Sunday, August 26, 2012

Women on a Beach

Light chooses white sails, the bellies of gulls.

Far away in a boat, someone wears a red shirt,

a tiny stab in the pale sky.

Your three bodies form a curving shoreline,

pink and brown sweaters, bare legs.

The beach glows grainy under the sun's copper pressure,

air the colour of tangerines.

One of you is sleeping, the wind's finger

on your cheek like a tendril of hair.

Night exhales its long held breath.

Stars puncture through.

At dusk you are a small soft heap, a kind of moss.

In the moonlight, a boulder of women.
                                  Anne Michaels

It’s a small wish I have - to hold a writers’ retreat at the beach.  I want us to stay in one of those beachfront properties with broad balconies decorated with comfortable blue and white striped cushions on lounge chairs overlooking the Atlantic.  I want a big house with enough room for privacy and places to share, a Jacuzzi and a pool would be nice, a large dining table, intimate corners where small lamps with sea shells carefully glued to the side of the base glow into the amber sunset. 

I want us to be able to walk on the firm crust of sand in the first morning light when the sand looks like stone and crumbles beneath our weight.  I want to look up from a page of just written words and see the pelicans glide across the ocean’s aura.  Reach for an ice chilled club soda with a slice of lemon sizzling in the bubbles.  Breathe in the salty air crashed across the dunes from a million frothy wave ripples, watch the sea saliva peel from the sand like a thousand slippery tongues, and find just the right next word on the slipstream of a screeching gull hawking its belly need.

In the evening I want to dine at my favorite restaurant, “just hooked,” completing a meal of encrusted ahi tuna with a fine decadent slice of rich flourless chocolate cake with sea salt and toasted chopped hazelnuts and served with a scoop of coffee ice cream.  Eaten slowly, perhaps shared because it’s richness is nearly too much for one person to endure in a single sitting.

I want to fall into a soft large bed with fine cotton sheets to the sound of the sea crooning to the stars around the moon, spinning a fine tale in the repetition of the drumming on the shore.  I want to turn over on my bed, and there on the shore, spot my companions, watching the moon dance across the ebbing tide creating a boulder of women, dark against the coagulating stone of sand, cool after the heat of the day, holding onto the warmth of each other.

Photo:Full Moon Over Varkala Beach by Nitin Joseph

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Birthday Blog

"If we didn’t have birthdays, 
you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born, 
well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, 
well then what would you be?
You might be a fish!
Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob! 
Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of 
hard green tomatoes."
"Or worse than all that…Why,
you might be a WASN’T!
A Wasn’t has no fun at all. 
No, he doesn’t.
A Wasn’t just isn’t. 
He just isn’t present.
But you…You ARE YOU! 
And, now isn’t that pleasant!"
"Today you are you!
That is truer than true!
There is no one alive...

...who is you-er than you!

Shout loud, “I am lucky 
to be what I am!

Thank goodness I’m not 
just a clam or a ham

Or a dusty old jar of 
sour gooseberry jam!

I am what I am! That’s a 
great thing to be!

If I say so myself, 

Last Saturday was my birthday.  So was the day before.  It’s not that I was born twice or any thing esoteric.  I was born in New Zealand on August 11th.  It’s August 11th on the 10th in New Zealand.  So I celebrate a trans Pacific birthday.  It’s not that I do anything terribly wild or even wonderful.  There comes a point where birthdays are low-key affairs.  But, I definitely celebrate myself.  I’d hate to be “a doorknob” or “a dusty old jar of gooseberry jam” or, God forbid, a “WASN”T!”

In truth, I use any excuse in August to celebrate myself.  I buy myself presents, take myself out to dinner with friends and sometimes without, get a massage, go to the beach, and am generally very kind to myself.  I like birthdays.  I don’t mind getting older except for the aches and pains that come creeping in the door and end up staying as permanent guests. 

This year I bought myself a sky blue sun hat and a print of a wonderful painting by Damon Pla called “Stillness of August.”  Stillness is the greatest gift I give myself these days.  I allow extra time in bed if that is what my body asks for.  I spend time in my meditation room, candles lit, prayer shawl on, allowing time for my mind to become still. 

It’s a restless mind.  It likes to wander to the day’s activities or tomorrow’s concerns or yesterday’s fears but generally after a time, it will come to a point of brief rest.  In those brief moments of rest I am aware of an immense gratitude for all the small things that make up my life, a small but comfortable home, my tiny abundant garden, the welcome of friends, the health of my children, this cracked body laptop, the stack of unread books, the job about which I complain.  I can’t imagine my life without gratitude but I know there was a time when it eluded me.  I can’t imagine my life without birthdays either.

