Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

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.


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?

27 January, 2013

Being Female, Being Soldiers, Being Alone

This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.

From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.

The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.

NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.

I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.

In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.

We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?

Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.

Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.

I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.

It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.

It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.

So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?

16 December, 2012

Newtown, in the face of faces

I’d been holding them close every time I had to leave them somewhere, send them somewhere, or take myself somewhere other than where they were going to be. My daughters. Last night, as I stood in a zoo decorated with thousands of bulbs, a Christmas in New Jersey, the oldest, the one left behind, sent me a series of texts. She was waiting to picked up by one of our friends, and she was online, the screen lit up by the faces of four seven year olds and sixteen six year olds. She was crying. She wanted me to hug her younger sisters. She said she loved me. There wasn’t anything I could do from so far away, so I sent her what I could. This poem, by the late Jack Gilbert.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
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.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

From REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

I think of the photograph of Jillian Soto, waiting to hear about the fate of her sister, Victoria, a teacher inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, how among the twenty odd photographs I looked at that afternoon, this one broke my heart wide open. I think of the three sisters growing up together in my house. I look again at this memory from the summer just past, the girls going where I cannot follow. I can only let them go and hope their gladness overcomes the ruthless furnace of this world.

20 November, 2012

Mammogram Secrets & Victoria

Where I come from we didn’t do regular mammograms. We went to doctors when we got sick – same with dentists. The daily preservation of health, the consciousness of a life in our nineties when we would be zipping around in full control of our facilities and our various moving parts, these did not dominate the national conversation. I knew of one friend of my mother’s who was around forty years of age who had breast cancer; I only knew this because my mother used to give this lady’s daughter extra lessons in English literature, and very often the two of them used to be dressed all in white. “She does bodhi pooja,” my mother explained, conjuring up the familiar image of clay pots of water carried around and spilled over the roots of an ancient Bo tree that centers each temple, of incense and flowers and hours spent sitting on the soft sand that make up the “floor” of a temple, uttering prayers.

I signed up for a mammogram early in my American life and then let it slide. I’d show up and there’d be too many people there. I didn’t want to bother my neighbors to watch my babies for any longer than necessary, so I’d give up and go home. Then we moved from Maine to the Main Line in Philadelphia and I was too busy to schedule mammograms. Until someone said you had better. And then I had more of them. And biopsies. And surgery. And more mammograms.

Women complain about the procedure. It is weird and uncomfortable. Pain, though, is relative. It hurts to have a metal pin inserted into ones breast without anaesthesia, the helpful marker for the surgeon waiting for you in another room. A mammogram, by comparison, becomes a whatevs. Still, three and a half years later, the pain that made me cry out like a child has receded. I gasp over the discomfort of the mammogram, the clinical disinterest of the technician administering it. I have to remind her that the ribs underneath, compromised by the radiation, have cracked before. She nods, but is unrelenting – I swear she pulsed the plexiglass an extra time, pinning my body in its vice harder than necessary. I probably imagined it, but it feels good to have a tangible enemy, she in her pink gown and pristine room who asks what I do for a living and tunes out the moment I say I am a writer.

Outside, in the waiting room, I let my usual irritation with noise take over. I turn off the ever-blaring TV spouting recipes for Thanksgiving menues. I wait and I wait for someone to tell me that there is nothing wrong. vs2And I am reminded of the Millenium Bra from Victoria’s Secret, billed as the ultimate fantasy gift, studded with 2,000 diamonds and sapphires in platinum star settings. I wonder about Heidi Kluhm. Whether she has mammograms. I think about the strapless number I once purchased from Victoria’s Secret, an item so overly enhanced that it added poundage to my frame, an item that made me feel as though I was heaving around a piece of furniture balanced upon my chest. It rests now among other lingerie, unwieldly, not something to be folded neatly and placed discreetly among her brethren but, rather, a monstrosiy that seems to move of its own volition.

The technician arrives to tell me I am free for another six months. Victoria’s Secret. Such an anchronism in a world such as this and under such circumstances.

