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Skip To My Lou

“Skip To My Lou” RND458 by Jean Paul St. Charles

When new sculptures come into the warehouse, Casey often calls up and asks me to help name them. “Skip To My Lou,” quickly came to mind for this one and she said, “Oh, that’s exactly what had popped into my head, too!” We chatted for a while longer and after hanging up the phone, I noticed that the tune playing over and over in my head that morning was indeed, “Skip To My Lou.” How did the words go again?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Fly’s in the sugar bowl, what’ll I do?

Skip to my Lou, My Darling.

Did we ever skip rope to that song? I can’t say for sure.  I remember the “Minnehaha” rhyme and “Miss Mary Mack,” and another one that was something along the lines of a grocery list that finished up with an emphatic “And don’t forget the RED, HOT PEPPERS!” When you got to the “PEPPERS” part, the casual whirls of the rope instantly became furious revolutions; each one faster than the last until the girl jumping rope couldn’t keep up and missed, thereby ending her turn.

“Evie, ivey over!”

“Hey, I can play too!”

Nostalgically, I continued thinking of those silly rhymes and the countless elementary school recesses my girlfriends and I spent skipping rope.  Years later, the appeal still held. At our daughter’s sixth birthday party  all of the little revelers got jump ropes.  Somehow, the jump-rope event got juxtaposed with a round of dress-up and we had cowgirls and princesses and Red Riding Hoods all taking turns in the backyard.  Lots of giggles and maybe one banged up knee.  Missing the rope did have its consequences, but nothing a dusting off and a cool Sock Monkey Band-Aid couldn’t take care of.

Fast-forward to a not-so-far gone summer afternoon in Salinas, with a new jump rope for the youngest Riddell.

“Bluebells, cockle shells, evie, ivey over!”

And who says the girls get all of the fun?

Peter Rabbit – He’s not that cute

Peter Rabbit, plotting his next garden assault

In this morning’s mail, yet another gardening catalogue arrived.  I puzzle over this, wondering how I ever got on garden catalogue mailing lists because, you see, I don’t garden.  It is not that I am completely bereft of talent in that regard.  Everyone in my family gardens with skillful style.  It is in my genes to garden, of that I am certain.  So why am I not a gardener?  I blame the rabbits.

They aren’t that cute, you know.  Remember Peter Rabbit?  I don’t know why I should be sympathetic.  Farmer McGregor was the not the bad guy the illustrious Mrs. Potter made him out to be.  There was Peter, munching away on everything that the toil of Farmer McGregor’s broad shoulders and the sweat of his brow had brought forth.  Remember how Mrs. Bunny had bread and milk and blackberries (someone else’s, no doubt) for little Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail after Peter returned from his escapades? His family wasn’t going hungry.  Peter was just the kid in the candy store, caught with his hand in the jar and for my money, the true antagonist in the story. I was in Farmer McGregor’s corner from the get-go.

Everything I put out is apparently rabbit food.  It doesn’t come labeled that way.  I bought a bowlful of potted pansies once.  It was labeled “Color Spot,” but it was a misnomer. It was rabbit food.  Lasted a good four hours, before it was nibbled down to two leaves and a stem.  I found that experience pretty discouraging and several growing seasons went by before I tried again. With great hope, I went to the nursery and purchased a couple of jalapeno pepper plants and two different types of basil, but they were as before, gone in a twinkling.  The sun rose the next morning to reveal the meager remaining nubs.  But the kicker came when I saw a rabbit,

Tend the Garden – RND 292 by Johnson Cajuste

SAW HIM, eating my first beautiful pink cereus cactus blossom of spring, one rich, luxuriant petal at a time.  The plants had been a gift from my sweet neighbor, who had given them to me just before she died the winter prior.  HOW DARE HE???

Clearly, the time had come to consult the experts.  I went online to a gardener’s forum website and asked, “What do you do about rabbits?”  It turns out there are a number of possible solutions to the problem, and the online discussion was lively to say the least. There’s cayenne pepper, black pepper, and garlic – though I am unsure as to whether this is to be mixed with water and sprayed onto plants or worked into the soil and there was a considerable uproar over the potential damage to mucus membranes of small mammals, guilty or innocent.  Someone suggested getting a cat; another said used cat litter is a sufficient deterrent.  On this point I am uncertain as to where one without a pet cat comes up with used cat litter.  Do you borrow it?

