Reflections from the Heart of Waitukubuli…

versesli

Cover of “Verses from atop the Mountain”… Photo by author. (c)

When I started making plans to have my fourth book, Verses from atop the Mountain, published, I thought of a number of individuals whom I wanted to ask to write the Foreword. I wanted someone whom I could identify with as a villager from St. Joseph and one who was aware of the literary road I had travelled to this point.

Forewords to my previous books had been written by Alwin Bully, Lenox Honeychurch, and Edward “King Shakey” James, so I decided it would be a good idea to add a new voice to my work and I believed it would be great to have that new perspective on my work. I have worked with Alwin, Lennox and Shakey in various aspects of my past publications and I wanted a new voice.

After careful consideration, I finally decided upon Ted Serrant; a young man from my home village, St. Joseph, Dominica. I knew Ted growing up and I also had the opportunity to have him as a student during my short stint as a teacher at the St. Joseph Government School. However, I did not get the opportunity to have him as a student at the St. Mary’s Academy where I later taught, since he went to the Dominica Grammar School. I wonder what that would have been like!!! Ted was a very challenging student back then and as an inexperienced teacher stepping into the classroom, I had to muster all the skills I could to do a good job and, yes, to sound, “smart and educated.” I was dedicating Verses from atop the Mountain, to the children of St. Joseph and I felt Ted represented most of the children that I had in mind.

Senjo

A view of Senjo sitting on the fringes of the Caribbean Sea… Photoby author (c)

I also recognized the role Ted, who just recently attained his Ph. D from the University of Pittsburgh, had begun to play in the field of education in Dominica and also because he, of humble beginnings, had surmounted many odds and had now become a great example to the young people of St. Joseph. I saw in him one that the young people could emulate and know that with determination, their goals are attainable especially in an era when good role models are difficult to find.

I contacted Ted and I was extremely pleased when he agreed to write the Foreword. I sent him a copy of the manuscript and waited as I worked feverishly on getting my second full-length book of poetry ready. When Ted sent the write-up, I realized I had made a good choice. Not because what he wrote pleased me, (that was good) but because of the way he “painted” the collection of poems. I felt pleased that one of my own: a past student; neighbor, villager and community minded person, had worked with me and my small team that included Lionel Leslie, Kalinago Woryi and Ophelia Olivaccé-Marie, in putting together what I hope will be a well-received publication. The journey was proceeding well!

 

This is what Ted wrote:

Lotka’s law posits that most people will write one article or one book in their lifetime. This, I believe, is Giftus’ fourth anthology of poems. Giftus has defied the odds. He has been defying the odds for a long time. I know! He taught me years ago. I congratulate you on a provoking piece of work, and thank you for inviting me to present the foreword for this anthology. I am honored that the teacher can turn it over to his student.

Verses From Atop The Mountain signals a proclamation; a call; a cry. This proclamation is symbolized both by the verses and the location from which they are proclaimed. The mountains, therefore, are metaphors for heights attained and the universality of the messages embedded in these verses. They are also symbolic of Giftus’ mountainous island origin and the land that remains almost like an unsettled bargain in these verses. “The Migrant Song” captures that unsettled existence derived from residence in an adopted homeland. Much of the work in this anthology, then, comes from lived experiences and a persistent banter between what is and what used to be, what is left behind and what one now contends with. In “The Land Beckons Me,” he finds solace and the assurance that he is not a castaway confirming the temporariness of the migrant tension between the homeland and the adopted homeland.

The work is a “literary hopscotch” (and I mean it in a flattering way,) of themes that addresses love, nature, reality, expectations, dreams and ambitions lined with hope and restoration: “The Sun Rises Tomorrow;” “The Morning Awakens.” This hopscotching, to me, is the art of a multifaceted artist, and Giftus is multifaceted. He is painter, writer, and poet. This book bears this out as he weaves together pieces on the spring, fall and the snow; things that are transient and yet in “Ode to a Tree Stump,” he finds not just death, decay, and a break from the past, but endurance of that past. With its roots buried deeply, the stump remains as a lasting memory of its legacy. For him, the more things change the more they remain the same. That sentiment comes through in his serious treatises on politics and freedom, two of the things that vex us most.

