Whether in Bridgetown or New York, we all just do the best we can in bad times, don’t we? Here, a woman buys a case of water in preparation for a large winter storm in NYC January 26. Photo Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Kelly/EPA.
“We didn't start the fire. It was always burning, since the world’s been turning.” Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
The Holidays are gone—Christmas 2014, New Year’s Eve—not their effects, I find. My brothers and sister and I and our families gathered for the first time in six years at the homestead in Montreal. It was a green Christmas, with snow-softened yards, icy streets and frigid mornings coming after Christ’s designated birthday. We kept warm around my mother, who is now 81 years of age and savours the time gone by from a bottle whose vintage yet eludes us. There were many dinners around the old table, many get-togethers with aging cousins and expanding households, and tales told of how this aunt got her nickname or why that uncle never returned to Barbados, some of them true, some of them even about my father, finally felled by Alzheimer’s in 2002 and still missed a decade-plus later. Always missed, then: as possibly the best of us: the teacher, the adventurer, the gentleman, the family man, the cool cat with apparently nine lives. In the end, though, just my father, merely possessed with the power of the departed to inspire.
While we sat eating manicotti and friend chicken at my Aunt Rosa’s one night, my cousin Willy brought up the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. At the time, the exact number of gunmen was still unknown; the lives that would be lost could not be foreseen. We were into the first week of a new year. While there were festive celebrations under our roofs, other peoples in other countries carried on in a desperate way, reminding us that 2015 may have seemed promising, but the world was still mired in deadly, ancient grievances.
“What’s the point?” Willy asked of the Paris massacre. “How do you get people to agree with you by doing such awful things?”
We all grunted or went silent as we passed the bread.
“You don’t,” my brother Cal, the eldest of us after the elders, said. His area was once political science. “But you do get people to fear you.”
I wondered at the aspirations of a people. Not necessarily Muslims as a group, but those hatchet men (seen and unseen) responsible for all the shootings and bombings and beheadings in the name of the group. I’d guess we all did, without getting very far. Conversation soon slipped to dealing with an incomplete exercise DVD set Willy ordered online, to realities and concerns far easier to digest at the moment.
A common phrase I heard from so many I met with during my three weeks in Montreal was “doing the best we can.” Sometimes, it was uttered to excuse an obvious lack of effort. You could hear the chorus of “Really?” from the unconvinced. Other times, the words were blurted out in bafflement, as in, This kid’s driving me crazy, what more can I do? That came frequently from friends with offspring they felt could be making a greater effort to succeed at school, whether the child was seven or seventeen, if only they would listen to their parents’ advice. The criticism sounded familiar, only a generation removed.
My Mom, my brothers and sister, our spouses and children, my very best friends, people who would either die or kill for me—I suppose we’re all “doing the best we can.” But what if the best we can is all we’ve ever given, and these days call for more, for us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves by doing what’s necessary instead? That’s something my father, who, I admit, has gradually become as much myth as man, would suggest. But what does it mean to do what’s necessary? What did it mean in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attacks to those on both sides?
A colleague and friend of mine, one of the most scrupulous journalists and pacifists I know, couldn’t excuse the loss of life at the weekly but asked if, perhaps, perhaps, the editors hadn’t been trying to grasp the tiger by the tail all along. The American essayist Wendell Berry once wrote, “How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?” It’s a fair question, too, since the tragedy in France. We’ve had anti-immigration demonstrations in Germany, and the flight, equally desperate, of too many young men and women in various countries who still think, after the testimonies and dramatizations of countless conflicts, that going to war is how you find meaning in life, not where you most risk losing it.
Home well over three weeks, I’m still hearing the phrase: on the streets of Barbados, down my gap from neighbours, or from former colleagues from my Nation newspaper days met on their way from the unemployment office. Or they may still be working, “secure” in a government job (does being appointed mean anything in this island these days?), just not paid in the last month or two, the economy and its handling by the present administration being what it is.
I know a man who works for a government department. I lent him four bucks for bus fare the other morning when I was taking my daughter up the hill to her school in Oistins. “I have to go in to see if I’m going to be paid this month,” he said.
“Me, too,” I said, referring to my teaching gig at the community college.
“And they still expect you to be there, in spite of it all.”
“I know. But, hey, everybody’s doing….”
He was nodding, waving behind him, already on his way to catch the bus and figure out who he could beg for lunch money.
A couple Sundays ago, the supermarket in Oistins was packed with shoppers. There was no hurricane coming, not this time of year; it wasn’t the end of the world or a bank holiday the next day. The only thing that was coming was a blizzard predicted to hit the northeast of the US and Canada between Monday night and Tuesday morning. Did anybody else in the region make the connection? Was there a connection? So strange, I thought. The nights in Barbados had been cooler, worthy of blankets and sweaters, thanks to gusty chilled winds, noticeably in the country. It was as if we were feeling it, too, this side of the world, the coming of some storm.
I mean, Nature has a way of reminding us of what we already know: we’ve got problems, big problems, to wrestle with when we face another New Year as a thing of dread. Even Joyce would have agreed that it’s not only the dead who can inspire, or should.
I had a garden chat with my next-door neighbour. You know the type of encounter: you pass the person on your way to work as she’s pulling weeds or trimming a hedge. She lives in the UK but rotates with a sister to take care of their ailing father. He’s 93 and well looked after. It’s her grandchildren she’s a little worried about these days, particularly an older boy in his late teens she’s close to and clearly fond of.
He’s a talented musician, she says. He’s fallen in with the wrong crowd before. She worked in the social services sector in Britain; she knows how easy it is for black youths to lose their way, or be lost away, in that system. Globally, she sees too little that is positive for youths to get involved in, including in Barbados. Not enough jobs or government schemes that support progressive or non-traditional interests. So it’s up to the private sector—and family, she says. It’s up to her.
When she sees her grandson again, most likely in the summer, she’s going to remind him: “Are you doing the best you can?”
The way the world turns, and burns, she may want to ask him to think twice before he answers.