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Fiji

One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once one’s mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object has disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind (Basho 1644-1694)

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We went to church on Palm Sunday, a Methodist Church. It was at Y—village. Eddie the spiv took us and introduced us to S., a fulsome woman with skin almost as dark as mine. She had a round face and a bushy well-combed hair. She was dressed in an underskirt of white cotton, probably poplin with a navy blue top wrapper. She ushered us, urgently with a degree of conspiratorial air, into her bure and asked that we shut the door behind us. Secretive. She pulled out a bag from under her bed and started to lay out her stall on the floor mat: cheap and ugly trinkets, an assortment of bangles, and a series of poorly executed hide paintings. Most of us felt obliged to look, to affect interest, to inspect carefully. I looked away. A young woman, Lynette, bought a plastic, black bead.  This play of market stall and tourist trade was hardly the best start to a Christian morning of worship and devotion.

 

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S had a one-room bure. There were two beds separated by furniture. The exposed roof beams, rafters, were quite high. Strangely, S had a photo of Ronald Reagan on one of the beams. She had a cooking stove in the room. A door led to an adjoining but separate kitchen and store. There was little material wealth. Frugality was the essence.

The Church, when we finally got there, was large without a transept or nave. There was no altar and the pulpit was unusually to our left. This Palm Sunday service was conducted by children. There were about 60 in all. The choir was 30 or so in number. The singing rang out, bells reverberating within the church. It was glorious, part-singing, harmonized effortlessly, as in my childhood. Even I joined in.

I think I was somewhat unsettling for the children in particular, but probably for the adults too. Similar to them, familiar but obviously not quite the same. The most telling difference was in my proportions. Here was I, tall, lean, with long limbs and torso, a small head.  And, they, enormous square heads, massive hands and feet and bulky muscles. A few, a very few could have been African. Where I was lean, they were squat, powerful, and muscular.

Oral culture has its ways and means. These children, from a young age, as young as 6 years old, were already learning to stand, memorize and speak to an audience with the necessary self-possession and confidence.

At the end of the service we shook the hands of all the children and uttered a few words to some of the adults. The young woman who had welcomed and thanked us during the service was easily the most refined woman there. She was wearing a white skirt and  close fitting but modestly cut blouse. Tall, erect and like Michelle Obama, toned and attractive. We went to speak to her. She had the direct, unwavering gaze of the women. An unassuming demeanor, a transparency like their clear costal waters. She moved to touch me on the upper arm, a natural gesture of friendship and familiarity.

 

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There is a tranquility here that is now lost elsewhere. It is as if everything marches together in time. What would passion, envy, anger, lust, hatred even, seem like on these shores? More muted or keener, more dangerous?

The women are alluring without the need to arouse interest in any profane manner. Their walk is measured, slow not ponderous, yet sure of the ground. As in all Eastern people, the eyes, even when direct and un-averted are veiled, as if sorrow and hurt, pain and loss reside there. A knowledge that life is ephemeral, that pleasure is transitory, that dreams are just that, dreams. There is a mixture of resignation, acceptance, and even of quiet understanding, of tolerance in the depths of these eyes.

 

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The trip back to our chalets was dominated by the infinite capacity of the sea to change color. We had already seen the aquamarine blue, the emerald and the jade but were unprepared for the royal blue, the indigo, blue-black, mercury inkblot, molten lead, pitch and tar black. The most surprising was the slurry, muddy undulating field, as if one could step off the boat and walk on it, a mire ready for pigs or hippopotamus to cavort in. This muddy field from time to time showed a fleeting glint of purple, hessian blue mixed with silver. And all the time, our island was skirted by mangrove clutching and digging into the sand.

 

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Back home after 6 weeks away, the plane descended through low clouds to a wet, drizzly Heathrow. The first rain we had seen in 3 weeks after the dramatic tropical storm in Fiji. Home at last.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

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Thin strip of lace, foam

Rain all day. This was Fiji. Drops splashing into the sea, splash! The malachite undulating hills dark against the impossible turquoise of the sea. A ferrous blue skirted a thin strip of lace, foam and waves climbed unto the beige beach.

 

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A thunderstorm that was forever childhood excitement: a knife sharp, mercury-white glare followed by thunder. The thunder started in the hollowness of the chest and exploded outwards and side-wards. It grumbled towards the hills and reverberated once again in the hollowness of the thorax. Fear, panic, terror rolling across the sky.

You travel so far from the known, familiar universe only to arrive back at home, back in childhood and memories of a past just barely clutched at: hibiscus, frangipani, paw-paws, coconuts, palms, bananas, poinsettia, crotalaria, Jacob’s coat-of-many colors, flamboyant and Pride of Barbados. Even the people were brown with frizzy hair. But, there the similarity ended.

