Intimacy

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“Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries.”

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

 

I’ve been living with my daughter’s kitten for the past three weeks while I’ve been apartment-bound after surgery; because of a metal pin in one of my toes I can’t go very far. It was one of those chance accidents that can remind us of the body, that is, how we need and live with it in space and time. My foot took on object status — a thin metal hook that juts out of my toe reminds me of this “thing” that is also a practical necessity for healing the bone. Suddenly my restricted ability to move, that is walk, created too an intimacy with my environment in ways that before were more abstract. For one I was physically dependent on people — my daughter’s patient willingness to pick up groceries for me, a friend who fit me into her schedule to drive me to the doctor twice for a change of dressing. I was also very grateful to those friends who made the trek over to keep me company. The protruding pin made me think of Frida and the horror of the freak accident on a tram which sent a rod through her back that fractured her spine and caused lifelong paralysis and grief. My accident was inconsequential in comparison but nevertheless there were consequences. I’m not used to being immobile let alone apartment-bound. My consciousness of time changed. My sense, too, of more visceral dependencies – how arrogant we can be in our assumptions of freedom.

The kitten’s energy around the apartment was both energizing and maddening… her prancings and fleet movements gave dimension to the day, as did the breeze that quickened toward evening, and the late afternoon light on the balcony. Things I am less conscious of during my full workdays in town; I managed to understand something of proximities, too. The proximity of the body’s needs and how these connect us to things beyond ourselves; I was doing some reading. Finished Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, a fabulous collection; this from her poem “Liquid Flesh”:

What is the point of other people,
Being so separate, if we can’t
Help a person get that pain

Will stick its shiv into anything,
Just to get rid of the weapon
And because it can? For if we share

Ourselves then they, too, must
Also be in so much pain.
I can hear it. Oh, my loves.

Yes, “my loves” were the lesson of these days, to come closer to them. But as Solnit writes: “Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self.” When those boundaries are edged, contested, pained.. how close does one get? The approach mined with various warnings of the self’s gradual loss of border and boundary. For Frida, her body’s pained shape, the catalyst for inimitable art. I was also reading blog posts and keeping up with the news. Learned that the vote to bring in the IMF/troika was less than what was, and still is, constitutionally mandated, some 50 votes short of what would have legally passed to have made this intervention a constitutionally upheld decision; another example of Papandreou’s negligence of the state’s body — his assumption, or presumption, of a freedom now crippled.

Solnit continues, of this meeting at the boundary of the self, a space of possibilities when there is empathy. Why do we have boundaries in the first place – to distance, keep some semblance of wholeness where wounds take us apart? But in our piecemeal state will we more readily recognize the other? Here’s Shaughnessy again, from “Mermaid’s Purse”: “The self is the self yet bigger than itself./Indebted. And subordinate// to its fragments,/” Indebted is what I felt continuously, but it is not a comfortable feeling. We’re raised in the west to be independent and self-sufficient. We shirk the idea of too much dependency as a sign of weakness, even cowardice. I am realizing though that the greater courage is to understand these self-sufficiencies are built out of a respect for the deeper common ground, a recognition of our insufficiency. Everything the tragedy of our leadership in these crisis years have failed to do, as they have othered, rather than embraced the common ground of the state’s crippled body, which is as true for how northern Europe has “Orientalized” the periphery and Greece in particular.

It was strange and enlightening to take myself out “crutching” one evening; that is I had had too much of cabin fever and decided that hobbling down the street with the crutches my daughter had brought me would give me some peace of mind. Life was a lot more mobile with the crutches, though no one really thought I’d go for a walk with them. I was sometimes amused as people looked my way. A stray cat seemed intrigued, and followed me for a while. A man coming out of an apartment paused for a few seconds without saying anything, and someone getting into his car seemed to consider asking me if I needed a ride though he never said anything. I’d not experienced this before and it was a lesson of how the less-than-whole body is viewed, how too I viewed myself in that state, which was impatiently and somewhat stunned that I probably wouldn’t do very well in solitary confinement. I thought though of that sense of proximity to our less-than-whole state, that Solnit also describes as “this amorous engagement with the unknown.” Unknown is also unfamiliar which is part of the challenge of proximities to what we can’t control. In the Faraway Nearby Solnit keeps coming back to the ways we distance what pains us, yet it is in that space that we also learn of what connects us. In Greece, for example, there is now a humanitarian crisis of medical resources. Food too, which was never an issue since the war years, has become scarce for many. There are collectives coming together in various neighborhoods of Nea Ioannia, Kato Patissia, Exharhia, among other areas in Athens. You can get a decent meal for 3 euros. Coffee for 50 cents. These initiatives have become necessities for survival. A German commissioner for hospitals and “patient issues” Wolfgang Zoeller called the results of the time frame imposed by the troika’s measures, “scandalous.” And “impossible to carry out.” Solnit has a long discussion of leprosy in her book and its numbing effect on its victims. They can’t feel the infected parts of the body because of the nerve damage: “The nerveless part of the body remains alive; but pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you; what you cannot feel you do not readily take care of; your extremities become lost to you.” The pained body reminds us of our less-than-whole states, we should more readily unveil those shapes, teach ourselves to feel them.

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All the King’s Men (& everyone else)

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To contemplate an absence or near-impossibility of redemption seems counter to something essentially human and the impulse of hope. H.D. writes, “ruin everywhere, yet as the fallen roof/leaves the sealed room/open to the air,//so through our desolation,/thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us through gloom://” and this as London is being bombed in 1942. After the first round of mayoral elections in Athens last Sunday with the Golden Dawn candidate (I can’t bear to name him) getting 16.12% of the vote, hopelessness feels palpable. The rage vote it is called again, with SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) almost winning with 20% of the mayoral vote, and the current PASOK governor getting just 1.06% more than that . The level of disgust with the human costs of austerity to say nothing of its futility has made for these extremities; and a destitute state has made for insanity rather than economic recovery.

