Freedom to Choose: The Last Bite of Cake


In Jamaican households, on the island and overseas, Christmas cake starts making appearances in cupboards and on dinner tables in the early days of December. People will tell you how many they’ve baked, or how many their mothers have baked. If they haven’t had a chance to soak fruits in brandy or wine, people will recount how many cakes they’ve bought at Pricemart, Megamart or Hi-Lo or who’s baking them one, two or five.


There’s nothing that says “This is the festive season” or more encapsulates the holidays than Christmas cake. A house without a decorated Evergreen, poinsiettas, or garlands is acceptable, but nothing could be more unheard of or Scrooge-like than a house without a Christmas fruit cake.

Thirty-seven hours and three layovers after leaving Vietnam, Jamaica’s sun and breeze welcomed me in November. For the two months that I was here, the vista of the island never ceased to enthrall. Country visits to the different parishes  of Portland, St. James, St. Mary, St. Thomas and St. Ann, reminded me, as my mother says, that “Jamaica is not just sun and sea.” 



The exquisitiness and ruggedness of the island’s landscape: the sprawling green hills surrounding Kingston, visible from every viewpoint; plentiful pink, purple and white bougainvillea colliding with opening hibiscuses, pink heliconia and deep-purple plumbago; night blooming jasmine scenting gardens of green and brick; the sea, varying shades of blue, from crystal egg-white blue to baby blue to aquamarine to navy to indigo; the latticework of lights dancing on the sea; the sea, as warm as a child’s bath; fruit tumbling out of baskets: firm East Indian mangoes, yellow June plums, green oranges; and the soft soft breeze sweeping in every morning before the sun grandstanded and dominated until dusk.

Rock Edge
Rock Edge, Oracabessa


There is no utopia, and Jamaica, as warm and rich in beauty as it is,  isn’t mine. It wasn’t lost on me that prices of basic items are more expensive than need be (triple and quadruple what they cost in every other country I’d visited in 2015), everyday is still too much of a struggle for many, and customer service, sadly, still has much room for improvement.

It was also evident that if I permanently lived in Jamaica, my mobility and lifestyle would be restricted; all my friends are busy raising kids, and the Jamaica I knew years ago is no longer; so, it was time to end this period of regrouping and recollecting and greet a place where more freedom resides.

Riotous bougainvillea in Kingston


Last night, after dinner, my mother and I shared the last portion of Christmas cake.. We ate in satisfied silence, and I thought, “This is the last slice of cake, which coincides with the end of my holiday.” In the back of my mind, my dear aunt’s voice echoed, “Go, and do what you have to do.”

James Bond Beach, St. Mary
















Hundreds of Birthdays

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As my birthday approaches, the years that have built up to create this life wind and intersect in my mind. Loops of memory of all these years. Years stack on top of each other and stand side by side, three and thirty-two, six and thirteen, twelve and twenty-four…. and centuries more.

Some memories race, while others saunter in their Sunday best: playing bull in the pen, dandy shandy— we created our own ball with boxes, stones and paper, Emanuel Road (how we broke those rocks), green bows and brown socks, khaki and sweat, Rex– brown fur bristling, flaking patties, sun breaking on our heads, gathering in the hall in white dresses, whiter sand shimmering for miles– spanning oceans, hibiscus closing, red beans still simmering, dancing under flashing lights, body as playground, ploughing fertile land, grilled corn and champagne, glittering, unstoppable snow, the first blue bicycle resting beside the kitchen table, presents on the counter, flashing music videos, TV signing off, singing praisesongs, “Morning has Broken.” Yes, we were valiant “gainst all disaster.

You remember; we walked down roads and crossed seas together. Remember, every birthday, an incredible testament to our survival instinct.

When elders said, “Oh, you children are wise,” didn’t they realize we already had hundreds of years running through our bones? We were “new,” but ancient.

Drums continue for centuries. Every touch of the skin a message, and the remembrance that the body has memory. Fine threads, invisible, but unseverable, holding onto this body. So, on this birthday, many many candles, hundreds of flames, riding an Akan rhythm.


From Jamaica to Germany


Dear Friends,


Last week at this time, my mother and I were at Milk River Bath in Clarendon; she was soaking in the mineral baths, which are reputed to be among the most curative, restorative, and mineral rich in the world, and I was lying across the bed, in a sleeveless blue floral dress, reading Dan Brown’s latest novel, which was intense, but a bit lengthy.

This day, last week, was sunny, hot and tranquil. There were no mosquitos buzzing, because the repellent, Vape, was plugged into the wall; and the only breeze came from a large standing fan making its way slowly back and forth.


