August 2012


Post 68.

As a mother of a half-African baby girl, each day I discover how little I know about black hair. Take for instance the question of combing. My position is, if Ziya’s hair is combed, if it isn’t, no biggie. She’s not yet two, she doesn’t care and I am happy to postpone her having to bow to the tyranny of rules regarding respectable hair for as long as I can. She’s a girl, she’s going to be (self)conscious of her hair for the rest of her life, does it matter if she isn’t now? If her hair matters to other people, and worse is a judgement on me, that’s their business and their bias. Who have hair on their head, let them busy themselves combing it.

However, clearly, I’m on my own in this point of view.

Stone is the complete opposite of me. It’s like ethnicity has caused us to exchange gender roles. He’s always keen to make sure that Ziya’s hair is combed, and therefore often combs it himself. He claims that combing it keeps it from being “hard”. I have no idea what that means. He is sometimes a little freaked out if people come over and Ziya’s hair looks like a cross between Einstein and Don King. Like a Chia pet, she’s got a massive Afro full of whirly bits, straight bits and bits about to locks. I think it looks wild and free. Stone thinks it looks wild and messy. He thinks it’s important that she learn to sit quietly and comb her hair because neat hair is important. Perhaps, for him, it’s how she learns about self-presentation, discipline and respectability. I don’t so much care. In time, rightly or wrongly, the entire moral universe will impose itself on her anyway.

I’ve realised over time and conversation that the different approaches in our house stem directly from our different hair. I get how nice neat hair looks and I like when Ziya looks freshly bathed and combed just as much as everyone else who cares for her, including her Indian grandmother and babysitter who are constantly twirling and pig-tailing her curls. Yet, it doesn’t occur to me to see her hair as a statement of how she will be received by the world. Stone tells me I want the kids in school (note, she is not yet in school) to call her “Mad Head”. Stone’s mom tells me she is glad Ziya won’t have “late for school hair”, another concept I’ve only recently met. The Afro-Trinidadian women in my office tell me that hair is important, having combed hair is important and that this is something black girls learn early, because of the general disparagement of things African and the overwhelming pressure to bleach, straighten, press or cover natural black hair. Having to present as acceptable, decent and civilised is a given because its alternative is to fall to a racist stereotype.

I think natural African hair is beautiful and I admire my sistren whose ital looks or locks powerfully normalise something that should be unquestioned. Yet, learning for the first time about the messages Ziya is receiving as she is also learning them makes me understand how different my own socialisation has been and how growing up as an Indian girl freed me from concerns my sistren had to confront. More and more I realise, not just intellectually or politically, but as a mother making daily decisions regarding her girl’s sacred self, the significance of the associations that straight hair has to softness and being untangled, to beauty and being free-flowing, to acceptance and being good. More and more, the pejorative words applied to black hair that would never be applied to mine strike close to home. Stone and I are only beginning to sort out why he is aware, even as a man, of aspects of Ziya’s hair that I don’t even notice. We are both becoming more conscious about ideas we carry unconsciously. Looking at Ziya, I wonder what she will decide matters for her as she lives and challenges a reality with which neither Stone nor I have ever had to entirely identify. All we can do as two people completely different from her, is give and teach her the whole-hearted acceptance that she will one day need.

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Post 67. 

Pretty.

I have an uncomfortable, unresolved relationship to the word and the idea. On the one hand, it’s one of the words that I never want Ziya to have to live up to, or use to compare herself to others, or wield against herself as she looks into her own eyes but through another’s gaze. I tell her she’s beautiful so that she grows to see her light, and comes to recognise her unique glow as it shines through, a glow she can only apprehend and appreciate if she learns to love herself regardless of the imperfections she sees in the face, hair, limbs and body that are hers. That’s why, in addition to telling her she is beautiful, I also tell her she is powerful, strong, smart and brave.   