Hopelessness is un-western (almost said ‘un-American’, that too) in that it speaks to circumstances that remain unchanged. Even in tragedy the terms of sacrifice are invested with hope. The language I find almost intolerable to listen to has become the charade of optimism from the current Samaras government that continues to insist on the country’s [economic] success story. As they so doggedly follow the policies of the ECB in Frankfurt and Germany’s punitive measures, Samaras’ “Politics of Obedience” to quote Etienne de La Boétie’s treatise, is a bitter perversion of La Boétie’s: “I think I do not err in stating that there is in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue.” Etienne is quick to note that this seed when “stifled and blighted,” as it has been in the last four years of austerity, will be “unable to resist the vices surrounding it…” As one pre-election site notes: “The government has continued to back big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and worker firings that have created record unemployment and deep poverty.” If SYRIZA’s Tsipras is trying to make this Sunday’s May 25 elections into a referendum on austerity, he is unfortunately fueling reactive paranoia – that his government would pull us out of Europe (as if Europe itself knows what it is doing anymore), that he will shut down the private sector, that his people are “all” from the old PASOK hegemony. There are bits and pieces of truth in the morass of misinformation, but one thing is certain he has the backing of alternative voices in Europe, and we’ve too long seen the tired scripts of neoliberalism’s savagery and unquiet dying.

The late Roberto Bolaño’s writing is invigorating to me because he is unflinching about unredemptive circumstances, and expresses how systems of corruption and hopelessness make for radical singularities; his characters have an agency that is often anarchic in a fundamental sense of what it means to be Αναρχικός: the speaker in By Night in Chile laments: “how long do you think you can go on like this, Chile? Are you going to change beyond recognition? Become a monster?” So where in Bolaño’s novels is the energy of the human; for me it’s in a sexuality of core truths, his characters’ head on or sideways collisions with their social/cultural environments, and sexual because always at fierce play with the physical (and emotional) intersections of power and desire. This in Bolaño’s novels always complicates and splinters and makes of his speakers very multivalent beings. For me one of the gifts of entering into his worlds is that he shows how messy situations produce messy characters. Within the political context of today’s Greece, Bolaño is, I think, an example speaking for an overt anarchism of the spirit. That is, it is in such times that the likes of Adolph and resurgences of the Neo-insane speak of things like “purity” and “success” as if such concepts maintain mythic integrity in the midst of the true morass of chaos.

I was quickly zapping between TV channels (Samaras is talking in Syntagma tonight, a last pitch for his ND vote on Sunday), but instead of him I come across two clips: the former psychopath leader of GD (now in prison for Pavlos Physsa’s murder), is screaming, “For Greece to become clean it needs to rid itself of all the rot…” and then a clip of SYRIZA that says “Let’s return Greece to the Greeks…” so here we have it again, the appalling discourse of “cleansing” – as if so called impurities could be divorced from the myriad factors that have brought us up to our “contaminated” present. Bolaño again (from his opus 2666): “The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes.” Some of the latest archetypes of crime include such success stories as the government’s move to sell beach front.

“Consent” La Boétie argues, is actively engineered by those in power, which then makes the use of force unnecessary. Servility becomes routine, viewed as some factuality as opposed to a construction that has been imposed: “custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude.” And in Montaigne’s “Measuring Truth and Error” (who I did not know was La Boétie’s best friend until David mentioned it, David who is a Montaigne disciple), the same fact: “The habitual sight of things makes the mind accustomed to them; it feels no wonder and asks no questions about what is constantly before the eyes.” So what will disrupt the habitual, and let us (make us?) see what is quite clearly “before our eyes.” Two weekends ago at the Athens Polytechnic, where resistance in 1973 to the military junta brought down the government, the “Crisis-scapes: Athens and Beyond” conference took place. Speakers from Helsinki, London, Utrecht, and elsewhere talked about the example of Athens. Sarah Green from the University of Helsinki spoke of the city as inherently transnational, an “edgy space” with potentials for transformation: “The neoliberal machine,” in her words, “is not as organized as we may think… a lot of it is negotiated,” and thus terrible as the consequences of these imbecilic decisions have proven to be, “hope and contingency is where there is a space of not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

The neoliberals haven’t tired of describing the hell of what would come next if we didn’t vote for them, but the whole drama here is that their so-called solutions have led us further down the path to nowhere. Friends are voting according to conscious and survival. The rage vote of 2012 vote is still alive but some are confusing dawns with deep nights, and some of us just want to strip the masks from the self-satisfactions of the Creons whose only understanding of power is to keep it. Antigone buries her brother Polyneices against Creon’s orders. Having decided that of the two brothers fighting for the throne, Eteocles and Polyneices, the rebel brother, Polyneices, would be left unburied though Tiresias warns Creon this will displease the gods. Antigone goes against (άναρχο) the value (αρχη) of Creon’s power (εξουσία) and buries Polyneices against his wishes. She is willing to die for what she believes to be right and hangs herself. While Creon has kept the power he aimed to protect, his son Haemon (engaged to Antigone) has stabbed himself after Antigone’s hanging, and Eurydice, his wife, has also killed herself. Creon remains king of Thebes as he realizes belatedly the tragic costs of protecting his order while Antigone wanted redemption.

