Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, December 28, 2014

An Odyssey is a journey

Simplicity is elegance, and the key to powerful story telling. Aesop's fables. Myths and legends of all cultures share these elements: a single thread (or hero or event) that brings to light some unalienable truth. Not that I had these or any expectations or reservations when it came to Pan! Our Music Odyssey. It is a finely finished and packaged made in Trinidad film about the steelband, produced by Jean Michel Gibert and Barthelemy Fougea; directed by Jerome Gulot and Thierry Teston (the French Connection indeed!) It was written by, and features, Kim Johnson, pan historian.

It is not burdened by the fifty years of history; the thousands of steeldrums cut from empty 55 gallon oil barrels; the thousands of players who perform every year; and hundreds of thousands of Trinbagonians who feel instinctively and impulsively that the sound of pan is the beating heart of home; the essence of rootedness and family. It tells a story lightly, as you might relate to your children; a story that will live with them for life.

Pan is personified as a young tess, Stephen aka Goldteeth. He has a lil brother who is his shadow. In the days (late forties) when the pan instrument was tambourine-sized and biscuit tin height, Goldteeth had an idea to make a bigger playing surface with more sound. Like anyone with a revolutionary thought, he got in trouble. He had to leave. When he came back with the instrument that would take the music to another level, it was stolen. His brother was beaten.

Gang warfare, knives, bitter rivalries, ostracism, risk, formed the crucible that developed the pan. Music, honour, camaraderie, skill and innovation, competitiveness, the world, are the only boundaries today. The magical pan has seeded steelbands and pan associations around the world: throughout the Caribbean, in Europe, China and Japan. Everyone is welcome in the pan family: Andy Narell and his troupe who come to play with birdsong; Chihiro Ninomiya from Japan who joins Phase II Pan Groove; Eva Goldstein from France who starts with birdsong but joins Desperadoes to fulfil her father's dream and play in a Panorama finals.

The story takes us from the end of the forties to the modern Panorama (world steelband music festival). It is visually and richly engaging. The music of the twenty-first century orchestras is powerful and riveting. It is a film that makes you glad to be from Trinidad and Tobago, these islands whose heartbeat is the wild and uplifting music of an indigenous instrument. Our Pan!

Goldteeth's story weaves through the beat of Shango drums, the pounding of tamboo bamboo, the high-pitched tinkle of the predecessor pans played by Red Army, to the resonance of Boom Town. There's mischief, almost murder and mayhem. But the odyssey - like classic quests and journeys - is easily told because we all know and welcome the end. It is told by old men who as brave youths undertook the journey, encountered and survived the dangers, men with voices enriched by life able to laugh comfortably at the homecoming.

Every Trinbagonian should see this film, should celebrate its making, should cherish the story; and appreciate the music!

Pan! Our Music Odyssey is available as a DVD/ CD (film and soundtrack) compilation.





Sunday, November 23, 2014

Beyond space, time and gravity ...

This Earth that evolved our species - home sapiens - is perfect for us. There is no other planet in the solar system as suited to the human species as this one. Nor in this galaxy. And maybe not anywhere else in the universe. It is likely that the ecosystem that nurtures us will adapt to us; as we adapt to it. The evolution of our planet is synonymous with our evolution, or vice versa. Do we know this for a certainty?

The human species behaves as if (1) the resources of the earth belong to us alone; (2) there might be another planet that we could go to, if and when needed; and (3) our species - explorers and pioneers - might be infinitely able to adapt, survive and thrive, conquer the universe. The mission that is at the core of the Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar, is based on these assumptions. And so, as the significant landmass of North America turns to dust (reminiscent of the 1930s) and crops fail, the mission to explore other worlds becomes more urgent.The Cooper family farming the dust bowl must make some hard decisions.

View of Earth, courtesy NASA

In the middle of their dogged and doomed existence, something - Murphy the young daughter of the Cooper family calls it a ghost - leads her father (Coop for Cooper, we never hear a first name) to a NASA launch site. The dirt farmer with his crop of corn, it turns out, is really a NASA trained pilot. The underground scientists led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) are relieved to have a pilot with them for the proposed interstellar voyage. It all seems serendipitous: Coop has been preparing for this all his life; and the wormhole had appeared just past Saturn 48 years before.

A wormhole is a theoretical warp in space-time that might act as a conduit across aeons of space. A black hole, on the other hand, is a region in space - created by a collapsed star - where the gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape. At the centre of a black hole (which may not be black at all) where all mass is squeezed to "a single point where space and time stop," is called a singularity.

With the clock ticking down to an Earth that's rapidly becoming uninhabitable for humans, Coop throws his lot in with NASA, to pilot the spaceship Endurance. The mission: to seek out the scientists who had left on reconnaissance missions on the spaceship Lazarus, and who had found three Earth-like possibilities.  

