Maybe you have heard the story of the bird who tried to put out a flame. If you haven’t, then listen as I tell it to you now. The king, Nimrod, had set a huge fire and thrown the Prophet Abraham into the flames to kill him in punishment for his faith. A bird perched on a tree saw the flames and wanted to put out that flame. .It flew to the river and took a few drops of water in its beak and threw them on the flames. Back to the river it went and brought a few more drops, dashing them on the flames, back and forth and then again. A crow perched on a tree nearby saw the bird flying back and forth with the few drops of water and mocked it saying, “What can a few drops of water do to put out that flame? You are trying to do the impossible.” The bird replied, “When I die and go before God, He will not ask me if I put out the flame. He will ask me., ‘What did you do?”
There was a period of time in Guyana’s political history when the government chose to place a ban on all imported items. This placed a heavy burden on the people who had to find ways to cope with the new life style of having to make do. Life was a constant battle. I had to learn to make clothes for my children and myself. In addition I made every single item of linen in the home – linens, bed linen, tea towels, cushion covers, curtains with cheap materials bought at exorbitant prices on the black market. Answering to the creative urge that refused to be submerged, I acquired new skills. As the politics changed, so did the culture. Markets re-opened, resulting in cheap items from China pushing those old skills into oblivion. No one wanted to learn the old fashioned, anachronistic skills anymore. Technology took over and fingers that were extremely facile on the keyboard were useless with needle and thread. Me? I was never any good with the keyboard.
After fifty-seven years and many thousands of students later I retired from teaching, my life-long profession. Retirement never posed a threat as I had dreamed of what I might do to stay occupied. I thought of doing something for charity. Using YouTube, I started making jewelry which I sold. The proceeds ($3,600:00) I donated to an ORPHAN SPONSORSHIP program. The money gave four orphans for a period of time enough for food, clothes, books for school and for their incidentals. However, I had to stop with this as it was affecting my eye sight.
But the creative urge caught up with me again and I taught myself water color painting. The greeting cards which I made, I sold. Under my daughter’s tutelage, I learned to use acrylic paints and painted pictures which I sold to friends and family members. The proceeds from all these efforts were used in a specific charity project which will be described if you read on.
I nave attached a few pictures of the cards and the acrylic paintings that I did.
Now into our lives comes the Covid pandemic and we are in lockdown. I read of people. getting bored, depressed, overweight, fractious, angry, resentful, scared, even divorced. I didn’t want those things for me . With renewed vigor, I started a new project in the year of Covid. . I named it WATER FOR LIFE PROJECT. From the sale of greeting cards, and acrylic pictures, I raised enough funds to complete my project.
It was one of the more enjoyable and productive time periods in my life. I painted for hours at a time answering to the creative urge. My husband would sit on the swing nearby and look on. In May of 2020, I donated $3000.00 to Zakaat Foundation of America to provide clean water to a place where none was accessible. The foundation chose the village of Kulela, Pusiga District in Ghana. They dug a well for the villagers. The women you see in the picture now do not have to walk three or more miles to fetch jars of water for their daily use. This well has freed up time for them to plant, to earn, to look after their children and more importantly, have clean drinking water, which will.prevent water borne diseases.
My new project is to raise enough funds for either another well or to support project “ Education for Women”. The aim of the latter project is to supply the school where they live with sewing machines that will be used to teach women and young girls how to sew. With this skill at their finger tips, they can open their own tailoring and dress making businesses or be employed in a garment factory. They can earn money to raise their standard of living.
I’m now making embroidered items for sale as well as the greeting cards. You see dear reader, those anachronistic skills can now, in some small way, help someone , somewhere. I use the different skills in the card making process- water color, gouache, card crafting, crochet, pressed flowers and beading. There is also, an element of Islamic belief that motivates me. This kind of charity is known as “Sadaqah Jariyah”. “Sadaqah Jariyah” is a charity that goes on into perpetuity. The Prophet (SAW said that providing people with water has huge rewards for anyone who does this deed. Education is also seen as a “sadaqah jariyah” because it will help women to acquire a skill that will go on to help them earn for their families.
It would disturb me if it were to be thought that this blog post is to blow my trumpet. In Islam, the acts we do for charity must be for their own sake only and not to be broadcast. My niece and my daughter have nagged me into sharing this experience. Also, those family members and friends who helped me along the way will know how much their kindness has done. And most importantly……
Like the bird that tried to douse the flames with a few drops of water, I try too.
I know in my heart that my efforts are like a drop in the ocean of poverty and want and need. But dear reader, I will know that I tried.
My thanks and gratitude go out to all my family and friends who have supported me in my efforts. You too will share in the blessings.
For my children and their children, and for my siblings and their children and grand children
“Allahu nur us samah wati wal ardh” (Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.) “Our Lord, You are Light. Your face is Light. Your hijaab is Light. Your throne is Light. You are the source of all Light. Like a candle that lights a million others And never loses its own brilliance, You Light up the heavens and the earth. Without Your Light we are doomed to hopeless darkness The darkness of blind ignorance (jahl) The darkness through which we flounder, like lost souls, grasping at the impermanence of this world. Shine Your Light above me, around me Like the sun at noontide over a column Dispersing the shadows of ignorance that wait to claim me.
