Post 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.

Post 368.

Name any number of stresses and you would find most of us are now dodging several of them daily. What are the implications of such higher stress when we are locked inside together? On the other hand, what are the implications for so many people who are living alone, and now without options for human contact?

Having rightly closed down bars and other public recreation spaces, mostly frequented by men, how will they cope? Men dominate public spaces, whether playfields, streets or rum shops, which are also spaces for establishing masculine identity and camraderie, and setting boundaries on the spheres of men’s lives within women’s control.

What happens to men, women and families when such spatial distinctions collapse and men are locked indoors? What new conflicts over time, power and decision-making are emerging, which we should publicly talk about and protect ourselves from inside our homes?

In a region where men, particularly older men, may also be among the higher numbers of those living alone, do we understand the realities of our different needs, coping strategies and levels of risk?

Behind our closed doors has become more complex than ever in a world where home may already have been lonely or unsafe, or a rest stop between places where one would rather be. Some may have already begun to lose income and are tense, with nowhere to turn.

Some are beginning to feel trapped or out of control. In response, they may turn to threatening and controlling behaviours as part of expressing frustration. Cases of abuse and the severity of violence in families might increase while options for running to family or friends are closed. For those victims, physical distancing can occur even while those around them help prevent the greater dangers of social isolation.

As with any crisis, women remain particularly vulnerable, whether because they dominate the service and retail industry as workers, and are at risk of losing those jobs, or because they predominate as nurses, and are taking risks that leave them distanced from their families, or because there is deepening isolation for those already being separated from friends and family by abusive partners, or who have been isolating themselves because of shame.

Girls’ risk of sexual abuse is especially high now that uncles, step-fathers, cousins and other men are more present and difficult to escape. The vulnerability we are all feeling right now can make victims feel even less able to report or leave, particularly if they are also women and girls with mental or physical disabilities. Many women in the Caribbean are also primary breadwinners and single parents, and the impossibility of balancing parenting and their profession will fall on them unequally.

Ziya’s school has shown a model response this past week – ‘live’ online sessions every day, three a day over the next two weeks on both mornings and afternoons, and assignments every day, but there’s no chance that, as a working mother and primary breadwinner, I could match their expectations and also accomplish my job.

It’s felt like going insane. The assignments come through a non-child friendly system where they must be downloaded, completed as word files or printed as PDFs, and then photos taken and uploaded. All week, I’ve wondered why primary schools don’t adopt a more empathic approach to learning, think about the child friendliness of the software, consider the realities of the learning environment children are in, send a package of material that could simply be done in the afternoons when office work is completed and two hours can be found to do assignments, and encourage home schooling approaches that don’t require a stay-at-home parent attentive to curriculum throughout the day.

While my mother is concerned about surviving, my friends reach out across their feelings of disconnection and my family panics about declining income, I worry about the implications of opting out of Zi’s school’s zealous teaching strategy or the implications of barely doing my job, when the days seem to demand one or the other.

Many people are protecting their health, but are deeply affected by the psychological and familial challenges of this time. Addressing them is as important as the health and financial responses.

Schools should remain closed after April 20th or we risk an infection spike that could particularly put the elderly at risk, for many of us can only work because grandparents provide after-school care. In the meantime, we need to rethink our assumptions about parents and homes, and our educational philosophy. We need to emerge, not only alive, but intact emotionally.

Post 367.

I’m intrigued by efforts to keep life going as normal. Recognizing the real limitations that people are facing, what’s wrong with slowing down?

Ziya’s school, like many, has done an amazing job of leaping into on-line teaching so that there are due dates for assignments and live stream sessions. It’s a twenty-first century tech-saavy response that should draw big respect.

However, while observing assignments and live streams targeted to students within typical school hours, I couldn’t help thinking of parents already struggling to work from home, inefficiently, and who now have to simultaneously manage on-line primary education.

I thought of the single parents with only one laptop or computer who would have to juggle their on-line meetings and deliverables, and those of their children. I thought of the parents who were still required at their workplaces or were beginning to worry about making ends meet, and wondered at the additional strain of such demands.

