Again, I'm speaking in emotions, that language you find so difficult. I'm sorry not sorry, it's all I've got right now. How come feelings get such a bad rap? How come you're not supposed to speak in feelings out loud where other people can hear you? Why are feelings supposed to be bottled up? Is it some kind of marketing campaign? Is someone else going to sell my bottled up feelings and make a profit but I'll never know about it? Is that how this works? Let me say this: the right words to flimmer across my screen can make me cry. Sometimes I shout to signal that I really prefer order and my voice wants to be the law. I shout not to scare you but to command your attention. It's a primitive method, I'll agree. It often works. My emotions are talking and sometimes they get loud and don't ask permission. What I want for you and what you want for yourself are probably not the same thing but they might be related, like second cousins once removed. And if you know what that means then maybe my emotion language is not as foreign as you thought. And maybe my communication follows, falls, finagles a way into your hippocampus around about your frontal cortex circumventing your hungry amygdala but probably not. Maybe it's just going in one ear and out the other, unscathed, unbothered. This is just to say This is just to say just to say to say say nothing more. I might be done. You can stop listening if you ever were.
Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.
Saying Some Things
I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.
Hearing Some Things
I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.
Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.
I love our school libraries. I try to be a frequent flyer in both the elementary and secondary collections. They never disappoint. While coping with the brief disappointment at discovering that Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, was checked out (bittersweet, because also, Yay! someone else is enjoying excellent fiction!), I browsed the shelf for reasonable alternatives. In that case, I tend to select based on how the title lands and do a quick check of the cover dynamics. That’s how Khaled Khalifa‘s novel, Death Is Hard Work, ended up in my hands.
Originally published in Arabic in 2016, Death Is Hard Work relates the struggle of three estranged siblings transporting their father’s corpse through war-torn Syria from Damascus to the father’s birth home of Anabiya. It is Abdel Latif’s dying wish and his second son, Bolbol feels obligated to carry it out with the help of his sister and older brother, Fatima and Hussein. What Khalifa weaves together are relationship strands that run through the past of these family members and shows how these play out in their at once terrifying and matter-of-fact commitment. On a trip that would have taken a few hours under pre-war circumstances, the family requires over three days to navigate checkpoints and territories of various combatant factions.
I was a little worried at the outset because my knowledge of the conflict is Syria is abominable. My ignorance defines my relationship to the region. I need to be honest about that. Through these richly portrayed characters, Khalifa leads the reader into a Syrian society of lower middle class families where a full range of human possibilities are on display. Bolbol, the selectively dutiful son of small time revolutionary, Abdel Latif, serves as the primary narrator. Through him we learn the histories and heartbreaks of his father and siblings and their further relations. Bolbol is a wonderfully complex and somewhat tragic character. We get the feeling that he’s simply not cut out to ever, ever get what he really wants. Only in the last third of the book do we learn that our narrator’s real name is Nabil rather than Bolbol, a childhood nickname he gave up trying to correct.
On many levels, Khalifa writes about longing and disappointment; the constant struggle to make do with dream remnants in the midst of sour realities. The metaphor that appears several times is that of a bouquet floating down a river.