Yet, I participate in entrapping her still. I’ll point out that her outfit is pretty or her combed curls are pretty. I tell her she is pretty and, in so doing, teach her to identify with the word. ‘Who is so, so pretty?’ I’ll ask. ‘Ziya’, she’ll say, beaming, while I wonder if there is another way. I build this connection between being pretty and being Ziya to protect her. Like so many of us, she will spend years of her life unhappy with some part of her physical self, self-conscious about her attractiveness, desiring the validation it brings. She is growing into a young woman in a world where her dougla hair, her sapodilla skin, her tiny frame, her more African than Indian nose and her more Indian than African bottom will all mark points where she doesn’t measure up to a standard, or a series of standards, which she will have more power to apply to herself than define.  I want her to know that whatever ‘they’ think is pretty means nothing.

You are pretty. That word means you. I want you to know you are nothing less, before you even come to know what others have made the word mean.

I want her to know she is beautiful, but I also want her to know, that moment when it matters, that she is pretty regardless of what they say in magazines, billboards, commercials, music videos and more. So, I find myself at odds with my own beliefs. I find myself teaching Ziya a gender socialisation that I don’t believe in because I don’t want the world to determine all the meanings available to her. I don’t see why she has to wear dresses or learn to be feminine or care about her hairstyle and shoes, but I also want to teach her how the world works so that she can understands how it tries to take her power and how she can resist.  

In a world where every woman struggles to not feel ugly at some time or in some way, I want Zi to have the entire arsenal she needs to survive, self-confidence intact through her most self-conscious years. Some of the weapons I give her are dangerous, even to herself, but I guess I’m afraid of not giving them to her anyway. I think about pretty this way, on the one hand an idea to avoid and, on the other, one to conquer. And wonder if I am helping or hurting my little warrior, adding to her vulnerability or adding to her victories, when her fight finally starts in the mirror, as it will one day.

 

Post 67.

A woman I knew, a mother of three young boys, died of cancer three weeks ago. Tonight another woman, an activist and mother was also taken by cancer. Both were so full of life that whenever I think of them, all I see are two different, but equivalently glowing, smiles. I didn’t use to think about death as I do now. With typical, youthful sense of invincibility, I thought that death was simply the shedding of one physical shell for another unknown form of energy. I glibly thought, well if it happened, my goal would be to say that I lived a full life.

Of course, all that changed when I had Ziya. Now, all death meant was not seeing her grow or being there to help nuture her along the way. Now, I wanted to live as long as I could to witness her life-story unfold. I changed lot of things about my life. I drove my car more carefully on the roads and was glad to avoid the highways. I thought more seriously about my health and paid attention to health insurance. I developed intermittent, low level anxiety about earthquakes and bandits, and whether I’d be able to save her from whatever dangers appeared beyond my control. When work got stressful, I tried to remember that stress makes you ill and so few things are worth the power we allow them to have over our emotions. The most important thing in the world is that Ziya is all right and I am there to see to it that she is.

For her to be well, and to be her best, I’d need to be there with her and be happy, healthy and my own best too. Death became feared, the thought of abandoning my girl to the world became almost my worst nightmare. Now I suffered, as the Buddhists say, from attachment to life and its possible loss. I had to process that this too was a part of, perhaps even just an early phase of, getting used to being a mother and experiencing love more forceful than I had ever before known.

Such worry seems melodramatic in the harsh light of day, but my instinct says I’m not the only one. Forget instinct, I’ve known too many women who are cancer survivors, or not. All I know is that my friends’ death reminded of why I worry, even if it’s completely unproductive and unnecessary. At the same time, their passing reaffirmed the value of thinking of and living for the present as well as being present whole-heartedly and consciously for Zi.

Overcome by both appreciation for the women gone and appreciation for life left in me, I broke a few bed-time rules tonight. Usually I put Ziya to bed in her crib even if she desperately pleads to go to sleep in our bed. And, she’s on her own by 9pm, even if there are a few minutes of crying. Tonight, when she stood up in the crib and said she wasn’t sleepy, I took her out and rocked her in my arms, singing, studying her face in the dark, feeling her warm, soft, pudgy and heavy, and waiting patiently until her eyes began to glaze and then softly close. Time didn’t matter. Only this moment existed. Everything was here. All I could think of was how easy it is to be unaware of life and to let precious moments slip by as we concentrate on chores or complaints, TV or simply tomorrow.

