Secular loneliness

Lately I’ve been thinking about loneliness and wondering; can urban celebrations or urban interventions combat the loneliness of secular life?

For religious people there is an innate sense of community. Essentially they are just like minded individuals sharing their passion which is cemented by community rituals. Rife as those communities are with problems of repression, expectation and judgement, there’s a portion of the experience that draws people – a sense of home and belonging without the fear and uncertainty of secular life.

The church as an urban artifact and as a point of locus is a grounding point for the community. It’s where you go for togetherness and meditation. It’s a free, available space that you can go to for solace. In modern secular society the only go-to places are capitalist machines. You can go to the mall and hang out, go to the market, go to the gym or go to a bar. In a cold place especially – there’s no where outdoors that is a refuge from the relentless media bombardment of this age.

Urban celebrations are an opportunity, I feel, to ground people together without being a proprietary event. Communal ritual is fundamental to place making. All our ancestors knew that. In every race and culture around the world, you will find some public ritual that involves possessing a space for that group. Hell, dogs pee on things to claim them. It’s all about territory – marking something introduces it to your world narrative. Effective public space is fundamentally about territory and ritually reclaiming city space as ours. Anyone who has taken part in Carnival understands that. This is fundamental to how West Indian people engage space.

The problem with some North American festivals is that people generally don’t understand the notion of reclaiming public space. In fact I suspect that they believe that secular means non-ownership. Therefore public space is not everyones space – it’s no ones space. So the city squares and public domain are occupied only by the homeless and spaceless. People are afraid of each other and they believe that ignoring others is respectful. To them they are giving the other space and time to exist separate from the interference of others. But I don’t think they understand how awful that is when you are a stranger in a strange place and no one is willing to make eye contact with you.

There are places in the world where this is not true. Especially in Europe, there are public places where people gather without the input of the church or government. I remember seeing in Italy how the public squares filled with people each night – playing music, drinking and just being rowdy, happy humans. You see it in small neighbourhoods too – even ghettos. People hang out outside on the street, in front of their building – somewhere visible. They’re marking the space theirs. Graffiti is like this too.

All this is to say that we can do better. People don’t need to feel so isolated in the cities that they live in. Simple interventions can completely change the way people interact. An example is making a public parkette an internet hot spot. Another is by allowing public celebration without the interference of decibel levels and waivers from time to time. These things create a collective narrative of place. They bring people together organically.


Creatively, I live in this strange mental and physical space in which I can’t quite resolve the issue of audience. I have an art exhibition on at the moment in Toronto (more on that here) and coming out of making this show I’m left with questions about myself and my work -about community and art.

Who am I painting for? When I lived in Brooklyn a few years back I asked an artist how it was he knew that his work touched anyone. He said that if he expressed himself honestly that there would surly be people out there somewhere who could identify with his experiences and expressions. There’s something to that. For a person like me though, who lives in the world of Walcott’s Prodigal and who lives without the shelter of religion, racial acceptance or community, who in the world am I painting for?

Have you seen that episode of How I Met you Mother where Lily realizes that the ideal audience for her art was cats and dogs? So she exhibited her work in Vet offices? It was hilarious and silly but oddly applicable.

My desolate musing aside, feedback on my work has been good. There are certain pieces that resound with people on a level that is perhaps common to us all. In that sense maybe with time I, like my work, will grow to a place that is transparent and accessible to all walks of life. I have already grown to be a remarkable in-between-er. Maybe my work will appeal, as this blog does, to all of the other people like myself – caught in between. Or maybe we are all the same animal, responding to the infinite articulations of life as different people. In this sense, audience isn’t an issue. Art is for all of us, so I just won’t worry about it.

no permanent address

I’ve been holding off making business cards for a long time. This is because I didn’t want to put any information on there that wouldn’t be applicable for less than a year. My loved ones can attest to the ridiculous number of phone numbers I’ve had over the years, especially during undergrad when I moved every four months! When moving yet again a few weeks ago I gathered all of my cell phones into a little pile – one for every country I’ve lived in. I cursed, put them in another box and shipped them with all of the other things I’ve shipped and tagged and stored.

So no, I still have no permanent address. I tell people I do – like the government. They seem pretty stuck on the issue, though I stress that ‘permanent’ is a strong term for my living situation. For a while I was using my brother’s house as my supposed permanent address but his wife hates me so that stopped pretty quick. Now I change my address every time I move and in the past 8 or 9 years, I haven’t lived in one place for longer than a year and a half. This is bad news for my National Geographic magazine subscription.