“Discovering love is like seeing a bouquet floating down a river. You have to catch it at the right time, or the river will sweep it away: it won’t wait for long. You have only a few intense, mad moments to give voice to your profound desires.” (p. 65)
Later when Abdel Latif describes his late stage marriage to an early sweetheart, Nevine, the floating bouquet makes another appearance:
“But his father surprised him when he added the following night that every door should be thrown open to love, that love could sweep away the past all at once, which had helped cleanse his being and strip away the withered branches that would never put out leaves again. It was agonizing, of course, to slice off your awful past and throw it away, but it was necessary if you were to catch the bouquet of roses floating down the river and carry it safely to the other side…” (p. 71)
Bolbol offers us insight into everyone’s peculiar form of suffering, from his own cage of fears to his brother’s unrelenting anger and his sister’s wounded pride – these all against a backdrop of a nation descending into the civil war through which the protagonists end up traveling. Of course, while transporting a rotting corpse across a landscape where the primary distinctions are degrees of physical devastation, death is constant companion. And, as the title makes clear, death is and becomes hard work. (Translated literally, the title would be Death Is Hard Labour)
Precisely Khalifa’s handling of death – the grossness of decay, the numbness that develops by constantly being confronted by it – demonstrates the author’s remarkable craft and sensitivity. The book has its share of humor. I was struck by this crisply related image:
“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue-tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers or checkpoints.” (p. 127)
Rather than build our sympathies with a particular faction of the conflict, through Bolbol’s desperate attempt to survive and experience a modicum of respect, we are confronted with a kind of futility. At the final checkpoint run by an extremist group, Bolbol is arrested and his siblings are allowed to proceed. Unable to pass a test demonstrating sufficient command of Islam, he is held for religious re-education. It’s here that he contemplates the emptiness of existing in constant fear:
“Bobol reflected that when the walls of fear around you crumble, there’s only a strange emptiness inside. Nothing can fill it but a new type of fear, perhaps. You don’t know what to call it, but it’s still fear, no different in flavor, really than the old type. It makes you feel like you’re the only one afraid in a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living … He was convinced this was his own personal problem, not the problem of humanity as a whole: each human losing themselves, then finding themselves again by banding together with the other humans who seemed to most resemble themselves, or else transforming themselves in order to resemble those groups . . . all drowning in emptiness.” (p.174)
I had no idea what to expect when I pulled this book off the shelf. Death Is Hard Work caught me unawares. It has, as a reading adventure, convinced me again that fiction matters. Invented stories allow authors to tell us truths we need to hear without exactly designating which ones are ours to believe. How to write about the callous inhumanity of war while bearing witness to the range of human behavior that makes war not only possible, but commonplace? Khlalifa’s answer seems to be: You make space for regular degular people to reveal their own stories of survival. As outsiders looking in we are forced to acknowledge that folks have so much more going on in their hearts and minds than living to see another day, precisely when no next day is guaranteed.
Fiction reading is the art of listening to characters as they are, not as we suppose they ought to be. That has been my lesson here. Read Death Is Hard Work. Savor its characters, its humor, its craft, and its capacity to teach us what we think we mean by “life and death.”
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Faber and Faber, 2019.
image by S. Spelic
My life now is different than it was a year ago. I moved during the pandemic; settled into a new place closer to work and surrounded in three directions by wooded hills. When I agreed to take the apartment I did not know how much I needed to be right where I landed.
I’ve spent most of the summer break here in my new home. Aside from a couple of getaway weeks in July, I’ve hunkered down comfortably in Neuwaldegg (the name of our neighborhood, pronounced NOY-Vahld-egg). To my delight I’ve found a new rhythm of movement that has helped me find a top-to-bottom joy I wasn’t sure was still possible.