Coop (Matthew McConaughey) is torn between leaving his children, especially ten year old Murphy; and the chance to do what he had been trained for - piloting a spaceship beyond the stars. He had settled for the task of producing food for the family after his wife died. But his son Tom is the natural farmer; Coop's head had always been in the stars. Murph is the natural scientist, her father urging her to make sense of seemingly supernatural events, the ghost in her room delivering messages in lines of dust, dots and dashes of morse code. "Stay," begs Murphy.

The undertaking is not without risk. No one, it seems, really expects them to return. And the poet Dylan Thomas's words,  spoken by Professor Brand, become a kind of mantra for the mission:
"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."

Hereafter, the story relates parallel events: the struggles and survival of those on the voyages of the Endurance; the work of the scientists for the survival of those left on Earth.

The film Interstellar suggests something else again. It is that view that has been beamed to us by NASA for the last few decades. We are finally pulling away from the big blue marble, and the look back tugs at the heart strings, awe and ruefulness in equal parts. It is so beautiful, our home, co-evolving with human growth. Why can't we just cherish our planet? Is always wanting more also embedded in the human condition?

What is it about human beings, so attached to what they leave behind. yet eager to set off into the unknown, to the next great adventure, to the ends of the universe, even to death.

Space, time, gravity are there to be negotiated. As are wormholes and black holes, other suns, a multitude of other planets. The thrill of the travel itself - setting out in a rocking ship, taking off in cramped airplanes, or blasting into the sky bolted into a life-protecting suit - excites us. And as every adventurer who has ever set out on a voyage of discovery might tell us: once we leave, setting sail or spinning out beyond our stratosphere, leaving this solar system behind, there's no going home again. But home calls us.

The interstellar voyages resonate with the long history of human journeys, the quest, the discovering, the longing for home. It is a pattern well-embedded in our DNA. We are nomads at heart; pioneers in spirit; adaptable and resourceful. But we seldom go forward without looking back. Home, it seems, is the real black hole; love the singularity.

We are the creatures of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration
"And the end of all our exploring
"Will be to arrive where we started
"And know the place for the first time.”
We search for singularities: the beginning bang, the pearl in the oyster of a black hole, the other end of the universe. And at the last, though we may be star dust, we are dust of this particular planet that gave us life and longings. Like Ulysses, Cooper does return to his family; but he's the alien, changed by his journey.

The words of Cooper's wife echo across the aeons: We are here only to be our children's memories. But the words of Dr Mann (Matt Damon) are more forceful: the last thing you see will be your children's faces.

The film Interstellar is well worth seeing, if you are ready for a retelling of the hero's quest, a galactic perspective of the human heart.

The light returns: sunrise over Santa Cruz






Monday, November 10, 2014

Night walk, day dreaming

The moon was hiding - not behind trees, but behind cloud
The evening is dark, deep and lightless at ground level below a canopy of towering trees. We are at the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad's Northern Range rainforest. The moon was full the night before and should be just as bright. Tonight, its silver white light is banked behind sheets of cloud. Still, it would be a shame to retreat from the cool outdoors, to miss the chance of catching moonlight slipping through cloud curtains and reflecting off leaves still wet from the day's rain. The quiet of the forest is punctuated by small calls; it's the time of the predator.

When we set out, it is as if there were no moon. We go forward trusting the road and the pencils of light from small torches. Stay in the centre says the guide; the road is even, recently resurfaced. Our feet slosh in undrained water at the edges, and skid on leaf litter. We think about snakes and the possibility of wildlife. But our voices, and the steady - however surreptitious - tramp of three pairs of feet must reverberate like an army to any creatures lurking in the underbrush or trees. Next day, we hear about the night walker who ventured into the coffee and stared down a fer-de-lance (mapipire balsain) thick as a man's thigh.

Conversation shushes and we are in the mind of the stealthy trekkers who crossed these woods centuries past. Like children on a vaguely illicit adventure, remember night walks on unlit roads through cocoa plantations. Those were occasions for stories. Look out for Lagahou like a colossus astride the road. Beware La Diablesse with her shy seductive smile, hem of a long skirt covering one cow foot. Strike a match, strike a match. Quick! Watch her disappear, manic laughter echoing through the cocoa.

Listen. Whoosh and tinkle of water over rocks. Rumble of a car on the Blanchisseuse road sounds somewhere in the trees above. It's impossible to orient in the dark. The flow of conversation, our own footfalls, steer us. Turns out there's light in the darkness. Our eyes register the slightest traces of reflected light; and suddenly, we are aware that we have arrived at the centre's big gates. A moonbeam shines off the forest, leaves, trees, the road, and for a brief moment, we are no longer eyeless.

