Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What’s in your pouf?

A week and two days into it I decided to take Hazel out of the 5-morning a week Montessori program she was in, mostly because I missed her too much. The ordeal of getting out the door to meet the faculty/staff bus at 7:15 (and not being able to count on a ride home at noon when her day ended, instead having to wait til the bus left at 4:30), not getting a real nap but instead napping the sweaty sleep of the upright stroller—all of it was too much on top of not wanting to miss the daily dramas of a two-year old—not just any two-year old, mine. I say “I” and “mine” because ultimately it was my own horror at her tears and lamentations (I know that these will happen again whenever it is we decide it’s time for school), my own sense of clutching-at-nothing looking out from the faculty-room balcony onto the pre-schoolers’ playground and seeing her fetch a tiny plastic stool, set it beside one of the teachers and climb up. (I felt a little like a voyeur, having stolen away from my book in the library to spy on my daughter, but even so—she’s only 2, and I want to be the one she sets her stool beside.) And ultimately, it’s my time with her, all day now. She is Paul’s too, of course, but during daylight weekday hours I’m the primary wiper of noses and bottoms, fixer of snacks and lunches, companion on walks and trips to the store, translator of almost-incoherent this’s and that’s, and I’m the one who gets an island of calm of variable size when she crashes in her daytime crib. So here we are, partners in time with plenty of places to explore.

But it’s daunting. It’s the maternal grandmother in me, Anna Louise, who loved her couch and her Sunday Times, her kitchen, her garden of daffodils and cosmos, her home. (She was not a great traveler, much as she loved the trip to Greece they took, the trip to England, the trip to see Shakespeare performed, professionally, in Canada.) It’s the part of me that doesn’t speak Arabic yet, the part of me that’s self-conscious about standing out—blonde, female—in this city, despite its vast population of Westerners and the hordes of shorts-and-halter European tourists, despite the fact that my fellow explorer is the object of disarmingly abundant affection from all corners. (This morning she received an invitation to have tea later in the day from one of the guys who shared tea with us on the street this past Sunday, a trio of chocolates from a guy who sells cigarettes out of a suitcase around the corner, many Bonjours! Ça vas? and countless kisses from at least a half-dozen other groups of people over the course of our two-hour ramble this morning.) It’s the part of me that misses the things that packed themselves into our old life, the blue plates and the rug from our wedding, the stacks of sheets and towels in the hall linen closet (at home, the bed didn’t stand naked and the towel rack empty for ten daylight hours while the sheets and towels air-dried), the army of glasses in the kitchen cupboard, the pictures in frames, the fireplace waiting for fall. (That’s a lot of stuff, especially now that we’re living in a pared-down three-towel world.) It’s the part of me that misses the constellation of friends and neighbors back in Berkeley, the part that wonders what, really, we’re doing here. Not getting paid to work is part of it. And of course, none of these feelings is particularly new or revolutionary, or unheard of. They’re just mine, in this particular place, right now, in my own particular chronology of experience. It has been a little over two years since I was in the classroom, plugged into a community with its own rhythms, imperatives, culture—and now this year, a third year “at home” where most of the familiar is packed away in my cousin’s attic in Oakland. Honestly, the writing in this “spacebook” (to quote a friend’s husband), odd as it is—blog to my ear when I first heard the word sounded sort of stupid, and, well, here I am eating crow—odd as this medium is, hybrid of some version of public, and an interior voice that’s more at home between the covers of a journal—it is satisfying to set notions down, render a scene that was striking, and thus both make room for the next and leave a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else (Hazel in some future-now?) to follow.

So I wished I had my camera this morning. Twice. Hazel and I climbed up the several deep steps of a large C-shaped concrete amphitheater that sits outside the Jnane El Harti, and there in foot-high black spray-paint letters was “FUCK THE POLICE,” in English. The words were scrawled on the inside wall at one end of the amphitheater. Hazel had climbed up and run along the top step to reach that end. There she stopped—beside the fervent declaration—in white sundress and pink crocs looking happily down at me out from under her pink and white flowered sunhat. Lovely contrast. Then, almost as if I’d conjured them out of my own sense of irony (irony, really?) one for each word, a trio of very young-looking policemen walked by in newly minted uniforms, blue hats set just so, slim shoulder to slim shoulder: first just their heads traveling left to right, bobbing along together above the rim of the amphitheater approaching the words, then walking further into my field of vision and beyond the wall of words—each of their bodies finding one word to move above, crossing the sunny plaza away from us and toward the enormous fountain, a moving invitation, refutation, juxtaposition at the very least.

