I run on feelings and language. Emotions and words. When we return to school complete with our testing regime and mask requirement I should feel if not safe, then at least somewhat protected. After almost two years it seems silly to worry now, after 3 shots of the vaccine. We’ve come this far, right?
Austria’s newly appointed chancellor (who replaced the previous super young chancellor caught in the middle of a corruption scandal) tested positive for Covid-19 today. During a press conference of the government’s Covid Response Team, the health minister who is apparently a physician, took down his mask and coughed into his hand, only moments after reminding his audience about the importance of maintaining hygiene protocols. I suppose it could be funny, if it weren’t so tiresome. There is no Schadenfreude to be had here. It’s all the worst kind of cabaret. Bad jokes in poor taste.
Feelings and language. Emotions and words. Everything matters even if nothing matters – this is a whole mood right now. Ski season can crack on while infection numbers ratchet up. But now we should wear masks outdoors if we can’t maintain a baby elephant’s distance. Absurdity can have a certain charm on the page or the stage. It upsets my reality stomach though. When reason becomes the thing we choose to finally abandon, what’s the basis for making reasonable decisions? Aha! In that case, the only possible decisions become unreasonable! Decisions without reason; decisions instead of reason.
I think I finally grasp wit’s end. The Austrian government seems to have reached it and we are all spectators. We the people become the very end of wit. Humor lost, trust broken. The government’s credibility has been steadily gambled away.
Feelings and language. Emotions and words. Let me get this straight: if you’re vaccinated and boosted (3 separate shots) in Austria, you are no longer considered a contact person to a covid-infected person and must no longer isolate. That’s a new guideline. But now that the chancellor has tested positive, the health minister who has obviously been in close contact has decided to voluntarily self-isolate for 5 days although he just announced that this is no longer necessary for working folks.
Decisions without reason; decisions instead of reason.
I know that school will resume for at least a week or two. And then we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll watch and wait. See how attendance pans out. See what the test results tell us. Teach indoors, teach outdoors. Wear our masks. Carry on without carrying on. Do the deed. I’m bracing myself for not knowing. I’m bracing myself.
Emotions calling for words. Feelings overwhelming language. This is how I roll.
Sentences I’m thinking about as we crack open 2022:
Rather than link increasing velocity to liberated exuberance, Virilio, in Speed and Politics, suggests that “the more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases”: By the time an action is required in real time, the moment to act is already swiftly disappearing into the past. Freedom requires the time in which to deliberate and to act, and extreme speed deprives individuals of that time.
“Freedom requires the time in which to deliberate and to act, and extreme speed deprives individuals of that time.”
Rather than anticipating what might happen out of the myriad and unknowable possibilities on which the very idea of a future depends, machine learning and other AI-based methods of statistical correlation “restrict the future to the past.” In other words, these systems prevent the future in order to “predict” it—they ensure that the future will be just the same as the past was.
“In other words, these systems prevent the future in order to “predict” it—they ensure that the future will be just the same as the past was.“
anticipating what might happen, the moment to act is swiftly disappearing.
the time in which to deliberate the very idea of a future
depends on the past:
ensure, predict; restrict, prevent.
“the more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases”
"the future will be just the same as the past was."
Rather than helping us to manage social problems like racism as we move forward, as the McDaniel case shows in microcosm, these systems demand that society not change, that things that we should try to fix instead must stay exactly as they are.
It may seem obvious today that there had never been a car crash before the car was invented, but what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the excited chatter about AI, the metaverse, and all things crypto?
Virilio’s attention to accidents is a provocation to look at technology differently. To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits, and to see ourselves as the potential victims instead of as the smiling beneficiaries.
what future wrecks are being overlooked today?
things that we should try to fix
helping us to manage social problems like racism;
To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits
may seem obvious.
as we move forward
these systems demand that society not change;
to look at technology,
to see ourselves
as the smiling beneficiaries
as the potential victims.
must stay exactly as they are.
Welcome 2022 and take this thought with you, too.
Protect your energy and help your friends and loved ones do the same.
A snow day is a gift, rare and unexpected. It’s an opportunity to pause, breathe, not go anywhere. I am at ease and grateful.
Lots of things have happened since the last time I wrote. I’ve participated in two large virtual conferences, published a newsletter, helped coordinate the launch of regional accountability and affinity groups, made the first batch of bourbon balls, and finally discovered the secret of speedskating. A good bit of growth for a short stretch of time.
