Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, August 30, 2012

States of Independence

My almost 11-year old self is lying on my stomach on the top bunk, face pressed against the window pane overlooking the steps outside. My mother, her head covered with a towel, is walking up carrying a pot. She's bringing our favourite meal to serve us in the bedroom, bowls of oxtails and red beans on rice. There is no inside staircase, but there is a lull in the wind and lashing rain. Having brought us home over the Saddle, the only car on the road for miles, Daddy is still outside in the weather, putting the dogs in the feed room, feeding chickens in the 100-foot long low pens that are certain to get water-soaked despite the feedbags hanging over the chicken wire. For the evening and night of hurricane Flora, we could "pretend for real" that we lived in a cabin in the woods, our two rooms sufficient against the fury.

Back in 1962, we have been living on the farm in Santa Cruz for over four years. From Port of Spain, centre of schools, groceries, friends and all commercial or official business, the twisting seven mile drive via the villages Boissiere and Maraval and the narrow road with a precipice on one side, rises to The Pass and descends into the broad valley of citrus orchards and old cocoa lands. Early in the year, immortelles in bloom painted the foothills with an orange blush. Bamboos bending over the main road sighed and creaked; and in the end of a very dry season seemed to spontaneously combust. There were no streetlights and night time driving might be lit by moonlight; but the ragged edges of the road and pitch dark night made for adventure sometimes compounded by low lying fog.

This farm, a seven acre strip in a cocoa plantation turned to citrus, running from the main road to the river which even then we were told was polluted by the homesteads that lined its banks up to the springs in the foothills, became county, country and nation to our family of five children. It freed my parents from the indentureship of the Chinese shop. The fruit trees, many of them planted when we came to live - orange, avocado, West Indian cherry, guava, five finger and four or more kinds of mango - made this Eden and the promised land. How many idyllic August vacations saw us swinging from branches, prowling the underbrush, making tracks to the river. But humans were not made for Eden, and by teenage we were plotting escape to the world whose seeds were watered by education and fertilised by movies and tv.

In 1962, not yet eleven, I transitioned through the first ever Common Entrance exam to high school. Leaving behind Miss Umilta McShine's daily drills of good citizenship, sung to her vigorous piano accompaniment:
So, there's dawning another new day:
Think, wilt thou let it slip useless away?
Out of eternity this new day is born;
Into eternity at night will return.

Leaving behind pitch with marbles in the dry dirt under the peepal trees; vendors selling tamarind stew, channa and chillibibi in paper cones, tambran dasan, and channa bara (the single bake precursor to doubles). To be replaced by the walled enclave of high school, pergola, fountain, chapel, music room, tuck shop, science labs, gym, and library. Morning assembly was mandatory common practice, starting each day with a common purpose.

God bless our nation
Of many varied races
May we possess that boundless love
That binds and makes us one.

In the year of the changing of the flag, school children all over Trinidad and Tobago learned national songs, of which the anthem - "Forged from the love of liberty"- was but one. "Together we aspire, together we achieve," was the motto, and watchwords, "discipline, tolerance and production" to live by. Without quite knowing what it meant, a cohort of yellow, brown, red, black brothers and sisters dedicated their ten year old lives to the Red White and Black, fire, earth and water, binding us as one people on two islands.

That farm is now gone, replaced by grand suburban residences, each three or four times the size of the two room cottage we slept in. The parents are in the ground, the children scattered to the far corners of other lands. Some of us have wandered far from this land where we raised chickens and ducks and guinea fowl, fed our faces with giant graham mangoes, buttery pollock avocados and the sweetest five fingers (carambola); where we roamed the acres like explorers; and with hard work earned the care and craft and skills for independent thought and productive life. But this place remains planted like the seed of who we are. Here indeed, the navel string is buried.