This anthology traverses the human emotion as well: From an elusive love to solitude, nightmare, cowardice, and death—his mom’s. Then almost in a ‘tantalizing soliloquy,’ he asked, “For whom does the church bell toll?” Despite the hopscotching, Giftus returns again and again to the theme of his beloved land and community, a microcosm of the returning nature of West Indian migration. In the end he reckons that we all are cut form the same cloth. Simply, this anthology is all of us, reflects all of us and speaks to all of us from the mountaintop. Listen!

 

Ted D. Serrant, PhD
Senior Fellow
Rise Institute
Washington, DC

Advertisements

My Mom Was My Biggest Fan.

Today, in many parts of the world, we will show our love and appreciation to our mothers, in word, deed and action. We will have spent millions of dollars by the end of the day making sure that Mom has a day to remember. Some of us may not spend that much, if any at all, but just by a simple gesture and appreciation of the one who nurtured us from the day of our conception, will make Mom happy.

I will not have the opportunity to wish my mom, Vernice, (Ma Shaden) Happy Mother’s Day because almost five years ago she unexpectedly departed this world. It was a devastating loss to say the least, because just a few months before, I had told her that I would see her again-but that did not happen.

ImageBut I will still acknowledge her today; still say a prayer for the woman who untiringly cared for her brood of seven–a stay home mom all her life–who devoted her time and talent doing everything possible to make her family comfortable, well fed and well-mannered. She taught us to be prayerful and kind and to love family. She was talented in her own way too….crocheting, knitting, doily making, sewing, cooking and baking and entertaining friends and family. Yet, she was like a hawk watching over its young, making sure, to a fault maybe, that nothing happened to any of us.

I will always regard my Mom as my biggest supporter, in my role as an artist. If no one else appreciated what I did, I know she did. I remember the day when my first short story was published in the Star Newspaper, I proudly brought it to her and I know she too was proud of me when she read it. She proudly displayed my paintings on the walls of our home in St. Joseph alongside those of my uncle Ronald, who was my inspiration. She had them on the porch and inside as well and ensured that nothing happened to them.

My Mom always took great pride in my artistic endeavors although she was always concerned that my work did not have political undertones since she did not want us to have anything to do with politics. I remember her being very upset that I was staging a play with the Campeche Youth group entitled “The Hard Road’” that someone had hinted to her was written about the then Labor Party in Dominica. She sent my brother Simon to the Lower School Room to ask me to come home only to have to explain to her that it was my own version of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” and nothing to do with the then Prime Minister Patrick John and his Labor Party Government. From then, all was well.

After I had immigrated to the United States, she would send me any newspaper clippings or a newspaper where my work was featured. On other occasions she would let me know when she heard a recording of me reading a poem or short story on DBS Radio or of a school child reading one of the poems at an event. I know that brought her joy. I would also be sure to get my birthday, anniversary, Christmas or Easter card without fail and every now and then a letter letting me on all those who said hello and all the past students of the SMA who asked if she was “Giftus’ mother?” and every now and then a family photograph of an event that I missed. I knew her unmistakable hand-writing and I was always glad to receive her mail.

When I had completed the draft of “Ma William and Her Circle of Friends,” I sent a copy for her feedback, not being aware that she would not get the opportunity to read it. She had read “Mesye Kwik! Kwak!” and she was very intrigued by what I had written. I can still hear her asking me…”Pa Gif (that’s how she fondly called me at times) where you getting all that from? She was always amazed that I remembered certain events that took place when I was a kid.

I visited Dominica in 2008 to see her and also to participate in the Senjo Reunion. It pained me that I could not share with her much about the book that her favorite writer was working on. It pained me that I never got to share my story of Ma William and her bunch of characters with her. I can imagine what she would have asked me then. But it was not meant to be. I didn’t get the chance to bring her a copy of the completed book that I launched two years later in St. Joseph but I know she was smiling down at me and saying…”Ou pa feb non, moushay Giftus!”

I know I am not alone on a day like today; there are many of us today who will just enjoy the memories and cherish them forever, including my own wife, Theresa (Mariel) who will be honored by the Dominica Emerald Organization of New Jersey as Mother of the Year, at a function at the Manor in Irvington, NJ. I know it is a most deserving accolade. She has worked hard to see our two children, Mandisa and Jamal, become the young adults they are today and achieve their goals and dreams. At the same time she has been quite involved in many social activities, helping out and being a true role model for the younger ones.

It is said that sometimes a man marries a woman who reflects his mother and every now and then I think I have. All I do then is shake Imagemy head and smile. I know I didn’t marry Theresa with that in mind, far from it, but I guess life’s course is already mapped out for us and all we have to do is follow it. I am a proud father and husband today because together we have traversed the valleys and potholes and though we have not yet fully arrived atop the mountain, we have the belief, like she’s fond of saying… “Things will get better!”

