On Being a Pagan

Shiva murti at Shango shrine, Block 22, Laventille. 
Attillah Springer, March 2014.

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

Things I learned today while learning to ride a bike

Yeah so this about twenty years late, but better late than never, no? Well I figure if I really want to commit to this hippy life I should at least know how to ride a bike. This is a lot easier than it sounds, but to my surprise I didn’t suck as badly at it as I thought I would and I did manage to pedal a few times.  But it occurred to me as I wobbled along, picturing all the while that I was riding to Spitalfields Market (maybe this is why I was distracted and couldn’t steer straight) that life is a lot like learning to ride a bike. For the following reasons, in no particular order.

1. it hurts sometimes.

2. you need to find balance!

3. you will fall!

4. it really helps to have a boomsie (thank you, starch mango tree)

5. did I mention balance?

6. be patient with yourself, you will get it evenutally (I had a few Don Music moments)

7.  random men will think it’s okay to give you their (unsolicited) advice.

8. when you can’t make it up the hill, it’s always good to have a friend to push you, and steer you away from the potholes.

9. there are potholes and you seem to be attracted to them.

10. laughing helps.

11. everybody looks this stupid at least once in their lives.

12. brakes! don’t forget the brakes.

Anyway, my hands hurt from hours of over-zealous brake application so that’s about as much wisdom as I can impart for now.  all of which is to say that I’m glad that I got over my lameness and actually took the chance to try something new!

On April 21st, 1970

Trinis have a funny funny way of forgetting…Brother Valentino’s song echoes in my head as I watch the March/April bound copies of the Trinidad Express from 1970. I open the hardcover and the first image I see is one of my father.   I wonder if what I see is my own self-consciousness. I imagine that what I see is someone, who like me, is hoping against hope that what he is doing, what he is saying, what he is feeling are the right things.

It’s forty years today. 21st April marks forty years since Eric Williams declared a state of emergency after months of protests against the institutionalised racism, against the Independence promises unfulfilled, against the colonials being replaced with the neo-colonials, against the jaycees perpetually white carnival queens…. It was also the day that the soldiers mutinied, preferring to stand in solidarity with the people than shoot them down.

Yesterday I went to the library, seeking answers to questions that I can’t ask  the parental units.   I put on the gloves and turned the pages slowly, hoping that I would see something that would make the whole thing make sense.

There is nothing that can explain it.  What makes regular normal people wake up one day and think they can change the world.  But I suppose these people are neither regular nor normal. They are not.  They are bizarre. They are probably crazy.

There were many of my days in Babylon-don when my father talked about those times.  Days like that I kind of felt like a confessor as he talked about jail, about the marches. About behind the Bridge. About his mother going to berate Karl Hudson Philips’ father.

He gets angry a lot. Like my mother. Who still can’t speak in complete sentences.  She cries a lot still for people who died. For things I dare not say here.  For her lost youth.  For her mother’s distress.

There are so many disjointed stories. So many incomplete memories.  I don’t know where to start to ask questions, or even if I should.

I am looking through pages in these newspapers. Looking for the other side of the story.  For what the people who were against them had to say.   For the letters to the editor and the commentaries, from the business owners and the downpressors.

There is an image of the meeting in Shanty Town, which was subsequently moved and called Beetham Gardens. There is an image of town burning. There is an image of a black cloth on St. Peter in the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. There is an image of Archbishop Pantin calling for sanity.

I know these stories.  I know these images as if I was there and alive.  But like the holes in the papers caused by decay and disintegration, there are things missing.

Even though they are both writers, I think I have inherited this trait from them. This inability to tell the fullness of the story.  To leave out bits. That may be too personal or painful. There are many things that I still don’t know. That they will probably never let me know. At least I imagine it is so.  I can only imagine the things they did.

I feel like something is missing.  I don’t know how to fill it.  The hole is bigger and hollower still because it is election season.  Because of mountain of shit that is going on in Trinidad right now.

It’s also a year since the Drummit to the Summit.  It’ also a year since Adrian Richards’ murder.

It is the transition to rainy season. And the time when I mark the dawns with both terror and hope.

Who are the true members? Who are the real warriors? How do I find them?  When is the time to write poetry and when is the time to pelt Molotovs?

My father still has the same afro, grey now, but the sides still pat down and the front pointing forward.  My mother is still a warrior queen who would stop at nothing to defend her loved ones, the neighbour down the road, random children, some girl she see that look ahow….  They have no intention of taking off their boots.  I fear that I will get locked into their love for the struggle, when what I want to do is win so that I can engage in random tree-hugging, be a dj and practice my headstands with my nephews.

Perhaps most disturbing is that I have inherited my parents’ inability to sleep between 2 am and 6 am.  From San Juan to Brixton, we wake to watch the night together, alone, in silence or with some haunting piece of jazz as a soundtrack to waking nightmares, shattered dreams of a more hopeful dawn for a promising nation.  There is so much to see and hear.  In this darkness. In this silence.  As for me, I have no idea what I am looking and/or listening for.

I hope they do.

It’s my write.