 

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PASCHA

“I am retracing the footsteps of the photographer. He bears in advance the mourning for Athens, for a city owed to death, a city due for death, and two or three times rather than one, according to different temporalities: mourning for an ancient, archeological, or mythological Athens, to be sure, mourning for an Athens that is gone and that shows the body of its ruins:”

Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains, The Photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme

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This year’s Easter was one of those years when the Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant calendars merged, the word “Pascha,”Πάσχα in Greek, from the Hebrew Pesah (Passover), the culmination of Christ’s passion, a celebration of his resurrection in New Testament scripture, and for the secular like myself, the rituals still resonant with mystery. If not the Pascal mystery according to scripture, the mysteries of passage and transformation in more figurative terms; this from Wikipedia: “Some scholars refer to Assyrian “pasah” – appease or Egyptian “pa-sh” – remembrance or “pē-sah” – the blow. The Bible links “pesaḥ” with “pāsaḥ” – two literal meanings are: to limp and to perform a ritual dance around a sacrifice (1 K 18:21.26). Figuratively it may be understood, “to jump”, “to pass”, “to spare”.”

“To jump”, “to spare,” but also “ – appease” in a context of remembrance, [of] “—the blow” – it all seemed especially acute as I had just returned from a teaching sojourn in Germany, and then a brief few days in London, places seemingly unaffected, as least not visibly, by the crisis. The bodies of those cities looked quite unscathed. Outside a pub in London I noticed three souped-up sports cars, one a Lamborghini, another a Jaguar, as they zipped by, some beautiful people jogging, some running with knapsacks. In the tube, a pregnant woman was given a seat when she showed a pin issued by the metro authorities that said BABY ON BOARD. I found it rather Fahrenheit 451-ish, the idea that one “was not obliged” to give up a seat unless the pregnant woman wore her badge. The overt wealth in that area some blocks from Paddington, the locked parks, signs that directed seemingly obvious reflexes: LOOK RIGHT. LOOK LEFT. None of it would have been as unsettling as it was if I was not, too, thinking of Athens, the felled body a predatory corporate world was feeding on. The solvency of late capitalism, buoyed by outrageously unsustainable loans given to the likes of economies like that of Greece’s, has resulted in what Giorgio Agamben describes in Homo Sacer, as a state of abandonment from a law, or nomos, of significance, laws that would signify being as sovereign. Rather, this “pure form of law is only the empty form of relation,” i.e. you need to have a badge saying the obvious for anyone to offer you a seat. This constitutes “a zone of indistinguishability between law and life…” (59) What then will “appease” “— the blow” to a body of culture, put a history (a history of being?) to these erasures of sovereignty?

I was moved by a woman at the supermarket cash register whose face seemed familiar, who recognized me and seemed to have understood that I’d been away since she smiled and said, “How are you?” And then the repeated, “Kali Anastasi” (loosely, “Happy Resurrection” which sounds rather post-Beckett in English and quite unburdened), a wish given all through holy week, at the bank, in stores, at the post office. There was a gentleness, and relational overture, in this wish as we went about our chores, as I felt again that I was back in a space where people assumed the common ground rather than the space of difference. Not to romanticize this, but to use it to think in the wider political context of how, in a young scholar’s words, “the progressive uniformity of mores and customs…[has contributed to] the concentration of political control, economic production and critical theory in increasingly fewer centers of decision making,” (Boris Vejdovsky, “Your Myths Shall be My Myths: Translating God, Nation and Self”). Vejdovsky argues for a need to “pay attention to the singular, the idiosyncratic” as a way of re-thinking the meta-narratives of cultural belonging.

On Good Friday I’d gone to the Proto Nekrotaphio (the “First Cemetery”) for the Epitaphios, the service in which the Ephitaphio is carried outside of the church, symbol of the Christ body after its having been taken down from its cross. The Epitaphios is always covered in spring flowers, sprigs of wild rose, orchids, lemon and orange blossoms, jasmine; we walked through rows of history. There was Alekos Panagoulis, the activist who had been murdered in 1976 by the Junta at the age of 36. I was surprised to see how young he had been, his legacy being mythic of that period of resistance. There was General Makriyannis, who had taught himself to write so he could write his memories of the Greek War of Independence (1831). There were others. The cemetery is gorgeous. It is where the poets are buried too, Elytis, Seferis. Near the front is also Andreas Papandreou. I gave pause to what now reads as a dark irony, written on his grave is: Η ΕΛΛΑΔΑ ΑΝΗΚΕΙ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ (GREECE BELONGS TO THE GREEKS).

A savage indifference to the sovereignty of the individual let alone that of nation states defines our moment in late capitalism, as resources keep going into ever fewer hands. A recent Princeton study attests to as much: “America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy.” It is so easy to take the significances of small, quotidian gestures for granted; they speak for what is being lost in these meta-narratives of the global. A recent piece in The New York Times on the graffiti in Athens documents some of the discourses of these gestures in the city’s visual art, a language of anguish inscribed over the body of the city. Any mourning speaks of passage, of a movement toward another state of being. One can only hope the promise of transformation might also be a resurrection. We left our lit candles inside the church, what held them in place were wheat grains, rather than sand.

 

 

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The City

Merlin, the muse

Merlin, the muse

It’s been three months now that I’ve been living outside of Athens, the city I consider my home. The city, too, which I carry with me through the traveling, but this time, the stretch away has been longer, and Athens has become as much a metaphor as a reality: the city I finally cannot judge other cities apart from, without considering it too. Or in C.P. Cavafy’s words, here translated by Alicia (A.E. Stallings):

iv.  The City

 You said, “I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.

I’ll find another city.  One that is better than this.

Here my every effort is sentenced to fruitlessness,

And here my heart’s entombed, as if it were a cadaver.

How long will my mind loiter in this wasteland?  For wherever

I turn my eyes here, whatever I look upon,

I see the black wreckage of my life, all the gone

Years I frittered away, destroyed, wasted utterly.”

But you will find no other lands, no other seas discover.

This city will pursue you.  The same streets, you will follow.

You will grow old among the neighborhoods that you know now.

Among the same houses, you will turn grey.  Forever

You are coming to this city.  Do not expect another.

For you there is no ship.  There is no road for you.

For as you’ve wrecked your life in this small corner, so too

You have wrecked your life the whole world over.

