera. The Flight of the Scarlet Ibis, another opera. Curator of the National Museum. Drilling pan-players and teaching them music. Chase Charlie, the campaign for a litter-free Trinidad and Tobago. And in the intervals between paying jobs and pushing pan, she painted. Prolifically. A collection every year for over 20 years. She said it was the only way to make ends meet. But it was more than that. She was happy in her tiny studio, the music blasting from her Bose CD player, making the mark that was hers and hers alone. Each painting a poem, a symphony, a perfect lyric.

The last time I saw Pat, she was - as usual - propped up on pillows in her large soft bed. Cordless phone and writing materials nearby. She called Conrad to show me the Stations of the Cross which she was making for the church in Diego Martin. It was the week before Palm Sunday and she was wondering when would be a good time to hang and show the work. It had to be before Good Friday I said, thinking she must already know this. But Pat talking to me then was Pat talking to herself.

She spent so much time in the bed - it was her office, her conference room, her centre of operations - she must have thought she would die in bed. Instead her soul chose a time, in full public glare, to go home. We will miss Pat.

For Gillian - another BAHS mentor, my chemistry teacher -  I wish strength and courage.

circa 2006

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday in parentheses

Fat raindrops like glass beads bounce on the sea. Submerged to my eyes, I am one with the water. And though the sky has fallen like a steel sheet on the horizon and the light has disappeared, there is clarity in this day, and a return of balance.

Alcohol is like the gift delivered by Circe to Odysseus and his fellows. Forgetfulness is its boon. But time is kept, and the story told by those who remember. And therein lies the rub.  Should we leave out the odyssey's lost months, we would surely truncate the narrative, dininsh the voyage and lose the point of coming home.

The day of crisis has passed, but not forgotten. With the alcoholic as with any addict, there are cycles of binge and balance, treacherous for those who strive for balance. And so, we put these days in parentheses. (No final solution, just one day of coping.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Writing truths

I could write:
This morning my dolphin blood takes me to the sea before the sun is high. I am floating in the gently churning waves on a sandy spit just off the southwest tip of Tobago. The bulk of the bigger island Trinidad hovers on the western horizon. Pelicans circle and plunge. Boobies scream and gulls stall on the wind. It's tourist post card perfect. Even the Dash-8 airplanes coming in right over this edge of coastal land don't ruin the setting with bumblebee noise and petrol fumes - just remind us of the connected world.

Or, I could write today, this Sunday in August:
Even the full moon silvering the sea and the shushing waves could not calm the noisy drunk. He is shouting in the still of the fore day dawn. Where is the security? Who are those people on the jetty? What they doing there? It's not hard to believe in the Jekyll and Hyde story. But it's very hard to say my husband is an alcoholic and I have never known how to help him. I like my life. I like to drink. Every other word an expletive. This is no attempt to romanticise a difficult situation. He can barely walk this morning. He says he is bored, he needs another drink to shake the jitters. But I've asked the management not to serve him, they understand. He says that I belittle him. It's no victory just expedient.

He does not connect his addiction to the gaps in his life. He wants to be needed, he wants to wake up everyday to do something, but what? All I know is the pain inflicted on himself and those who love him and know the Jekyll politeness, more absent now. I do not know what caused his pain, or if indeed pain is prelude to his condition. I do know what it feels like to give up in the quiet lonely night. To have the sun rise on darkness that doesn't lighten.

Both are true in the same space. And for once my little blog homily doesn't circle back with a satisfactory ending. It's not asking for pity, or understanding. I prefer no responses to this. A piece of writing that ends instead in ellipsis ...

Sunday, July 31, 2011


The idea was planted like a seed. You could say like the lotus seeds of Mark Griffiths' The Lotus Quest, which spring to life hundreds of years later as if they were asleep for just a season. Re-incarnation is real. It is the cycle of life, might even be the only purpose of life.

