Post 355.

Vincentian feminist Peggy Antrobus once told me that women can have it all, just not at the same time. There are life stages, she cautioned, and knowing your stage grounds your choices.

The thing about elder wisdom is that you don’t necessarily agree until you reach the life stage where you do. In the meantime, you debate the advice you get and, as they say, hold a meditation about its relevance and worth.

Over the last year, I’ve been wondering if indeed Peggy’s right. I’ve discovered that, not only is it not possible to have it all, but that the choices you make determine the next stage, foreclosing options, and that widespread expectations of womanhood and motherhood are not incidental to these choices. The ‘all’ isn’t about having money, luxury and leisure, it’s about basics that women have a right to, such as both family and a career.

As I’ve become more responsible for Ziya as a working mother, I’ve become more aware of the job sacrifices I’m making, my lower expectations for my abilities, and reduced capacity for leadership.

This is common for professional women in their forties, who are primary carers of their children at the same time that they are in their most important years for professional advancement. Every ambition has its costs and you start aiming for what’s merely realistic as if schoolgirls’ aspirations are just a modern fairy tale.

In making these choices, I’ve become more attentive to the older women around me; the ones who delayed achieving their degrees until after their children grew up, the ones who took less demanding jobs so that they could get home earlier, the ones who start their work day at 4am so that they can do school pick up at 2.30, the ones who took on three jobs despite the extra exhaustion so that they could pay for extra-curricular activities, and the ones who reliably go to pediatricians, parent-teacher meetings and counseling sessions with their children knowing that their best chances for development and emotional resilience have to be planned, communicated, managed and honestly reflected upon.

The very women who can’t have it all are simultaneously at the center of making so much happen, like magicians coordinating a whirlwind, at risk to their sanity, self-care and self-definition. I’m not saying that dads are not important. I’m just saying that the unequal burden of care is real and it’s at the heart of a life stage many women reach.

Working mothers, whether on their own or not, often have to be on top of all the details, from Diwali and Christmas concert contributions to knowing where the uniforms are for each week, and the mental room this takes up is taken for granted whether they work in KFC or have PhDs.

Looking on, we often say to ourselves, I don’t know how she does it.

I’ve listened more for the everyday sacrifices; in health, in self-confidence, in savings, in sleep, in dreams. I deepened appreciation for the crucial role of women’s sisters, mothers, neighbours, children’s friends’ mothers, long-lasting friends, and compassionate co-workers.

Working mothers depend on understanding, encouragement, help, patience and time from a widespread network just to get their family through each day. Women everywhere could barely achieve what they do without the other women who invest in enabling them to.

I always saw these women around me, fitting the common character of the strong Caribbean mother, without really seeing their inner lives, difficult decisions, necessary relationships or wearying stories. Now that I live it, who feels it knows.

In a sense, I have had to decide what I want to excel at, what I am prepared to do my best at, however badly, and what I simply won’t accomplish this month or year or the next. The consequences are ones that will settle into experiences of acceptance and regret that accumulate with age.

In having to spend more time with my daughter this year because that’s the life stage she is in, I have come to recognize that motherhood means her needs determine my life stage for me. All further decisions follow, however this sets other achievements back.

It’s not a complaint, it’s an adjustment to embrace, like a soucouyant who would forever soar the night skies in fire if only daylight didn’t compel her into the confines of her skin. Daybreak has brought knowing what it means to sacrifice for your child as a life stage and as more than a line women so often say.

Post 337.

As a child, the white handkerchief in the right back pocket of my dad’s pants would dry my tears. Collecting his belongings, after he unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Thursday in St. Vincent, in a pair of his pants folded on a shelf, I found his handkerchief, soft and familiar.

I slid it into my own right back pocket, his habit giving me comfort and connection. At the morgue, I stood bewildered, clutching that small cotton square, willing his eyes to open, contemplating the hard metaphysics that we can be here and not here at the same time.

I said all the things one says, it’s okay, I forgive you, I forgive myself, I’m sorry some people hurt you, I’m so glad some people treated you well, I wish you peace, I thank you, I love you. When I couldn’t think in words anymore, I stroked his hair and his head, breathing for us both, breathing, breathing.

My dad, Azad Nazar Hosein (February 9, 1943 – June 6, 2019) was brilliant. He was devastatingly logical, had an absorbed and dominating mind, and could sharply envision both a far end and each step in between. He opened the first computer school in the country, called ComTech, and I distinctly remember him teaching students to code, standing at a wooden podium with a gold plaque printed with the word, “Think”.

For decades, he worked with governments on strategic planning and project management like a guru in the field. He was a workaholic, committed to the region, his students, preventing fiscal mis-management, and empowering civil servants with whom he collaborated.

