August 2011


Post 8

Its ironic that just yesterday I was committing to a realistic sense of my capacity. Today, I’m rushing to get home from work by 7pm, watching the oncoming dark brush the clouds’ pink blush with grey, and thinking about how I wish I could have it all. Not love, money and power, but family, work and activism.

I’ve been working in feminist academia fulltime since 2005 and, in the last years, did my best to combine teaching, research and feminist movement-building. Looking back now, I’m not sure my choices were the right ones.

I gave immense energy and passion to my courses. As a demobilised activist, teaching became that space where I could do consciousness-raising, strategy-sharing and solidarity-building. When I inherited my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in 2006, I aimed to use it to build a cadre, a vanguard, an army…whatever you want to call it…women and men I could call on and work with, who would go out there, with a thorough analysis, and be part of the feminist movement. I pulled direct culture jamming into my assignments, and taught with an evangelical fervour that I wish I could still summon. I’m still friends with the amazing students from that year and remain inspired by the campus actions they chose to do. I love my students and I love teaching.

I kept up an out of office life that enabled me to feel like I was still part of Caribbean feminism, if even in a small way. I attended as many women’s events as I could, partly out of the joy of going, partly to know what was happening on the ground, and partly because these events marked a community within which I felt political comfort, affection and belonging. I loved knowing the women who, with all their brilliance and flaws, were doing what they could to right gender injustice. These women also inspired me. A desire to also ‘represent’ drove me to speak publicly, invent workshops, write poetry, make videos, paint T-shirts and other super fun stuff. Notice, the word publishing only comes in here at number 402.

Alas. Those choices don’t help me in academia, where you really gotta count your publications, because they are all that really count. And though I have some, I’m behind. In a department that has currently produced the highest number of professors in the university. Pressure.

I wonder now if I shouldn’t have been running about going to events and doing media and writing letters to the editor buffing the Prime Minister, if I should have been smarter about my career. I’d never have created my Steppin Up game nor my Ketch Dis video, but I might have had my book out and my act together.

The next couple of years are about publishing and baby Zi (so say my bosses), and I feel guilty that the movement I feel so passionate about has to take a back seat from lack of sheer time and energy. I’ve stopped going to lots of events just to come home and spend family time with Stone and Zi. I’ve made time to read in the mornings at work instead of answering even important emails. But I miss attending, supporting, learning from and being a part of organising. There is still so much about ordinary women’s lives that needs to change.

Another mentor and grandmother of Caribbean feminism, Peggy Antrobus, tells me that women have life stages, and that that is okay. Other mothers tell me expect things to slip (avalanche, I think) and only focus on what you most need to get done. Still, I feel like I should be doing better. Publishing for me is about a lot of alone time with my computer and focusing on one’s career can seem so selfish. Surely, like other women out there, I should be making more of a difference. Is there a way to have it all?

Tomorrow I’m skipping the YWCA’s workshop on sexual harassment. I’ve already composed the email with my apologies in my head. I’ll miss being out where I feel I should be. Between family and work, is there time for activism? New choices are now upon me.

Post 7

So, yesterday I didn’t sit to write an entry. I thought about it (had a ‘thunk’ about it if you are reading as much of Dr. Seuss as I am) and decided it wasn’t everyday writing that counted, but writing when I needed to and could manage it.

This is a major shift in my appreciation of my own capacity. I’m the girl who believes in ghost wings. Think of the physical sensations – itching, burning, presence, movement – that people who have lost limbs feel. Its the feeling associated with a phantom limb. I feel the same way about wings.

They are a metaphor. Having wings is like being able to fly, not just jump up and down as mere mortals can only do. It’s the equivalent to being able to do-everything-all-at-once-and-do-it-all-well-instantly, instead of being able to just do somethings sometimes and a few of those well and probably not instantly. Me. I believe I have these wings, these phantom limbs. I want to take each step like they exist.

