Post 298.

While children play over these holidays, school is on many mothers’ minds. You see these mothers, going extra distance to find the store that sells books at a cheaper price, double-checking stationary lists against the contents of their purse, and carrying heavy plastic bags of school supplies while pulling one or two children along by the wrist in thick High Street or Chaguanas main road heat.

I was in a bookstore, buying just-deceased Vidia Naipaul’s great novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, a big, big book by any measure and one that forever defined my life-long obsession with having a house of my own. It is the essential Trinidadian ambition, shared by everyone from the wealthy oil families of South to the squatter next door.

Like Mr. Biswas, I was combing the country looking for affordable housing materials, discovering commitments such as rates, interest, repairs and debt at the same pace, and the risks and costs of it all, from hollow bricks to pitch pine beams to tiny leaks in roofing.

I was thinking, like Naipaul, of what could be hidden, by bookcase, glass cabinet or curtains, what could be accommodated until Ziya’s whole life was comfortably ordered and her memories made coherent by this odd-shaped house in Santa Cruz.

At the same time, as I stood in line to pay, I was thinking of motherhood, listening to a woman portion out her life story with the young assistant helping her tick off items for purchase. For every ruler, eraser, copybook and text, there was that time she had to tell the children this and how she had to manage to make ends meet then, and how hard it does be throughout.

When all was added up, she decisively handed over a thick fold of blue money, like the CEO of a company that for another year weathered rain, robbery and recession. I thought I knew exactly that feeling and how I’d seen it on other mothers’ faces in bookstores and in between aisles with school shoes. Most important, I knew that not one soul really knows what you go through when those responsibilities fall unfairly and ultimately on you.

One woman, a survivor of her partner’s violence, went to the credit union every year with her book list and its itemized amounts to borrow money. Others hold on for their sou sou hand just at this time. Everywhere, mothers’ are planning and calculating, scraping and saving in time for September, like unheralded characters in a great Trinidadian barrack yard novel.

Indeed, in the 1970s, the Housewives’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago started a school book exchange, first in Hazel Brown’s house, later in the ONR’s office on Albion St. and, finally, in East Side Plaza precisely for these reasons.

Hazel herself, who was taking care of ten children, would sort all their books by subject, see what could be handed down, and then call up everyone to see what others had and what could be exchanged.

As she told me, at one point, the book exchange was taken up by some schools and parents would bring their used books and their book lists and exchange what they needed, buying at a fraction of the original cost.

HATT began to make a small profit, in what we would now call social entrepreneurship, by buying at 25% and selling at 50% of the store price. In Albion Street, women would iron the dog ears flat, make sure books were in good condition and could be sold at an affordable price, and that the right editions were the ones available.

It meant that children were told not to mark up their textbooks or simply throw them away. A stigma associated with second-hand books was pressed back, giving mothers and families collective solutions to their challenges making ends meet while preparing for the new term, and giving what they already had in their hands greater dollar value.

As I walked out of the bookstore with Mr. Biswas’ dream of a house in my hand and hope to manage the expenses of both renovations and the new school year on my mind, I thought of the mother in the store, taking her school supplies home, and how Naipaul became a writer because his family valued books.

I thought of HATT and how women can help each other fulfill hard-earned dreams, and I thought of Mr. Biswas and the list of compromises his family continually navigated in the hope that their circumstances would one day improve.

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Post 293.

On dewy mornings, my mother’s white car slowly crept under the Poui trees. They were mostly lilac and pink, but sometimes yellow. I lay on the backseat on a pillow listening to 1950s music, and looking up at the endless blue sky out of the back windows. I was eight years old, and the traffic from St. Augustine to Port of Spain meant being guided for a little way by the soft colours and even softer petals carpeting the hollowed grass between north- and south-bound lanes.

Along the highway, the Pouis towered like hallowed deities surely no one would put God out of their thoughts to desecrate. Thousands of people passed them each day, twice, their wearied spirits lifted by the flagrant flounce of such exuberant blush and dry season bloom.

Those trees were a backdrop to my childhood. I knew their scalloped, slender bark, and their branches reaching like a breath of fresh air, like oxygen for bodies and minds slumped and dying in daily exhaustion, tension and car fumes.

The resilient green of the Northern Range filled the landscape on the right, Kay Donna slowly inched closer and then past on the left. Poui trees lined the middle, reliably beautiful like ladies bejeweled in yellow afternoon light, or like the sweetness of being serenaded by your beloved on lavender-hued evenings of patient, gentle courtship.