It came as a surprise to realize how much I remain, or one remains, within the body of what it is which marks us most deeply, how one travels with that body. A tricky subject, Athens, given the tensions as a result of Germany’s (or Brussels’) measures regarding the Greek debt; if the conversation about Greece came up and it did, sometimes reluctantly on my part, there was always sincere interest and a sense of astonishment at the resilience of those in Greece surviving under such duress. I was generally speaking to informed people, but there were surprises when I was asked why the anarchists had not done more given “Greece’s tradition of anarchy” and this said to me by a professor at the University of Freiburg where I was teaching.  My response was that “Brussels probably won’t allow any real overthrow anyway.” To which he nodded and repeated that change would most likely have to happen from the ground up. There really are so little other possibilities and yet, speaking with a German-Greek student here, she confessed that it all seemed quiet hopeless for her generation. And then laughed that she is thinking to open a café in Freiburg that would sell Greek frappés that she says anytime she makes one – that shot of diesel caffeine – is happily received. Someone else was surprised when I said “no” to his “aren’t things getting better there, it’s been awhile.”

The quiet beauty of Freiburg is a stark contrast to Athens’ gritty energy, it’s open pain and anger and passions. I felt quite alienated initially, apart from the earnest discussions with those I worked with, it felt as if I’d landed worlds away from Athens. And then, quite by chance, I moved into a collective where the evening discussions at our communal dinners brought an entirely different perspective to my sense of the differences and similarities across culture and history. The idea of a collective has always been one I’ve been partial to, and one I’ve wanted to experience. After Greece’s economic fallout it was also a practical alternative for various groups, but mostly they were groups living outside of Athens. People like Freeandreal in Evia and initiatives in Volos, were building alternative lifestyles.

Here at Grether Ost, I live with a lawyer, two teachers, a grad student, a musician and a three-legged cat named Merlin that Martin says he watched slip from the roof some years ago and land against a pot that smashed one of its hind legs. Three-legged Merlin is an important member of the collective, and as R says, “the real owner of the place.” He hops along everywhere and despite the aggression of the four-legged cats around the house he stands his ground. Martin says when he took him to the vet his leg was immediately amputated and Merlin has since learned to accommodate himself. Merlin is an example in his magical living. The body of the group, and the body of the individual and the larger bodies of our environments are so clearly bound to each other and mutually dependent that it would seem that our livelihoods would inevitably respect these dependencies. Martin, a lawyer, just turned 60  & says that the collective is a kind of continuation of the way he felt growing up as a boy in a neighborhood in which, in his words, “we felt like it was us and the world but we were so closely connected we felt invincible.” The collective is larger than the Grether Ost building, there’s a Grether Süd and a Grether West, the buildings once part of a metal factory. There are regular assemblies and rooms have been added, a beautiful space with a sprung wood floor where dance and yoga classes are held. There’s a ceramicist, carpenter, printer, and café.  I’m told there was once a pig but animals (or ones as large as pigs) aren’t allowed in the city center. I’m renting a room where visitors sometimes stay. We take turns cooking without much of a schedule, but there’s a pattern, to the cooking and to the buying. I drink a lot of coffee so I tend to buy that, and soymilk, and orange juice, and bananas. But anything any one of us buys any one else can have, unless it’s been tagged for a meal someone is cooking. There is a steady supply of honey, bread, beans, and nuts. There’s a vegetable co-op that supplies fruits and vegetables in season.

Martin was recently told he has to have an operation because one of his heart’s valves isn’t working very well. He describes the ultrasound he was shown, how there is a red spreading. It takes him longer to do things, and I can see the tiredness in his face, but he is good-humored. He sings songs he remembers from his times in Greece, “if only I could be reborn…” … “Life is a small journey of big accidents…” he doesn’t remember who the singers are, but likes Haris Alexiou. Our talk during the evening dinner gatherings range from Wolfgang Schäuble’s ungenerous policies that have made him unpopular in Germany too, to street fairs, recipes the Baader-Meinhof group and the RAF who had organized against the fact that, among other things, high-ranking Nazi officials, like judges, were never removed from their positions after the war. I say Schäuble is despised in Greece. R says, “He’s from Swabia in the southwestern part of Germany a place known for its conservative Christian values, “work, family, church…and work again.” I say, “Maybe he needs to be initiated into a more southern European spirit.” We joke of how he might feel on an island beach. R shakes her head, “it would be lost on him..” R and the others believe he is a man “who wants nothing for himself.” It is a puzzling comment. But in keeping maybe with the Calvinistic-type views on the world he incorporates. And well, the pilgrims did finally impose their vision on a new world. I read that he was actually born in Freiburg and went to the university here. “His loyalty is to Merkel and the German economy.” I nod. “He doesn’t respect other views, or the idea that there are complications within cultures that can’t be solved with data sheets.” They agree. He is a man too marked by his body and, I think, bitter in his marking. A marking that has stunted his ability to empathize. We talk too of the German president, Joachim Gauck’s visit to Athens and the question of outstanding WWII reparations that were never fully addressed, the credit the Greek government was forced to pay the Third Reich as were all governments occupied by the Nazi.

