Tuesday, April 27, 2010

inside looking out

I've been listening to a lot of public radio lately. Recently, I heard a story on Worldview about the future of the niqab in France. It's been haunting me for days; Nicolas Sarkozy, that mispronouncing folksy tool with the insanely hot wife, said that the niqab was "not welcome on French soil." This, after it Belgium took steps to ban the niqab and the burqa in public places. It popped off a series of fireworks about who defines what it means to be French and how and why. I was hooked, listening to this series of men and women argue about the nature of their identity, of French identity and nationalism, of exposition and privacy.

But what do these things mean? They seem like issues that people don't think about very often. When I get dressed in the morning, I am almost always considering what I wear because I don't want to be cold at some point in the day, and the weather here is so unpredictable. With the onset of spring, I regret to say that I consider what kind of comments I might incur, and it sometimes affects what I wear. But not since I was living with my parents did I ever consider what I was wearing in terms of what kind of religious statement I might be making with it. Nor have I ever looked at a pair of jeans, a turtleneck sweater, a miniskirt or boots, and thought, well I can't wear this, it's just utterly un-American.

I bring up the issue of national identity, because in the course of the story, several people, including one of France's beloved poets, argues that wearing a garment like this--whether in pursuit of religious expression or not--is a decidedly un-French thing to do. It violates the tenets of the French Republic, some say, liberty, equality, fraternity. If one of us is plain and out for all to see, and the other is hidden and covered up, how can their be equality between we two? You must consider yourself better than be, in order to be veiled. You are permitted to see all of me, but you will show me only your eyes. This makes us unequal.

I think it's a valid argument, though not without its flaws. But I get stuck on the idea that someone exercising their right to choose how they practice their religion is an un-French thing to do. When identifying as French and identifying as Muslim go head to head, one of them must lose; the government will not allow you to be both, at least not in public.

Is it true that wearing a veil is a sign of female repression, perpetrated by a patriarchal religion that is misogynistic at its core? Is this kind of question akin to the question of hymen replacement surgery? Or is it just something that those of us who are not followers, with our western ideals, that only masquerade as open-minded, can never hope to understand? I don't know. This is such a land mine issue; there are some things about a culture that you just don't get if you don't know, and sweeping in to change it because it contradicts what we're comfortable with reeks of white missionaries converting natives. But the thing is, maybe I have unrealistic expectations of France. Maybe France does not promise its citizens the freedom to choose how to worship, and so it can legislate how you can and can't observe your religious practice.

But how many of these women, women who, like the women in this story, elect to wear the naqib as a gesture of empowerment and devotion, how many of them are light-skinned? How many of them "look French"? If such a thing even exists. Would people be making such a big deal out of this if those women desiring to wear this floor length veil that reveals only the eyes of its wearer, if these women had the eyes and skin of women whose families have been in France for centuries, instead of the eyes and skin of first generation French citizens?
In a few days, the UK is going to elect its next Prime Minister, and the coverage of this election tells me that English citizens are worked up over the issue of immigration. They struggle with people who aren't English, who come into their country and take their jobs and change their national identity. They sound alarmingly like some Americans. I suppose it's just my naivete, but I'd assumed that abroad, in Europe, the Old World, that ideas like this were anachronistic and anathema to what Europeans knew themselves to be, especially in the world culture. But the nature of the world is changing; immigration, which has been happening since forever, is perhaps easier or at least more prevalent, than maybe its ever been. It seems to me that white people who've known their national identity tied to their racial one are running scared.
I'm really grieved by this. The world isn't going to grow less diverse, only more. The sands are shifting. This kind of ignorance and fear based solely on white privilege doesn't bode well for the global community that's being created.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

i never promised you good poetry.

