Trinidad Carnival: My Eden

At this moment, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, myself included, are traveling to Trinidad for Carnival, the season of fetes, masquerading, and feasting that precedes Ash Wednesday. To the liturgically inclined, Carnival, like Mardi Gras, marks the end of Ordinary Time and the beginning of a period of solemnity. But for an increasing many, Trinidad Carnival just marks the beginning of a global season where at least once a month, every month until October, there is an opportunity to “Free Up Yourself.” Even after the Soca Monarch is crowned, the lights on the stage go dim, the feathers and jewels are swept off the street, and everyone sobers up from the various Carnivals around the world, there is still a flurry of activity going forth to plan next year’s Carnival. Much like God, Carnival is always working.

In 2016 I attended my first Carnival in Miami and became a convert. I became a Carnivalist and soca disciple who didn’t know what I thought fun was before I played mas. Prior to attending Miami Carnival, I watched family and friends fete for hours, days, a week even, and then I experienced it–on a smaller scale–for myself. From that moment on I fervently held on to my last memories of a Carnival experience while I counted down the days until my next. And now, here I am, on my way to my second Trinidad Carnival aka “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Given this,  I wanted to take this time to reflect on what it is that makes Carnival so compelling to me and why I am going to Trinidad again. There are some who have misconceptions about Carnival, presuming that with the (increasingly) tiny costumes and scantily clad people, the sometimes suggestive music, the copious alcohol, and what seems like an entire ethos of debauchery, that those of us who attend are going there to be promiscuous and reckless. While that may be some people’s aim, the majority of us go for a completely different reason. I go because Carnival is a religious experience, an Eden even, where the mind, body, and soul are without shame.

There are a variety of religious experiences if religion is defined as a cultural set of beliefs and practices that people gather around. If part of this is the gathering of persons inspired to give focused attention, adoration, and commitment to a subject or object, then Carnival is it. Or maybe Soca is the religion and Carnival is the church. Either way, year over year people take a pilgrimage to Trinidad and other Carnival locations, spending months in physical and financial preparation, to come together and be swept up in the spirit of Soca–and some liquid spirits–and all that comes with it: ecstatic dancing, laughing, singing, bonding, and a celebration of life. In all of this, there is a great sense of unity among those gathered and a unifying power in the individual.

This unity has historical significance as the origins of the practice of participating in Carnival is one in which enslaved people celebrated apart from their oppressors–who were having masquerade balls of their own–and donned character and caricature costumes that represented important figures in African and Caribbean culture. These figures ranged from devils and mammies to tricksters and were a site of resistance and spiritual performance. These practices still exist today but on a slightly smaller scale as Carnival has experienced the boom of globalization which has made it so that pretty masquerading has eclipsed the traditional. Pretty mas has its detractors and one can surely write a think-piece about all the problems inherent in the concept, but I find promise in the pretty masquerade as it is a special site of resistance for women, especially Afro-Caribbean women who sometimes exist in spaces that do not affirm or proclaim our beauty. In Carnival, the pretty masquerader proclaims and flaunts her beauty and embodies the saying, “Carnival is woman.” I would go so far as to say that the practice of playing mas in Carnival can share affinity with doing womanist work as it is woman loving her body, music, dance, love, roundness, other women and men both sexually and non-sexually, etc.

So, one of the parts of the Carnival experience is “playing mas,” otherwise known as masquerading–this could involve joining a traditional band with the aforementioned characters or joining a pretty mas band. Every year, a masquerade band has a theme and costumes designed by local and international designers connected to that theme. Note: You are not commissioning a random person to make your mas costume, you buy it through the band and your costume is distributed in the region where the Carnival is held–that means that my Trinidad Carnival costume is in Trinidad, not something that is shipped to me in Atlanta that I then have to figure out how to get down to Trinidad and back again. In Miami I played with Generation X whose theme for 2016 was Erotica, and I played in the Bondage section. If you know my research you know that I considered it Kismet that my first time playing mas was with a band whose theme for the year was Erotica. The costume consisted of a lot of black, chains, and restraint-like accessories, yet I was anything but restrained or in bondage. I was free, the freest I’d been in my life because I was in a place where I was at one with my body.

