Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face. The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.
I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university. Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love? What are you looking for in a husband?
What do you think men are looking for in a wife?
The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question. “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”
Dependent? I asked.
In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”
A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home. A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early. It was time to celebrate.
They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English. One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.” Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.
I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.
Then I texted Zaina. She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war. She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart. Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.
On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors. They tried to follow each clue:
I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly. The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:
…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.
The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new. What gives a person identity? I asked. What makes your life valuable?
Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children. Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”
Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said. But it doesn’t always give the right answers.
What do YOU think?
“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money. It’s about doing our purpose. When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know. “Eve. He gave them… both… a purpose.
Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.
Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands. These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.
But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration. It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy. A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.
This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear. The song I resonate with in new ways, every season. A love poem set to music.