(Written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence of Trinidad and Tobago, and for siblings and children in Italy, USA, UK, Australia as well as those who remain here.)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Feeding hummingbirds

Sexy pink - favorite nectar sources of hummingbirds

Hanging balisier - the red and the "sexy pink" - and some sprigs of "firecracker" are the main attractions for hummingbirds in our garden. So adding two hummingbird feeders was mainly for human entertainment. The feeder looks like a flying saucer - a bright red dome with six tiny holes each surrounded by a yellow faux flower. The "nectar" or sugar water goes in a clear shallow saucer below the dome. At least two hummingbirds have decided that they like these conveniences. Located near to the sexy pink heliconias, the feeders offer an alternative food source that the birds seem to enjoy. The other day we were chased by one feisty emerald when we removed the feeder to clean and refill it. Imagine two inches of long-beaked missile darting at your face!

Hummingbird feeder
My reservation against the feeders remains the same. We don't want these birds to become dependent on us for their sugar water, do we? The little voice retorts, "We owe them, don't we?" And so, without more pre-thought, we accept responsibility for the care of a few hummingbirds.

The truth is, though I am part of a nice gated community, my lot is on the hill edge of Northern Range rainforest. Trees that I planted now tower some sixty feet over the house. The forest on the north and the east and the west are rampant walls of green. But for the dogs, agoutis are likely to traipse along our driveway. The occasional iguana suns itself in plain view. (Today we heard pellet shot and calling out to the dense green thicket, "Move away from there..." we were answered by a huff and grunt.)

It should be no surprise then to find the occasional snake skimming through the chain link. Today however, this one had made itself comfortable in the space at the top of the french door where a pane of glass is missing. We managed to dislodge it with a broom, sweeping it almost twenty feet to the driveway below where it landed with a thud, drew itself back and threatened to strike at one of the dogs, before being encouraged by a spray of water to slide back towards the fence and through the tall bushes into the forest.

Only after the adrenalin rush of ensuring the survival of the snake (I have long un-learned the Trini conviction "the only good snake is a dead one") with no harm to human or dog, have I put my mind to imagine how he came so far into the house and past the dog that sleeps outside that very door. Did he mount the stairs? Climb up the twenty foot columns anchoring the roof to the ground? Swing from a branch of the cassia tree and slide along the wooden roof beam? What brought him here?

Knock knock, who's there? Cascabel. Cascabel who?
And I am sent again to re-read D. H. Lawrence's immortal encounter, Snake (1923) and admit in my heart of hearts:

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

So too I am honoured by the hummingbirds that come to rest and refresh at my feeders.

(Read Lawrence's entire poem here:

Making himself at home on a different kind of branch

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why bother?

Today, I took a garbage bag with me on my morning walk. I intended to pick up the glass and plastics and bits and pieces that the stray dogs have ripped from garbage bags, or thoughtless persons left lying against a park bench. But I thought, why bother? The lawn maintenance people cut the park at least once a week, and seem to have no problem passing their weed whackers right over, allowing the bottles to sink into the soil, and crushing the plastics. These bits and pieces seem to disturb no one else, so why me?

Why try to recycle when the world seems content to throw everything away, on the beaches, outside car windows, in rivers, down a drain; just toss it into the canal or in the bushes and walk away. Where do you think "away" is? It's in the Caroni Swamp, down the islands, somewhere near Grenada, somewhere we hardly go, or see, so why bother?

Why pay more for food that's healthier when the fast stuff is cheap and you can eat instantly, no waiting? And there are certainly enough stray dogs to lick up the leftovers, so leave it by the side of the road nuh!

Why plant trees and clear your drains when the hills are already a concrete jungle, a cascade of roofs and house-proud tidy squares of lawn or paved driveways?

Why try to warn others of the effects of nicotine and alcohol when rum and beer and wine, and cigarettes are clearly there to be bought and indulged. So your arteries clog up, and your ulcers explode, why should anyone else care? You going and dead anyway. Maybe the faster the better. It's the lingering illness that makes everyone suffer.