These are island paradises. Virulent vigour was here replaced with gentility, softness, courteous solicitude. How come the fierceness of the past, the poison of inter-tribal warfare was converted to today’s decorous civility?

 

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The breeze blew hard and the leaves rustled like coins thrown on the floor, metallic. The sea was everywhere like a living emerald scarf, all motion. Or, like molten glass, tinted and still, otherworldly. And the sky, beyond description.

Was it the stickiness, the humid and slightly fetid air that suggested a lack of constraint, a fecundity that moistened the upper lip and every aperture that throbbed subtly, lips that imperceptibly quivered, quick in the spirit, quick in the pulse, quickening the imagination?

A sultry energy of possessing and conquering, of pestle and mortar, of animal instinct forged in this intense heat of a smithy – liquid and molten emotion transformed, transfigured into concrete material flesh. Sins of the flesh!

You could tell, once you knew, she was a dancer. She walked with an erect stance, holding her back straight whilst pushing off at each step with the ball of her feet. The neck was long, the lower limbs slightly, ever so slightly short for her height and her torso was long. Her head was small and round, hair Pacific blonde and the face shy and girlish, innocent and trusting.

In the evening light, at dusk especially, all her qualities merged with the sound of the sea lapping at the beach, the clump of mangrove at the shoreline and the intense green of the foliage shading off into the grass green and the fresh green of palm trees. Elegant, simple and in the imagination, virginal. Imagination bestows these attributes to reflect our desires and innermost longings.

 

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Watching the sky change color, from blue to indigo, to red, pink and purple before a wash of black erased all colors, this was our evenings. This was counterpoised against the sea itself, first revealing an intense and clear turquoise that changed to green, not jade but emerald green. It ended a murky, muddy blue-green, turbid but probably alive and rich. Then what colour was this that shimmered, fish scales, tar and liquorice?

As I looked across the bay, a wood pigeon pecked at the ground, a plover walked across the waterline, and the lagoon rippled continuously, a few fish jumping or skating across the water. This sublime, solemn beauty will probably outlast me, will outlast the brief interval of my existence.

 

Photos by Jan Oyebode

Absence of mirrors

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Imagine an absence of mirrors. Without any reflective surface, how would anyone know what his face looked like? Whether or not he is comely? And, what of the link between his facial appearance and his self-identity, his distinctiveness? Everything is then in the eye, in the eye of the Other. In the absence of mirrors, the eye of the Other is the reflective surface in which we see ourselves. But images, effigies, art can be intercessionary objects traversing the gulf between the self and the self. But, more about this, later.

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First, Martin Buber (1878-1965) in I and Thou gave an account of the what it is like when a person encounters, confronts the material world, what he termed “It” and what it is like to encounter a self, a “You”. Buber argues that the constancy of the “I” develops because in its relationship to the world, a changing world, “the consciousness of the constant partner, the I-consciousness crystallises”. Buber conceives the world as having “density and duration” and that its “articulation can be surveyed”. In addition he says:

One recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks it with one’s eyes open…it is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everyone, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it You cannot remain alive, its reliability preserves You.

Buber is describing the material world, “It” as lasting, objective, reliable and sustaining for the self. But what Buber wants to do is to draw a distinction between this attitude towards the material world, towards “It” and the attitude towards persons, towards “You”.

The world [You] that appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it appears always new to You, and you cannot take it by its word. It lacks density…it cannot be surveyed,…it does not stand outside you, it touches you, it touches your ground

 

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In this account, selves are unpredictable and cannot be grasped in full like an inert material object can. Indeed, Buber suggests that persons influence our emotions, that is, persons do not merely stand outside us like a stone might but persons invade our emotional life, our consciousness, thereby touching us. Furthermore, there is the notion that we depend on the material world- “without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human”.

Buber emphasizes that sociality is a prerequisite of being human, that mutuality, the capacity to reciprocate the regard for us by other beings is crucial:

Here I and You confront each other freely in a reciprocity that is not involved in or tainted by any causality

This mutuality is not dependent on physical forces, it is expressly human, particularly because it is freely given. The freedom to act towards another with similar regard as one has for oneself and without being bound by duty to act as such, but because one wants to, is in this account supremely human.

 

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An absence of mirrors deepens our understanding of the degree to which the regard of Others, their gaze and surveillance, reflect us as in a mirror and thereby constituting, some might add consolidating us into the self that we know and are. No need here for effigies, for the crafted model that stands in whilst at the same time transmitting what is unseen, evoking it as a mystery to itself.

But, with the proliferation of mirrors, be they film or photos, has the mirroring eye lost some of its power to enchant us, drawing us into the world of the Other and holding us singular but in mutuality? Is this perhaps the root cause of the growing narcissism, the absence of regard for the Other?

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