"That's not the kind of poetry I mean. What I mean is that you take a lot of words, put them together, and they tell you something. The whole point is that if you don't know where you are, the best thing to do is write a poem. All adventurers do that sort of thing. It's part of the job."
--from The End of the Beginning by Avi

"Can you see me?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said.
I touched his arms, his shoulders,
cradled the soft black of his head.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the man who loves you."
His voice trembled,
the ripple of which I saw in his eyes.
"Can you see me?" I asked.
He nodded.
"Who am I?"
"You're the woman that loves me," he said,
and a thing in me dissolved, and was swept away on the torrent.
For the moment, I was content to remain blinded,
and to trust his vision.

It is a hard thing to walk,
to trust that the ground is beneath your feet,
when the fog is so thick
that you can't see your feet.
A plane fell out of the sky yesterday, and a head of state lost his life.
So did his wife, a sculptor,
and ninety-four other important people; they,
distracted by their own mourning,
by the familiar pomp and ritual of remembrance,
couldn't see the ground rushing up to meet them through the fog.
Light bends, the eye flutters:
when I was six I swore I saw an ant
the size of a cat
crawl through my parents' laundry room.
What was it? A shadow? A ghost? A fear of ants?
Or was it the fog, crawling toward me, that scared me so?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

in praise of the fishmonger

The guy who sells me fish at Whole Foods Market is always so nice to me.

It's not always the same guy. It's not always at the same market. At the WF around the corner from my folks house in Cincinnati, I asked the guy about the quality of a fish, and he gave me a free sample to take home and cook, and said if I liked it that I should come back and buy enough for the family. Once, the guy behind the counter at the market in my 'hood--he had a kind of french accent?--told me I had beautiful hands, really long fingers.

This morning, I was standing in front of the case, gazing at the fish and feeling sorry for myself because my honey's away, and thinking maybe it might be nice to make something tasty for me, so that dinner for one isn't such a grim proposition. The guy walked up. Tall, white, in glasses and a hat, and overalls that looked like they might have been hip-waders for what I could see. He asked me a question, but it took me a good ten seconds or so to realize that he was looking at and talking to me.

I asked for a half pound of 16-20 count shrimp.

"You got big plans for the weekend?"

"No, my fiance just left town so it's just me. Probably just stay close to home, clean, take it easy."

"Where'd he go?"

"Home to see his family?"

"Where's home?"
"Ohio... no place special."

He paused, grabbing shrimp with a plastic bag. "I've had a couple of good meals in Ohio. When are you getting married?"

There was more small talk and after he'd wrapped my purchases, I continued on my way. But I was genuinely astonished that the guy behind the fish counter would take any interest in me, as a person, even just to chat to about the weather or what's new.

This isn't about being flirted with by some strange guy. It's about... my roommate used to say that sometimes she'd forget that people could actually see her and would be surprised when someone would speak to her, would chisel through the reality she was living in. Lately my world has been about shadows in the room transforming themselves into things that may not be there; I don't trust my own perception of very much right now. It was just nice for someone to chisel through the reality I'm living in, to speak to me like he sees what I see.

I don't know what WF does for their employees, but the people who sell me fish are always the kindest and most engaged grocers I've encountered. It's a real pleasure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

spring dream: 8 april 2010

I dreamt of a soldier who gave me a kite.

I was arguing with my mother. I'd recently been in Brooklyn, in a building that was enormous, that had four floors that were two units, plus a floor that was one flat. The entire building was being turned into a single family home: which meant 4-5 floors, 4-6 bathrooms and bedrooms, an obscene amount of space for 3-5 people. I'd been really blown away by the tour of this building, and was telling my parents that what was most astonishing was that the mortgage payment for the place was $1500.

"That's impossible, Jessica!" my mom was shouting at me.

"Why does it have to be so impossible?" I asked.

"Nobody gets that much space on just fifteen hundred dollars a month."
"That's what the woman said."

"What woman?"

"The woman giving the tour. She said that the family was able to live in the space and paid only 1500 a month."

"That's impossible, you must be wrong, you must have misunderstood her."

I was really frustrated. I knew I was saying something outlandish, but that didn't make it false. I was sitting down, facing my mother, who had her back to a window which opened out onto the street. My father stood between us and off to the side, kind of wondering what he should do, if there was something for him to do.