When R says “Gauck’s in Greece.” I say “who?” She laughs. “You don’t know who Gauck is?” I shake my head. She shows me the front page of the newspaper with a picture of the German president and Greece’s president Papoulias. I realize, again, how much I am mired in my city of the personal — “Forever/You are coming to this city.  Do not expect another.” I see and hear of the exchanges throughout the day. Gauck who speaks in Greek, who pays ritual homage to the memorials of Nazi occupation, who says he can’t do anything that’s not officially endorsed by Brussels. One of my students says to me that “So little is known of the Greek Nazi occupation.” I am stunned. “Really, there were so many deported Jews from Thessaloniki…” He nods, “The Poles of course, and in Spain too the issue of reparations was raised, but in Greece… I think it’s too late..” then adds, “there’s corruption here too but there’s money so it’s easier to hide.” I’m looking at him and the thought settles as I think of all the ways Greece’s recent governments have messed up, lost chances, proved themselves unable to rise to the occasions of political and economic crisis; another body that has ignored, been criminally negligent of, its dependencies. At dinner Martin says to me, “Adrianne did you notice the graffiti on the wall on this street?” I had seen the familiar bolded anarchist A with its circle that appears so regularly on surfaces in Athens. I couldn’t read the German though. And Martin tells me it says: “Order without hierarchies.”  An order of empathies, our shared food — a city that might gather our marked bodies in this wrecked world?

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Blog Tour: some notes on “My Writing Process”

Kalfopoulou-RuinThank you Linda Lappin  for the opportunity to continue The Writing Process Blog Tour. For newcomers to Linda’s work, she is the author of numerous books, most recently Signatures in Stone  a mystery novel set in Bomarzo.  Linda is an American writer who has spent most of her adult life in Italy where she teaches and writes. She is a novelist, poet, and essayist, and has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the PEN Renato Poggioli Award, the Hugh J. Luke award for the essay from Prairie Schooner, an Ippy gold medal for historical fiction, and in 2012 a Solas bronze medal award from Traveler’s Tales. “The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place” is forthcoming.

Here are my answers to the Blog Tour questions:

Why do I write what I do? I don’t think this is the order of the questions, but I’m starting with this one since I am posting on my blog which is intended to be a space that expresses a plurality of voices, even if this comes through quotes, or references from various media venues. I’m making an exception with this post because my book RUIN, essays in exilic life (forthcoming in September from Red Hen Press), engages with various austerity-related narratives that have also been the focus of this blog. This also relates to why I write what I do. I had not planned on keeping a blog. I think part of my resistance had to do with the fact that I’ve often thought that blogging would lessen the pressure of the urgency to write in a more disciplined, in-depth fashion. But as Greece started to fall apart financially, and friends and acquaintances to say nothing of the larger fabric of the city and those growing numbers of the unemployed and homeless, began to be affected, it seemed like a way to keep something of a lit match in the forest of chaos if only as a conversation with myself in the dark, or with those who were having similar conversations, which I guess, too, is a large part of why I write what I do.  

Another thing about these blog posts, which connects them to the essays in RUIN, is that they engage the immediacy of the moment. Many of the essays in RUIN, as with these posts, were an attempt at keeping ahead of the wave. None of them were easy to write. Since austerity, Athens has changed drastically, the metal mongers as I call them, scavenging for anything they might sell from the trash, the pawnshops everywhere, the begging in the subways of those you wouldn’t expect to be begging, the hideous signs with their flashing lights that announce “immediate cash” for gold and real estate. All of this is part of the changing body of the city that is also composed of the consequences to its human bodies. “Why do I write it?” I suppose because putting words to a page or sentences that become paragraphs and then longer pieces, is a way to make sense on the level of the sentence when even that feels challenged or hopeless. It is not an easy, or ideal, way to write; it makes the process exhausting and often very painful but it is also a way to feel like I managed, even if for a little while, to shape something shapeless.

How does my work differ from that of other writers working in the same genre? I’ll limit this answer to essay writing. I’m not sure how my work may differ, but I can say that certain writers have influenced me, the work of Lia PurpuraDavid Lazar  and Jenny Boully for example. I do think I have a particular style of putting moments together in the essay that can be (so I’ve been told) rather anarchic. I like the notion of the “braid essay”; or strands that come together in surprising ways. I work toward that, toward ways of allowing this to happen in the work. It’s the way I wrote most of the essays in RUIN. Somehow I think this is a reflection of the kinds of complexities of consciousness, even what I’d call a promiscuity of consciousness that’s the result of the information/sensation overload that we’re constantly exposed to. There’s a certain porousness in this moment which is something I try to express (it is easier for me to capture this in poems), but that simultaneity of convergences which could be viewed as a corruption of concentration is also, I think, indicative of a more general corruption of focus, of causalities, the result of late-capitalism’s excesses? The most interesting notes on the rejection letters I get are the ones that tell me “it takes too much effort to concentrate on where the essay is going,” this is a verbatim line. I took it as a compliment really, though I appreciate the danger of the car crash when there are too many intersections. But it’s that kind of working against the weave of a sort of lax causality that I want to achieve. I also think, politically speaking, it’s reductive over-simplifications that have gotten us into some of the messes we’re in.

 How does my writing process work? I don’t know that I have a “process”; I know the way I work is rather obsessive. That is I don’t have a ritual, say brushing my teeth, having my coffee, combing my hair, and then sitting to work (I think Cheever did that, and maybe Hemingway). It’s more like the reaction of someone who knows if they wait any longer the food will burn and be unrecognizable. I suppose writing is a way to keep the ghosts at bay, actually it’s a way to have less of them. The truth is writing often terrifies me. Milosz has a poem where he describes inspiration as a state of being possessed, and has a wonderful image of a tiger swishing its tail out of nowhere, but there it is, and he, the poet/writer, has to deal with it.

One of the essays in RUIN, “Stolen Culture”, was written over about 2 years. I kept the notes in various states of disarray, scraps in a plastic Sklavenitis supermarket bag. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget something I thought of maybe 6 months before as the essay kept changing. One of my close friends would periodically ask how “the shopping bag essay” was going. That essay overwhelmed me, not only because there was so much anger that I had to distill but also because the subject was so historically burdened. Marianne Boruch has an essay in the December 2013 issue of POETRY on “Melodrama” where she cites a first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece “of reserve,” her villanelle “One Art” as being “a very sprawling attempt,” of “Pure melodrama!” Boruch reminds us (as her son reminds her) that melodrama is “a drama carried by melo, song.” Greek again. Part of the challenge and difficulty of dealing with all the drama of writing, let alone the “melo” parts as we’d say colloquially in Greek, is being willing to let it become whatever it is going to become. Greece, or what’s happened to Greece, has taught me to respect those moments of exploded boundaries. I think that’s what some of my writing comes out of, that tension and despair that I can’t do more than put words to paper. And it never seems enough.

