Monday, December 10, 2012

My December Dread

This piece on grieving during Christmas time was written for Outlish Magazine and published today.

Sitting in my living room now is a little pine tree called Eve, so named by me because she's an evergreen - the type of tree that is symbolic of a North American Christmas. At Eve's base are a handful of assorted ornaments and a box of lights awaiting my attention to pretty her up. This is a big step for me; this celebrating Christmas thing. Last year, I wanted none of it – people, pastelles (OK, no. That's a lie.), presents, pine trees, and any of the cheer they are all associated with in December. Some might suggest I needed some prayers. 'Tis the reason for the season, after all. However, the spirit world and I were at odds too.

December 16, 2010, my mother's heart failed her and she died alone in our family home. She had spent the 10th day before Christmas buying “all kynah dotishness” in a Pricemart located in west Trinidad. That night we had what turned out to be our last conversation, laughing about her weakness for bulk-buying-encouraging-big-box stores. Most of her purchases would still be in the car trunk to greet me when I made the journey home to bury her. She had bought enough Carnation evaporated milk to make ponche-de-creme every month for the upcoming year, even though it wasn't her drink of choice. She was laid to rest on December 21.

After the funeral I tried to enjoy what I could of the joyous season before I returned to life in Toronto. But my nerves were shot. Smiles were forced in the day, so I could cry alone at night. I couldn't shake the feeling of walking into my house for the first time after I arrived in Trinidad. All around were signs of life interrupted. Mummy had begun the Christmas chores of washing everything in sight, which meant the house was in a disarray. Worst of all, it smelled of nothing. No hot ochro and rice, with plenty pigtail. No lingering Estée Lauder perfume from the night before. Not even bleach. By the time Old Year's Night hit, I couldn't drink the champagne at my disposal fast enough.

My mother loved Christmas for three main reasons: the smell of ham and fresh bread, that someone else gifted to us, the lights (Ooooh. Gooood. That woman did love some icicle lights!), the runway of merriment that it provided towards her real doux-doux, Carnival.

That's why I couldn't bring myself to celebrate Christmas without her after the first anniversary of her death. I put my friends and family on notice, delivered presents weeks in advance, refused Christmas dinner invitations, and booked a seven-day cruise that kept me out of reach until the dreaded day.

“Yuh sure you want to do that?” asked my friend Rejeanne with concern when I shared my plan to stay home alone on Christmas Day, and watch whatever dregs my cable-less T.V. had to offer. I wasn't opposed to holiday movies – after all it was all make believe and required no interaction on my part. Even my partner respected my wishes, making it easier to stand my ground.

Grief is a real kill joy. Statistics show that approximately 150,000 die around the globe each day; yet, during the holiday season the death of a loved one seems to leave a wound that is more raw and slower to heal. Those in the path of the bereaved are torn between celebrating and consoling.

Grief is also ambitious – five stages worth of ambition documented in the late 60s as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. There's no telling what stage – or stages – will be present by the time the first holiday rolls around after a mother/father/grandparent/child has died.

So was I happy with my choice to put the kibosh on Christmas that first anniversary? Yes. I was sad and wanted to be okay with that. From the day Mummy died, all I heard from friends and family with the best of intentions was, “be strong!” And while I discovered the kind of strength it takes to deal with the sudden death of your way-too-vivacious-to-be-gone mother, I needed a break. I know they were just doing their best to support me, but I am grateful that I was also able to express what I needed to do to support myself.

I can think of one more attribute for grief. It's a personal thing. The ebbs and flows are completely dependent on the person having the experience. And even if you haven't experienced a personal loss, you can rely on your compassion skills for guidance. You don't have to say and do the “right” thing – or say and do anything at all. Just be open and accessible.

Lately, Mummy has been occupying my dreams a lot, as the second anniversary of her death approaches. Some dreams paint imaginary events, as if she were still here. In the last slumber-induced episode she was dressed head to toe in an African Carnival costume, chipping behind her beloved steelband, Starlift. Others take me back to the day of her funeral. Seeing her in the coffin for the first time and panicking through wretched cries that the gold hoop earrings I chose for her weren't visible. She never left the house without earrings. Peering out at hundreds of faces my eyes couldn't focus on as I read the eulogy. Standing by the six-foot-deep grave when I had requested nine. Suddenly the Triniology – he gimme ah six for a nine! – all made sense.

