Are there any Greeks in this book? (1)

Important insights by Vassilis Lambropoulos on questions raised in Zahi Zalloua’s book re “The Palestinian Question”

Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics

Comparisons of Hebraism and Hellenism are often marked by an extraordinary void,
the absence of any modern Greeks. While such comparisons always refer to Jewish figures of modernity and cite Jewish writers, Greeks of the last three centuries are absent both from these surveys and their sources.

Most recently I was intrigued by the subtitle of a new book by Zahi Zalloua (Professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Whitman College),” Beyond the Jew and the Greek”, and tried to find out who are some representative figures of the two archetypes in it.  This subtitle is explained in the “Epilogue: “The figure of the Palestinian, traced in this study, declines the phantasms of the Jew and the Greek: the Jew and the Greek conceived either as figures of exemplary wholeness or monolithic entities” (131).

Already the “Introduction” refers to Marx, Dreyfus, Adorno, Levinas, Derrida, and Oz
as well as non-Jewish…

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Border Lives

–always some kind of map stretching be-/yond these lines: history, politics, progress… Memories dimmed to the quality/ of ancient murals… I find a new road I never knew existed or, is it an old/ street deprived of its landmarks?//

Jane Satterfield, “Landscape and Departure”


It’s Sunday and I’ve gone to the squat again, and it’s March, which means it’s been a year since many of the refugee families I’ve grown close to moved into the abandoned school building. Tonight there are different groups in the playground area, some cooking, some playing ball. I’m using the jump rope and the kids are taking turns. Last March we began visiting the squat, Alicia who started our “Central Athens Volunteers” group would often begin with stories and songs now most of the kids know by heart, like Four Little Monkeys jumping on the bed. Heniah sings it sometimes when she sees us. Last March there were people sleeping through the hallways, at the top of the steps, on the steps, people who had made it as far as Greece and Athens. I remember one scene when we had brought a slew of flip flops, one the young girls took me by the hand to show me her father asleep on the floor, to see if one of the pairs would fit his feet. They were the wrong color, probably better for a woman, he woke up and laughed, and gestured that it was okay, he didn’t need them. The intensity of how some of the children will ask for things for one of their parents, one of their brothers or sisters, someone besides themselves still stuns me; one young girl last week who might have been 12 put on my shoes when I took them off to sit on our spread sheet, and walked off with them laughing and showed me she wanted a lipstick for her mother in exchange for them because we had brought some and then ran out. One of the boys, maybe he was also 12 or 13 who was wearing a pair of sneakers that were torn was called over by some of his friends and shown the runners Alicia had brought because the pair didn’t fit them and his shoes were clearly a mess. I am taken with how the kids respond, always happy for the things we might bring them they also ask for someone else too. It seems basic enough until the realities of what dis-member them makes apparent the systemic disease of our time – that the dream of a Europe (let alone a world) in which populations could move between countries, and find refuge from the threats to their lives is fast shrinking, hostage to the neurosis and pathologies of the desires of the dominant. As I write this I realize it’s redundant to speak of neurosis and pathology and “the desires of the dominant” since desires that insist on dominating are by definition neurotic, if not pathological.

As northern Europe closed its borders last March, Greece in its own crisis of austerity found itself in yet another space of adjustment. Maybe Greece will be, as it has so often been, peninsula that it is, another crossroads for change and influence. Here where the borders are porous and the economy now devastated, maybe like the person who has lost everything, Greece will become the place for new narratives of survival. Like the refugee the country is also a body of the unexpected as institutions of power and hegemony are in their own crisis. These do go together. That is, it’s not by chance that Greece is where it is, nor is it that an institution like the UNHCR is feeling defensive of its protocols. Like any refugee, down to the grit of life, the answers are as basic as the questions. And this most recent story, of which there must be at least hundreds, is indicative. Fatima, a 26 year old Afghani woman on the run with her mother from the brutality of her father’s home, a powerful mullah in Kabul, is emblematic of how systems more wedded to their power than the constituents to whom their policies are meant to represent, become, like any hegemony, more interested in defending that power than the realities (and lives) its policies were created to protect.

