Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The music of memories

If we had stuck more arms out of the car, it would have turned into an airplane and taken flight.

We were listening to the kind of music that requires vigorous arm waving. There was no hint of breathy guitars or soothingly droning voices. Summer in Greece makes the kind of noise that is not muffled by the sweaty bodies of five women, their sleeping bags, and the giant cooler they packed to pretend to be adults on this camping trip [read: to keep the beer and grilled cheese sandwiches cool.].

I remember eras by the music that permeated them. Whether I actually liked the quality of the songs associated with a particular era does not affect my love for them; it is an attachment bred by auditory memories. The drives of an entire Kentucky August took place to the tune of "I wanna be a billionaire so freakin' bad." I cringed then and I cringe now. And yet, the beauty of it is that when the rest of the world's eardrums have moved on, mine will always recognize the songs of each season. I will be lifted out of the hot-song-of-right-now and be plunged back into a drive of days long gone, a cafe of the past, a memory that would have faded were it not for the music.

Cat power graffiti in Colombia. 
I first touched his hair to Cat Power's Good Woman. We were still in the blushing stage of an undeclared love, when touch still meant "pass me the salt", when hugs would linger a little extra, just to make each of us wonder what they meant. Cat Power feels like curls, shy boldness, and budding intimacy.

On that very carpet on which we lay in Egypt on the night of Good Woman, I danced to Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "Maps" still belongs to the girls, to those girls, the girls we once were.

El Doctorado is for counting steps, missing steps, and salsa-ingly stumbling all over myself in Colombia. For falling in love with a country and a vocation. For a freer self who is still out there and sometimes comes out to play when the Doctorado era beckons.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss walked me to work on my first job. Wilco walked me back. The National sat patiently with me while I longed for the kind of life and love I was still too shy to claim.

The bi-annual cleaning of the room my twin and I shared in college unfolded to Weezer. Weezer will always smell like Lysol and feel like the lone sock that was forgotten under the bed for a semester. Graduation involved multiple rounds of rain, rum, and Bob Sinclair. "We're the love generation," we shouted at the top of our lungs then. Funny - we still are.

My ears move on a lot more slowly than my heart. We can pointedly skip a song, we can erase it from a playlist, but I know that one day on an empty highway or in a cafe thousands of miles away, it will start playing and envelop all of us in the embrace of a different era. "Your Song" was one such song, underlined by the memories of a man who joked that he did not know "if they were green or blue." He knew. It was the era when we, practically children, listened to Damien Rice and thought the song said "did I say that I love you?" We found out it actually said "loathe you" and the whole world tumbled.

And then there was Home. I heard it in Guatemala, Elijah heard it in Boston, we sent it to one another over email on the same day. The e-mail still sits starred in my inbox and the song has a way of recurring when we most need one another. Rarely have we heard it blasting when we are together; it is as though only in the moments of deepest longing do the sound systems in the world's coffee shops conspire to remind us that "home is wherever I'm with you."

This morning, a few hours before boarding a flight to Athens, I was jarred awake by the sound of a song I hummed in Israel without knowing the words -- without knowing any words in the country at the time. It turns out the emotionally transportative power of music works in dreams as well. The journey I am embarking on today may determine the playlists of the next two years. Armed with the iPod that has accompanied every leap of faith since 2006, surrounded by the sounds of Cairo and Colombia, the uncertainty becomes more palatable. Greece is beating to the tune of "draw the stars for me and circle the one on which we'll live together." Here's hoping.
Inspired by musical memories, and by Chloe Weil's Project: Sound of summer. What are the songs that are tied to your memories?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making homes out of numbness

Melting ice cubes, drinking sailboats. 

"Are you sure this does not come in any other color?" I ask with the face children make when they do not want to eat their green beans.
"Yes, I am sure. This is the hot color of this summer," the salesperson informs me with mild irritation that I did not already know that.

That is how I found myself on a Greek beach in a fluorescent pink bikini. I am a creature of forest greens and soothing ivories and maybe teal on an optimistic day and, here I was, floating in the water in the loudest of pinks. My pupils expand to accommodate the rush of color. Municipal laws in Jerusalem require that buildings be faced with local stone and my images of the city reflect this uniformity. My Jerusalem was a photograph in white and pink, of an orange night-time glow courtesy of the street lamps. The greens and blues of Greece, the fluorescent pinks, diversify my color range in a way that forces me to squint.

