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.

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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Sunday night. Monday morning

Post 223.

For Jouvay, I was Death playing mas in Trinidad. Roaming the road, sharp silver scythe in hand, culling those closest to the ground, and knowing neither law nor sin.

I was also Woman, entangled in a long skirt, made of shredded, black garbage bag, for those used and discarded, refused, their pains mere abandoned detritus in the wake of killings. Carrying death’s scythe as a sign of its shadow overhead, like a cross to bear.

Such is the schizophrenia of living in Trinidad and Tobago. Grieving amidst violence, with more than one murder a day, and historically-familiar rhythms of dark-night mourning, where women birth the lives that death takes away.

Lest we forget. Three boys in particular were on my mind. Jodal Ramnath, Denelson Smith, and Mark Richards. Jodal, six years old, killed within minutes of the New Year by gunmen shooting with high-powered rifles from the roof of a nearby school. Real life midnight robbers, missing poetic license. Then, judged by a population which hypocritically ropes off pretty mas for those with money, as if little Jodal’s photos of dressing up in gold, like a King costume, excused the coast guard, the police, the political parties, the shotters and the drug men from their responsibility to prevent harm to our children.

Later, Denelson Smith and Mark Richards killed in their school uniform by devils who come out for pay. Imps terrifying the young, with neighbourhood crossroads like judging points with scores counted and winners declared.

As Death continues to stalk through region and town, in now year-round fetes with dames, tiefs and dark souls in glittering clothes, Justice seems to have taken to an armchair, like many others watching the macabre dance on TV.

For the insight it offers, post-Carnival, I want to hail out Jouvay’s mirror to darkest ourselves, and its metaphor for restless hope for a new day. For, when else could I or anyone else express freedom and pain, in public, in the dead of night, while passing the walled yard of sacred graves, wondering if it is still possible to save ourselves, heart beating hard at how, for some, it is already too late.

Jouvay’s mas and masking traditions often get eclipsed by the ‘pretty mas’ of Monday and Tuesday. Beyond standard images of muddied revelers, Jouvay’s mas, which is as political as it is personal, as transgressive as it is stylish, is least likely to make it into Carnival magazines, for grim commitment to mixing anger with splendor isn’t easy to package, sell or consume. Yet, here one can find stories of iron meeting iron, hardship meeting creativity, contradictory realities meeting the next step with no easy resolution ahead.

This was evident in 3 Canal’s band, Blk.Jab.Nation, where it was clear that many played a mas they individually imagined. Amongst women, there were hand painted masks, translucent cloths top-knotted and then slung over women’s faces, and mesh veils sewn, like brides’ own, to hang from men’s bowler hats, in a runway of women’s masking on parade. To see masking re-emerge is to witness a counterpoint to the contemporary focus on cosmetics for Carnival. As more and more women get their makeup professionally done, masking becomes more important to see and be seen on terms that the male gaze cannot easily penetrate, or get access to without consent.

Among women were also those bare-chested and covered in black paint. One woman in nothing but a regular panty, defiantly taking back the night in a world where women’s sexual safety relies on them covering their bodies in fear and shame, where consent means too little without an end to all sexual vulnerability and violence.

Lest we forget, there is history and richness of masquerade in Jouvay that prettiness cannot encapsulate. This haute couture ruins an aesthetic of colourful sequins, opting instead for a different language with which we can work out what it means to be brown and black bodies negotiating darkness, womanhood, motherhood, beauty and community in pursuit of our humanity.

Crick. Crack. Having played its mas, may Death now tire and offer respite, leaving Woman, already entangled with too many aching memories and stories, to tend to her days of unaccustomed strife.

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Post 218.

I’m hoping that the partner of Ricardo Jerome, who is the mother of his child, and who was documented being savagely kicked and beaten in a public place, remains safe during the time of his court-allowed visits for Christmas and New Year’s Day.

I was astounded by magistrate Debbie-Ann Bassaw’s decision, wondering what allowing a batterer family time means. Does violence break the family contract or does fatherhood justify continued belonging regardless of how brutal the violence? Do mythic ideals of family, fatherhood, motherhood and Christmas trump hard realities of accountability and safety?

Can a boy child and his mother who have, in their own home, been witness to and victim of repeated brutal domination have a family Christmas defined by trust, care and love? What kind of love is so violent? And, what does such violence teach about family and love?

Anyone who has experienced family violence knows that it becomes normalized. It’s easy to learn to love those who are not nice to you, who are abusive to you, who neglect your rights and rightful feelings, and who love you in ways that hurt. It’s easy to become disassociated from your emotions, to forget how to differentiate your needs from others, and to lose familiarity with being in control of your life. Standing up for yourself comes with all kinds of self-blame, even if preventing such violence isn’t your responsibility.

Women stay for many reasons, none of which are ‘liking licks’, but rather compassion for their abusers, hope for change against all odds, deep self-devaluation, dependence and fear. Trauma isn’t lived in logical ways, and it takes great space and time away from those relationships to see a self that is possible outside of their rigid frame.

In deciding to send this woman-beater home, whose interest was being served? And, what was at stake in his partner saying yes or no, presumably in the moment, as she was called by police when the matter came up, wasn’t given sessions with a counselor first, and was made responsible, and therefore blamable, as woman and mother. This in the context of one daily newspaper even putting her status as ‘victim’ in quotes in its headline as if it’s a matter of debate. If not victim, then what?