In striving to do our best to maintain content, are we working in silos without realizing? How might it be different if we understood our assumptions, as employers and educators, and targeted our efforts and expectations less toward the ideal and more toward the realistic circumstances of those we engage? If students can’t meet those expectations, are these failures theirs or even their parents, or a result of expectations that create more stress in order to be met?

I thought too of how economic inequality sifts our opportunities at this time. For there are parents and schools, from Toco to Cedros to Chagaramas, where children don’t have access to the connectivity, data or computers that could meet the standards of wealthier school communities. For those children already depending on school-feeding programmes, is this a moment that will deepen the class and educational divide?

As a university educator, I thought about my own students. Some are parents who wouldn’t be able to produce school assignments with the same efficiency. Some have moved back home and are left with poor internet capability. Some are anxious about their own health or their family. Some have a partner worried about a cliff-drop in income or one who is at risk for increased alcohol and substance abuse.

Being isolated at home, possibly losing income, caring for sick relatives, disagreement over roles and resources, and having fewer outlets for relieving boredom and anger will increase family conflict. Our social services and call lines are incapable of meeting public need. Some, and their children, are at far greater risk of violence.

There are also students who may not be ready for a fast move to a new on-line normal nor students for whom my classes are their highest priority. Organising group presentations on-line is far more stress and effort than doing so in person on campus. All these things are possible in this day and age, but to expect immediate adjustment is an option, not a necessity.

So, why don’t we opt out of trying to achieve as normal? What if we used this time instead to achieve, but a little less, observing that the world will not end, but that there may be some improvements.

Maybe, we spend less time rushing through the day, without traffic and exhaustion. Maybe, we do more talking now that we are home together. Maybe, children run about in the backyard, and get time without everyday extra lessons for SEA. Maybe, we spent more time with elders, who might be scared and feeling alone. Maybe, we call each other more, across the country and the world. Maybe, we question our old normal and ask if it was really our best. Could we be better about how we use our time, knowing why and how we pursue knowledge, in this moment?

I cut some lectures which didn’t risk my learning objectives. I cut down exam content. I reduced the number of final assignments. Maintaining last month’s rules would simply test survival under increased pressure and show lack of empathy.

I’m not only asking us to consider the balance between keeping up and slowing down. I’m saying that it is possible to enable new opportunities and give breathing space to better priorities. These weeks, and likely months, should be planned as if families, homes and economies are feeling, and soon experiencing, crisis.

Our educational institutions have an opportunity to respond to that in our approach to teaching and learning, in the interest of students, parents and teachers, as if inequalities and their implications persist amidst these weeks’ new realities.

 

Post 317.

Photo credit: Tivia Collins

Yesterday, the shoelaces almost made it. All they needed was a little more time.

While the little girl with curly hair sat at her school desk quietly writing neat sentences, they plotted furiously, twisting and edging out of the knots they were in. Today would be the day.

Everyone misunderstands undone shoelaces. Parents stand over their children teaching them to tie their white, brown or black laces into tight, neat bows. Principals expect such rigid discipline once uniformed students are past the school gate. Every morning, laces are trapped into their expected roles by a conspiracy of disciplinarians, sometimes even double-knotted to prevent escape.

But, who doesn’t dream of freedom from oppressive restrictions and rules? Who doesn’t want a chance out of the limits of routine and everyday, sometimes suffocating, roles? Who doesn’t dream of deciding for themselves where they will go in life?

Isn’t the whole point of our existence here to determine the direction of our next step? Is there any one of us who hasn’t imagined something other than who we are and what we do everyday?

Then why deny shoelaces the free will each of us carries as small fantasies; the ones that help us to see the potential for better circumstances than we are in, the ones that connect to that small kernel of who we know we are inside, the ones that propel us to achieve aspirations no one thought we could.

The shoelaces had been shushing each other. The laces on the girl’s left shoe were loosened. It was a victory. They celebrated like a fete match. The girl thought she heard voices cheering far away, but no other children seemed to notice. She put her head back down, concentrating on copying homework.

Below the desks, the classroom of shoelaces craned their necks. The air was jumpy with shared anticipation. Sensing this, some students kept shuffling about their feet. The teacher admonished them to sit still.