People don't appreciate being told what to do, or how to do, or when to do, even when what they are doing hurts them. Most don't wish to be told what to do to make life better, and improve the lot of even a household, a neighbourhood, or a nation.

Why bother writing ten lines in a blog that no one reads.

Maybe I bother because I have been conditioned to conform, to have a conscience, to feel guilt. Otherwise, why should any of it matter to me? I'll soon be gone. In a few years more, I'll need less, take up less space and eventually disappear, for the good of all. There is a price for every iota of individual consumption. But having developed our capacities as individuals, I wonder how long will it take for a species to realise that the good of "all" is the only guarantee of good for the individual. And that's why we need to bother.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Working at not working

My mother went out to work for a few years before she got married. After leaving school, she was a clerk-typist with the LJ Williams firm. I remember the boss of the firm, Louis Jay, a plump man with a mole at the side of his nose. His daughter Cynthia was one of my mother's friends who would visit from time to time. Louis Jay also visited on occasion at the farm - perhaps he was trying to encourage her back out to work, or just checking that she was alright.

Yvonne became a housewife shortly after she was married, with her first child born barely nine months later. So for all the time I knew her, you could say "she never worked a day in her life!" But that would not be true of our mother. She was not just wife and mother but a strong partner to all my father's new ventures using her high school education and typing and book-keeping skills - not to mention her Trini middle class values - to keep him and our family on a conscientious and socially acceptable path.

It must have been hard and thankless work: selling in the traditional Chinese shop on your feet all day with customers clamoring to be noticed or waiting to be served; a child or children (my sister was born the year after me and another three years after that; and I have a memory of three of us romping on the bed having been told to stay out of the shop where we were perfectly willing to hand things over the counter if someone asked) in the back room to be fed and tended. Later, on the farm, she was the secretary for the business; and though she was replaced in the poultry houses, she made her own flower and vegetable garden and continued to be tiger mother to five willful children. She was always doing something; never had a maid and did all the housework herself, with child labour. She and my father worked every day. Weekends were when the house was cleaned. And Sundays were spent in the kitchen cooking up a big meal. That and the mandatory "after lunch" nap were the watershed of the week.

My father did make his own leisure: weekly card games and when he bought a small power boat, fishing and taking the family "down the islands." But I am hard-pressed to say what my mother did to relax. Perhaps it was in her flower garden that she found space and time for her mind to unwind while her hands continued to plant and weed and mulch and prune and water. Such beautiful flowers emerged from weedless earth beds!

Forty years have passed since I was a teenager hiding behind the bed to read when I should have been vacuuming the carpets. And after a life of mainly sedentary "work" hunched over a typewriter or computer, I harbor a great deal of ambivalence about "work."

I tend to feel guilty if I am not working - or at least being productive on a daily basis, including weekends - and continue to rise just before or at sun-up with a rolling list of "things to do" in my head. A more active routine now keeps me healthy. Walk the dog. Sweep the yard. Check the trees. Then cooking, cleaning and laundry. All of which allows me the mind space - background hum of vacuum cleaner now replaced by television news and noises - to reflect on how we value work (sweeping the yard $5?), and ultimately how we value the worker; and especially those who are not part of formal systems - housewife, mother, grandfather, companion, child minder. But I also worry about "gainful work" even as I become content that the universe will provide.

In these times of "not working" I think about an ideal work situation. Sometimes I see a monastic community in which everyone has a job to ensure that we feed ourselves from farm and garden and kitchen, with surplus to give away. What's attractive about this imaginary place is the "tending of the hours" - everything done in daily, hourly routines that can free a mind for regular periods of meditation or reading, mindwork and music!

So if you find me becoming less communicative, more reclusive - even as I continue to juggle the challenges of twenty-first century life on a small overheated island - know that I am looking to establish a new life's rhythm not just of working, of being.