Carnival is not only the place to dash weh your inhibitions but to dash weh your insecurities about your body because it is truly a place where all (bodies) are welcome. Playing mas in Carnival is an experience of becoming one with your body in private to be at one with it in public. I find this significant as someone raised in and a current adherent to a Christian tradition that makes the body a problematic. My comfort with my body has come in waves and it has taken me nearly a decade to embrace my body as a woman, fully sacred, and fully good. Carnival felt like a culmination of this work and attending a Carnival annually or bi-annually is an opportunity to celebrate bodies, particularly in the womanist way of celebrating roundness. For me, adorning my body with nothing other than a bra made of wire, a strip that covers my nipples, and a tiny bikini bottom is a step to my liberation. When I put on my costume and look at myself, it is like seeing myself for the first time. Everything looks new and incredible to me. Finally, my body is enslaved to no one and no thing, it is liberated and it dances among other liberated bodies. Thus for me to spend nearly a week in various level of undress is not something to be ashamed of–that is why I post and speak fairly openly about it because I want to decrease the judgment and shame that is sometimes implied and put upon women in particular for enjoying this exhibition of our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies. We came into this world naked–and by that I not only refer to our natural birth but the divine birth through which we knew no shame and our bodies were good.

Furthermore, those of us who are part of the diaspora but are chained to the West, benefit from participating in practices that explicitly unlink us from the notion that our bodies are bad or that a naked body equals a corruptible body. At Carnival, bodies are without shame, there is no objectifying gaze save for those who are completely out of their league in understanding what is liberative and sacred about participation in Carnival–I say this as one who believes that an argument forwarding a notion of objectification in this context is one that ignores that the objectifier, i.e. European colonizer, came before objectification. Among the diaspora there is no objectification because we understand our bodies and ourselves not as objects or objectified, we are subjects of our heritage and our liberation. We are free, and as subjects to our heritage we also experience that freedom through music and dance.

I’ve been dancing in some way, shape, or form throughout my life, it is what frees me up to do more and to process a spectrum of emotions that cannot be excised in the mind. Dancing is how I commune with myself, with God, and with the earth. Carnival allows me to commune with those parts all the more because of the Soca music that is integral to the celebration. The waistline is the focal point in much of the dancing done at Carnival and its primary job is to whine–which is why many songs will focus on the whine. While the ability to ability to whine the waistline is woman’s work, men have also become as proficient, providing some healthy competition and a hell of a time. Men and women meet on the road and enjoy a kind of promiscuous dancing, going from one person to the next, usually thanking their partners along the way. Shame is non-existent here because there is a sense that this is what our bodies were made for, to consensually congregate and dance freely. Together on the road, no harm can befall us. We are safe there dancing with one another as freely as we want to and there is nobody or no gaze to disrupt us as the vibrations of the sound system blasting soca moves us.

Being raised in a Jamaican family, I was exposed to all of the genres of Caribbean music but never took a liking to soca, I was a strictly dance hall girl. But after a weekend of living on a soca soundtrack in Miami, I was hooked and couldn’t imagine my life without it.  The pure positivity and vibes of soca music are infectious and seemingly does something to its listener. Whether the song is about giving a man or woman a good whine, celebrating life, or giving praise to God, it imbues the listener with a life force unlike any other genre of music–with the exception of some Gospel music. That life force is a positive productive power best articulated in Benjai’s 2015 hit, “Phenomenal.” In it he says,

Soca does give me meh powers
Turn me into masqueraders
Soca does give meh meh powers
Draw me straight in different colors
Masqueraders, we get powers
Is a wonderful feeling
On Stage together holding me banners With different colors
We crossing the stage