The next morning we retrace our steps. Here is the river that muttered in the dark. Here the bamboos sighing and chatting with the wind. Here the hanging vine with flowers that kissed the lips of the guide on another predawn walk. Up close, we distinguish bamboo, vines, big and small leaved plants, feathery palms, heliconia, immortelle, mahogany, mango, river lilies. The birds are awake: a cacaphony of parrots, the bonk of the bellbird, twits and whistles. But look up. The forest crests the mountain in a green wall, solid, impervious. Impenetrable you would say, but not so. And maybe you don't need to look down the road to the quarries or the christophene patch to know how vulnerable is this natural environment. Men with machetes, excavators, trucks and explosives outmatch the jungle every day.
Roadside green

Hearts and ferns

River pool
Oilbirds feed on the fruit of palm trees like this one.
Bamboo forest

The Asa Wright Nature Centre is the attempt by a vulnerable community and a handful of dedicated volunteers to restore or maintain balance. It's quite a trek we know, hazardous in parts. But everyone needs a day in the rainforest. And a night walk if you dare. Sometimes, we need to see without eyes.
This road at the Asa Wright nature centre leads to the lodge


Friday, October 24, 2014

Birth day blessing

My niece's son was born Divali morning, at 5.30 am after a relatively short labour. This is a blessing for the boy!

You were 7 lbs 12 ozs (3.5 kg) and 20 inches (51 cm). Welcome Elliot Shalom! Peace be unto you! We love you already! You are born on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio: some will say you are all Scorpio. But you come under the influence of the planet Mercury which is highly imaginative, communicative and inquisitive.

In the Mayan calendar, you have the sun sign of the Monkey, who is the weaver of time: amiable, intelligent, generous, curious, able to weave artistic expression and find constructive solutions. Also from the Mayan system, your galactic tone is 12 (of 13 tones); this is the tone of understanding. The energy of 12 allows you to connect unrelated things into new concepts.

Mother and child (ten days)
In your father's faith, you will be connected to other age-old traditions. The essences of China, India, Europe run in your veins, generously connected through the multicultural ethos of the Caribbean upbringing of your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Always remember, "you are a child of the universe, no less than the moon and stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should." (From the Desiderata, A Poem for a Way of Life, by Max Ehrmann - see fuller text from the prose poem below.)

Every child that's born into the world is to be celebrated, a piece of stardust, the product of ages past. No wonder you are born old; growing younger as you fill into your skin. You will be your mother's joy and your father's better self. But you have your own destiny, your own path, your own heart. You are not ours, though you are of us, entrusted to grateful parents and family to care for and to teach.

You are the echo of every other birth, a reminder of all possibility. But you will be your own man. And on this day, your birthday, we remember other birthdays.

A little boy who was born on a Friday. Hot sun in the beginning of May, heart of the dry season. His was a quick passage. Between the hasty departure from home and his popping into the world, just a couple hours had passed. At the nursing home, there was blood. The placenta was tearing away from the womb.  Be quick and bring this baby out where he could breathe. In the delivery room, the midwife urging wait. The doctor coming now. Turn on your side. Cross your legs.

Finally, the big push. One. Two.  Head and shoulders coming through. Then calm. Maybe he cried. The warm length of him on the mother's chest. The midwife coming round to show the knot in the umbilical cord that she had cut out. Do you want to keep it? It would be a good totem to mark a life of luck.

A girl was born on a Sunday, Father's Day. After a big meal, drowsy, fighting sleep. At the nursing home, it started to rain. From the delivery table, the sight of water coursing down the high windows,  bright flashes and thunder rumbling. A tiger born amid thunder, lightning and rain. Tiny shell ears curled over.

Yes, Elliot, you join a large family, of cousins, aunts and uncles. More than that, you join the family of the world. "You are a child of the universe, no less than the moon and the stars." You will grow in grace and love. Your name is peace, and we give you the Desiderata, which used to be a mantra of your maternal grandparents. ... Strive to be happy!


 From the Desiderata of Max Ehrmann:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wild thing

Yoda was a witness to many changes in our family's life. She arrived when we were still living on the farm, March 1998. A magga little pup picked up from a drain in Barataria. With her back legs in water, she scraped at the walls of the drain, but her front paws couldn't take her out. Her saviour wanted to return her to the school, and reproach the teacher who had pitched her into the drain. Don't children know better than to take a mangy scrap into a place where the grown ups will always go, "Ewww, filthy animal!" But miss... but miss...

Yoda - soulful brown eyes, but a slightly demented look; and ears that stood up on alert when she was listening
She never grew into her paws which were so big on a tiny dog that we thought she might be pitbull.  Full grown, she was all Trini: so mixed you couldn't discern any but the suggestions of pedigree. Rottweiler eyebrows. German shepherd tail. A pointy face that could be some kind of terrier. And mobile ears that were out of this world. They stood up on an alert, and moved like her namesake's. So she became Yoda, with an air of being older and wiser than anyone might think.