Over the last decade, I’ve come to realise that this expectation is unrealistic. Friends raise their eyebrows at the fact that it took so long. Tells you something about my personality. Partly, it was doing a PhD that forced me to assess my true capacity rather than rely on impossible expectations to guide my plans and actions. I could only do so many things, and probably only one thing, well at a time.

During the PhD, I imagined myself in a meditation from 6pm to 6am. The goal of the meditation was to sit there, at that stop in my path, in quiet concentration from sunset to sunrise. To do anything else, go for tea with a friend at 7pm or watch an episode of Law and Order from 10pm to 11pm (till 12 if you get caught in those back-to-back episodes) or whatever, was to have to start again. One couldn’t make up the extra time after or get back to it after a break in between. There was only one meditation to do and only when it was over was it done. Everything else would have to wait. When 6am came, I could open my eyes and take the next step in any direction, knowing one can only go in one direction at a time.

This second metaphor describes how I learned focus and discipline, and that I had to make choices if I wanted to meet high standards. It’s how I came to know I’d have to make the most of each leap in the air, rather than flapping phantom wings, aiming to fly in all directions and ending in frustration and futility.

I also continue to learn the lesson of manageability from watching my mentors. Amongst the many women who have mentored me over the last decades, I’ve worked mostly closely with two amazing Trinidadian feminists, Rhoda Reddock and Pat Mohammed. I strongly believe both are super people who somehow build institutions, handle admin, teach students, participate in activism, produce reams of published work, and literally help invent a Caribbean feminist scholarship that didn’t exist before – and still have a life. I used to have no idea how they did it and I knew I couldn’t be like them.

But over time, I’ve seen when things fall through the cracks, when too much of everything takes a toll on health or human relations, when some things could have been better if fewer things were being done simultaneously and other things not at all. And, as mentors enable you to do, I want to learn from their life lessons too.

I spent most of yesterday almost single-handedly rearranging our bedroom – the one room where the whole three person family lives and sleeps. Zi is now climbing on everything and I wanted to create a space more safe for mountaineering, rolling, tumbling and beginning steps. Hours later, when I finished, there were two options. Write or sleep? I slept. This diary both gives me a welcoming space and the additional pressure of something else to do. So, I quieted my wings and waited to write today.

Post 6

I’ve never experienced someone else owning my body like this. Zi crawls over to me while playing, pulls down my top’s straps and launches her mouth, and now four teeth, toward my breasts. She twists against me, feeds, sighs, then drags herself away and crawls off.

She acts like I am killing her if I try to put her back to sleep late in the night by patting or with water instead. Gets offended and vex. Eventually, I turn over and she wraps herself around me, clamps onto my breast, beings to kick her foot in the air and hypnotically feeds. Eventually, I wake up, pry her off and try to unlock my hunched shoulder.

Having had someone survive solely off my body for more than six months, I feel a kind of awe for breasts that I did not before. You could put me out there to market for TIBS. Breast-feeding can be a burden, but it also makes you feel important, like you are doing something that makes you special to this baby. That’s also why you are the one that they want in the night. It’s a double-edged sword.

Breasts belong to you and your body, but are intimately linked to the bodily needs of another human being. In political sense, they are yours. In a biological sense, they are theirs too. Weird. Babies think your body is theirs with such full and genuine innocence that it’s easy to see yourself in their eyes. It’s not quite, but it feels like love, this unself-conscious claim on you.

Breastfeeding for what seemed to combine into about five hours was how Zi sat through three days of a regional academic feminist meeting in Jamaica. Sometimes she played with her toys on the desk. Sometimes she napped in my arms. But when she fussed, I stuck her on and she was perfection itself. Like an addict with a fresh fix. Bliss. She was with her mama and had unlimited access. Either that or she has a high tolerance for meetings and would do well as a future bureaucrat, someone said.