He was also difficult and unpredictable, and for a long time I struggled. I learned forgiveness and compassion from loving him as I grew older, but I also learned how to protect my boundaries, how I wanted to be loved, and what it means to both be a survivor and be who I am because of his strengths. Fathers are not always easy.

Stroking his hair, time fell away, and I was no longer the adult intimate with his gifts and failings. The more his cold body became real, the more insubstantial I felt, like I was dissipating into a ghost of myself at five or six years old, crumpling his handkerchief and drying my tears. I had not stroked his hair so gently like that for nearly forty years, with the entirety of a child’s adoration and affection. It was visceral and mutual, he adored me then too.

I saw him on Monday in a chance encounter in the Tobago airport. He was fasting for Ramadan and had just swum in the ocean. He looked tall, confident and well for his seventy-six years. We spent time discussing procurement and corruption. He started the conversation by saying he hadn’t seen me write in the newspaper about the new US laws against abortion, and launched into a short speech about how he strongly believed in a woman’s right to choose.

How did he manage to believe that his work with Caribbean governments would change how we strategise, implement and evaluate when it had not as yet? He said, you have to have eternal optimism that things will improve in the region. I looked at him, smiling to myself, so clearly the child of my parents’ politics and commitments, features and mannerisms.

Working at UWI reminds me of my dad, who also once lectured there. I think of him striding long-legged across the field to the mainframe computers on campus, with boxes of punch cards in his arms, while I ran alongside to keep up at six or seven years old. I think of him helping me learn to ride my bicycle on Dash Street, opposite UWI school, where I climbed trees in the lush backyards of campus housing. I think of him calling me ‘sugarplum’ when I would leap into his arms and touch his hair.

Before he boarded the plane on Monday, he retold the story of his happiness on the day I was born. I was the girl he wanted. Now I think I should have taken a picture of us, should have hugged him longer, but all I have is that he kissed me on the cheek and I saw him smile for the last time. He was not perfect, but he was mine.

In the morgue on Friday morning, the pathologist came out with my dad’s heart covered in a bowl in his hand. While he explained the autopsy results, I kept looking at his wrapped heart. This was the heart beating in his body on Monday. This was the heart I wanted to love me. Here for the last time was his heart. Now, there would be only memory and acceptance. No more chances to make anything right.

I was four years old when I stood next to my dad at his mother’s funeral, his handkerchief on his head while he prayed. For the first time I will be there again, on Thursday, his handkerchief drying my tears as he is laid to rest in his mother’s grave.

 

Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.

 

Post 332.

On Sunday, in front of an audience of over a thousand, three young women topped the annual First Citizens National Poetry Slam Final for the first time in eight years.
Remember their names, for often we don’t remember our own poets, despite poetry’s power to save lives, inspire action, and document history as it is being lived.

Alexandra Stewart, whose piece last year represented the voice of our planet advocating for ecological conservation, placed first this time. I thought she well deserved the big prize of $50 000. She was my choice of winner for her poem had a clear message, didn’t over-use rhyme, felt authentic, was well-paced, kept within time, and showed straight up good writing and delivery.

Ironically, it was about the disrespect shown to poets when they are asked to perform for free, or for less than they need to even make ends meet. This is real and all artists in T and T can relate to budgets that include all the costs, but none for musicians and poetry. Her delivery kept it to the point. Artists also have to eat.

Earning second place, Shineque Saunders wrote an emotional piece about being separated from her mother who migrates to help her family survive. Shineque played her mom’s different voices in creative ways, creating a British accent and different name for the woman who migrated and a Trinbagonian accent for the one who remained, eventually bringing the stories of the two together to highlight the sacrifices mothers make again and again for their children. It spoke to a common reality for many today, represented confidently with both drama and flow.

Finally, Deneka Thomas, last year’s winner, placed third with a poem about the character of La Diablesse, showing us how rape can turn women into supposed-monsters. La Diablesse’s typical characterization as seducer of men isn’t just a story of sexuality and danger, but also one of negotiating power out of sexual violence and trauma, one we little hear because this character has remained so demonized and yet so silent in folklore. Redeeming such voices, through style and play, is a feminist act of turning words to power.

As a younger generation stepping in where Paula Obe, Lisa Allen-Agostini, Dara Njeri, Carol Hosein, Ivory Hayes, myself and others once held stage lights, it’s brilliant to see young women nurtured by 2 Cents Movement and, soon coming out of the school tours, setting the standard for spoken word on stage.