Planning a funeral in a Trinidad wrapped up in Christmas preparations is no easy feat. The other three feet for the grave never materialized due to the seasonal skeleton staff in the Woodbrook/Mucurapo Cemetery. A couple opportunistic gravediggers offered their services on the spot , which of course came with an on-the-spot premium price and a request for grog. I declined.

Non-existent funeral personnel wouldn't be so distressing, if death didn't seem so pervasive and prevalent at Christmas time. People just seem to die more as the year comes to close, and in threes. At my office, at least one colleague has lost a relative every year for the three years I've been there. The most recent, Patsy, is a fellow Trinidadian who just returned from saying goodbye to her grandmother at a Hindu cremation. And although she is having a hard time enjoying the soca parang being shared around Facebook, she has two young boys and no luxury to tell Santa to pass back next year.

Some call the November/December death-wave a cleansing to make room for new life. Maybe some are on to something. My cousin's daughter was born two days before Mummy, her grand-aunt, made way for her.

For those reading this, praying for the next two weeks without their beloved to pass, consider this: the time it takes to heal passes with certainty, even though it's uncertain how long that really is. All you can do is be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your mind, body, and spirit are telling you. Listen. Share your wishes with those closest to you. I'm glad I did. Now Eve and I can get our Christmas on this year with lights that would make Mummy smile.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

About that girl...

...Young. Black. To the young black girl on the westbound train around 5:40 this afternoon, you almost made me cry today. Not because of your short shorts or navel breaker (I enjoy at least one of those things in the right time and place). It was the aura around you. I could feel your hostility; see it in your posture. You sat with your feet up on the seat, almost in the lap of the passenger next to you. I suppose I should be thankful that you at least had the courtesy to take your shoes off first.

Your eyes cut across the subway car trained on the people standing, daring them to claim “your” second seat for their own. Save for stolen glances of your reflection in the door across from where I stood, I averted my eyes – several times. But I was supposed to see you. That's what you wanted. Right?

Tell me. Who has broken you to this point where you think that behaviour is acceptable?

... Broken. Black. My emotions kicked into high gear after you left. I saw relief return to the faces of those offended by your gesture. In other faces there was an all too familiar hint of resignation. Shame. That's what my emotions were really about. I don't know your story young black girl, and it's just as well since the tabloids around dinner tables tonight will just label you – STEREOTYPE – anyway.

I've spent the past eight years more aware of my “colour” than ever before – a symptom of moving from the majority to a minority. But along with my consciousness of self comes a consciousness of others, the Black others. I want the best life for myself and for them too. When they stumble, I stumble. Caught being black while wearing a white name, I sometimes I walk into boardrooms too cautiously. It doesn't happen often, but it shouldn't happen at all. Every time I have an encounter like today's, I feel small for us. I feel small as a young black, once a girl, now a woman.


To the young black girl, I would like to share this with you: Black Girl Thriving Tools (Short List) By Kyisha Williams (re-posted from the blog of Toronto artist and activist, Amanda Parris.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rabbit, rabbit killer in disguise?

Passive aggressiveness has resulted in me becoming a cold-blooded killer – in my head.

Through my thoughts, I have shed the blood of many. Young men posturing themselves to claim space while encroaching on my own; people who are clearly afflicted with a condition known as “now I see, now I don't”, resulting in their inability to respect the pecking order of a queue; the cashier who thinks I read “palm” when she glances at me, arm outstretched and points to the money I've just handed her. “Oh, you said $5.59 not $5.29. Sorry,” I mumble, when I eventually decode her message. And one of my favourites, the salesperson who loses all of his charm once he realizes I am walking out out of the store without the shoes and with his commission.

As you can see, I've collected quite the list of victims.

The awareness of my potential to spill blood has piqued over the past seven years. I now live in country where riding public transit is part of my everyday reality and spend a copious amount of time with my thoughts. Like tonight...

After an ugly but productive 12-hour day, I met victim #undetermined – the bus rapper. He disturbed my relative peace so badly that, in a flash, I conjured up this scene:

Me – Standing up to get off the bus and backing into him by accident.