For working women, breastfeeding is both super easy and seriously challenging. When I was recently in London, where the hotel rooms (apparantly) don’t have mini fridges, the management refused to keep my breastmilk, in a small case I provided, in the kitchen freezer. Something about ‘leaking’ and ‘not near food’ and regulations. Seeing my tearful response, overflowing with despair and loss, the workers volunteered to take the bags of milk to their freezers at home. They did that for 5 days. On the weekend, when the manager was not on shift, they brought my little case back, kept it in the kitchen and I traveled home with seven full bags of frozen milk. And it would have been more had I not had to throw away a few over two ten-hour plane rides and at a two-day workshop where there were no provisions for breastfeeding mothers.

I had a friend who used to say that her god has breasts. Too true. Women who breastfeed multiple children, for multiple years, are everyday goddesses walking the earth. I guess now that I’m wondering how much longer I can do this, I am also pausing in a phase that makes see and appreciate my taken-for-granted body anew.

Post 5

Someone called me today, really stressed, asking me to do something for her. The situation, as far as I could tell, really wasn’t a crisis and I was able to and happy to help. The conversation cemented in my mind the importance of not getting one’s energy shaken by others and being able to keep down catastrophizing: irrationally believing something is far worse that it really is.

I’m not an anxious or easily stressed kind of person. I’m somewhat single-minded and maybe that focus helps with making decisions and not overly worrying about details. I strongly practice avoidance of drama to the point of being sometimes insensitive, and for better or worse I often lack an inner dialogue with myself. That dialogue is the source of both undermining self-doubt and important reflection. I can get paralysed by that ‘eat-first-or-bathe-first’ dilemma (no joke, I’ve spent a good three minutes on the spot in my bedroom trying to decide), so its not that I don’t understand sweating the small stuff. It’s just that I closely guard emotional steadfastness.

I really began to think about the importance of not getting swept by unnecessary anxiety after I had Zi. I was complaining about something to my colleague Tisha when she pointed out that my baby was healthy and happy, that this is what I asked for and that nothing else really mattered – and I was struck by how much she was right. I’ve been walking with that in the back of my heart ever since. I have roof, job, love, baby, friends, family – and so far we are all okay. It’s true, nothing else really matters.

My mom used to ask me questions about how I felt about stuff and I’d say ‘neither here nor there’. It was a standard reply, the kind when you don’t really want to get into whatever it is with your mother. One day she said, ‘what does neither here nor there mean?’ It means non-attachment. Most things that we make a big deal need to be shrugged off, let go, let past, dealt with and then moved on from. There are things that matter, not just family, but also the earth, justice, kindness, inclusion….but the rest, the small stuff, the things we can’t do anything about or which are already gone or which we can fix and then release…those things give you cancer, brain aneurisms and dysfunction. Me, I have to save for a mortgage and can’t afford to get ill. I don’t believe in regrets, don’t have any, don’t want any.

Neither is life perfect nor is all right with the world, but right now, I want to live in the present and to the fullest so that Zi can too. Ziya reminds me that happiness is fragile and fleeting, and yet the most deeply important thing there is. Just thinking of anything happening to her is like teetering on the edge of a vast dark chasm, and then hardly anything else seems worth the barest attention. I think its only this way that I can be the best mom, squeeze every drop from every moment, and also stay sane, functional, emotionally-healthy and able to work at my 95% best, the standard I try to live up to in everything I do.

I have aspirations and ambitions, I have love and I am practising balance.

Post 4

Why oh why does my wonderful daughter want to wake up to practice standing up, jumping on the bed, hand waving movements, chewing on my aunt’s expensive wooden bedhead, rolling over me like i’m the nearest playgym, clawing at my clothes, attacking my breasts like some starved puppy, and then falling asleep for all of 20 secs lying across my pillow 2 millimetres from my head, in a repetitive cycle from 3.30am to ALMOST DAWN????

It went from very dark to sunrise, and i even saw the bat (Boris/Betsy) who has moved into the bedroom, come in from his/her night time jaunt just before light broke. Fun.

