Thursday, October 27, 2011

We Found Love (In A Hopeless Place).



Finally! I am waiting for some cupcakes to cool before frosting them, so I thought I would take this brief reprieve to post a little something, since it has been a while. The cupcakes are for the school Harvest Fete tomorrow. (It's really just the fall class party, but "Harvest Fete" sounds so much more soignee, no? Anyway, the school cannot call it a Halloween Party, being that they are affiliated with a religious institution. Perhaps you will see a photo, perhaps not. Of the cupcakes. Not the religious institution. But I digress.)

Parent-Teacher conferences were yesterday, and unusually, I showed up a little early. Bored with trying to figure out the latest on the Ashton-Demi debacle through the wonders of my smartphone and internet tabloid rags, I wandered the halls a bit. Fortunately, my girls are great students, so I don't have to visit the school much. Not that I am not involved (see above description of cupcake crafting); I just (knock on wood) haven't had to do more than provide treats and chaperone field trips. I like it that way. I was not born to be a room mother or helicopter parent (not that they are necessarily the same breed, mind you). I do communicate with the teachers, and with other parents, just usually at carpool and birthday parties, so it is rare that I actually enter those hallowed halls.

My girls and their classmates had just completed a project on a timeline of their lives. The posterboards lined the hallway, and it was such a delight to read about the seminal events in these children's lives. Some of the kids had been with the girls since the three-year-old class, and I felt a little twinge seeing pictures of them in chubbier states, toddling along with various stuffed creatures tucked under their tiny arms. I remembered how some of the students came in to school speaking only the foreign language they had learned at home, like the little girl who only spoke Korean until four years ago. Now, her English is unaffected, strong and sure - but she still has the benefit  and gift of that first language. 

It was obvious that some of the parents had a heavier hand in the production of these projects - the handwriting was too neat, the wording too advanced for that age group. Although the posters were all different, there was an element of sameness in them: trips to Disneyland, to the beach, first football games, swim meets and soccer tournaments. Even the more esoteric events were products of privilege: Renaissance Faires and swimming with the dolphins, sleepaway camps and horseback riding.

At first glace, the mini-biographies could be seen as the banal outcropping of a solid middle-class suburban life.I thought about the events around the world the last few weeks, and felt humbled by good fortune. A lot of us are ground down a bit by the day-to-day, shuttling kids from school to activities, trying to schedule family time between work and errands. The displays at school yesterday were happy, colorful pieces of art, innocence untouched. There were remembrances of parents who had gone to Iraq, and perhaps the death of a beloved pet, but for the most part, they were joyful celebrations of lives just beginning. Think of the children in Misrata, or Kabul, or Baghdad. What would their timelines look like? Instead of trips to see Mickey, we might read about relatives that had been brutally murdered by a corrupt regime, the wish to go back to school and learn, the longing for something more than a bowl of rice as the once-a-day meal. All of us have our own struggles, and I know, though I hate to contemplate it, that those happy posters may not reflect the reality of all of those children's lives. We know what can lurk in a family's shadows. That isn't my focus, now. My focus is, for myself,  to remember to be grateful for the freedoms and choices I can make, and the relative safety I enjoy - and to remember to not take these things for granted. 

When somebody asks me, "How are you?" I try never to say "Great!" or, conversely, "Terrible." I say, "I'm OK, thank God." Because that is what I am. It could always be better, always be worse. There but for the grace of God go I, right? In a world in chaos (I'd like to give a big shout-out and a "whoop whoop!" to Angela Merkel and her smooth moves that helped get that European debt crises in line...you go, girl!) I am doing my best to keep perspective. It's all I can do.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Mon Coeur S'Ouvre (A Ta Voix).


