Post 346.

Finance Minister Imbert caught my attention at the words “gender issues” in the 2020 Budget Speech.

Over the last three years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI has been amplifying the women’s movement’s call for gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). We’ve been collaborating with state agencies, and hoped that the Ministry of Finance would step up to lead this process. Leading from the top is absolutely essential for nothing happens in fiscal policy-making, good idea or not, unless the Finance Minister says so.

So, Mr. Imbert got me excited. Thus far, he didn’t seem to understand gender or its relevance to budgeting, throwing responsibility over to Planning, and making fiscal decisions about cuts to tertiary education or spending on construction as if these wouldn’t differently affect women and men’s access to income and opportunity, or at least as if he didn’t care to know what their impact was.

A turn to gender responsive budgeting could put Trinidad and Tobago on the map with countries such as India, Austria, Canada, and the Ukraine. I was almost ready to congratulate the Minister as much as he congratulates himself.

Alas, not a word about GRB.

Rather, what followed in the speech is a good example of superficial take up of “gender issues”, which reduces gender to women and women to welfare, and provokes both backlash to feminism and misrecognition of valid women’s needs.

Following his speech, commentators felt compelled to champion the fact that “single fathers” and men need access to daycare facilities too. Implicit in this is the assumption that men need champions of “men’s rights” the way that the women’s movement appears to have successfully fought for recognition of women’s issues. Implicit in the public emphasis on exclusion of men’s issues is the assumption that the vast range of women’s issues were wholly solved in two meagre proposals.

In contrast, the fact is that Caribbean feminists have always argued that safe and affordable daycare facilities need to be available for poor families and “single” parents. They have also, always, followed data on experience on the ground when making recommendations regarding the different needs of girls, boys, women and men.

If you jump up clutching straws without knowing this, however, you’ll get headlines for appearing to right a wrong against men, rather than wrongful take up of what the women’s movement has instead been advocating all along.

It’s so ironic, even the invisibility of women’s issues and advocacy remains invisible. The role of male allies in highlighting this – rather than a separatist male-centred politics – remains as urgent and necessary as ever.

However, hastiness to give primacy to “discrimination” against men means that the much sought after “male voice” is unlikely to use his widening platform as an opportunity to insist on solidarity with and greater visibility for women’s historical call to count and value the work of raising families, to support low-income homes with accessible day cares and after-school centres, to think about the economy in terms of work-family balance, and to find solutions that encourage men and women to more equally share the labour of family and community care.

“Single mothers” carry an unequal burden of time, care, educational, emotional and financial responsibility for children, and are the poorest and most vulnerable category of families in the region. Providing free or affordable daycare would profoundly impact their lives by enabling them to earn a living or pursue additional education knowing that their children are safe. It would profoundly protect children too, as children’s risk to child sexual abuse and neglect is made worse by being left in the wrong hands when better options are unavailable.

However, such day care should be available to all low-income families. Low-income couples may also need such support, particularly if they have elderly or ill parents they are also looking after. Even poor women in partnerships may stay home with their children, partly because child care is so risky and unaffordable, ultimately undermining their own earning power in the future. Fathers with primary responsibility also face challenges to their ability to work while securing reliable child-care.

This has been the women’s movement’s position all along. Men may feel they are excluded in the budget, but the reality is that women’s issues have never received sufficient recognition in state policy and budgets and still do not today. A gender responsive budgeting approach would solve this problem and build solidarity. Truth is, when it came to gender, disappointment soon replaced excitement as I listened to the Finance Minister’s budget speech.

 

 

 

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Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.

 

Post 344.

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.

 

Post 343.

Our current problems, from last week’s heatwave to this week’s flooding, are created by us – globally, regionally and nationally. Hurricanes and flooding are natural processes in our part of the hemisphere. Even with the expected increase in storms, it is poor land planning and development which really put us at risk.

The solution to this is public vigilance. We must pull ourselves together to insist on the information and power needed for our new reality. Citizens have to start developing an expertise on their watershed: where the rivers flow, how to prevent garbage clogging them, what settlements are planned, what inequalities exist, and how to reduce neighbourhood footprint. It’s like every community and local government needs an environmental impact assessment to operate from a plan.

I think of how no one cared when the mangroves were razed for Movietowne, but when the ocean washes over it all, we will act surprised. Or maybe, we can wake up and insist on changing what we can now.

I think of when activists stage sit-ins in the EMA to get social and environmental impact analyses, and people call them crazy. Every one of us should be insisting on those analyses for housing settlements and highways, for when the impacts hit us, does it help to hold our heads and bawl?

