December 2018


Post 314.

Traditions matter.

One day, those will be your go-to memories to provide a sense of certainty about how things should be and what belonging to family or childhood looks like. No doubt, nostalgia for such familiarity will occupy a small, but well-kept shelf in your heart, and some of your adult practices will be best understood as cared-for pieces you’ve taken out to feel and show and share.

Amidst the chaos of working motherhood, it was Christmas Eve when Ziya and I embarked on establishing a new tradition for us. First, we needed a tree.

I have warm, soft-focus memories of a real tree in my childhood recollections of Christmas. They are vividly clear and I can see the red carpet in the living room, the carved furniture and Indian wooden screens so common in the 1970s, and a six or seven foot tall tree in a corner by the stereo.

The tree smelled like pine and shed its darkening green needles all season. It was a big deal to put up, and had to be properly potted, stood in a corner where it wouldn’t tip over, and placed where it held pride of place when the strings of lights were plugged in.

Ziya wanted a plastic tree, and immediately folded her arms at the inconceivable premise of anything else. One of my friends, who herself has her lights and years of collected decorations strung on a towering and bushy ficus, empathized. Eight-year-old kids want what their friends have, she suggested, and don’t want to feel out of place.

I tried with Zi anyway, tugged by those memories, returning to that fuzzy time when a tradition I was now passing on somehow became set in my mind like a loved, framed photo on that well-kept shelf.

As we drove past Aranguez’s greenhouses, I asked her to look for any trees she might like. Mummy I see one, she exclaimed, and I, who don’t believe in almost anything, joyfully thanked a chorus of angels. We turned off the highway and walked in, checking size, shape, and fullness, and caught sight of the perfect one at the same time. This is it, she declared, won over by the swaying branches just at her head-height. My heart sang the way angel voices ring.

Look around so you are sure, I said. She did, finding one that was a hundred dollars less and, like any sensitive child of a mom managing all the bills would, stoically suggested the smaller one would be better. We left, holding hands, in one of those too-quickly passing chances with young children, with the perfect tree for our budgetary circumstances, and our singing hearts in chorus with those angels heralding on repeat on the radio. In some decades, maybe this would be one of those go-to memories forever providing a sense of place and belonging.

It’s unique, I told her, stroking the tree’s soft needles. We should give it a name. Fern Eve Jamela Hosein Livingstone Khan, she announced. A dramatic title encompassing a not so accurate nor scientific identification, an additional name for the day before Christmas when it was born into our home, three separate family lines, plus a shared middle name that has also been handed down three generations.

I raised my eyebrows. There’s another pine tree in our backyard, which arrived a mere foot tall and now stands above the roof. This could be like that. Who knows what traditions await such a small, somewhat thin-foot plant chosen by an equally small girl?

A Christmas Eve tradition of putting up a tree means you wake up on Christmas to see it on its first morning, freshly decorated and sparkling. Even if it’s small, it’s yours. If it’s made by sun and soil and water, it has a little extra spirit. It can live in our garden throughout the year, I suggested, and come inside at Christmas, and maybe it will still be the tree you decorate when you have a daughter.

Why she changed her mind, I can’t answer, but I’ll accept that it was Christmas magic. As we hung the few individual decorations we chose, I could feel my childhood fleetingly recreated in hers. It offered me, and might offer her when she’s my age, a chance to gift well-loved traditions that renew a sense of certainty, childhood and family. For such joys in the world, framed on a well-kept shelf in my heart perhaps as now in hers, first we found a tree.

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Post 313.

Some days are beginnings and some are endings.

Some feel like potential new chances, but really you are not seeing the signs of something already too far in its decline, when its better to stop trying and walk away. Some days feel like endings, full of emotion and hindsight, but really they are beginnings that you’re too preoccupied to notice with the kind of positivity that replaces regret.

On those days, you’ve got to realise the last second is already the past, and what you think you’ve lost has freed space for more lasting gain. Some days you think you know which one it is. Today is a beginning. Today is an ending. Turns out that it’s neither, and you’re just in a longer cycle than you imagined and one you don’t yet sufficiently understand.

Think of those times when you imagine yourself decisive enough to ensure something never happens again. Then, years or decades later, you are back right there. After all the lessons and changes and maturing, how is it possible to spiral back to such a familiar place you thought you forever left behind. How is it possible to repeat the same pattern in two instances so far apart in your life?