My children are fans of a goofy Disney channel program called "So Random", which is a SNL-style sketch comedy show for kids. Some of it is eye-rollingly annoying (a music video for a horrible song called "Ketchup With Everything" and anything that involves Zombie Man) but other sketches are really very clever. There is one in particular that makes me laugh (because I relate to it - not because it is wildly funny) about a sort of nerdy girl whose mother hires a group of female 60's-style backup singers to follow her around school. Every time something of consequence happens (little or big) the girls, resplendent in their beehive hairdos, lean in and sing a few bars.

Although I don't have my own backup singers (and if I did, they would not be a dainty girl group. They would be Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, and Jason Statham. And no, I don't actually care if they can sing or not!) I do have a Soundtrack To My Life that always seems to be running, as if I am starring in my own movie. My own, usually somewhat dull movie, yes. But my own movie nonetheless!

I don't think that this stems from any personal psychosis. I will leave that to the professionals to decide! I just know that music has been a huge part of my life, right from the get-go. My parents tell the story of how, as a tiny baby, I could only sleep if a little transistor radio was in my crib. (That was usually turned to the news, actually, but stick with me.) I asked for my own subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine when I was twelve. I tried to understand The Velvet Underground, and failed miserably. Everything has a soundtrack to me: breakups and makeups (involving myself and not), movies I love (and not necessarily the soundtrack the director chose), books that have seduced me, deaths and births and weddings and dinner parties. How many mixtapes have I made for people, just to show how I felt? And how many have I gotten in return? (Not as many as I've given, that's for sure.) My first concert (that I didn't choose) was Kenny Rogers. When I had a choice? Sting. 

As a child growing up with immigrant parents, I wasn't exposed to any of the music most of my friends were. It wasn't until high school that I really discovered (and promptly began to dislike) Bob Dylan. A lot of the  music my parents listened to meant nothing to me at the time: just a whiny assortment of vocalists going on and on about things I could care less about. Part of the difficulty was that many of the singers sung in the Egyptian dialect, which I could not (and still can't!) understand. I thought the music was awful. Boring. One of their favorite singers, a woman named Oum Kulthum, particularly tested the limits of my patience. She would sing one song FOR THREE HOURS! This what not something I was used to. My father is from a town in Lebanon called Baalbeck, which is the home to a world-famous music festival that is now coming back to its full pre-civil war glory. He tells stories about how she would hold the audience in thrall the entire time, with the crowd whooping and hollering at critical points in the show. My mother had a chance to attend one event as a young girl, and remembers that she was the only child there, remembers the crowd in tears, overcome with emotion and memory. I didn't care. I wasn't moved yet by life's pains, as Um Kulthum eloquently sang of in her classic piece El Atlal (The Ruins):

My heart, don't ask where the love has gone
It was a citadel of my imagination that has collapsed
Pour me a drink and let us drink of its ruins
And tell the story on my behalf as long as the tears flow
Tell how that love became past news
And became another story of passion
I haven't forgotten you
And you seduced me with a sweetly-calling and tender tongue
And a hand extending towards me like a hand stretched out through the waves to a drowning person

As I grew older, I began to better understand how these songs tied them to a place they had not forgotten, and still loved dearly. They came to America for a better life for themselves and their future children, but this did not mean they had blacked out everything that had ever held meaning in their not too distant pasts. My mother has a beautiful singing voice, although she will not admit to it, and is too modest and conservative to show off her talents in a public setting. (This apple did not fall off that tree, I assure you!) I will never forget the time we were cleaning the kitchen together, and, as was her habit, she began singing. That day it was a song that has now become one of my favorites: Ya Tayr (O, Bird) by the Lebanese legend Fairouz:

O, bird, flying at the edges of the world,
If you could speak to my loved ones of the pain I feel...
O bird, who takes with him the color of the trees...
The hand of separation guides me
I beg your feathers which equal my days...
If you're going to them and the paradise of love,
Take me just for a minute and then bring me back.