It was Tricia and Kim’s invitation that brought me to #NCTE21. But, as much as I love literacy and how it comes to fruition, I cannot call myself an English teacher as it is suggested here. That said, the conference focus on “equity, justice and antiracist teaching” produced a lineup of speakers and workshops that captured my interest on multiple levels. I felt more at home than I anticipated, more in my element that I imagined possible. As a run-up to PoCC, #NCTE21 felt just right.
At #PoCC I had the honor to offer a pre-recorded workshop with my dear friend, Minjung Pai, “A Love Letter To Women Of Color.” Min and I have only seen each other in person a handful of times and always at PoCC but our sense of sisterhood across continents and time has remained remarkably steady and deep. When we collaborated on the proposal back in the spring, we were envisioning a room full of women of color holding space for each other, celebrating the fullness of our gifts in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Then we prepared to bring that atmosphere to life via zoom and then we learned that our session would need to be pre-recorded. Although disappointed about not being able to deliver our session live, we created a presentation that felt meaningful for the two of us, and agreed we would make the most of the chat box when our session was aired during the conference.
Well, friends, again I learned: You don’t know what you don’t know. Over 160 folks turned up for our session on the platform and the engagement throughout exceeded our wildest dreams. Folks were not just watching a presentation, they were feeling it! And letting us know! It was humbling, astonishing and one of the most incredible online experiences I have ever had and I would not have had that possibility without Min!
The rest of the conference held mighty surprises and highlights. Teacher/librarian and activist, Liz Kleinrock, gave one of the best keynote talks I have ever heard at an education conference. I mean, she took us to church! This tweet from Jonathan Ntheketha captures the mood so well:
Having rewatched Liz’s keynote and the Q&A that followed, there were simply so many moments of connection. I also was deeply pleased with Kalea Selmon as moderator who kept it real and brought her full self to the conversation. The fact that Liz has consistently worked in schools, and continues to deal with all the aspects of navigating an institution at the faculty level gave her message a sense of proximity that I often miss in mainstream keynotes. I felt seen, heard and genuinely understood.
At one point Liz asked: “Thinking about professional development and learning this year, what does that even mean in a pandemic?”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
What Liz also did in this talk was differentiate particular pieces for specific audiences: white folks, BIPOC, and school leaders, for instance. That’s not as common an occurrence as one might expect among speakers. She asked school leaders, “How have you redistributed power since spring of 2020?” and suggested that if various members of their school community cannot name what has changed as a result of any anti-bias or inclusion or equity initiative, then they are not being fully honest with themselves or their communities. *mic drop* Meanwhile, BIPOC were encouraged to build in cross-racial solidarity as she offered multiple historical examples. Further, she insisted that white folks get used to holding two truths simultaneously, to let go of the tendency to buy into either/or binaries.
As Jonathan’s tweet makes clear, there were many more gems in the 76 minutes we got to spend with Liz. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, just to be able to hold onto those gems beyond the immediate post-PoCC afterglow.
Which brings me to a final thought about all this professional and personal learning-to-go or on-the-go. On the one hand, there’s something very humanizing and grounding about spending time with folks speaking from their home and office spaces. Picking up on details in the background – bookshelves, pictures, posters, furniture – helps us see each other often as the real and regular folks we are with lives beyond the topic in which we’re engaging at that moment. On the other hand, we’re delving into themes that demand more of us than passive listening. At an identity-focused conference we are asked to show up differently than within the framework of a traditional professional learning event. In nearly every session at PoCC I was encouraged to bring my full self into the space, to take risks, to engage honestly and thoughtfully with fellow participants. And in many cases I did that to the best of my ability.
PoCC has always meant more to me that attending a conference. And particularly in these virtual renditions, I have felt both a need and responsibility to contribute what I could to help the event live up to its vision of being a true oasis for BIPOC at independent schools and in related organizations. As I carve out time to watch or even rewatch sessions that intrigued me following the live event, I am asking myself some key questions:
What am I trying to hold onto from this experience?
What are my key memories and how do they make me feel?
Where and when did I contribute to making the conference meaningful for someone else?
What can I let go of without fear or worry?
These allow me to center my experience as a whole person, complete with the full range of emotions that that entails. Clearly, I’m a feeler. I take lots of things to heart. I’m trying to do stuff with what I’ve learned – not necessarily to suddenly toss these ideas into my classroom – but allow them to work their way through my consciousness, to let them bump up against previous instances and find a place to settle for a time. This is what the writing of it is for.
Of course, the snow day I had when I started this post is a few days old. I’m well into the following weekend and still surprisingly deep in my feelings about all the things mentioned. That’s the news, and it’s good.