The area by Grand Bazaar flooded exactly as expected. If the engineers knew this, why didn’t we? Greenvale was always going to flood. Town and Country planners told the PM so when he was Minister of Housing, and he went ahead because regulatory agencies and people’s lives be damned.

There’s a reason why people used to build their houses on stilts through the Caroni plains. This should have been insisted on for all housing developments, and would have spared ordinary, hard-working people endless loss. It should be insisted on now.

The loss from floods is only part natural disaster, the other part is wholly man-made. It’s convenient when we can cut whichever hillside we want or fill in whatever watercourse or throw away a stove in the river or build our house where and however we choose. It’s agony when our folly comes back to us. We are being told to pay attention. Take responsibility.

Forget whether the Prime Minister wades through water in his boots, it’s not the political leadership we should be looking to for empathy and compensation. Rowley or whoever replaces him is irrelevant. Instead, we have to take ownership of the institutions and regulations meant to protect us.

We’ve been inattentive for too long because we can’t be bothered with rules or stopping corruption when it’s our friends or mobilizing across race and party. Institutions that tell us what we can and can’t do to land and watercourses are treated as an inconvenience to be ignored.

While the terrible devastation of people’s homes, cars and livelihoods grabs headlines and hearts, we have to use this moment to demand a different kind of news and public life even after rainy, and hurricane, season passes.

In her Tedx speech last year, Greta Thunberg makes the point that, though the climate is in crisis, we hardly hear anything about it in the press and from political and economic leaders.

If it mattered, if it was understood to be a war against all living species, our countries and our children, from a global economy driven by consumption, growth and fossil extraction, the solutions would dominate all our news.

They would dominate every political platform in every election with parties competing to convince voters they have the most commitment to the best plan for both preventing and addressing climate-related disasters. Will that happen? Only if we demand it.

What we need is a news cycle that doesn’t focus on the crisis, but on prevention and protection, making them the most important story of our time. Citizen oversight of land use planning, new housing specifications, the start of national recycling collection, a near ban on plastic or insistence on the polluter pays principle for importers and producers, a demand for clean, drinkable water as a public right, replanting of mangroves, and more. Our public institutions should be flooded by citizens wanting oversight and say over the plans and the books.

All of this is possible, making the man-made part of our crises preventable. If hope is what we think we need to weather this new normal, Thunberg says, “The one thing we need more than hope is action…once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

Post 342.

It seems an ability to identify true love will best protect women from murder. It doesn’t matter that women don’t smother or chop themselves, and that the only one responsible for their death, as a result of partner violence, is the man himself.

His responsibility for his own actions is irrelevant. It appears nowhere in the story. We focus on Mary the battered woman, and conversation becomes about her, her choices and her mistakes. In this case, her failure at one thing at which women should be best, which is love.

As Jackson Katz outlines, John kills Mary gets represented as Mary was killed by John. Mary becomes the subject and poor John becomes a passive character with no power who was merely responding to Mary’s provocation or trying to restore a lost sense of order and control or couldn’t help himself when he felt sad and angry or was the victim of Mary’s disrespect when she exercised her right to find a better man.

Then, it simply becomes Mary was killed (because of some mysterious sequence of events for which she holds responsibility). John as the problem, along with the other Johns who cause so much harm and fear that thousands of protection orders are sought each year, becomes invisible entirely. So do the social beliefs and state failures that produce them in the first place. Finally, in the public eye, Mary becomes remembered as an abused woman who got and kept herself in this situation when she should have known better.

John, who killed Mary, escapes analysis and blame. Did he have a history of violence? He did stop her or promise to change when she tried to leave? Did he refuse advice and help? Did he stalk and harass? Did he coldly choose violence and homicide when he didn’t get his way? Why did John feel any right to so dominate another person? Did he also dominate other men or was this a sense of power he only wanted to wield over women?

Shouldn’t John have avoided getting into a relationship or left when he became violent, knowing he was putting a woman and mother he supposedly loved at risk? John chose to show his ultimate control over Mary by killing her. Is it considered a right of manhood to kill those women who men cannot control? These and other questions about domination and violence, and even masculinity, require critical spotlight on John.

Yet, public talk about women’s murder misses this mark. On Monday, an Express piece titled, “Where is Susan’s killer?’, interviewed Susan Ramphal’s brother. He described his sister, mother of a seven-year-old girl at the time of her death, as “unable to identify true love”. Ramphal was being compared to Neisha Cyleane Sanker.