My sistren are gone, I mourn for their children and for the others whose lives they would have touched, but I feel more alive than ever before as I think of them now and the lesson they left for me. I have only right now to squeeze every drop of every day every time I can, and I am going to do so unapologetically. We don’t need fancy cars, brand name shoes or even smart phones, all that matters is life, love, health and family.

To you two, powerful women and workers and world-changers and mothers, you remain full of life in my memory and for that I thank you. May you, beautiful souls who have finally surrendered breath, rest in peace.

Post 66.

Every morning, I drive from Santa Cruz, along the Eastern Main Road, to work at the UWI. Every evening, I return home by the same route. My baby girl Ziya, so acutely observant, sits in the backseat gazing out of the window absorbing it all, her mind working faster than the speed limit. Along the way, I point out the colours of the traffic lights, and letters and numbers on signs, so that she could learn from and become observant of the world around her.

Daily, I drive by billboards that in large print tell her, “It’s a man’s world, you wouldn’t understand”, even now, when people think that women have everything they could ask for. We pass multiple such signs, like a looped soundtrack, telling this little human that she is not equal in power or status, that her equal claim to the world will be shouted down from billboards, that she will have to fight simply to not be made invisible or positioned below others just because she was born female. What does it mean when the landscape you live in assures you that this world is not yours, and not an adult in sight cares enough to go and tear down a message as full of violence and disdain as my tiny blossom is full of promise.

Despite Stag’s view of her, my girl is not dumb and mindless, and when she understands exactly what that sign means, what reasons will find for the fate of living in a world denied to her before she can claim it? Will she decide this is right and give in like a slave whose spirit has been broken? Will she decide this is wrong and live with anger at the casual brutality scattered everywhere, continuously aiming to cut her down? Will she, more responsibly than me, stop her car one day and call on anyone anywhere with a conscience, a sense of outrage at gratuitous injustice, or even a boy or girl child who deserves a world better than this, to tear down these billboards, just as citizens who decide they deserve better tear down the statues of dictators and walls that divide us against each other for generations?

Daily, I feel sick that the men and women at Carib Brewery put their minds and their money to so deliberately put down capable, hardworking and flourishing women and girls who only ask for an equal chance to aspire and achieve. Daily, I turn the blame inward, against myself, for trying to get us home amidst the afternoon traffic, like everyone else, rather than destroying those signs however I can because my baby girl deserves more than these people with power will allow her. Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits.

Daily, this is the Trinidad my girl is witness to. Daily, I stop myself from stopping the car as any mother with a girl child and a conscience, and the will to stop those billboards from beating her down, should do. Mothers, fathers, am I alone? Will you help me? Please say yes because Ziya and I need you.

Post 65.

A number of years ago, I hiked through the North coast under about forty-five minutes of downpour. It was overwhelming. Like the forest, thumping its chest, hollered, “You want rainforest, take rainforest in yuh pueffin! I is rainforest all yuh walking through!”

Well yes. My sister was with me, two friends and their family and no one complained. That rain was intense. My glasses were so wet, sometimes I felt I was swimming in a pool, but it was also powerful and earthly – and cleansing.

On the weekend, Ziya went splashing in Maracas in pouring rain. I thought to myself that it would surely make her tougher in years to come. I could imagine her hiking in the forest in similar downpour, and being totally blasé, more man in calf-deep mud than man-self, ready to bring on the baptism.

Maracas is far from clean like Paria streams, but the elements of earth, wind and water were all there when we arrived, like all the goddesses, Ganga, Gaia, Durga, Oya, Yemaja and more, had started to shake and shout. Between the rain and the ocean, there was an unbelievable amount of water, the atmosphere, from the depths of the sea through the rain and into cumulonimbus miles-high, was thick with condensation, despite intermittent blue skies. Under swollen grey cloud, Zi propelled herself into the ocean like a baby turtle running for safety from the government, without a thought to the wind whipping the waves in all directions.