My boyfriend and I were joking around last night that we come from a long line of cantankerous Cartman-like ancestors who at some point in all of their lives said ‘Screw this town! I’m going over there!’ This is true of all of our ancestors with the possible exclusion of his black ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean. Even then though they were taken to Barbados and then moved optionally to Trinidad – so again – we, and people like us have an inherent predisposition for saying ‘I’ve had enough!’

So why fight it? I should just accept that I’m a nomad. For people like me, buying furniture is a bad idea. Signing 3-year contracts, like my latest phone is a catastrophically bad idea. Reading a lot and making art is hugely inconvenient for moving purposes. But alas, I’ll have to let those last ones slide.

Thankfully, the information age has brought a solution to my business card problem. I’ve gone with Mini Cards from (which are awesome and lovely and I couldn’t recommend them more). On them I’ve put my phone number, website and email address. That’s as traceable as I come.

So what are you anyway?

Image source:


Thoughts of race/ethnicity/identity always leave me feeling somewhat bemused, somewhat like I have an existential stomachache.

Our society tells us that in order to know who we are, we must know “what” we are- that is to say that much of our identity is built around our racial and ethnic categorization.

Unless you don’t fit into any category but “other”. Cue identity issues.

Trinidad and Tobago boasts of being a cosmopolitan or “rainbow” twin-island nation, where “every creed and race, find an equal place”. Again, no proviso made for those belonging to a number of creeds and races.

Questions of race in T&T are largely influenced by each group’s historical experience, in particular by the conditions of immigration to T&T and the pattern of experiences once there.

Not surprising then, that the colonial imprint of white privilege still affects us today, manifesting itself in a preoccupation with “fairness”.

The phrase “if yuh not red yuh dead” is a prime example of the duality of these attitudes. It implies superiority on the part of these red-skinned Trinbagonians (whoever they may be, since no two people have the same idea of what it is to be ‘red’ in T&T), but is this assigned to them or assumed by them?

My childhood was defined by conflicts such as this- I was cushioned by my parents (particularly my ‘red’ mother) because they predicted that we would always attract extra attention (and mostly of a negative nature) due to our skin tones. Unfortunately these fears were borne out. I was always struck by the stiffening of shoulders, the frigidity of the air when I entered certain social settings. I learnt to carry myself with self-assurance (if only feigned) because I was often met with hostility merely because I appeared to belong to a certain group, and therefore, the assumptions went, I must be an uppity so-and-so… All this, as a child, and coming from children.

That feigned self-assurance could not mark the real hurt caused by such treatment at the hands of my so-called peers. Something else with which to regale my hypothetical therapist.

Note carefully what emerges from the above account of childhood encounters- I began to develop a veneer of aloofness so as to protect myself from the inevitable sneers. At least for myself I can say that if I seem like an uppity so-and-so, is allyuh make me so. Self-fulfilling prophecy indeed.

Yesterday, mom declared that she was going to found a new race, so that we would no longer have to self-define as “other”. Her life has in large part been defined by her appearance. She recounted a recent experience which lead her once more to lament the fate of we mixed individuals, forever lost in racial/ethnic/cultural limbo. At a discussion about the propriety of the Prime Minister bowing to the Indian President, several commentators interjected with perspectives based on what they saw as their particular culture’s position. My mother realized anew that her mixed racial background meant not that she could identify with all, but rather that she could identify with none.

This is what most people don’t understand. Although we can attest that T&T’s culture is this, or it is that, ultimately one’s sense of rootedness requires something deeper, something more primeval.

Fortunate individuals may identify with one or more ethnic influences which they find around them- bi-racial people come to mind here, depending on the circumstances. Others may have a higher degree of mixing but identify with one majority group. And then, there are the “Callaloos” like my family. We are the product of several generations of a high degree of mixing (i.e. across a range of racial groups). We have also inherited several generations’ worth of feelings of racial/ethnic/cultural displacement.

As an aside, I will admit that in my case, dysfunction within the family unit went a long way to exacerbating this sense of displacement, as extended family ties have long been tenuous at best.

Back to the point- when asked “so what are you anyway?” my response is usually- shrug, list various things which make up my racial/ethnic profile and then shrug again, this time internal, at how unsatisfactory an answer that will always be.

Have I mentioned that having a riot of curly hair and a complexion which defies UV rays and, just to make things fun, a seemingly-random Muslim last name really adds to the confusion?

Suffice to say, I am not easily defined.

(FYI, the ‘Muslim’ last name originates from Indian ancestors who can be traced back to that fateful journey aboard the Fatel Razack. Note how proud I am of having at least some ancestry to claim).