Our Lord! I am Your vessel. Fill me with Your blessed nur. And just as a vessel must pour only what it contains, Just as a cup gives form only to the water in it, Let me pour Your Light through everything I do. My hands to be guided to do Your will, My intellect to perceive the difference between “ilm” and “ jahl”, My tongue stayed from lies and backbiting and slander, Alight only with Your truth, My feet guided by Your Light To the “siraat-ul-mustakeen” The path of the believer, My eyes to perceive that it is Your Light Which creates the beauty of of this world. Set my heart aglow So I can reflect Your love, Your knowledge, Your kindness, Your generosity, Your mercy. Let Your light be my Imaan.
Our Lord, When I have absorbed your Light, I cannot change. Just as bread cannot go back to being grain. Neither can silk go back to being a cocoon.
Our Lord, Be my everlasting source of light.” Ameen
Note: The word “hijaab” refers to anything that covers or hides or veils. It is the Quranic term that refers to a curtain that protects one from view. The Arabic word for a woman’s head covering is “khimar”.
This essay is dedicated to a group of very special students of mine.
A few days ago, I received this email from someone who is now a retired CPA living in New York and who had been my student in the high school, where I taught many, many (nearly 50) years ago. I had been in the fortunate position of having been the English and Literature teacher of a group of students for five years ( from forms 1 to 5) and I got to know them like I do my own hand.
The email with a link to an article, reads, “We can all can relate to this article. To all the book worms (we did not use any other euphemism) it remains glowing tribute to all who were in her class together.” My first week in high school I learnt three words – portrait , tresses and cascade. We had to write a self portrait. The other words were from either Kuntie or Mantra in their essay.. She wrote – “Her tresses cascade like a waterfall.”
I knew then I was way behind everyone and I had a lot of catching up. So I secretly started to read mostly romantic (girly) novels that were readily available. That was the beginning of my education. But most importantly, I am more grateful to Miss than I can say without a shadow of doubt. All us are forever indebted to her. To Miss – “Thank you !”
They all left my supervision after they had written the GCEs and graduated from high school. They fondly refer to me as “Miss” after nearly fifty years. A few of them are grandparents now and my hair is silver. We write or call each other often. One of them lives close by and provides me with fresh vegetables, and comforting conversations and dinner at her home.
To understand this relationship that has lasted 50 or more years, I must tell you about them. They all came from a farming background. The high school served a catchment area of about 20 miles being equidistant between the two extremities. Most of them living more than three miles in distance came by bus, or rode bicycles to school. Those who lived within a three mile area walked to school.
Their parents were, in the main, rice farmers or owned market gardens. Some were children of cane cutters in the sugar estate. Mostly they were poor people who were happy to see their children in high school. They understood the importance of an education because they had none themselves and manual labour was their lot. They were all just out of primary school, frightened and big-eyed with anticipation when I met them in my class on that first day. After all, it was their first day in high school. I was scheduled to teach them Literature and English. English was not their first language. Creole was.
The small details of those first years in the classrooms are now lost in the byways of my memory. But many things stand out.
Lesson # 1: Any good teacher must have eyes in the back of her head.
Things must be written on the black board with white chalk. Fifty years ago, there were no copying machines, no materials to help in lesson prep. No duplicating machines. The school budget did not run to such luxuries as text books for teachers or for students. Computers and laptops were still tip-toeing in the dim future waiting for a younger generation. Everything had to be written on the board.
My back is turned to the class as I write. This is time for Dixie to let loose among the girls his match box motor he had made the night before. Or for Carlton to dig a hole in the wall separating two classrooms to spy on the girls on the next form room and then wonder aloud afterward why “coolie” girls sit so badly in class.
This is also prime time to haul out the rice and curry they brought for lunch and begin to eat with the food bowl under the desk or hidden behind a book. I can hear someone saying, “Gimme a mouthful nah.” Lunch break is two long hours away. As I am done writing and turn around to them, they are all seated looking at me innocently.
A. reads a Mills &Boon novels in class hidden behind her textbook. Let me tell you now, her English is flawless. She and Camilla were desk mates and Camilla it was who brought to class the Mills and Boon novels. The surreptitious reading she did also resulted in her A grade in English at the GCEs.
Lesson #2: In assigning work, never ask a stupid question like, “Should we or shouldn’t we?” when you already know the answer. “Shouldn’t we!” A loud chorus.
Lesson # 3: Planning an important lesson for any Friday afternoon is a lost cause. These lines from a song bring to mind what it was like.
“When you look back and forgetfully wonder What you were like in your work and your play.”
“O the great days in the distance, enchanted, Days of fresh air in the wind and the sun.”
Do not imagine that much work is done on any Friday afternoon. You are lucky if you can get the homework assignment written in time before the class erupts out on the corridor.
“Ow Miss, 5A playing 5B this afternoon.” A cricket game has been arranged. Not to be missed. First to last ball. The teams are ready. The coin has been tossed, and the captain of the fielding team positions his men. The umpire, Dojoy, is in his position behind the stumps. The bowler is polishing the ball on his school pants waiting for the umpire’s nod. The rest of the school, teaching staff included, is lined up on the corridor ready to cheer their favorite players. The sun is hot but who cares. It’s the highlight of the week.
On rainy Friday afternoons, I might relent and read them stories. Total silence is testimony to the awakening of imaginations. This was their TV, their video, their streaming. This story time. I hoped it might awaken in them a love for the printed page.