To the western mind, with its human-centric theology, its me-focused lifestyle and goals, it is hard to grasp the continuum. We are trained to stand outside the stream of life. We feel that observer status denotes intellectual superiority. Not so, the trees tell us. A stand of immortelle or cassia, a pond of lotuses, will grow and flower, fruit and seed. And continue to purify the air, enrich the soil and feed birds and animals, season after season in a continuous cycle. Left to themselves, small fish feed big fish feed bigger fish; plankton becomes whales; jelly fish leatherback turtles.

The word creates the myth - re-incarnation means being made flesh again. But what flesh? Is the only possibility that I become or enter another human body after this body falls away like clay? indeed, matter is constantly being re-used and re-cycled. In death, our atoms do make other creatures, worms, cockroaches, snakes, trees, corbeaux, eagles. In life, imagine all the beings whose flesh become our flesh. Chicken, goat, or cow:  Oops we've just been reincarnate in a Trini child!

Actual re-incarnation is happening here and now, every day. Cells age and die. Flesh falls away and is transformed to other flesh. No atom is lost. Spirit, however, is another dimension entirely. Everywhere and no where, it creates the life we inhabit -  maya (the illusory environment, like a stage set) to atma (spirit, motivator, actor) - and keeps it in balance.

How can we know it? As the scientist has revealed the atom, so the poet reveals the soul.

From Tagore: "The emancipation of our physical nature is in attaining health, of our social being in attaining goodness, and of our self in attaining love."

From Thoreau On Walden Pond: "Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them."

As manifestations of spirit, we can only know ourselves incarnate, in constant re-incarnation.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Universal principle

My 80-something year old psychologist friend has embarked on a study of love and how our need for "love" affects development through different ages - infancy to old age. I tell her that "love" is one of the concepts that is running through my mind for as long as I can remember.

It's been fed from early childhood through teen age on the popular songs of the day. Every cliched chorus* sank like another pebble in my unconscious until meaning became an impossible task. (*From Pat Boone, Elvis Presley through the Beatles, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Lord Caresser "It's love, love alone that caused Kind Edward to leave the throne..." the single most important theme of popular music is love.)

At college, I tried to dissect this invisible phenomenon with a short course study on "sex education in high schools." Huh, sex education in backwoods schools in Roanoke Virginia in the seventies? I think my two-page paper basically said "not happening here." But I already knew that sex and love may cross paths or run together sometimes but are essentially different tracks. And I do think about love in all its forms: filial love (the child for the parent); of parents for children; sexual attractions and those instant chemical responses; in marriage and in the family; friendship; love for animals and creatures in one's care; and love that extends to others known or unknown. It's revealed in stories everywhere, in the newspapers, books, movies, life - love or its lack.

Let me tell you a million ways how I love you (and don't ever discount the importance of those three - I love you - or million words spoken or written by artists, poets, songwriters since forever) but the only way love is sustainable is through thought and deed and action. And that is a duty we have to every other human being, every other being. Even those that your gut tells you that you don't want to, or can't love. Just remember the Indian greeting "Namaste (or Namaskar)!" I greet the god (life force) in you.

For today, I remember my high school principal and one of her/ my favourite passages from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful..." (1 Corinthians 13 1-13)

She might be surprised that I even remember this, or that it is a guiding principle. Call it the universal principle, the matrix, the life force, the power of attraction. Call it love. Anywhere you see or share the tiniest iota, it's good.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Discipline and the dog

It's Sunday, and the curly-tailed dog wanders the house. He settles under the dining table, where it must be cooler than the porch. He lets us know when he needs to go outside - to use his bathroom along the fence as far as possible from us. I believe he relates to us at a very intuitive level. Whether or not he understands words spoken assertively, he responds to care and attention, intention and routine, and the occasional sharp command, "Don't...!" He is waiting at the door when we wake to let him out, or when we return home from an outing. He is polite with visitors, sitting until he is introduced. His wild antics seem reserved for the home crowd - when he races round the kitchen catching his tail, throwing his ragged toy in the air, grabbing my arm and shaking his head side to side as if he would tear it off (it might be hard to convince someone else that he's playing.)