Her first and enduring lesson was never to trust anyone shorter than three and a half feet. Her second lesson was not to trust anyone over three and a half feet. So she might let you in, but she would not let you out without a nip - ankle, heel, thigh, belly, anywhere she might reach at the last moment. She was feisty, the fiercest most loyal of our dogs. Only those who were in her immediate family could treat her. I treated her mange, her possible parvo, a fish hook that she caught in her cheek, a dislocated hip. She only ever went to the vet to be spayed.

Yoda had three litters. The father was a black Labrador-Rottweiler mix. Yoda's puppies were beautiful. In the first she had eight; in the second ten; and in the third, 13. She was a good mother. And with a little help, all her puppies survived to go to grateful owners who loved their Labrador colours: pure black, tan, or creamy yellow.

When we moved to Diego Martin, Yoda was four going on forty. Two litters were born in the ginger lilies there: her preferred nesting places. We would find the puppies by following our ears, fat squirming bundles to be gathered in a basket and locked in with Yoda for the two or three days it would take for her to settle in the nursery.

When we returned to Santa Cruz, her last litter was days old, and the most fragile. How does a smaller than average dog with ten teats feed 13. By rotation mainly. So you can imagine how hungry and how eager these were to be weaned. These all went on to other homes and their own adventures. One of these pups fell off a dresser, went into a coma for two days, shook itself as if waking up from a long sleep and as far as I know, still lives.

The son's friends were always cautious around Yoda. They liked to hear me call her for her evening meal, this high-pitched call which became one elongated syllable that would carry for miles (or so we thought when we lost her): "yodeeyodeeeeyodeeeeyodeeyodeeee yodeeyodeeyodeeeyodeeyodeeee!"

One day, a few years ago, we lost Yoda for four almost five days. We couldn't believe that she would let anyone steal her. We hunted and searched. In the middle of a rainstorm, she came out of the forest to the back gate. She was hungry. She was thirsty. She never went out the gate again. We think she must have been wandering around in the forest for days before she found her way back home. That's when we figured she might be having trouble seeing or smelling or sensing.

For all her life, she remained independent but loyal. She was never a dog to beg, for food, for petting, for space. She was patient, content to be noticed sometimes. She lost the nerve to take a nip out of a child; and spent hours asleep like an old lady. She knew no self pity. And I will always think of Yoda in the words of DH Lawrence:
"I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself."

Wise and wary, wild thing





Monday, September 29, 2014

Wedding words

Why do people cry at weddings?

The bride and her dad were crying as they began the walk towards the groom. Twenty-six steps to place her hand in the hand of the man she had chosen to be the life partner - not a small task to give away someone you have looked after for 28 years 11 months and 25 days. Would the groom with all his charm and good looks, his willingness, his earnestness ever live up to the love of a father? A father is forever a father - nothing changes that love.

And then there was the reading by the groom's sister that melted even the stoniest hearts. "Falling in love is like owning a dog," she began. The title of Taylor Mali's poem brought chuckles and smiles. Yes, love would be exactly like my dog living in London! But before "you have a leash on love" the  bridesmaid was sobbing. "Sorry," she was saying in between the verses. She says she couldn't look at her brother and his bride without a heart that overflowed.

By the time she was at "Is love good all the time? No! No! Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad. Very bad, love" there was a punctuation of sobs. Tears flowed from the guests. But no one was unhappy, or embarrassed, or self-conscious, because in the end, "love needs love, lots of it. And in return, love loves you, and never stops."
 (See full poem below *)

The bride herself was brought to tears two nights earlier when she was presented with the "welcome to family" video. It certainly was not caused by the words that describe this fortunate 30-something young man - already a year older than his father when he married! Nor the happy-go-lucky family snaps that show him as a plump and pampered baby; as a boy surrounded by cousins and playmates; as a young adventurer on vacations in strange places. So what is it that prompts the overflow of emotion, these tears of joy? 
(Copy this link to Letter to Leah: http://animoto.com/play/6BwMPTmoI3Kf3C9wKjq7zA)

There were no tears early in the week. Family and friends were arriving from everywhere. The Italian cuginos came to Tobago for three days with the groom and his friends. Others came from Barbados, from France; and the elders from right here in Trinidad. We were following the ancient custom of a great gathering at the autumn equinox to unite unrelated clans. The ancient rite would culminate in feasting and dancing, and provide comfort and celebration and a sharing of gifts before hunkering down for the long nights of winter.

And so, the wedding of Leah and Orion begins a new cycle of life. Generations of Whites, Corbins, Wong Chongs and Ganases have already been there, and no doubt, will continue to fall in love and wed …  or not. There will be challenges: sickness, success, good times and bad, fallings, failings, happiness, sadness. But if every other marriage echoes in this union; we hope that this wedding of Leah and Orion transcends the ordinary. May they find in every day, their special secret joy that can never be duplicated or obliterated.