Nadina Christopoulou, who was the Vice-President of the Council of Refugees, and is the co-founder of the Melissa Network in Athens is telling me Fatima’s story over the phone. She repeats her incredulousness at the way the UNHCR has reacted to Fatima’s tragedy. That they are so “wedded to their categories” while having such power; that the cost of resettling Fatima and her two sons in one of the countries they are proposing, such as Sweden, as opposed to Ireland where she has family, would be more costly, and that this “most humanitarian of institutions” is in fact being quite inhuman. Ireland has now backtracked on the EU “family reunification” policy that allowed for refugee families to reunite. It seems like a larger political agenda, if not a reflection of a general climate of paranoia. Brexit is now a reality. Hungry is hideously unapologetic about its Nazi sympathies. It voted to remove a statue of the Jewish, Marxist philosopher György (Georg) Lukács from a Budapest park. Trump is putting forward his nightmare agenda, and as Masha Gessen says, there are specific rules for survival under an autocracy, one of them being to take seriously an autocrat’s intentions, outrageous as they are.

Outrage is the moment we are living in as borders imposed on our humanity are dismembering us; and it is happening in very concrete ways. In her risk for a better life Fatima lost her legs in the accident when the van the smugglers were driving crashed in Serbia. Her mother Nadia, lost her life. Nadina tells me that when she went to visit Fatima in the Serbian hospital Fatima still didn’t know her mother was dead, that when she found out she had lost her legs she said it didn’t matter to her as long as her mother was alive, “because she is my legs”. When she learned Nadia had been killed in the accident, the woman who had made it possible for them to escape her father’s household, a man whose authoritarianism had resulted in her sister’s self-immolation, Fatima woke up in a country where she was now a cripple, with her mother dead, and her language inadequate. Perhaps Fatima is an example of where we have arrived, of what we have left to us, and how we might begin again.




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The Kindness of Strangers

kiss me, for where else

do we carry home now, habibi,

if not on our lips?

Zeina Hashem Beck, “Naming Things, for refugees, September 2015


I dislike the idea of essentialism. I want to believe we always have that choice of an alternative. Not to be bound by the essential. Yet I live in Athens and have been involved with the lives of refugees. The smallest gestures become magnified, and essential. It started with short trips to the port with other volunteers when the borders closed, now there are weekly or twice weekly visits to a squat. Even the larger questions of justice and inequality are subsumed by board games, requests for flip-flops, socks, and hair dye. Fatima asking for shoes, Narghes saying she wants a pair also. Abude insists I come with him to see “the mountain” in a schoolyard where there is no mountain in sight. But he is determined to show me, and takes me by the hand to point through the green awnings a group of Spanish volunteers put across the playground to shelter it from the sun. “You see it?” he wants me to see. And yes, there’s a hill behind the schoolyard that is now occupied by Afghan and Syrian refugees. He was taken there with two of the Spanish volunteers and says, nearly ecstatic, “From up there I could see all of the city!”


Perspective is newly important. Maybe that’s what’s become essential. A part of me, the privileged and educated part of me wants to use that privilege and education to say we can be more than our essential selves. Tell that to someone who barely makes it to a shoreline, I say to myself, someone who makes it with an essential body still intact. The request for a comb by a girl whose teeth are dark with rot, who so carefully makes sure the colors stay within the lines of the drawing she’s made teaches me something else about perspective. That so much has to do with anyone’s priorities. Roberto Bolaño chose to finish his 2666 opus rather than interrupt his work for a kidney transplant he fatally put off. So for Bolaño the more essential impulse was his work, his own teeth weren’t in the greatest shape either.

It seems like almost every time I take the car to the squat (and I take it when there’s a bunch of stuff I’m lugging), I get a parking ticket. Kastro, a Syrian Robin Hood, who has lived in Greece for some 25 years and who finds abandoned buildings for the refugees to squat, says it’s a certain police person who writes tickets at the drop of a hat. He suggests I leave a note on the windshield saying I’m helping out the refugees. I also park right in front of the school building and still get a ticket. The police person is cunning he (I just assume it’s a he), has carefully folded the ticket and left it on the opposite side of the windshield where I have the note. I’m of a mind to wait it out next time, and introduce myself. It’s not as if I’m parked on a sidewalk or anywhere that’s a hindrance, it’s just that that time of day, apparently, cars are ticketed.


