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The work of politics

What does it mean to lead political lives?

 
There is a sense of grief and fear among many of our communities. The rituals of grief themselves help: Feed our bodies, even when they can’t feel hunger. Lay down to rest, even when sleep does not come. Grief is real and, like a fire, it needs tending.
 
A recurrent worry among friends has been the ease with which normalization sets in: how quickly some of us feel better, how the despair evaporates. I turn here to Paul Farmer, who, in describing his work in Haiti, once articulated that the best way for him to be of service was not to constantly be in despair — it was not to attempt to ‘blend in.’ It was, in his view, to use his power to do the work the Haitians in the communities he knew needed him to do. Tears give rise to work, as does guilt. Despair is political. But they also eat us from within, and we cannot do our best work when we are sobbing. So let’s embrace the soft recoveries, the return of an appetite, the return to some routines. They make space for the work.
 
What does it look like to do political work in the every day? Voting is not the only political act. We need to look beyond the realm of ‘high, formal politics’ to the politics that govern which lives are grievable. I keep reading, particularly among liberal allies who share a lot of the policy priorities but who do not necessarily actively practice political work between elections, that “we must start working.” To that, I earnestly say: Welcome. The work has been going on — slowly, quietly, invisibly, in the margins, often done by the most marginalized.
 
The work of politics is walking people between their cars and the doors of Planned Parenthood, past the screaming people calling you names and holding placards of dead fetuses.
 
The work of politics is showing up at the immigration clinic and helping translate documents or fill out forms.
 
The work of politics is donating money to support those organizations that have been asking (and answering) “what can I do to help?” for ages, particularly if that question feels paralyzing to individuals who are new to it.
 
The work of politics is realizing that ‘this’ did not happen just ‘because of racism’, or just ‘because of sexism’. It is realizing that oppressions are interlinked. That, in the words of Audre Lorde, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
 
The work of politics is diagnosing power. Complacency, too, is a political act. What power do we each hold? What privileges? It is not just immigration lawyers and gynecologists and environmental groups that have the knowledge and skills and abilities to effect change. When we do not do the work, we shift the burden of change entirely on the shoulders of those who have experienced layered inequalities and injustices.
 

Time is political. Literacy is political. Money is political. Whiteness is political. Heterosexuality is political. These are all sites of power, as are others. Know yours, and demand from your loved ones to diagnose their own. And let that be the starting point.

The work of politics is demanding politics from our friends — from those who are, in principle, allies, but who do not treat allyship like a muscle that needs to be exercised. It is the discomfort of asking a friend to articulate her commitments and to live them in the day to day — just as oppression is lived in the day to day. It is the discomfort of having us question ourselves and having our friends question us. It is the power that emanates from that discomfort.

The work of politics is noticing the all-male-panel, the all-white-panel, the constructed expertise. It is noticing who shapes the narrative and from where they presume to derive their authority. It is paying attention to those who will tell you that we have urgent issues now, and that your counting black women on a panel can wait till later. The work of politics is questioning ‘later.’

Finally: love is political. It is overflowing right now. It is the friend who has offered to help undocumented immigrants in any way they can, including providing a physical space for them in their home. It is the friend who has texted to let me know they will not let anything bad happen to me.
 

Let us practice a non-exceptional love. Let us love the precarious immigrant in our lives by protecting not her, but the people like her we do not know, the people more vulnerable than her.

In the words of Cheryl Strayed: “Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” Let the despair many feel today not be the end, but the beginning of the opening. Let us acknowledge that, for many, this is not the beginning — this is the continuation of hate they have lived, fear they have inhabited, and struggles they have been launching their whole lives. Let us know how we have undermined those struggles and reinforced those fears with our complicity and silences.

And, eight months from now, on a beautiful spring day, let us remember that the struggle continues, even when some do not see it, even when the despair has lifted. Our work must continue too.

Taking feminist questions seriously

What would we see differently in the world if we took feminist questions seriously?

Cynthia Enloe has written extensively about what she terms ‘the gendered politics of seriousness‘. If feminist questions weren’t sidelined–for later, for when we’ve solved ‘the real crisis’, the ‘urgent issues’–what would we be thinking about?

On Sunday, 6,431,376 Colombians outvoted 6,377,482 of their compatriots to reject the peace accords that would mark the formal end of a 52-year civil war. There are many thoughtful pieces that seek to explain what happened: here, and here, and here too. To them, I add some of what I ask when I try to take feminist questions seriously.

Taking feminist questions seriously would prompt one to notice that the peace table is shrinking. The negotiations process boasted consultations with those recognized as victims, with women’s groups, with female ex-combatants from various conflicts, and with international researchers who could shed light on a variety of issues the negotiators deemed essential for crafting a comprehensive agreement. And yet, three days after the failed referendum, much of the future of the peace process hangs on the fate of a meeting between current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former President (and current Senator) Álvaro Uribe. Where is the gender sub-commission now? After pronouncements that victims are at the heart of the peace process, where are they now?

Taking feminist questions seriously would invite curiosity about whom the referendum has made into a constituency of his own, and from where these closed-door-meeting constituencies derive their power. It would trigger questions about where power really lies. The Santos-Uribe meeting has become the space for decisions. “Civil society consultations” have now shrunk to an encounter of (often militarized) masculinity. If decision-making still–so many years later, as though it’s 2009 again–hinges on a Santos-Uribe meeting, how much power really lies in the consultative mechanisms? Who is the first to be dropped from the peace table, from the serious discussions, when matters become urgent?

In The Curious Feminist, Enloe turns her feminist attention to urgency. Who gets to pronounce matters urgent and what actions are justified in the face of urgency? Whose lives and questions become trivialized as a result? In one of the recent performances of urgency, militarization (and yes, militarized masculinity), President Santos announced that the ceasefire between the government and the FARC would expire on October 31. Many–myself included–have suggested that, though there may be other reasons underlying this announcement too, Santos needed to “look tough”, to “signal toughness against the guerrilla”, to reassure the No voters that he was not giving in to the FARC. Indeed, upon the conclusion of one day of meetings with President Santos, Uribe declared that the peace accord had been ‘weak.’ The feminist eye asks: What does toughness look like and what actions does it invite? How does it make itself appear essential?

Taking feminist questions seriously would require asking who speaks for ‘victims.’ Victimhood is contested terrain. It is not just a description of harm, nor merely an identity. It is a legal and political status, it is a form of power. Victimhood is a fragmented site: there is no singular, uniform agenda to which those recognized as victims subscribe, just as there is no singular, uniform experience of violence. Brushing over these gradations and contestations, the mantle of victimhood–and its consequent associations with innocence and the illusion of an uncomplicated purity–has become the weapon to wield to justify decisions across the political spectrum. The Victims: proper noun of legitimacy, obscurer of contradictions and differences.

In the name of The Victims, some voted against the peace deal. In the name of The Victims, the Head of the Americas desk at Human Rights Watch called the peace agreement “a piñata of impunity.” In the name of The Victims, some have vowed that the only way forward is for the FARC to die or spend the rest of their lives in prison. Taking feminist questions seriously would require asking: What gives rise to authority to speak for those recognized as victims? What about those who suffered harm but their recognition remains contested, invisible, or silenced? And what would happen if, rather than categorizing violence, we listened directly to those who have experienced it in ways that defy classification?

Meanwhile, “the places with the highest rate of ongoing conflict, which might have seemed most likely to vote against a peace deal that offered such incentives over harsh justice, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the deal.”

 Meanwhile, organized victims’ groups, human rights activists, students and allies are marching for peace. Meanwhile, is is human rights activists, individuals who suffered harm and, yes, even current and former combatants, who are doing the emotional care-taking of the Day After. Taking feminist questions seriously would prompt noticing the invisible labor of care, the draining but important work of fueling hope. In my world, the first messages of “this is not over” and “we still have work to do” and “we persist towards peace” emerged from those who have already lost unimaginably much. Grief, ever the teacher of compassion. We take turns holding the anger and the hope, the despair and the optimism. Taking feminist questions seriously prompts one to ask: Who can afford persistent dispassion?