I don’t know if the past gifted you these memories, but that’s all they are now. The Pouis are gone, the gutted scars in the ground where they once stood tell a story of loss of the sacred for the generations for whom these trees were as close as family, a rare thing in a country which finds common solace in concrete.

It’s the same neglected promise of care that lets Port of Spain’s most beautiful buildings collapse under the weight of modern ambitions, and abandonment of beauty as a public good. It’s the same disregard that would have Pres-T-Con replace iconic iron bridges with slabs that stubbornly block the pleasure of looking at the rivers as families drive over, as if nothing matters in the entire surrounding ecosystem but the authority of soulless engineering.

It’s the same disinvestment in a higher good that meant Maracas is somehow uglier, the view of the sea shortsightedly blocked from those passing the beach, and the mangroves abandoned like cheap trash rather than rehabilitated with science displays for children to run through with sandy feet, and a small boat tour that can explain why trees are more sacred than contractors’ profits.

The Pouis, torn from the ground for a planned interchange, feel like any one of us is dispensable, without mercy, nostalgia or tears. In the normal, crushing march of progress, it’s just a matter of when your time comes. And, when it does, will anyone care?

Did you ever bring us beauty? Did your soft petal fingers gently stroke thousands of heavy hearts trying to get through a hard day? Did we know you like we know our own childhoods as you stood by, pink, lilac and sometimes yellow, for decades?

A whole generation of little children will never share these memories. Maybe it’s better they will neither understand or care what they’ve lost. It’s unlikely any Pouis will ever be planted again along our highways unless their planting was budgeted in the interchange’s plans. That aesthetic is for long-time, like an old Hunter Hillman car which today would feel quaint and obsolete, or like a teacher riding a bicycle to school in the cool, early dew.

I don’t know when I reached the age when nostalgia aches in your chest, but I now know how it feels. Perhaps, thousands of others also look at the emptiness left, unprepared for the turn of time from colour to black and white. Once, I could renew my childhood memories of lying in the backseat of my mother’s white car every morning, connect to a small self that once looked up at the sky.

Those moments were already in the past, and the Poui trees were all that was left. Now, when I look, I still see them, like mourning ghosts, though there’s nothing there, but my own soft grieving.

Post 224.

‘Do we have to grow up?’ Ziya asked, at the end of Tuesday night, on her sixth birthday. I could only shake my head.

I don’t remember wanting to stay small. I remember wanting to grow up, become a teenager, become an adult. Adults seemed to have so much freedom. As Zi says, pouting, no one bosses around adults the way adults boss around children. At least, like her, that’s what I saw.

Unlike some other adults, I don’t want to go back to my childhood. I like this age, this stage and the control, power, insight and influence that years of school, work and hard knocks have provided, which I hope to use to make the world a better place, to mentor and inspire another generation, and to define the priorities and values I want to live by.

But, I also understand that along with those come ever more responsibilities, compromises and stress, which, like all of us, I take in stride even when they feel exhausting or overwhelming. In those moments, childhood seems so much simpler, so much more a world of magic and play, so freer of complexities, whether global or interpersonal, than now. Children don’t feel so world-weary, do they?

Yet, as many know, such nostalgia is pointless. Far too many of us were in fact negotiating complicated, even dysfunctional childhoods, managing lack of control over our world as children do, with resilience, with whatever coping strategies we can invent. I always wondered why adults thought that children didn’t understand what was going on in their midst, giving what they thought were age-appropriate explanations, as if children were not fully clued in to what adults thought they could hide or pretend wasn’t true.

So, I shook my head, not knowing quite what to say to a girl, six for only one day, who, in her own way, was weighing these existential dilemmas. I wasn’t going to assume she didn’t get it. I think children do.

Yes, we have to grow up, I answered, though I’d keep you this age for another year or two if I could. I could hear her thinking in the dark. ‘I like being a child’, she said. ‘Of course you do’, I thought.

One of my friend’s sons had told her she was so lucky to do all the things she loved, like mopping, cleaning and washing dishes. Zi had said similar things about how I got to do all the things I want, like go to work all the time. That feeling of entitlement of children, the expectation that they should enjoy life, even while we give them chores and teach them to take up responsibilities so that they come to appreciate and reciprocate our efforts, is an achievement. It’s a happiness they only get now, precious and fleeting.

