Archive for February, 2013

28 February, 2013

A Poem When I Was Very Young

My childhood home was filled with poetry. Not so much in books but in memory, recitation, rendition. The poems we brought home came copied down from books that other people owned. (I talk about the way whole books found me in this interview I once did). The rest of the poetry came from my mother and there’s something I wrote about that exchange, her teaching, my learning, the abyss in between on this blog. You can find it here.

Everything else was what we, my brothers and I, wrote ourselves. Terrible rhyming poems, maudlin couplets on love, hideous bits of creative expression that I am glad survive to remind us all that we never let what we were bad at doing stop us from trying to do it, and that, therefore, we all eventually became writers graced with some talent with words. There were also the limericks my mother composed year after year about the cricketers on the Royal College team, and the books of poetry that my inscrutable father published, the ones that became part of academic curricula there and elsewhere, the ones about which at least one of his friends was heard to say, “there is such compassion and feeling in his poetry. I wish I could see some of that from him toward me.” The kind of statement that fills a child’s heart with all kinds of unanswerable questions.

Anyway, I was sitting at my desk and musing about life on this grey day, the weather so veined for making a writer think about the big things in life. And I remembered this poem. It was one that I copied down from a copy that had been copied down in turn by my oldest brother’s girl-friend then wife then ex-wife. I remember the elegance of her hand-writing – I can see it now – and the way the poem foretold a loss that was coming for her and for me. I, too, wrote down that poem thinking about a boy I loved back then. And in my mind it was predestined that he would leave me; I was so besotted that it stood to reason that I was also worthless of being loved in the same way by the object of my affections. I filled up every bit of space with all that I felt and having done that there was no room for either of us to breathe, let alone for me to see that there was an equal love for me. I imagined that one day I would find myself speaking these words. Instead it was I who left, my hair that lay in such silences and he who said, go and if you are ever unhappy, come back and I will still be here. And despite all that I had ever professed, and deeply felt, changed universities over, left a country for, despite all of that, never a backward glance once I chose to go though he, indeed, waited.

I still have that poem. It is written on the last page of a notebook that I carried all through college and after, in a script that tried to emulate the controlled clarity of the words written out by my brother’s girlfriend who became a sister and still remains one in my heart though our relationship – in the wake of the end of their relationship – is beyond repair, a passing I regret even as I feel an immense love for the woman who took her place. This, from e. e. cummings.

it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved, should touch
another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know, or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be, i say if this should be-
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that i may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying, Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

18 February, 2013

Work-in-Progress Day

Thanks to Libby Mosier for alerting me to this effort by Beth Kephart (all the lovely people live in Philadelphia!) Oddly enough, this beginning starts with the same word that ends Libby’s excerpt: After.


The road that leads into Jerusalem embodies the contradiction within which he exists: Route 60. A $42 million dollar project which allows him, a Druze-Israeli to drive his brown car with the yellow license plates across it, bypassing Dheisheh refugee camp where he sometimes works, and into Jerusalem so he can visit the community center in the Shaykh Jarrah neighborhood in Palestinian East Jerusalem where he spends his evenings. If he takes it, he is on time. If he chooses not to drive, he is late. Late reaching the Domari and Arab and the few Jewish children who come to the Community Center for Reconciliation, and who wait for the blessed relief of his arrival, for the music and the joy of his company.

14 February, 2013

Dear Natalie Gyte: I Hope You Dance

Addendum: I had sent this on to the Huffington Post early on the 14th but it did not appear until today. So if you want to read the same piece over there, it is at this link.

I began to write this as a comment to a post by a dear friend and activist on Facebook, but decided to use this space instead. The link was to an article on Huffington Post, “Why I Won’t Support One Billion Rising,” by Natalie Gyte, who leads the Women’s Resource Center, an umbrella organization of womens charities.

In the article, Gyte argues quite persuasively, against Eve Ensler’s effort to raise awareness about violence against women on Valentine’s Day – today – via One Billion Rising, whose premise is that people gather in flash mobs and at organized events to dance. Dancing, in this reading, is a way to rise up above the desperation that keeps many women trapped in difficult situations. According to Gyte, Ensler’s effort undermines the work of ordinary activists because it does not address the patriarchal system that underlines much of the violence that is perpetrated against women, that it includes men, and is too sexy – though she doesn’t use that term – and, therefore, media worthy.