I’m a bit of a news junkie.  Yesterday as I tuned in to my favorite morning news show I was dismayed to see that Mitt Romney had selected Paul Ryan as his running mate.  It told me even more bad news about Mitt Romney and the Republican party.  I couldn’t watch the speeches and back slapping or endure the layers of propaganda.  I had to turn it all off and take myself to place of stillness and quiet.

A friend and former colleague of mine who is a member of the LDS church told me that they don’t celebrate birthdays.  So, there was no cake for her on her birthday.  It seemed a very sad omission from religious life.  Apparently, not all Mormons adhere to the omission of birthday celebrations; there are conflicting reports of how these celebrations happen if and when they occur.   Perhaps Mr. Romney does not celebrate.  Perhaps that’s why he seems such a “wasn’t,” a person who is not really here, present to his own life and the lives of others.  I feel as if I were to get close enough to him to tap on his arm or torso, there would be a sort of hollow echo instead of the pulse of a heart. 

For my part, cake is a must whether it is a reflection of the old Pagan ritual of honoring the moon or not.  I prefer chocolate cake.  In deference to my increasing cholesterol numbers, I bought a $3.25 “designer” chocolate raspberry cupcake.  I ate half on each of my birthdays.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Start the Revolution

Many times I have wondered what it would take to spark a revolution in America. I have lived in countries where a revolution has taken place and it has not been a positive movement. I’m talking about places like Iran where a relatively secular society turned almost overnight into a puritanical theocracy. It was most visible among the women. Overnight the women with whom I worked went from strong, well educated, and fashionably dressed to scared, barely visible beings in black chadors. Fortunately they were still strong and well educated. It was just a lot more difficult to discern these character traits under their black cloaks of oppression.

What is it I wonder about religious men that compels them to target people they perceive as easy victims for their thinly veiled hostility? Perhaps it is their equally thinly veiled insecurities. What is it that compels women to acquiesce to and embrace ideologies that commit such violence to mind, body and spirit? Perhaps it is fear? Perhaps it is ignorance? Perhaps it is an alignment with the perception of power?

Egos that perceive a need of defense will often point an accusatory finger at a nearby, often innocent, victim. We have all witnessed it happening among our children travelling in the back seat of a car on a long journey. And that is about where this level of ego defense belongs. It’s an immature attempt to deflect criticism for a real wrongdoing of which the accuser is usually guilty.

There seem to be a number of religious men with sensitive egos riding the campaign trail these days. In recent weeks we have seen an explosion of vitriol spill all over women in a way that has not been seen since the days of the suffragettes, and for Americans that is about a hundred years ago. Maybe there is a collective unconscious remembering among masculine archetypes of that particularly embarrassing wrong and its attendant violence on women that is rearing its head, looking for light and understanding once more. But then, that may be way too sophisticated a supposition for what appears to be profoundly petty, immature, puerile behavior among men with no less of a potential for violence toward women.

It is a stunning shock to women to see that there are still men, apparently quite a large number of men, religious men, and women, religious women, who cling to the belief that they have the right to tell women what can and cannot be done with or to their bodies. And not an embarrassed face was seen among the recently convened panel of men, religious men, to discuss the right of women to access birth control. They all looked suitably self-righteous.

Rick Santorum on the other hand, once he gets started on the issues that even hint at women’s rights, can wax forth with volumes of lies stoked with his righteous, histrionic, indignation. Not only is he an embarrassment to the system of education that produced his lack of serious critical thought, he has become an international embarrassment to the country he professes to love and is attempting to lead. His most recent long litany of lies about the Netherlands and policies he claims begin with women having the right to contraception and abortion should be an automatic disqualifier for the Presidency of the United States of America.

What these religious men and women do not disclose in their verbosity is that the religious institutions whose right to refuse women reproductive health care that conflicts with their beliefs are supported more by government funds than church funds. That is, we who pay taxes are subsidizing not only the care that is provided but the religious cloak over the care that is not. Perhaps it is is time to demand that we the people receive all the benefits from our subsidies to religiously affiliated health care providers. Or, we could just demand that those subsidies be removed then those institutions will truly have the right to proceed as they wish within the confines of current laws.

As a woman who lived through the revolution of 1978 and ’79 in Iran, I can attest to the fact that I did not believe for a second that America would let Iran fall into a puritanical theocracy. History proved me and thousands of other ex-patriots living in Iran completely wrong. In disbelief and shock we straggled to our various home countries with little more than could fit into two suitcases.