The first time I had overseen such a soaking, my sister was just a teenager. Now my child wasn’t yet two. Zi didn’t complain either. In fact, until she started to shiver, she was having the best time, like champion, like most children.

So there we were. Mummy, committed to the beach on the weekend, sun or rain. Ziya getting tumbled by high-tide waves. Water and wind goddesses in abundance.

Yay for a friend who held Zi’s hands and splashed with her while I stopped the spade and bucket from rapidly ebbing away. This auntie (I now think of all my friends with “Auntie” before their name, ah have it bad) then held her while I bathed and rubbed Zi down with coconut oil, right at the side of the road, just as the rain stopped and we dried off in the sun. Lucky for me, auntie was an adventurer, up for a good time in any weather.

Of course it cleared up into a beautiful afternoon though the forecast had said tropical downpour. But the beach in the rain contains some good lessons about making the best of a down-pouring situation, experiencing the earth and its elements in all their ecological diversity, and feeling warm inside from good company regardless of how shivery the cold wind makes you feel.

I would have preferred a sunny afternoon, like the weekend before when I lay at the edge of the shore with Zi asleep and breastfeeding on top of me, warm like a basking baby seal. That wasn’t to be, but still I came home proud. Come some day in the future, Zi wil be able to say, “Ay! I know rain in Maracas! I out there since I small!”, and make style like some nature-loving bad-john for whom storm is mere sprinkle and coconut oil feels like the balm for all tempestuous conditions.

Post 64.

Temper tantrums.

Whew.

One day you have a calm, if assertive, baby, the next day tantrums rapidly roil up like a tropical storm in the Atlantic ocean. These tantrums should have a name, like how hurricanes have names. You know, yesterday Tantrum Bethel hit us out of nowhere, today we experienced Tantrum Clara and it was tumultuous. Or, alternatively, you could name tantrums like how we used to name flues. I remember being small and telling someone that I had the “Ayatollah”, I also remember having the “Rocky 5” and the “Young and Restless”. Tomorrow’s tantrum could be called the “Assad” or even “de Olympics”, because certainly gold, silver and bronze awards should be handed out to parents who champion a tantrum.

I’m still overwhelmed by the gale force of a 20 month old screaming, “Don’t want it!”, and flailing everywhere while violently kicking anything in sight. I know I had a strong willed baby, I know she’s a bit “spoilt” and I know she likes to get her way, but when did my Ziya begin to channel this baby Godzilla?

I’ve devised various strategies, which mostly involve completely ignoring her, putting her in her crib if she gets unbearable, and insisting she say “sorry”. Yesterday, Zi had to tell her dad “sorry” for kicking him and tell me “sorry” for making a mess by, of course, choosing to unravel an entire roll of toilet paper in the 30 seconds I turned my back to do some laundry. Both times, she wanted to get back out of the crib so she apologised, but she was still vex. She didn’t do it that time, because she knew freedom was contingent, but often when she gets vex she’ll go hit something like the floor or a chair or the wall, or us. In teaching her not to hit anyone, because she doesn’t need to be that one-foot tall bully at day-care, she then decides to go fling something in order to assert her defiance.

When she hits something, she actually says, “Beat!” and when she runs across the room to find something completely out of her way to throw, she’ll make an “Ah!” sound like she’s delivering some kind of karate chop meant to establish territory in the face of marauding samurai. All I can think is, let this not be a sign of teenage times to come, insha’ allah.

I guess part of the “problem” is my refusal to hit her. I mean, I can’t teach her not to hit if I hit her, right? But it means setting rules in other ways, which is one thing, and then dealing with her reaction, which is another. I’m prepared to ride out the bawling, but sometimes I get why parents shake their kids or, like “mommy dearest”, lock them in closets. You just want the screaming to stop. Anyway, whatever it takes, I’m prepared to ride out this storm without resorting to violence of my own.

Indeed, after she calmed down yesterday, Zi quietly climbed on the bed, softly asked me to sing her “baa baa black sheep” and to read her a book. We then lay down to read head to head in calm joy.

Whew.