I disagree with almost everything in this piece. I believe firmly in the rights of girls and women to fulfill their ambitions, but I protest equally firmly the notion that the achievement of those ambitions should come at the cost of what women have valued for centuries: peace, safety, security, or the dismissal of what a majority of women embrace: a feminine aesthetic, a female essence, intangible but no less critical to what we bring to the discussion. Hence the post I wrote recently about women in the military.

Gyte berates the movement for including men. She condemns Stella Casey thus for stating that violence is not limited to gender, that it affects society as a whole: “Really Stella? Really?” Yes, really Natalie, really. Violence is a societal issue. And so long as we keep pretending that it isn’t, nothing is going to change. And to speak of violence perpetrated against women by a male hierarchy, as Gyte does, but claim that we must exclude men from the conversation is like arguing that the priesthood is fornicating with little choir boys but we can end the problem by just focussing on the little boys and leaving the priests out!

Gyte explains that two activists – one “beautiful and radiant” Congolese and one Iranian (presumably ugly and drab?) – question the idea that White middle class women (who are in effect the upper class in the global scheme), should tell them what to do. They are right, of course. But might we remember that in that regard, they should also question then the cultural hegemony of White women who do what Gyte does. Fact is, they probably do. Non-White women have questioned for decades the priviledge assumed by people like Gloria Steinem, the 1% of the feminist movement to which Gyte also belongs by virtue of her hue and class. And yet we have chosen to march beside, holding the wheat and letting the chaff blow away in the wind, as best we can, because we champion the better intention over the lesser negligence.

To skewer a fellow activist who has – by her own admission – done admirable work, for choosing to fight this particular battle on several fronts is to confirm the precise stereotype of women attacking other women. It makes me cringe for us all. And it reminds me of another fierce woman warrior, Audre Lorde, whose words have been the foundation of every bit of political work I have ever undertaken; the words that concluded my undergraduate thesis on the brutal and insidious political, cultural, and economic hegemony of the West (the very one that Gyte and the two activists above decry), are still the words that guide me now: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Finally, Gyte’s harrangue against the joy inherent in this effort reminds me of nothing more than the beautiful exchange between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Judas berates Mary Magdalene for buying myrrh for Jesus because that money could have raised “300 silver pieces or more” that “people who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than your feet and head.” The reply from Jesus is priceless. It reminds us of the fact that it is Judas who condescends to Mary (dismissed by him as a mere prostitute), and that it is he who betrays Jesus, never mind the poor and struggling, never mind the myrrh and silver.

There is something vital and affirming that is lost to us as a collective of men and women when we decide that any expression of joy undermines the sorrows that plague us. And so I come, as I have done before, to these lines from Jack Gilbert, in his poem “A Brief for the Defence,” from the collection, Refusing Heaven.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down.
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Joy is allowed. Seriously. And dance is all-inclusive. It transcends gender and class, culture and color. It is the great unifier. The revolution begs you, if not on every other day then at least on this day, when you get the chance to sit it out or dance, to choose to dance.

10 February, 2013

Which Would You Choose?

It is rare for me to talk about my personal life as it pertains to my immediate family and I know that grates on some people. There’s a reason for that, explained perhaps most clearly in this article I wrote for The Debutante’s Ball upon the publication of my first novel. Every now and again, however, if it is important enough, I will speak of it, or, more importantly, of children. This is one of those times. Perhaps it is because I’ve been immersed in the history of these two peoples for so long, perhaps it is because I just read this piece on the US targetting of civilians in Iran, or because I listened to Omar Barghouti speak at the University of Pennsylvania last Tuesday.

This morning I had a conversation with my oldest daughter, she who is already one foot and half her heart out the door, she who is poised to leap off the tall building and take flight, safe in the knowledge that wherever she goes, no matter how far away and under what circumstances, a depthless store of love waits to welcome her back. It was a discussion about politics, but more importantly, about what it means to take a stand about an issue.

Some history. A month ago she had decided (this math and science child who talks about how she is not a writer – like you? oh my god! – yet is an editor of her high school newspaper), to write an opinion piece about Palestine. Needless to say she met with a lot of resistence all aimed at (a) whittling down the space she had to write, and (b) providing rebuttals. Given the many, unrelated, struggles she has had to overcome over the past several years, I eventually asked her as kindly as I could if she wanted to withdraw her article. I explained that she didn’t have to fight the battles I take on, that she was 16 years old and didn’t possess the knowledge that she needs to speak about this particular issue, and that life could become tough for her at her mostly Jewish high school. I explained, only half-jokingly, that one of our dearest friends had told me that he only began speaking out about this issue after he got tenure and decided that he didn’t need any more friends. “If everybody did that nobody would say anything,” said she. Of course.