6 October, 2012

One Evening in Lower Merion

Was the debate upsetting? Hell yeah and for a number of reasons, including the fact that my twitter account suddenly froze me out for having more than 1000 tweets – not possible! Mostly, it had to do with expectation. I expected the Prez to wipe the floor with the skanky scum-bucket that has risen to the top of the Republican ticket, this varmin who produces in me the same reaction I have when I walk into a public toilet (very very rare), at a rest-stop on the highway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, open the door to a stall and see all that has been left behind by a humanoid fleeing the evidence of their diarrhoea.

Expectation. Kills our spirits everytime. Because expectation is based on ignoring a whole lot of information and signals we’d rather forget exist. Like the fact that a Black man (or woman) cannot get angry, a phenomenon both acknowledged and eviscerated by D. W. Mason in her article, “I’m Angry. I Can’t Get Angry.” C’est vrai. I can’t speak for the president, but I can speak for myself. I’ve been in those shoes. Like when the woman at the laundry refuses to return a pair of pants I’d asked to be hemmed and I repeat her words, “You aren’t going to give me back my own pants?” in sheer bafflement and she runs quaking to the back of the shop, grabs the pants and shoves them at me as though I had threatened extreme violence; arson, perhaps, or a laundry-house bloodbath. You don’t think these things happen unless you don’t happen to look like I do. And we all forget – particularly those of us with our educated affectations – that things have not changed a whole heck of a lot for any of us. Yes, not even if you are President.

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Last evening I took a walk in the neighborhood. Upperclass, most White, mostly wealthy Lower Merion Township. I was walking with a friend by a little park which sits by the Merion railway station. With us were four children. They were playing flashlight tag in deference to the lack of light – it was about 7.30pm. It didn’t take too long for not one but two police cars to pull up. Apparently, the people across the street complained about “noise.” My friend and I came running up as the first squad car stopped, to explain that these were our children, they were with us. To be fair, the police officer found it utterly ludicrous that people would have a problem with “children playing on a friday evening.” He described those who had called him as cranky people. But what struck me is that, for the entire time that he stood there, he made no eye-contact with me. None. When he asked for our names and addresses (asked her, for us both), and I volunteered to give mine since it was my neighborhood, he continued to look at her and say, irritably, “well, whose children are these?” “Ours,” she said, “both of us.” I gave him my name and address and telephone number, and he talked a while longer – along with his fellow officer who showed up in the second car – but there was no recognition that there were two women standing there. Two human beings. To this man there was one and she was white and visible and I was not and did not matter.

Perhaps things have changed for children growing up in a world where the very idea of a single ethnic strain in ones lineage is, quite possibly, fantasy. But there are a whole lot of adults for whom nothing has changed. And it is the adults who will be voting. Think it is “dumb” or “difficult” to believe that people will buy the lies coming out of that Republican white man’s mouth? Think again. It isn’t that hard when you don’t want to believe the Black man next to him deserves to exist. Right after the RNC convention there was a poster that did the rounds on Facebook. If someone can find it, please post it here. The text said something along these lines: “The Republican Party: An old white man talking to an imaginary Black man.” Sadly it’s not just the Republicans. And it is not just to an imaginary president. I have not asked my friend if she noticed what happened. For all the usual reasons. I’m pretty certain that our combined outrage at the curmudgeons who peered at us through their bay windows (along with their children!), is nothing compared to the anger and despair I felt at channeling Ralph Ellison.