This week, I closed a door I opened twenty years ago. I opened it precisely to walk out of a room I ended up walking back into, like some kind of surreal house of mirrors. I thought I was smarter and stronger and had moved ahead. Imagine my shock to find myself in the same space, like I had spent all that time crossing a thin divider that separated it into two, thinking it two different rooms, though it was just the other side, in the same place. I wasn’t sure what to feel; anger, sadness, regret, terror.

So, again, I opened the door to walk away from that room, stepped out and closed it behind me, wondering if I was about to begin to repeat the past and the present again in the future. Was this really an ending? Was the beginning going to lead to a different end? How to escape these cycles you don’t even know you are in? How to escape situations when the consistent factor in all the decisions you make, all the ones that create your reality, is you?

People get on with life, going to the grocery, finishing up their day at work, packing lunch for their children, surviving daily traffic, but underneath their daily routines and their management of all the moving parts are these undercurrents, defining everyone’s life over time.

I’ve watched people repeat the same mistakes. Probably, they have watched me do the same. I’ve watched people run faster and faster in the same place as if that would lead to any difference in their disappointment. I’ve watched people escape circumstances they repeatedly end back in. Endlessly, people everywhere are experiencing beginnings and endings, whatever their specific permutation, their exact pain or their accompaniment by sharp intake of hope.

What’s the secret to going on?

A guy I know is dying of terminal cancer and, yet, when I speak to him, he sounds joyously full of life. When I ask him how he is, he answers “great, I saw the sunrise this morning!”

How are you, he asks. “Not as good as you,” I say in response to his radiantly optimistic voice and I immediately regret the words, for I’m doing much better than he is. I’m always ashamed that I’m mired in comparatively petty work, family, money, house and other life challenges, and don’t sound as grateful for life as he does.

When I hang up the phone, I’m humbled by a profound lesson. Some days are beginnings and some are endings, but every moment that has breath of life and capacity to appreciate it is when you do your best to decide.

And, decide you must, with mindfulness and forgiveness, self-love and kindness, gratitude and the will to let go and start anew with the same kind of optimism that someone who is dying can teach you about the next twenty years, however your lessons begin and end, one sunrise at a time.

 

Post 312.

With its latest publication, “Justice through a Gender Lens”, the Judicial Education Institute has signaled its intention to resist gendered biases, stereotyping and discrimination in our courts. This is because these can result in decisions, and their consequences, that are ultimately unfair, dehumanizing and unconstitutional.

Stereotypes may be directed at women, men and transgender persons, ultimately denying them equality and justice. For example, men – like women – are meant to naturally fulfill the role of nurturer. Yet, gender stereotypes that associate manhood with being only a provider may lead to court decisions regarding custody that don’t reflect men’s equal responsibility and role as caregivers. This could lead to feelings of rejection among fathers, and to the development of men’s groups organized around their anger.

In another example, sex workers may find it more difficult to prove they have been raped because victims are often required to be respectable and above moral reproach to be believed or not held responsible. However, like other women workers, they do not give up rights to consent and freedom from violence, even in transactional sex encounters.

This position alone goes against common stereotypes about which women are truly undeserving of male sexual assault, and which women can be violated with greater impunity. Here, sexual stereotypes create a biased system to which different women cannot equally turn for justice.

Gender biases of all kinds exist in our courts. In a Caribbean Judicial Officers survey in 2015, 53% of Judicial Officers surveyed believed women should be given custody of children and 41% thought that a man’s primary role is to provide financial support for his family.

This is fascinating because it reproduces women’s unequal responsibility for child care and all the planning, time management, emotional and mental labour, daily and nightly exhaustion, and career sacrifice involved. It also wrongly assumes that women have not historically also carried the burden of financial support for families across the Caribbean. The myth of the male breadwinner is illustrated every time men fail to provide regular and sufficient maintenance support to meet children’s needs, which is a widespread social phenomenon and familiar to Judicial Officers themselves.

In a Trinidad and Tobago survey of Judicial Officers, 44% of those surveyed believed homosexuality was against ‘God’s laws’ while 52% thought that attitudes regarding appropriate roles of men and women influence Judicial Officers’ decisions.

Yet, both our local courts and the Caribbean Court of Justice are upholding rights to a legal system in which personal or religious beliefs cannot prevent access to impartiality, respect and dignity for all. In the JEI’s publication, this includes referring to transgender persons as they themselves identify. It also includes enabling litigants to access courts even when they are dressed in ways that do not fit stereotypes regarding how a person of their sex ought to dress. After all, the nail in the coffin for this country surely cannot be people’s choice of clothes.

