Tag Archives: poetry

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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Love Poem

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.IMG_3839

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.

Listen.

Locked In

My hands were scrubbing a sink-full of plates and plastic bowls.  My eyes were filling with a water of their own.  Both a challenging situation in class, and a short night of sleep, were brimming over into the dishpan.

I wanted to be told that everything would be okay.  And to get a hug.

Setting the dishes on the drying rack, I thought of others whose stories of challenge had come my way recently.  Omar takes a class at our community center.  He works long days but seems to smile unceasingly, despite his concern for his mother and siblings, still in a neighboring country at war.  One day I asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, part of a class project on learning how to give directions.  “Draw a map?” he said, that smile of his ever-present.  “If I draw a map of my neighborhood, I will have to draw dead bodies.”

I had exchanged texts with my friend Zaina earlier in the week, asking her about life in her new home.  Conflict displaced Zaina’s family more than a year ago; she and her husband, and their two children, have moved at least six times in the six months since I met them.  “What you mean?  I have one home, in Syria.  Anything outside of Syria is a house.”

A quiet voice woke me early in the morning, after a gentle knock on the door of my current second-story bedroom.  I am helping to care for my four youngest housemates while their parents are away, seeing them off to school in the morning– or, in this case, keeping them home.  The voice whispered, “My tummy really hurts.”

She sat next to me on the couch later that morning, drawing, and I graded Poetry class homework.  “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul,” we had read.  One student defined perches as: an edible freshwater fish, providing me with a moment’s laughter, before I entrusted my sick young charge to another friend and left for class.

The week of late nights and early mornings was starting to take its toll, and for some reason I felt irritability stretching icy fingers around my soul as I got in the car.  Shook it off temporarily by listening to some good music.  But when I arrived to the predictable welcome outside the university– dozens of young guys who hang on the university steps between classes, and gape at me as I enter– the irritability flooded back.  Don’t pay attention, I said to myself.  This happens all the time to women here.  Don’t let it bother you.

During class a few other young men lingered outside the door of my classroom, gawking through the window and talking loudly with each other.  When, finally, even my students told me they were distracted by them, I had my (one) male student go out and tell them to leave.  Then it was back to the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord ByronDon’t let it bother you, I repeated, forcing focus from myself, for the students.

But my frustrations spilled over in the kitchen, when my hands were full and my soul had time and space for questions.  “Lord, I know you see, but will you act?”  To defend me.  To heal sickness in a young one.  To soothe the sorrows of my Syrian friend.  Disconnected situations, fused by the element of brokenness.

When darkness means death in our neighborhoods, distance from our homes, disease in our bodies, and discrimination in our hallways– we need salvation.

A soft song was playing in the background, as I struggled with God and the sink:

I will lock eyes with the One who’s ransomed me

The One who gave me joy for mourning

I will lock eyes with the One who’s chosen me

The One who set my feet to dancing

We Dance, from Bethel Music

 When I lose perspective in the shadows, He’s still there.  He is calling me to lock eyes with Him, even when I can’t see what will happen…  Because there is that thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.

Hope.

For a second story.

 

 

 

 

Vulnerable

I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room.  My friend Sammi’s mother and sister had kissed my cheeks in greeting, and then withdrawn to the kitchen, oddly quiet.  They drew the curtain closed behind them.

I was not invited to follow.

Alone, I looked at the green balloons strewn across the floor.  The family had intended to surprise me with a birthday party, but things had fallen apart, to a certain extent due to me not getting it and having earlier plans.  I knew they were frustrated.  I wondered if that was the reason for Sammi’s absence, or for the silence.

Breathing out slowly, I reminded myself that misunderstandings are part of life– especially living in a different culture.  And that I really love this family.  I hoped they knew that.

Earlier this week I moved out of my basement, to a second-story bedroom… which I am borrowing from my housemates’ children.  Someone else is borrowing my space for several weeks, and the kids are sharing rooms.   As I packed up to move, I read a post from my friends Andrew & Becca’s “Radical Hospitality” series on this blog, about the vulnerability that exists within relationships.

As I read their words on open hands and homes and hearts, and prepared to move to the second floor, I once again felt the vulnerability of receiving.  Am I thankful enough?  Present enough?  Helpful, honest, flexible, strong, funny enough?

My friends would tell me to relax.  But the fact is, at some point, we’ll note each others’ uneven edges and wish the other was… smoother.  Or maybe more edgy.  I know that when I see others’ frailties, I want to love well.  The question is, when my own vulnerability is exposed– when I make cultural mistakes, when I am angry, when I am not flexible or present or strong or courageous enough– will I still receive the love that is offered me?

In the Poetry class this week, each student had to give a metaphor for themselves.  “I am a seed,” one said.  “I have a world inside that no one can see.  I go deep, and I will change.”  Another said she was a smile, something so simple but with “deep feeling,” meaning the most to people in their hardest times.  A third was iron.  “I carry many responsibilities at home and with family and with schoolwork.  I must be strong.”

Students, via their metaphors, demonstrated higher degrees of honesty than people tend to use with everyday statements.  In a few words, they expressed being incompletely understood, trying to support others in difficulty, and experiencing the weight of responsibilities… as well as what they hoped for themselves: change, joyfulness, strength.

Something in our class shifted as students exposed pieces of their souls.  And then, together, we read “If.”

This poem tells the reader to be uncomplaining, uncompromising, and unstoppable by setbacks… or by successes.  My students embraced the challenge not to let circumstances transform them.  But, vulnerably, they questioned the advice to guard against any emotion.  If “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” and if you respond the same way to triumph or disaster, Rudyard Kipling says “you’ll be a Man, my son!”

But I wonder, in the absence of celebration or of grief, would we still be human?

Thirty was a rich year.  Rich with friendships, love, experiences, loss, travel, grieving, celebrating… I think that if 31 is going to be what I dream, I will need an even greater degree of openness/vulnerability in it.  But strength in vulnerability comes from knowing, at the core of who I am, that I am approved by the One who matters most.

And as I told my students, I am a tree.  My roots are deep.  If days are dry or storms shake my branches, I am still deeply connected to the Source of all I need.

Back at Sammi’s house, the silence was interrupted by her mom coming into the room and turning off the lights.  Then her sister held back the curtain.  Sammi walked in with a smile, carrying a brightly-lit, beautifully decorated birthday cake.

The quietness was preparation. And I was surprised.

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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)