Finding it hard to write. To focus and shake down an idea for the insights it offers.
That’s a very extractive take on a practice that ideally seeks to be generative. Yet, here we are. Here I am.
I don’t write because anyone has asked me to. I write to let go of things, to exhale my concerns or at least breathe through them. I would love to believe that my writing has nothing to do with sales. But social capital is capital; a currency. Writing can be a way to build social capital which leads to other opportunities to expand reach and influence. Appearing publicly means participating in a specific economy of attention, of favor, of visibility. When I write publicly – when I blog, tweet, newsletter – I am negotiating attention, favor and visibility. I am both spending and accruing social capital.
I listen to other writers. I hear their wisdom, envy their capacity to say so many things I wish I could say, too. Colson Whitehead says we should write the things that scare us the most which is hard. But what’s the point of doing it if it’s going to be easy? he adds. I am a scaredy cat writer. It’s not that I’m harboring great secrets that I dare not tell but I know, for now, pretty well, what I’m not gonna do. Remember that social capital? Part of playing the game is limiting the risk of losing that capital. Reducing the risk of falling out of favor. Hedging against the danger of disappearing or being disappeared.
Writing as trouble. Writing to trouble. I do these things but usually so politely. I choose my words carefully, resisting the impulse to offend. “I” and “we” are my preferred pronouns. Call it a humility strategy. Never wanting to get “too big for my britches” I stay contained, restrained, palatable. If I hold stock in anything, my portfolio runs deep in respectability. My good girl legacy remains in tact. Even if social capital is contingent, I suppose I came to this particular marketplace with a certain endowment comprised of an elite educational pedigree and a rich collection of professional connections. I’m a conservative investor. I imagine I’m playing the long game.
And we have to ask for what? What is this capitalist rumination on a practice at once globally irrelevant, yet potentially contextually meaningful? Illusions exist. Which is to say, yes, I have illusions, perhaps like every other person who writes, who creates, who persists in showing up. I have the illusion that some words matter. I have the illusion that my words can matter sometimes to some people. Sometimes I have the illusion that writing matters. I have the illusion that my writing matters.
How do we engage in a capitalist framework based on scarcity, extraction and fear and still expect to create beauty for ourselves and those we love? How do we resist the deadly pull to produce and become content (I hate that word) in an economy that tells us we’re only as valuable as our last big click generator? Even as I quietly and civilly rage against the machine, it’s impossible not to notice how it eats me and feeds me back to myself. It’s an ugly process made to look sleek and appealing. It’s a wildly efficient robbery; always underway where everyone’s a perpetrator and witness at the same time. We stay busy. We stay busied.
Writing trouble, writing trouble; trouble writing, trouble writing. Where is the emphasis? What seems to be the trouble? The trouble is neither paucity nor order of words; trouble defines the context into which the words are released. The trouble is the world we inhabit. The trouble is in the world we’ve created. The trouble is in us. The trouble is us. We are the trouble. The writing speaks of trouble. The writing shows the trouble. Trouble shapes the writing. The writing consumes trouble. Trouble consumes the writing. Writing made of trouble. Writing made for trouble. Writing trouble is not the same as trouble writing. Troubling trouble while writing writing, we create an illusion. Maybe it matters. Trouble writing no longer an illusion but a fact.
Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating. Repetition may not save us. Repetition, though, shows us patterns. Repetition can help us see and then unsee. Help us hear and then unhear. Repetition can take us to clarity. Kicking and screaming, if necessary. Repetition got patience. Repetition can hold the note. Repetition will wait you out. Repetition been down this road before. Repetition ain’t afraid of you. Repetition knows its purpose. Repetition never forgets. Repetition is a song that keeps singing. Repetition is a beat that keeps beating. Repetition is a breath that keeps breathing. Repetition is neither the beginning or the end. Repetition keeps going. Sometimes we need to follow.
Writing here, now, becomes a release valve. A relief release. A loosening of the shoulders, an unclenching of the jaw. I am not free but at ease. It’s a start, a return, a diversion, a turn, an entry, a temporary arrival.
56 opportunities to say a thing, more than less, perhaps enough
Born, yes, in Cleveland. A negro of negroes. Documented.
Raised right, in the church Lutheran and steadfast
We lived down the street and had the extra key to St Philip's.
Wordy child, moody and temperamental
Youngest, some said spoiled; an entertainer.
Black neighborhood other
You talk like a white girl.
Independent School of East Cleveland
Belonging and not belonging, in and out
School life in a nutshell
Brady, Eric, Tia carpool
Dads who called each other Mister
After school at Mrs Atwater's until mom came
I remember those days.
