Thursday, June 17, 2010


Because I signed up to participate in the Global Reading Challenge, I've immersed myself in reading writing —in translation. Without trying to locate specific themes, without seeking out comfortable stories, I've tumbled headlong into stories that all touch upon identity. Perhaps it's the Samoan who feels that her stories and way of life has been subsumed by western influences— A character in Sia Fiegel's book, Where We Once Belonged says, "Lightness died that first day in 1830 when the breakers of the sky entered these shores, forcing us all to burn our kill our redefine everything, recording history in reverse." Samoa is disappearing—

Or—in Prairies of Fire , set in Saudi Arabia , Ibrahim Nasrallah's narrator is both a fictional voice and Nasrallah's voice. The novel is replete with ambiguities and the disappearance of identities. The author was born in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Tahar Ben Jelloun's story takes place in Morocco. Here there's condemnation of those who "mistreat and disfigure the country--and the place of women." This is not a diatribe, it's a haunting story of an identity that is fostered on someone.

I'm ready to start my fourth story The Secret Life of Saeed by Emile Habiby. I know from the introduction that identity and boundaries will play a role in the book. Habiby wrote the book in 1974. He was an Arabic journalist, lived in Israel,and served three terms as a member of Israel's parliament. This book received Israel's Prize for Literature.


Identity crisis.
Identity subsumed.

I am who I am, not the person, country, village, you anticipate. What happens when the other attempts to define a country in its image? Or a person? Or a town?

What happens when you lose your identity? Who do you become? Or do you roam about like a ghost trying to find a corporeal body?

Suppose you're a person whose gender doesn't fit. Do you keep trying to sqeeze yourself into the wrong clothes? Suppose you love someone whose gender is the same as yours, do you need to listen to those who want you to abandon your idenity? Suppose you are a person of colour, do you need to listen to assaults on your identity?

It's hard holding on to individual identities when muscular countries descend, when large chain stores move in, when cookies are held out to you--simply change. Simply accept what I offer.


Identity. Partcularity.

The particulars: the details that create memorable stories. It's the specifics that stay with me, adhere to my skin, create the scene, the emotion. I want to recognize the place, know the person, stand on that partcular embankment, cry because the house was razed by a tank, laugh at the wedding, dance with the same abandon as the guests.


Drive from town to town and note how the chain stores and eateries alter the landscape. I'm an aficionado of coffee shops, but I don't want cookie cutter shops where I even know where they hide the bathroom, the lights and the extra rolls of paper.



In Torrey, Utah we stopped in a restaurant and had, according to the county paper, the best homemade pie in Utah.

Outside of Capital Reef National Park we ate seven vegetable salad made from local vegetables picked that day and trout caught that day.


Steal someone's identity and you create a figure that grows and is always there— following you everywhere.


But, I hear, someone say, "Some identities are evil." True, I say, but that's not what I am talking about. I am talking about the identities that make us unique, the particulars. Dignity is tied up to identity.

A character in Emile Habiby's book says, "I am from al-Manshiyyaq. There's not a stone left standing there except the tombs. Did you meet anyone from al-Manshiyyaq?"



Wednesday, June 09, 2010


When I entered high school my father bought me an unfinished desk.

"Paint or stain?" he asked.

Paint or stain—my mother reminded my father to put down layers of newspapers under the desk. Even contemplating this activity in a three room Bronx apartment required a logistic plan.

"No fumes in the kitchen and please don't paint it in the living room."

My parents slept on a pullout bed in the living room— their bed was disguised with throw pillows during waking hours. I shared the bedroom with my grandmother, my parent's bureau, a stand-alone closet, and now the unfinished desk.

"How about blue-green glossy paint?"

I started to collect newspapers—ours, and the papers belonging to apartment 2B and 2A.

"Don't forget to open all the windows," Mrs. Rubin, apartment 2A, warned me when she handed over a stack of the daily papers.

"The smell isn't good for you—addle your brain."
I wanted to inform Mrs. Rubin that sometimes the aromas slipping under her door were indications of toxic combinations being brewed for dinner.

With a stack of papers spread out under the desk, a paint can of blue-green glossy oil based paint, brushes, smocks and my father's instructions— we began. My father, the son of a housepainter, instructed me on the dipping and handling of a brush.

"We don't want to leave streak marks or worse yet pools of paint."

When the desk was finished my father inspected the sides, top and legs and said, "Beautiful job."

No streak marks, no spots of oak showing, no pooling of paint. The simple three-drawer desk morphed into a shiny pulsating blue-green centerpiece of the room. The afternoon sun bounced off its surface leaving ping-pong bright spots in front of my eyes.