Neisha Sankar, only 20 years old when she had her son, had been preyed on as a teenager by a violent man fifteen years older who became her husband and killer. The Express story on Neisha Sankar, on September 6, 2019, had drawn the quote and headline from her eulogy: “She couldn’t identify true love”. Also drawing from the eulogy, Guardian’s headline added, “Let Cyleane’s life be a lesson”.

A lesson to whom? To Mary or to John? Should some men exercise greater care and responsibility in their relationships? Should all men collectively change the masculine ideals that produce such deaths worldwide? Whose choices and behavior are meant to improve? Our daughters or controlling men? Is the lesson that men are violent, and like the National Security Minister laments, there is nothing we can do?

In a third story, the Express headline, “Fatal Love”, documented the Florida killing of twenty-year-old Kiara Alleyne, mother of a one-year-old girl, at the hands of her partner and baby’s father. She too was trying to leave. Was it Mary’s love that was fatal? Or was it John’s? And, if it was ultimately John’s, is such homicidal behaviour really love at all?

From the press to the Prime Minister who infamously said, “I am not in your bed­room, I am not in your choice of men“, we must stop blaming both women and love for men’s murder of women.

Women die for loving, for standing up for themselves, for staying, for leaving, and for just being. One out of five women in Trinidad and Tobago report one experience of non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Ironically, this is predominantly male violence from men they didn’t even choose.

Make John visible and accountable when women’s murder makes news.

 

Post 341.

The impact of devastation in the Bahamas gets more disturbing as the days wear on. I’ve moved from fear for our Caribbean neighbours while watching the storm crawl over the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama to horror and sadness at what’s left of people’s lives.

Hope lies in all the immediate assistance with supplies for survival, but reading back to Dominica, Barbuda and Puerto Rico suggests that recovery will take far longer than our attention may sustain.

This is one of the challenges of disaster recovery, despite road maps for long-term response. All the Caribbean countries decimated by hurricanes in the past three years have families who remain living under tarpaulin, areas with long-term loss of electricity, risks from water contamination, and aid dependence. Grenada recovered from Ivan in 2004, but sits in the Caribbean Sea just as vulnerable as it was then.

Whole economies are reduced to zero GDP virtually overnight. New lives are made on loss more endured than overcome, particularly for those unable to migrate. And, Caribbean nations are falling under unimaginably catastrophic storms one by one.

Even resilience systems may not sufficiently help in the face of unprecedented storm surges that do worse damage than category 5 winds. In some countries, there may be too few safe places for everyone to shelter, and even if more people survive because of better information, structural construction, evacuation and preparedness, where would they go when their homes and communities are destroyed?

At a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, the viability of the region is questionable. The region will become increasingly unlivable, and more ungovernable as suffering fuels insecurity and crime.

This is partly what happened in Venezuela which experienced huge declines in rainfall which starved hydroelectric power generators, leading to industry and agriculture collapse, blackouts, malnutrition, insecurity and exodus by millions.

On the other hand, in our lifetimes, we can expect heavy rainfall in Trinidad to flood everything between the Northern and Central Ranges.

In the Caribbean, there are already increases in air and water temperatures, daily intensity of rainfall, droughts, hurricanes and rising sea levels. All are expected to become more severe with hurricane wind speeds alone projected to increase by 2-11 per cent and mean sea level rise projected to be up by 1.4 metres (Taylor and Clarke et al. 2018).

We will pass an increase of 1.5 degrees given that no world patterns of consuming fossil fuels and producing carbon dioxide have changed. TT, Guyana and Suriname’s dependence on oil and gas contributes to such projected demise.

After these hurricanes, we’ve scrambled to share immediate relief. Longer term, activists have been pushing for a better response to climate change’s distinct harms to women and children, the disabled, elderly and migrants, but there will be a time when some of our region’s islands will simply produce refugees. What is our plan for this reality?

It’s more than investing in micro-electric grids, home-based water filtration systems and resilient homes. There isn’t a single serious plan across the anglophone region for the kind of projected conditions that Bahamian Angelique Nixon, in Guyana’s Stabroek News, rightly calls “apocalypse now”: a terror which we hope will just pass us by at this time every year.

TT’s Vision 2030 reads like a fairytale, almost a pretence that none of this matters for housing settlements, agricultural planning, mangrove protection, carbon neutrality or governance. Looking for a realistic strategy regarding climate change across Caricom is just as worrying as the destruction of Dominica, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, and to a lesser extent Cuba and Jamaica, becomes heart-breaking.

