Children and Childhood
Whose face it was I saw today, white vapors collected amid clearest blue, skyward atop crashing sea? Was it delirium of sunlight allowed the fleeting visage in that overhead expanse? Tender face filled with pain but calling, no, not crying, and was it to me alone, or others, likewise pleasuring in the autumnal generosity like a summer day? I could see you, but could not hear your call above thundering waves, so high and white, magnificent, delivering surfers and their boards to all the seagulls and plovers to whom the sands have been returned for these many days and weeks and months to come – nor do I know your face. Can there be, already and so soon, so many friends, I need to look to faces in the skies for they are vanished from the places we so loved and only I still walk upon?
Years, decades, last century, a small child by her bicycle in a deserted alleyway, bleeding from a tarnished fender and discarded glass among the stones and brambles and the broken asphalt, the urban garden, watched vapors gather into a beatific vision, so filled was her little mind and heart and sense of candlelight and choirs and the scent of sacred incense. She stood shaking in the wintry wind defying expectations until darkness, encroaching, goaded her to, disappointed, cycle home breathing earthly air and living still.
More near, upon the blackness of a distant shore at the edge of western history, she spied another face within the mottled skies and heard the songs of that peacock sea brimming then with promise that if she closed her eyes and studied not the skies or surf or volcanic stones spinning urgently beneath her, but the swell of her own heart and mind, the sounds of her children playing, she could find justice, a companion and a guide, like the shifting vapors, fleeting to discern, and yet essential.
I do not remember the color of the walls,
or whether windows were squared or arched as light gained entry.
I cannot recall the height the ceilings reached,
but I remember feeling very, very small.
I see that place, always, on a grey day in winter,
when naked sentries, aging walnut trees, tower and spill,
the grounds haphazardly attired with twigs and ice and remnants of decay.
The architecture arrests,
reaches towards the skies, billows towards the city,
soiled white stucco, sandstone, a fortress,
here in this park of urban land:
a haven for the immigrants,
the wanderers, the homesick,
the ones who come and linger as though they arrive from some other time and world.
And for the likes of me,
the small and watchful child of such as these.
Though I tread lightly through these halls which echo
with a voice I cannot speak,
a tongue I do not know,
songs I may have heard, but with studied intent, have not been taught.
I am like a shadow.
Or a figment.
This place is like a dream sometimes.
When I stand aside the squares of parquet that form the dance floor,
smell the powder and the perfume and the pomade upon the heavy hair,
I hear the swish of the wide, swinging skirts, stiff silk swaying,
keeping time with the scratch of shirts, the slide of shoes,the faint tingle of jewels,
a underbeat to the third-rate band.
I see the faces, hot, red, still lined with worry,
though eyes are closed and lips control the smile;
Bodies, stiff and proper and respectful:
I see a swell of pride –
It courses through the sea of bodies, crammed together, so formal on that floor,
like a cold stiff wind, it invigorates, it braces.
I watch love, congealed and messy,
not a pink froth cotton confection tied with bows.
Not just age and generation,
not merely language and the style of speech,
more than jewels that sparkle,
or a song list canon
or deportment –
I stand apart, because I am
Not truly one of them at all.
Never Never Never Call That Man a Peacemaker ….
Big Bad Wolves and outsized monsters stayed away from my childhood nightmares. Instead, the gold streaked waters I played in by day transmuted into a murderous tidal wave and the ginger puppy from the house next store behaved as a sharp toothed executioner. Still, a few deep breaths, re-orientation and peaceful slumber could be attained.
The fear and dread that lingered I encountered in the light of day. Just briefly, the hateful screed of Ian Paisley accosted, until my parents, too late aware, ruffled, banished me to some safe spot. There the demon’s words, so sinister and malign, fertilized the seed of fear already in the Philadelphia air for those of color. Hate: dangerous new form of speech, tactile, palpable in those times. Mephistopheles had spoken.
To grow, to hope, to change. A narrative available to the most undeserving.
And so, Paisley died a man saluted for a change of heart. Cameras captured images: his hands outstretched and grasping the hands of those he had zealously christened “vermin”- their hands now undistinguishable from his own.
So long as his was the titular “First” seat in government, above the “bloodthirsty monsters,” his colossal ego was soothed, his vanity sated. In the waning years of his turbulent public pursuits, he fashioned a more seemly costume. Though who can judge his “madness, his mission?”
The statesmen, and almost all men they are, call him “Peacemaker,” Charismatic,” ” Shrewd,”“Loved Elder Statesman“a “Big Man with a Big Heart.”