It is with the same level of disbelief that I listen to the current GOP candidates, to so called leaders such as Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia, to legislatures across the country and try to reassure myself that Americans would not let America slip into a puritanical theocracy. But the reality is that it is happening, America is returning to its roots; roots that have always been present in their religiosity and violence toward women.

Over the past decade laws have been passed in eight states that have restricted a woman’s right to access abortion services. At the same time these laws also restrict a woman’s ability to access the kind of health care that she needs in order to maintain her reproductive health and ultimately to care for herself and her family in a way that ensures personal, family, and community well-being.

From the back seat of the car we are hearing these puerile voices demanding attention in the name of a god, which if his followers bear witness, is getting more petty by the day. Perhaps we women drivers need to stop the car and start the revolution. Perhaps we are the ones who need to channel the spirit of those not so long ago suffragettes and take to the streets. I have a feeling that there are many men, men whose egos are not quite so sensitive or immature, who would join us.

For my part I am putting aside the yoghurt tops in the plastic container in my pantry. I won’t be signing up for any more Susan B. Komen walks. It’s not that I don’t want a cure for breast cancer. I do. But I will not compromise the health of women now or in the future by any longer supporting an organization that has the ideology of oppression in its closet. What I will do, as many have already done, is send a check to Planned Parenthood. It will be accompanied by a note requesting that my donation be specifically used to help a woman who cannot afford to do so, pay for an abortion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On My Dime

I’ve long been a news junkie. I have lived in places where it was a matter of life and death to have access to credible news sources. These days my less adventurous life allows for less hypervigilence. My main sources of news are NPR,, NY times and Jon Stewart – not necessarily in that order when it comes to integrity or credibility. I listen to NPR when in my car. I can’t access it from inside my home with any clarity. The other day I heard a tidbit that piqued my interest; apparently the IRS, not known for its innovative thinking, is considering the provision of a receipt for taxes paid. The belief behind the idea is that Americans need to feel a sense of patriotism and citizenship when they pay their taxes and a receipt would go a long way towards showing individuals how much money they have contributed to various government functions by paying their taxes.

Sounds like a plan, possibly even a good plan, as long as they actually print receipts that show the truth. I suspect there would be a surge in anti-war sentiment if we actually knew, with accuracy, how much of our tax dollars go to conducting our multiple wars. There might even be a bit of a peak in the desire for a reduction in Pentagon spending – after all how many more obsolete weapons do we need to manufacture considering that we currently have the world’s third largest airforce parked near Tuscon, Arizona, each plane carrying a multi-million dollar price tag while it earns a few dollars as a tourist attraction ( Perhaps we might also experience a little embarrassment, even shame, when we see how small the percentage of our tax dollars go to provide international aid -less than 1% of GDP. You would think the Christian right who like to tout the moral and fiscal value of tithing at a rate of 10% would be outraged by our collective miserliness in this respect.

Perhaps we might get to learn the multiple places and services where our government sends financial support. Personally I would like to see an end to corporate welfare. I don’t know how much of my money goes to places like Exxon and Shell and even British Petroleum – how do they qualify for my tax dollars? Bernie Sanders has done us a great favor by publishing the list of the top ten corporate Welfare Queens. And none of them are driving up to the supermarket in cadillacs – they are sending their personal shoppers to Washington to bring home the cash.

Is there anywhere I am willing to send my money? Of course there are a myriad of places.

Recently I had the privilege of applying for my first American passport. After living here for almost 20 years, the 2008 elections inspired me to go forward with my application for citizenship. I knew it was time to vote.

The process of passport application has changed somewhat since I stepped my American children through the process. I guess they want to make it appear that the process can weed out the nefarious types who might have the audacity to apply for an American passport.

Once the photo, my original citizenship certificate, the application, and the check for $110 was placed carefully into the packet by the Post Office employee all I had to do was wait. The $25 check I had to write for the Post Office seemed like a small price to pay to get the passport and my original certificate returned. Presumably it also paid the young woman who was filling in for the usual passport person. She had to field five phone calls to deal with hostile inquiries while I sat in her office completing paper work and ultimately swearing that what I said was true and I truly qualified for an American passport. Would that it would be so easy for our President to put to rest the persistent birther bovine scatology.

