all i can do

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All I Can Do
Naomi Shihab Nye

“We have such a beautiful country, but it’s not been utilized before for this kind of tourism…” – George Rishmawi, AramcoWorld

 

One hand out against the earth,
one hand up against the sky.

Somehow I walk between them.
They carry messages through my body,
on a cord stretched between far places.
What could have been, what might be…

Some days it’s all I can do
to stand still and answer you.

losing

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Losing as Its Own Flower
Naomi Shihab Nye

What if we had just said, OK we lose.
How would they have treated us then? I ask my people, they gasp,
and all have different answers.
No, no, we can never give up.
Stay strong, keep speaking truth.
Truth unfolds in the gardens,
massive cabbages, succulent tomatoes,
orange petals billowing,
even when the drought is long.
Hang on tightly to what we have,
though just a scrap. The ancestors would be ashamed
if we gave up. The invaders said our land
was barren and sad.
They said we were anti-Semitic.
But we were Semites too.
What could we do?Giving up is different from losing.

 

In a way, we did lose. Where is everybody?
Scattered around the world like pollen.
Disappeared into the sunset.
Mingling with other cultures
in the great bubbling stew of the world.

See, we are good at that, why couldn’t we
have done better with our invaders?
They came pretending we were
an alien species. Said they had deep ties here,
some of them did, but what about ours?

Why couldn’t we all have ties?
They said God said.
(Always trouble.)

We replied, See the stone stoop of my house
with my rubbed footprints in it
after all these years?
See my shining key?

They said we made everything up.
We were crazy.
Is losing worse than being called crazy?

So we did lose. We lost our rhythm of regular living.

You want the page to be clean.
The day wide open, nobody suffering.
We lost our bearings, their voices
blew hard on us, trying to erase,
turning us inside out in their minds,

changing what we became.
Tried to make the world see us that way too.
We were the undeserving.
See what people do?
We could live up to their lies if
they made us crazy enough.
So we did lose.

Professors, educated students, best maker of maklouba,
math students of Gaza, embroiderers of the West Bank,
lemon vendors, grapefruit-growers,
artist who stayed in her room painting egg cartons
for so many days, where are you?
(She went to Italy.)

I too dream of Italy, France, Greece.
A village climbing a hill
where I’m not always looking back
over my shoulder,
eyes aren’t tipping to the sides
to catch approaching tanks and jeeps,
but this is my job.

Before speech, a baby makes a cat-cry.
Maybe I knew even then.
To document. To pay attention.
We wore striped T-shirts, they wore camouflage.
To be with my family on our ground.

If you live like a real human being –
that is the issue. Not winning and hunting others.
Not dominating.
Not sending your sewage their direction.
Did you know? Did you know they do this?
Not just refusing to lose.

elementary

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Elementary
Naomi Shihab Nye

At the 100-year-old National Elk Refuge
near Jackson Hole, we might ask,
How long does an elk live?
Who’s an old elk here?
We’d like to spend time
with an elder elk please.
Tell us how to balance our lives
on this hard edge of human mean,
mean temperatures, what we do and don’t
want to mean.
Closing the door
to the news will only make you
stupid, snapped my friend
who wanted everyone to know as much
as she did. I’m hiding in old school books
with information we never used yet.
Before I drove, before I flew,
before the principal went to jail.
Sinking my eyes into tall wooden
window sashes, dreaming of light
arriving from far reaches,
our teacher as shepherds,
school a vessel of golden hope,
you could lift your daily lesson
in front of your eyes,
stare hard and think,
this will take me
somewhere. O histories of India,
geological formations of Australia,
ancient poetries of China, Japan,
someday we will be aligned in a place
of wisdom, together.
Red deer, wapiti, running elk rising
above yellow meadows at sundown.
An elk bows her head. In the company
of other elk, she feels at home.
And we are lost on the horizon now,
clumsy humanity,
deeper into the next century than we
can even believe,
and they will not speak to us