Gathering life as I go
I wake up, drink water, put on my running stuff. Think to myself what the route should be. Schafberg, Heuberg, Exelberg, Hameau? In any case, all routes will lead uphill. Sometimes there's a stretch on the sidewalk before I can turn off and reach a trail. Other times, it's a walk along the periphery of small garden homes, now refashioned into pricey real estate bordering on the Vienna woods. Houses on hillsides, a few with ridiculous views overlooking the city. I walk through these spaces on my way to the trails that criss-cross these hills. At the start I sought out marked paths, keeping my eyes peeled for stripes on trees: white-yellow-white, white-green-white, white-blue-white. By now I have a handle on which trails lead where. Each trek takes me a bit farther afield, not just up the hill but also down and around until I circle back another way. I try out the occasional unmarked trail and note how it links up with my familiar route. I begin with the long walk, pausing where I please, listening lending my ear to the birds, bees and all the other life gathering itself. I look up at trees even though I can barely call them by name I thank them for their shade, I salute their resilience and adaptability. I can hardly imagine how tired they must be of humans. The paths are varied: combinations of rock, mud, roots, gravel and packed leaves. Weather adds variety: soggy, slippery after last night's rain; parched and cracked following three days' baking in the sun. I note these details as I go, measuring changes that sharpen my sense of scale and belonging. While I walk, I let my mind wander. Ideas get tossed up. some stick in my mind; others follow that dragonfly or catch me up before I trip. I'm open to what comes lingers and fades. these moments feel expansive I savor my aloneness, the quiet, a peace. There are few others out and about so far, a couple of mountain bikers, walkers, with dogs and without; runners. We greet each other and keep it moving. I'm glad not to share I am relieved of any shame of being too slow or too fast; of going too far, not far enough. Every day I can make up my own pace; determine my own course, change my mind as often as I like. I'm giving myself this gift and I always make sure to receive it. At some point it's time to turn around, to head back to where I came from. The route may be the same way or the other half of a loop. It's usually a descent so I jog. And as I jog I complete this puzzle of a gazillion micro decisions about where to place each foot to leap the puddle, clear the roots, to dodge the brush, hurdle the log. On my way down I feed my brain. Eyes are on high alert, ears attuned for potential scare. As trails become my friends I can anticipate their tricky curves and slippery rocks. I know I can't afford injury so there's caution and daring accompanying my every step. When I work my way back to solid ground, to forest drive, the sidewalk home my pace is steady and pushing it just enough to know it's working; I am accumulating a new sense of self and place. I reach the entrance to my building a sweaty mess and proud. This is what it means to hit my stride.
It may not be easy to recognize but sitting in quiet is a kind of dare. It’s personal but deeply connected to our social understandings. When I sit in quiet – maybe stare out the window, or leaf through some printed thing – I am challenging my own impulse to ‘look busy.’ For what?! For whom?! I am at home on vacation with my teen and we are literally chilling out. And it’s not natural. Inside I’m holding onto all these ideas about time, productivity, domestic responsibility, and being an adult. It’s almost as if I’ve told myself that I am not built for rest, recovery and full relaxation.
In my late 30s and early 40s I invested a great deal of time, energy and money in developing my understanding of self and others. I attended a series of courses that usually extended over periods of 4-6 months at a time. Usually it involved 3 day weekend seminars with intensely interactive sessions which for me tended to be highly emotional and revelatory. These courses formed the basis of my later practice as a life coach. Above all, these experiences trained me to ask better questions of myself and others – questions that brought us closer to the core of a topic rather than dancing around the fringes. That training has served me well.
In a short post I wrote yesterday, some unusual questions emerged. Here are two:
Whose budgeted affections will we overextend to then regret our hasty indulgence?
Which personal histories are you writing today?SOL Tuesday A Gentle Reckoning
When words show up like this I know that they have emerged out of my feelings, not my rational mind. Quiet time invites my feelings to show themselves. What I think of those feelings is rarely as pressing as what it is they are asking me to do: Back up? Slow down? Guess again? Let go? Hold on? Breathe? Quiet time is like visiting hours for all the disparate parts of who I think I am and who I might actually be to show up and mingle. If I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to write down a few things once the party is over.
I’ve been feeling a little emotional lately. No specific cause, really. I mean, we’re healthy, school is fully back in session and it looks like we’ll end the year on a positive note. But I keep feeling … a lot. This evening I’m a bit teary; other times I’m just spent or a little extra cranky. My teen navigates all these mood appearances with remarkable equanimity and for that I am extremely grateful.
“What if we were honest enough to bear witness to our pain?”from “We shall revel in the abundance of each other”
Lord, what if?
I remember when it dawned on me and my siblings that my mother’s memory was deteriorating. The initial signs were subtle but presented a clear enough pattern. As her dementia progressed she managed to retain so many of her distinctly prosocial qualities. She was kind, gracious, appreciative and curious. Any upset was quickly forgotten. At some point it was no longer possible for her to stay angry. When she passed away, it was the sound of her voice that continued to ring in my ears. That upbeat tone of interest whenever she picked up the receiver. I believe she left this world thinking the best of everyone.