And when tears are shed, we hope they will always be just enough to "wash away the unlovely." (borrowed from David Rudder) Or in the words of the psalm, let there be always "joy in the morning." (Psalm 30:5)
Leah and Orion: September 27, 2014



* FALLING IN LOVE IS LIKE OWNING A DOG 
by Taylor Mali

First of all, it's a big responsibility,
especially in a city like London.
So think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you're walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain't no one going to mess with you.
Because crooks and muggers think love is unpredictable.
Who knows what love could do in its own defense?

On cold winter nights, love is warm.
It lies between you and lives and breathes
and makes funny noises.
Love wakes you up all hours of the night with its needs.
It needs to be fed so it will grow and stay healthy.

Love doesn't like being left alone for long.
But come home and love is always happy to see you.
It may break a few things accidentally in its passion for life,
but you can never be mad at love for long.
Is love good all the time? No! No!
Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad! Very bad love.

Love makes messes.
Love leaves you little surprises here and there.
Love needs lots of cleaning up after.
Sometimes you just want to get love fixed.
Sometimes you want to roll up a piece of newspaper
and swat love on the nose,
not so much to cause pain,
just to let love know Don't you ever do that again!

Sometimes love just wants to go for a nice long walk.
Because love loves exercise.
It runs you around the block and leaves you panting.
It pulls you in several different directions at once,
or winds around and around you
until you're all wound up and can't move.

But love makes you meet people wherever you go.
People who have nothing in common but love
stop and talk to each other on the street.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.





Sunday, September 21, 2014

Out of China

I can only speculate on what spurred my grandfather to make the long journey and move his family from China to Trinidad. In the 1930s, what was happening in the Chinese countryside, especially port provinces like Guangdong? Were Mao's movements and "long marches" were stirring the countryside? What was the effect of Japan's incursions? How exactly did the growing turmoil affect my father's parents we can only discern from the slow revelations of historical research. But we do know that my grandfather - much as he loved his native land - made a few trips to Trinidad in the 1930s. On one of those trips he brought my father, a boy with a serious determined face, then took him back to China before bringing him back at the end of the 1930s (maybe 1938 or 1939) to stay.

Akung (grandfather) brought the three boys including my father Wong QuiOn. Then he went back to bring out Apo and the younger siblings. Apo, Daddy's mother, was a peasant. She delivered her own babies and went back to work.  But you could be peasant and illiterate but not stupid.

Not to be underestimated is her determination to keep the family together; to earn by hard work what was required to succeed in a place where she did not understand the language, had no friends, and looked at everyone across the shop counter as scamps or tricksters. Discipline was swift: a slap and a harsh Chinese command. When she came here with a baby girl, Wong Tai Yow was most likely in her early 30s; she had three more children, seven in all. Not my grandfather's only offspring, since in between the trips back to China, he had taken a Trinidadian wife with whom he also had seven children.

The late 30s and early 40s marked the end of their lives as Chinese in China. They fled the process that birthed the new China. Perhaps they knew what they were fleeing. Trinidad - a completely alien land with similarities to the landscape and climate of Canton (Guangdong) - represented the new beginning in a brave new world where their hope was not for themselves but for the children.

Paul Theroux, in his 1987 book Riding the Iron Rooster, describes Guangdong: "It was a very wet province, Guangdong, and distinctive for not looking exhausted: it was fertile, orderly and energetic, and yet everything and everyone I saw had a specific purpose, which seemed to me very tiring to the eye - nothing random or accidental." Except for the agriculture and orderliness, this might be Trinidad.

In leaving China when they did, they escaped the generation-long birthing process fathered by Mao Zedong from 1945 to 1976. At the height of Mao's reign, around 1958 - a period known as the Great Leap Forward - exhortations to produce coincided with a time of famine which resulted in privations and poverty, and spelled death for many. It is now estimated that over 45 million were sacrificed. (September 17, 2010 The Independent, Arifa Akbar)

Henry Wong Chong's line may not have perished, but family left behind would certainly have suffered. His wife, my grandmother, was always collecting things to send back to China - the printed cotton of rice and feed bags, the string that sewed the bags shut, were all carefully cleaned, collected and mailed. My grandfather was also responsible for bringing other extended cousins out of China.

As Trinidadians, we do not look back. Akung's son, my uncle Henry, now 90, was a shopkeeper, and took pleasure in hunting with his pack of dogs. He considers himself Trinidadian. Two generations later, in the comfort that Trinidad has afforded, some of us try to find the China our ancestors left behind. Paul Theroux's book offers an inkling, an insight to the country and people that were already rapidly changing in the 1980s. The yoke with which Mao harnessed the people - you were either Red Guard or worker - was being thrown off. Here is another paragraph that rings true.