After two weeks I confessed to my mother that I hated the color. "It's distracting."

My father thought that the best thing to do was scrape down the paint and stain the desk a shade of brown. He bought some scrapers and a recommended chemical: Apply, wait, and see how easy the paint scrapes away.

I collected newspapers. Mrs. Rubin foresaw dire consequences for our newest endeavor. My mother reiterated her warning about taking care. Now my grandfather never did any scraping. In his type of apartment house painting you simply added more layers to the older paint. I imagined rooms, over time, shrinking from paint inroads. This was my father's first foray into the world of scraping and staining. No hints this time.

We started early in the morning and followed the directions on the side of the bottle. Apply. Wait. Scrape. Nothing slid off without enormous pressure. And it didn't come off in "strips". Each inch was won at the expense of hardscrabble toil.

After four hours my desk bore a mottled blue-green veneer with patches of oak peering through the color. Small scraps of color piled up on the front page of the NewYork Times.

We attacked the desk with fervor the following day. My mother suggested we take an air break every half-hour. Even with all the windows open the smell penetrated itself into the pores of the room.

Mr. Riley of apt 2B came to look at our handiwork.
"Sand it down," he said. Mr. Rubin worked in a hardware store so we took his advice—he even gave us some sandpaper.

We never did get the color all off, but some areas were color free and some areas looked antiqued or burnished, and the sandpaper took away the glowing finish.

The desk, never finished, always a story a few pages away from an ending. I adorned one side with photos, the Bill of Rights, a Chinese dragon, and assorted literary quotations.

The year my father died we talked about many things—mostly history and books. Occasionally we shared hopes and aspirations for our sports teams. My father wasn't someone who spoke too much about feelings.

"Remember the desk," he said.
"I remember how the two of us worked so hard." I said.
"You were never disappointed in that half finished desk."

"Every time I sat down and looked at the desktop I recalled how we laughed about the promises on the bottle. It was the Handyman's Lydia Pinkham balm for stripping paint."

"Remember," my father said, "how I taught you to paint without streaks just the way my father taught me."

" I recall how Mrs. Rubin said she'd call the super of the building if we didn't keep the front door closed."

"Remember, " my father said, "how beautiful it looked when we sanded it down. A one of a kind."


How many projects started, but not finished?
What does it really mean "to finish" something?
Does it mean closure, completion, or a task accomplished?
"Finish what you begin."
"Sure, sometimes.”
“Other times you need to know when to stop before you continue down an ill chosen path."
"Don't begin something if you don't intend to finish it."
“Maybe we need to ask different questions and come up with another set of one liners.”

"How will what I start and don't finish affect others?"
"If I don't finish this will I lose part of myself?"

"Have I counted the cost before beginning? The cost that has no monetary value, but perhaps in some cases that may also come into play."

"What does it mean when a life is littered with incompletions? "

"What does it mean when completions are accomplished without looking at how blind adherence to finishing something is at the expense of something else?"

"Are these questions merely excuses to wipe away those things not finished?"


Do you think the Sagrada Famila, Roman Catholic Cathedral in Barcelona, will ever be finished? Construction started in 1882.

"Officially the magnificent building will be finished in 2026. One hundred years after Gaudi, the original architect, died."

When finished the cathedral will hold 13,000 people. Up to this point the Sagrada Famila has never been used for a religious observance, but you can go inside and climb the stairs to a museum.


"Can anything be sadder than work unfinished? Yes, work never begun."
-- Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Words & Visuals

Words, powerful by themselves, may vie with visuals for emotional impact. Looking at Picasso’s Guernica —his response to the devastation brought on by the bombing of Guernica demands a response. He said of that painting and of all paintings, "... when it is finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it."

I first viewed Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The tormented images, the bellowing of the animals— the indictment of war— screams beyond the canvas.


Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner", first published in 1945, portrays a visceral visual of war—in six lines.

Powerful verbs take a young man from his childhood to "hunching" in the belly of the plane—in the ball turret. It is there, miles above the earth, that attacking planes alter whatever dreams he had for his life. The last line: "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Jarrell didn't need more lines or more words to create the enormity of loss.


Volunteers spent seven hours planting 20,000 small American flags on the Boston Common; each one a visual reminder honoring a Massachusetts " native killed in the line of duty from World War I to the present day."

A small clip on the evening news of a man running to the place where the flags fluttered in the breeze— he carried a pair of combat boots and fatigues. The reporter slowed him for a moment and asked where he was going.

Almost without stopping, he replied in a voice that still retained the accent of his birth country,” They are honoring my son and I want to put these on the hill."


We wait for the time when—

" .... they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Micah 4:3