This is in addition to being up at 11pm, then again at around 1.30am and finally at 3.30am. Why? my? child? Of course, every single other mother i speak to tells me their baby sleeps through the night: the secretary in my office, the neighbour next door, even the lady in HiLo this morning so said her 9 month old son sleeps right through the night until 9am (!) and she was just telling her mother how she could go out and fete and come home while he is still sleeping. 9am?! Fete!?

My TIBS founder/lactation consultant Marilyn says to give my girl water in the night and she will stop getting up, but when she gets up to feed, she really does feed – 2 or 3 ounces – and i wonder if she really is hungry. others say give her cereal to weigh her down so she’ll sleep but i hear that tactic doesn’t really work, plus i breastfeed in the night so…. Others say leave her to bawl it out but i’m not convinced that’s my philosophy and also we are in the same room, so the infant standing up in the crib and screaming is going to get me up anyway, right?

i got so little sleep last night that i thought i’d be unable to function at work today and wondered what i’d do on nights that this happens and i still have to go in, into the manic craziness of semester time in academia. sometimes when i look at her snuggling right up close and sleeping peacefully with her arm warm and soft on me, and knowing she’s had me up at intervals just close enough to send someone (me) mad, i don’t know what to think or feel beyond i’m just tired.

My friend Di told me to process it like this: My name is Gabrielle. I live in Trinidad. I am tired. Just to keep it real and make sure its the sane me mouthing those words.

anyway, there was no point staying home where i’d get no writing done and still have to look after Zi during the day while my husband, bless his heart, who stays up with her till 3 or 4 am a few nights a week drags himself through the day barely able to blink. As if he breastfeeds, drives to work, pumps, works manically, drives home again, breastfeeds – and then is still up in the night.

His difficult life involves strolling the 5 feet from the bedroom to the studio in his pjs, working at jingles and music stuff (?) in between watching Netflix and Madmen, feeding the dogs, filing some stuff in gmail and watching some sound editing tutorials in his air-conditioned studio heaven. He does do the grocery shopping, dishes and breakfast most days however, let me not misrepresent, but after a few hours up with the baby, my man seems to need to be checked into a spa-sleep-recovery centre, the hardcore kind for Hollywood stars suffering from ‘exhaustion’.

i on the other hand, only have four days of babysitting and need to use those days to get virtually ALL my university and academic work done. Fridays to Sundays when i have my sleepless-in-santa-cruz baby (i mean she hardly sleeps in the day and hardly sleeps in the night, i blame her dad, he’s the same way), i get nothing substantial done. plus, she, the private sphere, reproductive work and the care economy deserve at least two non-negotiated days, right?

So, anyway, here I am, on my way to work. I. must. sleep. No, sorry, what i meant to say was: must. work.

Gotta get that publishing done.

Oh love!

Click here for honey sweet lyrics, silk sheets smooth mixing, culture unbound for vows that bind and old time trini calypso about a professor and a dj.

one time only razorshop live mix session, special feminist multi-ethnic matikor, poetry and song for you to share in a little bliss…

Enjoy!

A revolution is a way of life is one of my all time favorite phrases along with there is no pure place for resistance and everthing that i do shall be upfull and right (from my student days listening to lots of early Bob).

I gave this talk at T and T’s first TEDx talk, proudly organised by UWI undergraduate students led by a deep thinking youth called Joshua Hamlet. If you want to know why there is no revolution without feminism, if you want to know why change is always possible, if you want to hail out us Caribbean folkses with the mostses as historical inspiration, then along with 20 minutes worth of popcorn, this talk is for you. Peace, justice, solidarity, love, forward ever my people!

Post 3

All lofty-ambitions-like, I had planned some profound post today. But then, and stop here if you are squeamish, I got my period.