‘I wish nothing was real’, Zi concluded, ‘then there would be nothing to change’. Maybe she thought that if everything was imaginary, you could imagine things however you wished, the way she wished her toys would come alive as Doc Mc Stuffins’ did or the way she imagined making real tea in tiny tin toy teacups. Maybe if nothing is real, then their passing doesn’t matter so deeply.

‘You don’t want things to change?’, I asked. ‘I don’t want things to be different’, she answered. I can’t say that I understood all she was experiencing, except she was happy and didn’t want to let it go, didn’t want to have to start again tomorrow.

Is there any of us that haven’t also felt that way? Is there any of us who haven’t wanted to hold one night, one achievement or one relationship like that forever, even as we watched it turn to mist and dissipate?

Ah, six year-old rueful observance of life’s passing.

What’s a mom to say except that this is only the beginning of that feeling and there isn’t an adult alive who doesn’t know it.

Welcome to your one wondrous life, little warrior of light.

There is only one lesson. Whatever your fears and joys, seize every second. Then, refusing rut and regret, let go, as the next moment to live to the fullest inevitably and irretrievably beckons.

Post 225.

There’s a painting by young artist, Danielle Boodoo-Fortune, which I recently bought for Ziya. It’s Zi’s first painting, meant to provide a utopian image of her childhood and the memories I’m seeking to create at this time. The painting is set in a dense, colourful and magical garden. Both the sun and the moon seem simultaneously present, and above the lush undergrowth, a forest in the background appears to meld into the sky.

There are two central figures. A little girl with a big afro and wide eyes looking around and, behind her, a woman with long, straight hair gazing directly out of the painting as if warning others that they are being just as carefully watched. Unless your intentions bring care and safety, better to stay afar. Birds sit on their hands, and both figures have small tree branches growing from their heads, beginning to sprout leaves.

Almost unnoticeable, these branches are the curious detail that draws me in most. It’s hard to tell where the natural environment ends and begins, and the human bodies are not entirely separate, but also part of this environment, just as we all are.

Our bodies are deeply interconnected with the ecosystems in which we live, and perhaps if we thought more like trees, we would be more aware of water conservation, biodiversity, returning nutrients to soil, sustaining wildlife survival, adapting to seasonal patterns, and living for preservation for seven generations, rather than through our current modes of harm.

Every chance I get to escape, I try to spend in some quiet intimacy with our islands’ forests and rivers. And, now five years old, Zi is beginning to walk rivers and reach waterfalls with me. I can’t think of a more important site for establishing identity, relationship, aspirations and belonging.

I’d like Zi to go to university, but some part of me would know she found the right path if she was able to live by ideals of permaculture that treasure reproducing forests, food, friendships and family. She could entirely eschew the materialism that keeps us in an outmoded economic model and exhausts us over the course of a long rat race. We work to survive, but seem to have forgotten what we are living for.

Marking both Corpus Cristi and Indian arrival in 1845 should return us to the soil here in this place in which we are leaving our footprints over time. Zi’s planting her first small garden of lettuce and seasonings, in a recycled cardboard box that can decompose somewhere in our garden, adding carbon to the nitrogen we will layer on the soil from kitchen vegetable cuttings.

For me, coming into adulthood as an Indo-Caribbean woman is about protecting a little dougla daughter from harm, exiting the hierarchies, prejudices and structures that alienate us more than connect us, and teaching my sacred girl how to survive and thrive. I can’t think of another more important lesson that Indian women brought with them on those ships. All this while, we’ve been working out how to make an authentic life for ourselves, and if not ourselves for our children, with greater freedom, knowledge, meaning, wellbeing and peace.

I spent the last few days talking with mainly women from around the region about gender and ecological justice, and their inseparability. When debt leaves little fiscal space, what are our options for solidarity economies, and other approaches that transform our economic and ecological vulnerabilities, drawing on our environmental, cultural, historical and gendered kinds of resilience?

Given that the environmental crisis is the absolutely most important issue of our children’s generation, these are the real questions for which we should be seeking collective answers. All big answers start with small steps, and there is art to remind Zi of the simple, profound significance of learning through quiet, thoughtful observation how to become one with the trees. As a mothering worker marking another year of life this weekend, and seeking wisdom for the new year ahead, this is where our footprints and memories will be.

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