I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe;
nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

24 December, 2011

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

Last year, my middle-child, the thinking feeling one, wrote a question to me in a book that we pass back and forth to each other: Is Santa Claus real? She had already experienced a near-miss with the tooth fairy who hadn’t yet come by 4.30am, a fact which she had taken, tearful, to her older sister, saying, “I am afraid the Tooth Fairy is Amma. motherdaughterShe went out last night and there is nothing under my pillow.” Mercifully, the usually self-absorbed teenager tucked her sister into bed, watched until she fell asleep and then went looking for a box of art-cards to leave under the pillow with a note that read, I am sorry I am late. Your box was heavy and it took me a while to get here. Understanding, in other words, was just around the corner. And yet, how could I be the one to dispel the mystery? Instead I, like hundreds of mothers and fathers before me, took refuge behind a full-color print out of the letter written by Francis P. Church and appearing in The New York Sun in 1897, ‘Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.’ Sometimes, I wrote by way of introduction, a writer looks to another writer to say what they want to say. The book stayed with her a long time and I was afraid I had crushed her faith in my honesty.

This past summer, while cycling around the Schyulkill river in the City of Brotherly Love where I live, she brought up the topic again. “Are you the tooth fairy?” she asked. What could I say but, yes. I launched, then, into an explanation as to why these stories exist. The job of a parent, I told her, is to keep the fairy tale alive until the child is old enough to take it on. I related the story of her older sister standing in for me, of how once she was no longer waiting for the famed fluttered one, she was glad to turn her attention to making sure that the fairies kept arriving for her sisters. It’s your turn, I said, to do the same for your younger sister.

Although she had taken to winking and smiling in a knowing way as the youngest of my daughters talked enthusiastically about Santa, just a few days ago I realized that the knowledge of his ‘non-existence’ sat heavy in her heart. “Why,” she asked me – as we went looking for ‘the furry slippers’ that the youngest was hoping against hope Santa would bring for her – “why is it that if we have to end up knowing Santa is not real, why do parents tell their children that he is real? Wouldn’t it be better if we never thought he was real?” Navigating traffic, I, at first, gave a smart-alecky response: “Would you have liked to be the only curmudgeon walking around at the age of two saying ‘Santa is not real!’?”

Then, I gave her the answer that I felt in my heart. We let children believe in things that don’t exist for adults in the hope that they will continue to believe in the things that adults forget do exist: that the world is essentially good, that people are kinder than we know, that peace is possible. If we only believed in the things we see before us, or know for a fact are real, why would we ever dream of magic, transformation, the immense potential for a different outcome?

Growing up in Sri Lanka within a Buddhist family in a predominantly Buddhist country, Christmas was something I celebrated with my Catholic friends, going to midnight mass, eating Bruedher and sipping cheap wine. On our tropical island, there were no Christmas trees or snow. But the Christmases of pines christmastree2decorated with ornaments and lights, of snow on the ground and carolers and, most of all, the arrival of Santa Claus, all things I had read about in books and imagined, was always on my mind. Each Christmas Eve I would put myself to bed in a fever of excitement. Santa was going to come. This was the year. Santa didn’t come to Sri Lanka, I thought, because not enough people believed he would. Every year my older brothers, particularly the one closest to me in age, would say goodnight from the door to my room, lifting up the curtain to say “You waiting for Santa? You think he’s going to come this year?” with laughter in their voices. Looking back I wonder if they envied me my complete and heartfelt faith in the arrival of Santa, the ability to forgive the fact that he never showed up, nor ever would.

Now, in my American home I embrace Christmas with the fervor of the zealot. The tree! The presents! The cookies and carrots! Even, when my husband indulged me one year, “footprints” made of flour leading from chimney to tree for my oldest daughter’s first Christmas and mine.

During all those years when Santa failed to show, I never imagined that Christmas would become the anchoring holiday of my adult life. I still have a youngest who marvels at how well Santa knows our family. That chore chart, she says, is perfect for the three of us. I have coaxed my husband the atheist to say, just this morning, “there are elves who wait for those last minute requests and then they shoot out little rockets so Santa, who is already on his way, gets them.” This, in the face of a small voice announcing at breakfast that she really hoped for a guitar pick, something she had not let ‘Santa’ know in time. Most of all, I have three daughters who are willing to let what they know to be true unwind just a little; enough to let the magic in. I fully expect that, as adults, they will look at all the problems in their world with clear eyes, as I do, and still be able to soften that gaze long enough to know that it doesn’t have to remain that way. I credit Santa for that. Long may children small and large, believe that he will come.