Him - Using the opportunity to pinch my bottom.

Me - Flinging 'round my bodt to spit, "Boy doh mek mih break yuh fuc..."

Oh. Hello? Are you still reading? Awkward.

This is why when I'm pissed off I don't open my mouth or react in the moment. I'm afraid of what I appear to be capable of. All I really wanted him to do was rap a little softer, but instead of saying that I created a vision in my head that allowed me to release my wrath. Yes, I realize it was overkill.

Believe me, I'm well aware that neither habit is healthy. I can't be clenching my teeth all the time to avoid speaking my mind. (According to my dentist, I'm apparently doing a fine job of causing bone damage to my back teeth already. Great.) Nor can I move through the world like Dirty Harry, as much as I envy my friends who don't give an eff and will cuss yuh way if you don't step light.

I'm in search of balance right now, in all things. This passive aggressive tendency is definitely high on the list of things I need to sort out. It's December 1 and I have 24 days left in 2011 to practise. One day at a time. Rabbit, rabbit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Customer Suckthis or Service - depends who you're dealing with

Today I was arrested for aggravated assault – or I could have been had I acted on the thoughts of mass-Customer-Service-Rep-destruction that my mind conjured up. But, the odds were against me. Too many witnesses, a mall full to be exact, and my Bull Pistle was in my other handbag. (Side bar: A Bull Pistle is a whip made from the skin of a bull's penis, and is famous for inflicting the most painful lashes ever imagined. Now you know.)

Make no mistake. The devil is alive and he owns The Phone Company – a proper noun in this case to represent the full spectrum of these service providers around the world. If you pay for land-line/mobile phone service, regardless of where your birth paper was stamped, you have been stabbed with a pitchfork at least once.

As I regarded the two imps regurgitating “blah, blah, can't help you..” and “wahh, wahh, it will cost you more money..”, I took a deep breath and remembered that I was in their position once.

I was a green 19-year-old when I got my first full-time job... at a phone company. With basic customer service experience from holiday retail jobs and a smile, I was at the mercy of the citizens of Trinidad & Tobago. The view wasn't always pretty from the other side of my desk. People get crazy when you stand between them and the thing they want. (Re-read the first paragraph if you don't believe me.) Needless to say, the security guards on duty became my closest allies.

But, I loved my job and was good at it. I listened (to the sad stories, lies, pleas) longer than I needed to; explained (head office policies, bills, payment plans) in as much detail as I could; connected (with eye contact, a kind word, or simple hello). Eventually, I was providing service and building relationships.

That was 11 short years ago, and now that I'm primarily on the receiving end, I feel like today's customer service is like the nice dinner with no foreplay before the slam-bam. Maybe I got out just in time... before I got jaded.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

“It's not like I'm the only person in the building who smokes pot!”

No – those aren't my words. First to begin, I would not say “pot”. And secondly, I'm not an obnoxious cell phone user.

I had the pleasure of sitting in front of one of those people on my way home this evening; those people who make you wish you could launch razor thin tranquilizer darts into their voice box from the back of your head silently and surreptitiously.

The irony of my unwanted interaction with the offending passenger reads like poetry. I was on my way home from a forum on the importance of public space. Up for discussion was who can do what where; who pays to maintain the where; who determines the what; and the fundamental difference between the private and public realm. And up in the private space of my thoughts all I could hear was her - the bane of my streetcar ride home.

People have written about public cell phone use etiquette ad nauseam. Why do I have enough rant worthy material for a blog post?!

Voice level, subject matter, language – they all matter when your audience is stuck with you in a confined public space.

I don't care that you're soooooo tired, especially when I'm soooooo tired (and sick!) and just trying to unwind in spite of your presence. Manners maketh the wo(man).

Maybe if “the old lady” in your building did call the police to bust you for smoking pot, we would never have met.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Independence and the vacuum cleaner

You know your life passport has a valid visa to adulthood when you rush out of work to buy a vacuum cleaner on sale.

She's a tiny beauty, just like the first place I get to call my very own. But, she almost didn't make it home with me.

I arrived at the store well in advance of closing, but failed to consider the masses who also retrieved the sales flyer in their mail the day before the end of the sale as I had.