"It is a great society for mending things, I thought.  There was no need for a man to be put on the occupational scrap heap simply because his arm had been chopped off. You found a way to reattach the arm, and you sent him back to work. … It was always obvious when a thing had been patched - it was a society of patches. They patched their underwear and darned their socks and cobbled their shoes. They rewrote their slogans and painted out Thoughts of Chairman Mao, and come to think of it, that was a form of patching too. But Mao had spoken repeatedly of the evils of wastefulness. … An entire section of his thoughts is entitled Building our Country Through Diligence and Frugality."

Is this why my parents never discarded anything? Fortunately we had space on the farm: for piles of glass bottles; cans; parts, tools, broken machinery that could not be thrown out because we might have a use for them later on. Is this where I got my pack rat gene from?

Paul Theroux's book is an entertaining ride by train through China, an easy journey into the past and a foreign country. One third way through, and I catch glimpses of grandparents. I am looking for a little more of myself.





Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love, anytime and anyplace

We learn love in many ways. As a child, upon the breast of the mother, cradled in sheltering arms of any adult, through what may be given or removed to keep us safe. At different ages, we learn what it is to receive love; and then what it is to give. Love fulfilled occurs when the lover and the beloved become one, aligned in outlook and purpose. You can think of this love as between two persons. In the widest context, the happy individual is in perfect harmony with his or her world.  Love and happiness are closely aligned, but not necessarily entwined.

Our understanding of love also goes through stages, phases and revelations. I think it might be a stretch of imagination for a young mind to perceive the profound beauty of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." For one thing it may be difficult to enter a book about love where the first event is a death. I am not sorry to be reading this amazing book later rather than early in life.

The infatuations of youth are familiar. The comfortableness of a suitable marriage, a well-regulated household and ordered life resonate well with couples who seek security, status and upward mobility in their lives. Everyone who has passed puberty understands the flaming passion of first kiss, the knot in the belly of sexual attraction, the yearning when apart, the thoughts and dreams of the beloved.

Later on, there emerges love that is patient, constant and - an old fashioned term - abiding.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez explores love in all its forms. The perversions of carnal encounters are also a form of love. Such fleshly distractions, friendships and interest in the world can help focus the mind to the ideal of abiding love.

Love in the time of cholera is the love that survives through a lifetime. It is constant in lives separated by careers, riches, success, and loss. It lives under a flag of its own, against the vagaries and differences of society and norms, against the odds. And, finally, it comes to this. So beautifully and lovingly articulated: two souls together. This paragraph is the crux of the book. But as you read, there will be many other paragraphs that remind us of the nature of love.

"They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Metamorphoses in Medulla

Medulla's white box is the perfect setting for new pieces in ceramic and bronze by Bunty O'Connor from Trinidad, and Dunieski Lora Pileta from Cuba. Explorations in Bronze - which featured about ten pieces from each artist - was mounted and opened on Monday (September 8) and runs until just before midday on Saturday (September 13). It gives way to the New Media selections of the Film Festival which opens on September 16.
Explorations in Bronze, featured at Medulla September 8 to 13

The white box is a spectacular stage for these pieces. It shows to advantage artworks that sat atop  rubble and detritus of the workshops where they were made. These things of beauty have emerged from the rough surroundings of galvanize shed, the litter of electrical cables and gas cylinders cluttering the dirt floor. They are the more wondrous for the humble materials from which they were made.

Medulla is the gallery in the basement of Isabel Brash's Cocobel house on Fitt Street. The name means pith or core, and this "medulla" is appropriate for shows like Explorations in Bronze by Bunty and Dunieski. Here are two artists from opposite ends of the Caribbean; with very different backgrounds, different gender perspectives, finding the crux of the work; and more importantly the pleasing and gentle harmony of working together. Brought together by a mutual friendship with Luise Kimme - the sculptor from Germany who flowered in Tobago - Bunty and Dunieski came to this collaboration just two months ago. It felt too ambitious to Bunty. But she was persuaded by Dunieski who had the need to complete a Trinidad exhibition before returning to Cuba and a new baby.


Bat and Flower, ceramic plate, Bunty

In the beginning, ceramic plate, Bunty

Maman de l'eau, ceramic statue, Bunty
Bunty in Tobago
As August passed like a ticking crocodile, Bunty and husband Rory learned the art of bronze casting: of sculpting in wax to lose it, and pouring molten metal into plaster moulds. It was hot, dangerous, equal parts terror and tedium. The learning process involved trips to Tobago where Dunieski maintains Kimme's castle on behalf of her sole heir and sister, Ilse. It was an apprenticeship to the resourcefulness of the Cuban who was inspired by driftwood, coconuts and bamboo roots cast up on the beach; to the skill and alacrity with which he creates the moulds and casts the bronze; and to patience with oneself when you are learning something new.