Her voice broke as she sang, and she said, holding back tears, "I really miss my family." My mother was not, and is not, much of a crier, and this display of emotion unsettled me. I was a teenager, but it was the first time I felt the full force of her longing, the throbbing scar of a wound that had never healed, the sense of having a foot in two worlds and never belonging completely to either one. It wasn't the first time I realized how music can affect our emotions (that had happened a few years earlier when I wore out The Cure's "Pictures of You" over some forgettable boy), but it was the first time I understood the breadth of feeling a particular piece could dredge up.

My parents eventually branched out musically, and so did I - but all of us (and, subsequently, my brothers) never strayed too far from melodic melancholy. My father, thanks to a work colleague, became enamored quite thoroughly with country music. Even now, the sob-in-the-throat voice of Marty Robbins brings a tear to my eye. Maybe that music reminded him in a way of the old folk songs he grew up with: lots of human drama, basic simple storytelling. Those are still the types of songs I gravitate toward: singer/songwriters like David Gray and Ryan Adams, music that is lyrically quite heavy and poetic.

Of course, for a music lover like me, there is room for more than just stories. Sometimes I don't care about words, and just want a beat that makes me forget everything except the way my body is moving. Sometimes, I want to have my cake, and to eat it, too. The result is reflected in my song choices at the end of posts: an odd mishmash off throwaway pop, classics, strange forays into realms I first visited in my younger days, on the path to reconciling the little girl who didn't know what she wanted with the woman who now wants nothing less than everything.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Muss Es Sein? (Yes.)



“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” 

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

from "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost


A few days ago, I had my hair done again. No longer ginger, I am quite firmly back in the land of brunette. The shade is billed ostensibly as "Coffee Bean", but in reality is more "Bella Without Her Edward": a deep, dark, lustrous shade that is perfect for the upcoming days when Persephone is bidding us all goodbye.
As usual, my makeover came with a side of philosophy, thanks to the spot-on observations of my stylist. This go-round, we were talking about change, and how easy it is for some folks, and how difficult for others. He said, "Sometimes you see people standing on the edge of that cliff, looking down at those churning waters below. Some of them stay there forever, just wondering what will happen, feeling the breeze on their face but not quite wanting to take the leap. Some jump, and get crushed against the rocks, and others may disappear a bit under water, but next thing you know, they are waving up at you saying, 'Come in!! The water's great!' You never know how it's going to turn out, do you?"

Of course I thought of Kundera. I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being countless times, and every time it speaks to me in a different way. Unmarried and struggling with my own intense thoughts and emotions, I identified so strongly with Tereza. As I grew older, I understood the cad Tomas much more, realizing his depth. Yes, I know how reviled the book is in some circles: ostentatious literary pornography! Kundera hates women, and objectifies them! Too philosophical! Yet. Perhaps it is because I discovered the book at a critical point in my intellectual development. Or something. So many of the ideas were so new to me, then, the way of thought so original and moving. Just the sort of book a girl wearing Doc Martens and a sundress (topped off with a very New Wave haircut) could tuck under her arm while meandering across campus. (I meandered a lot as an undergraduate.)

The idea of "not knowing what to want" is so universal. How many of us have stood on that cliff, not knowing whether or not to jump, and wondering (as Kundera's Tomas wondered, via Beethoven) "Must it be?" when assessing our fate. And yes, in some ways it must be. What seems like choice, isn't. It is only the bitterness of contemplating two (or more) unpalatable options, a scenario played out again and again on the stage of human history. Frost advocates taking the less obvious path, which seems, at first blush, to be the brave thing to do. But is being brave really all it's cut out to be? Anyway, easy enough for him to shun cowardice from the comfort of his own carriage, horses well-fed and healthy. What if he had to make it through the woods on a snowy evening on foot? I think he would want to go On The Path Very Heavily Traveled So That Perhaps Someone Could Kindly Prevent Me From Becoming  Frost-Bitten.

Maybe the failing is believing there is one correct path. Is it possible that the right answer could be several things at once? How do we know which way to go?