I feel naked in Greece. I am wearing one of the largest bikinis here and I am still grabbing for more fabric. My collarbones are used to being tucked under pashminas, my fuzzy knees are accustomed to being concealed. No amount of SPF could have prepared me for the fullness of exposure. My body is struggling to remember that this is the culture into which I was born. I am from small bikinis and bright colors, from summers of green and blue.

In Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, André Aciman reflects on the lenses with which we color the different places we have called home. In photographs and in life, in the white stone and pink light or green backdrops and blue seas, he argues that we employ filters to construct a narrative of place that suits our longing:
It wasn't Rome itself I was seeing; it was the film, the filter I'd placed on the old city that finally made me love it, the film I went to seek each time I'd go to a bookstore and would come out late in the evening to stroll down my Nevsky Prospekt in search of vague smiles and fellowship in a city I wasn't even sure existed on the sidewalks. 
Did we construct the hues, then? Did I imagine Jerusalem? We might have, claims Aciman, but that does not detract from our sentimental attachment to the sense of place we dreamed up. In his words, "what we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we've projected on things, not the things themselves -- the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift."

And if I did conjure Jerusalem out of my mind, why can I not apply the same same creative visualization to a place that should have been a more natural home? Greece lacks neither beauty nor memories, neither magic nor love. And, at this point, neither conflict nor complexity. It is I who is lacking here: I am lacking in wonder. I am lacking the curiosity with which novelty gifts us. I am doing my homeland an injustice by failing to approach an old, beloved and familiar place with the new, wide, and inquisitive eyes that I brought to Jerusalem. The nostalgia Aciman ascribes to Rome, I feel for the self I was in Jerusalem:
It's not just the beauty that I'll miss. I'll miss, too, the way this city gets under my skin and, for a while, makes me its own. [...] It's a feeling I wear with greater confidence every day. I know it is a borrowed feeling -- it's Rome's, not mine. I know it will go dead as soon as I leave the Roman light behind. 
But what about e.e. cummings? What about "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)"? Why do curiosity and aliveness have to reside in a place, as opposed to within us?  

My answer is that curiosity requires a presence and an openness that I cannot supply right now. After three years of work with women survivors of conflict in the Middle East, East Africa and Latin America, I am preparing to return to graduate school in the United States and to a different way of learning. It is a summer of holding my breath and wishing that the bureaucracy allows this next dream to materialize. In that sense, Greece hangs in abeyance. It is the stopped gondola in the air between Jerusalem and Boston and I am the anxious passenger waiting for forward motion. It takes a more open heart than the one currently beating inside me to love the place in between. Aciman has a name for this too: psychological temporizing.
It is the psychological temporizer who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count. It is unavailable. He is out of sync with it. By abstracting himself from the present, by downgrading it, what he gets in exchange is an illusory promise of security away from pain, sorrow, danger, loss.
Pain, sorrow, danger, and loss exist in abundance in Greece this summer. Even before the financial crisis, before the evaporation of hope, my Greece was tied up in the sense of grief that is difficult to shake, no matter how much time has elapsed since the period of mourning. I sleep under posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, slapped onto my walls in the Titanic era that preceded my realization that Kate Winslet would be the one I'd eternally love. I open books and find the napkins on which my father would scribble mathematical equations. The pages still smell like his cigarette smoke. Nobody sits at his chair on the dining table. Nobody really sits in our living room any more. Grief shrinks a former home to the portion that you can digest without choking on memory. That portion for me extends from the Leo posters to the balcony. Mindful presence is elusive under those constraints. Aciman writes:
The present is an arbitrary fulcrum in time, a moment delicately poised between two infinities, where the longing to escape and the longing to return find themselves straightly reversed. What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past, imagining the future. And, frequently, what we look forward to is not the future but the past restored.
I do not know how to be here; I do not quite know myself here. The assault of Cairo onto the senses, the injustice and beauty dueling in Jerusalem, the conflict and love in Colombia demand that you dig into them because of an irresistible need to know. You cannot shrug. You cannot not care. The process of forming an opinion is exhausting; the process of revising it every time the conflict takes an ugly turn even more so. But you live then, you ask questions, you shake the numbness because it is too callous a reaction to the humanity in front of you. I do not know how to return to Greece, to a place and a home without quotation marks. So I return to the page, hoping that the process of making sense out of mayhem and magic out of hopelessness unveils colors that I am too numb to see. Wishfully, Aciman posits:
Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I'd been while living there. Writing wouldn't alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on. Writing sees figures where life sees things; things we leave behind, figures we keep. Even the experience of numbness, when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah. [emphasis mine] Write about numbness, and numbness turns into something. Upset flat surfaces, dig out their shadows, and you've got dreammaking.
This post is part of the Books Well-Loved series on Stories of Conflict and Love. For more literary reflections that have struck a chord, see here

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Poem on the wall

The last thing left in our Jerusalem apartment, and last photo I took in Jerusalem: Poem on the wall.