Alligator, bronze, Bunty

Metamorphoses might have been the name of this exhibition. The artist in clay has fingers that feel their way to shape and substance. Fire hardens the clay and crystallises the glaze or colour.  In the fire of the bronze artist, the intermediary is wax which is sacrificed to create the plaster mould into which molten metal is poured. Who would have thought that a creative process so dramatically removed from imagination, that passes through many stages, would produce such fine textures, grand gestures as emerged in Dunieski's Bamboo Jumbie or the Spirit of the Tree.

Bat woman, bronze, Bunty

Bronze, Dunieski

Venus with pig, bronze, Dunieski


Spirit of the Tree, bronze, Dunieski
Sleeping child, bronze, Bunty

Methuselah, bronze, Bunty

Sheep on coconut, Dunieski


Bunty's Sleeping Child, Alligator and Methuselah (the ancient turtle) were first shaped in clay. They were transformed to bronze in the process that schooled the O'Connors. Dunieski is a patient teacher, as interested in the students' work as in his own. Attending to his own creations, the month seemed to pass in a kind of artist's mind block, a period of gathering made more tenuous by an impending deadline.

At the last minute, Dunieski surpassed and surprised himself. As he sat and burnished the Jumbie, three days before the exhibition, he marvels at the transformation of the bamboo root. He is amazed not by his work, but by the creature that came through him - and by how he is changed by its passing. He imagines a phalanx of Jumbies, some with arms upraised (playing mas), outstretched as if waving a flag, cradling a pan. Jumbies with wings, frozen in flight. A carnival band of Bamboo Jumbies. He is laughing. It is his birthday, a momentary respite. Then he is back in Tobago, at work in the furnace and fire. Making a metamorphosis. Transforming himself.

Bamboo Jumbie, bronze, Dunieski

Bronzes by Bunty and Dunieski

Dunieski Lora Pileta, Tobago


Recycled, recycled materials, Dunieski

Winged woman, Dunieski


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Angriest Man

The tombstone of the Angriest Man in Brooklyn, Henry Altmann, bears the dates 1951 - 2014. This film was released a couple months before the death of Robin Williams whose tombstone will also say 1951 - 2014. Looking at Williams hopping mad on the screen, even as he's supposed to be preparing to die, you know he's going to be around a long time. The 50 or so roles that he created for cinema, not to mention the television pieces, the stand up comedy will be viewed again and again. People will pick their favourites, and search out the films they haven't seen.

His face is the face of The World According to Garp (1982). Henry Irving's character was brought to life by Williams; and Garp will never be other than Williams' tragi-comic alter ego. There's always a little horror lurking behind the frivolity, look at Patch Adams. Perhaps horror is too strong, maybe it's reality lurking: growing old, falling out of love, dying.

In Angriest Man, Henry Altmann comes face to face with mortality. He's so angry that you are sure he will blow a gasket. And he does. The doctor, a replacement for his regular medic, is angry too. She (Mila Kunis) feels pushed to her limit, as a doctor, as a human being. She diagnoses the scan; and provoked by Altmann's insistence, pronounces that he has 90 minutes to live. And so for 90 minutes (running time of the movie), we see how Henry reconciles the disappointments and hurts of his life that made him angrier and angrier.

We have two more Robin Williams films to be released this year. Merry Friggin Christmas and the third   episode of Night in the Museum: Secret of the Tomb in which he plays Theodore Roosevelt. You could always go back to the classic Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come, Mrs Doubtfire, Jack, The Final Cut, The Birdcage … What a legacy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another state of independence

University after high school seemed a good idea. It was a useful way of leaving home without being kicked out. It's funny that my parents never discussed what I wanted to do - maybe I don't remember. I dreamed through life with my head in books. When I was packing eggs, cleaning windows sweeping under beds washing dishes watching tv, I would be in another world. It's hard to recollect how the real world of hanging upside down in trees, discovering the land beyond the hatchery, leading a ragamuffin band of siblings and sometimes cousins, connected with the virtual worlds that inhabited my head.

Perhaps they came together in the Poppy Club, a gang of Saturday youngsters that trailed my will. Sometimes we were two clans led by my younger sister and me. Mostly we made up plays, dressed in cast-off clothing and made up our faces with stubs of lipstick and crayons. We performed an annual Christmas pageant - complete with shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph and baby in a manger. We gave ourselves other names - Ethel, Edith, Ruby, Lil Joe - and refused to respond to our actual names, thereby making ourselves unavailable to serve the grownups. We would be off in the wild west, huddled in a covered wagon - the bunk bed surrounded with sheets - outracing Apaches.

School was a daily getaway from the feudal system of the family farm. There were so many sanctuaries here: a library, a music room, science labs, a chapel. I was conditioned to the comfort provided by structure, order, discipline, the freedom of walls. I loved literature, language, math, and a special session called "speech" in which we pretended to be television interviewers and interviewees guided by a woman called Jennifer Mitchell (later Als). The only bane in the walled kingdom was PE. I hated the "knickers" because mine were "bloomers" way too wide and made the short flared skirt stick out like a cancan. I could have been fast but didn't see the sense in running. No one helped make the connection between parallel bars or the horse and the trees I climbed. I dreaded the regimen of exercises in the hot sun; and once fainted on the field and had to be carried bodily to Matron.