Afterthought: The unions claim to have given us "weekends" and regular work hours. What they fail to recognise is not that work should be regular (because leisure is not a logical outcome) but that it should be meaningful, adding grace and dignity to life, whatever the circumstances. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

At death's door

My friend is at death's door. She has lived a good and conscientious life, raised worthy children and witnessed eighty years of the most significant changes in the world. The last time I see her, the body is shrunk, closing in on itself. A heavy tongue slurs speech, belies the mind that flickers bright; synapses still snapping to connect people and events spanning decades. She'll be fine, I think, going into the light or the unfathomable night, whichever you choose to believe in. She'll be fine. It's her child and grandchild who will be bereft, motherless, sad. It's us, who thinking of her, will think "oh she's gone" and feel the weight of absence. But is she any less here as long as someone thinks of her, remembers something she said, recalls her presence?

Some people I know would look at the most horrific films, follow the wars on every side of the globe; but cover their ears and scream with fear when asked to consider their own death. What is it about death that so terrifies some of us? It's easy to say fear of the unknown. But doesn't the known sometimes terrify you to the limit? How could there be worse?

My own belief - each of us must arrive at some personal belief that gives comfort about the last great unknown - is that a life progresses to a death as certain as day follows night. Look around and see so many transitions taking place all the time everywhere. Not just creatures or trees, but inanimate things too - buildings, landscapes, cities - are in a cycle of flourish and decay. Nothing stops, everything changes. Such change may take eons or split seconds. Death, I believe, takes us out of time, out of the cycle of change.

The poet Dylan Thomas gave us the most often repeated admonition on death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I believe he's talking about life, not death. This "rage against the dying of the light" is on this side of death's door. Be on fire each and every day, he declares, not with fear, but assertively, defiantly, live as if it's never enough. When we stand at death's door, there should be nothing more to say or do. Kiss me goodbye with a smile, no regrets.

But nothing is ever as simple as we philosophize. Life is messy. There are people who seem to have checked out long before their bodies lie down. Others who claim to be deathly afraid of dying appear to be squandering their time. And many who seemed too young to die are gone in an instant. Others theorize that each soul calls its own death unto itself. So how should we prepare or be prepared for that moment when life as we know it ends - the other person's or our own. How should such an altered state be welcomed?

Should we go kicking and screaming? Should we be packed and ready, standing at death's door waiting to be admitted? How much life is enough?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beginning pottery

Appreciation and making are completely different impulses when it comes to art. The first exercises that part of the brain given to intellectual pursuits as well as empathy. The other requires hand and eye coordination, some knowledge of the medium (clay, glazes and kiln temperature) and an idea of what you might like to see that was never in the world before - something out of imagination shaped by your own hands however clumsy!

Raku pot, hand shaped
Bunty O'Connor's Raku courses, conducted at the Ajoupa Studio in Chickland, are just right as an initiation to making art. Unlike writing or even painting which may be considered cerebral activities, pottery gives you the feel of the clay, cool damp and sticky. You can close down your mind for a bit and just feel your way. There's grain. There's density and pliability. How thin can you stretch it before it breaks. What's the squeeze factor - does it ooze between your clenched fingers or resist solidly? When you let your hands take over, you roll, flatten, shape. Make as many small objects as you can in 20 minutes is the first instruction.

Without thinking too much, you shape balls, rolls, little bowls, shapes that look like they might be creatures so you add mouth, ears, nose, hips, boobs, features. By the end of the session, there's your little army of sub-conscious forms to go through the first firing. Later on, you can apply colour with liquid glazes that give you no clue of what the finish might be like.

The final firing marries the glaze to the pot. When the baked temperature has been reached in the gas fired kiln, the red-hot pots are removed and placed in a bin of sawdust - which invariably catches fire in contact with the hot pots. This reduction at the surface produces unpredictable coloration and textures that have become characteristic of raku pots. (Raku pots originated in a particular place in Japan; they are usually hand-shaped; fired at "low" temperatures which makes them porous; and are removed from the kiln while still glowing hot to be cooled in a container of combustible material such as sawdust or wood shavings.)