Taking the feminist questions seriously comes with knowing that someone, sooner or later, will tell you that “this is not about gender.” And, in the next breath, it comes with knowing that someone–perhaps that same someone–will point out that it was because you made it about gender that you weakened a movement. Natalio Cosoy provides a thoughtful account of how the incorporation of a gender analytical perspective into the peace agreement caused some to fear that traditional notions of family and restricted notions of sexuality and gender performance were coming under threat. Taking the feminist questions seriously: What gets constructed as threatening? Who gets to be labeled ‘normal’, ‘traditional’ and ‘the default’, and whose lives become ‘diverse’, ‘anomalous’ and, indeed, threatening? Who does the labeling?

Taking the feminist questions seriously invites scrutiny of the politics of knowledge production.

Who gets to provide the ‘expert quote’–indeed, who introduces themselves as an expert? Who is slotted in to consistently narrate victimhood? And when we–myself included–consistently seek to make sense of developments in the so-called ‘global South’ by comparing them to our reference points in the ‘global North’ (“the new Brexit”), what does that tell us about the coloniality of knowledge?

These are not just my questions, and this is not the ‘just’ of modest hesitation that women are told to edit out of their speech patterns because it makes them appear weak. (Taking feminist questions seriously: Whose speech is policed and prescribed? Whose speech sets the standard for what strength sounds like?) Feminists the world over have been asking questions like this, in whatever language they speak, and in whichever words resonate in their context. Feminists have been doing the–often quiet, often marginal(ized), often silent (and silenced)–work of answering them. Taking feminist questions seriously requires asking: What will it take for all of us to retrain our feminist curiosities, to reset our sense of seriousness?

Snapped

Iceland edits R - 70

On my last day in Guatemala seven years ago, I bought myself a ring.

I had never worn rings prior to this. I was not looking for a ring. But as I wandered the streets in a farewell nod to a place I had called home that year, this small jade ring felt welcome in my life. I had just completed the first year of work in a new field for me. It has turned out to be my life’s work. I had just begun living in the questions I now call home. The most gratifying part was that I knew it then–I had the inklings of a person who had just stumbled into a question in which she had wanted to live.

The ring looked like an eye and I have worn it on my right hand every day for the past seven years.

There was the day it fell behind a radiator in Kentucky and I turned a whole house upside down looking for it, fearing the dog had eaten it. There was the night I thought I left it behind in a guesthouse in Sudan and turned the car around, at risk of missing my flight, so I could find it. The ring was a grounding presence. It held a side of me–a beginning, a promise to myself of a life I wished to live.

From Sudan to Mexico and from Colombia to Greece, it has been mistaken for my wedding ring. I noted the way in which ring fingers provide an intelligible system of classification: single or euphemistically ‘spoken for’. I registered the anxiety around disorienting classifications, the “do Greeks wear wedding rings on that finger? Is that a wedding ring?” Still, this is a perception I have not always corrected. It has saved me from harassment and has unwittingly told stories I would not tell. It represented a commitment to myself that I made before other vows, and through them, and after them.

I grew up in a family that frowned on self-indulgence. I wish I had learned the difference between self-care and self-indulgence earlier. I wish self-care had been modeled to me. I wish that space had been made for wine and popcorn and endless walks around the block until something shifts in your heart. I wish I had grown up speaking the language of hearts.

But languages are learned, and so is care. I remember thinking at the very moment of purchasing the ring that my mother would frown at the thought of my having bought something non-essential, something for myself. It was an act of quiet defiance.

In the words of Nayyirah Waheed in her poetry collection Salt:

“i love myself.”

the

quietest.

simplest.

most powerful.

revolution.

ever.

***

2015, Iceland. I kept the ring in my coat pocket, so the dips in and out of thermal springs would not erode the jade. We circumnavigated a whole country to the sound of the same 7 tracks by Olafur Arnalds on the CD player of a Jimney. In the north, near Akyureri, we noticed hearts hanging on every window. We were on our honeymoon. We could not help but notice hearts.

Iceland had been a wishful site of my imagination ever since I started to understand wanderlust. When my father got me a subscription to National Geographic in Greece, I would tear out the Iceland pages. They still live in my childhood bedroom in Thessaloniki, next to the posters of Leonardo  DiCaprio (I know) and stacks of Nancy Drew and Babysitters Club books that taught me English. As soon as my father got me a subscription to our dial-up internet–with the modem connecting being the sound that defined my teenage years–the images of Iceland online made me want to be a photographer. It was an almost Orientalist gaze, except displaced to tend to harsh landscapes near the Arctic. Canyons and waterfalls and volcanoes and black lava and moss were not the images of my childhood, but they quickly populated the landscape of my imagination.

There was a wish fulfillment quality to this trip. I do not believe in the disappointment of the proximity to fulfilling a dream and the fear that it will not live up to the hype. I still recall standing in front of the floating icebergs in Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and experiencing an inarticulable, mindfully present sense of awe.

I was prepared for that, and surprised by it at once — a twinned fortune. I was not prepared for the hearts everywhere. When we got to our guesthouse near Akyureri, I googled their significance. (My teenage self would have been in awe at the idea of demystifying hearts through an internet search. My current self is too). The internet told me the hearts became a fixture during the financial crisis, “when there was a need for some positive thinking and to put emphasis on what really matters.

I thought I was fluent in the language of crisis. In my lexicon, it did not come with red traffic lights in the shape of hearts. When we first noticed this phenomenon, we deliberately missed our turn at the light, just to make sure we had not imagined it. (There are that few cars in the north of Iceland during the off season.) When we confirmed that the lights, too, blinked like hearts, we deliberately slowed down when we approached them, hoping for a red one.

I came home from that trip with a heart that is hanging on the window. When the wind blew, you could hear its wooden shell bang against everything around it. I refused to let this reminder of its existence bother me.

***

A week ago, during an unusually blustery early September evening in the outskirts of Boston, the window heart crashed against the sill and broke.

At dinner tonight, the ring snapped off my finger. I was not forcing it. My hand was not swollen. It was a night like any other night.

***

In a conversation this morning, with my ring still on my finger then, and with reference to an unrelated topic, my friend E in Greece wrote: “There is no hidden meaning. There is no ambiguity. The sea, and people, just exist.”

It is tempting to enumerate the losses. It is as though listing them out, shouting them even, will make the grief legible. In a poem I have carried with me for years, Elizabeth Bishop writes, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” An incomplete list of what I have lost this year: sleep, Greek words, a red bookshelf, Spanish words, a tea kettle, a window heart, a ring. Even losses are marked by their silences and erasures.

I keep running my thumb over my naked ring finger. I have worn the ring for so long, under so many suns, that it has tanned itself on my finger. A presence still there, even after the ring itself has snapped.

Ethnographies of celebration

I choose not to write directly about my research in this space as it unfolds. Instead, here is a mini-ethnography of what happens in its margins.IMG_3154

In my 7 years of returning to Colombia, there always comes a point at which I arrive at the same realization: I have not packed nearly enough sequins.

This country demands sequins. They are sprinkled at baby showers (without any warnings about choking hazards because the United States, this is not), at a friend’s 10-year-anniversary-in-Colombia dinner, even at divorce parties. Colombians know how to honor an occasion, from love to loss, with an unstated but palpable awareness that most celebrations carry a tinge of both. As a fellow anthropologist remarked after the third glass of a wine on a Wednesday, this country inspires an “ethnography of rumba.”