Life has a way of flipping over on itself sometimes bringing us into places we may have witnessed but not experienced first hand. When that happens we hope that those who have walked paths of treachery or despair have done so with dignity leaving us a trail to follow. Within a week my sister in New Zealand suffered two strokes followed by complications that left doctors few options but to wait. I was stunned that my younger sister with whom I had just planned a summer vacation was now unable to communicate and in a very serious and unpredictable condition.

There are many things that must be tended to before taking off for a long vacation, especially if you plan to leave in a hurry. A new suitcase was purchased, the winter clothes were laundered and stacked in piles ready to go into the new suitcase, the neighbors were informed, the process for shutting off the water and securing my little townhouse was discussed, rides to and from the airport were arranged, care for the yard and my plants negotiated, mail hold at the post office put off until the last minute. The greatest concern was my passport. It was not due back for another four to six weeks.

The young woman at the Post Office had highlighted a number to call for any emergencies or just to track the passage of my passport. Much to my surprise I could call any time between 8:00am and 10:00pm. Imagine that, a government office open until 10:00pm. About eight o’clock one Wednesday evening I called the number. After determining that I wanted the English option I got to speak to Roberta right away. I explained to Roberta that I needed to expedite my passport. She checked and was able to tell me it was being processed in Chicago, another surprise. She then carefully and succinctly explained my options. If it was possible to expedite, they may be able to get it to me within two to three weeks. If it was a life and death matter and I had a flight arranged within the next 48 hours, they would get it to me. There would be a charge.

I was not concerned about the charge. I didn’t have a flight arranged until June but thought my passport would be the first thing to arrange. I then explained to her my situation. She listened attentively, expressed her concern and then asked me to pick a date by which I wanted my passport. I dithered. She gently made it clear that she couldn’t pick the date for me; I had to pick. So I chose a date that fell just after the Easter holiday and within that 2-3 week period. She summarized everything for me, expressed again how sorry she was that my sister was ill and I reciprocated by saying how pleased I was that this could be done and so late in the evening. She chuckled a little and said that I had picked the right evening to call.

On Friday morning I received a phone call from an unknown number. I was keeping my phone in my pocket and switched on. I was talking with my principal at the time of the call. As soon as we finished speaking I listened to the message. It was a very clear message from a young man in the Chicago passport office telling me that my passport application had been approved and expedited and my credit card charged. He informed me that the passport would be sent out in that day’s mail, express mail. It was less than 36 hours since I had talked to Roberta. I was impressed.

I suspect that the receipt from the IRS will contain a “miscellaneous” category. In it will probably be lumped all the places that receive less than one percent of our tax dollars, places like National Public Radio, the Environmental Protection Agency, International Aid, Research and Development (most of the money goes to military R&D), the Department of Energy, the Small Business Administration, the National Endowment for the Arts – all these areas currently being slated for huge cuts in their already meager budgets. I’m sure that the department that issues passports will not even feature on the receipt. But, as far as I’m concerned, that is one government department where they do deserve a raise, and they are welcome to it on my dime.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Images of Libya

I don’t want to go to Libya. It's 1979 and we are still recovering from the evacuation of Iran in the midst of the revolution. My first stony act of rebellion takes place 20,000 feet in the air. The entry form for admission to Libya is a full page long and we are expected to fill in every gap. Beside Religion I carefully write “Agnostic.” My husband of slightly more than a year pitches a fit. He was the one who pushed to go to Libya.

“It’s filled in with something. That’s all they want.” Turns out I’m right.

The airport is a low white building, almost empty except for a few baggage handlers and the occasional man in Arab garb and sunglasses. We have to identify our bags before they are taken from the runway to the building. It is a routine, one of the few I will ever appreciate in Libya that we will get used to. It becomes somehow reassuring to place my hand on my bag on the runway before it is loaded onto the plane; it is more reassuring to watch my fellow travelers do the same.

The hotel is a throwback to one of the more recent periods of colonialism in Libya. It is a mix of Italian design and British proclivity to pretension while in lands that have a better climate and belong to people other than the British. It suffers from benign neglect and old age. The balcony overlooking the Mediterranean is the size of a large ballroom. We are not allowed to use it while Billy Carter and his henchmen are guests. They have arrived as guests of Ghaddafi for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the revolution. There will be fireworks.

There are always fireworks, haphazard displays of the supposed bright lights of freedom. There’s a display for the kicking out of the Italians, the British, and the arrival of the revolution courtesy of Muammar Ghaddafi and members of the military he apparently coerced into deposing the elderly and western friendly King Idris. One of the displays will coincide with our wedding anniversary. We will take ourselves up to the roof of the apartment building where the crosshatching of rope clotheslines serves to dry both laundry and sheep intestines.