Ranji ensures that he has some "discipline:" he must sit and shake hands before diving into the food bowl. He's bigger than the older dogs, but they are not backward to manners him with a rough growl and sharply bared teeth if he gets too familiar.
Like Hachiko, the legendary Japanese dog, a symbol for loyalty and devotion
Discipline is not my forte I've been told. Not on the job, nor in the home. I was/ am very likely a wimpy mom. Early in my life as a parent, I read somewhere that I should say no to a child only if what it wanted was dangerous (life threatening) or illegal; that I should make a practice of saying yes. I have given this idea a lot of thought over the years. It makes sense to allow a child to learn and grow through his/her own initiatives, mistakes and experience. It is more empowering if a person receives affirmative reinforcements. But it takes a tremendous reserve of "long brain" and discipline and communication (yes, so much talking!) and patience to set the stage for "yes" activity.

In the end, I feel as if my children brought me up. I have been lucky I believe. And I continue to learn from them.

The new dog is a different creature. He's not human (don't know why this is always said and meant as less than human when it actually means, he doesn't have language or some human needs) and should be taught to respond to discipline.  Therein lie our two basic modes of raising children - school and the military; or within the family with all the parental failings. Different combinations of these modes have different levels of success with different individuals - how scientific is that! What we do know though, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that dogs, and children, uncared, unloved, unsocialized, grow up in a meaningless world.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zaboca and mango season

It's zaboca season again! And as Keith Smith used to say, we could now tu'n down de pots, and have a bellyful on a zaboca a day, or zaboca every way - tea dinner lunch and punch. Zaboca on toast for breakfast. Zaboca with buljol and coconut bake for brunch. A squeeze of lime on zaboca slices beside a creole pelau. Guacamole - zaboca, lime juice, onion, olive oil and a fiery hot pepper - on crix, with a cold cold beer.

Everywhere you go, you'll see heaps of zaboca - those that ripen in their green skins, and those that turn maroon when ready to eat. I am always on the lookout for a giant pollock such as those that grew on a scrawny tree hanging over a drain on our farm. Until then, I am content with every other zaboca. July-August is the season of plenty in tropical Trinidad.

Jostling for space on the vendor's table will be mangoes! Julie is already there - don't go for size or colour, just check the firmness, smell that sweet fragrance. My favourite is starch, the distinctive acrid undertone when you bring it to your nose - no other mango has the scent of a starch. Look for firm yellow ripe ones freckled with black (sugar) spots. Peel it back with your teeth, and suck it to the seed! Two or three are never enough.

Another favourite mango was one we called stone. I've heard others refer to it as Buxton Spice. Some say it's like a calabash. But the stone that grew on our farm was not like any of these. It remained firm as it ripened to a bright orange in still green skin, had no string, and was the taste of our Santa Cruz sunshine and rain - sweet but tangy. During the 1990 coup, we had a bumper crop, but competed with the horse every time one fell from the tree.

We also had a mango rose tree that must have been 70 feet all. Rose by the hundreds would fall in a few weeks. Best mango for chow (chadon beni, garlic, lime, sugar, salt and hot pepper), chutney or curry mango.

Tropical fruit like mango and zaboca need to be eaten right near the tree. They don't store or ship well. And you can only know when they are ready by smell and pressing ever so gently. Let's enjoy them over the next few weeks, gorge while there's plenty, make chutneys of your mangoes, add zaboca to everything!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Chocolate dreams

The traditional cocoa farmer is something of a caricature - wizened, cocoa tea brown, craggy panyol features, at least 70, or just old. Their voices are loud as if accustomed to a life outdoors calling to each other through the trees, expecting to be heard and heeded. These are the stereotypical cocoa peonsDon Quixote-like who would have led their laden mules or driven pick up trucks down from the Northern Range plateaus and valleys to bring their beans to the Cocoa Board. They talk about the old days as if the hard times never were, as if the culture of cocoa could actually be recovered if only we were willing to turn back the clock and live the life again - that and some government subsidy might help!

There are many of those left. They turn up at coffee and cocoa seminars and meetings, and indeed they are the salt of the earth, fortunate for us that they have lasted long enough to pass the torch. For there is a  new breed of cocoa entrepreneur emerging, who with a little support, could show us the way to put Trinidad back at the centre of the world cocoa map. Mark Andrews is one of these. He too speaks of cocoa business and an estate, with intensity and certainty, but softly. He asks, "How many of us who have grown up in cocoa can say that we have tasted the chocolate made from our beans?"