Their lives were bare of the activities children in developed countries take for granted. Many of them had never ventured outside of the village. Never gone to Georgetown. TVs were unheard of and libraries were things that were out of reach. Any “school outing” was an occasion to be intensely anticipated.
A trip to the Abary beach. Patsy still recalls that day. We all (about 30 of them and I) joined the bus and it took us to my parents’ place at Novar. We picked fruits, drank water, and walked the mile and a half to the beach. Oh, how they frolicked and played in the sea and ran around. We ate our picnic lunch and played games. They got wet. No one cared. We joined the bus and I took them back safely home, tired and smelly but happy.
Only now, can I look back in wonder and confront the fears of what could have happened. I was the only teacher with them. What if….? How might I have explained to the parents……?
Lesson # 4: It doesn’t all happen in the classroom. Complementing their education.
Personal hygiene, sex education, personal decorum and social etiquette were parts of the unwritten curriculum. Let me tell you, parents in those villages trust teachers to do what is best for their children. They literally put their children into the hands of the teachers.
“Ow Teacher A….., awee trust you. You will do the right thing for them.” There is utter trust in the presence of those teachers in the lives of their children. The teacher’s word is equivalent to gospel. They hand their children over to the school and the final product is welcomed.
I realized that here was a situation in which the girls, just entering puberty knew nothing about the challenges of puberty and the changes taking place in their bodies. Their mothers were too modest to open such revealing conversations with them. Events revealed the necessity of helping them.
It all began when B. came to me and said, “Miss, can I talk to you?” Fear and trust and a bit of uncertainty co- mingled in her eyes. So I took her out in the corridor and she confided that certain changes were happening to her body and she didn’t know why. I understood right away what was happening. I asked the Headmaster to allow me the use of the toilet in his office. I explained to B. what it all meant and what she needed to do. A simple demonstration helped.
At home, I thought about it and formed the idea of teaching these young girls what needed to be taught. It had to be done outside of the normal class time. I broached the idea to the Headmaster and was given full support. The following day, I asked the girls to remain after class. I told them that I wanted to teach them certain things that might help them. We formed a Girls’ Club and we met once a week after class for an hour. Of course, the boys hung around on the corridor wanting to know why they were excluded.
The topics we covered…
Menstruation ( what, why, when and how) Personal hygiene Sex education and boys Speaking courteously Welcoming guests in your home Setting a table for dinner Serving tea to friends Dressing for the occasion Showing appreciation for kindnesses The use of proper language in and out of the home and classroom Writing “Thank you” notes Making introductions Table manners
They came to my house and learned how to bake cookies and a simple cake, a trifle. They had to take turns to demonstrate these things in the club meetings. Role Play “Today K will welcome her parents’ guests.”
Next week S will serve tea and carry on the conversation. M. Will set a dinner table. (Props came from my home.)
A. will begin a topic of conversation. L. will introduce her friend to her parents At the end of every session, there was time for Q and A. Many of the things I have forgotten, they still remember. The trust that was built up between us allowed them to ask me questions they would never dare to ask anyone else.
“Miss, how do you know when you have found the right person for your husband?” “Miss, what do you say to a boy you like when you are alone with him?” “Miss, is it OK to say ‘I love you’ first?” “Miss, how do you know when you getting a baby?”
Me: Huh?….. Well….
I had signed up for it, so honesty was the best policy.
Lesson # 5: Be fully prepared for the unexpected when reading Shakespeare and Keats
(or any other of the set texts).
Keats’ “ODE TO AUTUMN” is read and re read and discussed at length. It was one of the set poems on the GCE syllabus and it demands an intimate knowledge of reaping wheat. How to explain……
mellow fruitfulness winnowing wind furrow thatch eaves drowsed with the fumes of poppies granary floor whilst thy hook spares the next swath
How the metre and rhyme scheme enhance the effect of the whole poem.
Well, it must be done starting from what they know – related to reaping rice with which they were all fully acquainted. It worked. Tap out the stressed words. Why are certain words stressed? Don’t even think of attempting an explanation of “iambic pentameter”. How to get through an appreciation of the personification of AUTUMN? We must have done it because Kunti went to the UK a few years ago and made a pilgrimage to the very place where John Keats walked and envisioned writing his lovely poem. She told me about in email a few months ago.
Reading Macbeth Question to predict what happens next: How might Birnam Wood move to Dunsinane town? Answer: Miss, Burnham was living then?
Moral: Never ask an open question like this again. It reveals that the set scene had not been read before they came to class.
Assignment Commit to memory Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. You will say it before you enter class. They worked out a simple strategy. Write it in your hand and hold it behind your back for the next one to see and read.
Lesson #6: The dubious virtue of closing your eyes to certain goings on. How NOT to prepare for the GCEs
S and N live across the street from each other. During the English lesson, N. falls asleep in class. I look at S. She has a sly smile on her cheeky face. “What’s wrong with her?” “ Well, Miss! She and me been competing to see who will stay up latest to study. We know who go to bed first cause the lights get turn off. So I left my light on and went to bed. She think I still studyin’ and she stay up.”
On the day prior to the fateful day of the first GCE session, the boys arrange the auditorium in neat rows of desks and benches. Each desk has an identifying number that belongs to a student. A simple task. A teacher is supervising . Sam is seen surreptitiously writing stuff on the blackboard. “Sam what are you writing? “Oh nothing Miss.” The next day I find out to my embarrassment only after the invigilator asks to have the board cleaned. He had written all the theorems as a crutch to help the weak Math students.