Precious minutes sailed by as I frantically fumbled around browsing shoppers for the correct aisle. I finally relented and relied on the guidance of a customer service attendant to set me on course – then panic set in. The shelf was empty. There were 26 in stock when I checked at lunch!

I gripped the crumpled flyer in my hand, as my eyes darted from the empty shelf to every other vacuum brand in stock except the one I had my sights set on. My trance was suddenly broken by the feeling I was being watched. As I met the downcast gaze of another customer, I noticed she had my vacuum in her hands. If you ever doubted whether women mark and guard their territories, enter the shopping zone during a sale. I wanted to ask her where she got the prized item but badmind took over. Why didn't she just tell me, eh?!? Clearly she is trained in the art of mind reading with her eyes all shifty-like.

When our dance in the aisle ended, I noticed two boxes resting neatly above eye level. Rejoicing on the inside, I felt comforted knowing that I too would get to leave the store a vacuum owner.

Collection of cleaning apparatus - complete; new passport stamp – check.

Monday, August 22, 2011

State of emergency

As I post, Trinidad should be a ghost town. Hours ago, people hustled to make their way home before the government-imposed curfew at 9 p.m.; or opted to take the high-road by adopting our infamous “bounce me nah!” attitude (one that causes us to test the limits in any given situation) to knock back some drinks at a favourite watering hole. After all, this wouldn't be the first time Trinidadians have faced a curfew and limed through it.

News of the “limited state of emergency” came to me the way I receive most of my up-to-the-minute information these days – Facebook and Blackberry Messenger status updates. “Spectating” from Toronto, I felt disconnected and sad. I knew my home, more specifically, my neighbourhood would appear on the list of “hot spots” under suspicion from the police.

I grew up in Belle Vue on a breezy hill. To this day, regardless of the place or time, any feeling of a warm breeze against my skin immediately transports me back to Sunday afternoons filled with the smells of sugar being burnt to prepare stewed chicken, the sight of our living room curtains billowing over me as I napped on the couch, and the sounds of rockers (reggae) being carried through the air.

I knew all of my neighbours, even sampled their pots from time to time. I was known as Ms. Esther's daughter, the woman who drove the Datsun Sunny, and felt respected and protected (of course boys will be boys and as developing girl I received my fair share of “psst.... family/darkie/glasses/slim” propositions over the years.)

Like my own, many of the families in the neighbourhoods' three areas (Belle Vue, Dundonald Hill, Debe) were kept a float by a single parent. While income levels ran low, for the most part, we had our own privileged class living among us - a common characteristic in countries of the developing world. Truthfully, there were times when even I felt privileged as I was driven to school by my mother wearing the uniform of a “prestige school” and enjoyed regular nights eating out. Around Christmas time, hard up for work, young men and women who came to our home looking for odd jobs left with some small payment and bags filled with extra goodies that mummy gave without judgement.

But....the criminal element was always there. There were gangs and gang leaders who assumed reptilian pseudonyms. Some were before my time and apparently tame in comparison to those of today. You were sure to find a piper (drug addict) in your yard at some point raiding your fruit trees or lightening up your clothes line. I knew the smell of weed from early on, had even seen my very own “homemade” gun, and never mistook the sound of a firecracker for that of a gunshot. But, I wasn't scared.

Then a shift started taking place. It started within me. I started noticing how often our garbage remained stinking at the entrance to the trace leading to my house; how many times we didn't have water but Federation Park did just a stone's throw away. I was seeing boys become men while liming on the block, instead of in their careers; girls become hardened women, scarred from too many baby fathers.

The neighbourhood changed. Soon enough, we had our first break-in – the ultimate betrayal. Even though I was already living abroad, I felt violated. But more than anything, I was livid. Things were escalating and there seemed to be an undercurrent pulling the area down.

Today, my little island with all its "hot spots" desperately needs a new shift. The challenges are not unique (the gap between the rich and poor, lack of opportunity, broken families) but, if left unattended, they will leave irreparable damage.

While it is unknown whether any real difference can be achieved in two weeks, it's better than not trying something. New Trinidad map (I stole this link from a friend's Facebook profile.They say if you don't laugh, you will cry.)