What am I working on now? I’m a little superstitious about talking too much about what it is I’m doing when the work is in its raw beginning stages. Not because I want to be coy, just that I’m not sure myself if it will amount to anything, plus it’s a sort of love/hate thing, trying to commit to the fact that what’s happening will keep me from running from it; a little like a beginning relationship when there’s a sense of vulnerability and confusion about how comfortable I might be with the feelings, there isn’t always the choice of control over emotion but that’s the script we’re taught, at least in the western world. I try to resign myself in these moments to the idea that I do the work so I can earn some peace of mind, no matter what the result. So the subject I’m involved with now again engages the city, or cities, mainly Athens, and it uses tango as a metaphor. I’m calling it a fiction because the voice is someone else’s, someone who (unlike me) is rather horrified by a certain lack of structure.

In terms of more scholarly stuff, I still haven’t given up on my Plath project. I’ve published some essays from that monograph-in-the-making, but haven’t sat down to work on it in a beginning-to-end sequence. I have the chapter titles though (!)… they actually help me organize my thinking, and hopefully they eventually do become chapters. When I’m having doubts about my ability to live up to a project, I play a game of tackling small parts, an article, part of a would-be-chapter, and then gradually build from that until I can say that it is no longer in my head but on the page. I am arguing that Plath is a modernist expression of Emersonian ambition, and that much of her demonization by earlier critics like her contemporary Anne Stevenson, was due to a misunderstanding of this ambition. I’ve visited her archives at Smith a few times, and have a lot of source material I now have to sit down to, taxing muse that she is.

Now I would like to introduce the writers who will be continuing this blog tour next week [Feb. 3]: Click on their names to visit their websites.

I am thrilled to introduce the next two bloggers in this tour: Kate Gale, poet, fiction writer, professor, and one of the founding editors of Red Hen Press, and David Lazar, nonfiction writer, founding editor of Hotel Amerika, professor and director of the program in nonfiction at Columbia College.

First David (alphabetically by first name), I want to say when David accepted my first essay in RUIN, “Dislocated States” for Hotel Amerika I felt a little like someone who hears their language being spoken in a foreign country: His books include Occasional Desire: Essays, from the University of Nebraska Press, The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (Iowa), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (Mississippi), and Powder Town, a book of prose poems (Pecan Grove). Forthcoming is After Montaigne (University of Georgia Press). His essays and prose poetry have appeared widely in magazines and journals such as Black Clock, Southwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Sentence and Gulf Coast. Five of his essays have been named “Notable Essays of the Year” by Best American Essays. He has lectured widely on nonfiction and editing, and founded the Ph.D. program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University, and directed the creation of the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches. He is also the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year. David’s website.

Kate is, among many other things, the woman whose energy and generosity of spirit I want to emulate. I am so grateful to her and the Red Hens for their support of my work. She is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, writes for Huffington Post, and is a poet, fiction writer, editor, and librettist. Her new book, The Goldilocks Zone just been released from the University of New Mexico Press (January of 2014). Echo Light will be released from Red Mountain Press, September 2014. Here’s my favorite quote from Kate’s Q&A with Poets&Writers on the beginnings of the press:  “There was this bunch of farmyard animals, all of whom wanted to have bread. So the Little Red Hen said, “Who’s going to plant the wheat?” And they all said, “Not I! Not I!” So the Little Red Hen planted the wheat. But then she asked who was going to take care of the wheat, who’s going to harvest it? “Not I! Not I!” At the end, when she’s made the bread, she says, “Who’s going to eat the bread?” And everyone’s like, “I will!” And the Little Red Hen says, “No, I’m going to eat it myself!” [Laughs.] The story for us was a good image for getting going on something. Fortunately it didn’t keep on that way. Now we have a great staff, a great board, great shareholders, so the burden is not just on one or two people.” Kate’s website.

 

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To the Playground

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“Άστους να δούν τι έκανε τις καρδιές μας να καούν…”

(“Let them take a good look at what made our hearts burn…”) Zembetiko, Stratos (1946)

Hours before the end of a year that never let up, relentless and overwhelmed, it was a year rich in discoveries as much as pain. The image of my near-90-year-old grandmother came to mind some days ago. Before she died she had such a look of earnestness to a face that had seen and survived, among other things, war and deprivation, and violent uprootings of family. I think it stayed with me all these years as an expression of the kind of mysteries that can happen in conditions of assault to the spirit. Death always catches up but as her own life came to a close she looked toward it, paradoxically, with the face of a much younger person’s questioning expression, there was innocence and openness and humility in her voice and eyes when she said, “it all went by so fast, I didn’t have enough time to understand what happened…”

In this year’s storms what stays with me is also paradoxical, while we gathered on the grounds of the national radio and television buildings, known as the “Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation” (ERT) after its unilateral and illegal closure on June 11 by the Samaras government; while we joined demonstrations against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis in horror at the murder of the ANTIFA (Antifascist) rapper Pavlos Physsas, & the government’s negligence at reacting to immigrant murders by the same party; while we spoke and articulated a continuing rage toward those now- familiar names in the previous and current government who have had more than a hand in the corruption and economic rape of the country; we also lived moments of solidarity and humor and eros that were perhaps all the more acute for the fact of our vulnerability. But there was something else too, or something new, for me, which was the gradual realization that certain facts of injustice, and evil, were now concrete rather than abstract, part of a reality that was not going to change in the near future, if it would change at all. Any naïve sense of promise was radically demythesized – or as D said when she went abroad to teach, “some of the students [in her program in the UK] were returning to countries with hopes.” This was a new realization that hope, or the kinds of promises fed to us from PASOK’s inflated-dreams-on-loan, to the current government’s penchant for calling their tragedies “success stories,” proved, in Yeats’ words, that “… the center cannot hold” because the center was rotten. The center, as the man in my neighborhood who has a small frame shop said to me, is “the system,” and “what” he said so casually, “can anyone expect from a system” so flagrantly compromised. “So what if you lose your house to taxes,” he continued, “if you have the soul, you’ll build it all again.” The moments that were the most fundamental to this year were, for lack of another way to put it, moments with soul. And those moments seemed to accumulate and exist in stark contrast to the ugliness of the news with its catalog of grotesques.