Teachers are more stressed out than are their students. I’m walking up and down the corridor peering into the room to see what’s going on. I see the chief invigilator looking through the window. I see D. just about to turn back the hands of the invigilator’s clock placed on the table close to where he is sitting. A frown from me stops him in time. In any case as he informed me later, they were almost all done.
Glimpses of a time past. “Then it may be there will often come o’er you Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song. Visions of boyhood will float them before you Echoes of dreamland will bear them along.”
Those years stand out very clearly in my mind fifty years on. If by any chance, I return to them in my mind, I can still see the purity, the innocence of those youthful faces.
I might see a vision of three little scamps jauntily riding one bicycle – one on the carrier seat, one pedaling and the other on the handle bar calling out to everyone they passed – Carlton, Kamal and Pretty. I can see Bal sitting quietly during lunch break with a Louis L’Amour novel his brown eyes glinting at me.
Bharto, the Deputy Principal, is shouting from one end of the corridor, “”Anirudh, wha you doing in the corridor? Get back to your classroom.” Anirudh is parading the corridor to check on the girls. His special one is now his wife.
Teaching them was not only a case of paragraph and essay writing, or the use of clauses and phrases. Neither was it only the way to use proper punctuation, parallelism, pronouns and antecedents, analyzing a poem, or reading Shakespeare. It went far beyond all of this. School, along with the classroom, was the meeting place of friends, social interaction, fun times, youthful gaiety, a safe space where childhood blossomed and morphed into young adulthood.
Circling the Wagon forty and fifty years on.
“Loved the ally with the heart of a brother. Hated the foe with a playing at hate.” Forty years on growing older and older…”.
These photographs show reunions ten years apart. There is a feeling of joy and satisfaction in seeing how these young imps of fifty years ago have turned out as grown men and women. They virtually circle the wagons around each other. They call and write and give each other moral support. No one is left by themselves to face problems. They are successful entrepreneurs, professionals, parents and grand parents, holding their own and contributing in meaningful ways to the new culture in which the diaspora has thrust them. I feel very humbled and a sense of pride that in some small way, I helped to shape the lives of a few human beings.
On a bright Monday morning years ago, I received an email from my friend Ellie. The message read, “Four years, three months and five days to go…”.
Ellie had begun her countdown to retirement, to that coveted place which said NO WORK, no getting up at 5:00 a.m. I might add that I’d already gone into that hallowed ( or so I thought) precinct called the “Big R”. When we met for lunch one day, she outlined her plans for that gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow day. She would keep her double-wide trailer home and use her savings to buy an RV.
“Ellie, you mean LIVE in the RV?”
“Where will you go?”
”Woman, you don’t listen. I’ve been telling you for years. I will travel.” “Just you? Alone?” ”Uh huh!”
So the clock ticked down and at last, the fateful day came. The double-wide had been renovated and her son and family would live in it. The RV had been given the once-over. She was ready to roll. When we met for our last lunch, I cried. Ellie had dipped her fingers in the pot of her gold. The thing is, that she knew years before she retired what she wanted to do when that day came. And she did it.
She had planned.
But me? I had made plans but they were all amorphous, nebulous, nothing concrete. Sitting at my desk thinking of retirement, I dreamed of sleeping in, morning coffee on the back porch swing, my book open, my iPad nearby looking through the window at the morning sun on the trees and looking for the swallowtail butterfly I had seen. Dream on.
I must get up to cook, clean and do grocery shopping, and laundry and ……
If my swallowtail butterfly ever fluttered by, I don’t know. But I have my suspicions. I think it left because it had seen my husband spraying the bejesus out of the butterfly eggs and the caterpillars. To cut this story short, I put the spray can in the garbage, dusted off my hands and later, studiously pretended to help him look for it.
I have coined the phrase “gainfully unemployed” to describe my present state of being. My family understand that “Unemployed” refers to my retired state. “Gainfully” refers to all the things I must do and don’t want to.
You see, all of this comes because, unlike Ellie, I didn’t plan. I should have bought an RV.
Retired means that you are not young. You are an established member of AARP. You get the monthly news paper and you read all the articles on Medicare and Medicaid, and how to not get scammed and how to save on utility bills. Retirement can be synonymous to being “stupidee” or in a state where your grand children take pity and must explain slowly and patiently how to navigate the unknown maze called the internet.
Talking about that specie of humanity called “grandchildren”. They’re lovely but guaranteed to make you tired when they are little. God knows why He permitted only the young to beget children. Imagine having to do what it takes to bear a child when you’re 70 years old. Eeeeew! They have their parents and you have them. When they’re little, they visit and turn your well ordered home upside down. Then you sigh and cry when they leave. When they’re little and you’re already retired, you and they talk in baby language. They understand you. Then they grow up and when you try that same language, they say to you, “Nanny, why are you being weird?” Your eyes turn inwards and you begin to re examine yourself from their eyes. Not so good. So my message to those of you contemplating the big “R”, buy your RV.
This state of being retired means that you get to be buddies and on first name terms with the receptionist and nurse at your doctor’s office.
“Morning Jinny Love. How’s it going today.”
” Hi there A. How’s that pain in your hip doing?”
“Not too good. I fell down. But Jinny, look what I brought you guys!”