And a big, venomous voice . So many hearts long ago stopped beating in the conflagration of petrol bombs. More pump blood still through weary veins of bodies mutilated by the Troubles. And watch those impassive, static hearts maimed with the words bellowed long ago to a believing mind, passed down to child, then to the grandchild, growing in the quartered streets still looking for the halcyon days long promised…
True, better that the thunder of his voice ceased its eternal shaming, vicious speech. True, that voice awakened the righteous that those condemned at dawn for faith or color or choice of loving partner could be freed from hate and vitriol come sundown should the zealots by mere happenstance decree some new prey more worthy of pursuit. True, a hand stretched out in peace, however late, no longer fells or wounds those in its path.
But Never, Never, Never call that man a peacemaker.
The Back to School Aisle in the Grocery Store
Sliding from the fancy roadster with the light-colored leather seats, I dash into the shop, careless of the time of day and season of the year.
Like a panther lurking, feelings gnaw, snap sharply with strong teeth, the pain spreads quickly from my heart to each unsuspecting nerve within my body.
I enjoy again your tiny hand, so gentle, soft and trusting within mine; fingernails, not quite clean, ice cream stains still tracing near happiness.
Your lively eyes, wide with wonder, perceive the judgment you must make tonight for times of rain and snow, through golden days of autumn til the springtime gives you release again to summer.
Which color shall you choose, the rainbow of spring or the child’s bold primary colors? No prince or princess engages you. But shall you choose some other player to consort with at meals? Or, shall some mix or shape, and stain and form, instead, foster your gentle and precocious imaginings?
With intensity, you deliberate; like a diplomat commencing peace negotiations. I honor your bravery and intelligence: the belief, still living, in a perfect choice.
Again, the softness of your hand disarms me. More exquisite, smooth and tender in my memory, no doubt, than ever truly known. And the sweetness of your scent, unwashed after a full day of summer play: chlorine and french fries, sand and dirt, sweat and river water. Lingering, the smell of morning toothpaste and jelly from the sandwich that I made; your friends at play, their evening soap, and your brother’s brand new sneakers. And the dog. All of you trotting just behind her late this afternoon.
Rather, a physical blow to the powerful tear of memory.
(Is this just the in-between time? The days when you have gone into the world and we are all adventuring? Will other days inhabit time with other life and visions?)
Satisfaction and fulfilment. Clarity: my existence has a meaning when your existence is such perfection. Perhaps, not truly generosity. Perhaps only covetous love celebrates dispensing someone else’s need…
Tears,behind the eyes, closed throat perceive the absence of the little hand.
Clatter of a shopping cart and the moment fades.
The store chills. Evening recedes. I purchase and resume my solitary journey home.
Somewhere on a Mountaintop….
Somewhere on a mountaintop …. dawning caresses awareness; the nearly flawless skin about her eyes lurches; her silken limbs emerge – brocade and silks, so softly set aside.
On the terrace, the chill has not absconded. She lifts her shawl, steps out to the abundant morning; beyond, sierra silhouetted against the breaking day, blue enveloping.
The breeze is piquant with juniper, pine ,musk, and sage, and the trace of dew lingering. Collecting into a cloud of steam, above the translucent coffee pot, morning air steeps her soul with satisfaction, and with a twinge of sadness: her eye contains the image of migrant men in the open truck far down below on the rocky road ascending to a farm somewhere out of view.
Somewhere on a mountaintop….she accompanies her flock to accept the day as it arrives upon the chilled and rocky slope above her whitewashed cottage on the hillside so distant now and barely seen.
Stillness, then the silence snapped by the crack of sheepdogs barking, the sharp calls echo through the hills, the herd replying. A melody of hooves and brays and barks and bleats and birds and morning.
She settles in a meadow for her meal, the thermos steaming. Her swollen hands,red and knobbed and rough, grasp the teacup clumsily, and are warmed. Sunshine gathers strength as does the smile that lingers behind flagging eyes that surveil the rock and field and sky and perceive majesty.
Somewhere on a mountaintop…. she no longer knows if it is night or it is day.
Cacophony. Dissonance. Tumult. Noise. Horror, Wails. Moans. Groans. Torment. And worst: Silence.
Her eyes, unsighted now, are parched; tears remain her burden. Fouled air. Ruthless heat. Implacable hunger. These cower in the face of fear. Pulverized sand and dirt cling to her skin, climb down her throat. Her thoughts emerge from blackness to watch again helplessly as he is stolen from her life ,his own extinguished.
Words amass and seem to mean something about survival …
To Welcome a New Life
Just after midsummer, a new baby will be born.
Love penetrates the heart before the eye discovers. Already,unknowing, I have selected a fine, wide cloth, now waiting adornments. The tapestry as yet unknown.
Joy, anticipating him….