The TT Council of Evangelical Churches may maintain that God created only two genders, but this is a specifically Biblical position, in a multi-religious society which occupies First People’s land, and in a world in which many other cultures hold different and equally valid beliefs regarding gender.

In both Indian and African religions, there are gods and goddesses which combine male and female qualities, characteristics and identities. In our modern country are also people for whom secular decision-making protects from patriarchal and theocratic authoritarianism, and the self-righteousness of its violence and violation.

The global conventions and treaties to which we are signatory, and even our 1976 Republican constitution, create state obligation to recognize the human rights of every individual and to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual and gender orientation, not just race, creed or religion.

This isn’t about a current push to normalize LBGTQIA behavior in the country. It’s about strengthening tolerance and inclusion, extending trust in our institutions, and enacting due protection from prejudices that harm.

It’s heartening to see the judiciary deal a severe moral blow to gender bias and the vulnerabilities it produces. Righteousness exalts a nation when state institutions, whose sole purpose is to ensure justice, show that they hold this expectation in good faith.

It will be interesting to see if and how the Gender Equality Protocol for Judicial Officers plays out in the real life of the courts. For now, a whole guideline exists to enable judges and others to recognize something very simple.  Each of us wants the right to live safely and equally as we choose.

 

Post 311.

Every end of term is a chance to assess whether we are teaching children the way that they learn or making them learn the way we teach; a misguided approach that helps to explain why so many students fail to do well, experience terror and fear at test time, and don’t particularly enjoy school.

In thinking about this, I’ve spent time looking at other schooling systems. In Amsterdam, they don’t begin to teach reading until seven years old. In Japan, there is no testing at all until children are ten as all their first years in school focus on developing ethics, independence and resilience; building community-spirit; and creating connections between children and nature.

As my own eight-year old child walks away from class bent over under the weight of her school bag, I’ve wondered if our understanding of childhood is the right one, for it emphasizes children’s mental development, but hardly attends to their emotions.

This is such a strange decision to make as emotional experiences which we have as children define so many adults for the rest of their lives, and because children’s development is primarily emotional – in terms of their understanding of their feelings, their ability and willingness to express them, and their capacity to connect knowledge to emotional intelligence.

Childhood is when our life long emotional map is established, often in ways we don’t come close to realizing, despite the fact that these early emotional maps determine many of our decisions and relationships as adults.

What I’m referring to here is different from teaching morals and civic virtues, and even kindness and cooperation. There’s excellent guidance for that in children’s classes already. I’m referring to children’s relationship to their feelings, to each other’s feelings, and our own understanding of how key these are for their own success as well as for the fate of the future and the world.

How else to say it? Our future isn’t only in the books weighing down the school bags of our children, but also in the hearts beating like tiny bird wings in their little chests. Let’s not forget.

Indeed, who attends to children’s emotional development with the same time, effort, guidance and revision that is put to their school curriculum? Do parents and teachers even know what this means, and when and how to do it? Or what the consequences are of it not happening?

I’ve been thinking about this myself because I’ve been wondering how to react to Ziya’s end of term results. I’m not focused on her marks, she’s too young for those to indicate her academic future, but because final marks are signs of both academic and emotional strengths and weaknesses. We can revise the curricula all through the holidays. How to know what to do about everything else that shapes how she learns and copes and feels?

In wondering what kind of parent to be, I’ve thought hard about accepting lower marks because I know she’s an emotionally complex little character and there have been a few hard months for her over the course of this term.

In accepting possibly lower marks, how do I build her confidence through appreciating she’s doing her best, she while also ushering her into the next life stages when she can do better? And in that process, how do I even know what her emotional needs are and what giving them the same focus and priority as schooling looks like?

As the end of term approaches, I’m urging gentleness and reflection from parents when opening those report cards. I’m also urging reflecting on context – both school and home – because those are where the answers to their marks also lie, with us, with our parental understanding of children’s developmental stages, with our capacity to attend to the emotional and mental fit necessary for learning.

There’s no rule book for knowing how to get the mind-heart balance. Each child is also different, and there isn’t a single parent who always gets it all right.

Keeping that in mind, know that some of their mistakes are reflections of ours, and if their report cards tell any truth, it’s that school marks count for some aspects of life, emotional learning is all that matters for others, and not one adult parent always gets an A grade at both all of the time.

I’m just trying to remember to support all forms of learning which children need. And to equally value all they know just as much as all they feel.