I’m not sure if I’m accustomed to it yet.  Not having a column to say what’s on my mind.

I gave up my column not for a lack of things to say, but because I put so much of myself into those 800 words every week that there was little else left for any other kinds of writing that I’ve wanted to do since forever.

The future is not as certain as I would like. Now that my flakiness is wearing thin and I realize that, oh shit, I haven’t a parrot on a stick…But the words, the words are there, still in my head.  Trying to find ways to come out.

A dear friend from India read my palm the other day and said I am due for some drastic change of direction in my life.  I’m looking forward to change, hoping that these movements take me closer to the clarity that all the words, all the words I have written in the past ten years have been reaching for.  I still feel that it (whatever it is) is just outside my grasp. I still feel that it is just beyond the next corner.

I guess I have no choice but to keep writing. Keep reaching.  Keep hoping that I get there.

Yesterday I got bored of Facebook.

It’s been interesting watching the responses from close friends to I guess my rather sudden deactivation of my Facebook account.  People want to know if I’m ‘okay’. As if coming off Facebook is some kind of sign of possible madness, depression or some other crisis of social exclusion.

Truly, I’ve always kind of questioned my sanity but not enough to seek professional help.  I mean, who needs meds when there are mangoes and meggies, right?

Anyway, for an addict I seem to be coping really well. Haven’t broken out in sweats or anything and my primary thought all day has to my relief not revolved around creating a witty, thought-provoking status update.  I’m still on Twitter, but it’s never really consumed my life as much as the ole crackbook.

I don’t know what prompted me yesterday to deactivate, maybe it was the full moon, but much like when I stopped eating meat, it was a thought that entered my mind and once it did, I didn’t second guess it or wait for the doubt to set in.

It was a lot easier too, after a week and a half partial fast caused by the sudden and untimely demise of my hard drive.  After the initial distress, I woke up the next morning and started doing the gardening that I’d wanted to do since the beginning of the rainy season.  In the hour that I would ordinarily have spent fiddling around with my page, I managed to sort out my compost heap and chop my way through some weeds, and set up a bed of tomatoes, pigeon peas, and peppers.

I was stunned and quite frankly ashamed of myself to discover just how much time I could waste. Time that I could never regain.  Scary.

When I got my laptop back it was easy to fall back into the same old pattern. It’s easy when it’s your news feed, your grapevine, your companion, your measure of yourself, your propaganda.

But I find myself these days desperately wanting to break out of familiar patterns and my FB addiction is a rather good place to start.

I realise now that I’m writing this that FB encouraged me to write more in sound bites.  Which is not really the best thing if you’ve got a book to get out of your head and you have a woefully short attention span anyway.  Of course there was also the immense element of navel gazing, people macoing, how many times a day can you check one person’s profile-ing.  Luckily for me I get bored easily.  I guess yesterday was the day I got bored with Facebook.  It remains to be seen how long I can sustain the fast.  I now have no clue about friends birthdays, haven’t bothered to check the news and I also don’t have a clue about what is happening in Port of Spain anymore.  I guess if it’s important enough somebody will actually pick up the phone or something.  But for the most part I am enjoying not being caught up in the noise of other people’s lives.

Rain down on Me.

The rain comes like a pleasant surprise on a Thursday night. And you forget the crushing heat of the day. The feeling that you would melt into a puddle of sweat and be evaporated, leaving behind a pile of hair and salt as the only reminders of your existence. When it gets that hot even the hummingbirds forget which way is up. Reason abandons you and all you want to do is think cool thoughts and then you turn on the radio and Papa Patos is saying something to make your brains sizzle.Your plants protest, the fever grass leaves turn into spears protesting that the morning’s offerings were insufficient to survive the day. The ground is dry again. The sun relentless. The ineptitude of politicians unchecked. The emptiness of your bank account consistent. But then the clouds gather because the universe takes pity on your helplessness. A breeze passes to cool your hot brains. The rain comes like a sigh of relief. Making you want to drop everything you are doing and retire to bed where, under the galvanize it sounds like the best possible symphony. Thunder rumbles and you resurrect the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen—chocolate tea with an oily film at the top of your favourite cream chipped enamel cup. The smell of cheese as it melts between a piece of bake.  It’s the simple things you conjure in the magic of night rain.

In the rain listen to a little Lata Mangeshkar, understanding what she sings only from the sheer pain in her voice. It is a love song no doubt, they are always love songs.  Love for God and man and the trees and all the other things that live in your ecosystem. Imagine your plants revelling in the wet earth. In the rain your can hear things growing and you are glad to be here and part of it. Things that set root and push out of the ground. Mangoes and manicous share the joy of the rain. And in the morning after the rain the night before, the pumpkin leaves are bigger and the peppers redder and the pigeon peas a little taller. Mint and tomatoes push purposefully upwards. And if you were a better farmer, you would plant people too. You would sow good politicians and men who love their children and their women. You would plant a crop of humans who would take root in the soil and nourish it. Hold on to it. Give to it and take from it in an endless cycle.

