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.

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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.

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 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.

Post 281.

For all its imperfections, the Guardian has been good to me. In 2012, Editor Judy Raymond offered to publish my diary about working motherhood. Since then, I’ve encountered many, mostly mothers, who were emboldened by someone writing about the quiet, isolated experiences and emotions that they have, but feared weren’t important or collective enough for public print.

Grandmothers have seemed to be my most regular readers. This often left me negotiating badass with good beti even while the radical example and words of older, wiser feminist foot soldiers, including those in hijab and those leading domestic worker unions, emboldened me.

I began in Features, yet my sense of citizenship often led my diary to political analysis and advocacy. Slowly, as Ziya grew, I had space to think about more than sleeplessness, breastfeeding, baby steps and birthdays. Like most women, including ones whose educational and occupational empowerment seems to set them to achieve everything women could want, I worried about being a good mother, making ends meet and managing my career. This continues, even with just one child, having had to live with the loss of not having more.

Yet, I rebelled, writing in 2014, “Some days you spend whole conversations on love and sex. Other days you connect ethically and emotionally with other women over delays in passing procurement legislation, the state failure and corruption that has allowed illegal quarrying, and the social and economic costs of badly planned urban development. When women resist because representation remains our right and responsibility, some days our diaries will say nothing about husbands or babies”.

Still, the column wasn’t not focused enough on governance, in the style of my long-time UWI mentor Prof Selwyn Ryan. Indeed, I was composing fictional creation-stories, delving into the deeply emotional art of Jabs such as Ronald and Sherry Alfred, and Fancy Indians like Rose and Lionel Jagessar, and still mulling over marriage, fatherhood, primary schooling, connection to nature, and love.

I thought hard about genre and experimented with writing. The form of a diary is so often associated with women’s private thoughts and feelings, held close and secret with a small symbolic lock. Bringing this genre into the public domain was a deliberate act against male-defined Op-Ed expectations which position the oil sector, the constitution and politics as the serious topics of the nation.

For most people, managing family life, feeling safe in their homes, and negotiating aspirations and disappointments matter most and are the most pressing issues in their lives. The diary moved from Features, taking these concerns with it, and challenging divisions between public and private, and their unequal value.

The form also built on historical examples of colonial logs, and journals such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which I read as a graduate student, but with substance grounded in emancipatory, Caribbean feminist observations and Political Leader-less, worker and citizen people-power.

Readers wrote to me, wondering if I was a PMN, a UNC, a COP, a knife and fork Indian, too Indian, and too feminist. Amidst calling for an end to child marriage, programmes to end violence against women, and policies to protect women workers from sexual harassment, I wrote twenty columns in which lesbians were named as part of the nation and region, precisely because no one else would, because every woman matters, not just the ones that meet patriarchal expectations, and because these women, who were not allowed to exist in law, would here defiantly exist in public record as having the right to be.

I learned that to write a diary, which wrestles with life, love, rights and justice, is to risk repetitive, aggressive attack. I owe Editor Shelly Dass public thanks for skillfully stopping Kevin Baldeosingh from using the Guardian to legitimize his bizarre and obsessive stalking of me in the press, always to harm.

I’ve grown, as has Ziya, in these pages. I’ve learned to look around the landscape, appreciating all its heartfelt and difficult growing pains, like my own, in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Diary of a Mothering Worker departs from the Guardian, but will continue to walk good, gratefully carrying the lessons from Guardian and its readers’ years of nurturing wrapped in its jahajin bundle.

 

Post 230.

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Our school children marked a milestone this week. Some survived the experience of SEA. Some became the ones about to enter their time of preparation and pressure. Some, like my sapodilla, finished just her first year of primary school.

Up to December, she would cling on with both arms and both legs when I tried to leave her at assembly, and her tears would follow me to my desk at work. I’d rue all the constraints faced by mothering workers, and sit staring at my computer screen, bereft even though I knew Zi was likely to be onto a different emotion moments after I left.

Children are resilient. They both can and have to figure out on their own how to be all right, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to be there all the while doesn’t persistently tug on your heart.

I spent the year hearing about the seemingly daily making, breaking and making back up of best-friendships, and which boys got into trouble with Miss. Over this time, Zi came home talking about honesty, hygiene, hydroponics, homophones and much more. She learned those hand-clapping, sing-song games that generations of school children have taught each other, away from parental socialization, constituting a peer culture that crosses the region. Shy in front of strangers, she came third in her school calypso competition. She didn’t even blink about going up on stage. In the end, we underestimated her capacity to be brave.

A little person grew up just a little. Might other parents feel this way at the end of a school year? Nothing profound about it, just that milestones were crossed, while we’ve watched, trying to figure out that balance between being there and letting go.