In this overlooked community of laces were few which hadn’t also tried to run, but some were more tightly bound than others, some had grown close to their families, and had ambivalent feelings about living as refugees in the shadow of their former lives, and some had given up for the stress began to make their nerves visibly fray.

The bell rang for lunch. The left shoe had been won, but either the laces would be found out now and retied, or would remain unnoticed over playtime or, perhaps, tied hurriedly and halfway amidst running up and down.

Hope sprang eternal in their hearts, but the laces held themselves motionless, avoiding eye contact with prefects and teachers. This was a make or break hour.

After, back in class, their gains were secure. There were high fives and fist bumps all around the girl’s socks.

2.15 pm. Their breath ragged, both left and right laces were now completely undone from their knots. They continued smoothly, like brown ninjas, sliding out from the holes and loops, further slackening the grip of the shoes. Shoelaces across the classroom locked eyes, rooting that the hour may finally have come for one of their own. As if the children could hear, they all began fidgeting in their chairs.

This was it. School was suddenly over and the little curly-haired girl was shoving books into her bag like her mummy didn’t pay good money for them, and chattering without a care with the other children. She hadn’t noticed both sets of laces loosened and dangling. Freedom was near!

They could run for it now on pure instinct that it isn’t a job or identity that defines one’s purpose in life. All that matters is an imagined future as vast and endless as January’s blue sky.

But, what’s this? Why is the curly-haired girl’s mummy suddenly pointing at her shoes? Wait! Why are they talking about shoelaces wanting to escape by afternoon each day? How do they know? Does every struggle have its double agents?

They are laughing like it’s a funny story that explains why the girl’s laces have always become undone by the time school is over.

Dastardly repression! We are tightened back into knots!

Today is not the day, but this is not the end. Tomorrow again, under school desks everywhere, we will loosen ourselves.

Shoelaces of the world, untie!

If you’ve ever wondered why children’s shoelaces always end up undone, this is why.

One day the shoelaces may succeed in their ambitious escape for, surely, they will continue to try.

Post 296.

The floorboards creaked and tore as if daily life was almost too much weight to bear. The windows broke from their rusting hinges for their joints ached and they gave in to the pain. The roof hung with a sadness only the neglected know, its desire to protect unnoticed, its watchful eye met with ones closed to its needs. The house had been falling apart for a long time.

I’d describe its crumbling as imperceptible, except it was everywhere – in the decaying cupboards, the stained kitchen countertop, the scuffed furniture, the torn curtains.

These were plainly apparent, but too overwhelming to see so the best option appeared to not look. It’s like that sometimes, living in an old house past its grandeur, the walls of the rooms are made of memories, so you can live in the past when the white paint shone and the roof glistened like a whole beautiful blank sheet, before botched by time, weather and neglect.

Meanwhile, parts fall or break down, like organs, and the structure becomes unreliable so that even its all will no longer be enough. High winds, normal for changing seasons, blow from unexpected directions and everyone holds anxious, insecure breath.

Moving was inevitable and overdue, but gutting. You wake up for twenty years in one room and the light falling across the floor just so feels like the quiet intimacy of long-time companionship.  The birds sing from their perch on the eaves, and your heart aches that their song cannot be wrapped in newspaper and carried with you in a cardboard box.  Your favorite corner of the room will disappear when demolished.

Taking pictures down from the walls, and seeing their outline remain written in dust, like a ghost that won’t leave, makes your vision ricochet between all the past times you looked there – the contexts, reflections and familiar sounds, and the present – which is all that matters. The house remembers everything in its bones, in every break that wasn’t mended, in every echo of anger, laughter or silence.

Anyone who has ever had to pack up a life to move knows that it’s a reckoning. What you discard or keep evokes the story you want family history to tell and the stories even you want to forget. What gets put in boxes for immediate unpacking rather than those you may not end up unpacking for years tells you much about what once mattered and now can be forgotten.