Young thugs sit on every street corner, revolutionary youth in American style garb and mirror sunglasses. They apparently also have access to western style porn. Their English is limited to short sentences with permutations of the words “fuck” and “whore.” I learn to keep my shopping forays to well populated streets. It doesn’t do me any good in the end.

The building is on Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The street is a wide well made sweep that brushes past the Mediterranean for the full length of the city. There are strangely placed and unnecessary overpasses. Ghaddafi’s attempt to have Benghazi look more city-like. The overpasses act like speed ramps for the impulsive and inexperienced Libyan drivers. Their accidents create a panoply of the impossible. One car is impaled from stem to stern by the guardrail on one overpass. The car sits swaying like a weathervane on top of the overpass, the guardrail protruding from its rear in a twisted tale of speed.

The apartment is on the sixth floor. There is no elevator. The head of a department at the university lives across the hall. One evening he comes to the door in his striped nightgown and Willy Winkie nightcap. I never meet the couple who live at the end of the hall but I know they lose a child to miscarriage. A candle burns outside their door. A bowl of salt sits beside the candle.

Inside the apartment a small entry room leads to a hallway and the kitchen. On the left is a room we use as a dining room. The kitchen is minute; I can touch both walls standing with arms outstretched. There is no counter space, just a sink with a space for dishes and a cupboard under the window. The window overlooks the back of the building and a narrow balcony. We sit out there most evenings as it begins to cool. We watch the rats, as big as cats, wander among the rubble and rubbish at the back of the building. They have no fear. There are rumors of the plague in eastern towns near Tobruk.

We sleep in the back room that has only one small high window. It is cooler in the dark. The two fans whirr us through the night. One night we are awakened by the sound of water. We awake to the sight of small waves rippling down the hallway. The overflow pipe of the water cistern for the building is sending a torrent of water splashing onto our tiny balcony, rippling under the door into the entrance room and down the hall towards the bathroom. The torn rag that was once used as a plug for the pipe has jettisoned into the rat’s nest below.

I teach at the British School. It was once the British School for British Petroleum employees’ children. The school consists of three older villas side by side at the dusty end of an unpaved street on the outskirts of town. The villas are the same dun color as the dust that surrounds them. I teach the second year kindergarten students. By the time they have been through their first year with Sylvia they are wonderful readers and have learned how to sit quietly on hot days.

Sylvia is the quintessential English school marm. She wears a long-sleeved dress and pantyhose every day no matter how hot the day. She remains cool and calm under every trying circumstance and simply continues with her focused pursuit of educating the young. She teaches every one who is willing how to play the recorder in all its variations. At the end of each year her students give a concert that is stunning in the level they have attained, a musical miracle in the dust. She teaches them how to cross stitch bright colors on rectangles of burlap. They take their projects home to their grateful parents.

Mo brings me a runner and matching rectangular doilies. They are beautifully cross-stitched in shades of violet and beige and yellow onto a soft aida cloth. The back is lined with a silky smooth polyester attached with meticulous neatness. The set was made by an eight-year-old Palestinian orphan in the tradition of the crafts he brought with him from the place he once called home. There are many orphans.

There are many Palestinian refugees. Mo has them in his classes at Garyounis University. Young girls eager for an education, desperate to be heard, longing for a place to call home. They have no home. They are captive in Libya; their travel documents removed from them as soon as they arrive, their men forced to become revolutionaries or part of the forces Ghaddafi sends to places like Chad or Uganda or they disappear into the camps in the dessert; camps for terrorists in the making. American and Israeli mercenaries train those who arrive at the camps. It is not a rumor. Ultimately they are all doomed. To the Palestinian students, Mo is America and freedom. Little do they know. They write heart-wrenching poetry of their plight. Their words drop into the dust at the edge of the University.

There are rumors that students, not considered revolutionary enough, have their throats slit before the student body. The sleek black limousine brushes past us on the way out of the university. Ghaddafi on his way back to Tripoli. Carefully selected members of the unrevolutionary populace are left kicking their last breath in the public squares.

There are rumors that soldiers captured in Uganda are defaced, literally; their noses, ears and lips removed. Their deepest wound is shame. They are not seen. Families of the fallen are sent a bag of rice and a sheep. No telegram.