***

I have learned not to bring up Gabriel García Márquez gratuitously in front of Colombians. The reference to him can invite an exasperated reaction of the type I give when someone asks me, with insufficient facetiousness, if modern Greeks believe in Zeus. While Gabo, coffee, and cocaine have left different markings on the legacy of this country, they are all part of  what Chimamanda Adichie would call its ‘single story‘. It is a story that Colombians know how to perform, indulge, or even forgive, but it misses the texture of their ordinary Tuesdays.

The stories at these besequined Tuesday night celebrations always bring my thoughts back to Gabo. There was the story of a family hiring the local paramilitary group to steal back their belongings from thieves. Or the one about the couple chasing each other around their apartment with knives after a domestic dispute on whether to have children. My instinctive reaction is horror. An “ufff!” effortlessly escapes. Colombians are attached to their auditory feelings: “Whooshhhh”, “ufffff”, “uyyyyyy.” Anthropological transcripts of a conversation are incomplete if unpunctuated by repeated consonants.

Horror, however, is not expected of you. You are expected to attempt to figure out who the couple was, or to say your neighbors, too, once tried to hire a different armed group when their cable was unjustly disconnected. Or, at a minimum, you are expected to appreciate the absurdity. There is a level of discretion to the way in which these Macondo-evoking tales are shared, and you replicate it when you retell them. You have made so many composite characters, anonymized so many infractions, switched defining characteristics for enough people that you no longer recall the original ones. The anthropologist in you knows you cannot anonymize a life story, be it about infidelity or violence. You know that every distortion, however deliberate and protective of an identity, is its own tiny violence.

***

I am standing outside with the smokers. I quit smoking 11 years too soon for this country (and not soon enough for me). The sidewalk smells of cigarettes and hairspray. The blowdryers of Bogotá start their day at 5 AM. On my first year in Colombia, I lived with a hairstylist and a photographer. When I motioned towards the door with my still damp hair piled on top of my head, they let out a synchronized shriek. “You cannot go interview ex-combatants like this!” In their assessment, demobilization required a bouncy curl.

I wonder what it would be like to enter these spaces in the body of my male colleagues. This is not a question born of lamentation. I have learned to enjoy these insights into expectations of femininity, and to approach the performances of femininity with curiosity.

I have also learned that the body is more accessible here, that an invisible bubble is not draped over it. I gesture emphatically like the Mediterranean public speaker I am, prompting a woman to look at my unvarnished nails and gently point out that “mira, it’s very cheap to get them done here.” I sit next to a couple in the airport waiting area and notice them playing a game un-euphemistically known as tetas, whereby you try to guess whether they– the butts, the noses, the boobs, you name it– are real or fake. I stand next to my friend at yet another weekend celebration of a life event, this time at a mountain lodge. We are both naked on a plastic tarp while two women are rubbing a sugary exfoliating liquid on our skin to “cleanse our energy.” I try to resist both the quotation marks and embarrassment.

The body here is on parade, accessible to vision and commentary, to the curling of a hair and to touch. These are all racialized and class-ed rituals, requiring a curiosity about who gets called princesa and su merced, about whose hair is getting curled and who does the curling. Violating expectations of racialized and classed femininity is met with raised eyebrows. Among the many ways in which the white, classist patriarchy preserves itself–the many ways in which we are complicit in it–is through raised eyebrows at the bus you the gringa want to take, the neighborhood in which you want to live, or the restaurant at which you want to eat.  You have more choice than almost anyone, but the expectations of a narrow, rigid, classed femininity dictate that you exercise choice only at its uppermost boundary.

Anthropologists love to talk about the “embodied researcher.” Paul Rabinow threw up all over the side of Moroccan roads and knew to pay anthropological attention, even to food poisoning. Timothy Pachirat has said that “in ethnography, you are the instrument of research.” Many of these conversations center on a contrast with social science approaches that embrace, even unwittingly, an illusion of objectivity: the thought that we can observe a world without being part of it. A key feminist and ethnographic tenet I have sought to live in my own work has been to ask what violence and injustice look like, feel like, taste like in the every day. I am less interested in theoretical patriarchy than in its embodied manifestation. I had underestimated the extent to which this would require having my cuticles pushed and my butt quietly assessed for realness.

***

Three hours later, back at that same smokers’ huddle. I hesitate at the doorway about whether I am allowed to bring my glass of wine outside. My Colombian friend laughs out loud and considers it the ultimate marker of American-ness. It doesn’t matter that I am still an immigrant who cannot vote in a US election, or that in the moments in which my heart yearns for Europe, I ache for wine on sidewalks. The marker of nationality lies in that learned hesitation.

Wine makes language flow faster. I have done a significant piece of my work and research in Spanish for 7 years now. When I first began, I would formulate sentences with the goal of avoiding the subjunctive, leading to a Spanish entirely devoid of wishes or hope. I am now stepped in the Spanish language of atrocity.

The trouble with that is that in a bar, unsuspecting revelers do not take seamlessly to being asked whether their family members were disappeared. The Spanish of celebration was newer to me, as was the Spanish of hair salons, or even the Spanish of my own life story. I recall the difference in the use of the past tenses by how you would say how I old I was when my father died.

Responding to “how was your year?” requires a meditative consideration of every word. My Spanish away from research and the conflict demands honesty: I have not narrated these stories ten times already, almost from memory. Finding the words is an invitation to consider the truth of these narratives again, and how important their re-telling is to me. And letting some words go, leaving some subjunctives undeclined, is an exercise in both surrender and humility.

“Do you believe in love?” I am joined outside by a fellow non-smoker. To my left, a Colombian friend is reminding someone my name. He pronounces it the way it would be pronounced at home in Greece: Roxani, the name of my childhood. In Colombia, I am so often Rossan, an x replaced with a whispering s. When I wake up with extra whimsy, I introduce myself as “Roxanne, como la canción.” Inevitably, someone sings to me. When they wake up with whimsy, they rename my coffee cup to avoid the x’s and songs altogether.

“Do you believe in love?”

I am ambushed by the question. This is the third or fourth smoking break of the night. At every one of them, I consider whether I could slip out quietly, indulge my closet introversion and go to sleep. A friend on the other side of the world mocks the premise of extroverted introversion altogether: “Have you ever heard anyone in the so-called global South use the introvert-extrovert distinction?” I want to respond “But have you heard of Susan Cain? You really can be an introvert who tolerates extroversion in pockets!” I realize I do not have the words for this in Spanish, and forfeit the battle. I will be out for six more hours, not out of being dragged out or failing to leave, but out of a contagious commitment to celebration, and to finding the words.

It has always mattered to me to locate the words for love. The weight of words feels different in each language: I love you feels like a different commitment than σ’αγαπώ than the ordered scale ranging from te deseo to te amo. Over the years, I have found the words for grief and disappearance and patriarchy in many languages. Over the years, I seem to have lost the words for love. And yet, in this moment, I cannot find the words for unbelief.

***

3 AM on a Wednesday. “Sweet Child of Mine” is blasting around me and I am rehearsing the opening questions of the next morning’s research interview in my head. Every time a friend convinces me that we need to go to one more place for one more dance, I say “after we leave this one though, we need to get food.” It seems that every empanada at the street corner has meat in it. It will be a popcorn at 4 AM night, and I will feel 23 again.

There is a hint of emotional jet lag to these moments. The Greeks would call it desynchronosis, and it is only appropriate that the first bout of it for me this summer unfolded in Greece. It was my first time returning to my homeland with a self-identity defined  to be more than ‘immigrant’ or ‘grieving daughter’. The task was to co-manage a refugee research project on how refugees cross borders and what challenges they face along the way. On some days, that meant listening to interpreters’ love stories. On others, it meant celebrating the end of Ramadan under a bridge at the port. On almost every day, it meant wrapping my mind around the entrapment of refugees who are stuck under this bridge at the port as luxury cruise passengers disembark a few meters away from them.