my wisdom

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My Wisdom
Naomi Shihab Nye

When people have a lot
they want more
When people have nothing
they will happily share it
*
Some people say
never getting your way
builds character
By now our character must be
deep and wide as a continent
Africa, Australia
giant cascade of stars
spilling over our huge night
*
Where did the power go?
Did it enjoy its break?
Is power exhausted?
What is real power?
Who really has power?
Did the generator break?
Do we imagine silence
more powerful because
it might contain everything?
Quiet always lives
inside noise.
But does it get much done?
*
Silence waits
for truth to break it
*
Calendars can weep too
They want us to have better days
*
Welcome to every minute
Feel lucky you’re still in it
*
No bird builds a wall
*
Sky purse
     jingling
           change
*
Won’t give up
our hopes
            for anything!
*
Not your fault
You didn’t make the world
*
How dare this go on and on?
cried the person who believed in praying
God willing     God willing        God willing
There were others who prayed
   to ruins & stumps
*
Open palms
     hold more
*
Refuse to give
   mistakes
      too much power
*
Annoying person?
Person who told me to stay home
and do what other girls do?
If you disappeared
I still might miss you
*
Babies want to help us
They laugh
for no reason
*
Pay close attention to
a drop of water
on the kitchen table
*
You cannot say one word about religion
and exclude Ahmad

 

plenty

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Studying English
Naomi Shihab Nye

COURAGE
has age
in it
but I say
age is not required.

A man from Scotland came to visit,
brought us square, buttery cookies,
repeated Steady at the tiller,
when he wandered our streets.
I had to search for the
meaning. Keeping control
of a situation, staying firm,
phrase often used in seafaring context,
though we have no boats, no rudders,
but originally the phrase connected to
a felled tree, of which we have plenty.

regret

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Regret
Naomi Shihab Nye
To forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do
Replay a scene over and over in mind
Change it change
Apologizing to our own story handful of soil
I could have planted something better here

To walk without remembering another walk
To wash off the hope of a darkened day
Make a new one

This is normal here, the fathers say
bombs exploding
tourists stepping carefully over grenades
Excuse us this is not the life
we would have made or the way
we would have welcomed you
tear gas billowing over our streets
Regular
Usual
SOS
We are so tired.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

advice

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Advice
Naomi Shihab Nye

My friend, dying, said do the hard thing first.
Always do the hard thing and you will have a better day.
The second thing will seem less hard.

She didn’t tell me what to do when everything seems hard.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

to netanyahu

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To Netanyahu
Naomi Shihab Nye
My Palestinian father named his donkey after you.
Yahu—everyone thought it was for the Internet,
but he knew. Now I think he insulted the donkey.

.

The donkey was friends with a horse, in a field.
They didn’t have much, but they shared it.
Pink flowers in spring—neither of them
tried to rule the field.

.

Your army just bombed a U.N. center for refugees.
Gaza, imprisoned in poverty for decades—
take that! More blood for supper.

.

Years since my father died,
his donkey still stands quietly
gazing from enormous eyes,
hanging his humble head.

Photo by TS Sergey on Unsplash

Said and read – November 2019

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Think of the way that stories change each time they’re told, the way our brains are literally rewriting our experiences in the moment of recounting them, not calling them up from some established place in our cerebral cortex. It turns out that memory is not a digital file at all, not fixed in form but progressively mutable, evolving in time. Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I picked up the pace a wee bit for November, mostly because I had a bit of time off. That said, I had a succession of big deadlines for the latest degree program and was helping someone else with his uni deadlines, so there was a lot of prescribed reading. As a respite from the required stuff (for example, the entire APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, which incidentally was one of the best things I read all month), I escaped into quite a bit of poetry. But this is nothing new.

I’ve felt the pull of escapism a lot this month, which sends me in two different directions – one is back to my old television and film addictions and the other is to dive into more projects (online courses, new degree programs, learning more languages – did you know Duolingo finally offers basic Scottish Gaelic?).

Screen Shot 2019-11-29 at 01.50.17

Come on – just look at this wee guy!