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5 December, 2011

A Fight in Good Hands

srilanka08-789_2I say what I think. Perhaps that’s a bit of an understatement. I say what I think about a multitude of things and often when I’m saying what I think I am in direct conflict with what a majority of people may be thinking about the same thing, or I am at odds with a more comfortable point of view. For people who don’t know me personally it may seem as though I am constantly in the thick of one sort of battle or another, usually against forces far greater than any I could muster, often against those who are going to cream me in the long run. srilanka08-1122_2 I learned from the best: my father is now in retirement and lives as he does because he stuck to his guns through decades of service to multiple governments, my late mother was – and, in memory, remains – beloved precisely for her willingess to tell it like it is. My brothers and I carry the torch. (Only one of us, the oldest, is able to let some things go unsaid and I attribute that to his deeper involvement in scripture and his renunciation of much of the noise produced by politics).

What sustains me is what sustained and sustains them: a belief that, if I do not shy away from doing my small part, in the end, good will prevail for us all. To paraphrase the Pink Floyd song, I guess img_3871the “walk on part in the war” has always seemed more preferable to the people in my family than the “lead role in a cage.” And though my mother, in particular, often worried about our fate, and sometimes tried to tell us how hard the fall is from the edge of that limb up high in the sky, or how bare our necks looked exposed as they were, what could we do but do as she did, do as our father did: keep climbing, keep sticking our necks out.

People who do know me know that – whatever it looks like from the outside – I try to live a peaceable, compassionate life, attending just as much to moments of grace as I do to the social/injustices that plague us. And, as a rule (okay, with the exception of the fool who turns on the left turn signal after we are already at the stop-light), I tend to take people at their word, to accept that they are who them say they are, to believe that they are well-intentioned until proven otherwise. When I do find something that gets under my skin, more often than not, what I can bring to a cause is my voice. If I have been given the gift of words, then it stands to reason that I should use it to honor the gift-giver by using it to the best of my abilities. But passion and words are both double-edged swords.

This weekend, I fell into conversation with a neighbor. We had both been concerned about the misuse of authority on the part of an individual employed by this school district and we had talked about bringing our concerns to the relevant people. Although he had decided, in consultation with his wife, that it would be better not to become involved, I have no doubt that, after our conversation, they will decide to do so. But it was what he said that gave me pause. Touching my shoulder in genuine reassurance, he said, we know the fight is in good hands. i.e, mine.

Like I said, I learned from the best. I learned to speak up. But I also learned that nobody gets anything done by themselves. Audre Lorde said the following words: “there are no single issue struggles because we do not live single issue lives.” img_3338The Occupy Wall Street movement is a perfect example of what Lorde was talking about, despite the fact that so many seem not to understand the reason for its seeming “chaos.” But we also do not fight our battles alone. The boy with his finger in the dyke may have prevented the town from being inundated and countless human beings from drowning, but he suffered greatly while doing it. I do not imagine that I am that important, or that anything I do is comparable to that story, but I do know that standing alone is, well, lonely, often futile and usually fatal to ones wellbeing.

Long ago – it seems – in the months after I had returned to the US after a long period back home, when I was still looking for work and spent my time watching the Senate hearings on TV, hour by endless hour, I went to Newark, NJ to stand on a street-corner to protest the attacks against Bill Clinton in the throes of the Lewinsky scandal. It was an event organized by a relatively small group called Censure and Move On, a group which has since become MoveOn.org a behemoth power in politics. As we drove up we saw that, on a grey and rainy afternoon, there were two people standing on the corner with umbrellas. My companion – whose constant charge has been to save me from myself – surveying the embarassing scene from a fair distance said: “Ru, don’t be nuts. Let’s not make fools of ourselves standing in the rain with two people.” The words that sprang to my lips came not from me but from generations of people who had felt the same way I did right then: “That’s when it is important to stand out there,” I said. “What is the use of joining something when there are a thousand people there? This, when it is difficult and uncomfortable, this is when it counts.” With that I stormed off and, as he often does, my husband soon followed even though this type of shenanigan is not his thing, it has never been; it will always be difficult for him but, to his everlasting credit – much more than I deserve because, hard though it may be, I grew up learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – he has always done it when it counts.