I salute all mothers today—and Mom, you too, though you’re watching from above and asking why I am writing this—and especially my dear wife, for all that you have done and continue to do, despite all the challenges, the difficulties, missteps and disappointments, but in the end you are the glue that keeps all your families together.

I think I mentioned this before but I believe it is worth repeating today. Some years ago, I was in the village of Calibishie as a member of the Somerset Sports Club playing a game of cricket against a team from that village. Some time in the afternoon, there was a Mothers’ Day function at the Calibishie Primary school. At some point during the function someone started to read a poem. I soon realized she was reading my poem, She which was originally published in “The Dawn” my first book of poems and later in “The Island Man Sings His Song.” I shivered—she was really reading my poem. I did not say anything nor identify myself to anyone from the village, though my teammates knew…I just listened and enjoyed the moment…a special moment for me and for all those who cheered when the young lady was finished reading the poem.

Before I end I want once again say to all Moms out there…and especially my Mom, my wife and my sisters, sisters-in-law, my aunt, and all my relatives all over…Happy Mothers’ Day. God’s richest blessings to all of you.

Let me end by sharing the poem that that young lady read some years ago in the school building in Calibishie…just for you Moms today!.

 

She

 

She is the Queen of my life,
The upholder of my life
The breath of my life
The water of my thirst
The food of my hunger.

Yes,
She who toiled and labored
She who washed and clothed
She who caressed and kissed
She’s my Queen
The Queen of My Life.

 She who stands behind me
She who gives me strength
She who gives me love and wisdom
She’s my Sun
The Sun that brightens my life,
The Sun that guides my life.

She who fed my hungry lips with milk
From her breasts,
She who soothed my pain
With her tender touch,
She who held me
With her safest hands.

She’s my Moon
That shows me the way
In the darkest hour
She who stays near while I am asleep.
She’s my Queen.

She who carried me
In her protected and comfortable womb
For nine careful months
She who smiled when she saw me
She who felt proud when she saw me
She who felt proud when she bore me
She’s My Queen, My Sun, My Moon, My Life.
She, whose love surpasses all others,

She’s my Mother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Introspective Look at Self, Emotion, Spirituality and Talent of an Artist.

(I originally wrote this post without a heading because I was not sure what title I should use. As I usually do, I gave my wife, Theresa, to review what I had written and also asked her for her suggestion as to what I should use as a title. Two days later, I went ahead without her knowledge and created my own heading-as above- and when we got back home that night I asked her if she had come up with a heading. Well. I guess we are one for a reason….Need I say more? You may not believe it, but she came up with the same heading  though not as lengthy as mine. I was amazed. I thus believed the message that I wanted to share in this blog, had indeed been sent….I hope it does the same with you.)

Some of you may have noticed that I have been posting messages and mini-blogs on Facebook and wondering what may have come across Giftus because what you read sometimes does not seem to mirror the person you have known. I, too, have somewhat taken note-surprising?-but usually things happen, as many of you may know, as we go through changes in life. These changes sometimes bring out our true personalities that have been dormant or on the low side, for a while, whether good or bad.

At the beginning of 2012 I had to deal with some unfortunate situations that somewhat forced me to take a look at my own religious, emotional, spiritual and physical self. Four years before that, I was laid off from a job that I had been at for 21 years and I found myself having to join the list of unemployed looking for work.

It was a mind-boggling experience, not because of the fact that I had lost my job, but I was appalled at the manner in which those searching for jobs were being treated by employees at those job centers. Sometimes, I felt they were glad at our plight because it ensured that they had a job. To me the saying…”There is money in confusion,” did not seem more real than I experienced then. But I had to get into a program to get some benefits, so I became somewhat more of a statistic than a human being. That situation forced me to look deeper into whom I was and where I was headed. It all depended on me regardless of how those employees behaved and how frustrated and angry I had become. I was the one who had to make the decision about my life. What did it matter to them to mass us like cattle? I guess nothing at all.  Though I pray no one goes through this, and I pray I don’t go through this again, we all know it is a revolving door and nothing has changed. In fact it seems to be getting worse.