I am thinking of tickets and also of the kindness of strangers, and how our traveling is dependent on both. There was a rather sour ticket collector on the train from Basel to Zurich this summer who very haughtily informed me that he didn’t know what kind of ticket I’d handed him; it was a Swiss Air ticket, which was essentially an airline ticket but instead I was taking a train (rather than a plane, Superman). He looked at me coolly and said “Swiss Air doesn’t exist anymore” and that he’s never seen “such a thing,” “thing?” I said equally coolly, adding that whether or not Swiss Air existed I’d paid for the ticket and that maybe he should call his supervisor to take a look at it; the supervisor is much nicer and asks me to explain the ticket so I tell him it was purchased in Athens and that it’s a Swiss Air ticket, “whether that exists now or not” I add, to which he quickly interjects with “yes, it exists”, and after which his frigid colleague asks for my passport and tells me it will be an extra 12 francs for the train, which was fine. I found myself saying to the much nicer supervisor that I was grateful for his politeness, he nodded and wished me a good day.

At the squat I meet new people whose presence gives yet another perspective to my life. Mar has come from Barcelona on her own dime, and she is there to do art with the refugee children. It’s her second visit, she’d spent almost 2 months at the squat, and working at Hotel Oneiro, another shelter, in the summer, and is back this fall, staying nearby where she has to work 3 nights a week for her room and board. Some of the children have become very close to her, and Rama’s family regularly invites her to their corner of space where they make tea and offer her some of their food made on a small burner. She tells me their story, a mother with 7 children, and the mother alone. One day Mar took Rama and his sister Ella to the sea where they swam for the first time since the crossing. The sea was terrifying to Ella, but she got over her fear, and Mar says, was thrilled to be swimming. The children keep in touch with her, someone usually has at least one cell in the family, and “WhatsApp” is the favored cell phone ap. Abude just missed Mar by a couple of days because his sister who is 25 thought they needed to go to Thessaloniki to process their papers. Abude’s mother is in Holland. He is 11, and became very close to Mar in the summer. They talk on the phone and he says he is sad, that the camp where they are staying isn’t good, that the children are wild and he misses the squat.

It’s so strange how these visits have somehow taken over our lives. Alicia sometimes says she doesn’t know what we’re doing, and Mar has come back on barely enough money for her ticket. I leave work once a week and generally feel like it’s a matter of time before someone asks me why I’m not at my desk. After the children draw we ask them to write their names; they’ve taught us certain words in Arabic and Farsi. Ramaz drew a picture on Friday and wanted me to take it because the children tear up her drawings and she wants me to keep it from being torn. I am learning more of their names: Amal, Niaveeh, Hania, Asiel, Ismar, Ibrahim, Hamsa…I am learning that their presence has become as essential to me as our sporadic visits may be for them. Simone Weil writing in 1949 says in “Uprootedness and Nationhood”: “One may say that, in our age, money and the State have come to replace all other bonds of attachment.” Her example was to fight that, and ours too. This is what Mar wrote in her Facebook status update today:


Many of the kids in the shelter had lost a part of their family or they are separated by stupid borders. One of the activities that I make with them is to talk about their family links with the help of paper dolls chains in order to know their situation and to reinforce the idea that sooner or later they will be reunited again. When Tabarak arrived to the 5th school squat in early July, she told me that her father and brother were in Holland and her mother, little sister and herself had been stuck in Greece since March. Yesterday, after many months of bureaucracy, she took a plane to Holland to restore her family links. The night before she told me she was scared about flying… she didn’t realize how brave she is. She survived a war, crossing a death sea, living in extreme conditions in refugee camps… and she never lost her smile or her tenderness. She is one of the most loving, smartest and sweetest persons that I’d ever met and she is only eleven. Good luck, habibi. See you soon. ❤