I may have the words to write persuasively about my case, and those words probably give the impression that the “fight” whatever it is, can be successfully won by me. I may speak with passion for my candidate, my cause, my peeve, and that passion probably makes people believe that I’m “passionate enough for the both of us.” srilanka08two-773_2Neither is true. Nothing, absolutely nothing, except for love for another and enlightenment of the soul, can be accomplished alone. No matter how strong the words, no matter how great the passion. Everything takes a village. And then many villages. And entire regions. And a country. And many countries. But mostly, it takes more than one. The fight is not in good hands if it remains in the hands of a single person because that is usually a fight that is going to be lost. So if you ever wonder if it is really necessary to raise your hand and be counted when somebody else seems to have it covered, or if it seems a little out of your comfort zone – even though you are invested in the outcome – or if you are worried about what this one or that one might think of you – even though you really hope the fight will be won – rest assured, it is. It is always necessary. Unless you are equally invested, equally hopeful that the fight is going to be lost. If that is the case, by all means, remain silent.

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3 December, 2011

Rhiannon Richardson: The Last Day of Her Life

About a month ago I spoke about blogging at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Given that the people who were in attendance were, for the most part, writers who were thinking about blogging but had not set up a blog of their own, I offered them my space so they could see what it looks like, a literary version of “try it before you buy it.” Of the people who signed up, I’ve received – thus far – only one post, and that, from a fourteen year old girl, the youngest in that room. Rhiannon Richardson and is a freshman in high school who describes herself thus: passions include “Writing and conversing about debatable and common topics is my passion. I love to take what I hear and see in everyday life and put it into my novels. My hobbies are softball, writing, reading, listening to a wide range of music, and raising a nursery of Dalmatian molly fish.”

I remember being that young. I remember seizing every opportunity I was given with gratitude and enthusiasm, an immense love for life. It is great to see the tradition alive and thriving among this generation of writers. So long as there are girls with an imagination like hers, how can the world go wrong? Here’s Rhiannon’s post on the last day of her life.

The Last Saturday

Saturday. It isn’t Monday, the workday. It isn’t Sunday, the day you go to church. It isn’t Friday, the day you spend partying all night because “hey tomorrow’s Saturday!” Saturday is the day where you can do anything you choose. The one day out of the week that you can go anywhere and do anything, it’s the life changing day of your life! So how would you spend it? The world is going to end on Saturday and you will lose everything. What are you going to do?

The last Saturday of my life I will wake up and pray. I’ll thank God for the life he’s given me, and the last day he is going to give to me. Then my day will begin. I’ll go to the Hollister store, and buy an entire outfit, because if I’m trying to scrimp with my money I can’t normally afford it. Then I’ll take all the rest of my money and take a trip to Bali because right down there, there’s a little rocky hillside with a beautiful view of the ocean, and I’ve only been to the beach three times in my fourteen years of living. I’ll find Alex Pettyfer and kiss him, because I’ve never kissed anyone in my life, and he is my favorite celebrity. A private plane will take me to Africa because I’m African American and I’ve never seen the place of my heritage, and I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Après ce (after that) I’d go to France because I’ve spent two years learning the language and I want to go where I have no choice but to speak it. Plus, France is one of the most fashionable places in the world, and it’s a wise place to spend the last bit of money I have on my party dress… To end my most magical day, I’ll grab all of my friends and go to the world’s last party, because “Tonight is the Night” that we dance for the last time. I’d dance till my heart gives out and I’ll dance again once I’m in heaven.

A wise man once said, “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no one is watching,” (Randall G Leighton). So, how would you spend the last “free” day of your life?

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.


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