On my last trip to Jamaica at the beginning of this year, I participated in one of Nicky and Caroline DeLisser’s life-changing Goddess Retreats where I asked within for guidance with my career, to move it direction-wise in ways it where it could give back, where its success could be shared. (They have no website but if you are interested, send a message and I’ll pass on their info). At the retreat, I met a quietly-impressive woman Sonita Abrahams who ran a yoga studio as well as a foundation called RiseJamaica, a non-government organization that assists and guides at-risk youth in Jamaica, particularly those in inner-city communities. We friended each other on Facebook and exchanged email addresses as all twenty of us did at the retreat. As we went our separate ways, I thought nothing of it.
A short while later, I headed to India to work with Afghans and to design a jewelry line for their collective under a brand now named AAYENDA, not even realizing that my wish at the retreat was actually coming true. (See blog post INDIA – THE FUTURE BRILLIANCE PROJECT) Then, a few months later, due to the blog posts about the project, I received an email from Sonita asking if I’d do a workshop with the youth at RiseJamaica when I was next on the island. Certainly yes, I wrote Sonita back.
But then in the ensuing weeks, I wondered, What useful skill I could possibly impart on young people in a single day? Wax-carving? Soldering? Stone-setting? Impossible. I had no idea of their dexterity or drive. In any case, there’d be no follow-up. For all intents and purposes, it was a one-day workshop. Also, there’s no use teaching skills if there are no places to use them. Jamaica is a small country of eclectic and enterprising people but with no old World artisanal skills. What would I do without wasting everyone’s time?
I’ve been sitting on a jewelry collection of bronze charms that I created just prior to India but have had no time to market and sell. I launched it successfully at the NYNow Winter show at the beginning of the year. But then continuing to design, make, market and sell my silver, gold and hand-painted lines of jewelry proved too much. I was over-extended and exhausted from work. So I filled immediate orders of the charms from the show and then dropped all attention from the line.
I’ve spent the latter part of 2013 cleaning up and clearing out my entire life. A month before I was due in Jamaica, I realized the charm collection was sitting in a cupboard, serving no one. It had great potential but I had not a breath of life to give it. It was fully designed; I had made hundreds of pieces to follow up with store orders. I had all the components ready to go. They just needed images in each of them which meant selecting them and assembling them with images and glass.
Fast-forward a month. I’ve barely flossed the strings from a succulent East Indian (a sweet, heavily perfumed but annoyingly hairy mango) from my teeth, when a white van pulls up to the house where I’m staying. I am expecting it. A young man pushes open the passenger door. As I hop in, he introduces himself as Shawn McGregor, the project manager of RIseJamaica. He’s here to pick me up and bring me to the one-day workshop. I ask him what the day holds. ‘Forty youth,’ he says, ‘Ages fourteen to twenty-four, coming in from eight surrounding communities.’
We motor along the empty (because it is early and a weekend) streets of Kingston to collect a friend of mine who wants to observe. She will also videotape the day for me. I direct him. He does not know this area in the same way that I don’t know downtown, our ultimate destination. Shawn is from one of the communities and knows the kids well. “They are looking forward to the day,” he says.
We collect my friend Caroline DeLisser (yes, of the Goddess Retreats), freshness and enthusiasm infused in her wide-smiling face as she climbs into the van,. ‘Gosh,’ she sighs, ‘What you’re doing is exactly what I’m hoping to do with widows in India. Just the day before, I’d been on the phone with Nicky. I’d mentioned my day ahead. I needed a videographer; Caroline wanted to observe the day. What better fit?
We pull in through a high chain link fenced gateway. A multi car covered parking area runs along the fence. A young kid with cornrows rides a bicycle around the concrete driveway, framed by a mural on the wall. This is RiseJamaica, the headquarters consisting of two concrete buildings connected by a small walkway. The administrative offices are on one side, the meeting room on the other. We climb steep steps to reach the classroom. Inside are only three teens. (Looking forward to it? I think to myself. I have hundreds of charms with me but only three teens to take them on.) One, a seventeen-year old, has a baby in her arms. She barely greets us and will not crack a smile.