Middle school, Lutheran school
Desks, bells, grades, rows, blackboards
Obedient and built for it
3 wishes: cheerleading, saddle shoes, to be liked
Meatloaf sang: 2 out of 3 ain't bad.
Billy Joel sang: Vienna waits for you
Steely Dan sang: Sure, he's a jolly roger
Until he answers for his crime
I didn't know what that was about
Still I sang.
High school, preppy prep school
Button downs, corduroys, turtlenecks
Fit the fit, fitting in, to fit
bravely naive, blessedly compliant
Never a fuss. So nice.
Good girl goes to college
East coast Ivy league
Solo arrival by Greyhound with a heavy chest;
a literal cedar chest with my stuff
Best friend roommate from the coast of Maine
My biggest takeaway from the Hill
was Cath, the lack to my luster
What college was for
Everything else is Vienna
Everything else is German and English
Everything else is language and misunderstanding
Everything else is men, kids and change
Everything else is stories of the story of why I'm still here
Everything else is choosing and making the most
Everything else is living without so much knowing
What's missing is all the in betweens
What's missing is all the details no one needs
What's missing is where you fit in exactly
What's missing is when the scales tipped
What's missing is the time I chose to be me
What's missing is all the times I chose to be someone else.
What's missing is all the squishy parts
What's missing is the end.
I did and I didn’t do/go on/ experience a writing retreat. In the most basic sense I took a solo vacation. Booked a package including flights, transfer, hotel stay with meals. 6 nights, no complications. I brought my laptop, a stack of books, 2 notebooks, a couple of good pens. For this cordoned off period I enjoyed two great resources I often lack: time and opportunity.
Indeed, I read generously, journaled frequently, scratched meaningfully at two or three ongoing projects with actual deadlines. I also spent time in the sun; took naps, walks and a handful of photographs. I got my hair braided! Rather than explore the surrounding territories, I remained within a few kilometers of my hotel, exploited the convenience of requiring little extra diversion beyond my own imagination and the steady beat of waves against the beach.
About a week before I booked the trip, I downloaded directions for a DIY Writing Retreat. It’s designed to help writers of any kind create the conditions that allow them to achieve some writing goals. As a tool, it is well thought-out, encouraging and accessible. While I didn’t follow the steps, per se, I can say at the end of my stay, that writing happened. I met some goals which I hesitated to articulate in advance. I’ve decided I can leave here with a little feather in my writing cap.
But there’s more. Of course, there’s more.
I didn’t come here expressly to write. I mean, this was my first vacation abroad in two years. While not the first time going solo, this trip held a different character – an unspoken potential for adventure, perhaps. Or a weird extra acknowledgement of my recent status as a single single; fully unattached and at liberty. That said, what I actually did was read, write and stroll around. I did not talk to anyone besides service personnel. I enjoyed each and every meal at a small table with good food and a book. I went to the bar maybe twice, again with a book. I realize that I don’t have much faith in random encounters. And with time and opportunity, my choice to engage with authors on the page rather than surrounding tourists can hardly come as a surprise. I have no regrets.
I also spent huge blocks of time in my own head which is where a lot of my writing still resides. Part of recognizing the week’s outcomes rests on accounting for all that remains unaccounted for. All the thoughts, fragments, ideas that didn’t get written down does not mean that they don’t exist. It might be a passage I underlined while reading. An image that comes to mind while I’m observing people at the beach. The way my scalp itches two days after having these tight cornrows with extensions put in. My language is varied and multifaceted. My writing is more than words on various pages.
And here is where the retreat feels palpable. The retreat I took was from expectations of what one is to do on vacation. I took a retreat from my day-to-day in order to view it more clearly. What I found out is that I’m still mourning a loss that has accumulated slowly and steadily over years. Behold, an ambiguous grief that is heavy but lacks clear dimensions or handles! I took a retreat from my usual markers of productivity. I worked on some stuff but I found myself in a very forgiving state. Not too pressed about grasping at oddly shaped ideals. I let whatever out onto the page or screen knowing that it might all change again and be fine. I retreated from the people in my immediate vicinity and found fellowship with the characters who genuinely interested me in my books or through the screen.
My day job is deeply social, communication-intense and physically demanding. Only now, a week out of the routines that shape my normal workdays can I appreciate how urgent my need for retreat actually was. I needed this time to retreat into myself.
One of the outcomes is the chance to rewrite my own stories.