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Abeer’s Classroom

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

“Dover Beach”, Mathew Arnold


Abeer came up to me with a wide smile and clasped her hands. She said she had news. We had become friends to the extent that she had singled me out in my not always frequent visits to the shelter. Early on she had been pleased two rooms in what might have been a basement of the once abandoned school building the Syrian and Afghan refugees had occupied, was now available to her. Three families who had been using the floors to sleep on had moved out. She was determined to turn the space into a classroom. When she told me this maybe a month ago, the aqua-blue walls with their patches of holes and chipped floors looked pretty dismal. She said she was going to cover them with paper and asked if I could find her some, adding she wanted the paper to be colorful “… if you have some paper for me with lots of color.” She repeated the desire for color when she asked for tacks, “colored pins,” she said, “lots and lots of them to put all over” she gestured, stressing that this would make her students better learners. She was very proud that the students had made a banner on their own with a strip of yellow crepe paper, something we had left behind from an activity. The banner read. “Learning is Fun”. She asked me to help her tape it to the wall. “If learning is not fun there is no learning!” she exclaimed. She said sometimes they were in the classroom till very late, sometimes past midnight.


Another time she asked for “thin paper” which I realized was Xerox paper. I brought her blank paper that wasn’t what she wanted and she repeated the need for “thin paper” so when I did bring her a packet of it she was clearly pleased. She also wanted to know if I could buy ink for the one printer that was in the building. Alicia was getting some donations and other volunteers were crowd sourcing. Sometimes the children and mothers would descend like birds when someone brought something, which was what happened with the flip-flops; people were still wearing closed shoes and it was getting hot. Once we started to bring a few pairs everyone wanted them. I was taken by the hand by one of the young girls and shown a sleeping parent (this was the case with two fathers) so I could see the foot size.

I would think the way we were all thinking that no matter how we felt these realities were extremities we were barely any part of, though Abeer had immediately assumed I would find ways to get her what she needed. And when I did, the list grew; she would ask how much the ink cost; when I said 26 euros she asked if I wanted money. I use the phrase “first world” too often, but I was learning what was not first world was not so much about the accouterments of comfort, though it’s clearly that too, but something to do with a relationship to time, what we do with time when we have it or don’t and how we measure the quality of it with a kind of patience. I really have no ability to imagine what happens when an entire life, let alone a city, is dismantled and have no idea how my own behavior might change but I saw what had been classrooms in the building where some 400 refugees were squatting turned into living spaces, where tents were set up in the rooms, and families living their lives there adjusted to what was offered, how they might or might not accommodate themselves. There were the ongoing necessities – food, water, etc. There was an outbreak of chickenpox, some of the children pointed to their spots and made gestures to show they were itching. A local pharmacy gave us powder for them.


In crisis, time shapes itself quite literally around inhabited physicalities – a body forced out of its home, a body at sea, on the run, shacked up where it finds shelter, becomes a part of its circumstance – once rain flooded the basement floor of the classroom Abeer was setting up, she treated it with as much concern as leaves blown into a room. “What happened!” I’d said one morning, as she was in conversation with another woman, she nodded, “We will bring the mop” and went back to her conversation. Another time I asked if it didn’t tire her that she did so much realizing as I spoke that there was something ridiculous about the question. She used the word “powerful” in a sentence that I don’t remember entirely. She meant she was keeping strong. Beyond the tasks at hand which had to do with her always very specific requests for the classroom – biscuits for the students she wanted to give as rewards, white board markers, colorful pins, a dictionary – we had not said much to one another. I only knew she was from Damascus, and had taught elementary school children there. I avoided questions more personal than someone’s name, where they were from, and if they had family with them. And then Abeer announced that she had her papers. It was then I learned she had two daughters, 18 and 20, and a husband who had made it to Germany.