I hadn’t been to Milk River Bath, since childhood, and I remembered not liking it then, so when my mother went on her numerous visits to the baths (possibly her favorite place in the world, besides her orchid-filled garden), I never accompanied her. However, my time in Japan, opened my eyes to the wonders of soaking for lengthy periods, and it was with eagerness that we both made the trip to Clarendon (the Jamaican parish in which the baths are located).


The legend of the bath is that of a slave, who for a week, soaks his severely whipped body in the mineral water, which heals his wounds. He returns to his master (I never understood that part of the story), and is then made a manager of the Bath. Upon the slave owner’s death, the property was willed to  the Jamaican government, who test the water every year. The waters of Milk River are reported to be as potent and mineral laden as it was over 150 years ago.

Last week ago at this time, a few hours before, I had seen many pelicans in flight, rising from the marshes and gliding upward and outward. My mother and I, on our walk toward the nearby fisherman village, had encountered a rastaman who greeted us with “Bless!” By this time, we had eaten our ackee and saltfish with boiled green bananas breakfast, followed by passion fruit juice and Blue Mountain Coffee sweetened with a bit of thick condensed milk. Our senses were fulfilled.


It’s unfair for any place to follow a visit to Jamaica, where streets give birth to butterflies. It’s unfair to compare Jamaica in January to Germany, which has greeted me with sleet, charcoal skies, which makes early morning look like evening, and the general feeling of barrenness that winter brings. It’s unfair for winter to follow summer with no fall as a buffer in between.

Though, I was treated to coffee in my first two hours of being in Dusseldorf, (ain’t it nice being a woman?!), my bones and hands are still cold. You’d laugh if you saw me– I’m wearing gloves, a scarf, wool socks and leg warmers inside the house. It’s much too early to say, and snap judgements are unfair, so I’ll withhold judgement; the pluses are the accommodations are large (though chilly, even with the heater on high), there’s a long balcony (on which I won’t sit for two months), it’s clean, and the supermarket and train station are nearby. As they say, “Life is what you make it.”




And It Goes On…


Dis long time gal mi neva see you, come mek mi hol’ yuh hand.– (Long Time Gal, Jamaican folk song)

Dear Friends,

What a sunny day it is today! There’s a warm breeze blowing through the open window; as I sit here at the kitchen table, light graces the room. It certainly is a day to walk to the river, lie on the grass, look up at the cloudless sky, and daydream while eating chilled apple slices and bursting, blackish-purple grapes

First dream: .There’s a brown girl in the ring. Then you skip across the ocean….(Brown Girl in the Ring, Jamaican Folk Song)

This morning, I submitted my resignation notice. As you know, there’s been a back and forth going on in my head about what to do next, and the answers are all falling into place like Connect Four pieces. In a few short months, three to be exact, I’ll be skipping across oceans and seas and time zones to Jamaica for a few weeks– four to be exact. It’s been over three years since I’ve seen the green, brown and blue faces of Jamaica– the ragged mountains, the swaying hills, the open seas; hugged anyone in my family, been hugged by anyone in my family; seen flowers opening to meet the day; peeled and devoured plums and mangoes not found on this continent; woken up in a nest of pillows under the beating sun; been in rooms of chocolate, caramel, vanilla latte, peanut brittle, and pecan, smiling people; drunk a glass of sorrel served with the blackest cake; heard accents that I recognize as familiar– the falling and rising; the urgency of language; the patois, the sweet creole mix heard when my ears opened to this earth. Jamaica! (When I told my mother I was coming to Jamaica in early December, she reacted exactly as I would if I’d heard that Michael Jackson had risen from the dead and was performing at Tokyo Dome.) 

Second dream:

After the warmth of Jamaica, it’ll be time to descend into the winter of Dusseldorf, Germany where I’ve accepted a part-time job teaching English. Incredibly, it’s possible to obtain a visa for part-time work, but then what to do with the extra time– learn German, yoga teacher’s training, take a jewelry design class, study mento? See, the figuring what to do never ends. The thought of living on yet another continent (#4), meeting new people, living in a much bigger place (anyplace would be bigger than the living space I have in Tokyo), and being challenged puts a huge smile on my face. Ultimately, it’ll be the time to figure out a career path. Life is long, as much as it’s short.