Food becomes more and more scarce. It is being sent to the forces in Chad and Uganda. Ships languish at sea waiting to unload their cargoes, food rots in containers at the port, store shelves empty even of the ever-present olives and tuna. There is a near riot over tomatoes at the central market. The souk, centuries old, is closed. A forlorn woman stands outside one of the shuttered stalls, holding out her wedding silver to me. She looks ancient; life in Libya is harsh for its women.

My favorite chicken store in the main square just closes down overnight. I still owe him $1.40. I didn’t have the correct change. He gave me what I wanted and trusted I would return tomorrow with the money. There was no tomorrow for him. The shoe store across the square is still open. He no longer offers shoes for me to take home for my husband to try. There are rumors that children are turning in parents and family members for not being revolutionary enough. There are reports of crime, unheard of break-ins and theft. Trust begins to slowly leak into the dust. A way of life begins to disappear.

There are demonstrations of a sort in the streets. A television camera in the back of a flat bed truck slowly sweeps over the faces of the small crowd of paid revolutionaries who shake their fists and shout slogans to demonstrate their belief in the revolution in general and Ghaddafi in particular. There are plenty of unemployed survivors who have pushed a barrel of water across the dessert to reach Libya in the hope of work and a better way of life. Shouting their pretended allegiance to Ghaddafi is an easy way to make a living. The odd procession makes its way up Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The majority of the people on the streets barely glance at the strange display. They will get to watch the carefully edited version on television.

Villas are taken over by the military. Foreigners are sent to Bennina, a compound built for the military. Bennina becomes a United Nations of Russians, Italians, Czechs, Scots, English, and a hodge –podge of the world’s travelers. Reagan, ignorant of all that happens in Libya, will bomb Bennina. By some miracle it does not kill foreign nationals nor start a war.

Each New Year’s eve we go into the dessert. We travel south to Ajdhabiya then at Brega we make a left turn into the Sahara. Brega is just a small oasis in the middle of nowhere. There are date palms, surprisingly short and stumpy but heavy with dates. The dates are harvested, pitted and compressed into sacks. Chunks are cut from the solid mass of nutrition that has sustained the dessert tribes for centuries.

We pass duck rock, a massive outcrop of mica shaped like a duck that forms one of the gatekeepers to the Sahara. We pass mountainous dunes and camp under the heavy stars beside the remains of a WWII tank. Its turret and muzzle are slanted toward the stars as it makes its creeping descent into the sands of the Sahara. In Benghazi the war cemetery holds the young remains of the soldiers who died here, in the dessert, in the dust. A long empty opened can of army rations lies perfectly preserved beside the dying tank.

The dessert holds and preserves that which it destroys. I find a perfect sand dollar. It’s young, probably from the Jurassic period, a mere 300 million years old. On one occasion we stumble across a wadi completely filled with brilliant color, flowers on flowers, on flowers. Wild flowers sprung suddenly from the open empty wadi, from seeds long dormant, long waiting for the rain that had finally released them into a brief and beautiful life.

Ghaddafi spends enormous amounts of money trying to reclaim the Sahara. The dessert is more than equal to the task of accepting his largesse and good intentions and sucking them all dry. Mostly he spends money on weaponry. Franco tells the story of the five fighter planes brought in from Italy. On a demonstration flight the lead plane experiences some difficulty and smoke begins to pour from the engine. The lead pilot ejects to safety. The four pilots following him mimic his example and the dessert claims all five fighter planes.

Each New Year brings another repression of the Jamahiriya, the people. Ghaddafi devalues the currency. The people swarm the banks as their life savings disappear overnight. Surely there will be a counter revolution! But no, the people accept whatever new scheme Ghaddafi dreams up to press them to the edge of their ability to survive, and then appears to give them some small reprieve, some gift from his fatherly benefice. And they are grateful. If they are not, they lose their homes, their stores, and sometimes their ability to walk.

I participate in ballet lessons lead by a waif like creature from Romania. We waltz to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty in the “theater” villa of the British school. I take over teaching an aerobics class from Cici, the Italian physical therapist after she and her husband leave. On Thursdays I participate in a yoga class. Most other days I play tennis under the hot sun and stares of some of the Libyan men who dare to be so flagrant. One masturbates up against the fence around the tennis courts. He follows us home, assuming that his display is as perfectly acceptable as our display of legs and arms.