After those two life changing experiences, I decided to have a bigger view, as we say in photography, “an ultra-wide fisheye view rather than a telephoto view,” of life and what is important. I know this is relative, but it is real and unless we deal with it, with what lies at our own doorsteps, we may fall and may never get the opportunity to rise up. I know that as an artist, I have a responsibility to myself to use the God-given talents that I have been blessed with: writing, The Garden - Copyphotography and painting, because if I don’t, it will be a wasted journey. I have been given a second wind and I am setting sail on the open seas.

I realized that as an artist I have to share my talents with those whom I interact and share my joys, and my sorrows, too; my high points and low points, with them. I was somewhat embarrassed when my two children, Mandisa and Jamal, felt disappointed that I had somewhat robbed them from seeing me work on an easel and canvas. They knew I wrote books but had never seen me sitting before an easel. However, I feel good that at least, they can now share the moments with me, though I know that I can never make up the time that we lost.

I try not to be vain or boastful about my abilities, but I get a lot of satisfaction, knowing that I can do what I am capable of doing. I am in no way a “maestro,” at any of those artistic disciplines, but I feel good enough that others can admire what I do. I don’t take those gifts for-granted.

I have also become a lot more at peace, so to say, with my own spirituality and I don’t mean, religion. I am Catholic, been involved quite a bit, but I am speaking about the way I feel about my connection with the Most High. I am no evangelist or preacher and do not force my beliefs on anyone, but having come to grips with that aspect of my life and seeing it as an everyday part of my personal life, has helped me to appreciate my role as a husband and father, most of all. It has helped me focus more on what matters; what is priority. I don’t step on anyone’s toes, so I do not need anyone to do that to me in their quest to derail me.

We all have a mission to accomplish on this planet; some we chose; some were handed down to us; some were forced upon us. But it is how we carry out that mission that matters in the end. How we use the creative talents that we have to bring change; bring a sense of belonging; create a sense of pride, is what we will have to answer some time down the road. I have had time to stop and smell the paint on the canvas before I lost that ability and though what forced me to that point was a heart-wrenching event; what it forced me to do has been a life changer in many respects. I had allowed a job to take away my personal joy while trying to pursue that joy in another way. My daughter once asked me as I was about to leave for work one night. (I still can’t understand what caused her to ask that question.) “Daddy, what do you prefer? Your job, or your family?” I was surprised at the question and tried to answer it the best I could, but was this a time to stop and re-evaluate myself? Maybe it was, but we’ll never know. So I move on and thank God for the opportunity to turn things around.

I know that being an artist does not give me a license to slander or demean or degrade anyone through my art. What it does is it gives me the opportunity to share what I love and helps me create art that is enjoyable or art that evokes certain emotions and feelings in my audience, young or old, rich or poor.

I recently met one of my former students, whom I taught at the St. Mary’s Academy, at an event in New York. He indicated to me that images of paintings that I posted on Facebook were therapeutic to him. I could not understand where he was coming from until he told me that he had experienced a life threatening medical condition and the artwork was helping him in his recovery. I became very emotional when he explained what he had gone through and his process of rehab. What better than hearing this from someone like him? Someone whom I know personally. If I do nothing else but having helped him that way, I feel glad that I have done this and I will never forget that moment. This came from someone who identified with what I do because it became personal to him.

Book ClubI recently met with the Phenomenal Women Book Club of New City, NY. My greatest eye-opener was the manner in which almost every member of the club loved the book because they identified with Ma William-the shopkeeper. They were able to re-live their younger days through the characters since a number of them had had interaction with a shopkeeper either directly, or indirectly. Some indicated that they remembered doing some of the tasks that Bamboo did in the shop in their own shops. Some also expressed their fondness for the troublemaker…well, not surprising. When I created the characters, I never imagined how he (Bamboo) would have been able to weave himself into the readers’ hearts; but he has. Another reader told me she was sad that the story came to an end because she would not get to read about Bamboo anymore. Well, with his way of being slick, sly and very witty, he was smart, though not too intelligent, yet he got to have things his way in his village.

I may not have written a bestseller, but I am very happy that I have written a book that has brought a smiles to peoples’ faces. Isn’t this priceless? I think it is. All this makes my literary journey what it has become and what it is. Extremely worthwhile. Extremely self-satisfying so far…well not financially profitable yet…The old saying…artists die poor, still resonates loudly, but I do pray that someday I will be rewarded financially and will not die poor. I have bills to pay, I should say. Artists usually have to spend before we see results of the work we create.