I also have a terrible habit of getting sucked into these actor/actress/director/writer roundtable sessions that end up on YouTube around this time of year (awards consideration and nomination season). Oh, also, some bizarre pairings of actors interviewing other actors. I am always surprised – the ones I think will be interesting turn out to be self-centered idiots who start every single statement they make with the words, “For me…”, and those in whom I have no interest at all (e.g., Eddie Murphy) end up being surprising. I end up watching even those in which I have no interest because… well, once I start I can’t stop. And this seems to be the way I operate. All or nothing.

Even gripped by an escapism that makes me want to avoid human contact for days on end, I still want to engage in these stories — or create stories about people, which has driven me to start drafting non-work-related stories and to take part in some online screenwriting and creative writing courses just to refresh my memory. I’ve been too long pent up in the B2B SaaS technical marketing writing world, I guess.

Thanks to a minor injury (oh, merciless early winter ice), I have mostly been able to just stay home, just as I longed for in October. Naturally this lends itself to more reading, at last.

Here’s what you missed in the last year-plus: 2019 – October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

As I pull my thoughts together on November reading, it’s actually Thanksgiving… and another year when I could not pull myself together enough to host a dinner. I say this in such a self-flogging manner, as though I have simply been an unmitigated mess. But the truth is, I have (merely) been selfish. I could have hosted a dinner — I wanted to prioritize my own stuff in addition to being an antisocial hermit. I’m only a cat or two away from being a true cat-lady hermit spinster.

Highly recommended

How does atrocity defy memory and simultaneously demand to be remembered? How do we collectively mark it and honor it—while addressing its inevitably convoluted aftermath? As we examine the inheritance of trauma within the mosaic of human history, is it ever possible to move beyond it?” –Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

*Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of MemoryElizabeth Rosner

I’d write more about this book except it makes more sense to encourage you to read it. Writing about intergenerational trauma (trauma being passed down through several generations) and epigenetics, Rosner asks thought-provoking questions through the lens of her own experience with Holocaust-survivor parents, expanding the field of inquiry to include genocide more broadly as well as the role of memory – individual, institutional and historical.

It’s so much more than what I’m writing here, but as usual, the book presents it all with such clarity and is a moving work on its own – and by far the best thing I read this month.

Can you effectively make someone remember what he or she prefers to forget? If memory is a kind of spectrum, how do we delineate the threshold between voluntary and involuntary recollection? How to discern between deliberate denial and inadvertent amnesia? How to proceed with multigenerational café-style conversations in the near future, and beyond? Who will sit at these tables?

*The APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality

I greatly enjoyed reading the aforementioned APA Handbook of Psychology and Religion.  Does that mean I would recommend it to others? No, not necessarily. Not unless you’re interested in religion and spirituality from multifarious psychological perspectives. Sure, I know plenty of people who would love this – but I would not say it’s a page-turner that everyone should go find. Oh, and of course, none of my university-related reading seems to exist or make sense without reference to the Milgram experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment… which I wrote about last month because these references pop up constantly across disciplines and in various forms entertainment.

*The Tiny JournalistNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Naomi. Need I say more?

*Dark. Sweet.: New and Selected PoemsLinda Hogan

Not that Linda Hogan. And not that sort of Linda Hogan. Hogan’s poetry speaks for itself:

The Way In
Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,
and beauty.
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant
desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.

Good – or better than expected

*The Sociology of ReligionGrace Davie

As with all books that are mostly academic – and theoretical – in origin, this wasn’t exactly scintillating reading for the average leisure reader. But Davie presents fascinating viewpoints on secularization theory and counterarguments to what was once perhaps an accepted, inevitable postulation that modernization would lead to a decline in the prevalence of religion.

Most interesting as an angle on this question is Davie’s discussion on “vicarious religion” and the separation of belief from belonging:

Both constituencies, however, might gain from the concept of vicarious religion and the innovative sources of data that can be used to deploy this concept in sociological enquiry. By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. That is the crucial point. In terms of my own thinking, the notion of vicarious religion marks a step forward from my earlier distinction between belief and belonging (Davie, 1994).

Most striking is Davie’s assertions about Nordic participation in the church – it’s more belonging than belief that keeps them affiliated. Actual, active participation varies; I’ve reflected on this quite often, particularly when “confirmation” season rolls around each spring. Everyone with appropriately aged children invests significant time and money into giving their child a lavish confirmation – and this important rite of passage is done largely because it’s what’s done and it is crucial to a sense of belonging. But has very little to do with religious faith or active participation in the church.