Finga mash nuh cry, memba play we a play. — (Emmanuel Road, Jamaican folk song)

We were taught folk songs in elementary school, sometimes formally, and other times on the playground. It was important for our teachers to impart our culture and impress upon us the significance of our heritage. Though many of the Jamaican folk songs are upbeat, some are mournful– created for laborers to survive backbreaking conditions that didn’t break them. In short, the songs epitomize life– the soaring moments, the challenges, the triumphs, and the darkest days. However, every song teaches us that this life, as hard as it may be, and how persecuted we may seem at times, is just a game.

Third dream:

It amazes me that just when you thought you’re holding as much as love as you can handle, the heart expands. There’s always room to love more: more people, more places, more food, more books, more songs, etcetera, etcetera. The love never stops, never ends, but there’s a core to every heart that the love is built around. When the sun starts going down on my life, the wind slightly stirs the leaves, the trees lower their branches to meet me, a ska guitar is heard in the distance, there should be voices of love around me; someone’s hand should be on my cheek; it should be said, “Yes, that was a life well-lived,” and those words should rest in the tree in my view. So you see my friends, it’s time to start finding and truly living a life that one can be proud of.

Much love,


“Sweeter Than Wine”

So different and so new….

It’s not different, nor is it new. Things stop becoming new quickly. We sound like imitations of ourselves. Our words aren’t new. The things we say to each other aren’t new; we’ve said them before to each other; we’ve said them to different people. We forgot we did. Then, it hits us; it’s déjà vu, “Hey, I said this years ago, but not like this.” Let me make it different this time; let me smile as I say it; let me sigh as I say it; let me take it back. There are no take backs, so the words sound insincere. They’re not false, you just forgot. There’s nothing new. What to do?

Sweeter than wine….

There’s no taking anything back, but the mind can go back. That’s a danger, isn’t it– a mind? A body and mind that stores memories like dusty boxes on a shelf? A danger and a pleasure. Let’s open one and see. Let’s reach… Ah, there it is: an everlasting sea, sand too hot to stand on, pricking feet like dozens of heated needles, and the water waiting, expansive and ready, and your arms open, expansive and ready. Half-pink almonds falling one by one, and them being wiped on water-dotted arms. The tang of the seed, the husk, the crunchy salt and the tartness. (Memory can be so faulty, but it’s at that moment it must be shaped– so where were we?) The shade of an almond tree, a vendor selling woven bracelets on the beach, another selling reggae cds, and yet another selling bags of pepper shrimp. Birds calling and waving, vendors calling and waving, the sea, calling and waving. And the sun and the fish and the sand and the almonds and the love and the heat, sweeter than wine.

Softer than the summer night….

Music played and we danced until our clothes clung to us, pasted on with the salt water of sweat. Shirts claiming bodies that wanted only to absorb rhythm. Was it a birthday party? Or a street dance? Or a festival? (The occasion isn’t important; dance is the message.) And the deejay played hit after hit, and each song elicited a cheer, more foot stomping, swaying, hands in the hair, groping for air, for someone there. Sweat dripping down noses, streaming down backs, down fronts.

That music lives in you, your DNA, your blood has bass clefs, and trebles. Oh, to feel that song, to know that song. (At that moment, you feel love, and you think you’re in love, but it’s the beat you love.) Your feet following your mind, your heart following your hips.

Forever til the end of time….

Are you waiting for me? I’ve been so remiss. What happened? I should tell you, my feelings are fickle.

The night was cooler than it should be in spring. Scarves were being thrown around necks, and the neglected heater was turned on. Someone started playing Buju Banton, Beres Hammond, and you know how one feeling, one note leads to another…. Leroy Gibbons. There’re movements inside one that can only be understood by that one, and there are movements inside one that can only be understood in a particular place, a particular time. If you don’t understand this, it’s not for you to understand.

It took me by surprise.

The missing took me by surprise. The presence and absence, the loss and multiple gains, the sorrow beside the happiness, the desire and lack of desire, the youthfulness and the aging, the hunger and satiety; this time took me by surprise. Well, it didn’t take me by surprise; (remember), it’s not different, nor is it new.

Forever til the end of time….

On Water and Belonging

All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. – Toni Morrison

1) When driving from Kingston to Montego Bay, for a long stretch there’s nothing but fields, hills and trees. Green, green, green everywhere. Then, there are towns: churches, bars, people, and stray dogs running or limping across the street. Flashes of white and brown. You wonder, “If this is a small island, where is the sea?” Then, as you drive along, suddenly, around a bend, an expanse of the deepest blue. The Caribbean Sea warm, glimmering and waiting.

