My dear friend Erin, with some help from Alexander Pope, likes to remind me that “hope springs eternal.”
With all the love for Erin and poetry alike, I struggle to believe in eternally springing hope this week.
One of the disorienting aspects of watching the crisis in Greece unfold from afar as an immigrant involves reckoning with joy. On Saturday night, on the eve of the referendum on austerity measures in Greece (or, depending on whom you ask, on the future of the Euro and our lives as we know them), I found myself sitting next to a two-year-old. Every four minutes, like clockwork, he would exclaim “Fireworks! … Fireworks!”
Fireworks, indeed. Eight different displays of them, in fact, all visible from the same porch. We were splayed against lawn furniture, the type that defined the image of New England for me before I could identify the region on a map. Since I ever watched those Steve Martin Father of the Bride movies with Greek subtitles in the early 1990s, I have wanted an Adirondack chair, even before I knew its name. On the day I graduated from my MA program, Elijah bought me a red one, as though to hint in jest that I had earned a blissful summer in America. As though one earns bliss. The red chair now leans against our kitchen wall, impervious to the fact that it belongs on a lawn. On every blizzard this winter, I trotted it out to sit in and watch the snow fall.
The immigrant experience is defined by incongruence and the innocuous disregard for it.
Eight displays of fireworks here, and a country on the brink there. Fourth of July in America, and I scroll through Twitter feeds narrating a different story of life at my birthplace. Independence Day here, complete with jubilation and celebration and abundance and yes, maybe even some hamburgers with a side of exceptionalism. Immigrant clocks are internal, like the body clocks that tell you that you are jet lagged and need to sleep, even when it is broad daylight where your feet are touching the ground. These aren’t my fireworks, but I am close enough to feel them land in the water. There is an emotional jet lag to living by the clock of my homeland in a world in which that clock does not set everyone else’s time.
What, then, to do with the disorienting contrasts? With the joy in whose path we stumble? Can we really expect the world to pause? If we were to listen to W.H. Auden’s poetry instead of Alexander Pope’s, should we “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, silence the pianos […]”? A generous helping of grief has taught me to demand more nuance from empathy than denying the possibility of a giggle in the face of suffering. It has taught me to hold multiple, often surreal, truths in one embrace and to see and inhabit parallel universes: jubilation next to despair, abundance next to loss. Life next to life.
I sit at work, a browser tab on synthesizing evidence-based research in the humanitarian field open next to one on the developments in Greece. A third tab captures my Twitter feed, in which a journalist reports on a $125 cocktail. My “different lives, different worlds, all sitting next to each other in the same universe” attempt at moral relativism collapses well before a $125 cocktail. A $125 cocktail. A need! A right! An aspiration, even! Tell me it is not the same social distancing that at once legitimizes a $125 cocktail and invisibilizes the indignities and inequalities a half a world (or half a block) away.
Most of the abundance and jubilation in my word ‘here’ does not look like a $125 cocktail.
It isn’t as flagrant or as provocative.
It looks like fireworks and a porch.
It looks like a two-year-old, chanting “fireworks! … fireworks!” with the anticipation of someone who has just learned to be excited about them.
It looks like daily life going on. It looks like life next to life.
This is one of the disorienting effects of a crisis witnessed from afar, and yet reverberating ever so near: the abundance of distant-but-proximate pain makes joy feel incongruent, illegitimate. And any system that makes joy feel inappropriate is only further entrenching indignity.
Even when I struggle to believe in poetry, Erin and I both believe in “the universe winking.” This phrase of ours, dubbed with no help from Alexander Pope this time, sounds equal parts sacred and superstitious. If the universe is winking at all these days, the exhausting cycle of uncertainty-hope-confusion-possibility-fear-exhilaration-despair makes it hard to notice.
On my walk home tonight, my music shuffle felt determined to remind me of my hand being held by this maybe-winking universe. First, Going to California by Led Zeppelin. “The girl with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair,” scribbled on the first love note Elijah ever snuck into my belongings during those early days when love tasted almost entirely like possibility. Followed by Float On, the song that accompanied one of my dearest friends and me through manic cleaning of our dorm room during my very first New England blizzard. “There is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen would say, but even seeing the crack and the light comes with its own disorientation.
A block from home, I notice daffodils sprouting from the ground. Wild daffodils. In July. Daffodils are my February flowers. My favorite flower shop starts stocking them in mid-winter, when seemingly nothing else blooms. The florist anchors my sense of a Boston home. This is the florist who remembered me after I returned here after years on the road — the florist who remembered me as “the girl who once fainted in my flower shop and who bought herself flowers every week — did you finally find yourself a nice boy to buy you flowers?!” This is the florist with whom I argue neither about heteronormativity nor self-sufficiency because we speak daffodils. In the language of yet another poet, Nayyirah Waheed, in her collection titled Salt: “Can we speak in flowers. It will be easier for me to understand.”
Daffodils are my snow flowers, the middle of winter hope that–you win, Erin and Alexander Pope–may even spring eternal sometimes. They are my grief flowers and my optimism flowers. The you-have-survived-so-much-and-there-are-still-yellow-blossoms-that-hold-your-sunniness. Life next to life. I carried a bunch of them to city hall on the morning of my wedding, past the piles of snow and slush. Grief next to love. Yellow next to white. Life next to life.
There were daffodils sprouting from the pavement on a muggy Boston evening in mid-July. The universe still winks. I don’t know if daffodils bloom in Greece this season. I don’t know if I will wake up tomorrow with that same sense of miracle as I felt walking past the daffodils, or if that sense of awe will feel quite as incongruent as it did today. Hope may not spring eternal. But if I can choose one type of dignity to cling to, it is the right to not have joy–fleeting, surprising, daffodil-fueled joy–feel inappropriate. Daffodils can grow next to worry. Life next to life.