The separating out of belief from belonging has undoubtedly offered fruitful ways in which to understand and to organize the material about religion in modern Europe. Ongoing reflection about the current situation, however, has encouraged me to reflect more deeply about the relationship between the two, utilizing, amongst other ideas, the notion of vicarious religion. My thinking in this respect has been prompted by the situation in the Nordic countries. A number of Nordic scholars have responded to the notion of believing without belonging by reversing the formula: in this part of Europe the characteristic stance in terms of religion is to belong without believing.5 Such scholars are entirely right in these observations. Nordic populations, for the most part, remain members of their Lutheran churches; they use them extensively for the occasional offices and regard membership as part of national just as much as religious identity (more so than in Britain). More pertinently for the churches themselves, Nordic people continue to pay appreciable amounts of tax to their churches – resulting amongst other things in large numbers of religious professionals (not least musicians) and beautifully maintained buildings in even the tiniest village. The cultural aspects of religion are well cared for. This does not mean, of course, that Nordic populations attend their churches with any frequency, nor do they necessarily believe in the tenets of Lutheranism. Indeed, they appear on every comparative scale to be among the least believing and least practising populations in the world.6 So how should we understand their continuing membership of and support for their churches? How, in other words, is it possible to get beneath the surface of a Nordic, or indeed any other, society in order to investigate the reflexes of a population that for the most part remain hidden? An answer can be found on pp. 128–30. By paying attention to the place of the institutional churches at the time of personal or collective crises, it is possible to see more clearly the role that religious organizations continue to play in the lives of both individuals and communities. Or, to develop the definition of ‘vicarious’ already offered, it is possible to see how an active religious minority can operate on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. Under pressure, what is implicit becomes explicit.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can DoDaniel T. Willingham

We think of reading as a silent activity—consider a hushed library—but sound in fact lies at its core. Print is mostly a code for sound.

As part of an ongoing project I’m attached to, I do a lot of research into literacy and what will activate, or excite, kids – or people in general – to read more. What are the barriers to reading? I enjoyed this book because it got into the psychology and some of the linguistic questions that surround how we think about reading, and possibly more importantly, how we learn to read. And from there, what fuels further reading?

Willingham writes about a kind of “tripod” on which a reading habit can stand: the three legs of which are the ability to decode easily, to comprehend what is read, and to be motivated to read. Each is a separate and quite different challenge – and without the decoding ability, which must come first, the other legs become useless. Decoding – being able to put together letters to make sounds, then words, then meanings – is fundamental to reading and a bridge to the level of comprehension required to read fluently and to enjoy it. 

Comprehension requires acquiring a broad knowledge about a lot of different things, which of course only comes with experience – and in many cases – more reading. How does one gain this knowledge? This, coupled with the conundrum of needing to grow a vocabulary, can be barriers. The education system isn’t necessarily built around these educational needs. Instead, they are geared toward scoring on a ‘reading comprehension’ test – but this is tricky.

Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text, because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.

Willingham brings up a great number of questions about developing a passion for reading and what is required to get there – well worth the time spent.

Coincidences

I can’t say that there are actual coincidences – once again – so maybe I should discard this ‘category’ (strange how we create categories when they make sense but have such trouble breaking free of them when they no longer serve a purpose).

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Face ItDebbie Harry

Musicians’ memoirs don’t do much for me, and Debbie Harry’s is no exception. It’s almost like we’re better off seeing these musical icons from afar without knowing about the things they go through and think about. The ‘mystique’ or mask is ripped away, and they’re just people. Which we know, of course. But the magic of what their music gives us becomes… just that bit less magical once the curtain is pulled back. I adored Blondie from earliest childhood, and somehow reading about them, and specifically Debbie Harry, in this very personal way was interesting but felt like a scab I shouldn’t be picking at. Apart from the entire book going on a bit too long, it didn’t provide anything I felt I needed to know. Some curiosity could stand to be left alone. I’m also irked that Leibovitz was misspelled as Liebowitz.