2) My mother loves to tell me the story of when I was three on a drive to Negril how giddy and excited I was to see the sea around the bend. She claims that I insisted we pull over and get into the water. I think I remember this day, but I’m not sure if it’s an actual memory or just that I’ve heard this story about seventy times seventy.

The story rings true though, because a similar incident happened when my mother and I visited Delphi on vacation in 2005. We were driving along a never-ending road in Greece, and as we descended the hill, the most gorgeous sight greeted us– the Mediterranean Sea. There was an audible gasp in the tour bus. When the driver pulled over to an eatery by the side of the road, I immersed myself in the very cold water. My mother briefly dipped her feet in, and no one else joined us because we were all without bathing suits. How could I let something as inconsequential as the lack of a bathing suit leave me dry?

3) On Friday night, I met up with LD and his friend AW for dinner at Hatos in Naka-Meguro. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the restaurant was fully booked and had a ninety-minute wait, so barbecue ribs, cole slaw and mac and cheese weren’t to be had. The only available table was outside. The waitress offered us the use of a heat lamp that we could rest beside the table, but there were no heat lamps above the table; basically, our knees and legs would be nice and toasty, but the rest of our bodies would be subjected to thirty-six degree weather. In all seriousness, the guys looked at me and said “Let’s sit outside,” to which I responded “I’m from the islands, it’s not gonna happen.”  AW said I probably say that I’m from the islands when it’s convenient, but that I should open myself to new experiences, which made me think “Opening myself to new experiences is never a problem, but I’ve lived long enough to know what I can absolutely do without.” Being cold and enduring misery (voluntarily) is an experience I’ve had and one I can do without. They told me that though “I’m one of the guys,” I’m definitely “not one of the guys.”

One of the guys: Listening to their stories about an array of porn, sexual experiences, enjoying a good hook up story, thinking women can be a bit ridiculous at times.

Not One of the Guys: Being a ridiculous woman at times, complimenting a woman on her skirt and not because I’m desiring anything under the skirt, refusing to sit outside in the winter. I’m okay with all of that.

4) We wound up walking for a bit until we found Colosseo, an Italian restaurant near the train station. We sat there for close to five hours talking about expat life in Tokyo (they told me to give it two or three years before the shine wears off), eating four-cheese gnocchi, spare ribs cooked to perfection, fried fish and calamari, octopus salad drizzled in olive oil, and roast beef with slightly salted, roasted potatoes. We washed our bounteous feast down with bottle after bottle (and a few other bottles of wine– my wallet’s reeling a little from the night).

5) AW said something to me that I had to write down; you know when you’re tipsy everything seems profound, and then you read your notes when you’ve sobered up and realize that half the things you wrote down really need a drunken lens/gaze to make sense. However, this comment still hits me, “Valerie, your core values are based in Jamaica, but you don’t belong there or you’d still be there. You don’t belong in NY or you’d still be there.” Both he and LD made it clear that we’d also always be outsiders in Tokyo, that as much as I love it, it would never fully take me in.

I feel more comfortable, as an outsider, on this island nation than on the island of my birth (Manhattan) and the island of my childhood (Jamaica). This island or another… it’s all about finding my way.

I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl… wet your beak in the stream. – Bjork (Bachelorette)

Jamaica: Not Just Sun, Sand, Sea


Two days, I spoke to my mother on Skype, and after hearing about her trip to The Blue Mountains, I begged her to write it down and send it to me. My mother’s voice is soothing and warm like ovaltine, but her words are richer. Please see her trip in detail, in her own words.

Jamaica: Not Just Sun, Sand, and Sea

by Lorna Smith

I often lie on my bed and look at the mountains. First thing in the morning after opening my eyes,
I open the balcony door, stand for a moment, look at the mountains and savor the day. Often, I return to lie on my back, gaze at them and feel their presence anchor and ground me.

I have looked at the mountains with love and respect and have thought, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, ”and today I am here at last fulfilling one of my deepest wishes. As a child of the inner city, I had often wondered what it would be like to live where everything was green, quiet and peaceful. As a young adult, I migrated to the concrete jungle and never had time, space or opportunity to
find out. And now, at the sunset of my life, all that I have the courage to pursue is open to me. Sure, my knees won’t allow me to climb to the top of the mountain as I had always dreamed of doing, but with the aid of a car, I can now climb into her lap and be enfolded in her arms. And so, seemingly on the spur of the moment, I made arrangements.