Kristy Stephenson, another volunteer, joins us. She is a jewelry-maker as well, creating bead bracelets from local seeds. A few more youth drift in as I set up. Slowly but surely, the classroom fills. A half-hour later (which means no time at all in Jamaica), the room is packed, not just with youth but the kid with the bike who is all of seven-years old. I call him a girl due to his shoulder-length cornrows but someone kindly corrects me. He’s smily and bubbly and takes no offense. There are also two babies, a toddler, each clinging to the respective mother including a woman whose scarred face shows decades of hardship in her weary, mistrusting eyes, her partially missing ear.
I introduce the jewelry line and the youth introduce themselves. Its nerve-wracking and I am conscious of a few mango hairs that are stuck in my teeth yet sticking out like whiskers. I take note of their names and their interests. They too are shy but then they warm up, some becoming brazen and funny, but all are respectful and fully engaged.They all want to be here, some having walked a good half-hour to spend their Saturday in this room. They soon divide into groups, some selecting and assembling images, others experimenting with ribbons and cords, the last group (of poets) throwing words around to come up with a name for the collection. They work hard and diligently. When we break for lunch, I have to plead with them to stop what they’re doing, put down the paper, glue and glass, ribbons and pencils.
Caroline, Kristy and I eat a lunch of ackee and saltfish, yam and green bananas from a ‘box lunch’ place (essentially a plywood structure with a gas burner inside on which iron pots of delicious Jamaican food is being made by a lone cook. Whatever is being cooked that day is all that is on the menu. Its served in a takeaway box, it is the best ‘street’ food although it isn’t classified as such as the little wooden hut gives it ‘restaurant’ status.) When we get back from our lunch break, the students are revved to go. They have all been given boxed drinks as they are known in Jamaica. In other words, high-octane sugar and artificial flavors that really should be classified as ADD drugs. They are also wired for sound – the noise is deafening in the enclosed room. Their excitement at their own progress is tangible. At high speed, they finish their pieces. They love what they’ve done, so much so that a few ask if they can have them to take home, while others surreptitiously help themselves. Two young women offer to complete the unfinished charms. Those two have worked diligently and have already created four times as many as anyone else.
We identify a team – art directors, quality control managers, systems operators, PR and marketing people… the potential is endless. The finished pieces are laid out on the table. They don’t last long there. The young men and women slip on the pieces, showing them off. The excitement is infectious. Sonita Abrahams walks in to the chaos. She is regaled with ribbons, charms, and creative neckpieces. Smiles spreads from ear to ear. “Ok, ok, time to wrap it up,” she announces, looking at her watch. As exhausted as we are, each and every one of us is disappointed it is over. How could it possibly have come together so seamlessly, so effortlessly, so serendipitously? I witness for myself how what one asks for can in fact manifest.
Caroline, Kristie and I convene that evening. We map out a plan for the jewelry’s future. But first, a name. Our poets have given us ideas but the name has not yet appeared. Caroline goes home and dreams of names that night. The most inspiring leader of my life has passed a few days earlier. Nelson Mandela. Quotes from him are floating around. Saw a quote that had the line ‘one’s head pointed toward the sun.’ It was how he kept his hope up. I like that idea. The charms are mini suns. The central images are symbols, art, messages and more. Something like ‘Eye of the Sun’ comes to me. Kristi makes a line called ‘Stories and Myths.’ She uses Job’s Tears, beads that are native to Jamaica. Eye comes to me because of her beads. We go back and forth. She suggests Eye of Ra since the sun is featured. All so far are ‘no goes’ since the domain names are taken. Another moment of inspiration from Kristie. She writes, Eye of Jah.’ Jamaica is known as Jah by the Rastafari. The book I wrote years ago, based on the Book of Job, features the Land of Jah. We wil be using Job’s Tears bead bracelets from her line, the charms from mine, for this higher purpose. What better name than ‘Eye of Jah?’