Of course in her dementia, she also knew pain, frustration and sadness. But her reservoir and access were severely curtailed.
Through the course of this pandemic year plus, I have had some ups and downs but my existence was never threatened. My health and that of my loved ones was never significantly impaired. We have come through this world crisis relatively unscathed.
But not untouched.
At the end of her post, Sara encourages us:
So, reader, speak whatever must be said. Speak for what you know is true. Speak when your body tells you something isn’t right. this…isn’t right. Speak even if you are conflicted (maybe especially so). Speak and release this energy that threatens to consume you. Speak because you know that ultimately this action is fundamentally one of armed love.
Speak. And know that you are not alone in the telling.
Precisely here is where I felt fully unmasked and my losses were revealed. I haven’t cried a lot during these pandemic months but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want or need to. I experienced loss and change and painful adjustments. My marriage of 15 years broke up. Not in a knock-down, drag out kind of way but in an entirely practical and unremarkable way. Our common household was dissolved and two separate but satisfying new living arrangements established. There was mainly agreement and cooperation. But it still hurt. It still constitutes a loss.
I’ve muddled through a year of pandemic teaching and my students are alright for the most part. I learned some new skills, discovered some hidden capacities. Progress showed up in predictable and also surprising places. And yet, I wasn’t able to teach my best. The year was rife with improv and scrambling to adjust to shifting conditions. My case was not at all special, I know. At the same time, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed. I missed teaching with the benefits of consistency, routine and a dedicated enclosed space. That was a loss and I feel it in lots of small ways. Taken together, they’re like a slow-healing bruise. Not really painful but tender and sore; sometimes on the surface, other times deeper in the tissue.
Thanks to moving house and making the most of a new set of circumstances, I’ve been confronted with myself in a way that hasn’t happened in quite a while. I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about who I am and who I intend to still become. What do I like? What are my priorities? Who is on my team and what is worth doing together? In principle, I love these kinds of big picture questions. I’m a trained life coach, after all. But the introspection remains challenging. I don’t have more or better responses than anyone else. I get tired. I lose steam, motivation and sometimes heart. Here, too, amid discovery I also found holes.
The older I become, the more similarities I find with my mother as I remember her in her 60s and 70s: I keep mini Snickers on hand in my pantry, I’m more interested in cooking by recipe, I like gin with tonic or ginger beer, I’m concerned with what ails the world, I still celebrate and relish independence. It’s a funny/not funny thing to notice. If I can stay stay so stubbornly optimistic about humanity like my mom, then I’m pretty sure I’ll pull through these and the next challenges and the ones after that just fine.
In the meantime, I hope I have courage enough to speak my losses and hurts. Also that I may bear witness for others with humility, honesty and presence. In speaking my pain, I also tell you: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here and for now, we are alive.
That’s a lot and also a gift.
In between the end of school and leaving for skating
In between lunch and dinner
In between getting up groggy and hit-the-hay stupor
In between books and papers
In between leftover noodles and tomato pesto
In between the spoons and knives
In between I’ll call you and see you next week
In between we know this and I forgot
In between the right words and the I-don’t-care words
In between what’s started and what’s unfinished
In between I’m fine and I miss you
In between shut up and shut down
In between unicorns and donkeys
In between what you told me and when I lied
In between a rock and a hard place
In between the first and the last kiss
In between hello and goodbye
In between what’s real and what’s true
In between all of me and some of you.
You are hitting a wall. You pick at projects rather than dig in. You know there will be an end but at this stage that is mere abstraction. Every haul you make to the recycling center merits a cookie and you take it in other forms: a beer, an ice cream float, leftover Christmas chocolate. One day there will be cookies again, but not now.