You hand over the cookies you baked for the staff and see the glee on the faces. You know your way around the building, after all, you almost have that as your second address. Those visits must be made or something happens… maybe it concerns your deductible with your health care programs. I have never bothered to educate my mind about the legalities and the ins and outs of what it all means. Stuuuuups! I call the Humana agent and ask him all my stupid questions, one at a time so my brain doesn’t suffer and react negatively from overload. I always begin my conversation with, “Andy, can you please explain…..? I don’t know what it refers to.” Although I’ve worked at a university for many years and have helped many, I find it useful to allow people to think that I need help. I do. They help. After all retired people have grey hair and that state is (most of us are grey haired) synonymous with loss of many functions – cognitive ones not being the least.
And another thing. In most cases, your husband is older then you are. And now you are both living in the same place every day after years of spending your days apart . You are the one doing the things that call for trips outside of the home because, he can’t be trusted. Driving up a one way street is calculated to bring a police officer pounding on your door. There are also things that test his credulity and utilize his four score years and more. So here’s the story. I came home from running errands to find this set of forms on the table with lots of printed information in small print. The highlighted line was waiting for a signature. I believe that in my absence, someone had come to the door and corrupted his mind with visions of money if he agreed to sell them the house. Now here is where you must take pity on me and congratulate me. The red in my eyes was tinged with fire, but I quietly took that set of papers and put it in the garbage. I called my daughter. Then I went to STAPLES and bought a Quit Claim deed. The people at the Government , County Office were very sympathetic and he ( my husband) was helped to understand that this was for his personal safety and well being. Seething, I was still seeing fire. I don’t believe anyone would bring forms to anyone to cajole them into selling an RV.
Scammers are all around. I am not exempt. Medicare told me after a very bitter experience that THEY DO NOT CALL. They will write. I received a call from a person purporting to be a Medicare representative which elicited information no one should ever give out over the phone if you didn’t initiate the call. Retirees are always at home and are very eager to answer the phone. They are also at the mercy of the scammers who know how to work on their credulousness. I disconnected my phone.
And yes, you have no place to go. You are in the house all day 24/7. Why must you wonder why your utility bills are higher than when you were working? I must ask Ellie what her utility bills are like in the RV. I guarantee you that they are nowhere near that of the double-wide.
The father of my children has lost most of his hearing and forgets to wear his hearing aids. I need someone to talk to. He is not a good talking partner because I have to repeat things five times. At this point in time, I have begun soliloquizing. I used to sing, but now I carry on these conversations that only I can understand. He watches the news. I soliloquize about what to do with the fish I bought for our dinner, or the conversation I must have with the utility company re: their overly high water bill. I must remember to remind them that I don’t have a swimming pool. I end this part of my soliloquy with a long suck- teeth.
My closet….. since I retired and since I have no place to go, I have not bought a single new item of clothing. My closet is home to all the silk blouses, tailored skirts and trousers, linen, cotton and everything else one wears to look nice at work. I have tried wearing a few of them at home just because. My grandson, who was visiting, looked at me wearing my white linen trousers and a colorful blouse while I made breakfast.
“Nanny, are you going out somewhere?”
I look at him with eyes that say, “Pardon me child! I’m trying to look nice here man. Why you putting a spoke in my wheel?” But the words refuse to roll out from behind my tongue. It’s not a soliloquy., just an unspoken thing in my mouth. I was “saving” my good clothes in the vain hope that I will be once again going somewhere nice and be called up to riffle through my hangers to CHOOSE. It’s not his fault. It’s that he’s accustomed to seeing me dressed in at-home-old clothes. So like my sister up the I- 95 in Jacksonville does, I will give away the entire contents (or almost all cause hope still burns in my heart) of my work closet. Lighten up is her mantra.
The word “ family” denotes a group of people who share the same bonds in the same home. While the greater number of members of this group may share the same genetic codes, there will be others in the group who have been added through circumstances – marriage and adoption. It is in this setting of physical proximity that shared values, habits, cultural practices, traditions, family history, ideas and most of all affection become the ties that bind the group together. It stands to reason that strongly knit and well adjusted families will contribute to a well adjusted society.
When my grandfather died early, he left his two very young children in the care of one of his sons, my father, who was himself relatively young. My grandfather died young and our grandmother followed him soon after. As a result, the care of their last two children, Hashim and Shamyune, fell to my father and his young wife. My father held fast to that responsibility even after both siblings married and moved on. He saw to their schooling and arranged a suitable husband for his sister when she reached the right age. In many cultures, be it Greek, Caribbean , or Argentinian, the family is a unit that is expected to remain as a whole.
In many eastern cultures, the concept of family differs vastly from that with which we, in the West, are familiar. The family is the unit that is expected to remain as a unit with each member being an important, and very often indispensable part, of that unit – emotional and physical health, wellness, education, finances, employment – all being the responsibility of the UNIT until one member moves away through marriage. Then it is that the other members come together to make that transition as smooth and as seamless as possible. This new family retains its ties with the parent family, paying great attention to what is expected of it, retaining the bonds of blood and culture and passing on what it has learned to its own children ensuring the survival of the family beliefs, habits and behaviors being cognizant of, “ This is how my mother/father did it.”
Now, in the West, there is a much different model. Children leave home, and are expected to, when they reach eighteen years (or a bit more) of age. They set up their own establishments and are responsible for their lives; their own well being, education, health, and provisions are things that they must work for. They too, are expected retain their connections with the parent family. This move erodes the idea of proximity that lends itself to the strong familial bond, thus putting some stress on filial relationships. This is why it is incumbent on each member of the group irrespective of where they live, to be mindful of the benefits of having a family.