And at night: Lebanese food on the terrace of a restaurant. Tsipouro. Stories exchanged with a kindred spirit in the next room, drowned by giggles and the whirr of a fan in the midst of a heat wave. An outdoor movie theater showing a French film. You will send everyone you know who visits Greece to an outdoor movie theater, so they too can feel the particular magic of Marion Cotillard on a screen, early summer breeze on a face, a hint of mosquito repellent in the air and all the saltiness of the sunflower seeds that get caught in between teeth and a retainer relic of teenage years.

And the next day: Marveling at being able to catch a glimpse of the Acropolis on the way to work. I grew up here. The shadow of the Acropolis should not surprise me. And yet, it still sparks awe. When the day ends, the rest of the research team, interpreters, and I type notes at a cafe with bright green chairs. The owners treat us to portokalopita, a citrusy sweet cake. “This is our solidarity with refugees,” one of them says, reminding you to not allow xenophobia to wipe away your ability to see kindness.

On your first weekend day off–first in a month–you start to drive down the Peloponnese. Your eyes fill with blue and green, and you wonder how you ever could have left this country and its seas. You haven’t forgotten why, but you wonder whether your eyes could remember how to be here again, whether they would ever acclimatize to this wonder. Whether they would ever find this ordinary. And you hope, for the sake of sight and miracles, that they wouldn’t.

Disorientation springs from how these worlds fit next to each other: 3 AM salsa steps, followed by popcorn on the couch, with your boots splayed beside you. You are a world away from Greek summer, courtesy of Bogotá and its July boots, congruent only here, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. 3 hours later: questions about violence, with you quietly rooting for having to use a complicated conditional or subjunctive tense form because that would mean you had a reason to express hope. Krista Tippett writes in her book Becoming Wise (emphasis mine):

I define hope as distinct from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholeheartedly with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it.

The world of the outdoor movie theater and its light of life, the world of the bridge under the port. The Colombia that is home to my favorite almond croissants in the world, the Colombia of bouncy curls and sequins and a Márquez-esque story about a married couple and some stranger asking you if you believe in love. Next to the Colombia of the disappeared human rights activists.

Privilege is the name of the mobility: the ability to traverse worlds, to have spaces be accessible, and to leave them by choice. The disorientation does not stem from a twisted survivor’s guilt. I do not wish I did not see beauty, or that I did not learn the words for love to accompany the built-in lexicon for violence. I take in the blueness of the Greek sea that seems unchanging in the face of all the other losses. I try to contemplate what this sea means to the people who entrust us with their stories. I have always felt grief to be connected, like a secret language that its natives speak. This is not to suggest that all griefs are the same — just that they know each other when they meet. The Aegean that heals me is the same one that marked the end of lives. The Colombia at which I counted my first salsa steps is the site of someone else’s sorrow. The only cure for the vertigo of these co-existences is to know that your little elf of grief comes with you through salsa and Peloponnese blues, that it knows how to see the little elves of others, that the green sea floor does not wipe out their pain, and the pain does not wipe out the greenness of the floor.

There aren’t very many prescriptions on how to reconcile this layering of lives. Cynthia Enloe would say to beware the passive voice: “nobody is marginalized by the ether.” The sea did not take lives. They were not lost passively. Judith Butler would want us to keep asking the feminist question: when is life grievable? The Colombians I know would want me to not only notice the celebration, but also partake in it — a participant observation of rumba, if an anthropologist ever saw one. The 3 AM salsa steps, followed by popcorn, and the 7 AM conversations on violence and victimhood are clear snapshots, if incomplete, if their own variant of ‘single stories.’ The challenge is to walk myself from one to the other, to write and live the narrative that enables these stories to clash and co-exist and intersect.

It would be easier, if lazier, to say that they unfold in different Colombias. Except it is the same world that holds the beauty and sorrow, the rumba and the injustice. Or, in the wise words of Krista Tippett again (with the emphasis mine, again):

“Grief and gladness, sickness and health, are not separate passages. They’re entwined and grow from and through each other, planting us, if we’ll let them, more profoundly in our bodies in all their flaws and their grace.”

Perhaps, then, what ethnography can teach the embodied researcher is permission: how to embrace that “if we’ll let them” clause, that space of nuance and messiness and abundance and complexity. How to let the flaws and grace exist in the same body, the grief and gladness in the same world. And how to not let our vision for one outshine our ability to see, live- indeed, embody-the other.

Estranged tongues

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A woman is dropping her young daughters off at the port. She stops them halfway up the steps of the boat to plant a loud kiss on their cheeks. “You look like sisters!,” the captain tells her, gesturing to the girls. Greek flattery tastes like the perfume of the first boy you loved — you recognize the scent instantly and you find yourself missing it for a split second, even if the love itself tasted bitter. “Take care of my girls,” the woman says to the captain. A man helps the girls with the luggage — “only because you are so pretty.” “You’re pretty too,” he tells me. When I don’t respond, he turns to another crew member and says, “Ξένη είναι.” She’s foreign.

I balk at my own foreignness. I didn’t clap when the plane landed. When my luggage didn’t show up, I stood a few meters from the claim desk, anticipating order, hesitant to mob it. When an American man (you always know who the Americans are) starts yelling at the employee that “this” “would never happen in America,” I feel instantly Greeker. Willfully so. And when I finally approach the desk and the employee tells me that she’s not sure where my stuff is or when it will resurface or what I can do, I treat it as my national duty to forgive the chaos. Maybe it comes with the affection and the warmth. As I walk to the taxi line, I wonder how many of the everyday miseries of life in my homeland were born out of our affectionate forgiveness of chaos.

When I say καλησπέρα, the taxi driver registers his own surprise at my Greek voice. It catches me by surprise too. It comes from a different place within me than my English words do. Once the driver registers me as Greek, we partake in the familiar choreography: where you grew up, what school you went to, how you likely share a second cousin. “You’re fancy out there in America.” I don’t argue; it is a lesson in both the relativity of privilege and in the invisibility of losses.

“How did your dad let such a girl leave the country?!” I tell him the story of how my father insisted that I dream of a life outside of Greece, even when such a dream was premature and incongruent. This is a story of urging, not of permission. The driver tells me about his children: a 9-year-old who wants to be a police officer and a 13-year-old who wants to play ping pong in the Olympics. “She’s quite good, you know!”

As we zoom from the Athens airport to the port, the city is denser than I remember it. It had always been denser than I recall, I suspect. My memory did the filtering.

The driver asks what brought me here and I briefly mention my work with refugees. I can feel myself rushing through it. “I don’t suppose you’re one of those… what do you call them — ‘solidarity people’, are you? Do you want this country to be overrun by Muslims who oppress us?”

I recognize this moment: it marks the choice between nodding and willing the drive to end, or assembling the harsh consonants to point out the true direction of oppression. My Greek words fail me. “They are fleeing war,” is all I can muster.

“Listen, I don’t want you to think I’m a neo-Nazi or something. I’m just a patriot,” he offers. I say very little, but notice the ‘just’ that normalizes all sins. A week prior, I was sitting in an ethnography workshop, discussing whether these affective responses — the nod, the non-committal empathetic mmmm — are a tacit signal of approval when others spew hate. Can you nod when interviewing a war criminal? A racist? When is the “right time” to engage in “the right way?” Thirty hours of travel across continents later, I have forgotten what the answer would look like without the quotes. In my own passive silences, I see a shameful endorsement.

“So, don’t tell me you Americans over there will elect a WOMAN for president.”