It’s the first period I’ve had for eighteen months. I’d been feeling a bit strange over the last few days, womb-heavy and slightly wobbly, and was hoping (kind of, well mostly, well I was prepared to live with whatever) that I was not pregnant. I woke up this morning, saw the unexpected blood and, as a first time mother, got slightly confused and worried.

I called the two mamatoto mid-wives who generously continue to answer, for free, my continued calls nine months after the birth. This is why we need midwives because which doctor are you going to call at 7.50am to ask, ‘I think I got my period, but I’m not sure, what do you think?’ Of course, like most midwives, they were breezy about it. ‘It happens’, said Debbie. ‘Some women bleed even though they are breastfeeding’. ‘Yes, well, it’s been nine months ‘, said Marilyn who a week ago told me I could cut down on pumping and breastmilk during the day – and so I had. Hmmm, I thought, hoping I hadn’t been pregnant and then lost the baby moving around my entire stock of office furniture in a grand getting-ready-for-Semester-1-move that happened yesterday evening.

By mid-morning I had acclimatized and was working steadily at my newly-positioned desk, feeling like a super and simultaneously breastmilk-pumping, bleeding, paper publishing, email-replying , breezy, on midol mom. I’m technically on vacation and could have stayed home but there is that ‘you are up for tenure next year’ letter I referred to in Post 1.

This minor transition in my post-pregnancy body got me reflecting on how little I know about women’s bodies in general, even at my age, even as a feminist, even as a proud owner of my own ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ since I was fourteen (a gift from my older brother Sean). I didn’t even know that women bled while breastfeeding. I thought it kept away your period, and delayed fertility and childbirth. I knew you could get pregnant…but I didn’t know I could get a period. So basic, so obvious.

This is like when I first realized that women bled for a couple of weeks after childbirth. I was waaay into my pregnancy, probably in early second trimester, when some woman made an offhand comment about it. My jaw literally fell open. I had no idea. I thought you had the baby and then it was out and then…well, I guess I hadn’t really thought after that point. Kind of like when you are a kid and you don’t really imagine your life after, say, 28.

‘Really?’ said my husband when I told him, ‘that must suck’. For the first time since I was thirteen, I had no menstrual cycle and had gotten into the swing of taking its absence for granted. Yes, it did kinda ‘suck’. Yet, I got a little internally defensive when, before hanging up and in response to a few sticky details I had added, he perfectly innocently concluded how glad he is to not be a woman. But Eh heh!

‘Well!’ I wanted to say, ‘it’s really only a problem because there is no paid menstrual leave, no menstrual centres, no menstruating goddess worship and no elevated status attributed to this amazing moon-tidal elixir of fertility. It doesn’t suck. Patriarchy sucks! ‘.

In this vein, I had convinced some male and female students in my first year Introduction to Women’s Studies class to create a ‘Menstrual Centre’ on the UWI campus for their popular action, a culture-jamming activist assignment …gotta love teaching Women’s Studies!! 

Menstrual leave I had pointed out is a decades old workers’ right recognised in some Communist countries. In modern Indonesia, women factory workers continue to fight for two days of monthly leave: http://www.cleanclothes.org/newslist/252-labour-rights-in-indonesia-what-is-menstruation-leave.

Perhaps, women should get two days, each month, of leave with pay because female laboring, PMSing, bleeding bodies should not have to work under the same conditions as supposedly ‘normative’ non-bleeding, non-egg producing male bodies. After all, women workers are female humans. What about menstrual centres on every corner instead of rumshops? Women could go for massages, consciousness-raising and support groups, delicious and helpful smoothies, information, health care and collective organizing. First scandalized, the students countered that they should also include support groups for men, sort of like ‘Friends of Menstruating Women’. Just stuff for thought.

The students built a frame using bamboo, interviewed male students about taboos on buying pads and tampons in a store, painted posters saying ‘Man the species menstruates’(If Man refers to men and women, then it really should include women, right?), and handed out pamphlets on how wombs work and why, and natural fruit and teas that help. Many students went through the centre that day (see photo!)Students at the UWI 2009 Menstrual Centre.