Both Stone and I met Zi at the end of her final day of this first year. Ten years ago, when we were young, I was a poet and he was a DJ. I wrote him a song whose lyrics were plain and certain: ‘We are on every quest together. Our nest can withstand any weather. We live best with love as our shelter. Two little birds of a feather, who are blessed. I love you so endless. Endless’. Now, we are three.  We make up her nest, and these chances for togetherness don’t come again.

We walked over to the field where I played when I was exactly Ziya’s age. She climbed on the metal jungle gym, and swung upside down, as I had climbed on thirty-seven years ago, with scars to prove it. The saman tree still stood overhead, and I wondered if Zi would have the same childhood fantasies I did, imagining that fairies lived at the mysterious, unreachable top of the trunk.

A few weeks ago, she started talking about how she wished her toys would come to life. For me, it was Enid Blyton and the Faraway Tree series. Today, it’s Doc McStuffins. As I stood under the saman’s shade with her, I felt like I was in a strange time loop; the same age, same space, same metal jungle gym, same uniform, and the same galaxy of branches overhead.

Four decades separated our crossing of childhood milestones. There was no way I could have predicted the circuitous path that led me back here, and looking at the time between us, I cannot begin to fathom the twisty route that she will travel over her own forty years.

Our children’s test marks signal how well they did that day, not how hard they worked or where their passions and skills will lie, nor the extent to which they are truly blossoming, but at their own pace. We should be proud of them for trying, following through, and learning the myriad minutia that children have to.

These little persons navigate untold complications of adults’ world, grow up a little along their own circuitous routes, and enter and complete new challenges we all know are not easy. That last day, I made sure to be there because endless love and pride is all that I think one such little sapodilla wanted from me.

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Post 226.

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There’s that Sunday afternoon spent folding still-warm children’s clothes when the next piece you lift and shake out is so small in your hands that you know it is now outgrown. It’s a moment hard to even mention to others, it seems so insignificant, so inevitable and so ordinary. This isn’t the first time you’ve changed the sizes that fill the drawers. The just-born sleepers were soon replaced, the onesies were eventually considered too tight, the two year old’s T-shirts became too short. All began to look like they had shrunk when really a small, warm body had lengthened and filled.

Maybe you stopped and looked deep into your memory then, just as now. Maybe you crushed those clothes to your nose, closing your eyes and breathing in their smell, just as now. Maybe you suddenly heard a clock chime the passing of weeks or months or years, but it’s hard to remember if those moments held your breath as much as this one. Now, you are standing by yourself, surrounded by bright yellow humidity, your hands holding the crumpled clothes as if you could stop the reverberations of that chime from disappearing.

All you can think about is how we measure time by seconds and minutes, by light and dark, by rotations of the earth and the moon. These are discussions easy to have with others, for they are established through scientific, public and impersonal measures. What you mention to only a few are the little marks on the inside of the wooden cupboard door that record changes in height with whatever marker was available, sometimes red, blue or purple. There was such excitement about those recordings. Big efforts to stand tall with heels against the frame, wide eyes looking up as if to see if the mark had to move places before its even made. Pride and display at the smallest of changes and everyone agreeing on the relationship between those calculations and pure joy.

What you’ve probably not shared with anyone at all are the moments when the clothes in the basket, just bigger than the size of your hand or the length of your forearm, signal the dusk of one age and the dawn of another. One pink and black, long-sleeved pajama feeling like sweetest sorrow materialized, for all the times it was worn were precious, but not so much as when you experience them as fleeting, as you do now.

Right then, all you can think about is how you quietly measure time by centimeters, socks that migrated to the dolls’ dress up box, vocabulary changes, capacities like braiding hair or tying shoelaces, and clothes grown too small. What a curious clock, with these strange indicators, whose chime brings you back to the present only to cause you to slip away to the past precisely because you are aware you have reached a once only-imagined future.

Caught between the magical and mundane, you are even a little self-conscious that someone might come in and look at you sideways, for standing mid-way in the room, bizarrely cupping a tiny cotton outfit to your face, like an oxygen mask. Even if you explained, they might not understand, agree with or honour your symbols for changing seasons and for shifts that don’t affect anything as important as commodity prices, though they still you in your step, renewing your sense of priorities.

This is every day, every week parenting. Nothing extraordinary or special. Yet, I know I’m not alone. I know children whose mothers saved a lock of their baby hair, who forty years later can unfold their first baby clothes.

There must be others like me, who have stood amidst clean laundry, wondering where the years went, with something in hand more beloved than expected because of how fast those years have flown.

I know there are others, caught up with jobs, deadlines, extra-curricular activities, chores, meetings and concerns about the state and economy, who also realise that it’s the meanings we hardly quantify or discuss in newspaper Op Eds that can appear in fading shafts of afternoon light as what really matters. Those warm clothes, warmly and lovingly held, no longer found where they used to be.