Was there any psychological assessment done of batterer, partner and son to determine if this was the right protocol? Was that information available before the police called Jerome’s victim? Decades of data point to the difficulty women face in denying their abusers access to them, to the repetitive violence through which women stay before finally finding capacity to leave, and to women’s greater risk for their life when they really do break the pattern in which they are entrapped.

How could responsibility for that decision be placed on a woman who has not yet managed to powerfully refuse and permanently escape persistent abuse?

Here, the state should have honoured the protection order without question. You don’t send batterers back those they regularly beat up, and think that won’t add to a cycle of tolerance for relationships that leave bruises. The state should be the one to say no to violence with impunity, and that means refusing to allow abusers back into families without having to show real, sustained change. And, if family time is so cherished, safe spaces should be provided by state services for families to meet under supervision, over the course of counseling and not at home. It’s not in a child’s interest to see such trauma and torture overlooked by any of those concerned.

Do you remember being a boy or girl child and how much your heart trembled by hurts no one wanted to talk about, or wanted to excuse or pretend were over the next day? Do you remember what is like to carry such emotional confusion without resolution, and to be caught in your parents’ dysfunction, powerless to do anything to make it go away? Amidst these unresolved tensions, is such a family and home really safe?

Today, before Christmas, harms like this weigh on my heart. I wish true peace and love to all. May the New Year support and sustain us in the right start.

 

 

 

 

Post 216.

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Photo credit: Nadia Huggins

For last Sunday’s #POStoParis march, I suggested Ziya’s sign should say ‘Stop Climate Change’. After all, the march from Nelson Mandela Park and around the Savannah was in solidarity with hundreds of thousands gathered across almost 180 countries to convince world governments, particularly China, the US and India, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. These are considered to be at the heart of global warming’s effects: bleaching and death of coral reefs, melting of Arctic icebergs, intensifying of both storms and droughts, and increases in asthma and other illnesses.

Zi went for something with effective keywords, but incomplete sentence structure: ‘Consequences of pollution for Trinidad and Tobago’. The propagandist in me blinked at her ambiguous messaging. The grammarian in me decided to let it go, she’s five. The mother in me noted that her teachers’ efforts to give lessons about consequences, usually in relation to keeping quiet or one’s desk clean, had traveled across her brain to map onto pollution, and indeed its consequences.

Negotiations are currently happening in Paris at what is officially called the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simply put, widespread hope is that whatever role carbon, methane and man-made pollutants are playing in harming our earth will be reduced, with an eye to the delicate balance sustaining health and life on our planet.

Wherever you fall in the climate change debate – that it is man-made and happening, that it isn’t man-made and nothing definitive is happening – these are important moments for creating a public open to rethinking our approach to plastics and recycling, industrial emissions and waste, and protection of key areas for conservation.

Sunday’s march followed one organized last year by IAMovement, a new group led by visionary young people. Their nascent efforts follow a long tradition of environmentally conscious organizing in Trinidad and Tobago, usually by small groups of committed individuals making a larger difference than expected, whether in relation to reforestation of the Northern Range or protection of the Nariva Swamp. Larger than last year, this time only about four hundred people came together to show such ecological consciousness remains alive.

There were many children, but visibly missing were those from Trinidad and Tobago’s vulnerable classes, from Sea Lots and Beetham Gardens. Also missing were fishing communities from Caroni and Mayaro, as well as unions like the OWTU who haven’t yet asserted power, as workers, to reduce the ecological costs of their industries. So, one of the challenges for this still-small public is to continue to grow nationally.

Those that are poorest remain the worst affected by climate change, such as when food prices rise because of drought. Governments most take on these issues when masses march, for decisions are rarely made because they are right but because they matter to voters. The quality of our air, rivers, seas and ecosystems is perhaps our most truly unifying issue, for generations of children could suffer, despite schooling, neighbourhood, jobs or colour, because we were too busy feting or fighting to focus on our duty to future citizens.

Toward a Paris agreement, Trinidad and Tobago has developed a Carbon Reduction Strategy for power generation, transportation and industrial sectors. The strategy is meant to be consistent with a National Climate Change Policy. Its goal is to reduce emissions from these sectors by 15%, and transportation emissions by 30%, by 2030.

This is an underwhelming step in the right direction, based more on our ranking number 62 in the world if classified by national greenhouse gas emissions than the other, inconvenient truth that we are the second highest producer of emissions per person. Transport contributes less than ten percent of such pollution. So, how will we actually decouple emissions from economic growth in a petro-state?

Turns out, Zi’s keyword was dead on. What will be the consequences of the COP21 not reaching consensus on reduction of carbon emissions, alternatives to fossil fuels and protecting forests? Are there consequences for a government which fails to fulfill our own carbon reduction strategy? And, in the end, who will face the consequences of man-made climate shifts? See what is missing from Zi’s sentence. Then, see what answer fits.

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Artwork by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. Layout by Kathryn Chan.

Post 214.

Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.

For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.

I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.

That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.

Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.

It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.

In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?

Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.

How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.

For a reflection on the Symposium ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations’, organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine, see Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan’s review in the Stabroek News.