Others weighed in on leaving it to natural predators, such as hawks and coyotes, but I have personally found that my local predators are either lazy or just not keeping up, leading me to wonder about the necessary ratio of coyotes to rabbits and further, how I might successfully relocate said coyotes to my backyard. Wouldn’t I just be exchanging one set of problems for another? In fact, digging and howling doesn’t seem to me to be a good trade-off. At the tail end of the discussion was “Don,” who said, “This is all well and good, but I suggest using a .22.”   Though they maintained an online silence, I wondered how the defenders of mucus membranes really felt about that one…

Madam Sara

“Off to Market” one of a kind sculpture by Louiceus Antelus

Banana seller in Port-au-Prince

Some of my favorite Beyond Borders sculptures are those of market women. The sculptures are based on women we’ve seen in Haiti, women our artists know well. With

her basket-laden head, steadily severe gaze, long, even gait, and impossibly upright posture, a market woman is beautiful, dignified and fascinating. But who is she, really?

Well, at the risk of going too academic, and thereby ruining the mystique, I will tell you that there have been cultural anthropologists who have written hefty tomes in their study.  Market women are not merely quaint and colorful features of the landscape. For one thing, they are communication transmitters of no less importance than a satellite beam.  Market women aren’t known as “Madam Saras” for nothing.  A “Madam Sara” is a variety of weaver bird, introduced to Haiti from sub-Saharan Africa and thereby sharing a curious similarity with the country’s historic human population. It is busy, bustling and above all, noisy. Madam Sara carries in her kerchief-wrapped head news of all variety.  With greater range and reception than a 4G cell phone, she dispenses information political, meteorological, seismic, and societal.  My new favorite Kreyol word is “teledyol,” literally, “telemouth,” describing the time-honored means of Madam Sara transmission. You can laugh, but this is a truism of Haitian cultural organization.  She is broadband.

Madam Saras are also an economic force, with operating hours running from dawn until dusk, seven days a week.  Bearing their goods in baskets on their heads, they carry produce from rural fields, which may be a day’s distance walking from city markets.  More prosperous women, known as “Gran Saras” may have the use of a donkey or truck, though their utility must be weighed against operating costs. Goods rarely flow in both directions, a fact which surprised me.  The profit margin in Port-au-Prince is generally 100% greater than that realized up-country, and goods turn over an average of 15 days more quickly in the city. These women don’t have the luxury of 15 days’ time to sell out, especially not if the product is perishable.

They come to the city, arriving on Thursday night or early Friday morning, selling from their blankets all day

long, and sleeping in place at night.  When the weekend is over and Monday morning arrives, they return to the countryside to renew their supply of merchandise and begin the routine all over again.

Madam Saras, ready to do business

Though their collective literacy rate is somewhere in the basement, their business acumen is indisputable. With success defined as being able to feed her family for another week, a successful Madam Sara has a mastery of working capital, long-term supply costs, zero opportunity costs, marginal utility, and arbitrage.  She may not know them by those names, but she absolutely knows the concepts. The goods are on her head, the market savvy is in it. No wonder she doesn’t smile very often. There are heavy matters to consider, and heavy burdens to be born.

The Grandes Dames of Port-au-Prince

Architectural detail – The Kinam Hotel

In Haiti at the end of our first day, when we’d ridden back into Port-au-Prince and I’d sponged off most of the village sweat and grime that I’d accumulated over the past several hours, I sat in the courtyard of our hotel, cold beer in hand, and realized that I was being quietly seduced by the charm of the gingerbread architecture surrounding me.

The Kinam Hotel where we were staying is one of Port-au-Prince’s grandes dames of Victorian-style gingerbread architecture in the city.  Miraculously, of the nearly 200 gingerbreads in Port-au-Prince before the 2010 earthquake, nearly all survived.  Their wooden frames and structure had the just enough “give” to withstand the tremors, whereas rigid rebar and concrete buildings crumbled, 40 percent of the total being reduced to rubble. Having withstood the ravages of time and weather for over 100 years, what was a little 30 second rumble?

Gingerbread Victorian homes became popular in Haiti in the latter part of the 19th century.  Native born, Parisian educated architects returned to their Caribbean homeland and plied their trade with relish.  The style was florid, communicating the good life.  Painted in vibrant tropical hues, they nonetheless had their practical elements. High ceilings and turreted roofs directed hot air above the inhabitable space, windows on all sides created a cool cross-breeze even during seasonal stretches of blistering heat, and the frame’s tractability enabled them to weather powerful storms. The only drawback was their combustibility.  Fires ravaged the city of Port-au-Prince not infrequently, and the gingerbreads added a great deal of fuel to the flame.  So much so in fact, that in 1910, new construction of gingerbreads came to be forbidden by mayoral decree.