I hesitate in narrating this story. I suffer from my own type of nostalgia washing over everything: I want Greeks to be my hospitable, kind Greeks. The Greeks who change the ticket for the boat you missed for free because they know it wasn’t your fault and you’re human and they’re human too, and they wouldn’t make you fight with an automated answering machine yelling “Representative!” to yourself until you can find a live person to book your ticket. My heart knows there is no such thing as “the Greeks”, that it would be its own kind of single story that flattens textures and inequalities and humanity. And yet I feel I ought to be an ambassador for my homeland, which inspires a protectiveness and hesitation: if I’m going to tell stories about it, I should at least paint a fresh coat of something over the misogyny.

Can you be an ambassador for a place and showcase its kind beauty without denying its fraughtness?

“So, don’t tell me you Americans will elect a WOMAN for president.”

There are plenty of Americans, too, who think it’s absurd that a woman might just be capable of being president. We have a way of other-izing sexism. When I explain that I work on gender and violence in war, it is often met with “it’s awful what they do to people over there.” Ambiguity lingers over the they and the there.

“Ehhh! Hillary girl! I can see it on your face,” the taxi driver says. I think of all the violence that has been justified in the name of seeing politics on people’s faces. I wish for words. None of them come in Greek. All my fighting words are those of other tongues. I have fought all my battles elsewhere; it is elsewhere that I have learned how to fight. The word “patriarchy” is a Greek word, from the root for a ruling father. And yet when I utter it in Greek, it feels clumsy in my mouth, foreign to the context.

Three weeks after I exit this taxi, I will be sitting at a bar by a fountain near one of Athens’ main avenues. A Greek man will ask me if I really do think misogyny–another Greek word –is still a problem in Greece. Somehow, I will be at home in my life again: the type of home that you recognize because here you are, on a Saturday evening, discussing misogyny with wine. That night, I will find the words. Subject-verb-object. I will forgive myself for mismatching the tenses, and for translating into my mother tongue from an adopted stepmother of a language.

Naming ghosts of patriarchy and misogyny is a feminist project to which I have committed my life with little hesitation or regard for propriety (ever the fear raised to caution people away from uttering powerful words). Except, somewhere along the way, I became more comfortable exporting this project to other domains rather than finding the words for it in my homeland. The same can be said for tolerating all other manners of abuse–racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia–for which the words felt foreign or the battles felt like they were someone else’s to fight. Is that not a form of complicity in oppression, disguised under the banner of foreignness?

Perhaps we can train tongues to embrace the clumsiness. Perhaps patriarchy becomes less strange to the ear the more we utter it. Like ghosts, inequalities need to be named if they are ever to be dispelled.

I rode back to the airport a few weeks later, this time traveling from Athens, Greece to Bogotá, Colombia. The driver wished me καλή επιστροφή — a safe and good return. He assumed Greece to be my home, the place to return to. Perhaps a few weeks of finding the words helped me shed some layers of foreignness. By the time I left, I was more legible as a Greek. I am under no illusion that the naming, of patriarchy or xenophobia, is enough by itself. I know that the politics of sight and speech, the acts of rendering visible and of uttering, can themselves be fraught. But I also know that my notion of citizenship in this world–a feminist, immigrant notion of citizenship–requires that I not let the words become elusive. That I find those chipping away at the patriarchy and xenophobia in my native tongue, and that I let them teach me how to string sentences together again. That I learn how to say “entitlement” in Greek. That I be more honest about the false and convenient divisions I have created within myself about where my work lives, where I am from, and where my life’s chosen battles take place. And that I return to fight them.

Accompaniment

My best friend Tais and I, roasting lamb on a spit in my front yard during Greek Easter. The pink era. Early 2000s.

My father could never sleep before my exams. It did not matter if they were the qualifying exams at the end of 6th grade or my English proficiency test. For weeks before the test, he would sit across me at the dining table that saw three marriages and an equivalent number of children in his life. There would be flashcards and endless repetitions. “Πάλι, κόρη μου! Πάλι!” Again, my daughter. At some point, my mother would intervene. “Χρήστο, άσε το παιδί να ξεκουραστεί λιγάκι! Τα ξέρει!” Let the child rest.

Greek is a language of exclamations.

I wish I had learned incompletion younger. I wish I had learned to leave flashcards unturned and words unmemorized.

By the time the exam came around, my father would encourage me to put the books away. You know what you know. Trust your knowledge. Trust the process. I would sit on the balcony and feel the late spring sun on my skin. He would be up all night, pacing. When I emerged in the morning, he’d be at the bottom of the stairs, bellowing “κόρη μου! πουλάκι μου! ” My daughter! My little bird! Trust what you know.

***

It is the night before my PhD comprehensive exams. Because my universe has yet to meet symbolism it hasn’t loved, it is also Greek Easter. At the age of 8, with the grandiosity that befits involved fathers, he declared with certainty that he “just knew Roxani is going to be an academic.” I didn’t know what that meant then, and I’m not sure I fully do now.

I know migratory hearts, and the whiff of lamb and tsipouro. I know the misogynist jokes my father would make around the fire with the rest of the family–those same jokes that the feminist I have become would resent, but the daughter I always am can recall with fondness. I know I carry them with me: I know I am my mother, wiping down every surface with chlorine the night before the exam, as though this is a test in home economics. You cannot take a test with a dirty home, and the very act of wiping everything clean calms you.

I know all the balconies at which I have studied: IB biology, ancient Greek, the SATs, my first thesis, back when it felt impossible to fill the pages. I know how to glue my head against the window here in Boston so I can feel some light on my face, as though this Greek can only learn by photosynthesis.

I know that Easter and fathers and pre-exam jitters and saudade layer atop each other. I know that grief sneaks up on you when you are trying to pack ‘the canon’ into your head (and I know enough about feminist inquiry to question what counts as the canon, to know it has earned the quotes around it). I know how to tell grief apart by its taste. This is not the cutting, surprise grief, the kind that has made you nauseous before. It is the sweet, quiet accompaniment.

The sense that even though there will be nobody at the bottom of the stairs tomorrow morning to exclaim “πουλάκι μου!,” there has never been a test I have taken alone.

Our fragmented selves

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Fragments of ice on a thawing lake near Myvatn, Iceland

I remember the first time I saw my elementary school teacher in the grocery store.

I was about 7 years old, and my instinct was to hide behind my mother. In my mind, my teacher and I belonged in the same frame only in the classroom. I never imagined it was possible for her to have a life outside the school walls. This was not a judgment on her; it had simply never occurred to me to picture her life in other settings. Childhood enables that comfortable separation: a perfect compartmentalization.

During my first semester of college, I enrolled in Introduction to Philosophy. The experience reeked of first-semester-of-college-ness: there was something naively hopeful and beautiful (and so very cliché) about expecting that Intro to Philosophy may hold the key to the dilemmas of my future. I hadn’t yet realized that professors rarely bore the full burden of education at my university — not for the undergraduates anyway, and not most professors. They did lecture, but the responsibility for drilling the material in and making it accessible and grading and writing letters of recommendation and supporting dreams of futures primarily fell on PhD students whose livelihood depended on the role. When I visited the office of the Teaching Fellow for Intro to Philosophy, I was struck by how lived in it felt, as though the trappings of the class occupied more space than I would have imagined. More than a decade later, and now a PhD candidate myself, I recognize that it was not Intro to Philosophy that was taking up space: that office housed the Teaching Fellow’s research and all the anxiety that accompanies it. I now know the space these swallow.

Surrounded by papers and books turned upside down and more books with Post-it notes peeking out of them, the Teaching Fellow appeared to be in his natural habitat. Three weeks later, I saw him at the university gym. It was jarring that he was there (in retrospect, it was more jarring that I was). Nearly a decade after the instinct to hide behind my mother at the grocery store, lives still appeared to live in compartments in my head. I did not imagine bodies that move and run and sweat to be the same bodies that teach and grade and bookmark pages for their research.