I’m an adoring mother but not an easy-going one. Thus it was that once she did her research and wrote that article and received the backlash I knew she would (before it even went to print), and when she hid in the bathroom because she was going to backtrack, and didn’t want to tell me, I held her feet to the literal fire. This is what it means, I told her, to speak out about something. You want to do it you better be sure you are going to stand your ground. Either you don’t speak, or you speak and refuse to be muzzled. It was an ugly morning, full of tantrums and tears including mine, though mine were private, shut up in a stall at a swim meet, where I cried for the weight of never knowing if what I say and do will make them stronger or imperil their lives. It is now February. The article appeared and was discussed in classrooms by the more enlightened teachers. The students in those classes greeted it with divergent opinions but were united in their appreciation for the research she had done and the courage she had displayed. Nothing she said was particularly controversial, and much of what she said I – and many Palestinian activists – would have trouble with. Nonethless, it seems, a “friend” of hers (whose previous effort was an attempt to block the formation of an Amnesty International chapter at the high school on grounds of anti-Semitism), launched an insidious attack on her – not under her own steam but that of her older brother, long gone from the high school.

So we had a talk this morning. The talk came full circle to what our responsibilities are when we choose to take on a cause. I don’t believe that her fellow editors are ill-intentioned, that theirs is a malicious attempt to thwart her, but thwarted she will be if she says nothing. I spoke again of our tenured friend, the one who has taken many difficult stands over this issue, a few of which have included the sacrifice of professional acclaim. Will she lose her editorship, she asked. I didn’t think so (and man, if she did I’d fight that battle to the bitter end). But it allowed me to mention what it is we talk about when we talk about taking on a cause. You cannot take on a cause and remain impervious to what the cause demands of you. You cannot take on a cause yet back down when it becomes uncomfortable for you personally. And perhaps more important to understand than both those things, is that every cause is bigger than the people who choose to speak for it and that the moment you speak, it is no longer about the stand or the personal risks you take, but about the people for whom you speak.

Omar Barghouti spoke last Tuesday about the PACBI and the need for American academics and artists to support the boycott of Israel. Several artists, including Alice Walker and Sarah Schulman have done so. Some others, like David Grossman, have called upon writers to join in the call for peace – a peace that may or may not be the peace desired by Palestinians who rightly point out that peace within a system where there are lesser humans and more perfect humans is no peace at all – and the text of the declaration makes assertions that are problematic at many levels, but at least they are refusing to remain silent.

I don’t know how this particular life lesson will play out for her. I am glad that she forego a chance to stay home and study for the ACTs or tend to half a dozen other academic demands, and accompanied me to U Penn last week. I am glad that though she rolled her eyes at me for being directionally challenged, and complained about the freezing cold, and uttered a disdainful “never!” to the young guy who walked us to our destination and asked her if she was considering Penn for college, she still sat and listened to that talk, and had the humility to reveal the depths of her ignorance by whispered questions (to me), about the most rudimentary of details.Perhaps she will determine that speaking out about difficult subjects – something this reserved child, so unlike her mother, has embraced, and for which I remain forever in awe, for it is harder for her than it is for me – is not the particular gift she has to give the world. Maybe this article will be the sum total of her contribution to this cause. But if it is, I hope it is not because she fears for her own physical or emotional comfort. For if that is the rationale, no matter how justified – given her youth and her commitments to multiple other areas of her life – I hope that she will ask herself this question: if she were a child in Jenin who had the choice to risk death by bouncing a rock off the hull of an approaching 66 ton Merkava whose driver has not been occasioned the opportunity to set much store by her humanity, or risk a degree of reprobation and perhaps even ostracism by speaking out against injustice at an elite American high school she will soon leave behind, which would she choose? Which would you?

7 February, 2013

Your Brilliant Kid?

I’m writing this because I really need to vent and also channel the frustration of numerous friends who happen to be parents. Call it a public service announcement of sorts. (Addendum: Just as I finished this note I was informed by a new friend that there was a kindler/gentler version on the NYT Parenting Blog. It is funny and has lots of neat links and even advocates the occasional victory lap).

But this is my version and if you want to read no further here’s the one-liner: if you think your child is brilliant, shut up about it already.