“I have my ticket,” she said smiling with her hands clasped, “I bought it yesterday, a direct flight to Berlin.” She was very proud to have bought her ticket. I hugged her and she hugged me back. She told me that day she was going to “go to the market to buy gifts.” She has not seen her family in over a year. She has certainly witnessed tragedy. She had put a classroom together in the midst of this, and explained that she needed “to do something”, and couldn’t “only wait.” I offered to drive her to the airport which, like the requests for her classroom supplies, she accepted and let me know I was saving her “about 50 euros” because her bags were too heavy to walk with. I know when I drive her to the airport we will talk more and I will learn things about her life we had not had a chance to talk about and I’ll feel both the exhilaration of her survival and the melancholy of the losses that made it possible, that every time I go back to the shelter the classroom will remind me of the tenderness with which she shaped it out of what she found.




Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! …


…we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.





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The Children

“The opposite of irony is nakedness” Lia Purpura, “Brief Treatise Against Irony”


I was down at the Syrian shelter, or what’s being called ‘Syrian House’ a squat where some 400 people have made a shelter out of an abandoned school. It was the day before Greek, or Orthodox, Easter. There weren’t many people around and things were quiet. It felt peaceful in what’s been an un-peaceful time. Part of a clutch of sporadic volunteers, as Alicia has named the group, my own forays to the port, and now to OM street haven’t been consistent but I find myself spending some part of each week even if for a few hours doing something with the kids or helping out. Some combination of fascination and resistance draws me to these lives. It is perverse too that their uncertainties make my securities feel less consequential.

The children gather in the cement courtyard where they make masks of paper plates, jewelry out of ribbon and pipe cleaners, blow soap bubbles and balloons. There are the grabbers, the organizers, the quietly observing, the politely shy, the eager, the careful, the impatient, the cunning, and any combination of these, and they are learning to repeat words in English as we learn some few words of Arabic. There is a semblance of routine, and real pleasure too when the kids manage concentrate on their activities. I get to know Aktes, and repeat her name until she looks at me in a way that I realize I’m not pronouncing it right so she writes it for me and it is Aqdas, the vowel and consonant combination different and lovely, like Fawat, the young boy of 16 who keeps me company when I spend an afternoon sorting through piles of children and baby clothing. As the children carefully glue their colored feathers on scraps of paper, or draw and write their names I think of the precarities of their surroundings, the homelands they’ve left, and tragedies they’ve seen, as they put care into the detail of a feather, or trace the letters of their names – am I being melodramatic or is this the human drama played out in the flux of structures bent on ignoring the human for that fashionable and scary idea of the post-human – In her treatise against irony Lia Purpura speaks of how irony “prepares for, in advance… [and] won’t admit to heart (too messy, percussive)”, when nakedness, its opposite, makes itself “available to the eyes of others” – and herein lies the rub when you’re in a vulnerable high stakes space – the eyes of others could be in a recognition of our shared lot or the cool look of the privileged drawing lines to border off what might erode presumptions of convenience with all their self-referential language that include “responsibilities to oneself” or “keeping Europe European” as one idiot minister said in one of the European parliaments.

Clarice Lispector might say “ – You see, my love, see how out of fear I’m already organizing, see how I still can’t deal with these primary laboratory elements without immediately wanting to organize hope. Because the metamorphosis of me into myself makes no sense. It’s a metamorphosis in which I lose everything I had.” For the genius of Lispector or the artist more generally or anyone willing to risk a loss of ballast for greater freedoms the wager that will cost you everything is not news but when entire peoples are displaced and dying in their efforts to find refuge and governments are being tone deaf, you wonder at the depths those fears and self-interests, and you know history has been dark with those fears and self-interests that in the end destroyed those self-interests too.


Planks with piles of clothing lying on them in the basement of the building was where Fawat showed me I could help out on Saturday. He was keeping me company by playing various kinds of Urdu and Pashtun music on his phone. He was explaining to me what some of the lyrics meant too, “This is a really ancient song,” he said in perfect English. He used the word “ancient” as opposed to “old” several times. An English class was going on upstairs, and I could hear people repeating the words: “Economy”; “Society”; “Exclusion”; “Seek Unity”; and then the teacher was linking them up into phrases, “We seek unity not exclusion”. While I was sorting tiny baby jumpers from underwear and clothes for older children Kasha, a young mother came in looking for something for her 2 year old, she said she’d been up since dawn and had 6 children she was shaking her head, “everyone wants mama mama mama…” I nodded and laughed and she smiled.



