Tag Archives: E. E. Cummings

Where Is My Defender?

What I remember most is what he didn’t say.

“You should feel flattered by their attention.”

“Others have experienced far worse.”

“You were wearing bright colors– that’s why you got harassed.”

Some form of each of these statements had been made to me in the past.  But the day after this post, I told this visitor about how my serenity– and my lesson on Lord Byron’s poetry– had been interrupted by a group of male university students heckling me from the hallway, and he simply said: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

He and two other men from Massachusetts had come to the Middle East, to visit my coworkers and to see our community center.  His compassionate response was soothing.  So was my housemate’s recommendation, that I snap a cell phone picture of the perpetrators, and either show it to campus security or to “guys I know who will make sure NOTHING happens again.”

A situation like this didn’t happen often.  But things that made me feel vulnerable did.  After ten months here, I was feeling stranger than when I first arrived.  I was temporarily staying in other peoples’ spaces, feeling awkward about my ability to speak Arabic, and lacking a feeling of connectedness.  Despite my long sleeves in 100 degree heat, my large collection of scarves, and my long hair being held in a permanent ponytail, I stuck out wherever I went.  I was lonely.  I was an alien.  I was an ajnabia (Arabic for “foreign woman”… I was also the only one working at the university at that time).

And the deeper questions, as I looked at the countries and people around me: How could I ask Him to protect me from some simple sexual harassment when thousands were dying in nearby wars?  How could I expect Him to meet me in the vulnerability of feeling lonely, when others were experiencing the deeper vulnerability of losing jobs, homes, and family members?

I leaned over a sink full of dishes that day, remembering that there was no promise of avoiding suffering… remembering my Syrian student’s description of the dead bodies in his neighborhood… remembering my solo walk up the university stairs, stared at by dozens of guys with cigarettes and no subtlety.  Asking, wondering: Where is my defender?

The Boston visitors had come primarily to see the center.  But two of them heard that E. E. Cummings was next in my class’s series on love poetry.  They wanted to hear me try to explain him; they asked if they could attend.  So when I went up the university stairs the next time, on my left was a New England carpenter, a head taller than most of the students; on my right was a new grandfather, with a quick smile and a ready camera on his cell phone.

I had two defenders.  

During class, the carpenter listened attentively to our discussion on Cummings’ poem somewhere I have never traveled,gladly beyond.  The grandfather jumped up every time he heard any disturbance in the hall that might be harassers, kindly smiling as he attempted to snap their pictures.

They rushed away every time.

The Boston visitors left later that week.  The semester was half over; we started a new unit on nature poetry, and I asked my students to list words that described the outdoors.  “Beautiful.”  “Changing.”  “Powerful.”  “Fierce.”

The troublemakers returned to point and harass through the window in the classroom door.  This time I went myself and opened it.

You cannot bother this class, I said without smiling.

“I don’t English,” one of them answered, backing away.

The hallway quieted, I returned to my class.  Students exchanged glances.  I don’t think they could see my hands shaking.  I told you at the beginning of the semester that poetry is about the soul.  This is not a normal class; here we talk about our souls.  And I am not going to let anyone disturb us.

Over the next several classes, I sent a few more would-be harassers away with stern English; soon they interrupted us far less often.  I was no longer intimidated.

I didn’t notice one day when they returned.

One of my students rose.  “May I go get security?” You can, I answered, surprised at her initiative and assertiveness.  But do you want me to just send them away like usual?

I know that not all injustice can be stopped this side of heaven.  I know that suffering is still occurring, in countries and cities and individuals. And I know that situations will continually arise, leaving us exposed, vulnerable. But somehow the knowledge that my Defender sent two men from Massachusetts to the Middle East to escort me to class, when I needed it– makes a big difference.

It’s not the whole story.  But it’s a glimpse of its culmination.

—–

My student declined my offer of help; she wanted to speak up herself.  The next semester, we simply covered the window with paper.

And we were taken care of.

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i thank You God for most this amazing

E. E. Cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Riding in the passenger’s seat, in a borrowed convertible, studying the way sunlight slipped through the leaves on late-summer trees– leaves that were just beginning to hint yellow.

The lines from this poem tumbled forward in my mind, trying to express in small measure the glimpse of infinity given by that moment.  The moment passed.  And a few hours later, the memory still with me, I was boarding a plane to the Middle East, returning home after two weeks with friends and family on the U.S. East Coast.

Landed in Rome, with a ten hour layover and an objective: to see the Sistine Chapel.  On the way, though, I feasted my eyes on hall after hall of sculptures, tapestries, and paintings in the Vatican Museum, recognizing a few but most unfamiliar to me.  The arrangement displayed the art of ages, showing certain pieces’ connections to the broader stories of Rome, the church, and art– some of them grievous and some great.

For example, the 2,000 year old Belvedere Torso.  Perhaps the five-hundredth sculpture I had laid eyes on that day, but its story held me.

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Michelangelo, they say, took this sculpture into his studio.  He sketched it from every angle for more than a year, and called it the greatest masterwork of sculpture known to humanity.  Armless, legless and headless– for him, it was the source of inspiration from which he would create many of his own works, including dozens of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.

When the reigning pope ordered him to complete the missing pieces of the sculpture, Michelangelo refused.  “It is perfect,” he said.

Friends gave counsel like Michelangelo’s stance on the Belvedere, as I prepared to return to the Middle East: Focus on what is present.  Draw inspiration from it.  Make something new, don’t replace what has already been let go.

I feel sometimes like I’m missing appendages– like parts of me have been severed, leaving me awkward and off-balance.  I am marred by what I don’t possess and trying desperately to replace, to be made whole, making the false assumption that the core cannot be completely beautiful if significant pieces are still missing.

I was resolved to see with different eyes when I came back.  I would focus on the beauty of the present, practice gratitude, smile, enjoy the good stuff and the hard stuff…. It lasted approximately one and a half days.  I still miss my missing pieces.  I still hope for being whole.  I still long to see the restoration of peace here.

On day two, I went to the university.  “We would like you to teach American & British Poetry this semester,” they said.  “Your class begins tomorrow.”  So I began searching for the greatest works, the most beautiful poems of the English language.

And I quickly found that these works connect with both the core and the missing pieces.

Poetry gives expression to the things that are incommunicable through everyday language and structure.  In our first class, we discussed Langston Hughes’ “Dreams.”  A beautiful poem of perseverance, hope, and ambition, is it not?  I rob my students of the depth of his work if I don’t tell them about the context– of the author as an African-American in the early-mid 1900’s, of the racism that exists today.  My students receive the challenge to “hold fast to dreams,” not only when the sun shines, but also in the face of injustice.

And as I return to life here, I can’t ignore the pieces that are broken, or backwardly attempt to recreate what has been.  Instead, will I allow both the beauty and the brokenness inspire me, to be part of making something new?

Sunlight is streaming through the date and fig trees, outside my basement here.  A different view.  But I still say, with E. E. Cummings,

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)