Nonetheless, for immediate assistance, Angelique Nixon is co-ordinating “a Relief Drive for The Bahamas supporting three women-led grassroots organisations on the ground – Lend A Hand Bahamas (https://www.lendahandbahamas.org/ & Facebook #lendahand242), Equality Bahamas (Facebook @equality242), and Human Rights Bahamas (Facebook @gbhra242).

“The core organisers here in Trinidad are UWI Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, and the Emancipation Support Committee TT.

“Please donate relief items, such as adult and baby hygiene products, including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, female sanitary items, adult and baby diapers, women’s underwear, baby formula and food, cleansing wipes, and non-perishable foods, which can be dropped off at any of those organisations’ headquarters.” Contact her via Whatsapp at 868-732-3543.

Long-term, however, think of supporting schools with books and supplies in a year’s time when recovery is less on media’s radar, and by strengthening Caribbean outrage and action against this predicted future.

Post 340.

There is an evening occurrence along the road which rushes through the Chagaramas peninsula. It is fragile and fleeting, yet marvelous and priceless to observe. I would put money that none who have acquired low-cost leases and are busily privatizing the coast have a clue of its existence.

If I was the gambling sort, I’d bet even more money that no minister responsible for that precious area has ever stopped at the side of the road as dusk fell and witnessed the natural habitat of species come to life, at the same time seeing how little we notice or care about its easy peril.

What is the species? Bats. What is so marvelous? There’s are special parts of the hillside and unique trees that thousands of bats fly out from when daylight begins to darken. You can stand just across the road from them, directly in their path, and feel the wind rush from their wings again and again as thousands emerge into the night, surging skyward just feet from you.

You can hear them as they sweep past your body, barely missing you as they come, maneuvering trucks thundering by. It’s genuinely euphoric to stand there, awed by life as you barely considered it, like discovering real gold in the midst of everyone obsessing about carnivalesque tin foil.

Bats. So what, right? Most people are afraid of them and feel that such fear justifies getting rid of them for something better, preferably in concrete, without too much bush, but plenty bright lights and heart-arresting amplification, even in what should be a protected, dark and quiet corner of our national ecosystem.

For me, the prized parts of our nation, the aspects I feel most patriotic toward, have nothing to do with wearing red or waving a flag or terrifying domestic and foreign animals with fireworks. For me, it often comes down to searching out those unimaginable experiences that rely on a delicate and easily-lost combination of our own history and nature.

Independence isn’t about becoming an owner of the place, it’s about a sense of responsibility for all its cultural and biological diversity. It’s about humility toward all its inhabitants, for they have just as much claim to God as to legal protection.

There’s a way that the privatization of this coast, which dismisses the spirit of the 1974 Chagaramas Development Plan, feels shallow and greedy. There’s a way that focusing your eye on a nice piece of property to lease makes me wonder if you’ve ever wandered through this ecosystem, and understand anything of its interconnections. It makes me wonder if you’ve ever seen a pink-toed tarantula sitting quietly like rare diamond or if you’ve thought about the wild caiman that used to live at the mouth of the river before it was bridged up and gentrified.

That same caiman may have surprised bathers at William’s Bay, venturing there as its ancestors might have for generations, before finding itself now imprisoned in the zoo, no longer free. Crouching in the bush, I watched it with Ziya when she was four, warning her she would be one of the few children in the country to ever witness this species, this very caiman, at that bank of the river, at home in its habitat. Now, no more.

This is what I mean by precious and fleeting. Future construction will lead to those trees, which are home and pathway to so many thousands of bats, being cut down, and that very magical spot disappearing before we even bother to recognise its value. We cannot bring back animals, birds and insects when we destroy their traditions, families and spaces, and we often haven’t thought about their relationships to other species, including ourselves.

As I stood at one spot, grateful to see those places where our immense biodiversity still takes one’s breath away, I knew that anyone who witnessed this would appreciate the whole social-economy around our environment – which we are killing rather than conserving. Here I was, in Chagaramas, experiencing its greatest public wealth, for free. How clear, under brightening stars, that investment which prioritizes what is man-made is sheer folly and conceit.

This wonderous few feet of valley, with hills on both sides, is a tunnel from the past to the future. What CDA thinks of as development will soon leave it destroyed and gone, despite the centuries it took to form.  Before that happens, Zi will again go with me to learn what it means to treasure and, perhaps, mourn.