I cherish his velvet skin, delicious, pure for so brief a time. The tiny fist so tightly clenched inspires the effort of living. His baby smell, effervesced, but still sublimely sweet, exhilarates.
Hair matted against his face, heat of day too much; his sweat, as all his little life, extreme.
Whispers of wind, (or call of birds? ) rattle giggles from him. His busy, boundless journey remains singular, for a time.
He and I do not share blood, or cells or chromosomes.
But he is kindred, still.
Will the unspawned babes of my own young grow up with him, grasping vibrant mantle of childhood in accord? Will attic rooms reverberate each season once again, snickers, shrieks recalling silly scenes of the holiday table? Will summer tents contain their giggles and their shouts when scary stories are unleashed in the darkened wood? Will they join with him, the oldest one, when they denounce the demons of the life they find themselves confronting?
Or will this baby merely be, first, the infant,then, the child, and finally, the man I love dearly from afar, whom I know not well enough to fill my life?
Time holds the answer and it will be one way or other other.
Now I apprehend his weight, his warmth, the soft pattern of his breathing.
The reminder, once again, that we can be our best selves, sometimes, when we allow ourselves to simply live.
Wadjda is an award-winning movie marketed as the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. As a western feminist, I consumed available press about the film and decided to watch it as an act of support for the woman who made it and the story I understood that it told. My conjured images of black shrouds in the searing sun suggested that I would be moved and educated by this film. How surprising, then, is the discovery of delight!
Black forms moving slowly on sunlit streets do in fact inhabit the film. My western eyes see this without fully comprehending as I am willing to suspend judgement.
Behind the gates and doorways, in the daily action of the real lives of the largely middle class women and girls we encounter in this movie, all is completely as we know it. Appliances are modern, gleaming and available for the plentiful food. Western popular music stimulates the tween girl as she surreptitiously creates bracelets and other “black market items.” Mother and daughter share intimacies in large airy well-decorated rooms. Discreet tensions and open conflict overflows from these spaces to the rooftop above where the women still dress in jeans and cool shirts looking down on their world.
Certainly the conservative culture controls female life. Wadjda watches her dignified, beautiful mother carefully groom her hair and apply her make-up in the morning before disappearing in a swirl of darkness. The girl flares in anger when a taxi driver, clearly economically and educationally disadvantaged and possibly an illegal immigrant, chides the woman like a child for being tardy in getting into his taxi for the three-hour ride through the desert to her employment. The woman’s friend ultimately rejects this ordeal to find liberating employment in a local hospital. The dynamics gently explored include the powerlessness of the women , the control of the driver, the ingenuity of the children and the authority of a male even if a mere boy.
Wadjda watches the mother she adores measure her own worth through her father’s eyes in terms of the quality and quanity of food she prepares. She struggles to comprehend why this beauty subverts her own desires for style of dress and hair to please a man so rarely present. Wadjda is beginning to comprehend too well that, in her world, biology is destiny.
Contemplating the viewing of this film, I considered that this would indeed be a “foreign” culture. How startling then to understand the complexity of emotions seen in Wadjda as she endures her conservative, female-dominated religious school. The insistence of conformity in appearance, down to the shoes which are worn, the absolute prohibition of any feminine decoration, including nail polish, the suspicion of female friendship, much less love, remain cross-cultural signifiers of patriarchal social systems and female enforcerment. Similarly, scenes where students mindlessly recite memorized “beliefs,” use of shaming and group ostracism as disciplinary tactics and consequent consistent competitive subcultures are also well recognised.
Startling and joyous to feel recognition of the delight of a child’s physical freedom. As Wadjda runs down the street, even skips a bit, walks solitary but dreams of riding a bike, the memory of that joy is irrepressible. When a child is lucky enough to have a full stomach, a secure roof and no present threat of physical harm or illness, exploring the sun -filled day with muscular limbs is a complete pleasure. Even from my sedentary perch, watching Wadjda, I could recall so many hours jumping in the sun-drenched Chesapeake waters. I could almost feel again the breeze through my hair on a spring evening as I rode my bike through shaded streets of row homes or as I explored city spots which I could pretend were dark forests.
Watching Wadjda play with her precocious friend Abdullah, I envisioned my fair-haired daughter racing her friends aside a swimming pool in the summertime. I remember the tension and gladness I felt as I watched her small frame dart through other little bodies in pursuit of a soccer ball on a fall day. I felt contentment that, though grown up, she still chases my puppy down the lane.
Wadjda is not a film which will change the world, if indeed any film can. It is not a soapbox for any particular ideology. The movie treats character and culture with respect but not without a critical lens. For me the movie was a surprise. It was a reminder that there are universals in life which transcend culture and political or religious systems: childhood, sunlight, clean and open air, curiosity, hope, movement, friendship and love.