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Send in the Clowns

Updated: Feb 15

Last Wednesday I recalled a dream. I don’t usually. I've tried scribbling them shorthand immediately – no luck. They scatter like scared little birds before I can grab one. Maybe that’s why I’ve never played whe-whe, even though the Chinese restaurant I frequent runs a game.


Investing in a dream. Photo by Kim Johnson

Wednesday’s dream was of a diamond I had to carry to someone somewhere. As I study the small, pink, multi-faceted gem it slips through my fingers and, as with all small and clever things loosed onto my oftimes messy apartment, promptly disappears. I scour the area. Then, an image: a tea-strainer on the mouth of a vacuum cleaner. I sweep the floor with it, and voila! Amidst the muck a twinkle.


Triumphant, perhaps smugly, I’m upstairs, presumably wherever I have to deliver it, although outside of dream world I live in a one-storey apartment – a “flat”. And I promptly drop the stone again. This time, as I scrabble around, I realize teverywhere is littered with small gewgaws exactly like my diamond - there’s been a costumed Carnival party whose revellers strewed beads everywhere. I awake.


I related the dream to my partner’s jewellery-making practice, which scatters earrings around the apartment like fingerprints. Over breakfast as I told the story to her in one of our meandering conversations, it struck me that something deeper might be involved. You see, towards the end of last year I lost my voice. Maybe that was the diamond.


A writer’s voice, like that of a singer, is the vehicle which carries him to where his art lives. Why “voice”? To be true to who you are it has to be recognizably unique, like how, without seeing her, you can recognize a friend speaking, or even a celebrity you don’t personally know but hear often, say Morgan Freeman, or even the recently-excreted POTUS.


A person only has one voice but a writer may have several. The great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) wrote volumes in the voices of many characters, over 70 of them although the main ones were limited to a handful, each with its own biography, personality, philosophy and literary style.


But a writer’s voice is not his style. If the writer sings through his voice, his style is the genre of music. They often go together but are distinct. The French writer Raymond Queneau (1903-1976) composed a short one or two-paragraph anecdote into 99 different styles. Here are some:


Notes: In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of…

Metaphorical: In the centre of the day, tossed among the shoal of travelling sardines in a coleopter with a big white carapace, a chicken with a long, featherless neck suddenly harangued one, a peace-abiding one...

Surprised: How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked! And what was he doing? Well, if he wasn't actually trying to pick a quarrel with a chap...

West Indian (a la Selvon): In a bus with bags of people on, only room for two-three more, it have a fella with a string instead of a ribbon round he hat, and this fella look at another tess with a loud tone in he eye and start to get on ignorant...


I possess no such multitudes and but a single voice that, going AWOL and suddenly returning, brought a tale worth the telling, specially so since that story is the final stage of its own recovery self. When it’s back you sense it, but you gotta use it right away, so, here’s the story. But first: the backstory.


I launched this blog in a rush of enthusiasm, and poured out essays, after last year’s extreme lockdown phase, when public gatherings were banned and even the restaurants were closed, even the rumshops of St. James (wink wink, nod nod).

Even the Benaras Street limers abandoned their post. Photo by Kim Johnson

The streets blessedly quiet, sometimes downright deserted, and with my partner I took long walks over Long Circular to the Savannah and back to St. James.


People thrown back onto their own resources. Food and entertainment home made, which brought households closer (although the irreconcilable hatred of some couples, amplified by cabin fever, must have been hellish). One story circulating of a woman grown so cosy and intimate with her husband that she almost slips and tells him about her boyfriend.


The Johnson establishment went to market weekly and labored over a hot stove daily. Without ever having given it the faintest consideration before, we found ourselves like many, many Trinis, doing what those in exile had long done: that is, looked up and prepared from scratch – not pizza, KFC, char sue kai fan or gyros but… doubles.


One enterprising group retailed a DIY meal comprising four baras, a dollop of curried channa and bits of pepper and chutney, all in a plastic container. I’m told they weren’t bad, and my American partner marvelled at Trini resourcefulness.


For me prolific days, those; and I felt slightly guilty for good times while the wolf beset many doors world over. Shrinking economies threw many under the metaphoric bus. Authoritarian regimes used the lockdown to round up dissidents or immigrants. Industries fired staff. Gig workers everywhere were and still are out of jobs. Theirs was a hard life at the best of times but it became starvation mode for performing artists.


But, as the story goes: writing feeds on optimism. Even those who put finger to keyboard in anger aim to change things. Even Pessoa, who wrote about the meaningless of everything, of life, of politics, of love and sex, of travel, yet through his boredom, regret and despair he saw thinking as the greatest adventure and thus wrote 25,000 pages. For most of us optimism is especially important at year's end, hence the reality of SAD – seasonal affective disorder or winter blues – as we try to cobble together self-improvement resolutions for the coming year.


And, come December the shoe dropped. I couldn’t gather any shards of optimism for a single resolution, far less a blog. Not because of coronavirus and Donald Trump but because I foresaw their defeat only led to worse than before them. We’d learned nothing and would try to continue as before.


That hateful presidency and the Coronavirus that killed it were like a heart attack, a loud wake-up call. I feared that a vaccine and Trump’s replacement by Joe Biden would lull back into complacency a country where, over the past 30 years, the poor and the rich have diverged sharply, with 1% becoming even more obscenely wealthy at the expense of an expanding lower class and the destruction of the environment. The historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that the poor and the rich are going to become separate biological species, with the rise of gene editing. In the US educated youth is hobbled by debt and the black community subject to mass incarceration. The media is monopolised by the super-rich, and an overall callousness, stupidity, bigotry and self-hatred of sectors of the population have reached explosive portions, so that some whites can demonstrate with placards declaring “Black Lives Don’t Matter”. They won’t simply go away with Trump.

The meme of Bernie Sanders unimpressed at Joe Biden's inauguration. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

How, where, amongst that wreckage did I find my mojo? I re-read some of my earlier writings and laughed my way through with a "steuple" - my portmanteau combining a steups with a chuckle, and pushed on to a poem Pablo Neruda penned for his lover and I re-targeted for mine, or for all the women I've loved, or maybe for the love after love - I&I.


"My struggle is harsh and I come back with eyes tired/at times from having seen the unchanging earth/ but when your laughter enters it rises to the sky seeking me/ and it opens for me all/ the doors of life...

"My love, in the darkest/ hour your laughter/ opens, and if suddenly/ you see my blood staining/ the stones of the street, laugh, because your laughter/ will be for my hands/ like a fresh sword.

"Laugh at the night/ at the day, at the moon/laugh at the twisted/ streets of the island/ laugh at this clumsy boy who loves you/but when I open/ my eyes and close them/ when my steps return/ deny me bread, air/ light, spring/ but never your laughter for I would die."


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