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The porous [boundary

Border: noun

  • the part or edge of a surface or area that forms its outer boundary
  • the line that separates one country, state, province, etc., from another; frontier line: You cannot cross the border without a visa
  • the district or region that lies along the boundary line of another

Touch: verb

  • to put your hand, fingers, etc., on someone or something
  • to be in contact with (something)
  • to change or move (something)

It’s raining. Lighting breaks the night. The people in tents are getting wet. Amalia just got back from Xios. Soaked people kept coming up from the beaches, she said; she and others helped strip the bodies of wet pants, shirts. The people didn’t care what parts of their bodies were being touched as she helped them into dry clothing, undressed and dressed them, made tea. Alicia tells me to bring a sheet or blanket to cover the concrete where we’ll go for a few hours to entertain the kids. One girl keeps holding my hand when I get up to get something from the car. A woman watches me as we cross the street. The children are gathered on the blanket drawing and painting, like birds around thrown seeds.

“These are the people who didn’t drown,” Alicia says, the people who continue to let go of the known for the all-too-physical unknown, in tents, using towels and blankets for make-shift spaces to sleep. This physicality starts to obsess me; there are borders of geography, fenced and walled check-points, and the borders, too, of physical need, of hunger, getting a period, being sick, needing to pee, giving birth, – I lay on my sheets after a visit to the port, my sheets never felt more comfortable, and cry – I pick up packets of sanitary napkins to give to a volunteer group at E1. Another day I open the shopping bag with the colored makers and chalk and offer a Kurdish woman a packet of them. She shakes  her head but thanks me. Two Syrian women, one in pale lavender and another in brown, seem so strangely ethereal, their hands clean, their hijabs made of what might have been silk. They could have been going out, or leaving someone’s house after a visit but they are walking across the port’s concrete from their tents. Their unruffled faces are a mystery to me – what will they look like in a month? Another woman is sweeping up trash beside the ground covered in some blankets. I use our broom, hers is straw; we gather the trash. They had come over from one of the islands on one of the boats. I’m appalled to learn everyone pays regular passenger fees. The Greek state is absent here too. Amidst the humanitarian efforts, are activities of a dark tourism. The sorting, feeding, and sustaining is being done by volunteer groups, some very efficient and organized people.

Rebecca Solnit‪ asked this question in a March 5 FB post: … Once the socialist cultural critic Raymond Williams said that, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. Where do you stand on this?

These responses resonated:

Ruth Wallen‪: … It is fear of feeling that leads to paralysis, getting stuck in despair. Most importantly we need to cultivate our ability to feel fully, to act from sadness which is inevitable if we open our hearts, but also from the gratitude and possibility that comes simultaneously if we feel our own aliveness.

Annie Shattuck‪: Despair is almost always reactionary – (Sasha Lilley’s great work on Catastrophism reminds us just how this is so). I think people misunderstand hope. We attach to it, as if hope means a certain outcome. Hope does not promise anything. It asks us to be present with what is, and to imagine and then to practice what could be.

Yassin, who might have been 16, helped us clean up. He was in good spirits and spoke some English. Alicia gets the kids to share markers and chalk and reuse some of the pipe cleaners she’s brought which they are so happily blowing their bubbles through. Alicia has made a concoction out of suds. This second time I go to the port there are less Syrians, more Kurds, the men get involved too, drawing and writing, especially flags and names. One woman paints the colors of the Kurdish flag on a pastry she’s shaped out of play dough.