I am on the moving walkway at Ben Gurion airport in a knit sweater, a leather jacket, and high heels. It is 37 degrees Celsius out and I am leaving little pieces of myself behind in Israel in the form of nostalgia-filled droplets of sweat.

It is the oldest trick in the travel book: Everything that will weigh down a suitcase must be worn. If sentimentality had gotten the better of me, I would also be wearing the wooden desk that previously sat in the corner of our bedroom and the vanilla chai mix we had to leave behind.

"You will not feel like we are truly leaving until the internet is gone," Elijah joked. He was right. I took it upon myself to navigate the infamous Israeli bureaucracy to cancel our connection, in the hope that a potential negative experience on the eve of our departure would perhaps lighten the heavy heart boarding the plane.

"Hello! I would like to cancel our internet connection because we are leaving the country."
My tone is approximately seven times too chirpy for the customer service employees of an internet company just about anywhere in the world.
I am put on hold again and again and again until an employee who speaks English picks up.
"Oh, are you coming back? Maybe in a year or two?", she asks.
"I hope so. Maybe in a year or two!," I say unsuspectingly.
"In that case, would you like to purchase our reduced-price-paused-service plan for when you come back and keep your connection?"

Lesson learned. I was transferred to a new manager a subsequent fourteen times and I knew to say that "we are leaving forever."
"Forever? Who leaves forever?!", one of them ventured indignantly. I'd be lying if I did not admit I empathized.
Another transfer, another "Hello, I would like to cancel our internet connection because we are leaving the country FOREVER."
The last manager I speak to gives in. "Fine, I will cancel your internet, but do not say 'forever'. Promise you will come back. I know you will come back. I will cancel your internet, but I hope you come back."

She hoped for both of us.

At the airport, after I had removed my eight sweaters and incongruous high heels, security employees were searching my bags, as a reminder of the country I was leaving and the life in conflict and post-conflict work I am temporarily leaving behind too. One remarked on the Dead Sea bath salts I was carrying with me. "Best gifts in Israel. Women love that stuff," he said. I save the feminist commentary on the generalization of women's preferences. I also save the remark that Elijah loves "that stuff" too. Another said she does not often search luggage in which the books outweigh the shoes. Guilty as charged: Wedded as I may be to lightness, I am grounded by books well-loved and they travel with me. This was the 84th plane ride in 3 years for Mary Oliver's poetry.

The last thing that left the Jerusalem apartment was a poem on the wall. It also marked the last photograph I took in this chapter of life. A white sheet of paper, a Greek Garamond font providing the white-washed walls with their only specks of darkness, and Odysseas Elytis' words from The Monogram. "Επειδή σ'αγαπώ και στην αγάπη ξέρω να μπαίνω σαν πανσέληνος..." "Because I love you, and in love I know how to enter like a full moon..."

I will remember Jerusalem for the moons of love. We may have lived with one another prior to this apartment, but Elijah and I both consider this the first home we made. As we climbed up and down the stairs with bags of donations, trash and, eventually, the bags that contained our lives, we lingered a little to look at the afternoon light on the floor tiles. When the apartment was empty, with only a poem on the wall left, we made one last trek up into the living room. With no furniture left, with no light buzz from electrical appliances, we stood in each other's arms in the middle of the empty room, as though we both silently acknowledged that the last memory made in this space had to be one of love.

Hours later, I found myself on the moving walkway to the departure gates, bearing witness to my last dawn here. I fought the urge to drag my suitcase and walk, dug my heels onto the belt, and let the sunrise flood everything. I had said goodbye to a place and a person I loved on the same day and the light made the vacuums all too apparent. I will remember Jerusalem for the blessed light.

There was little that could shield me from the heartbreak of leaving while you are still in love with a place and a slice of life, but I left with a full heart. Fullness lends even the heaviest of hearts some buoyancy.