Another gingerbread gem

In the ensuing years, the gingerbreads remained an iconic symbol of gracious living and were treasured by tourists and the local populace alike.  However, as the economy faltered and the Haitian diaspora came into full swing, those with knowledge of gingerbread construction took it with them, leaving a void in the ability to keep them maintained and viable.  Complicating matters further was the diminishing supply of hardwood material leaving little with which to repair them. Consequently, the lovely gingerbreads of a bygone era are falling apart, collapsing not by a single catastrophe, but bit by bit, plank by shingle.

There is a movement afoot to preserve the remaining grand dames.  Ironically, three months before the

How about this grande dame? RND 383 by Charles Luthene

2010 earthquake, the gingerbreads were put on a “watch list” of the World Monument Fund.  This guarantees the interest in and support for their restoration by the global community.  Several

Haitian heavy-hitters have also rallied to the cause, among them the former president, Michele Pierre-Louis and Jean-Julien Olson, the former cultural minister.  In the gingerbreads they see potential for restoration not only of their beautiful forms, but of the national cultural history they represent.  Backing by the current Haitian government, in the form of legislation blocking demolition, is unfortunately, yet to be enacted.

(Go to the website below and click on the video for further insight)


Still, there is hope.  Says Olson, “These old homes are a reflection of the Haitian people.  Just look how they stand facing the street. They provide space for people to meet and greet each other. That’s the way our society works.  We need to remember that. We talk about building back better, but the whole key to that success is to remember our past.”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/Its Cactus

Voodoo Inspired – The Elephant in the Room

I wasn’t going to do this.  I was going to do four articles on Voodoo.  Four.  No more.  But to ignore the whole idea of zombies in four articles on Voodoo would be to ignore the elephant in the room.  OF COURSE THERE ARE ZOMBIES IN VOODOO!  I just wasn’t going to go into zombies because I thought they were too creepy and “out there,” running contrary to the kinder, gentler side of Voodoo practice that I was trying to convey.  But then I read an article entitled, “A Zombie is a Slave Forever,” in the Oct. 30, 2012 edition of the New York Times by Amy Wilentz. A journalist and professor of literary journalism at UCal-Irvine, Wilentz described zombies so reasonably that they became, to me at least, more historically interesting than creepy.  So here we are, with a fifth and absolutely final article in the “Voodoo Inspired” series.  (Really.)

According to Wilentz, zombies are the very logical offspring of New World slavery, combining old African religious beliefs and the pain of the merciless, cold-blooded French colonial  system of slavery in seventeenth century Saint Domingue, now Haiti. In the slaves’ view, the only escape from grueling servitude on sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or ”lan guinée,” a phrase which even today means “Heaven” in Haitian Kreyol.  Thus, death became a desirable means of attaining freedom and suicide became morbidly commonplace.

Naturally, the death of a slave was very costly to slave owners, whose accounting ledgers would reflect not only loss of productivity, but also of property.  To ingratiate themselves to the owners then, slave drivers – themselves slaves and often Voodoo priests – put down the practice of suicide with the threat of zombification.  Zombies, being soulless wanderers, are unable to get to lan guinee, the lush, languorous African heaven, and are thereby stuck in eternal bondage on Saint Domingue. Logically, the threat of becoming a zombie was an effective deterrent from self-inflicted death, as evidence of “real zombies” could be observed in the blank stares of

Two zombies, by Louis Eric

broken slaves who toiled in the fields in endless, unresponsive misery.

In traditional Voodoo belief, the soul is transported to lan guinee at the discretion of Baron Samedi, the Loa of Death.  To offend the Baron is to be doomed

to a zombie state in which the actions of the soulless body are entirely dictated by a mortal master. Baron Samedi is represented by a male figure in a black suit and hat with dark glasses.  He is low, foul-mouthed, and vicious.

Centuries later, it was no coincidence that “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s notorious dictator from 1957-1971, used the imagery of the Baron and zombies to instill fear in his own people. Like the Baron, he often dressed in a black top hat and business suit, and wore dark sunglasses.  His secret police, the Tontons Macoutes, maintained order with a violent, seemingly blind obedience and were taken by the populace to be zombies under the dictator’s control. Of course, this assumption was used to Duvalier’s advantage and no pains were taken to reassure the public.

As can be plainly seen, zombie-ism in Voodoo has roots that are both historical and credible and it is pop culture that has applied the hyperbole.  Amy Wilentz does a superb job of giving clarity to the subject and her forthcoming book, “Farewell Fred Voodoo” promises to more of the same on the broader topic of Haiti’s day-to-day struggle for survival.  It comes out on January 8th but is available now for pre-order here   http://www.amazon.com/Farewell-Fred-Voodoo-Letter-Haiti/dp/1451643977/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1355325883&sr=8-1&keywords=farewell+fred+voodoo

Order up – we can do cyber book club!

Last in the series, “Voodoo Inspired”

Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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