This song asserts soca’s power as a unifying force individually and communally. It gives people powers to come together from all walks of life and celebrate life against all odds. The different colors are a reference to both those of the vibrant costumes, flags, and the people who represent the multitudes of the world. Many gather around the sound of soca and experience themselves in the world as never before because they are reminded of who they are in relation to themselves and in relation to everyone else. Some soca music also manages to situate itself within the Christian tradition through songs that ground a Judeo-Christian conception of God as bestower of blessings, protector, provider, and comforter. This explicit reference to religion aside, soca at its core is about unity and establishing the power of people coming together. This year many of us have the hit “Famalay” by Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, and Skinny Black to look forward to as we once again affirm our unity as people when we sing,

We doh see skin
We doh see colour
We see strength
We see power
We doh see race
One or di other
Once he is breathing on dis earth he is ma brother

Soca is a great equalizer for the masses that can help us to see one another by collapsing difference for one moment in time and celebrating our common humanity. This is something we are hard pressed to do in many other places, but somehow it works in the context of soca and Carnival.

Soca reminds us that a celebration is always around the corner and the riddim drives us to shake off everything that binds us. The sound calls us to live in the moment, love life, and love one another. This is why I consider myself a soca disciple. I fell in love with soca precisely because the music’s message is so consistently positive and celebratory in a way that one almost can’t account for by words alone. There is metaphysical-level goodness happening in soca that takes me to another level both on the road and in my daily life. Soca is, literally, good for the soul.

In all of this, Carnival strikes me as a religious experience because it gathers every part of the self and penetrates it with generative, positive, productive energy. It does so within the context of a community that gathers for the purpose of imbuing itself with this energy. It takes the body and redeems it, restoring it to a pre-Fall moment where shame is not an issue. It takes the mind and gives it a higher consciousness, bending it toward unity and love as a consistent ethic. It lifts the soul to a higher vibration. It is more than just an opportunity fling it up, it is an opportunity to get free. And so, off I go to my personal Eden to live on top of the world–the Black Church folk will get that. See you all on the flipside.

 

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Wined and Dined: A Fairy Tale

Last night a man wined and dined me, treating me to the most sumptuous foods and waiting on me hand and foot. This was our first time out but he was at ease in spoiling me, calling me “My Lady”–the way that British people say it (Mehlady). He had his finger on the pulse of everything this epicure enjoys, from mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and spinach to steaming hot paella chock full of fresh seafood such as lobster tails, scallops, and Mahi Mahi. He anticipated my every need and met it while being so careful not to overstep boundaries, after all, this was only our first time out. He even brought dessert, a selection of six decadent treats from Tiramisu to Pecan Pie of which I chose only one for fear that I would explode in delight with anything more. I exploded anyway. We kept things fairly light throughout the meal but by the end he asked me about what I was reading. I responded in the way one responds when they assume that someone won’t know who they are talking about.

“City of God, by this guy Augustine,” I said. His eyes lit up when I said Augustine and I realized that he knew him as well as I did–or at least as well as I was hoping to know Augustine.

“I recently started reading a book on Plato, even though I haven’t read much of that nature since my theology class,” he responded. I lit up at the sound of the words “theology” and “class.”

“Did you attend a theology school?” I asked, beaming in excited anticipation of his answer, hoping we shared a similar path.

“It was while I was at Xavier,” he said.

Now I was really lit.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. Inside I felt like the 4th of July, all fireworks and Katy Perry singing, “Baby You’re a Firework.”

“I am Catholic too,” the words spilling out of my mouth.

He smiled wide, put his hand over his heart, and extended his other hand in what felt like some secret greeting between people of the faith. I smiled on the outside but inside I was bursting with desire to know this person better, bursting out of desire because I finally found what I was missing, a man who shares my faith tradition and knows a little about Augustine and Plato. All of a sudden the wasteland I had been walking through evaporated and I was in a promised land.

We both smiled at one another and then he excused himself to get something in the back.

He walked away but then turned on his heels swiftly and said, “I’m sorry, I digress, what’s your name?”

As if we hadn’t already greeted one another with hands I extended mine for a chance to meet his again and said, “Nicole.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll see you again so that we can talk about Augustine’s City of God. I’m here every day,” he said in earnest as he walked away from the table.