However, to accomplish the goals I have set for myself, and to continue being the person that I should be, I need to have my spiritual, physical, talented and emotional self, all synched together or it may be a wasted journey; a fruitless journey. That is not an acceptable or desirable option.

It is left to me to stay the course and use my talent, not as show, but to show my audience the beauty of what I capture on canvas, on paper and on “film” well now replaced by disks. If I can do that then I will feel satisfied in my quest to achieve the best for this guy from St. Joseph.

Celebrating a Culture and a Heritage – Happy Independence to Dominica

Approximately one year ago I travelled to Dominica to launch my then newly released book “Ma William and Her Circle of Friends.” My original plan was to participate in the Literary Festival and do the launch around that time, but the timing of the book publication and the Lit Fest was not right. I thus decided to do the launch during the Independence Celebrations and do it in my home village, St. Joseph.

It was an exciting time for me. I had seen the result of almost three years of work come alive in ink and paper. My last book launching in Dominica was in 1981 at the St. Mary’s Academy where I was a teacher for five years. Since then I have published “The Island Man Sings His Song,” and “Mesye Kwik! Kwak!” both in the United States, without any fanfare or drum roll. I was excited to go back to where it all started and make my village the centre of the action. I was not going to follow the same route with Ma William as I had with the two other publications because, based on the storyline, the previews and the buzz I was feeling about that book, I believed it was going to be my best work yet and I wanted to do it justice.

First, I saw this as a challenge for me as an author and a returning Dominican and also as the one who had “inside scoop” on the activities of Ma William and her trusted gang…Bamboo, Mr. Jones, Ma Simbert, Pappy and Paul. These characters portrayed the life in that community. They portrayed the lives of real people in a struggling community and displayed the everyday happenings in a community hemmed in on the North, South and East by hills and on the West by the Caribbean Sea.

As I walked around the village one late afternoon and relived the story, I saw the “fictional” areas that I had described in the book come alive.…Ma William’s shop, Front Street with its large potholes, and Main Street, where a number of stragglers were sitting idly by waiting for a drink or a handout. I saw Ma William and her gang doing what they did best every day and night. I got the feeling that even though I had not been part of the everyday life of the village for more than 25 years I was at home within a surrounding that I was extremely familiar with…people that I knew and streets that I had walked. The characters were the same. The characters in the book were no longer fictional…I saw them in the people walking the streets of the village. The story of Ma William became real at least for a while.

One aspect that amazed me was having people ask me which Ma William I was referring to in the book. Although there was no Ma William who owned a shop in the village, there were, to my honest surprise, many more Ma Williams in St. Joseph than I had known. Everyone, then, had a Ma William that they knew, although some were sure that the story was about a particular shopkeeper but that I had disguised the story by using Ma William as the fictional name…well that I won’t answer to.

As I indicated earlier, the trip was held around the Independence celebrations and that gave me the opportunity to witness some of the cultural activities that were held in Roseau, the island’s capital. Dominica may not be a rich nation but our culture does not take a back seat to any nation in the world. It is unique and precious. It is sometimes said that it is after many of us leave the island’s shores and visit other places that we realize what we have. I believe though, that it is because we do not have anything to compare it with, when we’re home. When we go to other places we see what they have and we become much more appreciative of what we have…our dances, our songs, our music, our poetry, our conte, our short stories, our rivers, the sea, our forests, our birds…and on and on.

This is why we need to applaud the groups throughout the United States, Canada, England and other parts of the world who organize the cultural events during that time of the year. We should also applaud people like Sabina George-Mingo, Roslyn Mc Lean and Justina Henderson for keeping our dances alive and teaching the young ones (many who were born in the US or came here very young) the culture and heritage of Dominica, that their parents knew.

Ma William did not dance though her mother—Ma Olive did, but what she (Ma William) did was relate a story of life in a community where the people, mindless of what happened throughout the year, saw themselves as patriots, as jean Senjo and as Dominicans: Paul—staying home even though his wife was in the Virgin islands, Shirley—hoping to return after her studies in Cuba and take care of the children in her community and her island and Mr. Jones—not wanting to leave the only place that he had known all his life.

As we celebrate another year of political and cultural independence from our colonial masters, may we pause and remember the many cultural icons who have gone before us and those who are still with us. Let us thank them for keeping alive a Culture and a Heritage that is second to none, and one that no matter where we are, no matter what part of the world we decide to call home, we as Dominicans, will be proud to be part of and cherish always.

Happy Independence Dominica and my fellow Dominicans!!