Earlier in the day I had thought of postponing my trip, due to torrential rains, and called to cancel but it was too late; the car had already left to pick me up. We made the twenty- five mile journey
upward into the heart of Blue Mountains in the continuing rainstorm. However, traffic was light and the roads good, except for a short stretch as we neared our destination. So good in fact that the driver and I joked that the politicians must have their homes in these hills. The driver was very careful; he seemed to sense my disquiet as we navigated the many twists and turns. Then very high up in the mountains, the road ran through the training camp for the soldiers. Newcastle. We watched them as they drilled, ramrod straight. They didn’t even glance at us as we passed. Once dry gullies, now rushing rivulets dressed in full khaki, washed the roadway as impromptu waterfalls cascaded.  As we ascended, I saw the way lined with wild flowers, big blowsy lily-like flowers on cane like stalks, and underneath them, ferns. Now and then, an intemperate mongoose flashed across the road.

After hearing of a series of illnesses and deaths of acquaintances, I decided to give myself a respite.
I opened the telephone directory and randomly chose the Starlight Chalet and Health Spa based on their advertisement, in which they offered peace, quiet, nature walks, and “a Blue Mountain Escape.” The chalet is located in the beautifully named Silver Gap. It is a part of the John Crow Mountains in the Blue Mountain chain. In a few shorts minutes all the arrangements were made and now, two days later, I was about to fulfill a long-cherished wish.

At last, we turned onto a long curving driveway drive way and approached the hotel, a venerable pink lady two-stories high, attended on both sided by tall trees, sitting in the protective arc of the mountain.  Flowering shrubs lined the driveway and I gasped in pleasure in anticipation of tomorrow and hopefully the end of rain.  I arrived in a furious rainstorm; sheets of heavy rain in a continuous downpour, accompanied by a thick mist, shrouded everything.

The Starlight Chalet and Health Spa is not a large hotel; however, I was shown to large airy room which opened onto a private verandah and a three sided expanse of mountain. A beautiful canopied bed awaited me.  Only the sound of the rain could be heard.

I woke up early; it was still dark outside, and I lay still and content waiting to watch the sun as he also awakened from his slumber. The morning dawned bright and clear and, from where I am stood on the verandah, the hotel seems to be held in a loose embrace by the mountains. A series of hills present themselves to my admiring gaze. Verdant folds of the nearer ones and in the distance, sharp ridges clothed every shade of green imaginable. In the pure morning light the trees on the top of the mountains were sharply defined as they reached up to a clear blue sky. On the distant lower mountainside, the bright green is almost black at its base; the summit is backdropped by fluffy white clouds that seem to touch it like a layer of icing on a cake. Now, as the sun gets higher, the morning coolness is somewhat dispelled and a curtain of mist covers the near mountains and the characteristic blue that gives the mountain its name is evident.

So, I have learned something this morning, it seems to me that the two strong forces of green and gold uses the cool air as a catalyst to produce that unique blue; almost diaphanous, almost indigo, can’t properly describe it, except with my heart. The blue clothes the mountains of my beloved land.

Now the sun is in my face, I am being embraced by him. There is a soft breeze that floats off the trees and there is the sound of the river far below. I hear the trill of a bird nearby. My senses are overwhelmed.  As I watch the mountains, it seems that the colors shift momentarily; only the view in the distance remains constant, covered as it were with its blue sheet. The nearer slopes are very dark, almost black and bright green with the progression of trees up its slopes. As I feel the increasing warmth of the sun, I am eager to dress and go outside, morning ablutions kept to the very minimum in my haste.

A gentle breeze rises up from the valley and caries a fragrance I cannot define. I had not intended to walk or to explore the grounds before breakfast, but the grounds are magical. The driveway
approaching the chalet follows a curve along a gently sloping assent. It is bordered by hydrangea, rhododendrons, daylilies, old fashioned pink roses, and abundant in bloom and beauty are lesser players in every shade tucked in between. I sit for a while on a bench tucked in a small secret garden that is not visible from the house or the main pathway. I lie on my back and watch the
hummingbirds as they put on their dazzling show. As I, in bliss, drift, I am certain that I hear a dazzling saxophone reach, circle and float away. As I listen intently, I recognize Miles Davis and John Coltrane on the scented air. A gentle breeze, the murmur of the river celebrating “Blue and Green,” and, in this piece of paradise, the trumpets caress and celebrate every “Kind of Blue” in
my heart.

This morning, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills.” As I witness the sun spread his splendor over the newly washed mountains, golden rays through a diaphanous mist, joy bubbles up within me. For a moment I do not recognize the feeling, I’m so transported. Then, when I do recognize what this is, it takes me a few seconds to claim it, hug it to me, to cherish it. This is it– a feeling of ultimate lightness, transcendence, pure, joy.