I sighed and shook my head.

Just then a man ran by with a string wound on a spool. My face lit up. I was suddenly so happy about this man and the kite he was flying on the sidewalk. I ran outside to him.

He was a handsome man, in a khaki uniform with brown skin and a small, well-trimmed mustache and a wide, unburdened smile.

"Can I fly your kite?" I asked breathlessly.

With an exhale of delight, he handed me the string and the spool, and I looked up into the sky, to see what was captured on the other end of the string.

It was a great black kite, sort of like a box kite, but it had wings, and on the wings were flags of red, blue, green and purple. It was beautiful. I was thrilled.

Then the kite was much closer to me, not flying very high at all, threatening to get stuck in the tops of trees, and I was running the sidewalk trying to find a gust for the kite to rise on. As my feet hit the pavement and I panted, I could hear the gentle voice of the handsome brown man coaching me. It was soft, and right in my ear. But despite how hard I tried, nothing happened. I vainly ran the city sidewalks, trying to get this kite to soar above the tops of the trees. I was sad, but somehow I would not stop hoping, stop trying.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


The sap is rising.

On a morning walk to the el a few days ago, I saw two squirrels mating on the side of the tree. I exclaimed, and instinctively averted my eyes, to protect their--or my own--modesty. The heard/saw me coming, and carefully scuttled around the tree, never too far from the other, a few inches at a time. "Don't let him take it from you unless you want him to take it from you, sista," I said to the lady squirrel. I'm not sure why I looked away in such surprise. The squirrels have nothing to protect, no reason to try and preserve their copulation from the accidental glance of humans or anything else. They have to get theirs sometime, somewhere. It reminds me of that Pablo Neruda poem* that ends with a man and his girl going at it full tilt on a bicycle. That experience knows something I hope I may never have to know. Unless sex on a bicycle is good sex--but I don't see how: sounds awkward and distracting.

Once I arrived at the train station, I fended off a number of comments from the Peanut Gallery, from "Good Morning, beautiful"--charming but also a bit smarmy--to a gibberish mouthful of rastafarian prayers and salutations hollered at my back, presumably in praise of my locs.

Many things I love about spring: more sunshine, blossoming, milder temperatures, birds in the morning. But I hate, HATE the fact that spring gives men permission to catcall women. All of a sudden, a woman goes from master of her own fate to object for ogling and making lascivious overtures to. Can't we wear short and gauzy and sleeveless without being subjected to the overactive libidos of strange men? Most recently I walked through this crowd of guys and they all ogled me and then began loudly babbling more of these Rasta chants in shitty Jamaican accents. It gets so in just trying to get into the Howard Street station and get on the train, I can't hold my chin up. It makes me so mad that the harassment of strangers causes me to lower my head, as if I am ashamed of my own beauty. I hate that strange men think it is their right as possessors of penis to treat my body in such a way. If each of us is born in the image of God, then my physicality is an extension of Christ; I am the body of Christ. I feel like I'm being pissed on when this kind of thing happens.

It is unacceptable to me that this is just the ways of men, that I should take this as a compliment, that I have this coming because I can fill out my jeans well. I am not even trying to give this away, and already they are taking it from me.

* Poor Fellows by Pablo Neruda

What it takes, on this planet,

to make love to each other in peace:

everyone pries under your sheets,

everyone interferes with your loving.

They say terrible things

about a man and a woman

who, after much milling about,

all sorts of compunctions,

do something unique--

they both lie with each other in one bed.

I ask myself whether frogs

are so furtive, or sneeze as they please,

whether they whisper to each other in

swamps about illegitimate frogs

or the joys of amphibious living.

I ask myself if birds

single out enemy birds

or bulls gossip with bullocks before

they go out in public with cows.

Even the roads have eyes,

and the parks their police,

hotels spy on their guests,

windows name names,

cannons and squadrons debark

on missions to liquidate love--

all those ears and those jaws

working incessantly,

till a man and his girl

have to race to their climax

full-tilt on a bicycle.