A long time ago the summer before I left for my senior year of high school in faraway France, I found a scrap of Elizabeth Bishop quoted in a New Yorker article, the subject of which is long-forgotten if I ever even knew, or ever bothered to read it start to finish. I poached what resonated and left the rest. Bishop writes, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/ Where should we be today?/ Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/ in this strangest of theaters?/ What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush/ to see the sun the other way around?” The lines are from a book called Questions of Travel, from a poem called “Second Thoughts”—and I have kept these words (or a version of them since I never took the time to commit them to memory) tucked into some corner of consciousness always since then. The questions persist. In college maybe and certainly in graduate school and I know in my own classroom I’ve encountered or presented this poem again and again. But even so, I’d forgotten that the poem answers its own questions—beautifully, specifically, with all the precision, clarity, and illumination that attended-to language can contain. I won’t bother you with a rehash of the witnessed moments she plucks to do so, but even more interesting, in the last two lines Bishop offers another question, itself an answer: “Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?” [italics hers]. I love that the first part of the poem’s last sentence is written in the conditional and in past tense (and echoes the earlier central idea), while the second part is solidly in the present. (Need to check the grammatical correctness of the tenses I’ve named here, but even so.) I read the line this way: home is in the present, home is where you are, home is a state of mind and place of thought, a decision you make about wherever you find yourself. And are we ever “home”? Also, this final question concludes her last two stanzas, both italicized—they are quotations (the poet announces) from a traveler’s notebook. So she answers her questions with words themselves written somewhere along the way, away from “home,” written in the full flush of lived (and almost simultaneously reflected upon) experience. You really need to read the poem in its own context, or simply on its own. I’ve struggled all my school-life with having the patience to read poetry. So here I am, close-reading one and picking away, explicating it, when of course the real power of language is in your own solitary devouring.

So I’m imagining what people put in their poufs here. This because Hazel and I bought one the other day, a pretty petite deep red pouf for her bedroom—brought it home where I then looked around at our bare space, casting about for what soft but sturdy material we could stuff in there to fill it out and make it do its job. Ce n’est pas evident, as the French say, with no good translation. (“It is not obvious” doesn’t quite do the idiom justice.) We’d gone to this artisinat around the corner precisely because you don’t bargain, you don’t haggle, you don’t counter-offer. You just pay the already-marked reasonable amount and don’t feel bad for having done so. We three had gone last week sometime, happy to look and not feel the press of the sell, and fell into conversation with the gentleman who was ringing us up (we bought a salad bowl! now we have one!). It turns out his cousin’s son is a student of Paul’s, and it was another cousin around the corner who on one of our first days here popped us in his car and stole us away in order that we buy stuff from him—the same guy who used to have the brass dog in front of his shop, as I mentioned earlier, now gone, the same one who calls out hello and how are you and, one other time just recently, How many rugs was it that you wanted to buy? So the gentleman who eventually rung us up was the one I’d earlier asked, when we first came into the shop, “What do you put in a pouf?” Poufs seem always to be displayed sunken, propped on a shelf, a little sad-looking, or stacked, all their potential imagined. It was one of those moments where, could I have asked my question in English, I would have felt like I was conveying my notion as artfully and as wryly as I’d wished: funny even, kidding but really quite serious. As it was, he answered very seriously at first, well, you put in this or that—and then, dammit, my French still needs polishing. He did say something really funny, chuckled and turned away—did he just say you stuff it with all of your money? (Which is mildly tempting and slightly plausible given that Paul just got paid in cash for the first month’s work. If these keeps up, we’ll have to consider it.)

We go about making a more comfortable home. So far it’s two bowls (and a third one, a drab olive-colored ceramic mixing bowl that will stay here whenever we go back to the States). And Hazel’s empty red pouf. At night you can see across the courtyard into other people’s apartments and I found myself wondering what in fact people put in their poufs. From our (darkened) living room window you can see a couple of them in various apartments to left and right, up and down. Why was I surprised to see poufs in Moroccan people’s living rooms? I think it’s the exoticizing factor—poufs where I come from are a marker of the exotic, so why would they be at home anywhere, or everywhere? It’s all context. (Paul just said to me that the pouf’s in the pudding—and a good thing the pudding’s not in the pouf. Or that.)


  1. you are the master of the long sentence, in the best way. each feels like a wave constantly threatening to break but not breaking, only building, to an unforseen and pleasurable culmination.

  2. the poufs from tunisia had coffee cans (with lids) padded with newspaper. sounds weird, but the coffee cans kept things rigid.