A young man comes over to say it’s kind of us to make the children happy but that this isn’t solving the problem, the toilets are a mess and the borders closing, that “Europe is treating us badly”; he has come alone from Turkey, his brother is in Jordan. He is hoping to make it to Germany, studied engineering, and is 32. A Lexus jeep pulls up and an elderly couple come out; the woman has a bag of croissants she hands out to the children, only one or two of them take the croissants and she wants to know why they won’t take them. “Because it’s not really food,” I tell her. Alicia saw Yassin some days later at another help point; he was in less hopeful spirits, and began to cry. On the metro going home a family of Syrians are on their way to the Larissa station where they were told they could get a bus to the Macedonian border. The man translates the Arabic into English on his phone for me so I understand what he is asking. They are a large group, two elderly men, a younger man, the man’s wife, and their two children; they are carrying carefully folded blankets tied together and backpacks. If it wasn’t for the blankets and the question of directions, they looked as if they could have been on their way to any city in Europe for a vacation.

Annie Shattuck is right “Hope does not promise anything. It asks us to be present with what is… to practice what could be,” this family, like so many traveling to a now-closed border are carrying their hopes to a place where

  • the line that separates one country, state, province, etc., from another; frontier line [will tell them…] You cannot cross the border without a visa

we can only hope they will manage to touch people

  • to change or move (something)





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“How will I ever eat fish again, or swim in the sea, but I will eat fish and swim in the sea,” says Katerina.


How do you speak of days imbued with the halcyon sun as dead bodies wash up on the Aegean’s shores?

Or write when the writing never quite expresses what you are trying to express? I think writing, like our speaking, is a way to outwit chronology, dodge the banalities of cause & effect, and complicate effects. The causes are too big, too concrete anyway. So why waste time and spirit discussing the corruption, the compromise, the evil Arendt already described as banal. Anyway apart from the very concreteness of death, there are gradations of “dying to live” to crudely paraphrase Lorca.

I stopped writing the blog, or maybe it was a pause because I’ve been trying to channel the writing elsewhere… and then last night Grigori called, an ex student who, like other ex students, is now a friend, and he wanted to know why I had not blogged in awhile.

There’s always so much to do I tell him and he agrees and tells me that he is out of work but looking for work as he studies to be an ophthalmologist after his degree in English. We talk of other people out of work, and Natasha who will go to study creative writing in Scotland. I am suddenly feeling less burdened, happy to hear of this. It’s been a long time. It’s been months of not very good news all around.

I suppose I want to speak beyond what’s happening here even if what’s happening here has larger resonances than what’s geographically happening here. I think I want to speak less about “inside voices” with its connotation of entrapment, and more about sensations of living in precarity, to be conscious in that space as Katrina was saying. Being conscious and alert is its own challenge; one Katerina considers a privilege of being alive.

As I was cleaning beets in the sink, cutting off their roots and watching the pure burgundy spread over the white basin, I thought of the beheadings going on (not an invited image…). Cutting the beets had me reluctantly imagining what must take place when another human being is objectified in that pure totalitarian moment of an executioner’s unquestioned purpose. It’s war’s horror, that we kill each other to maintain an ideology, national purpose, border … the worst of history seems to boil down to that Freudian paradigm … how much easier to project onto some Other than deal with your own crap. Someone described one of the terrorists in last November’s Paris attack as slick, outfitted in leather. I’d read it somewhere in a newspaper, and think it was someone renown who happened to be there. Fascism is all about looking good and keeping that image intact while you dis-member those who threaten the delusion. Whole races have been wiped out for the sake of such. I’ve been teaching the Puritans and they were as fanatic as any group with their errand, I don’t think the Native Americans had a chance in that typology. But turning others into an object of projection is the mindset that allows refugee bodies to drown in the thousands.

There was a man at the stop lights today, his arm withered to the size of a twig and one of his front teeth strangely longer than the rest. He smiled and smiled when he asked for any change I might have and when I shrugged that I didn’t have anything he kept smiling and I was mortified. People don’t usually want their borders touched. They don’t want to be unsettled. I couldn’t stop thinking of him, that he didn’t stop smiling. Ruptures are never invited but you can’t deny them because they’re devastating. It’s Martin Buber’s whole premise in I and Thou, the reciprocity of a subject-to-subject relationship as opposed to an I-It exchange that makes a thing of the other, one we can detach from.

So here’s a poem titled so simply “Love” by Czeslaw Milosz that Anastasia posted, if only we could remember that simplicity, because we really are a mess. I wish Grigori would call me more often.

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills—

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

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