During the past several months – okay, who am I kidding – during the past several years during which I have lived among the haves (and we are all haves to varying degrees here in Lower Merion, let’s just be clear about that folks), I have had to suffer through dozens upon dozens of social interactions which revolve around the particular difficulties faced by the blessed and the brilliant aged 5-18. The ones who are in “Double Math” the ones who are “Challenge” the ones who are “All Honors” the ones who are overdosing on a packed AP schedule, the ones who have been taking practice SATs since 6th grade, the ones who spend their summers being tutored in one damn subject or the other to further enhance their intellect. (Johns Hopkins Center for the Gifted and Talented, I point a finger at you for your miserable effort to blindside the hapless parent with your little glossy pamphlets about your programs of edification for the young and the bored. I once drank your Kool Aid and it was full of additives and preservatives and all sorts of carcinogenic substances that will addle a child’s brain). For a three-part series of my views on education in general (as well as a small tidbit about the above program), you can read this, which discusses the movie “Waiting for Superman,” or this, which takes on the movie “Race to Nowhere,” or this.

It is bad enough when thoughtless parents sit around bragging about their kids, but what is up with the way they inculcate their kids (thus transformed into brats), with the same notion that making self-aggrandizing pronouncements is the done thing? It is good to be (secretly) proud of the achievements of your kids, it is good to (secretly) sing their praises to everybody in your immediate family (including grandparents, aunts, and cousins several times removed), and (in moderation) to your dearest friends. It is even okay to occasionally yip with excitement over some minor – and at this age, what isn’t minor? – achievement. And if your kid has overcome some hardship in order to get there, sing it sister! But it is not okay to tell me repeatedly that your child is God’s gift to a sorry universe of Plebeians. It is not okay to pretend that you are really discussing a difficulty they are having “fitting in” when what you really want to communicate is that your child is above par. So above par that perhaps the entire public school curriculum ought to be redesigned to fit the particular needs of your child. And more than anything else, it is not okay to do these things in the hearing of other people’s kids.

Here’s the rub – if your child is truly having difficulty fitting in perhaps you should consider turning down the halo over their heads. Perhaps you could reinterpret the poker faces of other parents when you start talking about your kid/brat and understand this: nobody can take your kid for longer than five full minutes. They probably already can’t take you, but you’re an adult, put on the big girl/boy etc. and cope, it’s to late for you anyway – someone else already brought you up and they clearly did a bad job. But why would you pass that baggage on to your kid? Is it really necessary that “Jude” takes it upon himself to inform everybody within ten yards of how easy he finds the maths curriculum? Or for “Yona” to tell everybody she’s “already covered all that” in her “advanced class?” To even bring up any of the “specials” they are involved in? Trust me – other people’s kids are often just as smart, if not smarter, equally deep thinkers, beloved by peer and mentor alike – just because they aren’t braggarts doesn’t mean that they are somehow lacking in intelligence, innate ability, or outstanding talent. They are just better brought up. Yes, it is called Breeding and they have it, your kids don’t.

The fact is nobody gives a flying slang-for-copulating about what all your kid has achieved, is achieving, or has the potential to achieve for the rest of his/her life, if your kid is a self-congratulatory, self-satisfied, smug, socially-inept toad. It is rudimentary. You want your kids to be the twits that keep bleating about themselves go for it. You will gift them with that most enduring curse of childhood – the designation of being an unmitigated annoyance whom everybody tunes out (their teachers will lead on this one, guaranteed), and nobody likes.

Yeah, liking may not be your thing, but you should give your child a chance to experience that for themselves. Achievement, I have found, is truly only wonderful if it (a) does something for humanity and (b) is recognized by your fellow human beings, usually without fanfare or public accolades. Being genuinely liked for nothing you’ve said or done but simply for being a kind and compassionate human being is a lovely feeling, and an enduring one that will outlast the framed certificates and awards. I can tell you that it is better to be the one kid in the entire KG grade that the child with selective mutism chooses as their advocate, than the one whom the entire class will cheer politely for but secretly loathe. Blowing your own trumpet makes for one lonely (and usually dischordant), nerve-jangling band. Do you really want your kid to play in it?

4 February, 2013

How Ross Dress for Less Changed My Life

I started to clean out my closet yesterday, a fun job that I like to do just to try on everything I have and separate things into various categories. It is therepeutic. I found some interesting things as I went through, things that reminded me of funny stuff from the past. I’m a clothes horse. I love clothes – there’s a whole essay on this that will, fingers crossed, by out in an anthology soon! But it took me a year or so after college to make the transition from American college student (dresses from home, Goodwill), to American working girl (slim skirts, cut).