We visit the ancient remains at Cyrene and the port at Apollonia. There is one lone archaeologist working under constant threat of dismissal. The remains are astonishing in their breadth and degree of preservation. Even the paintings have been preserved in the almost complete dwellings. Everywhere we look there is another mound of discovery of our collective history. I slip between the cracks in a rock and find myself in the baths of Diane, perfectly preserved. I sit in the hollowed rock and feel the centuries wash down the water troughs. The Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations flourished here, their amphoras of olive oil still sit in the bays at the port, their temples still stand, the doors to their homes forever opened.

There is an influx of Korean workers. They are constructing high-rise buildings near the tennis courts. Maybe it will be a hospital. Benghazi’s medical services are primitive at best. Tall, slender men and women from Cameroon or maybe Chad argue with the manager of the “peoples” store that is now on the ground floor of our building. I am sure the argument is about money, about something owed. The women are extraordinary creatures, tall and graceful they float along the jagged pavements of Benghazi wrapped in the beautiful colors of the cloth from their home country. They have crossed the dessert to be here.

Western ex-patriots begin to leave in droves. Life is becoming more and more difficult. Reagan orders all Americans to leave. On summer vacation we talk with the person in charge of the Libyan desk. He admits that he had to look Libya up on a map when he got the job. He has no idea what is happening in Libya. He doesn’t seem very interested in learning about Libya. We return for another year.

Another year of picking our way across the beach trying to avoid the clumps of oil, another year of scouring the stores for something to eat, another year of enduring the hot red dust of the gibli’s as they sweep up from the dessert, another year of watching and waiting for the counter revolution that never comes, another year of dodging the traffic on Abdul Nasser Boulevard, another year of brewing our own beer and wine, another year of increasing hostility on the streets of Benghazi from the revolutionary thugs. But, in our building, Mo’s Libyan colleagues are grateful we have returned, appreciative that we have stayed despite Reagan’s orders, kind to us in ways that only those who know how to survive the dessert are kind.

In the end we are paid well for our three years of service. The bonus for our endurance is more than the jihad tax we have had to pay. There is almost nothing of Libya we take with us. There is nothing Libyan left to buy. A silver wedding bracelet Mo bought for me in the souk before it closed, the runner and placemats from the Palestinian orphan, some photos, and these images of Libya.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Magical Thinking

"We are shaped by each other. We adjust not to the reality of a world, but to the reality of other thinkers."

Joseph Chilton Pearce author of The Magical Child

Many years ago when my children were still very young I took them to the Catactin zoo. It was relatively nearby and although small as zoos go, I thought it would be an excellent day trip.

We learned the difference between crocodiles and alligators – it’s all in the teeth – and inspected the reptile and spider collection. The high point of the day came as we watched an orangutan sitting in a tree on a small island in the middle of a man made lake. The orangutan watched us back. One of my children commented on how human it looked. The educator in me saw the teachable moment and I gave a brief lesson on evolution pointing out that we as humans did in fact descend from orangutan like animals.

My children, ages six and four at the time, watched the orangutan swing through the trees, fascinated. They were reluctant to leave. My son began to be more than reluctant and pitched a full-scale temper tantrum, an unusual event for him. He was a very curious four year old with a wild enthusiasm for other creatures.

When our neighbors captured a chipmunk in a humane trap so they could take it far away into a field where it could dig all the holes it wanted, he begged me

“Can we keep it mom, can we, can we?”

He had to learn the sad but humane lesson that some animals are meant to be free.

The orangutan did not look happy swinging around in its tree on the island in the middle of the lake. It looked even less happy as it sat still and alone and quiet watching my son pitch a fit. Finally, like a typical exasperated parent, I demanded to know why he didn’t want leave.

“I want to watch him turn into a human.”

Lesson learned. Four year olds operate on magical thinking; it’s what helps them survive our often miserable attempts at parenting. They create a world from their observations and experiences that is both hedonistic and pragmatic to them and frequently bewildering to us.

I had to explain that the change occurred over many thousands and millions of years, a time completely inconceivable to my four year old. I had to explain that it happened at a time when the change was needed in order for survival and that it wasn’t going to happen again. This orangutan was going to stay an orangutan. He watched and waited a little longer and then reluctantly took my hand as we went in search of the zebras. He trusted part two of my lesson on evolution but just to be sure, he kept checking over his shoulder.

My son continues to be one of the only 16% of Americans who believe that the process of evolution is historical, provable, fact. Now in his mid twenties, he does, like most of us, indulge in magical thinking from time to time but he has an understanding of events that occur over long periods of time and an appreciation and acceptance of the role of science in establishing fact from fiction. He still has a lively curiosity but somehow the disappointments of the world have curtailed his wild enthusiasm and warped it into a cynicism too deep for his youth.