“As the relationships I crave become more and more difficult to find, as the consistency I need from other people seems almost impossible, the one thing with which I have a consistent relationship is my writing. So it’s hard to take any part of that away.”
Mattilda Berstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door, p. 250
*In case you’re wondering which books I brought along…
I arrived with about 150 pages left of The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I continued with MBS and The Freezer Door which I had also begun before leaving home. Next up was Zora Neal Hurston’s Baracoon and I’m drawing out the final chapters of A Separation by Katie Kitamura which will likely blow my mind before I get on the return flight in the early morning hours. To my surprise, I actually cut it pretty close. I almost ran out. Oh, yeah, I also started Jessie Daniel’s Nice White Ladies on my laptop, so there’s that.
If you’re a writer, and even if you don’t call yourself that, you know how it happens. One day you hear a voice saying all the things you needed to hear in the just right tone and tempo and you suddenly commit. All further work will be dedicated to emulating this new voice from what appears to be, surely must be, the heavens. You have a model. Now you will find your way because someone else is holding a flashlight over the path you think you’d like to follow. Maybe you’re also like a new puppy: super eager, begging for treats, sniffing and test chewing everything you can find. Everything is interesting and when you sleep, you sleep deeply, curled up on the floor, so content that you have found your purpose.
Maybe that’s going too far. Maybe you’re not a puppy, per se, but a temporary hyper enthusiast. You are so hungry for changing the things you’ve been doing. You crave being done with the things you’ve been doing. But you still can’t stop because then no one would be able to find you. You fear getting lost in the shuffle, becoming unrecognizable. It’s like when your favorite running shoe is discontinued, you mourn the loss. Whatever comes after is never as good as the 33 previous pairs you had. So, to stop doing what you’re doing would mean to discontinue your series. To phase out that long line of production. You really want change, but not into oblivion.
So here comes this voice, this singular voice, that seems to say, “Hey! Relax! Breathe. Write or don’t write. Walk or run. Be who you are. Breathe again. Now try writing.”
The message feels prophetic even if it’s just a talk on a podcast that you listened to on a series of devices. You feel singled out. You feel heard although you never uttered a word. It feels as if this person, this author you had never heard of before, sat right down across from you and said, “Honey, What you’ve been doing is what you’ve been doing and it matters, and it’s worthy and it’s exactly what I mean when I say we should all be writing on our own terms.” That’s what it feels like and so you listen to this voice over and over again telling you, you’ve been on the right path all along. “Most great writers never get published.” And even if that’s not your primary concern (neither being a great writer, nor getting published), it still feels healing to hear it at the right time from the right direction.
You think to yourself about the mountains of writing you will leave in your wake. A never ending coming to terms with being and doing. Writing, writing, writing. The outlet, the release, the correspondence, the container, the magic hat, the timepiece, the storage – all this writing – multipurpose, year-round, all-season habit that finds no end.
What you know about your own writing could fill a book. And here comes this voice that reminds you: we who write are never in the singular. We exist in conversation with each other, in conversation with language, in conversation with conversation even if we can barely stand it to hear that word again because it seems to stand for everything. Yet here we are saying that word to mean that we are talking to each other, we are witnessing and creating exchanges, we are operating in what amounts to the opposite of a vacuum. What’s the word for that? Not every gathering or collection of people, things, voices creates a community. At any rate, we exist in the not-vacuum and together (and apart) we create what we create: messes and havoc, beauty and symphony, struggle and breakthrough, lapses, gaps and gasps. No list is ever exhaustive which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Make a list. Exhaust yourself. That is writing, too.
Of course, you’re thinking too about joy. Why can’t we talk more about joy? We all have more than enough responsibility. So who’s going to advocate for joy? You will and yes, because the voice also does this. The voice talks about making space for sentences to breathe. The voice talks about all of us writing together in a single document and seeing what would emerge, all the mysteries and magic and magnificence that might surprise and scare us at the same time. The ridiculous pile of energy we would produce. It wouldn’t necessarily be all joy, nor all pain, but it would be space – for all of us to be in and breathe.
And sometimes to be in space where you can breathe is all the joy you need for a moment.
Now you’ve written this thing which doesn’t care about what it is so much as it is relieved to have spoken. Finally. To have said the things that have been swirling around and put them down on a page – this is a fantastic relief! You don’t have to know exactly where you go from here. You can go wherever you want, actually. You can write wherever you need to go. That’s the beauty of this thing; this occupation that is not your occupation. You belong to each other. You are your own symbiotic not-vacuum in a world full of other not-vacuums.
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
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.”