The problem was that I had never intended to come to America, let alone continue to live and work here after I did manage to get here for college. America was a place I was forced to come to, I thought, because the universities were closed in Sri Lanka, because my boyfriend at the time had been bullied by my mother into telling me that he would not stay with me if I did not apply to colleges in the United States. So I wrote a second round of applications, this time determined to get in, not be sent the “thin letters” indicating a preference for someone else among the – always – enormously talented pool of applicants. But things changed when I came, and three years later – three years because I was trying to rush through college so I could go back home to the boyfriend – I found myself married and living in Philadelphia, looking for a job on a J-1 Visa.

I was looking for a job with no business wardrobe to speak of, nor any sense of what recent female graduates wore to interviews, let alone work, in America. My purchases had been – mostly – confined to Goodwill (except for a splurge at Victoria’s Secret when a future aunt-in-law thoughtfully sent me money to buy pretty things in preperation for the wedding). I had replaced the winter coat I wore – a hand-me-down navy blue men’s jacket with five hundred pockets – from Bates College’s lone Communist, a British guy named M who liked to get together with me to bemoan the priviledge we were enjoying! – at the Philadelphia Army Navy Store. Why the Army Navy Store? Well, because I had married a man who did not understand – nor set much store by – fashion, women’s fashion even less. A man who had no notion at all that he had married a woman who loved clothes more than she loved food – probably because this woman was still a smallish fiend, not the raging beast of fashion she would one day become.

Me: Where should I go to get a coat?
He: The Army Navy Store I think.
Me: What kind of coat should I get?
He: If you are buying a coat it should be as warm as possible.
Me: Holding up a gigantic down number with fur lined hood, that stuck out about half a foot in front of my face, in size ten (double zero did not exist back then as a viable size option but I was probably lurking between 00 and 2 at the time)
He: Yes, that would be good. Sturdy and utiliatarian.

Yep, that would be me. Right there. I still have that coat. I wore it through three advanced stages of pregnancy and life in Maine. I reserve it now for visiting Sri Lankans, specially my father, who likes to wear it when he goes out to smoke. I find him seated on the bench in the backyard, bundled up, sipping tea, reading Roth and still slightly cold on 50 degree Spring morning or 60 degree Fall afternoons.

Anyway, I knew I needed to find something else. Thus it was that, while walking to a part-time gig I’d secured at the American Friends Service Committee on 15th and Arch (the Quakers cared about my inner soul and mind, not my clothes), I came across a store beguilingly called, Ross Dress for Less. Dress for Less? Why, how had they known about me?! In I went. There I discovered rack upon circular rack with clothes tagged $10. A big tacky red $10 sign right in the center. None of the discreet price tags in teeny tiny writing folded and tucked out of sight under the sleeves of the clothes in the stores I sometimes step into now. Nope. Just a giant red $10.

This is the first item I ever purchased there.

The second was a short black skirt to go with it. Once again, I bought it in a size several sizes bigger for no good reason. True, I had been going through a hunter-green phase at the time, a color that I thought suited my skin, but the cut of the sleeves did not flatter my shoulders or arms, the nip at the waist was so subtle (given the bigger size), that it did nothing for mine, and the flared flaps? Yikes! It wasn’t bad, actually, that top. It got me my first full time job, one that I began as a lowly adminstrative assistant for six months, was promoted in as Program Assistant and then to Regional Director a year later. Not a poor showing for a gal who showed up for the interview in a mini skirt and a flapping green top.

Apparently, the group who interviewed me – the woman who was the Regional Director and the other two members of staff – scored me on qualifications, interview, and – ulp – appearance. I scored pretty low on that last one. That top, one wrote, big N.O. But later, after they’d all been fired and I was left in charge to hire a whole new staff, and I walked in there in my giant poofy coat, I guess I felt some sense of redemption. I hired a new staff. I did not care how they dressed – and I stood up and welcomed the first person I knew I wanted to hire, right after her interview, with a huge hug. I don’t remember what she was wearing. I remember that she was trying to get back to work after raising three kids, that she’d had a tough life, and that she had a wonderful smile. I don’t think she’ll remember my giant coat or my billowy blouse, but perhaps she remembers the hug.

Come to think of it, I think I might fix that blouse and put it on again. It was a big part of the person I eventually became.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.