Like me, he is challenged by the thinking processes, or lack thereof, of religious zealots and those who insist, or are not convinced of, the reality of the process of evolution. What is the obstacle for 84% of the American public to acceptance of evolution? This lack of acceptance is the highest in so-called developed nations. This happens in a country where our president insists the best institutes of higher education exist and thrive. An assertion I would certainly question.

My friend, Harriet, wonders if evolution is taken as a personal insult. In a country where the populace has to loudly reassure itself on a regular basis that it is “Number One” at just about everything and certainly anything that is considered important, the fragility of American self confidence could easily be shaken by an assumed relationship, even kinship, with primates in general and monkeys - also in general. But wouldn’t that assumed close kinship require some magical thinking? The kind of thinking that a four year old might indulge in when presented with an abstract process such as evolution before his brain is capable of processing such an idea?

Perhaps it is a function of the religiosity of American life. America is at its heart is a very parochial collection of church going communities. In order to belong, attendance at and membership within a church community is almost a necessity. There are many within big city environments who do not act in the same way on the need to belong and there are small groups of us out in the American heartland who simply refuse to. We stumble into each other, perhaps drawn together by a different set of beliefs and the same need to belong. In order to belong to most church communities, the prevailing belief is that creationism, not evolution, is responsible for our human presence on earth. Again, perhaps this relationship to monkeys is just too primitive for our germophobic natures and presumptions of cultural superiority to accept.

But don’t most religious beliefs, particularly but not exclusively, of the Judeo-Christian heritage require a hearty measure of magical thinking? Burning bushes, parting of the seas, virgin births, walking on water, resurrection after death all require some suspension of critical analysis at least not mention a good measure of magical thinking in order to accept. The kind of thinking a four year old might use to construct a paradigm of meaning around to incorporate new and possibly conflicting information into his belief system?

Maybe it is the education system. Maybe the means by which we attempt to instruct our children in the scientific method are insufficient. Maybe the usual 12 years in institutes of learning is not enough to equip our children and youth with processes of critical thinking so they are able and willing to question beliefs that do not meet criteria of evidence and proof. *

The problem with questioning widely held beliefs is that it renders the questioner open to personal criticism even exile in communities where there is a lack of maturity of communication. We fear reprisal, we fear being cast out of communities to which we want to belong, and so we remain silent and acquiesce to the steady drumbeat of ignorance. Sadly in America we often confuse the message and the messenger and instead of listening carefully to and inquiring deeply into what might be an opinion in opposition to our own, we continue to crucify the messenger and become lost and dangerous in our grip on ignorance and self-righteousness. To paraphrase Herman Spencer, contempt before investigation cannot fail to keep us in everlasting ignorance. Evolution not only as scientific theory but also as a process of human development seems to be part of the life process of the dwindling few in America.

Humans and monkeys are actually cousins. We share about 95% of DNA, the genetic code that makes us who and what we are, and 98.4% DNA with chimpanzees. Although there is still some controversy about exactly where the split occurred, we most likely evolved from a common ancestor, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, about seven million years ago. Our similarities in appearance and behavioral characteristics are not an accident; they are a matter of relationship and DNA correlation. I wonder if part of the deeply held resistance to acceptance of our primate cousins is in some way related to our deeply held and sometimes repressed resistance to our acceptance of people of color in this country, people who have often been referred to as monkeys in a derogatory way.

Americans hate to be called racists, yet we continue to behave at a personal, social, emotional, and political level like racists. We don’t really understand what it means to be racists, but we are sure we’re not. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Just as a refusal to accept our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom somehow supports our belief in our own superiority and lends a rational justification to our beliefs and actions while we destroy the home of that kingdom, our home, our planet.

At what point will the clash between knowledge and belief lead to serious questions being asked in serious conversations? At what point will we rely on critical thinking to investigate information in search of truth rather than support for belief? What will it take for Americans to truly begin an educative process both for ourselves and our children that will dispense with contempt before investigation and lead us out of our own ignorance?

Perhaps we need a collective visit to the Catactin Zoos of America. Perhaps we need to spend more time in nature observing and learning its ways. Perhaps we need to lend our magical thinking and imaginations to work on behalf of actions that might restore balance to our planet, to our conversations about our planet, and our relationships to all sentient beings that inhabit it. Most of all, we need to begin to adjust to the reality of our world by exploring the reality of thinkers other than those whose opinions and beliefs reflect merely our own.

* Future blogs on education and critical thinking are to come.