Rory's pulley to lift the lid off the kiln

Red hot pots in the kiln

One of Bunty's Stations of the Cross comes out of the fire

Glowing hot pots are dropped into a bin of wood shavings

Loading and firing the kiln - a two person operation
Today, I offer you my first collection of "pots" made in one of Bunty's Raku courses. I have to admit that I did it with a half a mind, but a whole understanding that making a few pots does not make one a potter, or even an artist. But it was a start.

Star in a loop

Cross at crossroads

A dog like Sox

Mother and child with shelf for blessings

Two for companionship

Woman with horn 

A creature like ET

My first Raku pot, a solid base, flared edges crimped as thin as possible and magical colours

Friday, August 3, 2012

Independent ... but stamped!

50 years after being jettisoned like so much baggage, fragments of empire bob around the world. Branded with emblems of colonisation and imperialist rule, we are slowly allowing inherent character to emerge and re-modelling identity from within. But there's nothing pedantic about Wendy Nanan's compelling illumination of the legacies of independent nations in the modern world. Rather they draw you in with whimsy and colour, carnivalesque headpieces and the fact that the artist's entire palette is postage stamps! They make you want to stay in the gallery and study each piece, to look under the surface which is after all papier-mache and collage of the most ordinary elements of currency.
Collage of postage stamps

Flora and fauna of Trinidad and Tobago

Feather in the hat

Native America

Mother Earth
We can choose to meditate upon the bigger ideas of nationhood; to consider the effects of the unifying stamp of the imperial ruler; but you must marvel at the portraits themselves. They seem to have been modeled from life. In this one, you might see Wendy herself. Over there, that must surely be Pat Bishop, albeit a younger Pat. There's the begum that is India-Pakistan, and the distinctive native American Indian high flat features, broad cheekbones; the discreet European under a big hat. But as surely as the cultures have adopted the rules and language of the Queen, it is Africa whose influence is incipient and emerging.
Caribbean beauty - mixed heritage

The eyes and nose of India

Dreadlocked beauty - like an Egyptian queen

Black Jubilee - Africa rises
The Queens - Nanan's collection of eleven busts - depict British legacy in the Caribbean, in Native (North) America, South America, India and Pakistan, and Africa. However, the solitary male subject, dreadlocked bowler-hatted, is the punchline. The Empire strikes back, as he is called.

Twenty-first century British gentleman
The Empire strikes back!

Three other installations complete the Wendy Nanan Independence exhibition at Medulla Art Gallery.

In The Nation Morphs, our familiar islands transform into a Banana (republic).

The Big Banana of the Caribbean bunch!
Nanan's meditation on Enlightenment echoes others like singer Joni Mitchell - "we are stardust; we are golden" - or Tagore - “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures." Nanan writes, "Our bodies, our atoms are made of the same dust as the planets and the stars ... Our time here on Earth like a flash that morphs from one physical form to another, the dust of the universe." 

From Enlightenment is

In the Hindu myth, Baby Krishna - whose name means black or blue-black, like night - suckled at the poisoned tit of the evil Putana, drawing her life away. Nanan continues to meld the diverse religious iconography of her native land and we see a winged cherubic Baby Krishna embracing like Christ the child and the scarlet ibis, and extending special protective power to the pillars of life; perhaps hoping to heal the bleeding Trinidad with the balm of enlightenment. No innocent infant, Nanan's Krishna evokes the pathos of a crucified Christ.
We are stardust, we are golden ...

Baby Krishna with Flora and Fauna of Trinidad and Tobago

Krishna crucified, for food and oil

Nanan's special Independence gift to the nation should be seen in life and not merely read about. And I urge everyone to hurry over to Medulla at 37 Fitt Street (now one way towards Ariapita Avenue). The exhibition closes on August 30. And I also hope that some enlightened corporate entity might see fit to acquire and display the Queens as a singular exhibit.