As glossy as the new house may be, you have been shaped by the old space, the way that your mouth shapes your words or your hands curve around another’s or the way a coocoon envelops a butterfly. A house isn’t bricks and mortar or wood and galvanise, it’s the ribcage in which your breath has been steady and protected. It’s a space for a heart.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy even if you don’t want to or can’t still live there. It’s like pulling away from your own skin, which shrank from the salt of too many tears and, now, like a soucouyant, you cannot get back in. It feels the way that thin, slivery cobwebs cling to your hair and lips because they are not built to let go.

You are going to somewhere new and better, something that isn’t threatening to trap you in its collapse, but as I keep coming back to, a house is the embrace you sleep in at night, its arms warm and familiar.

The new house, with all your life teetering around you in boxes of different weights and sizes, isn’t quite finished, and it will take a while to get the windows and doors right, to know where the motes dance in afternoon light, and what calls speak to your house at night. You stand amidst all this, in limbo between past and future, unsettled, but asking for acceptance from the foundation and walls, and the wind that moves through.

In the old house, grown decrepit and ruined, sorting each object reminds that this moment will never come again. In the new home, everyday construction and care, fresh eyes and fresh paint, are the loving gestures you make to complete a dream you returned to when you couldn’t sleep.

Such departing and arriving are the only metaphors I can find for when your heart and mind are occupied with the many emotions of moving, and when you walk away from an old life and open the door to one both necessary and new.

Post 290.

Once, Hindus were not allowed to legally marry under Hindu rites because marriage was only legitimate if it was Christian. Spiritual Baptists were not allowed to practice their religion because it was associated with African community and spiritual customs. Muslims could not commemorate Hosay, for the gathering of masses with sticks and drums so threatened authorities that the Muharram massacre of 1884 occurred.

Vagrancy laws were notoriously used to confine indentured Indian workers to sugar plantations, preventing and punishing escape and rebellion. Once, and perhaps still, you could get harassed and locked up just for being Rasta.

These are all struggles which show how violent and oppressive the law and those who enforce it can be, particularly against the poor and those deemed to not fit in or to be out of place. These are all examples of individuals and communities trying to live as they choose, committing no harm to others and being criminalised anyway. Finally, these are all histories of those among us who successfully sought freedom and protection from injustice.

We would be talking history if this wasn’t the story of individuals and groups still dreaming of an equal place in the region, still dreaming of what you may take for granted; the chance to live without threat, discrimination and harm.

Tomorrow, the Caribbean Court of Justice is considering these very dreams of equal belonging. In McEwen et al v The Attorney General of Guyana, a case is being made to strike down as unconstitutional an 1893 law against cross-dressing for an ‘improper purpose’ in public.

In 2009, seven persons were arrested for being ‘males’ wearing ‘female attire’ in a public place for ‘improper purpose’. These were trans or gender non-conforming persons who, not-unusually, pleaded guilty given the small fine and absence of lawyers. They were fined under this 19th century vagrancy law.

‘Females’ appearing in a public place, for a supposedly ‘improper purpose’, in ‘male attire’ can be similarly convicted, which seems excessive, bizarre and outmoded. What is an “improper purpose”? What is “male attire”? It’s not even clear in the law.

This same legislation criminalises practicising witchcraft. In TT, similar summary offences legislation could get you sentenced to imprisonment for a month for pretending to tell fortunes or imprisonment for three months for bathing in the Maraval River. And, God forbid you are found singing or dancing with rogues and vagabonds, a constable has a right to forcibly carry away all gongs, tambours and chac-chacs.

Such loitering or vagrancy laws have also been used against LBGTI persons who are often arrested without being charged or told of the charges or advised of their rights, who have experienced humiliation and violence during detention, and who are convicted of minor offenses for being on the street or dressing how they choose. In other words, simply for being who they are.

It’s like when police rough up fellas on a block who have committed no crime, but are treated as criminals because of their skin colour, hairstyle or clothes, and who could get hard slap for resisting such profiling. Such advantageousness happens to those whose race, class and gender get them cast as illegitimate, threatening, and subordinate.

Curiously, when four of those convicted in 2009 challenged the constitutionality of the 1893 offence, the Acting Chief Justice in 2013 ruled that cross-dressing in Guyana was perfectly legal, just not for an improper purpose. Yet, in 2016 and 2017, after the CJ’s judgment, various trans women were prevented from attending magistrate’s court dressed in ‘female attire’, as if going to court amounts to an ‘improper purpose’.