In the rain and the rumbling of thunder that vibrates your bed and the wood of your floor and your old windows and the beautifully rusting galvanize you are glad to live in the tropics. Glad that most of the time it is pleasant enough for you to wander about without having the fix your mind to be in confrontation with nature.  When it rains here, you can dance in it, catch rainflies, squish your toes and hope that some parasite doesn’t take up residence in your nails. The rain continues all night into the morning. Keeping you rooted there. You don’t have to get up to wet your plants. You don’t have a job to be reporting too. It is dark and warm like a womb must have been. You are glad for the extra time. When it rains here people stay home to hug up their loved ones, to find the warmth and love they thought they had lost, to dream dreams that sometimes are missed in the quest to beat the traffic, be productive citizens, join the rat race.

The rain slows us down to remind us of the things that perhaps are more important. The unnoticed things. Things growing and dying and living in our ecosystems that we might not notice in the hum of our electric lights in the concreteness of our jungles. And you hope the rain can wash away the thick film of stink that settles over everything here. You hope that the rain can wash away all the blood, all the disappointment, all the confusion and frustration. You hope that the rains will keep this gentle tempo and not rise into a rushing roaring torrent to punish us for our many many sins. You hope that this rain only brings good things. That this rainy season stays wet but not drowning. Delightfully moist but not too soggy so that the roots of your growing things drown from the excess. Drown before they bear fruit.  Are destroyed by the very thing that gives them life. The rains are tears that bring joy. A necessary sadness to bring new life and make you love the sunlight and the greenness of the hills some more.

Farewell to the King

Heartbreak enemy despise
Eternal
Love shines in my eyes
So let love take us through the hours
I won’t be complaining
’Cause your love is alright, alright
—Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough Michael Jackson

The first man any of us were in love with, notwithstanding Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon. And now that they say he is gone I remember the eighties and long for that innocence again. When my big sister Didi was the coolest person alive. Because she could do the moonwalk and to add insult to injury allowed me with my annoying six-year-old self to lime with her and all her cool friends, not least of all, the boyfriend whose name was, oh sweet Lord, Michael. When Thriller came out and we listened to that record for hours and staged concerts in our living room for a scandalised George Lamming who had, to our own disgust, not yet heard of this marvel called Michael Jackson.
Back then, before the pederasty, before the plastic surgery, before Jacko became wacko, we loved him like a brother. Like a part of the family. He sang for us, for every black child wanting to be great. Wanting to be more than just skin and hair and nose. When those things became tangible talent, superstardom to take to you to moon and back, to soar endlessly. I laughed til I cried years later when Didi was in London and sent me a letter detailing her fainting as he came onstage at Wembley. By then he was thinner and whiter and stranger but still a star. Still worthy of causing my otherwise sensible sister to faint from the sheer emotional exertion of being so close to greatness. He was too great for this Earth. And so he became the joke, the freak show that we all are desperate to avoid. The non-belonging artist on the moon, far out in orbit, trying to get his fans to take the trip with him. No one is that amazing we try to tell ourselves. No one can be so great.
He soars higher still, but we decline the journey preferring to lose ourselves in the driving sex-soaked bass of dancehall and the frustrated realism of hip hop. None can deny though, not Sizzla, not Public Enemy, not Method Man, that the King is the King. His time is gone now, a sacrifice at the feet of superstar gods who demand the ultimate price for such genius. Madness haunts any who dare to fly so high. His face melted like Icarus wings and none of us held out our hands to catch him. And it occurs to me that the thing we robbed him of is the thing he represents the most to all of us. He gave us the happy childhood he never had, haunted as he was by genius madness and demands for those less talented for him to reach never-before-seen heights of superstardom.
He gifted us a less difficult time. A less complicated time when you could be in love with a superstar. When you could dance away your troubles. Back then when you didn’t know every awful gory detail of his life, you couldn’t hear the pain in his wailing. You couldn’t hear the loneliness in his high fragile voice. You could just see the moonwalk as a dance and not a man retreating to some far far place where none of the people who exploited his immense talent could reach him. I mourn not just a singer. I mourn a symbol of my own struggle to know and love myself. How many black people wished they had that Jackson money to change their faces into something that might be more beautiful by someone else’s standards.
How many want to rub out their reflections so that the nightmares do not stare back when they look into the mirror. How many fight demons every day. His heart broke because we didn’t believe in him anymore and I am sure he stopped believing too. Part of me wants to believe that he is not dead. Because he was meant to be immortal. He was meant to transcend this physical place because the Earth was far too puny a place for him. The King is not mere flesh that withers on the bone. The King is pure electricity now. Existing in our nerve endings, infectious and divine. The King stops time and space to make people forget their troubles and dance. Forget their sorrows and dance. Like the first time you heard Billie Jean and wondered what manner of man could make their spirit want to jump out of their skins, just so?
It is the power of music. In that moment of moonwalk nothing else matters. He walks on the moon alone. He trods the superstar road alone. He dies alone. Unrecognisable by those who came to know themselves through his music. Far more than any of us have wished for ourselves. Far more than any of us could have dreamed for him.