You now have a deadline. A point by which you need to have your sh*t together and ready to leave. This is singularly clarifying. You have to beat the clock, or in this case, the calendar. It’s not so much a rush as it is a test of your organizational capacity. Attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture. Can you do that? Can you focus long enough, wisely enough, operationally enough? That’s a rhetorical question. Don’t tangle yourself up trying to answer, just go to one of those corners get back in the game.
The nightstand you at least cleared. The books form piles against the wall awaiting for their next station. The nightstand is still not entirely empty but it no longer holds untold secrets of the last dozen years or the caking of dust that protected them. As you pick apart these long undisturbed collections of books you also come across journal after journal where you really have to search for the year. Chronicled hurt, joy, love and plans – so many, many words of you trying to tell yourself your own story. The infinite process, right? Of course you have to keep them all and yet they shall find no universal reunion. They will not be herded into a sensible archive for posterity. Too much order has never been your style. That can be both charm and a drag. Preparing this move offers a lot of drag with minimal charm. It’s bound to get better.
Is it funny to you that the word “invent” now only leads you to “inventory”? You cannot walk into a single room without scanning its contents for trouble. You see work that looms. You are constantly categorizing what must go and what to keep. Every surface that must be freed of its contents seems to mock you.
The kitchen dares you to even think of laying a finger to it. “I just fed you! You cannot possibly reduce me to pieces and parts!” And it has a point. Yes, the kitchen will likely be the last harbor of stasis. Proceed cautiously. Try gathering first from the distant edges: the deep recesses of the lower cabinets. Extras of everything that you never needed these 12 years but simply held anyway. Who needs 15 plastic water bottles? Or what about that stash of disposable chopsticks? You can keep them but give them a better home next time around (the chopsticks, not the water bottles). Of course like all these other projects of removal you will be called to reminisce as well. You will find forgotten gifts, ornamental artifacts which wait patiently for their arrival into public view, plus more candles than you know what to do with. Get rid of it all, pass it on. Someone else may benefit.
Emptying and filling boxes. It feels like this is all you’ll ever do for weeks (besides go to work, cook, shop, etc.). Some nights it may feel like doubt is slipping into the room to smother you. It’s OK if you need to get up and shake off some dread. The boxes will be ready and waiting for your return. “My life in boxes” you’ll think while you sort. That’s right: your boxes, your life, your stuff.
You’re making progress. It may not seem like it yet but when you reach the later stages, you’ll thank yourself. After a second pass through the main bookshelves, you create new towers of paperback manuals – for parenting, teaching, coaching, meditating, communicating, understanding the world. These too will not really be missed. Still it’s an idea you struggle with, at least briefly. By now you have sharpened your book-to-box spatial ratio awareness. It’s actually amazing how differently books occupy a space based on how they’re positioned. Once they’re packed up so efficiently, it would be a shame not to see them off to the second-hand vendor.
You pat yourself on the back. You can do this.
You walk into other rooms: the son’s, your own bedroom, the back room, the kitchen. It dawns on you: there are books everywhere! In and on your nightstand, on top of the son’s dresser and in the corner behind his bed, on that extra odd sized chair in the kitchen, not to speak of the shelves in the back room. You have built a life with books. It’s that simple. Forgive yourself. Count your blessings and keep weeding. Not every book ever acquired must remain in your care and possession. Move on to other areas.
The bathroom. Take it one drawer at a time, start from the bottom and work your way up. Unused bath mats, old sponges, odd containers that never came into use. All of that into the bag. You’re warmed up, the rest will go quickly. All those ridiculous gift soaps and scrubs, bath oils and nail polishes – once or never opened – dump them! The candle you lit one winter night when your pre-schooler was finally in bed and you dared to draw yourself a hot bath and play an old Tony Braxton CD. Well, after collecting dust these past 8 years you can finally remove it from from the forest of tall standing packages of creams, shampoos and lotions. Surprisingly heavy when you pick it up, this Yankee candle – all it did for these many years was take up space. Pitch it and you immediately become lighter.