The family, whether as a single unit or in disparate locations, provides a background and safe place for survival as a member of the larger society. This IDEA of family teaches its members the social skills of living with others – in the home as well as in the larger society. The stable family transmits and develops virtues of love, respect, and understanding, pity, concern and sociability without which its members will lose their standing in the society. My mother used to tell us, “ Never have someone come to your home without offering them something to eat. You never know when they last ate.” This simple but honest and heartfelt notion of hospitality we have passed on to our families.
We all have a strong desire to belong to something or to someone. This desire must arise from an understanding of the the ideals that hold the group together. Should you not believe in these values that bind the group, you will disturb the equilibrium of the structure. For example, the rights and obligations, the ideas and opinions, and the privacy of the other members must be safeguarded and upheld. Some examples of this might be manifested in behaviors that are mindful of such actions as turn- taking in discussions, respect for the privacy of others, speaking without disturbing the equilibrium of the discussion, speaking with respect to each other, mindful that oftentimes, words cause pain and once uttered cannot be recalled. These behaviors are strongly upheld in our family discussions and anyone who breaks the rules is called to order.
Strong family relationships do not just happen. They must be nurtured and paid attention to. The bond strengthens when experiences are shared, when there is mutual participation in decisions concerning the welfare of each member, when there is mutual sharing of problems and common interests and combined efforts in crises. My sister had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. My other sisters, nieces and nephews and I took turns to spend week ends with my sick sister and her family, comforting and consoling, wiping away the tears, and just offering our presence that said “We care.” These traits can only result in a strong sense of family security. If these bonds are to remain strong, these attitudes must be carefully nurtured in the same way that a gardener cares for his prized roses. When family bonds are broken and no attempt made at mending them, it destroys the basic woof and warp of the fabric. Very often we must swallow anger and be conciliatory, or persuasive. We must learn the value of negotiation, show respect in the face of confrontations, and more often than not, learn the value of forgiveness and bow, not to personal ego, but to the greater good. How much better it is to say, “I’m sorry. Forgive me” and so, preserve the equanimity, restore peace and feel good about having done so. Holding on to resentments and anger never did anyone any good. The feeling that comes from mending broken fences is above any price.
In every family there will be two or more members who do not see eye to eye. Personality differences, petty jealousies or imagined wrongs will certainly result in conflicts. If we understand the Guyanese idiom “Family cutlass does not cut deep”, we know that these petty squabbles can, like a superficial cut, mend quickly. When I am asked by young family members what to do in these situations, I tell them, “Imagine your relationship with this person two months, or one year from now, and where you want it to be at that time. You do whatever it takes to reach that point in your relationship with this person.” What this all means is that one person must make the effort and take the initiative.
People who love each other WILL have disagreements because they feel that it is this arena that they can be at their worst and be forgiven because love is the common denominator that will over ride and overlook the ill feelings. However, learning to conquer our baser emotions must be practiced first in the home. Mutual understanding must guide discussions of ideas, hopes, dreams, accomplishments. Family members must celebrate each other’s successes, accomplishments, joys, with the same deep fervor and intensity as they might console and commiserate with failures and losses. Remember to send each family member a kind word, a congratulatory message, or a lilting text that might just make their day. When a message like this is expected and never comes, it is marked with sadness. Doing these small acts has enormous rewards. This is the way we will come to know each other intimately and be better able to show these same behaviors to the world.
One of the most heart warming things any family member has said to me was when I sent a text message to say “Thanks“ for something. The reply was, “ No thanks needed. You have given me more than you will ever know.” It still makes me teary-eyed with gratitude to have this person in my family. I consider each person in my family a blessing.
Times change. Families disperse. Modes of existence improve. Ideas morph. We might each put emphasis on different things. But the one thing that does not change, the single constant in our lives, the thing we all turn towards in the end is FAMILY LOVE.
The hands of a mother walking her baby into life Hands that soothe a troubled brow and caress tired shoulders, clear a frown
Tender hands that wipe away tears of pain Hands that are never quiet That wash and clean and bind and knead and shape and mould and sometimes plead.
Show me the gentle hands of the lover Warm hands, caressing hands, tender hands hands that soothe the “ravelled sleeve of care” hands that show love unasked fingers that say without any words, “I love you”. Even to point out mistakes and to help in putting them right.
You might know the hands of which I speak Hands that must obey that primordial instinct To create…. So, show me hands that compose the music of the spheres And bring it to our ears, so we must listen Even for a few moments, transformed. Hands that capture our deepest feelings In quatrains or in sonnets, in blank verse or in prose So we read them and understand Hands that show human strengths, human failings, The beauty of a world teetering on the edge of extinction To preserve it with ink and paint and canvas. So we view them and are mindful.
Let us not forget the hands that sow seeds, and plant, dig wells, Construct and build, create new things, Hands that reap what they have sown for the good With gratitude. Yes, show me those hands. Hands stretched out in welcome Hands waving fond farewells; The hands that give are hands Open to receive.
Show me hands that write words of love Of forgiveness Of gratitude Of advice Of friendship Of invitations Of condolence Of gentle remonstrance Of pleading, Of courage
Words that are white flags of peace Words that ease the pain of a broken heart
I want to look at the calloused hands of a father working ceaselessly To provide for his family And even though he might not say words His hands can also caress a tousled head or wipe away a tear or fix what is broken. Show me those hands.