Near my apartment is a playing field where the neighborhood soccer matches are held, where there’s a corner with a treadmill and some other gym equipment that was installed by the municipality. About a year and a half ago a stall of metal tiers with plastic seats was put in to replace the wooden benches that had been ripped up. The playing field is manned by someone who slurs and is probably mentally challenged, someone who smiles and while his words are not always easily understood he is always ready to help out, always says hi when I go to run at odd hours. He was shaking his head on a night when it had been pouring rain. There were maybe one or two other people there, it was late, he showed me the dwindling plastic seats on the tiers, their broken green lay strewn on the ground. “I don’t know when they come in here the hooligans but I’ve never seen them… they’ve destroyed everything.” Out of 5 tiers with about 20 seats to a tier there were just a scattering of seats that were still unbroken. It was sad and expressive of the kind of rage and frustration that was a danger to us all. “Moderation is no longer an option,” someone said at a gathering where Thanos Veremis, the Greek historian shocked me when he bluntly admitted that many, including himself, would be voting in the next election for individuals they loathed. “There’s no choice,” he elaborated, “we either stay in Europe or we’re completely lost.” I suppose, to me, this was another way of saying if we’re lost we’ll be lost with Europe as opposed to without it. But the remark brought back what it meant to be within a rotting system, a system in which a Mr. Tobouloglou, director of the PAIDON children’s hospital in Athens was caught taking 25,000 euros as a kickback; where Mr. Liapis turned in his license plates because his jeep or truck was highly taxed, only to reissue himself false plates so he could continue to use his jeep without paying the taxes; even the King and Queen are back, renting, apparently luxurious apartments built by the former Prime minister’s daughter; so the system has lost its soul, if it ever had one to begin with, or as P said “we’re witnessing the decadence of the spirit..” and then added “western.” But the danger isn’t the fact of decadence, it’s its ability to contaminate what’s still healthy. The MPs are keeping their healthy salaries at their existing levels while the air in Athens is thick with wood burning because people can’t afford gas and oil, you can taste it on humid nights, sometimes it stings, and sometimes it chokes you.

I wish I could say I have some pity for these people who seem unable to give up their flagrant lifestyles, or feel any shame for their unapologetic greed. I wish there were people in government who would take some of those stolen millions to pay off the debt, and rebuild the playgrounds. But that would assume that they had some soul. It was chilling to see the empty spaces on their metal tiers where people gather to watch the matches. There are soccer matches with adults, others with younger groups. All ages use the gym equipment, some of which has been smashed up and then replaced again. In this space people hang out in the evenings, kids ride their bikes on the dirt ground; some people just come and sit and watch whatever happens to be going on. I’ve become very fond of it and hope in this new year, and years to come that we don’t lose the soul to protect it, we would be so much poorer, and pitiless.

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ΚΑΙ ΜΕΤΑ ΘΑ ΚΑΑΘΕΣΑΙ!! Ελένη Χριστίνα Σταμοπούλου

 

 

Όταν ξεκίνησα το σχολείο, η μαμά μου μού είπε: « Τώρα παιδί μου που ξεκινάς το σχολείο θα αφοσιωθείς στο διάβασμα και όταν μεγαλώσεις και έχεις όλα τα εφόδια που χρειάζεσαι θα βρεις μια καλή δουλειά σ’ ένα γραφείο και θα κάάάθεσαι!!!» Κι εγώ σαν καλό και υπάκουο παιδί και με την προοπτική πάντα ότι θα κάααθομαι ακολούθησα τις συμβουλές της μαμάς μου.

Τελείωσα το σχολείο. Έμαθα αγγλικά, γαλλικά, ιταλικά. Πήγα και σε μια σχολή κι έμαθα και γραφομηχανή. Ο καημένος ο μπαμπάς μου δούλευε σε δυο δουλειές για να τα βγάλει πέρα και μπάλωνε τις σόλες των παπουτσιών του για να μου προσφέρει τα εφόδια που χρειαζόμουν για να έχω μία άνετη δουλειά στην οποία θα καθόοομουνα!!! Κάθε μέρα έτρεχα από το πρωί μέχρι το βράδυ, αλλά η προοπτική μιας ξεκούραστης ζωής μου έδινε κουράγιο και δύναμη να συνεχίσω.

Άρχισα να ψάχνω για δουλειά. Δεν με έπαιρναν γιατί είχα λέει πολλά προσόντα. Τελικά ένα πρωί, Αύγουστος ήτανε θαρρώ, και λίγους μήνες πριν από εκλογές, με πήραν τηλέφωνο από τον ΟΤΕ και μου είπαν πως η αίτηση μου εγκρίθηκε (αίτηση την οποία δεν είχα κάνει) και να πάω να υπογράψω σύμβαση εργασίας. Έγινα, επιτέλους, μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα. Όταν έληξε η σύμβαση μου, βρήκα άλλη δουλειά, πάλι με μέσο , και όχι ό,τι κι ό,τι, πολιτικό παρακαλώ, σε σούπερ μάρκετ. Έβαζα χαρτάκια με τιμές στις κονσέρβες. Άρχισα να νιώθω ότι ο αγώνας ο δικός μου και των γονιών μου είχε αρχίσει πλέον να δικαιώνεται.