Why hold onto old toothbrushes, baby hair brushes, nail files and razors? Astounding how effortlessly these details collect and hide their existence. There’s little negotiation needed here. So much is expired, perhaps ever hazardous by now. It costs you next to nothing to add their collective weight to the bag and claim the Bathroom temporarily conquered. Lift the bag, grab your shoes, dispose of today’s booty of miscellany with joy.
The bathroom was an easy target after all – low hanging fruit, as they say. You know what? You’ll take it. Book the win and keep it moving.
Listen carefully. This is how you dismantle a household:
You begin by shedding; getting rid of stuff. Begin in the back, wherever that is for you, and work towards the front. Those boxes you never unpacked from the last move over a decade ago? You’ll have to make a decision: keep or dump? Open up and wonder or keep it closed and drag it along. Move on to something easier. The stained mattress that’s holding up the wall? That can go. That faded blue chair holding plastic bags of random balls of yarn? Keep the yarn, say goodbye to the chair. Books and papers piled high on flat surfaces? Weed the books. Make stacks of those that have outlived their active service, you will not miss them. I know, they’re books, but you’ll take them to a place where they’ll line up with other books, ridiculous books you’d never known existed, and those books that used to be yours will be swallowed into the mass of other people’s discards. It’s OK. Many books never even make it this far. You’ve done your best and they’ve done theirs. Say goodbye.
Toys. So much waste! Get rid of as much as possible. This is all the stuff you can’t give away to friends with younger kids. You can really only pitch the majority of it. Stray Lego pieces, Chocolate egg surprises, monumental plastic detritus in boxes, bags – all forgotten and irrelevant now, yet urgently desired at the time of acquisition. There’s a sweet revenge to seeing these micro momentos meet their end. Collectors of dust! Hazards to bare feet! Oh, but it’s harder with the soft creatures! To send them off in unceremonious fashion, you’d have to be a kind of monster. The pandas, bunnies blue and beige, ducks and doggies, fluffy and furry with the patience of saints. They wait to catch your eye, to pierce your otherwise rugged shell and trigger a fountain of warm memories. You cannot possibly let me go, I belong to your past, your present, your future, they say, almost in chorus. Oh my God, they know you, they know your children, they have you cornered. Collect a few and put them in the washer. If you must take them with you, they will at least be less dusty.
You are still in the back, mind you. It will seem like you are stuck here but at some point you will emerge. Promise. Don’t get discouraged. Keep coming back. Bring your mental shovel and just take one small pile after the other. Dig, sort, remove. Dig, sort, remove. Distinguishing between history and trash gets easier. There’s no need to hold onto every thing you’ve ever written. Leave a bit of a puzzle behind. It will make your legacy ultimately more interesting. That’s what I tell myself, at least. Give back the painting you never intended to hang up. Release the unused massage table from its storage room confinement. The blue chest of age old children’s refuse? Empty and clean it – repurpose for holding growing things. This will be a relief in the long run: to have salvaged and gently reclaimed a thing. A silent ode to middle age.
Space is beginning to show itself in the gaps where things used to be. Ever so slowly a sense of control returns. You are no longer as beholden to objects that seemed for a moment to own you. Whether you see it or not, you are creating freedom. In fact, freedom becomes action. You are freeing yourself. Keep going. Don’t stop short. Yes, it means disposing of things that are not directly yours. You are a parent making decisions for your children. Tough luck. They also don’t get to take everything with them. Out with the old math workbooks and kindergarten art projects, stacks of prized manga, a kite that never flew, the rod and reel that never met a fish. Some things can be recycled; carried to a place where other children will find favor with a wooden sword and painted shield. Not all will be lost, lost. As you collect such objects, you may need to remind yourself that the process will not be perfect but in each moment that you persist, it is decisive and that is what counts now. Disposal need not be painless, but always purposeful.