I prefer not to see those hands That can only destroy, abuse, cause pain, Become violent against the weak. Keep my gaze away from hands that hold guns With fingers ready to pull a trigger without care, Wield a knife, or pull the bow that shoots the arrow of misfortune; Consider those hands that are the willing tools of evil brains That produce weapons of war Causing innocent blood to flow
When other gentler hands must bathe the dead And dig the graves to hold them.
I prefer not to acknowledge Hands that hold a poison pen. Do not show me a hand that refuses to give help, or even to receive it What are those hands to me Except impediments to a better world?
Give me those hands that give life to a sick and broken body That administer the anodyne of life Like the deft hands of the surgeon and the gentle hands of a nurse Give me those hands that point the straight way to a student Who will, in turn, do the same for others Give me hands that remove the stone that blocks the path of a traveler when other hands did not. Those are the hands worth looking at. These are the same hands That will lift towards heaven Asking for help, and saying “Thank you”, To ask for guidance and to receive it.
I got up at 5:45 this morning and went to the bathroom to clean my teeth and brush my grey hair. When I looked into the mirror, I saw a face that surely didn’t belong to me. That was the face of a stranger; a face that I had not seen before. Eyes wide, mouth open, I stared in mild shock.
It was the face of an old woman, with lines and sad eyes and wild hair, down turned lips.
Then, the face smiled, and I recognized it as my own. Laughter lines can change the way we look as well as the way we feel and how others see us. Laughter doesn’t recognize age. I think that my first impression of shock at looking into the mirror was because I was wearing the eyes of a young woman. Deep within my subliminal, is a perpetually young girl. It was me at 17 looking at me at 77 and not recognizing myself.
Our bodies get old with the passing years. Our ability to be active and nimble, to dance and run, to skip, work hard diminishes imperceptibly with each day. Some of us refuse to admit it, others fight it with surgery, pills, exercise, while others just give in to the change.
I have always wanted to accept growing old gracefully and joyfully. Age has its rewards. You have a family to gather around you, grandchildren, memories to dwell on. Most of all, you have the wisdom that comes from living life to the full, in all its facets. You have the gravitas, the position, the right (de jure and de facto) to tell people what you think without fear of reprisal. People tend to respect your opinion too.
My best friend of more years than I can recall told me the other day that her kids still think of her as the solid rock, the pillar, the solver of all problems, the center of their lives. I told her that my children feel exactly the same way. Ask mom. Mom will know. Mom has been the go-to person all their lives. Mom the repository of wisdom to dispense.
We both agreed that it can become wearisome and burdensome. We both agreed that we want to lay that load down now and just sit quietly in the sun and reminisce, and then we both admitted to each other that it was a fool’s errand and wishful thinking. We will NEVER give up. That is a tenured position. Ours for life.
In a conversation with my granddaughter the other day about work, she told me, “Nanny, you are full of those Guyanese aphorisms.” I told her that the wisdom behind those aphorisms has been learned over the years, and that they help us understand and accept what life offers.
BUT OLD is as OLD feels.
Deep down inside me there is still a young girl wishing to devour romance novels, while snacking on green mangoes with salt and pepper. Somewhere in my heart lies hidden the desire to run and dance and sing, sing, sing – in gladness to be alive. To be beautiful. And healthy. Somewhere deep down, there is still a bubble that will burst and reveal thoughts that can bring blushes. Thoughts about boys. And wonder why they are so contrary.
Play practical jokes on my friends. Think about a special person. And wonder why my heart is beating so fast. Share deep, unholy secrets with a sister – secrets that might cause my revered father to blush and my prim mother to scold for days. Walk down to the bridge over the canal to read my book. Look at the moving water and dream…
Walk home in the gloaming with the shepherd behind the sheep and goats. Run, hands spread wide, across the golden fields of ripening paddy. Capture the birds’ nests. Climb trees to pick the ripening fruit. Fish for snook and catfish in the canals.
I became a teacher. Motherhood came and with it, the responsibility of raising my family to the best of my ability while holding down a full-time job. If I’ve done anything good with my life, it’s that I have three of the best children. It didn’t come easy. No time for doing the things most desirous; no time to dawdle with unimportant but joyful things; no time to sit and have a good cry when things go wrong.
Just keep going. Do what comes next. Just try your best. One thing at a time.
If I wanted something, I knew the best way to get it was to work for it. No one would drop it in my lap. I never wanted, nor expected that.
So here I am at 77. With an old woman’s face. An old woman’s body. A body that has accepted the passage of time, I hope with grace. I hope that even so, I can still smile, still play a practical joke or two on my family. My heart is big and young with my love for my family. My thoughts have lagged behind in a place where youth lives. Those thoughts enjoy living in that place. Sweet nostalgic moments, youthful exuberance and innocence – looking at the world before me.
And, so, ever so often, I visit those thoughts back there in time. And then, as I commune with them, I THINK young even if I can’t DO young.
As a very young child in a preparatory class in school, I, along with the other pupils, was made to memorize the words on a leaflet stuck on the wall of the schoolroom. The teacher read from the very small print and made us repeat what was written on it to commit it to memory. I don’t recall the order in which things were written, but I do recall that there were many more than the ones mentioned here. The first maxim remains in my memory as being at the top of the list.