This recurred throughout university, throughout life: A professor invites you to dinner at their house and you are surprised to see them in their daily life clothes, chopping tomatoes, making easy conversation with their spouse. You run into a work colleague at CVS and you both have a split second of non-recognition, as though you are embarrassed for the otherwise benign yogurt in your carts. You attend the wedding of a coworker, and you enjoy the surprise that comes with the stories of her living in ways with which you have not yet interacted. The person whose desk is next to yours is an ice climber. The woman with whom you trudged through northern Uganda documenting human rights abuses is a scrapbooker.

The expectation (illusion?) of privacy, coupled with an attachment to propriety, has made it easy to separate lives, even within one self. There is a professional self, a professional voice, and we put them on like an outfit. There is a body that runs and moves and makes love and gets sick. There is a heart that aches and rejoices and a voice that teaches and asks questions. There are hands that type love letters, and they are the same-but-different hands as those that write the essays, or the ones that write academic articles, or the ones that cook. These selves inhabit the same body. It’s all one body and, for those of us who aspire to a semblance of authentic coherence, one self too. And yet, they seem to be imagined and treated as comfortably severable and separate: fragments of a self. Blending the compartments is jarring. Our imaginations struggle to stretch in that direction, even when our hearts do.

***

Once I appreciated that compartmentalization takes effort–like patriarchy, like militarization, like all the -isms and -ations and -archies that appear effortless but actually require lots of invisible-seeming effort to be sustainable– I also cherished it. It felt like a privilege to be able to wear only part of a self to an occasion, as though an invisible cloak could drape the rest. When the rest of you is grieving acutely, it feels like a treat to show up and teach. Just teach. Just teach what you are supposed to teach. You do not need to bring your whole self to the classroom. You can write an academic article, and you do not need to show up whole on the page. Your job today is to document cases of gender-based violence, household to household. You show up to it. Your heart stays elsewhere.

There is a dehumanizing convenience to fragmented selves — for you, for others. Your inconvenient desires, aches, dreams can reside elsewhere. And–here is the dehumanizing part of it–you can also meet others where they are, or where they are showing you to be, without curiosity (or empathy) for what lies beyond.

As it is wont to do, grief exposes the farce. Grief, ever the honesty-maker. I failed at keeping the compartments airtight. Loss flooded everything, and with it came a sense of unexpected relief. I grieved in class, I grieved at birthday parties and graduation and through my first year of work. “I grieved in the beaches and on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets…” Through the first years of leading a more coherent, if monochromatic, existence, I felt compelled to comfort the people I subjected to it. I felt I owed them an apology for not putting away that which is meant to reside somewhere private, at an undefined, unimagined elsewhere. As time passed, I realized that the poet Mary Oliver is right: “tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” I was slowly becoming a container for others’ stories of honest pain and loss, from the loss of family members to the loss of a love or a particular vision of the future. I slid from ‘failing at compartmentalization’ to not valorizing it anymore, to actively resisting it.

When the rest of my palate began reemerging from under clouds of grief, the repertoire of stories I began to collect became more colorful. I have started to fill my life with people whose singing self lives alongside their climbing self alongside their report-writing self alongside their badass achievements and darker days. This coherence of self, and my community’s willingness to show it, does not make them less professional. I do not respect them less — only more. I do not feel jarred by seeing a fuller version of their life. These are whole humans, dedicated to showing the world a wider spectrum of themselves with less regard for the compartments in which we are each supposed to dress ourselves. We have not completely burned the compartments; we still retreat into them when we need to. Not everyone wants to wear their failing marriage or sick parent or financial portfolio to work every day. But we know we can shed them, and we know we would choose to, and somehow, that makes life slightly more human and livable.

And yet.

***

During the mandatory career counseling program in my first year of graduate school, we had a peer reviewing session for each other’s resumes. Catch an errant comma for a friend, and good professional karma will come your way. We did not know each other yet then, so it was more about the errant comma than the gentle encouragements to sell yourself better on the page. My resume peer review buddy was going through his checklist:

“Do you have a website or a blog?”

I said yes with hesitation. The blog belonged to a different self.

“Is it professional?,” he asked in the same tone.

My intuition was to vigorously shake my head no. Is it professional? Do I write about my professional life here? Only in crumbs, only as context for the larger story. The stories I encounter in my ‘professional hat’ rarely belong to me, and this has rarely felt like the appropriate space to share them directly. Do I write in a professional manner? If professional is intended as the opposite of personal, then no. There is grief, and love, and a whole lot of “I” statements about a wholer self than we expect to show up at a workplace. Is “is it professional” even the question that feels true?

“Let’s leave it off then. Better safe than sorry,” my peer review buddy offers, and I agree.

***

As our career counselor reminded us, “in this day and age…”, your resume is not the only piece of information about you. You exist “on the internet” — yet another space, another self. Leaving this site off my resume felt like an illusionary choice. It is not like an employer can hire a self insulated from grief and migration and love and hope. At best, my choice served as a quiet signal to the resume reader that I did not feel this space to be germane to my professional self. Yet, that reader permeates the words I write here. More acutely, that reader permeates the words I do not write.

Imagine an abstract audience of people you do not know for long enough and you will never write another word. My assumptions and aspirations of a whole, coherent, authentic self collapse in abstraction and anonymity. So on a good day, you try to show up as yourself, as the body that sweats and loves and aches from typing for too long, to your friends and community. On an excellent day, you try to bring that whole self to the world too, the world you do not know, the world that does not know you.

But the latter days are rare for me, and I cannot help but notice the silencing–the quiet, persistent, almost invisible but very present self-silencing that unfolds. In the past few months, I have begun many sentences to friends with “one day, remind me to write about……” The ellipses–the public ellipses–are often deeply personal. They more accurately reflect my lived experience than many words I have put on public pages. And in their truthful intimacy, they feel illegitimate for public viewing, much as I feel a yearning to tell their story. Perhaps it takes a type of courage I lack: a courage to be a writer, a public truth-teller, or at least a more public teller of what one imagines to be her own truth and, on a good day, that truth resonates outside herself too.

In one of my worlds, in a world that feels increasingly narrow and oppressive, but true and relevant nonetheless, the same person does not write academically about atrocities and personally about her love life. [In the more oppressive iteration of this, she does not even write academically about vastly different subjects, for she–like a lifestyle blog, ironically–needs a ‘cohesive brand’ and a ‘focus’ and a curated corner of atrocities to make her own.] The same person does not publicly share thoughts about her personal (and political, feminists would remind us) and ‘high politics’ (with those same feminists again reminding us about the status-making quotation marks and the designations of ‘high’ and ‘low’). I am those feminists, I have to remind myself.

Feminism provides one of the more consistent voices in my life: it is a self I wear unabashedly at work and at home, in public and in private, a self I rarely feel compelled to package, even when it is inconvenient. Writing, on the other hand, is easy to stow. The words get filed away until other, more ‘proper words’ come by, more suitable for public consumption. Less brave words, or at least less jarring. Or those words get filed away until they are forgotten, until they no longer bubble up with the urgency to be written down and shared. The act of writing down itself feels separate from the sharing. They satisfy different yearnings of documentation and truth-telling and memory-making and community and coherence.

Most of my words these days get filed away. I still live them, as coherently and authentically as I know how to live. I share some of them over tea and wine, others over tears and emails and endless streams of WhatsApp. But the truthful public words have recently evaded me–not because I do not know what they are or how to string them next to each other, but because I do not have the courage in this moment to ignore the world of fragmented selves in which we live. Nor can I ignore a few other truths that have emerged: It seems that this fragmentation of the self, the delineation of the compartments, makes me–us, I would venture, in a brave moment–lonelier. And it also seems that words that want to be uttered but are stifled, in the invisible-making passive voice, do not go quietly. They remind you they are there. They demand that you grow some courage and find a way to let them out. Or, at the very least, that you grieve for them.

