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Caribbean musings #9 Listening to the sea


Last week my husband, Alex, went on a work trip to New York and Washington. I imagined him walking with purpose along the broad concrete pavements, turning a corner under the crisp blue sky and weaving his way through the thronging crowds on his way to a meeting. I envied him for having the opportunity to experience these cities - meccas to business and technology. They are a consumer's dream. They have a pulse and an energy that I miss - made up of the people in them.

I know what New York feels like. During a visit last year I stayed with a friend in Brooklyn. Her converted warehouse apartment on the fifth floor with it's exposed pipes and huge picture windows overlooking a freeway whose traffic flowed night and day - was beautiful. If it wasn't for her abstract paintings and stylish furniture I might have noticed the strange feeling sooner. The feeling that I had, especially at night, that I was floating inside a bubble of white noise where the hum of machines and engines was inescapable.

But it didn't end there. I found myself seeking out green spaces. Quite often, with no joy. Who knew that I'd grown so used to the swishing sound of palm fronds and whistling frogs at night? To birdsong and frangipani blossoms and an expanse of blue sky fringed with mahogany trees at my window.

On the fifth floor in New York I felt rootless and asked myself, where was the ground itself? How far down beneath the concrete and the pipes and the subway would you have to go to reach it? To feel like you could touch the place itself? What if it wanted to speak? Who would hear it?

In Barbados I sleep on the ground floor and walk mostly in bare feet. Outside and inside are often merged - the temperature is the same in both realms night and day where verandahs become living rooms and windows are either left open or have shutters instead of glass. I realise that I've become used to all this. It's how I live, so it's become a part of me.

With Alex away, I decide to skip the after school routine and take the kids to the beach for a picnic supper. We devour flatbreads filled with chargrilled chicken and falafel and strip down to our swimsuits. It's the last hour before the sun sets and the water is warm and soothing. Floating on my back I gaze at the sky and the moon is there, a slither of sea-glass, and it makes me laugh out loud. The busy hum that's filled my head all day suddently clears. And I'm in one of those moments where life is injected with a shock of meaning because I've connected with something real - something beautiful and tangible in the natural world.

Sometimes stories come to me, often through the radio - BBC World Service - when I'm driving on the island, that connect with me - they join up the dots. And I think of the voice of Chad Brown, the American Navy veteran from Desert Storm Afghanistan, who was so shell shocked, so torn apart by post traumatic shock disorder after his return to civilian life that he lost the will to live. And how, by sheer chance, he found himself by a lake, fishing and in a moment, the act of hooking a fish out of the water, pulling it up to the bank, observing it's scales, its eye, by holding life in his hands, he wanted suddenly to live. Or stopped wanting to die.

Imagine the aching beauty of snowflakes in your hand, watching the lacy web of ice dissolve into your palm when you've been involved in an accident so serious - so life threatening - that you've totally disconnected from your body. That's how Dr. BJ Miller described an experience he had in his early twenties when he sustained an electric shock, and ended up losing both legs from the knee down and half of one arm. Now a palliative care specialist who treats patients with terminal or life-altering illness, Dr Miller, (who gives a very moving Ted Talk here) is now the director of the Zen Hospice project where he seeks to bring beauty and meaning to his patient's end of life experiences.

Although my moment of connection isn't a response to a tragedy in my life - I didn't experience pain, or a crushing disaster, it has the same effect: it awakens. The sea spoke to me - not the traffic on the roads, the shop windows or soaring buildings - and I listened. Now I realise that connection, with the bones of this place, it's coral foundations and the tell-tale ocean that surrounds it, is what I want of this island. Yes, it's what I've been looking for all along.

You can read more posts about the sea here, here and here.