Και, επιτέλους, μετά από ένα χρόνο βρήκα δουλειά γραφείου, κανονική,  οκτάωρη, μόνη μου, χωρίς μέσον. Επιτέλους θα κάααθομαι!!!!!!!!Αμ δε!!! Παντρεύτηκα! Έγινα μία εργαζόμενη, γυναίκα και σύζυγος. Γιατί εξάλλου να κάααθομαι μόνη μου; Να έχω και παρέα. Βέβαια, μετά τη δουλειά, είχα να μαγειρέψω, να συγυρίσω, να σιδερώσω, να, να, να……. Ήμουν πια μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος και νοικοκυρά. Άρχισα να αποκτώ διαστροφές και να μου αρέσουν οι διαφημίσεις… Ιδιαίτερα εκείνη της χαρωπής νοικοκυράς, που με μαλλί κομμωτηρίου τραγουδούσε ευτυχισμένη: «είμαι κεφάτη, ψωνίζω στου Βερόπουλου». Αποφασίζω να δω από κοντά τι ποτίζει τις νοικοκυρές ο Βερόπουλος και είναι τόσο ευτυχισμένες και πάω. Τίποτα δεν τις ποτίζει, δυστυχώς, ο διαφημιστής μάλλον παίρνει ληγμένα ναρκωτικά. Νιώθω, τελικά, πως ο Βερόπουλος με κοροϊδεύει κατάμουτρα και κόβω τις διαφημίσεις.

Μετά ήρθαν τα παιδάκια μου, γερά να’ ναι, και άρχισα να παριστάνω τον άνθρωπο λάστιχο. Έτρεχα στη δουλειά, στο σχολείο, στο σπίτι, στα φροντιστήρια, στις διάφορες δραστηριότητες. Ήμουν πια μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα και νοικοκυρά, ενίοτε δε και νοσοκόμα, παρακαλώ! Ξαφνικά, άρχισα να ζηλεύω τα αδέσποτα της γειτονιάς μου, την ξέγνοιαστη σκυλίσια τους ζωή. Τελικά ανακάλυψα πως το καθισιό είχε αναβληθεί για τη σύνταξη. Υπομονή.

Τα παιδιά μου όμως μεγάλωσαν και άρχισαν να φροντίζουν τον εαυτό τους μόνα τους κι έτσι απέκτησα ελεύθερο χρόνο. Είπα να κάνω κάτι για μένα και έγινα φοιτήτρια. Κατάφερα να τελειώσω και τη σχολή και έγινα μια εργαζόμενη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα, νοικοκυρά, νοσοκόμα και τελειόφοιτη, παρακαλώ!!!

Και μετά ήρθε η οικονομική κρίση και το κράτος φρόντισε για μένα. Να’ ναι καλά αυτός ο άγιος άνθρωπος που μας έβαλε στο ΔΝΤ. Ο Θεός να μας κόβει χρόνια και να του δίνει μέρες.

Πρώτα- πρώτα, έχασα τη δουλειά μου και, επιτέλους, η συμβουλή της μητέρας μου έπιασε τόπο. Τώρα δεν χρειάζεται να ξυπνώ πρωί-πρωί. Δεν με νοιάζει αν έχουν απεργίες τα λεωφορεία, τα τρόλεϊ ή τα ταξί, αν έχουν πορείες, αν, αν, αν….  Η μόνη μου έγνοια είναι να πηγαίνω κάθε τρεις μήνες στον ΟΑΕΔ να ανανεώνω το καρτελάκι ανεργίας. Τώρα πια είμαι μια άνεργη γυναίκα, σύζυγος, μητέρα, νοικοκυρά και τελειόφοιτη παρακαλώ!!!!

Επίσης, λόγω κρίσης, αρχίσαμε να πηγαίνουμε στο σούπερ μάρκετ όλο και πιο σπάνια κι έτσι τα περισσότερα απογεύματά μου είναι πια ελεύθερα. Με την αύξηση στη τιμή του ρεύματος, κόψαμε και το πολύ μαγείρεμα, και το σίδερο και το πλύσιμο. Και με την αύξηση της τιμής του πετρελαίου, αρχίσαμε να τρέχουμε και μέσα στο σπίτι για να ζεσταθούμε κι έτσι γυμναζόμαστε κιόλας. Κι επειδή στη πολυκατοικία μας το ζεστό νερό το έχουμε από το boiler, αραιώσαμε με τον άντρα μου και το σεξ, γιατί κανείς από τους δύο μας δεν αντέχει το παγωμένο νερό. Επίσης, αρχίσαμε να σκεφτόμαστε να έχουμε πιο στενές σχέσεις με τα υπόλοιπα ζευγάρια της πολυκατοικίας μας μήπως και ζεσταθούμε καλύτερα.

Και όσο αφορά εκείνη τη ριμάδα τη σύνταξη, δεν βλέπω να την παίρνω κι ας έχω δουλέψει όχι για μια ζωή αλλά για δέκα. Αλλά δεν έχω παράπονο, γιατί τώρα πια κάααθομαι!!!!!!!!!!

Και όσο αφορά το σπίτι μας, που με τόσο κόπο πληρώσαμε για να αποκτήσουμε, οσονούπω θα μας το πάρει η εφορία ή καμιά τράπεζα και θα το δώσει για ένα κομμάτι ψωμί σε κανένα ξένο, μάλλον Γερμανό, για να έρθει να ζήσει κι αυτός το μύθο του στην Ελλάδα. Και τότε να δείτε ΠΟΥ ΘΑ ΚΑΑΑΘΟΜΑΙ!!!

 

 

 

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