Courtesy Rules and Maxims
Speak quietly and courteously. Quiet speech is a mark of refinement. Do not spit about. It is insanitary and a dirty habit. Tip your hat when you pass someone on the street. Remove your hat when you enter a building. Eat with your mouth closed. Do not use bad language to others. Greet your elders when you meet them. Be kind to others. Kindness is the hallmark of good conduct.
I do not know how many of these maxims are still a part of our social discourse and conduct, but in my scheme of things those are guiding principles.
Last night, I listened to Vice President, Joe Biden at a town hall meeting in Miami hosted by Lester Holt. The Vice President spoke very clearly and eloquently. His honesty, his passion and his integrity were very evident. One of the things that resonated with me, not so political but more ethical and moral, was that we need to practice the social grace of good conduct in private as well as in public. We need to be more courteous and kind to each other. We need to recognize each other as equal members of the same society in which we live, “brothers in humanity”. This, he said, was the way to rebuild our broken and fragmented American society and end the suspicion and hate that color our thoughts and actions.
The Arabs refer to this as “husnul khuluq” or beautiful behavior in private and public. (Dr. Yasir Qadhi on “The Blessings of Good Manners: Khutbah delivered on 11/15/2013).
The Caliph Umar bin Khattab once said, “When you meet a man on the street, he is either your brother in religion or your brother in humanity”. The Prophet (SAW) said, “A true believer is one who does not hurt others with his thoughts, words or actions.”
“The best of you is he (or she) who is of most benefit to others.” (Prophet Muhammad)
Of public concern should be the manner in which we comport ourselves in private as well as in public. Limits should be set with infractions to these limits being impugned and the culprit socially ostracized or we all must be held culpable and accountable.
Cultivation of good manners, deportment and courtesy must be a matter of public concern because it leads to respect for others and is the hallmark of a peaceful society. Our tendency must be to behave with gentleness, decorum and propriety in that space that lies between legal mandate and free choice. It is in that space that we choose to behave within the set limits or to become social pariahs by breaking the common societal rules and norms.
I heard these words a very long time ago and I paraphrase, “A polite society runs smoothly on the wheels of courtesy”. It is what makes people conscious of their roles and responsibilities to each other in a civilized sphere of life. We, as members of a civilized social community, set up rules and limitations for polite behavior that will protect and uphold the safety, the honor and integrity, the health, the possessions, the self-esteem, the wellbeing of the families of those who belong to that social group. Behavior that exemplifies decorum and civility, benevolence and kindness, humility and quiet speech, gentleness and politeness must be the hallmark of our social discourse. These attributes will make others feel at ease in the presence of those who display them. This is the quintessence of courtesy- making others feel at ease in your presence. This behavior attracts others to the one who displays it.
Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For good or for bad, people remember how you made them feel.
If we examine the ten commandments of Moses or the tenets of any religion, we will find that they are really rules for correct conduct in any society – “Husnul Khuluq”.
Joe Biden, last night, hinted that many people will think of the practice of courteous behavior as “old fashioned”, as anachronistic, out of date, not in keeping with modern thought and behavior.
Why should this be so? Have we moved so far away from the practice of courteous behavior in private and in public that we should think of polite conduct as an anachronism? If so, with what have we replaced it? Laughing at those who have physical defects? Lying and cheating? We lie and cheat on those who are members of our society. How is that a good thing? Stealing from the poor? Thinking of yourself as better than the “common herd” because you are rich? Public displays of boorish conduct? Use of bad language? Insulting the vulnerable in the presence of others? Dishonoring others in their absence? Ignoring those we see as beneath us?
The ideal of courtesy has been eroded by the practice of these kinds of behaviors. Rudeness, loud speech, aggression, highlighting the physical defects of the weak and the vulnerable are the enemies of courtesy.
Arrogance vs. humility, dishonor vs. integrity, falsehoods vs. truth, divisiveness vs mediation and peace- making permeate the social and political status quo. How are you? Please. Thank you, Do you mind? May I? Excuse me, please? Would you rather..? given with innate grace and not gratuitously, show a genuine concern for the feelings of others.
Saying “Thank you” to those who serve – the mailman, the waitress, the shop assistant, the post office attendant, the garbage collector, the maid – asking an employee about his wellbeing, showing concern for the wellbeing for those under our care and employ, helping those in need of it, speaking with concern and kindness, restraint from insulting or admonishing others in public to cause them to lose face, the practice of these must be born out of an inbred instinct to make others feel good and at ease in our presence.
There is no excuse for vulgarity, none for boorish behavior, no amount of goodwill must overlook rudeness, the tendency that using foul language is the hallmark of wit. Heaven forbid. When some among us give credence to such social practices, they create a new set of rules for hostile, and impolite conduct which can result in violence, in hatred, in resentment among the members of the social group.
THEN, if and when we have all accepted the new standard of behavior, that is when we will descend like Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost into chaos, to public animalistic behavior. Our “brave new world”!
Cultivating, preserving, and upholding the old forms of correct social conduct, those Courtesy Rules and Maxims, must be seen as a social mandate, a contract, and as a tribute to the best in each of us. The social ethos in which we now find ourselves is fracturing, falling apart, with some members holding on to the sanity of proper conduct, while others are bent on destroying it.
This descent to social chaos bodes ill for everyone. Let us not descend into that chaos ourselves.