I smiled at my good fortune on this evening. I wasn’t expecting to be wined and dined and treated like a queen. I expected a perfunctory dinner, but this was different, I was unprepared for this difference. I said farewell to this man and took leave of the place where I was wined and dined, walking past table upon table of people enjoying their sumptuous meals and decadent dessert. I squeezed past large groups awaiting seating and finally reached the doors to the exterior of Seasons 52.

As I walked toward my car I exhaled. I’d been waiting for this feeling, waiting to feel something more real than I’ve felt in a while and I finally felt it. I smiled. I got in my car and exhaled again, reaching into my wallet to pull out my receipt so that I could look at his name. He told his name but I hoped that I’d have more than his first name, unfortunately it was not to be. All I had was his first name and, of course, his place of employment, Seasons 52. Far from being in despair at this Cinderella-like fate, I was hopeful. Not because I was planning to make a habit out of going to Seasons 52–because that’s an expensive habit to sustain–but because that chance encounter restored my faith in something like love even if just for a moment.

I sit here now with the only memento from that night, a symbolic glass slipper that belongs to a Prince Charming-prototype. I wonder if he too feels like his only memento of the night is holding a symbolic glass slipper, a receipt with my signature scribbled on it and the last four digits of my credit card number. If I’m lucky he’ll use those two things to track me down and save me from this evil spell called living in this crazy world without a romantic equal. Alas life is not a fairytale, and he probably gives impeccable service to scores of people at Seasons 52, after all, it is his job.

At Home in Aloneness…

As I looked out the window to the ground being pounded by droplets of a downpour I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here.” The world around me is moving swiftly. People’s relationships are evolving or shriveling up and dying and here I sit, in the same place I’ve always been, and it’s sort of unbelievable to me. As I watched the concrete grow slicker with each drop I tried to feel something different, but my heart wouldn’t budge. I conjured thoughts about people in love with one another, about sitting on a couch with someone doing the proverbial “Netflix and chill,” about having someone to share the end of my busy days with. I tried to conjure some sense of disappointment about not having that yet, about not having a prospect, about not even having the person who I know is a complete waste of my time but I persist because I figure it’s better than being alone. Amazingly I felt no sense of disappointment, no wistfulness for all I’m supposedly  missing at this moment in life. For the first time in a while, possibly in my young adult life, I’m romantically alone with nothing on the horizon, and I’m not scared of it.

For the first time in my life that I can fully sense, I am at peace with being alone. I’m 36 and single and I actually feel satisfied. Not in that cliché, “I can do bad all by myself,” way but in a rewarding, “There is richness, possibility, and hope in this space of aloneness.” This aloneness is not pejorative or stigmatizing for me. I don’t seek to be uprooted from it by busying myself with ways to not lean into this feeling. I’m not compelled to jump on a dating app to busy myself with “in the meantime” men. I am content. This takes me by surprise because for so long I’ve been compelled to mourn my singleness for every year that passes by and I remain so. But I’m 36 and single and I’m compelled to lean into this. I’m no longer willing to create a narrative for my singleness save for the one that tells the story of a woman who has chosen this for herself not as a lot I’ve settled on by circumstance but as a choice.

Just a few weeks ago a man asked me why I’m single given my beauty and intelligence and, initially, I regurgitated the script telling him, “Talk to your brethren.” But a moment later I said to him, “I’m sorry I take that back, it’s not on them, it’s on me. I haven’t found what I’m looking for and I lead a rich and fulfilling life that someone must be compelling enough to be a part of.” I’ve reached that sweet spot that Warshan Shire put words to when she wrote,

My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.

As I’m bombarded with engagement announcements, budding relationships, breakups stories, and dating app disasters, I stand still in this world where everyone is searching for someone while I am  finding myself and satisfaction in me. I have hit my own sweet spot, a place where I am building a sense of contentment not as a placeholder until someone else comes but as my home, my strong tower. I am cherishing what I have in this life in walking in a purpose, in my wonderful family and friends who are like family, and in a faith life that I am only beginning to discover the extraordinary riches of apart from anything I might gain from it. It is with slight incredulity that I occupy this space because I am not supposed to be here. The world wants me to mourn my singleness, the barrenness of my womb, the emptiness of my bed, the space between my fingers, the holes unfulfilled…But I am truly, finally, at peace with where I am in that perceived lack because I’ve found my fulfillment.