Brief tricolored reflection on the politics of grief

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I am writing these words in my attic in the suburbs of Boston. Every time the wind howls, the apartment shakes a little. Enough to make your heart be surprised with each gust, but not enough to lose faith that the center will not hold.

I crawled out of bed this morning with the intention to continue reading for my dissertation on the politics of victimhood and the hierarchies of suffering that emerge in transitions from armed conflict. I have, instead, spent the morning browsing the news about Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, trolling social media for that one post that will help everything make sense or that will at least dislodge my heart from its place of numbness, even though I know better than that. I am consuming news almost mindlessly. The reports are on loop, reproducing narratives I have already heard while the authorities seek to unearth new information, and yet I cannot help but be glued to them, as though that is an act of meaning and use.

At a time like this, writing a dissertation–however eerily timely its topic may be–feels like an utterly useless endeavor in making sense of the ills of the world. This may sound like nihilism, but it is not. In the past seven years, I have also spent time as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict and post-conflict areas, feeling a similar helplessness. I have researched patterns of violence in armed conflicts: the paralysis was still there. Whether on the ground in a conflict-affected area or in a university, whether as a humanitarian practitioner or a researcher, if I have learned one thing from having to process acts of violence and the enormity of grief they invite into life, it is that for many of us, violence numbs a sense of usefulness in this world, replacing it with helplessness or powerlessness.

When that happens, I turn to Cynthia Enloe and her writing on feminist curiosity. We need to be curious about power, Enloe reminds us. And, she cautions, somehow all the explanations that feel useful, that ‘make sense’, often distance themselves from the lives of humans and how they experience violence. In The Curious Feminist (page 22, for those who, like me, are running to their bookshelves), she writes: “for an explanation to be useful, a great deal of human dignity has to be left on the cutting room floor.” So as I process the news and tweets and posts I scroll through, two thoughts emerge in my mind about power and human dignity. They exist alongside each other, though, like many truths in life, they may appear to clash.

A lot of my community, and I alongside them, is angry at the inequalities of care. Why do we notice Paris, but not Beirut, they ask? Their sentiment echoes the statements I have heard during my work in conflict areas and which provided the impetus for my dissertation on the politics of victimhood: Not all suffering is seen as such; not all victims are seen as equal. As Judith Butler would remind us, we need to ask: When is life grievable? And when are lives, losses, and bodies not considered as grievable as others? What are the politics at work that make us notice certain losses, but render others less visible?

At the same time, it feels like the response to this ought not be to invalidate grief for Paris or its many forms and displays. In that sense “do not pray for Paris – pray for ____” feels incongruent. Grief is not prescribed. Exposing how violence-related grief is political is a legitimate project. I am not sure how we expand our own spectrum of empathy, how we broaden our notion of grievable lives and make ourselves aware of the politics that render some losses marginalized or invisible, and I hope to dedicate my life to thinking about that question. But as someone who has experienced a multitude of other griefs and losses, my instinct is that the answer is not to dispute the truth of the pain for the grief we do feel.

My second thought relates to an implicit judgment of how people express solidarity, kinship, or sadness during these times, particularly in an era in which the private sadness one feels in her attic can become publicly conveyed through a series of interactions on the internet. In critical advocacy discourse, we often speak about the harmful illusion of the satisfaction of ‘having done something’ while actually having done nothing meaningful. We have a series of catchy names for this: ‘slacktivism’, ‘badvocacy’, ‘clicktivism’. And yet today, I hesitate to be too critical. Will changing one’s profile picture to the French flag for one day cause a cosmic shift in foreign policy? No. Will sharing the Eiffel tower-peace sign image defeat violent extremism? No. But if this is how people, in that moment, experience empathy or show care for fellow humans, let’s let them do that without policing the sentiment. Grief is paralyzing. An army of tricolor profile pictures may not be a policy response, but if it is a way to get through the day and signal kinship, let it be that. It feels like the world is in too much pain for us to patrol each other’s sadness.

Desynchronosis

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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.

In search of human dignity in Greece

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I remember when people would gather to watch the war.

This usually consisted of sitting on a hilltop and watching the bombs fall not even two miles away. Hearing the sonic boom, seeing the smoke rise, then quiet. In other situations, a crowd would gather to watch a lynching or another paradigmatic punishment for a perceived war-related crime. I would find myself in these situations as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict-affected areas, and I remember being puzzled by the callousness of watching the war as though it were a film, as though it were the fictional story of someone else’s life, as opposed to a reality unfolding so close you could touch it.  There is ample research on the psychology of crowds in war, and much as I read it, I cannot get over the paralysis of watching suffering, when the act of observation is not one of documentation, assistance, or advocacy, but merely of voyeurism.

Earlier today, Athens-based photographer Mehran Kahlili tweeted that “ATM shots are the new crisis porn.” All around Greece, my compatriots are lining up outside ATMs and stuffing their savings under the mattress at home. When they are not lining up at ATMs, they can be found at gas stations or grocery stores, preparing for the unknowns to come. Starting tomorrow, the banks will be closed for a week, and the maximum withdrawal limit is 60 euros per day. Those without ATM cards (often the elderly, the retired, and those living in the periphery) cannot access their pensions or public sector payments, which are allegedly due to deposit on Tuesday. For those who depend on their relatives abroad, any remittances sent may not be able to be withdrawn in Greece. Responsibilities, be they bills or taxes, are not letting up during this time, nor are the everyday necessities of family life, from food to medicine. In the meantime, in the foreign press, numerous articles delineate every possible outcome, narrated with a clinical, detached tone, full of acronyms and economics jargon.

In thinking about the effects of war, it is tempting to talk in abstractions: to talk about ‘systems’ and ‘powers’, to think at the level of governments or institutions or armies or militia groups, and not of individuals. As a researcher on mass atrocities and practitioner in the humanitarian field, I often ask how the depersonalization of violence and the framing of war in the broadest, most abstract light serves to obscure the horror of the individual lived experience of it. What does war actually look like? What does it mean to participate in war — as a combatant, as a civilian, as a victim, as a survivor, as a bystander? What does it feel like? The discussion of the financial crisis in Greece has reached the level of an international gamble: Will Greece go bankrupt? Default on its loans? Leave the Euro? Leave the EU altogether? Drag everyone down with her? How do we insulate ‘us’ from ‘them’?

The internet is full of ‘explainers’ and ‘predictors’, and life unfolds in quotation marks because it is hard to assess what is literal in Greece any more. Even the predictions are full of abstraction: “If Greece does X, things will be very bad.” “If Greece does Y, things will be bad (too).” Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of watching this discussion unfold as a Greek and an immigrant is the ease with which the human experience of this crisis fades to the background and a callous narrative of ‘personal responsibility’ floats to the surface. In many discussions, there are undertones of “the Greeks brought it on themselves.”

So I ask: Which Greeks?

It is seductive to summarize a whole country based on the decisions of its political leadership. It is easy to imagine Greeks as a faceless, homogeneous whole. It is also dangerous, for it renders power and its inequalities invisible. It presumes equal agency, equal responsibility, equal determination of one’s fate. And it ignores a system that was already full of the everyday injustices and cleavages that magnify the effects of the lived experience of a crisis like this one. So let me tell you about a few of my Greeks, and what austerity and a debt crisis look like.