BAHS as I knew it
The combination of math, french and chemistry for A levels didn't phase the administrators at the end of the sixties but was a dilemma for me. Where would I fit in? The path of least resistance led back to the conventional math physics chemistry stream; which was still less popular than math chemistry zoology. My younger sister knew she would be an artist; and pursued it with passion and vigour all her life. Me, I was a sponge soaking up everything. In my head I didn't struggle with what I thought I should be: mathematician seemed good enough; it wasn't physicist or chemist or teacher or lawyer or farmer or wife or mother. My dedication was to something called Wall News - a weekly newspaper posted on bulletin boards; my favourite features were the "getting to know you" interviews with teachers who were after all our first heroes.

How does a child of working class parents get to want to go to university? I drifted into teaching - a natural apprenticeship - at my high school. Math and beginning science, classes shared with my best friend who was a brilliant teacher. I remember hopeful upturned faces and wondering what I could tell them to turn them on. Another four years later, I was trying to turn young minds on to Shakespeare and literature, but I don't think I was "born to teach."

But university? Barely considered. My principal at BAHS turned the light on. While the others in my class were busy heading out to UWI, both St Augustine and Jamaica, and even further afield, I was looking wistfully at Canada, still not knowing what I was going to dedicate a few years of study to. The USIS (US Information Service) had sent an application to a small girls university in Virginia. The Dean of Hollins had spent a year in Trinidad on a Fulbright scholarship. He was so impressed with our multi-culturalism that he invited a Trini girl to take up a full scholarship every year he remained dean. Six - was it seven? - of us in five successive years filled beds that may otherwise have remained empty; each of us for three or four years each. All we had to do was keep our grades up - in any field.

Stephanie Shurland, principal at BAHS

Prefects at BAHS in 1969
In the turbulent times of the war in Viet Nam, the civil rights movement and riots across the USA, Trinidadians - together with some Jamaicans, Curacaons, and a smattering of middle eastern, Chinese, Indians - coalesced an example of racial harmony in a tiny university on Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway. And that's a completely other story.






Sunday, August 24, 2014

Central home of the artist


The rolling hills of Chickland in the Central Range look towards the Northern Range, here shrouded in rain cloud
The pink house in Chickland has been standing for 175 years. It has grown more beautiful with careful renovations and regular maintenance by its most recent owners.  Built of "a single cedar tree" by a Chinese shopkeeper who did business on the Chickland Caparo main road, the original house on stilts was a classic of the style that British colonials were spawning everywhere in the tropics. The high ceiling beneath the gabled roof of "galvanize" (galvanised corrugated metal) created a well-ventilated living space.
The pink house in Chickland

Windows and doors open all around. We would do well to be inspired by this simplicity today: the open centre, windows on all sides, demerara, jalousie, fretwork. As the eyes are windows to the soul, so are windows the eyes of a house. Every window in this house opens to a view - picture windows all!

Demerara windows on the west

Every window frames a picture!



Two decades after it was built, the house and its estate Les Lilas (the lilacs were probably a reference to the petrea trees that were once plentiful in the area) were acquired by Frenchman Charles Melizan in the expansion of Santa Isabel, producing cocoa and coffee. A hundred years later, the house and a few acres including the pottery set up by Charles Melizan's grandson were acquired by Rory and Bunty O'Connor for their Ajoupa Pottery.

Show room, dining room, living: the public space downstairs


The door as window, framed by Bunty's art!

Art in the garden pond

As the business at Ajoupa flourished, so did the house. The ground floor was enclosed. The showroom doubled as dining and living room with a convenient kitchen and home office. Within 20 years, the factory was closed. "Who can make a pot to compete with the Chinese?" Bunty lamented the tide of globalization, and turned her attention to making art. Mosaics are installed in homes. Explorations in raku proceed with classes of willing students. Sculptural and pictorial ceramics emerge. This led to the construction of the new studio built on the same principles that evolved the pink house: an open space, steeply gabled galvanize roof, views all around, a work in progress.

Front

Back
Upstairs back porch

Private space: gallery of her own and  friends' art



The pink house in Chickland sits amid graceful gardens where towering natives and fruits define the spaces for clumps of heliconia, bursts of colour everywhere. It is a heritage house for the rolling hills of the Central range, for the age already past, where life in the tropics was lived largely outdoors with wind and rain and big trees. The pink house and Ajoupa Gardens are both backdrop and creation of the artist in her native land, a lovely legacy for all Trinidadians.

Sculpture in the sun

Earth goddess

Earth pot

Mother Earth


The new studio is not the first building designed and built by Rory O'Connor


Trees are silent loyal companions in the garden of the pink house