My aloneness, that presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love is home. In this place I am complete. Nobody is needed, I am enough.[1]

 

[1] Inspired by the definition of aloneness by Pragito Dove, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pragito-dove/loneliness-v-aloneness-wh_b_8032702.html

 

Being Mary Jane Lesson #1: Closure Is A Dangerous Desire

Join me every Wednesday as I share my lessons learned from “Being Mary Jane.” 

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t already seen it, you might want to watch it before you read.

mary-jane-paul-resizeLast night was the season two premiere of “Being Mary Jane,” the Mara Brock Akil drama starring Gabrielle Union as a single, successful journalist with an appetite for unavailable men. Last season we left off with Mary Jane ending things with married man Andre and resolving to leave emotionally and relationally-unavailable man David alone. But last night’s season premiere revealed that old habits die-hard and closure is a dangerous desire.

So let’s cut to the chase.

Last night we discovered that Mary Jane is not over David and she is searching for an explanation as to why it didn’t work out between them. But just as she looks for love in all the wrong places she also looks for closure in all the wrong places. We watched Mary Jane search David’s friends for answers and project her frustration on them. Almost everyone around her is telling her to let it go but, as humans in love are wont to do, she refuses. Then in “Be careful what you wish for” fashion, Mary Jane gets an opportunity for closure when his friend–the one whose house she showed up at unannounced–calls David and forces Mary Jane to get on the phone. It is then that David tells her that his girlfriend is pregnant and, the viewer assumes, he tells her to leave him alone. Unfortunately that isn’t the end of the story.

Later in the show we see Mary Jane decompressing in a suite at the Loews Atlanta Hotel and then, suddenly, we see David next to her on the couch. (But does anyone remember her calling him? How did he get in there? And I digress.) It is then that the real closure conversation happens but it becomes less about closure and more about sneaking into an open crack in her heart. This is when closure becomes dangerous and much of Twitter agreed with that last night.

And it goes on.

Last night many women and men were reminded that closure is not what is needed more than it is what is wanted–and an unhealthy want at that. I put myself in the number of people who re-learned a lesson last night as I watched Mary Jane get her so-called closure but come no closer to personal healing and wholeness. She showed us that chasing after closure when it isn’t coming to you puts you in danger because you are vulnerable. In Mary Jane’s case, she was so vulnerable and, seemingly, still in love with David, which is probably the worst time to seek closure. Some people prey on that vulnerability and that doesn’t aid in your healing. This is why closure must be up to you and no one else.

Often we claim to seek closure because we want answers for why it didn’t work out with a loved one. But if we are to be honest, deep down inside we seek it because we hope that they might either heal our broken hearts/egos or even jumpstart something that’s dead. I can say that because I’ve been there. Not so much the jumpstart of dead things but for the healing of a broken heart and ego. You want someone to piece it back together with their words and compassion and to tell you that you were, in fact, the best they ever had in every sense of the word. But that piecing back together isn’t up to them, it’s up to you.

Life goes on with or without closure. Most often it has to go on without closure. And so we have to begin to cultivate the strength to declare that it is no one else’s responsibility to heal us but our own. It is also important to ask whether this closure will add or subtract anything from our lives–especially if you have already gotten comfortable with the completion of the relationship. This is what a friend asked me a few weeks ago. In no uncertain terms he asked, “If you are already 80% there in your recovery process, what’s 20% going to do for you?” I wanted to say that it was going to help me be done with the situation, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew he was right. I knew every person I’d spoken to about the relationship over the past year was right. But finally I had to find the personal wherewithal to decide that the only person who is responsible for closure is me. So I’m thankful for last night’s episode reminding me of that.

I didn’t need Mary Jane to tell me that but I sure appreciated watch how painful and awkward the process of seeking closure can be for the individual and for their community. My healing, our healing, is in our hands. The work of closure is in us.