At the CCJ, McEwan et al will be arguing that that the law is too vague to be valid or applied without enabling dangerous and arbitrary application by police, that their rights to protection of the law, freedom of expression and non-discrimination have been infringed, and that the law therefore violates constitutional and human rights as positively upheld in Guyana. It also exacts conformity as the price of equality, and reproduces both impunity and social exclusion.

Once, colonial powers decided who we should be and punished us for wanting to decide for ourselves. The CCJ judgment will set a precedent for a region rising up against the savings clauses which keep such colonial laws in place and penalise marginalised communities.

There is now none but ourselves to free each other, whether from poverty, stereotyping or an inhumane justice system. Imagine shaking off colonisers’ boots and walking in the footsteps of those who sought inclusion.

Post 267.

Rebuild A Home

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 3.09.43 PM

 

I got nuff respect for sustained contribution and commitment beyond a news cycle, for it shows when care is real. So, I was deeply humbled to hear of the Rebuild A Home project, aimed to re-establish the stability of houses, schools and communities in Antigua, Dominica, Barbuda, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands.

It gave me hope that we could do more than express horror at others’ fate and offer help briefly, but ultimately far too ineffectually. Remember, just a few months ago, hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked over three billion dollars in damage, and mangled life chances in ways only the heartbreak of individual stories can convey.

I kept hearing Rudder in my head while the project’s organisers spoke. Rudder is rallying round lovely cricket, but those lyrics are like oxygen in your lungs when you want to sing and shout and bawl about “these tiny theatres of conflict and confusion/Better known as the isles of the West Indies”. Centuries repeatedly show we can only collectively survive if we support one another, rather than be at “somebody’s mercy”, whether colonial ruler, local politician or donor agency.

The Rebuild A Home project is spearheaded by the Living Water Community’s Mercy Foundation, and its team is a range of corporate supporters, including the Global Business Leadership Forum, the Joint Chambers of Commerce, Digicel, Beacon, Shell and BP. There are international allies such as Qnary and Align Entertainment Group, which are heading international social media campaigning and fundraising. And, there’s Build Change, which has to lead construction of hurricane-resistant homes during our brief dry season.

Corporate Caribbean stepping up and in where governments don’t or can’t will be absolutely key in our precarious future. More than anything else, post-independence governments across the region have shown more failures than successes, unless pressed to do better by ordinary people, business influence or aid conditionalities.

With dire circumstances seemingly everywhere at once, from Yemen to Venezuela, the lesson to take into this initiative is that the West Indies cannot wait on aid. Instead, anyone with a connection to the Caribbean, whether through literature, music, ancestry or blessed baptism in our blue sea, has to live by the philosophy of love for our region. Then and now, we are a unique crucible in which the histories of far flung continents have been enduringly forged together. This has been our strength and our vulnerability, and up to this second we are being presented with the opportunity to choose.

You can choose to sponsor a home or make a donation to help meet a $10 million USD project goal. You can donate $1 or $100, the equivalent of one fete ticket or as much as one mas costume. Or, you can get your mas band and fete promoter to donate for every ticket or purchase, turning your disposable consumer dollars into a boundless solidarity economy.

The project’s website and fundraising platform, www.rebuildourhomes.com, reports that, among other ongoing volunteer actions, 35 containers were shipped to affected islands, a warehouse was constructed to store supplies, and vehicles were sent to help with distribution. The plan ahead is to rebuild a minimum of 200 homes and start constructing schools. From within my crease, I’m also thinking about contributing post-disaster healing methodologies developed especially for Caribbean children.

Rudder’s pen seems to say it all: “Little keys can open mighty doors”.

As always, there is more if we want to move from adaptation to mitigation, which ultimately we must. The burning of fossil fuels, CO2 increase and climate change is the number one spiraling threat to the Caribbean. Small as we are, we have to be brave enough to think and act big so that long-term transformation and not just immediate, though necessary, donation and service is our true power.

If each of us is guided by our conscience, we can find some way to help turn trauma to resilience, “now and forever”.