Maybe if Menstrual Centres really were on every corner, I might have known more about my own body, post-birth and during-breastfeeding bleeding. Anyway, as i keep learning, even with myself, there is clearly a lot more work still to do.

Activists, poets, robber-talk lyricists, conservationists, politicians, trees, fish and everyday peeps, i created this at a moment when the T and T state was spending somewhere between TT$200 000 000 and $500 000 000 (yep, millions) on hosting CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Govt meeting…at the same time when we – that is, ALL of us, really needed to get our act together on the Copenhagen conservation and climate change commitments…nuf said.

Post 2

the thing about being a working mother is that it gives you clarity about both the challenges and the benefits. my helper, Baby, is soon going to be grandmother to the child born to her son and daughter-in-law. This young woman, only about 18 years old, not finished school and currently not working, doesn’t have any income of her own and won’t qualify for any maternity leave. her young husband doesn’t have regular work either.

she’s been getting pains atypical of a five month pregnancy. on the weekend, they were so worrisome, she went to Mount Hope, a public hospital, to seek a doctor’s care. She and baby waited nine hours to see a doctor. the doctor listened to the baby’s heartbeat, took blood from both arms, gave her an injection (Baby can’t say of what) and sent her home with a note enabling her to get an ultrasound five days later. 5 days!! I’m not convinced that they got results from the bloodwork before the injection, but at least she heard the heart beating. Still, I couldn’t wait 5 days for an ultrasound….but what if I had to?

when i was pregnant, i was putting in 10 and 11 hour days when i was in my final trimester (especially in my final trimester, but more about that in another post) and taught until 8pm the night before i went into three days of labour before giving birth, a week early, on the fourth day (more about the labour in another post too, i had the baby in the driveway because my midwives believed i wasnt in labour those three spasming days…ah what you learn in retrospect).

apparantly, you are not supposed to work up until birth (so says national insurance board) but only up to a month before. yet, like many mothers, i wanted the most time after the birth because of the short maternity leave allowed by law (only three months with full pay! MORE on this in another post). so i worked, knowing that i had access to paid maternity leave, that i would have a job upon my return and that my paycheque also allowed me to access private care and an additional two months of leave without pay.

every doctor visit cost between TT$400 and $800 depending on the doctor and the tests done. i had a visit almost every month. plus, i began to see a midwife at the birth centre mamatoto and those visits were $100 to $200, plus birth classes ($800), plus an almost $10 000 birth (despite being in the driveway). i paid for every cost myself. i was proud i could. i worked – hard – for every dollar i earned and i could look after the health of my baby because of it. at every doctor visit, i had an ultrasound, i heard my baby’s heart beating its own rhythm, i saw that heart shining like a star in her chest, i saw her body curve and move. that reassurance was priceless.

that’s why tonight, my thoughts are with Baby’s young daughter-in-law who is likely to be praying to any force in the universe to make her baby safe and healthy. that’s what i would be doing. i’d be wishing so hard, it would encompass my whole mind and being, and i’d be in deep vibrational meditation without even realising it as i went about my day. she’s probably putting her faith in that injection, impatiently wondering what the blood results will say and counting the minutes until the ultrasound…five long days away.

in these moments, a working mother appreciates…working. for the pay, the power, the peace of mind it can bring. tonight, i’m thinking of non-working mothers, those young and without a job, without a union, without benefits. those who wait nine hours on a saturday to see a doctor and get back home after 10pm, who get injections without quite knowing what they are or why, who go home with deferred questions, perhaps not even knowing what to ask. those without the independence to get private care when they need an answer, an image, an ultrasound right away.

i’ve given her my ‘expecting’ books and i’ve offered next time she gets those pains to get her to my doctor, but for all the other women in this republic and in the world, i’m wishing you and your baby are perfectly perfectly alright, even if you are still waiting to do the tests and to go home reassured from the results they bring.

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