It's an important question of a country that has traditionally shipped this agricultural product soon after harvesting, and not necessarily to the highest bidder. (A fair amount of our coffee, however, stays here.) As the French might speak of terroir, Mark knows the taste of Trinidad's flavour cocoa - in particular the beans grown on the Rancho Quemado estate. His business is at the start of the value chain that ends in the fine dark chocolate bonbons and bars made by Isabel Brash under the Cocobel brand. In Tobago, Duane Dove ( has developed an ecotourism business for his estate that includes chocolate paired with rum as part of the experience. These are not the only entrepreneurs of the new style cocoa and chocolate business. Look for Mountain Pride dark drinking chocolate from the Tamana estate in central Trinidad, with its flavours of lemongrass and cinnamon. There are many coming to cocoa with a different business attitude today.

So that others might also be encouraged to be part of this business (with or without land), the Innovation and Enterprise department of the University of Trinidad and Tobago is working across the Caribbean on technology (all-terrain vehicles, improved tools); innovative practices (service teams skilled and equipped to move from estate to estate, to prune trees or pick cocoa; chocolate makers and chocolatiers) and a wide range of products.

There is attention too from the European CDE (Centre from the Development of Enterprise) to assist in cocoa business (as well as nutmeg in Grenada, mangoes, bee-keeping and coffee). They have identified Caribbean territories who are already known for fine flavour cocoa production - Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamiaca, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. The CRU (Cocoa Research Unit) is excited about possibilities for new crosses - a tree that stays near five feet and bears giant pods with the finest criollo flavour?

The labour-intense cocoa-to-chocolate chain does not have to be a disincentive; there may be advantages in the very complexity of this industry. Not a one man enterprise, certainly not "fast food," but a service chain that involves and engages communities in search of livelihood and meaning.  Eco-estates, entrepreneurs for harvesting, fermenting, polishing ("dancing" the cocoa); roasting and winnowing; then the artful transformation from bitter bean to bonbon retaining all those allusions to sun and soil and sap. Festivals of cocoa and chocolate, eco-estate adventures. Tastes of Trinidad, indeed!

We say it takes a village to raise a child. We may yet redeem part of our children's future with the collaboration of new villages engaged in lucrative cocoa businesses.

The current catalogue and price list for Cocobel chocolates - soon available on its own website. (Price list at June 2011)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The next 30

I am thinking about death. Well, not exactly the moment of dying, or what it might be like to be dead. Dead might be just another state of being; and probably just means being "dead" to the state we are accustomed to, and the people and creatures that have an awareness of us at the particular time of our existence. The moment of dying on the other hand seems fraught with fear - all the fears that we experience or anticipate waiting for us for that moment when we pass through that last door - pain, loss, the unknown, hell or heaven, judgement. I don't think people resist death because they are scared; I think there are other reasons that souls cling to life. That's another discussion.

What I am really thinking about is the rest of my life. This is likely to be as much as all my adult life already lived, or much less. The uncertainty is exciting. Would I be doing what I am doing now if...

My next career waits. What is it that I can bring the experiences, the who-I-really-am, the learning of a lifetime, to? How shall I "apply" or prepare to enter this new enterprise, at a time when the thing that I know with the greatest certainty is how much I have dabbled in a lot of different things, and how little I actually know about so much!

The last year of paying attention has brought a lot of insights into this "who-I-really-am." Calm and patience were always there but to know what it looks like on the inside is a revelation. Sometimes it simply means staying out of the way of others, sometimes it's "speak when asked;" sometimes "just do as you are told;" but mainly it's about activating that "me" that does pay attention, which is mainly observer, processor, dreamer, immutable and unsleeping.

So what shall it be? How shall I fill the days before I slip into oblivion? Here's my start up list, in no particular order. Improve the house. Make a garden. Grow food. See the Pacific. Write the book. Learn to make chocolate. Create my own business. Heal someone.

Not exactly wild!

To be continued.