The story of young women championing at performance poetry has reasons for capturing our attention. The stage in the Caribbean has always been male-dominated, the lyrics “man” is still a resilient archetype, and so many women who have carried the spoken word movement over these decades and their very names have disappeared from its history.

Spoken word spaces have always been progressive, with young men also advocating an end to violence, speaking about tumultuous or disappointing relationships with their fathers, highlighting child sexual abuse, and analyzing poverty and injustice and much more. Yet, these are also spaces where young women can point to continuing politics of male privilege and the resilient nuances of a boys’ club.

On and off stage, there’s a story of women’s experience as performance poets that remains to be negotiated, transformed and told. That they exist in a community of young men also willing to challenge patriarchal religious authority, ego and silences speaks to the potential of another generation to right earlier wrongs.

The National Poetry Slam is a gathering of another generation’s politics and vision. It’s a gayelle of their lyricism. It feels youthful and fresh, leaving you, not just alive, but hopeful that others care enough to put the world’s challenges to pen and then to perform their call at a microphone.

As part of the wider NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s readings from poets and writers of all kinds, it’s a signal that out there, regardless of your class or sex or sexual orientation or age or race, all you need are words and, like one of those from among us who have been published or are young veterans of the stage, you too can write.

You too can step up to the mic.

 

 

 

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 302.

Keep me company while I remember Anuradha Rekha, known to all as Baby. Baby was an ordinary Indian woman, secondary school educated, one of fifteen siblings, married for thirty-three years, with three grown, good-looking sons of whom she was very proud, and a six-year-old grandson, with whom she would bake on Sundays.

She drew the loyalty of all, including parrots, goats, dogs and ducks, who loved her like children. If you asked Baby, she’d tell you the cow, Gayatri, would call her ‘ma’ when it saw her coming, and you’d have no doubt it was true.

Everyone knew Baby, from San Juan market through Santa Cruz to Avocat waterfall. Almost anywhere you could turn, there would be one degree of separation between you and some unexpected member of her dizzyingly vast family. You’d probably get better treatment across El Socorro and Aranguez if you said you knew Baby than if you were related to the MP.

Even though she was also daughter, sister, in-law, niece, and neighbor, she was matriarch to many. She commanded respect the way that women do, without wielding authority or domination. You could be her age, with more degrees, and feel you were in front of a woman full of sharp smarts you hadn’t yet earned and far more resourcefulness than you.

I was boss, but ten years younger and knew my place. My job was to go out there, do well and earn enough for us both. At home, my role was to do whatever she advised me to do.

She had the rarest of qualities; a capacity to instantly win you over with her kindness and genuine care, mixed with an immense amount of affectionate banter, scandalous laughter and natural zest for life.

Few people could have financial challenges, times of ill-health, and daily ups and downs, and still stand out as the person most likely to bring joy, life and light to others in a room. Few people could request duty-free Scotch, when I passed through the airport, with Baby’s brand of expectant charm.

Baby worked in my house for more than ten years. She was already working there when we arrived and began our family. She didn’t just look after it, she walked in like she was entrusted with it, the way we are entrusted with responsibility of the nation for another generation.

Baby was there when Ziya was born, at home, and immediately decided that she was her first grandchild. Whether cough, fever or unsettled crying, Baby was ready to jharay it away. She’d carry her home, and Zi would emerge plump, powdered and looking proud, with her hair curled in rings like a doll. Baby’s dhalpuri and curry mango was legendary, and she had begun to teach Zi to make aloo pie and roti like a proper dougla beti.

She wasn’t just a ‘domestic employee’, the official name for women who contribute their invaluable labour to others’ households. She was CEO of all that went on in my house, and her thorough system of sorting, folding, packing and more is in every cupboard. Almost as in her own home, her conscientious, mothering spirit is in every room, just as I am sure it touched all the children along her street.

Domestic workers are a category of women workers whose value we underestimate. We highlight stories of those considered successful, such as heroes, national medal winners and business people, as if such women were not the backbone to their lives, and they often go nameless in public recognition and thanks.

I’ve never attended an awards ceremony where the women who cook food, look after children, clean, and hold your greatest reserve of trust, are acknowledged. These women are not just workers relied on to create the conditions for others’ success, they are women without wealth, fame or power, who are also often hidden in history.

My professional advancement relied on her. The labour of such women, and the importance of their friendship, is hardly cited in print and in public, but gratitude for the difference Baby made and the example she set makes me do so today.

She was avid about Play Whe, which was convenient given the regular appearance of snakes and centipedes in our house, and some part of me now feels duty-bound to play a mark for Baby.

If you open a bottle, pour a drop in her name and join me to wish her beloved spirit rest in peace.

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.