It's late at night as I lie in bed in the blue glow of the television set. I have the clicker in my hand, the remote control, and I go from 1 to 97, scrolling through the channels. I find nothing that warrants my attention, nothing that amuses me, so I scroll up again, channel by channel, from bottom to top. But already I've given it the honor of going from 1 to 97, and already I've found nothing. This vast, sophisticated technology and . . . nothing. It's given me not one smidgen of pleasure. It's informed me of nothing beyond my own ignorance and my own frailties.
But then I have the audacity to go up again! And what do I find? Nothing, of course. So at last, filled with loathing and self-disgust, I punch the damn TV off and throw the clicker across the room, muttering to myself, "What am I doing with my time?"
It's not as if I'm without other resources or material comforts, you follow? I've been very fortunate in life, and as I lie in my bed, I'm surrounded by beautiful things. Treasured books and art objects, photographs and mementos, lovely gardens on the balcony. After many years in this particular business in this particular town, I have a rich network of friends, some only a few steps away, dozens of others whom I could reach on the phone within seconds.
So what am I doing with my time?
Steeped in this foul, self-critical mood I lie back and close my eyes, trying to empty my head of all thought. It's late, time to sleep, so I determine to focus on that empty space in my consciousness and try to drift off. But images begin to come to me, infiltrating that darkness. Soft, sensuous images of a time very early in my life when things were so much simpler, when my options for entertainment couldn't be counted on a scale from 1 to 97.
I'm on the porch of our little house on Cat Island in the Bahamas. It's the end of the day and evening is coming on, turning the sky and the sea to the west of us a bright burnt orange, and the sky and the sea to the east of us a cool blue that deepens to purple and then to black. In the gathering darkness, in the coolness of our porch, my mother and father sit and fan the smoke from green palm leaves they're burning to shoo away the mosquitoes and the sand flies. And as she did so often when I was small, my sister Teddy takes me in her arms to rock me to sleep. While she's rocking me in her arms, she too is fanning the smoke that comes from the big pot of green leaves being burned, and she fans the smoke around me as I try to go to sleep in her arms.
That's the way the evenings always were on Cat Island. In the simplicity of that setting I always knew how I was going to get through the day and how Mom and Dad were going to get through the day and how, at the end of it, we were all going to sit on this porch, fanning the smoke of the burning green leaves.
On that tiny spit of land they call Cat Island, life was indeed very simple, and decidedly pre-industrial. Our cultural "authenticity" extended to having neither plumbing nor electricity, and we didn't have much in the way of schooling or jobs, either. In a word, we were poor, but poverty there was very different from poverty in a modern place characterized by concrete. It's not romanticizing the past to state that poverty on Cat Island didn't preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, cocoa plum trees and sea grapes and cassavas growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild. Cat Island is forty-six miles long and three miles wide, and even as a small child I was free to roam anywhere. I climbed trees by myself at four and five years old and six and seven years old. I would get attacked by wasps, and I would go home with both eyes closed from having been stung on the face over and over. I would be crying and hollering and screaming and petrified, and my mom would take me and treat me with bush medicines from the old culture that you wouldn't believe, and then I would venture back out and go down to the water and fish alone.
Copyright Sidney Poitier, 2000. All rights reserved. Published with the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book to be reproduced without the permission of the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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