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X is an engineer. N is an architect. M is a special ed teacher. E is an archaeologist. My other friend M is a doctor. T is a doctor too, so is A. Or at least, that is what they trained as. That is the future they dreamed for themselves when they were putting themselves through school. We are saturated with a narrative of complacent Greeks who neither have drive nor strive. When we believe that narrative, when it crowds out all the stories of effort and imagination of a future, we fail to treat my friends’ dreams as equal and legitimate. The person who makes your coffee in Greece, that ever famous Greek coffee that is emblematic of our culture, may be my friend the engineer, or my other friend the doctor. My friend A graduated from university, with an honors degree with distinction, and became an intern. She is a 30-year-old intern, who has never had a job, and she is repeatedly told to say “thank you” for the stipend of roughly 400 Euros she receives for a total of 5 months of interning. Total, not monthly. These are the stories of my friends, unless they are in the 49.70% of youth unemployment reported in the country earlier this spring. Before you rush to suggest that perhaps they should have worked harder, or looked for other jobs or taken what they can get, before you point out that Greeks enjoy doing nothing, contemplate this: Nothing quashes imagination like idleness does.

***

The arrival of new mail triggers hearts to beat faster. Greece needs to collect enough money to ‘earn’ its bailout payments, so each bill comes with new taxes and fees, slapped on in the name of ‘national camaraderie.’ The word that sums up these added fees is xaratsi, a term that originated from taxes and fees levied by the Ottomans on their subjects. The xaratsi is slapped on to the electricity bill, in an effort to stem the rampant evasion in the tax filing system. In abstraction, it, too, is a tax, a fee, a policy. In reality, it has led to people living in darkness. It has led to headlines about the imminence of homes being seized because of unpaid taxes on electricity bill. Or, in the exceptional but still very real experience of a 56-year-old tetraplegic woman on life support in her home in Crete, it caused the electricity company to cut off the power because of unpaid debts, leading to the woman’s tragic death.

For most Greeks, austerity has not meant death, in quite as literal a way as it did for the woman in Crete. Unless it did. According to a University of Portsmouth study, there has been a correlation between spending cuts and suicides in Greece (emphasis mine):

“According to the research, every 1% fall in government spending in Greece led to a 0.43% rise in suicides among men – after controlling for other characteristics that might lead to suicide, 551 men killed themselves “solely because of fiscal austerity” between 2009 and 2010, says the paper’s co-author Nikolaos Antonakakis.

In the research on war-related atrocities, we often focus on fatalities. The reasons are both complex and straight-forward: Fatalities are easier to determine, callously so. You are either dead or you are not, and there are few qualitative differences and nuances between ‘dead’ and ‘not dead.’ Complicated as the fatality numbers may be to document and verify, the data for other forms and experiences of violence, from sexual violence to torture to disappearance, is even more scarce and difficult to procure. There are good, scientific reasons why we focus on the fatality standard in our research, but we have to ask what that means about experiences of violence in mass atrocities that do not lead to the person’s death. How do we account for those? And how do we make sure that our fatality standard does not end up meaning that people with other, non-fatal experiences of violence do not feel invisible and that those stories fit into the broader narrative of atrocities and patterns of violence?

There are many alive Greeks right now. What about the non-deathly suffering? What about the death of dreams? What about all those images of what life may have been? Of meaningful employment, fulfillment, creation, of youthful travel, of not abundance but enoughness? And before you dismiss the pain of shattered imagination, think about the moments in which, even from a place of abundance, you have experienced loss of a dream or a vision of a life: the break-ups, the grief that follows a sudden loss, the rejection that shuts a door. Now picture living in a country of shutting doors.

Some respond to the loss of an imagination of a life defiantly. Four of my Greek friends have gotten married this summer. Their anniversaries will coincide with memories of bank runs and gas raids. Every time I see photos of my high school classmates in wedding gowns and suits dancing as the sun rises over Thessaloniki, I remember dancing until the sunrise in the same spot. Images of dancing Greeks in the foreign press prompt indignation at their ignorance in the face of ‘these times.’ When I see those same images, I see resilience and an awe-like defiance to let love and the sea and those Thessaloniki dawn skies drown out, for a moment, all that Greeks cannot have. It is an attempt at emotional abundance, one of the only kinds that is still available.

Just as the narrative of lazy-corrupt-Greeks-who-deserved-their-fate wipes out all nuance, it is also unfair to assume that suffering has a single face and a single story, that it falls equally on all Greeks. In fact, we know that the same power inequalities and justice cleavages ensure that the burden is not shared. These are the stories of some of my Greeks, not of Greece writ large, not of THE Greeks. We need to turn our anthropological curiosity to those who do not appear to be as affected, and ask about the factors–just and unjust, legitimate and corrupt–that shield them. And just as looking at the lived experience of Greeks matters when it comes to really understanding what a crisis feels and looks like, looking at the lived experience of those on the other end of power can be illuminating as well. As Cynthia Enloe and other feminists or critical writers have reminded us, speaking of ‘the institutions’, ‘the troika’, or even ‘the IMF and the Eurogroup’ comes with its own level of abstraction. What are the mechanisms that enable these policies to come into effect? What does power look like? How does it preserve itself? How does it make itself look invisible? How do decisions appear to be ‘natural’, when in fact a lot of effort goes into them? And how do these questions relate to the effects on the lived experience of humans on the other end of powerful decision-making?

My friends are hurting, but they are not entirely robbed of agency. They vote, they attend and organize protests, they attempt to convince their friends and families on how to vote, they put up the best fight they can summon. Suffering is often portrayed as voicelessness, and that is another victimization: yet another way to rob people of agency and integrity in a moment of vulnerability. If I have learned anything about Greek suffering, it is that it certainly has a voice. The rest of us need to ask whether we are hearing it, and whether we are treating the stories it tells as legitimate and real and worthy of equal scrutiny as the Financial Times graphs and projections.

A lot of these sound like exceptionally dark tales from a country on the brink. Exceptional they are not. For each story I can narrate here, there are another dozen lurking around it. I am only a vessel for these stories. I repeat them, in English, because in a sense, they are pointless in Greek. The Greeks I know have lived them, heard them, can retell them themselves. It is in the space of English language deliberations and pronouncements on ‘responsibility’ and ‘justice’ that these stories of a lived human experience of crisis are necessary.

I am not a correspondent, not a reliable one. I am not there right now. This immediately assaults my credibility and the badge of honor that is assigned to co-suffering, to having been in the trenches. I am in my own trenches, but even hinting at the existence of those illuminates the path to hierarchies of suffering and competitions of victimhood, a path I do not wish to go down here. I will, however, say this: There is something particularly paralyzing about being an immigrant during this time. It feels as though I am sitting on that hill, voyeuristically watching the bombs fall, and being powerless to stop them. They are not falling on me, not directly. I am shielded by distance and by the life that a privileged education abroad and international employment have afforded me. I hear their echoes and reverberations, though: I see the suffering I cannot allay, and I experience the burning disappointment, that classic immigrant disappointment, of knowing I cannot meaningfully give back to those who helped me get to this shielded place. I cannot restore dignity.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that of human dignity. Dignity demands some determination over one’s fate and standard of living. There is little room for dignity when fears of losing one’s home to a missed electricity tax payment resurface every month. There is little dignity to being a parent who has to entirely depend on your daughter to stay alive, and there is little dignity to being the daughter who cannot meaningfully help. The space that dignity could have occupied is now instead filled with shame: shame about all the things we wish we could do, and the collective web of helplessness that binds us. Dignity is personal, but like many other facets of identity–like masculinity, like victimhood–it is also continuously confirmed, contested, or validated by others. The indignity of many Greeks’ existence right now becomes especially unlivable when it is cast in the frame of having been earned: of being a just end to a trajectory of excess. Cast in this light, Greek dignity and its lack are invisible, blinded instead by notions of justice and deserving and agency and responsibility — notions which, in turn, blind our compassion.

Is compassion a currency in our economic systems? Is compassion a vector in austerity packages? Is dignity?  Are our conversations about these programs and policies framed around compassion and the dignity of the human experience? And can we truly live in a world in which they are not?